Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Do producers and agents require a spec script from an existing show?

Not really but YES.

(I know. What kind of answer is that? Hear me out.)

First of all, I’m only talking about comedy specs. The drama world may be different. I don’t know. I'm not dramatic. 

Back in the day, spec scripts were the required writing sample. These are episodes of existing shows that perspective scribes write on speculation. Producers and agents and studios and networks needed to see if you could write in the voice of shows currently on the air since any job you would get would be on one of these shows.

Spec pilots were frowned upon. Showrunners weren’t looking for original voices; they were looking for people who could write in the style of their series.

Something switched along the way. Now the preferred writing sample is a pilot. I think networks are just so desperate for anything new they want to see original material. And once that original material has sufficiently impressed everybody, the writer can get a job on an existing show writing in the style of that show, not their own.

Yes, it makes a lot of sense.

Personally, I think it’s a disservice to a young writer to make him write a spec pilot. Pilots are different animals, extremely hard to pull off. Veteran writers have a bitch of a time with pilots. Asking a newbie to do a pilot is like asking a songwriter who does thirty-second jingles to turn in a symphony. But that’s a rant for another time.

So if pilots are what everybody wants, why write a spec?

Because it’s always good to have several samples of your work.

Because it’s always helpful to have a variety of styles. In other words, if your pilot is single-camera, having a multi-camera spec would be a plus.

And mainly because once someone reads and likes your spec pilot they’re invariably going to say, what else does he have? So even though they don’t tell you this, a spec from an existing show is still mandatory.

Now the big question is, what show to spec?

I’ll discuss that tomorrow.


Jim S said...


You struck an interesting chord when you said you don't know how the drama side of the business works.

It got me thinking. I've seen writers from Friends like Alexa Junge go and be a writer and producer on The West Wing.

Question, how does one decide to be "drama" or "comedy"? Do writers just try out for everything and end up getting pigeon-holed when the first script they sell is a drama or comedy?

How does one shift from one to the other? Gene Reynolds was huge on MASH, but ended up producing Lou Grant? So I know it happens.


SharoneRosen said...

Back in my early 20's, oh so many moons ago, my friend Jill and I had dreams of comedy writing. We wrote a pilot about girls in the '60s who didn't quite fit in with the prevailing culture... then "Square Pegs" came on TV... Next! We wrote a spec script for MASH. I do think it was good writing, I don't think it was a good MASH. We gave a strong story line to Nurse Kelly, and Klinger, then left the leads in minor roles. Being young, stupid and innocent, I found an agent who would read it and he invited me to his home in Laurel Canyon to meet me and go over the script. He made some horrific story suggestions (had he ever actually seen MASH?), just before he stuck his tongue down my throat. I beat the land-speed record getting out of that door. And so ended our attempt at comedy writing.

After that, I found my real niche, writing :30 & :60 radio commercials and Purim schpiels.

Phil said...

Ha Ha Ha...... You seem to have Natalie Wood complex, Ken.

You ever met her or spoke to her? Perhaps seen her with Warren Beatty....

Come on Ken, give us one more post about Natalie with full of personal anecdotes and stuff.

Richard said...

My students for the past two years are more interested in going into TV than breaking into movies. But they don't want to write specs. They either want to create a TV series from whole cloth or they dream of creating a YouTube web show that will then get picked up by a network, preferrably Netflix or Amazon Prime. I tell them no network is going to pick up their show with no experience. What do you think?

Wally said...

@Jim: To switch from comedy to drama, Matt Weiner wrote "Mad Men" & Jill Soloway wrote this (NSFW language) piece: http://www.corpse.org/archives/issue_10/ficciones/soloway.html

@Richard: From an outsiders' perspective (and trying to break in), specs of shows are still very relevant for contests and writing programs (Disney's still wants them, I believe and maybe CBS). @jefflieber on Twitter answers questions periodically there and this issue comes up. For the most part, no, they wont' buy your pilot - it's a critical piece of the 'audition' tho - and it does indeed happen. Read about Mickey Fisher's (Extant) break in various places but he has a 1st person account of it somewhere too. Also, Scott Myers from @gointothestory has a lot of interviews - mostly of movie writers, but that's always fluid

Ken's opinions will assuredly differ from mine. Everyone's got a way in - no 2 are alike it seems.

John Hammes said...

Had Natalie Wood given me that look, and told me that a speculation script was required, I should have considered myself well advised... to write SEVERAL.

Every week.

For a year.

Richard said...

Thanks for your insights, Wally. They are very helpful.