Monday, October 03, 2016

The one question I'm asked more than any other

I’ve answered it a couple of times but it always bears repeating, especially since it’s a question on any young hopeful writer’s mind.

Jerod Butt is the latest to ask:

How does someone begin to figure out whether or not he wants to get into sitcom writing, and what to do about that if he lives in the middle of Nowhere, Midwest; has a crappy, break-even job; has a sizeable amount of college debt; and needs to see either Dr. Hartley or Dr. Crane about the direction of his life but cannot because of expensive insurance?

You could always call Dr. Crane on the radio.  

But seriously, I’ll give you the good news first and then all the hurdles. It doesn’t cost anything to see if you want to become a sitcom writer. You want to be a director? Get out your checkbook. Even short films on iPhones require some moolah. Want to be an actor? Either someone has to hire you or you have to help finance a production.

But writing only requires your time and a computer. And if you’re reading this post I assume you already have a computer.

Bonus good news: If ultimately what you write sucks you don’t have to show it to anybody. If I’m helping finance your short film, Mr. Spielberg-wannabe, I want to see the finished product. Bad scripts can hide at the bottom of drawers or disappear with one key stroke. And since our first efforts doing anything tend to be bad, you can improve in relative obscurity. Learning to do baseball play-by-play I was not afforded that luxury. I’d be calling games into a tape recorder at Dodger Stadium while drunks would taunt me and offer unsolicited critiques.

So if you’re unsure as to whether sitcom writing is for you, take a shot. What have you got to lose? Probably the best first step, after maybe reading a how-to book or two (and going through my archives) is to write a spec script of an existing show. What’s your favorite sitcom? Which show best jibes with your comic sensibilities? Study that show. Watch multiple episodes. Figure out how they tell their stories. And then write one.

It will more than likely be terrible. But did you love writing it? Are there elements in it that are good – maybe some great jokes, or fun ideas? I guess the big question is whether you enjoyed the process and were encouraged enough to write another?

If so, keep going. Every script will be better than the previous one. Delve deeper into comedy writing. Is there a college course you could take? Helpful videos on line?

And this brings me to your next concern? Can you break in to sitcom writing if you live outside of LA? Yes. But it’s much harder. MUCH harder. You may write a great script, enter it in a contest, win, and get the attention of agents or executives. But it sure helps if you’re out here. For one thing, you can network. You can make connections.

There are writing seminars and industry people appear at WGA Foundation programs or college programs. You can meet showrunners and craft services people.

You can also put together a support group of other hopefuls. There are plenty of other young scribes just like you. When you’re in Wisconsin and have the burning desire to be a sitcom writer you’re somewhat isolated. You can’t throw a dead cat in a Studio City Starbuck without hitting five of them.

But now comes the hard part. Should you take that leap and move to LA? All of a sudden the pursuit is no longer free. And there are no promises of success.

This is the point where you really have to look into your soul. How badly do you want this? How feasible is it realistically (especially if you have college loans or worse, owe Mastercard)? Only you can answer that question. You can get feedback on your scripts. Do people think they’re awesome? But at the end of the day, you have to decide whether it’s worth it to take the big plunge. You will struggle. At times it will be very discouraging. It's not cheap out here.  But at least the weather is nice.

So that’s the good and bad. Practically every writer whose name you see on sitcoms faced the same dilemma. They wrote their specs, impressed someone, and eventually broke in. Many had to relocate to Los Angeles. It can be done. It has been done. Will you be next?

Hope that helps.   And whatever you decide, best of luck.  


Paul Duca said...

It helped that you were already here in the first place...

ScarletNumber said...

ICYMI There was a Cheers reference on Family Guy last night.

Steve Pepoon said...

I grew up in Kansas. Moved to LA. Took me eight years to break into TV but I did it. Had a nice career. Yeah, it can be done.

Pat Reeder said...

I only wanted to be a comedy writer, so I went out to L.A. right after college. As the old joke goes, I spent a year there one week. I spent four hours sitting in a traffic jam one day, and got stuck at every intersection due to the torturous lack of left-turn arrows. This was also when the unbreathable, brown air loomed over the city like a toxic pie crust, and Hollywood Boulevard was a grimy, depressing hangout for prostitutes, drug dealers and runaways. By day three, I was counting the minutes until I could get back to Dallas. So I knew it was not to be.

I had to find other ways to pursue comedy writing in Dallas: writing humorous commercials, local TV shows, industrials, home video productions, even greeting cards; and doing comedy on the radio, both for my own DJ shifts and eventually, writing for all the syndicated radio comedy producers (ACN, DCE, Dorsey & Donnelly, TM, etc.) While working as production director at a Dallas radio station, I became a free lance writer for the Morning Punch radio comedy service, which was based in Dallas. Then I became their head writer. Next, my wife Laura and I launched our own daily syndicated service, The Comedy Wire, and eventually were writing shows for Cumulus Media. Along the way, I wrote a couple of books and play-doctored some musicals. Somehow, I've managed to make a pretty decent living for nearly 30 years as a comedy writer without ever moving to L.A. Granted, it wasn't very secure, and I never made Chuck Lorre money. But then, I never had to work for Roseanne, so it all evens out.

Ironically, I've been back out to L.A. a couple of times recently to take Laura to Grammy week events (she's a singer and recording artist, too) and really enjoyed it. I can't help thinking that if I'd liked it that much when I first went, things might have been completely different. My life might have taken a sharp left turn, if only L.A. had had left turn signals.

Anonymous said...

L'Shana Tova.


Andy Rose said...

This reminds me of the advice I would give people who asked me how to learn to be on the radio. I would tell them that using your voice is free, and so is listening to traditional radio stations. So practice, mimic what people on the radio are doing, and record yourself so you can listen back and refine things until you think you sound professional. It will take a while, but it's a lot less expensive than a broadcasting school. And like Picasso mastering traditional art first before becoming an impressionist, it's usually a lot more effective to get the traditional styles of your industry down pat first, and then you can figure out how to diverge from the norm to create your own unique sound.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Pat, Wonderful story of creatively persevering.

Dhruv said...

Nice story Mr. Pat Reeder.

Glad to hear that you didn't have to work for Roseanne :)

But on the other hand, you would have met the lovely Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

mike said...

Actually all you need to write something is a pen/pencil/crayon and a bit of paper. No computers required!