Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What to do on your first TV writing gig?


Regular readers of this blog know that when I can't find an appropriate photo to accompany a post I feature photos of Natalie Wood.  This is now one of my favorites. 

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that thanks to long-winded me now becomes an entire post.

It’s from Sarah.

You've written about how to get that first TV writing gig (all of which has been tremendously helpful, thank you!) but I can't seem to find anything you've written about what to do AFTER you've landed that first job. I'll be starting my first staff writer job on a mid-season comedy really soon and I'm a bit nervous.

What did you expect from the baby writers on your staff?

What advice would you give a first time staff writer?

Great question and first off, congratulations on the new gig, Sarah.

The first piece of advice would be to LISTEN. Become a sponge. Soak up everything. How does the showrunner break stories? What are the actors’ strengths and weaknesses? What kind of jokes do or don’t work? How tolerant is the showrunner on arguing story points? How can you best contribute?

If there’s a lot of room writing, get a sense of the room dynamic. There will usually be a few writers who drive it. Study them. Get into their thought processes if you can. And don’t get in their way. Learn when to slide in with your own pitches.

Room etiquette is something else to learn and observe. Rule number one: Pitch something ONCE. If the showrunner rejects it for any reason move on. Do not keep lobbying for it. And don’t sulk or become resentful. I worked with a truly hilarious writer on a couple of shows; maybe one of the funniest room people I’ve ever met. There were times I was in awe. But he was very moody. If he pitched something he thought should go in and was rejected he would clam up the rest of the night. Eventually, he wasn’t asked back despite his brilliance. Play nice with others.

Don’t text in the room unless you’re on a break. Don’t check email unless you’re on a break.

And if others do it, don’t YOU. If others are breaking these rules, don’t YOU.

Don’t be the grammar police. Don’t just pitch that things don’t work. Offer a possible fix or better way to go. Anyone can say “this doesn’t work.” Writers solve the problems.

What happens in the room STAYS in the room.

Understand that the showrunner steers the boat. You just row in that direction. You may not agree with the direction but be a good team player and row like crazy. Someday you’ll become a showrunner and others can row in your direction and inwardly bitch.

Be professional. Always show up on time, always be prepared (read the outline or script you’ll be working on beforehand), and bathe.

Be supportive of other staff members. Yes, you’re in competition to a degree – all hoping to get your jokes in. But acknowledge and appreciate when your fellow writers lob in something good. Make friends.

Since you are the baby writer you will not be expected to shoulder the burden of the show. Showrunners would rather you hang back and listen then to try to dazzle everybody by pitching incessantly. The more you get comfortable the more you will be able pitch good stuff. That said, don’t just sit in the room the entire season like a lox and say nothing.

And finally, have fun. Don’t constantly be grading yourself. “Did I pitch enough today?” “Was I funny enough?” “How do I stack up to the story editor?” “Am I falling behind on Donald Trump jokes?” etc. You worked very hard to get there, allow yourself to enjoy the experience. Again, congratulations.

21 comments:

Scott Cason said...

"and bathe"

Wait. What?!

Rock Golf said...

Ken speaks from experience. Anytime a female writer took a bath in the writer's room, she stayed on the job.

CamrioKid said...

Wow, that is an awesome picture of Ms. Wood! I assume that it is a still from a movie - she appears to be genuinely reacting to the situation. I bet she was a sweet, fun person. She was taken from us too soon. Ever considered an essay on the circumstances of her death, and speculate what really happened to her that night off of Catalina Island?

Corey said...

Rare photo... both hands!

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

(Coulda been Ken's dream last night...)

Grocery Store Manager: "Clean up on aisle six, Levine! The mop's broke. Use you tongue!"

Bill Avena said...

Another lewd Natalie Wood photo corrupting our morals and still no pix from "Bob & Carol.."
Just checking in before the prison library patrons get on the computers and comment on current events.

Gerry said...

Gee, I hate to mess up this thread, but big congratulations, Sarah!

Diane D. said...

Wow! I'm not a writer, but I think anyone could recognize what valuable information Sarah just got from someone with your knowledge and experience, who has been completely immersed in that world and has won many awards. Lucky you, Sarah! Generous you, Ken Levine!

Congratulations and good luck in your first job as a staff writer!

Anonymous said...

The photo is from The Great Race with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Ms. Natalie. LOVE that movie. So silly but so much fun.

Congrats, Sarah. Everything Ken said is great advice when starting almost any new job.

Pam, St. Louis.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Congrats, Sarah, and good luck. Please come back and tell us when the first episode you script is being broadcast so we can all watch.

wg

Joe K said...

Rum, throw more rum.
Joe K

LouOCNY said...

That pic of Natalie? Hint: that is NOT whipped cream...at least not the kind that comes out of a can....

Connor said...

I don't remember who it was, but I once read an interview with a TV writer who talked about being a little disappointed when he began his first job as a TV writer because the writer's room wasn't at all what he expected. He said his idea of a writer's room was based on stories told by guys like Mel Brooks, who described them as completely insane, no-holds-barred, anything goes places where one outrageous act piled on another. The series he was working on, though, the writer's room was very, well, I guess polite would be a good word. He said it was filled with funny people, and they all did good work, but everyone was very polite and well-behaved. Just not what he expected a writer's room to be like.

Anonymous said...

REALLY gross, LouOCNY! Does imagining that make that adorable picture more appealing to you?

Sam said...

As another longtime reader, first time staff writer - thanks for the advice, Ken!!

Connor, do you have a link to that post? I'd be interested in checking it out.

Sarah said...

Thank you so much for answering my question, Ken. I will definitely take all of your advice to heart. And thanks everyone for the congratulations!

AAllen said...

Well that's just good advice even for those of us who tell jokes among our family and friends. Don't repeat the jokes if they don't work, or even if they do work. And don't mope around if they don't work. Repeating jokes is a caricature of a socially awkward or intoxicated person, and it was a moment of self-recognition when I realized I was telling jokes with more suave than my dad. Now if I could just get the courage to tell jokes of more than two lines.

Rashad Khan said...

I would love to sit in on a writers' session just once so I would know whether I was a "story guy" or a "joke guy." Also, so I would learn once and for all what actually constitutes a story beat, a concept which has eluded me for decades.

JoeyH said...

This is great advice for any job, not just comedy writing.

blogward said...

To be nailed on the door of any staff room, anywhere.

Grammar Police said...

"Showrunners would rather you hang back and listen then to try to dazzle everybody by pitching incessantly." Should be "than to try".