Sunday, August 21, 2016

Some thoughts on pilot writing

At first you’ll read this and think, “Oh Christ! This guy’s just tooting his own horn again.” Read on. You’ll see that I’m not.

Several years ago my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote a pilot for one of the major networks. A conference call was arranged for us to get second draft notes. The VP of Comedy Development was a young guy, fairly new to the job. He started the conversation by saying there were very few notes. I liked him already. And then he went on and on about how amazing our script was. I’m paraphrasing now but I swear this is pretty close.

“This script has such a nice flow. I can’t believe you guys introduced all these characters, set up the premise, told a very clever story, and made it really funny all the way through. The jokes all advance the story, and you did all this in just 45 pages. Wow!”

Needless to say, that was lovely to hear but I couldn’t stop thinking –

Uh, isn’t that the job?!

We didn’t reinvent the form. That’s what you’re SUPPOSED to turn in. That’s what they’re PAYING you for. We weren’t amazing. We were just being professional. What were the other pilots like that he received?

By the time a network approves a writer to do a pilot, generally that writer has had several years of experience working on staff and doing script assignments. He should be seasoned enough and skillful enough to weave in all those elements that the Comedy Development VP listed.

I was certainly flattered by his reaction but would have been more flattered if he had said, “You guys have some wonderfully fresh ideas in here. You’ve created characters I’ve never seen before.” That holds more weight to me than we got everything in in 45 pages.

Has the bar been lowered so much over the years that what was once just satisfying requirements is now considered a big artistic achievement?

My advice to network development departments: If you can’t get a polished well-written draft from the people you’ve hired to write your pilots then get different people.

Hire the writers who do strive for fresh new ideas and whose high standard of execution is just a given.

This is a re-post from five years ago.   There is some good stuff in the archives.  Check it out if you're bored with life. 


Gary Springer said...

Pilot writing ? How do they fit the typewriter into the cockpit ?

VP81955 said...

I wish my fellow writers the best, but I'm probably limiting my output to features for two reasons: 1) my age (turned 61 Friday), and 2) writing for film is by its nature more of a solo project, although I'm not necessarily averse to collaboration. Sometimes, it's best to know where you don't fit to find out where you do.

Jerod Butt said...

Friday Question:

Does the addition of networks like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon increase the possibility of better sitcoms? Netflix has two original multicams FULLER HOUSE and THE RANCH. Hulu has original singlecam comedies like CASUAL and DIFFICULT PEOPLE. I haven't seen Hulu's offerings, but I thought THE RANCH was better than FULLER HOUSE.

Jerod Butt said...

There's a lost episode of WINGS. Antonio has to be involved in the origination of the idea.

Question Mark said...

Not that this necessarily applies to Ken's story since he specified it was a network executive....but in the modern binge-watching TV climate, maybe there's simply not as much emphasis on pilot-writing? Obviously it helps if you can hook the viewer from the first episode, but if the rest of the series is available at the viewer's fingertips, maybe they're prone to say "eh, I'll give the second one a shot" based on sheer convenience. There's less pressure to excite them enough to tune in next week.

Or, on the flip side, maybe a good pilot is more important than ever. If you have a world of entertainment available on your Netflix/Hulu/Crave/whatever account, you might be more inclined to just say "eh, this isn't really grabbing me through 15 mins, let's just rewatch the Office for the hundredth time."

littlejohn said...

Ken, I remember years ago hearing an interview with Billy Joel, who was being asked why he was so successful for so long. In essence, he said it wasn't a secret, he was just being professional. Show up on time, not two hours late,etc; do your best to entertain the crowd and give them what they came for; do your job - nothing magic. He also said he thought a lot of "acts" failed because they thought the crowd was lucky to see them, instead of the performer being lucky to have the crowd.

Whether you cared for his music or not, being a respectful professional made him millions and entertained million as well.