Sunday, January 22, 2017

Do not try this at home

I'm currently teaching a graduate spec sitcom writing class at UCLA and now offer some suggestions of what not to do based on actual scripts I have read…or at least attempted to read.  I'm alerting my students to these traps.  So why not share the advice with you? 

Don’t view the show from the perspective of a fly. I once read a WINGS spec as seen by a buzzing fly. I offer this as the first example because I know so many young writers fall into this same trap.

Don’t put yourself into the show and make yourself the lead character. I once read a CHEERS where Alan had more lines than Sam & Diane combined. Alan? Who’s Alan? Alan was one of the extras. And so he remained.

And just because people tell you you look like Kaley Cuoco (pictured above) doesn’t mean you should write a BIG BANG THEORY entitled “Penny’s Sister.” If I get a script with a photo attached I know I’m in trouble.

Don't submit specs for canceled series. You are not going to get a job off your spec OLD CHRISTINE or I MARRIED JOAN.

Don’t hand write your script, no matter how good your penmanship. Send your spec in a UCLA blue book and you’ll get an F.

Don’t invent a format.

Know the characters. I read a spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW where Mary wondered what to get her husband for his birthday. Her “husband”???!

Keep in mind the production parameters. A MASH I once read featured this:

EXT. YANKEE STADIUM – DAY

Hawkeye is on the mound during the World Series. 60,000 people
cheer.

Huh????? Ask yourself the following question: Can anybody other than Steven Spielberg or James Cameron make this? And if the answer is no, especially for a multi-camera show that takes place in a living room, then don’t do it.

Similarly, avoid dream sequences. THE GOLDBERGS is not looking for the next Fellini.

Don't require 3D or IMAX for your sitcom pilot to work.

Don’t hinge your show on stunt casting. I read a BECKER where former President Jimmy Carter came in for a check-up and offered dating advice. Yeah, President Carter gets his physicals in the Bronx. And yeah, President Carter is always available to guest on a sitcom and advise a character to say whatever is necessary to get laid.

Even with cable shows, there is some line of decorum and taste left. I once read a NEWSRADIO where the story was the Dave Foley character comes into his office in the morning and discovers a semen stain on his couch. Then the episode went downhill.

Don’t marry off any of the main characters.

Don’t kill off any of the main characters.

Don’t go the first ten pages before doing a joke. This even applies to many drama specs.

Don’t do the “supersize” hour episode.

The last sentence in your script should not be “To Be Continued”.

Don’t change the characters’ reality to fit your story. Tracy Jordan is not Jewish. THAT’S why he can’t have a bar mitzvah.

Don’t include a cover letter telling the producer that you sent him a copy of the script months ago and that he was shirking his responsibility by not reading it. Our agent did this once and trust me, David Lloyd was not amused.

And finally, avoid this ploy: I once received a spec MASH with a note that read “This script was written by my brother. On his way to the post office to mail it he was hit by a car and killed. I’m sure he would have wanted you to read it anyway. P.S. If you want any changes I can make them.” He received a touching rejection sympathy card.

Just remember this, when producers read your script they want to like it. They want to discover the next Larry Gelbart. It only helps them. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by doing something stupid like relying on Jimmy Carter to get your laughs.

26 comments :

Bill Avena said...

If I remember right Confederacy of Dunces had a Walker Percy preface that told of him receiving the manuscript with an explanatory note by Mama O'Toole.

Ricky Manning said...

I could add a few dozen to this excellent list, but I'll stop at one:

Try not to screw up on your TITLE PAGE. I've read specs that got the series title wrong. Or didn't observe the show's episode title convention (e.g., FRIENDS "The One Where ____"). Or proudly proclaimed the work was a "FRIST DRAFT."

CarolMR said...

I MARRIED JOAN! I'm old enough to remember that show.

Covarr said...

Some of these things sound more like bad fanfiction than anything else. I mean, self-inserts? Seriously? I can get why teenagers write themselves as a love interest for Voldermort, but that adults seriously trying to make it in the television industry would do that is... Man, there are no words. It's just too much.

CRL said...

Don't submit specs for canceled series. You are not going to get a job off your spec OLD CHRISTINE or I MARRIED JOAN.


The way they're resurrecting old shows these days you never know.....

Buttermilk Sky said...

"Don't hinge your show on stunt casting." Except for that wonderful FRASIER episode with John Glenn. He was terrific, and it wouldn't have worked with an actor playing an astronaut. And BIG BANG THEORY has a good record of attracting brainy celebrities from Stephen Hawking to Steve Wozniak. How do you know Jimmy Carter wouldn't do a sitcom? Tip O'Neill did CHEERS.

gottacook@juno.com said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
That Guy said...

I think Ken may need to clarify. The purpose of the spec script is not to submit the "special episode" - the one that changes the premise in an alternate universe, the one with the stuntcast Jimmy Carter, the musical episode or whatever. IF you're submitting to a standard 22 eps a year sitcom (and those are the ones that still tend to hire more, because they have more writing slots to fill), they want a standard, filmable on standing sets, episode. Because at least 16 of the 22 slots are going to be those ones.

Cause the creators and existing staff writers are going to get the interesting ones, because they're bored of writing regular episodes of the show. You, if you get hired, might be able to help out. But only once you've proved yourself by writing the regular ordinary ones very well.

Johnny Walker said...

Great advice! I guess last if you wants to do something "outside the box", but most the time the box is precisely where producers want things?

Devin McCullen said...

Maybe it went downhill, but honestly to me that sounds like a decent premise for a NEWSRADIO episode. Can't you hear Dave say "Bill, why is there a semen stain on my couch cushion?" The bigger issue would probably be that it's ripping off a SEINFELD bit.

Mike Moody said...

I do remember an episode of BBT where Howard threw out the first pitch at an Angels game. They just got around it by focusing on the mound with no spectators visible.

D. McEwan said...

Here's a trap I fell into 43 years ago. A partner and I (Short-lived partnership. We'd met at the unemployment office) submitted a Happy Days spec script in which Fonzie gets drafted and the whole gang helps him to dodge the draft, so it ended with the characters back to status quo. Needless to say, we got a polite rejection informing us that Fonzie was a patriot, not a draft-dodger. As I was deep into the anti-war movement at the time, to me that was the patriotic choice, refusing to participate in Nixon's war. Now I see why they could never have taken that script, but at the time, I was shocked. Not outraged, just deeply surprised. Learned a lesson that day. What are the show's politics or lack thereof, not what are mine.

D. McEwan said...

"Buttermilk Sky said...
"Don't hinge your show on stunt casting." Except for that wonderful FRASIER episode with John Glenn. He was terrific, and it wouldn't have worked with an actor playing an astronaut. And BIG BANG THEORY has a good record of attracting brainy celebrities from Stephen Hawking to Steve Wozniak. How do you know Jimmy Carter wouldn't do a sitcom? Tip O'Neill did CHEERS.


You have the process backwards. First you get the guest to agree to do a show, then you write it. And this column's advice is about SPEC submission scripts. Even if your spec script comes with a signed letter from President Carter saying he'd do this episode, it's not going to get you the job.

Chris Lansdown said...

What about semi-stunt casting, like a Jimmy Carter impersonator who gets a checkup and gives advice, where part of the joke is that despite knowing that he's just an impersonator people forget and treat him like the real thing because they want him to be?

MikeN said...

But how about a spec Becker with Giuliani? At the time it seemed like he would appear on anything when asked. He showed up on Cosby as a surprise cameo who wanted to meet Bill Clinton.

VP81955 said...

Unless you knew Chris Pratt better than Anna Faris does, your "Mom" spec submission script with him as a guest star was never going to be picked up.

Mike said...

And yeah, President Carter is always available to guest on a sitcom and advise a character to say whatever is necessary to get laid.
Carter was a Serious Person, but Comedy Precedent Trump... Write the script with lots of Trump face-time & plugs for 'First Lady Jewellery' and send it to Trump. They won't be able to keep him off the set. Dating advice? "Grab 'em by the..."

While I'm here:
International conference on aid for developing countries:
"Have you got a gold watch? No! Why not? Because you're a loser! And losers don't get money!"

Tim Dunleavy said...

Know the characters. I read a spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW where Mary wondered what to get her husband for his birthday. Her “husband”???!

Garry Marshall once said that when he wrote for THE LUCY SHOW in the sixties, they would get spec submissions that had lines for Desi Arnaz. (Desi and Lucy hadn't worked together in, um, quite some time.)

Unknown said...

Friday question that fits in:
Do writers "rule" in TV now? I saw John Cleese answer questions after a Holy Grail showing in Chicago, and a question from the crowd asked him how much would it take to do another season of Faulty Towers. He went on to say that here in America, we have the knack of being able to do shows a long time (I thought at this point, he might bring it up as an insult, of shows not knowing to know when to end). He pointed out Cheers, Frasier, MASH (I think you are familiar with those shows) had long good lives. He mentioned David Hide Pierce told him that season 4 had much better scripts than season 1.
So do you agree that in the TV world, writers rule?
p.s. His final answer on how much money it would take to do another Faulty Towers is 1 trillion dollars. Manuel passed away (Mr. Cleese gave him glowing review), Connie (former wife) retired to be a therapist, Sybil has memory issues

Ted said...

Tracy Jordan did famously make a music video titled "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah," which makes him more Jewish than most of the actors on "The Goldbergs."

DrBOP said...

Here's a good article about the historic shelving of pilot shows:

http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/when-networks-aired-their-failed-tv-pilots-in-the-middle-of-the-summer

VP81955 said...

My late friend Francine York, who guested on all sorts of series in the '60s and '70s (from "Bewitched" and "Perry Mason" to "Land of the Giants" and "Green Acres"), starred on several pilots, but none of them were picked up as potential series and a few aired as summer one-shots.

Ron Rettig said...

I loved I Married Joan in its original run.

Johnny Walker said...

Damn. I just read back over what I posted. Even I can't make out what I wanted to say. Damn you autocorrect! I'm sick of your shirt!

Edward said...

"I Married Joan" Ha Ha

That's LONG before my time and before Jim Bachus was Thurston Howell the Thurd!

Edward said...

One question for Ken.

What studios accept spec scripts??? I was under the impression that for legal reasons unsolicited scripts for TV shows are not read and destroyed.

Can you explain where spec scripts are requested or read at a studio or network?

Thanks

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