Thursday, October 24, 2013

What's the best spec script to write?

The Friday Question I get asked more than any other is probably this one:

Ken, if you had your choice of current sitcoms on air to write for, which show would you write a spec for and why?

The real question is what show should YOU write for? There are several factors.

Pick the show that best shows off your strengths. Are you a great joke person? Write a Chuck Lorre multi-cam show. Good with characters? Select a single-camera show that’s more quirky than funny.

Also, determine which show best fits your comic sensibilities. Do you like the sick humor of DADS? Hip coolness of THE NEW GIRL? Rural edge of RAISING HOPE? Surrealism of COMMUNITY? Retro feel of HOT IN CLEVELAND?

Generally, it’s a good idea to spec a show that’s on the rise. There must be a million MODERN FAMILIES and BIG BANG THEORIES. Readers are probably a little blurry eyed from reading them. And your script won’t have much shelf life if you write a HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER.

The trick is to find a new show that will have legs. You don’t want to spec a SUPER FUN NIGHT (well, I don’t know why you would anyway) and in a month it’s cancelled. Follow the ratings. See which shows appear to be catching on. Networks start handing out back nines around this time. See who gets a full production order.

Don’t spec an animated show unless you’re applying specifically for jobs in animation. A spec FAMILY GUY or BOB’S BURGERS will not normally get you a job on a live-action show.

Watch out for traps. LOUIE is a trap. That show is so specific to Louis C.K. that it would almost be impossible to write one that clicks. CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM is another trap since so much of the show is improvised. Write a real “scripted” show.

Some shows go for easy cheap laughs like 2 BROKE GIRLS. The word “vagina” is the punchline for five jokes an episode. As a result, the show doesn’t get a lot of respect from other writing staffs. So beware.

Whatever show you choose, don’t write a “special” episode of it. Don’t do a dream show, kill off one of the characters, have George Clooney guest, or do a crossover with MIKE & MOLLY. I always tell the story of a spec WINGS I read that was seen through the eyes of a fly on the wall. Do the best version of a typical episode.

Now that series are available On Demand, through Neflix and Hulu, and on DVD’s there’s no excuse for not really knowing the characters or their backstories. Do your homework. 

Formatting is crucial. So is spelling. The fastest way to get your script tossed onto the reject pile is to have it be in some weird format or be filled with grammatical and spelling errors.  Take the time to do it right.

At the end of the day, opt for the show you know the best, like the best, and can write the best.

And then write a second one. And a third. And a pilot. And another pilot. You never know which script is going to be the one everybody responds to, but you double or triple your chances with more specs.

Best of luck. Someone has to break in. Why not YOU?


Wendy M. Grossman said...

...and you may want to avoid writing a spec script for THE SIMPSONS if you don't have an advanced math degree:

(Although Ken's advice would suggest that after 26 years THE SIMPSONS isn't a good target for a spec script anyway!)


Sérgio do Carmo said...

Hi Ken,

You wrote about formatting. Maybe this link could be intersting for some of your readers. It has the formatting for, not only the BBC, but also the standards for the USA: both for films, tv, radio and stage. Here is the link:

Kind regards,

Sérgio do Carmo

Carol said...

Was the Wings 'fly on the wall' script good, though? I mean, it's sort of an interesting concept; it sounds like something that would have worked for Scrubs.

Jordan said...

At this point, what comedies are there really that aren't old and exhausted or about to be cancelled?

New Girl seems the safest bet, it's been around but isn't old. 2 Broke Girls is safe but as you mentioned, it's a hot mess. The Crazy Ones is the only other safe comedy at the moment, and you wouldn't want to try mimic David E. Kelley. The Middle and Modern Family are on their 5th season, so they're possibilities. Not great pickings. Hope Brooklyn Nine-Nine pulls through.

Original scripts are the preferred flavor now anyway, as is my understanding.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Jordan: I have the sense that MOM is picking up steam. You'd have to know a lot about newly sober alcoholics, though. And MIKE AND MOLLY is only three years old, isn't it? (Though both are Lorre shows.)

Write a GOOD WIFE script. Most weeks, the best jokes are on that show, anyway.


Kathy said...

I will say one thing: a friend of mine spec'd a FAMILY GUY and got her first writing job on a multi-cam live action. It does happen.

Cap'n Bob said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

Last time I remember your answering the same question, and you said How I Met Your Mother was part of the zeitgeist!

John said...

Off topic, but Ken -- Since you helped Albuquerque's AAA team get it's nickname, did you have any input in El Paso's new AAA team getting it's name? It really does sound like something a writer for The Simpsons would have come up with -- I'm just waiting to see what the team mascot looks and acts like.

Devon Ellington said...

Thanks for mentioning the spelling and grammar. When I give notes to my editing clients, I point that out all the time, and constantly hear, "it doesn't matter in film and tv."

Um, yeah, it does.

Especially if you write a spec script and spell the character names wrong. That insults the creators and sends your work into the bin.

Len said...

Talk of spec scripts always make me think of someone I knew whose specs were always for long dead shows like BEWITCHED and I DREAM OF JEANNIE. Not surprisingly, he never got anywhere.

DBenson said...

I find myself recalling an ancient interview with Gerry Marshall -- Writer's Digest, I think. He said too many writers would forget what the show was about and pitch something like, "Laverne and Shirley go to the movies, and the ushers are hilarious."

benson said...

@Carol There is a John Whedon written script of the Dick Van Dyke show told partially from the perspective of the two fish in the fish tank in the Petrie living room.
("The night the roof fell in")

Carol said...

@ Benson! Yes! Thank you. I've been trying to remember all afternoon where I'd seen something similar to the fly thing. That must have been what it was! That was driving me crazy.

The Dick Van Dyke show is still fun to watch all these years later. Just sayin'...

Gene said...

@Len: I don't know. I'm pretty sure my spec for MY LITTLE MARGIE is gonna have 'em laughing their asses off.

Gary said...

Here's a Friday question for you: Have you or your partner ever written a line that became a catchphrase, and took on a life of its own?

For instance, somebody had to write "Wake up and smell the coffee," and "Are we having fun yet?"

I think this would be a great thrill for a comedy writer, to have one of his lines live on for eternity.

"Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Brian Drake said...

I'm going to have to watch 2 Broke Girls now that I know the word "vagina" is repeated a lot. haw haw haw.

canda said...

But you certainly remember the fly on the wall spec script, which is half the battle.

I wouldn't want to hear the fly's thoughts, but if the show were about a fly that is loose in the building and bugging everyone, that could be interesting, if the way the characters attempted to eliminate or interacted with the fly revealed character or some other truth. Might have an ending where a character might finally capture the fly in his or her hands, and after a moment to reflect, decided to release it.

But, please, no talking flies or fish.

Anonymous said...

Friday Question:

What do you make of ABC green-lighting "The Alzheimer's Project," about a crazy dad with Alzheimer's trying to reconnect with his family?

Do you think ABC is trying to compete with the Michael J Fox show? If so, what do you think CBS will do to keep up with them?

I'm thinking Jack Black as "Jerome," a young gay law student with Spinal Bifida trying to overcome his fellow students prejudice against homosexuality, diminished executive function, and cerebrospinal fluid leakage.

Or "Stroke Ward." It's just like "Cheers" except everybody has suffered strokes, and instead of Carla, they could have a fat sassy black nurse telling the slurry-azzed white folks what's up.

-Jim D

VP81955 said...

Wendy M. Grossman said...I have the sense that MOM is picking up steam.

Hope you're right -- it's a delightfully-written series. But I sense CBS isn't giving "Mom" as much TLC as its Thursday sitcoms, even if it's a Chuck Lorre production. I doubt Monday has devolved into the new Friday, but the night doesn't seem to carry the weight it once did.

YEKIMI said...

What do you make of ABC green-lighting "The Alzheimer's Project," about a crazy dad with Alzheimer's trying to reconnect with his family?

I think they should forget about this sitcom.....

bill said...

Friday Question: Ken, I'm curious about your feelings regarding the latest Modern Family episode which was widely recognized as a direct rip off of a famous Seinfeld episode, The Barber. In the Modern Family show, Nathan Lane plays a wedding planner whose protege has better ideas. In the Seinfeld episode, the same scenario happens with Jerry's barber.

In this case, it is hard to make the case that the writers were unaware of such an iconic episode since everyone, including my girlfriend who rarely makes these connections, immediately recognized the connection.

In this case, was it an homage? or did the writers think no one would notice. Or has Modern Family just run out of ideas?

Anonymous said...



Winky Orlando said...

"Someone had to write...'Are we having fun yet?'"

That was Bill Griffith, in his comic strip "Zippy the Pinhead."

Anonymous said...

How has nobody mentioned Parks & Recreation yet?

Anonymous said...

One of the "New Girl" writers actually broke in with a crossover spec of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Extras," which he called, "Extra Enthusiasm."

JoeBobFrank said...

Hi, Mr Levine.

My twelve-year-old kid is a huge fan of the Good Wife and has a terrific idea for it. Does this mean he has to write a spec script? He's a kid with a great sense of perspective, (and humor) and honestly, he's got a great--and unexpected--idea. At twelve, he's unlikely to be doing this for a career, but this is a kid with both school and writing anxiety--he missed half of last year after his teacher left school abruptly--so I'm excited anything that might encourage him to be excited about something remotely academic.

Really, what he would prefer is simply to write to them and tell them his idea and have them say, hey, kid, great. Keep up the good work. (Says his Mom) Any suggestions are much appreciated.