Thursday, January 03, 2013

What comedy spec to write in 2013?

Here’s a question I get (and am happy to answer) every year.

Beardly Mustachington asks:

Will you again grace us with your comedy spec recommendations for 2013? Program deadlines are fast approaching and I'm struggling between a few choice shows. I value your insight, as I suspect many readers do. Thanks!

I always preface this by saying (a) this is just one person’s opinion, and (b) the most important factor is what show do you feel best shows off your strengths?

If you are great at jokes write shows with lots of jokes like BIG BANG THEORY. If you’re more of an irony fan, go for something like PARKS AND RECREATION. Is your sense of humor primarily dark? Go for a SHAMELESS. Wry and caustic? CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM.

What are producers and agents looking for? Ask ten and you’ll get ten different answers. For existing series I would say show that you can really write their characters and their rhythms. And make the script is FUNNY. Everything else can be taught.  But a writer is either funny or he's not. 

There is one thing all producers/networks/readers all agree on – make sure your script is in the correct format and there are no spelling errors.  A sloppy presentation will surely result in a rejection. You can usually find script formats for specific shows on the internet. Or see if the show will send you a script. It’s worth the effort to do it right.

Okay, so which show should you do?

If there is one rule I would say don’t do a spec for a show that is at the end of its run. Don’t write an OFFICE. Don’t write a 30 ROCK. Or a TWO AND A HALF MEN. They’ll be obsolete by the time you’re done. HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER is coming back for one more season but still, you’ll have a very short shelf life with a HIMYM. Ditto RULES OF ENGAGEMENT.

Probably MODERN FAMILY is the spec de jour. There are big pluses and minuses to MODERN FAMILY. Plus: it’s very character-based and funny. It wins Emmys every year. The standards are high. Minus: It is also a trap. The stories on MODERN FAMILY tend to be very intricate and clever. If you can pull it off your script will really stand out, but if your storytelling falls short it will sink you.

The other popular spec is BIG BANG THEORY. The stories are thin at best, but the jokes are solid and plentiful. If you attempt a BBT load it up with jokes. Then go back and add fifteen more.

2 BROKE GIRLS is broad and crass. But it’s popular. The trap here is that a lot of the jokes on the show are obvious and easy (when stuck for any punch line they just have a character say vagina). But that’s not to say you can’t write better, funnier jokes than they do. Now the 2 BROKE GIRLS producers will think their vagina jokes are the most hilarious lines on television. But trust me, producers of other shows don’t hold those jokes in such high esteem.

PARKS AND RECREATION is smart, funny, and places a premium on character development. Don’t make the mistake of just making them all cartoons. They’re exaggerated but still straddle the line of reality.

If mainstream is your wheelhouse then consider a LAST MAN STANDING,THE MIDDLE, MIKE & MOLLY, and maybe GO ON. And by the way, don’t feel defensive about wanting to write mainstream. Just because a show isn’t edgy doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, you may enjoy a longer career if you write mainstream. There will always be more need for writers who can write all age groups and not just twentysomethings.

That said, a lot of young writers do want to establish themselves as cool. HAPPY ENDINGS is too cool for school. But there’s a trap with that show. They rely a lot on catch phrases for their humor. First off, they’re easy un-earned laughs, and secondly, if the reader is not totally into that show a lot of your jokes will just read like straight lines.

There are the Fox comedies, but again – beware. You want to write a show that’s fresh and on the upswing. But despite its pick up for a full season, THE MINDY PROJECT is not a hit show. Same with NBC’s NEW NORMAL. Their networks are saying all the right things but there’s no guarantee either will be back. Same with WHITNEY, THE B IN APT 23, and COMMUNITY.

UP ALL NIGHT is going through a transformation from single to multi camera. Until they figure out what they want and what their show is, I’d give it a wide berth. And chances are these changes are just a Hail Mary and the show is gone after this year.

If you want to write a spec for a show a little more off-center then I would think about SHAMELESS and RAISING HOPE.

And then there’s GIRLS. Write a great GIRLS and it could be a home run. But if it’s not great you’re dead. And my guess is most of the GIRLS specs miss the mark. They're very exact and hard to write.  Another thing about GIRLS – realize that there are a number of producers who actively dislike the show. You’re toast there. But you could argue that if GIRLS is your sensibility and a producer doesn’t like it then he’s not the producer for you. Still, if you’re going to write a GIRLS I suggest you also have another spec in the drawer. I don’t want to see you rejected even before the producer opens your script.

So there you have it. And as always, things change. If I do this post again in six months all the recommendations might be completely different. Again, write the show you write best regardless of what I or anybody else says.

Also, remember, today you also need a piece of original material. But that’s another conversation.

Best of luck with your specs. Someone has to make it. Why not YOU?

34 comments:

unkystan said...

Ken, this seems to be the first time you mentioned my favorite show RAISING HOPE. Any thoughts?

John said...

Here's a Friday question coming off this post -- When you and David were starting out, were there any shows then on TV where you decided you didn't want to write for it because, stylistically, it just wasn't the type of comedy you preferred, or because you didn't feel you could write a strong script for that type of show?

It would seem like if you either don't really enjoy a show as it's constructed, writing a spec for it would either be an exercise in futility -- because you just don't get what other people apparently find funny in the show -- or in annoyance -- because you're writing for a style of comedy in the end, you don't find particularly funny and only works if at all due to one-time shock value (though I have my own idea for a Twilight Zone-themed episode of "Two Broke Girls", where Max and Caroline lose the ability to say any other word but 'vagina'. There might not be any boffo finish to the plot, but damn, it would make the producers happy).

n/a said...

Ken, you made my day. I've had a Parks episode outlined for close to a year but figured since NBC will probably kick it to the curb soon it would be a waste of time to write. I guess I'll give it a shot now, but it's a big task. Best comedy on TV, in my opinion.

Ane said...

I think bbt is less jokes than it used to be, and more story. And I think that has made it a better show. Just my two cents.

Al said...

Maybe a Friday question: What do you think about writing specs for shows that are heavily "improv" type shows? I was trying to strategize what my next spec would be and happened upon an idea for "The League". Also, how effective is it to write a spec for a show not on a major network? There are a lot of quality shows on cable, but I'm worried producers may not be familiar enough with the show to warrant a read.

Al said...

To clarify, I mean writing a full script for a show even though I know they work from a detailed outline.

If you say it's okay I'm going to rush to write my Portlandia spec! That should go well!

Andrew said...

Do you think that something like Girls, where the characters tend to go through development more over the course of a season than in something like Modern Family or Big Bang Theory runs the risk of being dated very quickly? Is this the same with any show that has a lot of plot development? If you write a spec Girls script now, will it seem very dated 4 weeks into the season?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

That's very disappointing if they've renewed HIMYM for a 9th year. I used to love the show, but most of this year's episodes haven't just been not as good as they used to be but actively bad. Would be better to wrap it up.

wg

lucifervandross said...

hey Ken,

I thought the whole NBC thursday, including Parks and Rec was getting the boot this season. Am I wrong?

Anonymous said...

why do a lot of producers actively hate Girls?

Anonymous said...

I love Ken, but let me advise any aspiring comedy writer here: do not write a spec. Write a pilot. Write two. Very few showrunners read specs, and execs universally hate them. Specs have been out of fashion for a while now and are only growing more so.

Ken Levine said...

Most shows want both, a spec for an existing show and original material. Some show may not want an existing spec but why shut yourself out of the shows that do? Have one just in case.

olucy said...

Don't forget New Girl, one of the better comedies right now.

Johnny Walker said...

Wendy: Yep, that's disappointing to hear :( I stopped watching soon after the group split up. Yes, it's true to life, but I felt that it really hurt the show.

Johnny Walker said...

I was going to ask about New Girl. It was the spec du jour last time I heard, but now it's not even mentioned. Is it on its way out?

MikeinSeattle said...

Am I a horrible person for thinking Shameless isn't funny? I gave up on it after season one, so maybe it has evolved. As much as I respect John Wells and William H. Macy, and how often the came up with excuses for Emmy Rossum to get naked, I just didn't get it, I guess. Not as a comedy, anyway.

Johnny Walker said...

Friday question: If YOU were going to write a spec right now, which show would you write it for?

lucifervandross said...

Greg Garcia (raising hope, my name is earl, Yes Dear!) won't read pilots.

Stephanie said...

Great post - thank you! Do the same guidelines apply if someone wants to write for a kids' show? "Good Luck, Charlie" spec -- bad idea? (Serious question!)

swilliams97 said...

Ken, Why is it that the previews of a movie often look great but when the movie finally comes out it's a dud. Does a different team do the previews? If so why aren't they doing the movie? An example is Flight with Denzel Washington.
Steve Williams

lucifervandross said...

Stephanie, I know I'm not Ken but I have been a reader for a major festival and I have some experience with Nickelodeon's writing program (though I haven't been a fellow) so I think I can provide some insight. Karen, the director of the Nick program, does not want kid specs. Nick specifically (and if shows like Phineas and Ferb and Gravity falls are any indication Disney too) is more worried about story and jokes than being kid friendly. One of last years fellowes got in with a Raising Hope.

One of the wizards of waverly place producers Peter Murrieta didn't seem to have a kid friendly joke in his reportoire the one time i saw him speak and two of the other producers on the show have a long non-kid specific pedigree. So just do whatever you want and do it really well.

Megan said...

This is more relevant to writing drama than comedy, but what would you have to say about writing for a show where there's a cliffhanger, or one that's heavily serialized? Is the risk of it getting dated too high? Or could you just try to write a spec that exists more or less outside the timeline and figure that a reader would be able to figure it out?

Johnny Walker said...

@Steve Williams: Haha! That's a funny observation. I wonder if it's just because it's easier to make a good trailer than it is to make a good 90 minute movie. (That said, there's plenty of good movies with terrible trailers :)

Also, it's probably true that the filmmakers are completely aware of the film's shortcomings.

Ronald J said...

Instead of just writing a pilot my writing partner and I are going to go out and shoot a 5 minute clip for our show. We're hoping people will be more willing to watch a quick clip as opposed to a script from a couple people they don't know. Not sure if this will work or is even a good idea but I think we're going to give it a shot.

Stephanie said...

Lucifervandross (great name, BTW)- thanks for the info. Very helpful!

Nick said...

Friday Question: What kind of question do I need to ask in order to get answered by Ken in his first Friday Questions of 2013?

Dave Arnott said...

Steve, yes, usually a different team puts together the Preview for a movie. It's almost always the people from Marketing.

But that aside, there are two reasons most trailers are better than their movies:

1. They get to pull out the "best" stuff and show it to you. AND, they also get to re-shape the movie into a "better" form. Anyone with a "regular" amount of talent in this area can take almost any terrible film and cut a great trailer.

But also...

2. Because it's not a fluid, full movie... because it's just bits and pieces... YOU make it better in your mind, because YOU are subconsciously filling in the gaps. And you're most likely doing it in the "best" way possible. For you.

This is also the reason dailies often look great when you're making a movie, but then, when you put it all together, it can be disappointing. Because when you just see one or two shots from one scene in a film, you extrapolate the rest of the movie around it in your head. And of course you're gonna do that in the way that's most pleasing to you.

It's kinda the same theory as "Blood in the Gutter" from comic books:
http://www.determueller.com/2010/12/blood-in-gutter.html

Well... my opinion, anyway.

Dave Arnott said...

Many of you have probably seen this already, but here's a great example of how a talented person can cut a trailer and make the movie look how they want it to look:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfout_rgPSA

Cargador said...

Good blog! Congratulations!!!

Fred said...

Dear Ken,

Friday question: Do you know how many people read your blog? I ask because I'm curious about the reader/commenter ratio. A friend of mine has a blog that gets about one comment for every four blog entries. Are comments like cockroaches? For every one you see are there 1000 behind the walls?

cadavra said...

John, you're a little late. On an early ep of 2 BROKE GIRLS this year, they bent the fourth wall a bit to observe that suddenly "everybody" was saying "vagina" and now it was no longer cool. I don't think they've used it since.

Jill Pinnella Corso said...

Thanks Ken!

Efergy said...

Good work!

Anonymous said...

What about FX's Wilfred? Or any FX show for that matter?