Friday, October 12, 2012

What show to spec?

Time for Friday Questions. Will try to add an extra day or two of these in the next few weeks to get caught up a little. But please, continue to submit yours in the comments section.

John asks:

How much longer can I keep using my 30 Rock spec?

Three more hours.

You’d be smart to write a spec for a more up-and-coming show. My guess is MODERN FAMILY and BIG BANG THEORY are the two most popular specs these days. But write the show you feel will showcase your strengths the best… whether it’s THE NEW GIRL or GIRLS.

However, a word of caution – I would advise against writing an episode of LOUIE. It’s a trap. That show is so specific to the rhythms and vision of Louis C.K. that you can only come up short. I bet if you read the actual LOUIE scripts you wouldn’t know it’s a comedy. The execution has to be so precise – which it is – that only Louis C.K. can see it realized.

I might also abandoned any spec ALMOST PERFECTS that you have.

Here’s a question from another John -- John Leader Alfenito:

Sometimes, especially on procedural, the casting tips the plot for me. A familiar character actor, introduced early along with some other cast members, invariably turns out to be the bad guy. And, if you've seen the actor before in other things, you know immediately - he's the villain. Got to be. He's too "experienced" not to be.

I'm not trying to hurt the chances of these fine second-tier actors getting future gigs, but, short of casting complete newcomers in every antagonist role, how can you get around this?

I think you're right, John. Whenever you recognize a name in the guest cast of a procedural you can almost bet he's the killer. These former stars of their own series are not going to want to do THE MENTALIST just to be a red herring. You see Sharon Lawrence, bet the farm there’s blood on her hands.

The way around this is to have several actors of equal value and give them all good parts to play. MURDER, SHE WROTE was good at doing that.

The other option, as you mentioned, is to not use name actors, but good luck getting that one by the network.

I guess if you’re an actor you know you’ve made it if the NCIS team hauls you off at the end.

Steve Murray wonders:

When in a writing partnership, how did you deal with telling your partner that their idea was the worst thing you had heard? I'm dealing with this right now!

I’m trying to think of what David used to say to me.

Seriously, you just have to be honest. It helps if you have reasons for why you think the idea sucks so bad, or you have an alternative. But in our partnership it’s always understood that if one partner isn’t on board and can’t be quickly turned, we throw out the idea or joke or whatever it is and come up with something else. It’s easier to dream up something new then have one partner unhappy and resentful after a long argument. Those build up to where there’s a fistfight over a scripts for THE NEW MOUSEKETEERS (yes, that actually happened).

And finally, a Friday Question about Friday shows from Mr. Ace:

What is your opinion on the old TGIF sitcoms?

My kids liked them, especially BOY MEETS WORLD. I directed a few episodes of one – BROTHER’S KEEPER (pictured: right) that I actually thought was one of the better sitcoms on the air at the time – TGIF or otherwise.

But I remember one network note session after a runthrough. They had a million tiny concerns and this resulted in an endless discussion. As the director I didn’t have to personally address these notes. I just sat on the sidelines and observed. But I thought to myself, “Wow. Here are all these highly educated people – degrees from Stanford and Ivy League schools – arguing over whether the little boy should drink his milk before he leaves for school. This is a TGIF show. The audience is eleven year olds. Who gives a fuck whether the kid finishes his milk? We didn’t discuss the Sam & Diane relationship this much on CHEERS.”

But there’s certainly a place for this type of programming to “tweens.” Back then it was TGIF. Now there are entire channels devoted to it. And by the way, there are some good jokes along the way on a few of those DISNEY CHANNEL sitcoms.


Madame Duchery said...

I wonder if anybody ever specs "The Middle". It's such a great little under-the-radar show, criminally unappreciated by the critics, except at the AV Club. It has zero buzz and almost no internet presence, but it consistently makes me laugh more than "Modern Family" (where I can totally see everyone ~acting~). But then again, I grew up in a red state, where mayo and football rule.

Zach said...

I watch, and love, actual Louie episodes and I'm not sure it's a comedy.

Zach said...

Oh, and (Spoiler?) on the Mentalist when they had Bradley Whitford play Red John it was wonderful. Big name guy comes in late in the show playing the arch-nemesis. Played right into Whitford becoming a recurring character. It completely hid the ending of Jane killing the Whitford character that episode.

AJ-Chicago said...

Ken - A Friday Question - How do you balance the needs/desires of the actor with the needs/desires of the show? M*A*S*H is a good example. In the beginning, Margaret and Frank were comic foils. By the end of the series, Margaret had changed significantly - even in her looks (from hair pulled back in a bun to a glam look of red lipstick, bleached hair). But Frank remained "ferret face" until the end (which ultimately led to Mr. Linville's dissatisfaction and ultimate departure). Why let one character change so much and not the other?

Unknown said...

Execs/agents go home with a stack of specs every weekend, 80% from the same show. They may read a couple, but it's generally a real chore... I was sorting through my pile one night several years ago and came across "That Girl" from a 'new' writer -- an updated take on the Marlo and Ted characters, revisited 30 years later. I chose to read the script immediately. Showed great imagination, wit and humor. The writer had also submitted a more contemporary, mainstream spec, and I met with her as soon as she was available. (BTW - I'm Mike L... can't figure out how to publish an identity).

LAprGuy said...

I may have posted this comment before (or maybe thought about it), but GOOD LUCK CHARLIE and, before that, WIZARDS OF WAVERLY PLACE are much better sitcoms than some of the shows the "real" networks have been airing.

gottacook said...

With respect to the question of knowing that the relatively best-known guest star will turn out to be the villain: The whole problem would be avoided if guest stars were named only at the end. When I was a kid, it was rare for any guest actor to be named at the start of the show; Star Trek is a good example.* Fifteen years later, it's the other extreme: There are Hill Street Blues episodes with more than 10 regulars named, plus another 8 or 9 guest actors at the start of act 1 (and another dozen at the end). When did the transition happen, and why? And what was the last hourlong series that credited no guest actors until the end?

*Yah, sorry, a footnote... One 1968 episode did feature a guest star credit at the start of the first act, for "Robert Lansing as Mister Seven," but that was a strange episode that was a simultaneous pilot for a series (not unlike the "Love and the Happy Days" segment of Love American Style) that didn't sell. Teri Garr was in it too, and she's great (at age 21 or so).

Ken Levine said...

Now that networks squeeze the end credits, good luck getting actors to agree to have their credits placed there. From time to time it happens if a surprise is really crucial but the truth is if you're in the end credits these days only your family will see... assuming they have a pause button and are lightening quick on it.

Steve said...

The 'Friday' discussion got me to wondering what happened to Friday and Saturday night TV. Some of TV's biggest shows ever used to be on those nights (Dallas, All in The Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett etc) but they are a wasteland today. Are the networks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by not programming stronger lineups on those nights (with little competition from rival networks)?

Tim Dunleavy said...

Regarding the guest villain:

I remember Henry Winkler doing a guest spot on LAW & ORDER: SVU back in 2002; he played a husband who comes home one night and finds his wife murdered. He appeared in the pre-credit sequence, then was interviewed by the cops in the first scene after the credits. Then we didn't see him again for the rest of the first half hour. During the half hour commercial break, I thought "Why would they hire somebody as famous as Henry Winkler, pay him a big fee, then have him disappear after a few minutes? He must be the murderer."

And I was right.

Paul Dushkind said...

Actors aren't like you and me. Who would have guessed that playing a murderer would be considered better than playing a red herring?

BigTed said...

The other problem is if a familiar actor appears to have been killed off early in a show's history, we know he or she isn't really gone. (Hello, Michael Rapaport on "The Mob Doctor," and just about everybody on "Revenge.")

Janice said...

My Friday Question: When watching Wings I'll sometimes notice Tony Shalhoub trying not to laugh - which makes me laugh even more. As a director, would you generally reshoot the scene or leave the genuine "fun" intact? I know these make for some of the most beloved scenes in The Carol Burnett Show, but that was live and the option to reshoot wasn't available.

gottacook said...

"Now that networks squeeze the end credits, good luck getting actors to agree to have their credits placed there": Absolutely. But I'm still curious as to when guest actor credits started appearing at the beginning (and stopped appearing only at the end), which predated the more recent phenomenon of squeezed end credits and/or ads during end credits.

Eric said...

Hi Ken,

Love your blog. I have a great concept for a sit com that I would like to pitch. Is there any way someone like me, with nothing more than a great idea and a dream of hitting it big in tinsel town, could somehow wrangle a meeting with network suits to pitch my Idea?

cadavra said...

Steve: The networks gave up on Friday and Saturday nights when they decided that anyone over 49 was not worth programming for.

A relative of the "big-name murderer" is the "big-name victim." If a famous person dies very early, and--this is crucial--we are not shown the body, it's a 90% probability that he'll turn up alive at 10:50 (and as a bonus may be the actual murderer as well).

Matt said...


Ken, being the lighthearted stage classic that it is, was there ever any discussion or kicking around the idea of trying to riff on O'Neill's comedy epic "The Iceman Cometh" at "Cheers"?

Mike said...

Apropos of absolutely nothing:
Once upon a time in 1995, there was a programme called Dweebs, about a start-up computer software company. It wasn't very funny, but as a programmer who had worked for such companies, I thought: "Aha! At last my people have a programme."

The programme milked a single joke: that programmers are socially dysfunctional. So the company hires its first (female) secretary who hides her total ignorance of computers to get the job. The (male) programmers cover for her in return for her assistance in helping them to integrate into society (get dates).

Well, not surprisingly, the programme was cancelled after six episodes. And twelve years later, the exact same premise is reworked to great success as The Big Bang Theory. I guess execution is everything. Or is it timing?

Harold X said...

The cast of "dweebs" per IMDb:

Farrah Forke ...
Peter Scolari
Stephen Tobolowsky
Adam Biesk
David Kaufman
Holly Fulger

D. McEwan said...

"John Leader Alfenito asked:

Sometimes, especially on procedural, the casting tips the plot for me. A familiar character actor, introduced early along with some other cast members, invariably turns out to be the bad guy"

Amen. I noticed about 20 years ago that on Law & Order, and especially on its spin-offs, that the biggest name in the guest cast not playing a lawyer would be the killer always.

Dave Creek said...

I want to know why it's sometimes the big-name actors in credits who are identified by their character's names, and not lesser-known ones. I first noticed this on HOMICIDE when Ned Beatty's credit included "as Bolander." Well, yeah -- but other actors as well-known (Yaphet Kotto, Richard Belzer) weren't identified by their names, and neither were lesser-known ones. In the days before IMDB, it was years before I knew which actor was Clark Johnson, for instance.

In STAR TREK GENERATIONS, William Shatner was ID'd as "Captain James T. Kirk." Really? Did we really need to be told that?

Why aren't the lesser-known actors, the ones we need to be identified, the ones that get those credits?

Johnny Walker said...

Gottacook: Joss Whedon was always very clever about "surprise" guests, sometimes working the shock into the pre-credits teaser, or something similar, so the credits themselves didn't spoil anything.

Storm said...

Johnny: You made me think of the opening teaser and credits for the "Super Johnathan" episode of "Buffy". The first time I saw that, I looked at the TV, looked at the joint in my hand, looked back at the TV, and stubbed out the joint. Messed me UP.

Cheers, thanks a lot,


Chris said...

I will never understand why people like Modern Family! If they wrote the "jokes" on bats and beat me in the face every other second it would be more subtle and less rapid-fire what they do now! That show is UNBEARABLE!!!

DBA said...

Dave Creek, it's vanity. It has nothing to do with what WE need to know from the credits and everything to do with what agents negotiate for their clients to make them feel extra special and important in the credits. That's the only reason you see some people "as Character" or "and so-and-so" or "with such and such as so-and-so" etc. Because their agents negotiated it that was so they'd stand out.

Breadbaker said...

But the "Big Wave Dave's" script I've been working on will get the network juices running, right?

Jan said...

Re: spec scripts. Honest to god, I know someone whose spec scripts are written for oldies like "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie" and "I Love Lucy." Newest thing he's written is a "Golden Girls" script. He cannot be persuaded that this really isn't the best approach to take to get someone to look at your stuff. These aren't the kind of updated takes Mike L. talked about someone doing on "That Girl" in an earlier post. These are just straight "Endora puts a spell on Darrin and Samantha stands in the kitchen yelling, 'Mother, you get back here and take that spell off Darrin immediately' rehashes of the originals.

Mark said...

Ken, Loved MASH, usually enjoyed Frasier, but I have to confess I think Good Luck Charlie is quite often hilarious.

Sorry, I'll turn in my taste buds now.

Sara said...

Hi Ken,

I was wondering if you have any insight about pitching a show that may be seen as particularly subversive. I've had a few ideas for shows, and I haven't really pursued this in much depth, but in general the feedback I've gotten is that they are funny ideas but either too dark or too irreverent to be on TV. But I'm guessing that shows like South Park were probably received in a similar way before they became hits -- so do you have any advice about how I should approach this, if I decide I do want to try to pitch one of these ideas?

Caleb said...

Writing spec scripts for antique sitcoms is idiotic. That's like trying to land a gig on Saturday Night Live with sketches written for Milton Berle, circa 1949.

Naddlou 29 said...

I can consolidate two threads running through these comments by noting that DWEEBS ran on Friday nights. It came before by a sitcom starring Bonnie Hunt. She went on Letterman's show to promote the series, and he became greatly amused by the fact that it was following by something called DWEEBS. Hunt responded, "I've been following dweebs on Fridays for years."

Brian said...

I'm sure this has been asked, but how come we never see Norm's wife Vera?

Angel Jordan said...

Friday Question here:

When writing an original script to go with your spec, you've obviously got the challenges of creating a whole new world that the reader isn't going to know about. While there's the benefit of saying imagine a "John Goodman-esque" character, there's still more detail that you need to get across. How can you do this, outside of sharply written dialog? There's room for direction in script, but how much is too much? Is a character sheet at the beginning inappropriate? Etc.

Donn Reichmuth said...

FRIDAY QUESTION--what are the differences in writing a multi-cam show versus a single-cam show? Do you approach each differently? Does either lend itself to different types of jokes or visuals more than the other?

Thanks for all the great blogging, Ken!