Monday, December 12, 2005

Do not try this at home!

I have read some bad specs in my time and now offer some suggestions of what not to do based on actual scripts I have read…or at least attempted to read.

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 Debra Messing doesn’t mean you should write a WILL & GRACE entitled “Grace’s Sister”. If I get a script with a photo attached I know I’m in trouble.

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:


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

Huh????? Ask yourself the following question: Can anybody other than Peter Jackson 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 GEORGE LOPEZ SHOW is not looking for the next Fellini.

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.

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

I was going to recommend you don’t do like one aspiring writer and make a joke in a CHEERS about Diane’s pussy because it’s crude, offensive, and inappropriate, but I saw the same joke two weeks ago on STACKED.

Still, I’d like to think 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 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.


Jeff O'Brien said...

You know the funny thing - I'm probably in the minority of people who think the recent Star Trek series (all of them) basically did things like that. Broke continuity, broke character, just had sub par writing far too often. CGI allow for bad ideas to be easily done? Too many deux ex machina endings where writers used alternate realities or time warps or some kind of "it was all a dream" gimmick to bring back the status quo. I know you're talking about specs but it's amazing how much of that applies to ST:TNG and escpecially to Enterprise... alright enough ST bashing.

Eugene said...

Stop. You had me at "Mary Tyler Moore's husband."

Jeff O'Brien said...

I had a friend who actually worked on the old Highlander series, was able to get a spec script to the producers - then flew in the face of the show by ignoring the series bible and giving the immortals kids and having them be fathers...

ben said...

As another wannabe white English writer type, I just have to say thanks for writing this. I have since thrown my 'Joey Vs Godzilla' script in the bin.

You shall be hearing from my lawyer....

(Note when I say 'lawyer', I mean 'stinking man in a Hamburglar costume drinking out of a brown paper bag')

PS Do you think they'd be interested in my Golden Girls Juniors idea? (The Bea Arthur character carries a skateboard and listens to rap!!!)

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken --

Congrats on the successful launch of your blog. Another day, another interesting post. Keep it coming.

-- Sascha

PS: I especially enjoyed your Frasier episode "Room Service"

Cunningham said...

What? I'm not Frazier's long lost brother???!!!

(circular file)

John Donald Carlucci said...

Thanks for the great posts and I've added you to my must read links!


AJ Gentile said...

As a new kid in town, this blog has become a must-read.

VP81955 said...

Another suggestion: Don't write an episode concentrating on a supporting character unless the series is genuinely designed as an ensemble show. For example, while you may have the hots for Beth Broderick, a "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" that focused on Aunt Zelda and left Sabrina in the background would probably have gone straight to the wastebasket.

The lead character can often share an "A" plot with a supporting character, but generally the latter will have to settle for a "B" plot.

Anonymous said...

Well, that NewsRadio idea sounds like the one thing here that could have worked. From what little you said, it does seem to fit with the rhythm of the show.

eboydowen said...

Here's a quick, semi-serious question:

Is "the company softball game" the most overused plot-line in all of 1/2-hour TV spec history?

I've heard someone say that, and just wanted to know how pervasive specs based on company softball teams are.

Charlie said...

So much for my ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT spec that focuses on their 3rd cousin, Charlie, played by me, dating Michael's wife, until Michael gets married, and Gob dies.

All told through a flashback dream sequence.

Serious question, though...

Do you find that readers have a bias against writing TEAMS, versus single writers?

Love you blog.


Cynthia said...

This post answers my previous question on another post. People really attach photos to their scripts?? Wow.

Reky said...

A fascinating read, even for me who’s not into the writing business.