Sunday, December 11, 2005

My Spec is Earl

I’m often asked “what’s the best spec script to submit?” I can only speak for comedies. For dramas I say cover all your bases and do a CSI: DEADWOOD. There is no hard and fast rule but I, and most sitcom producers I know, prefer scripts of existing shows over pilots. We want to see how well you can write other people’s characters and fit into other people’s styles. That’s what you’ll be faced with if you get an assignment.

So then the question is “what show do I pick?” Not HOPE & FAITH. Select a current show you like and think you know the best. “Current” is the key word here. Once a show is cancelled the shelf life for your spec is about six months. So don’t start that ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT you’ve been developing. And I hope you didn’t pour a lot of time and effort into a spec KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL. When RAYMOND went off the air everyone was sad but show runners. No more reading fifty RAYMONDS a day when trying to staff! And for that same reason, please let this be WILL & GRACE’S last year! The good news is if you’ve got a spec FRASIER you can just change the names and send it out as an OUT OF PRACTICE. And of course you never have to worry with a SIMPSONS because they will go on making new episodes forever.

You do not have to write an episode of the show you’re submitting to. STILL STANDING will read KING OF QUEENS and vice versa. In fact, it’s tougher to sell a spec of the show you’re submitting to because they know that show so well. On the other hand, you could make up the names of the YES, DEAR characters and most show runners wouldn’t know the difference. But be careful. The show runners need to at least have heard of the show. For that reason I wouldn’t recommend specing a RODNEY.

Here are a few other things to consider: The SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY might really show off your funny but they’re cartoons. That might hurt your chances of getting an assignment on a live show, unless it’s a live cartoon show like MALCOLM. CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM allows you to push the envelope but the dialogue is improvised. There is no such thing as a real CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM script. So your spec might feel a little artificial. Of course you could always just write “Larry does something funny here” but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Unfortunately, there are not a lot of great shows out there at the moment. What I think we’ll see this year is everybody writing a MY NAME IS EARL. It’s clearly the best of the new crop. The only caution I give you is that EVERYBODY will be writing one. If that doesn’t concern you (or you’ve written it already) I say go for it. If it does then some suitable alternates might be SCRUBS, TWO AND A HALF MEN, EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS, or HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER (a far cry from the CHEERS, TAXI, MASH, COSBY days).

Then there are the hour sorta-comedies. DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, BOSTON LEGAL, HOUSE (when patients aren’t going into spasms). These all have very specific tones. Hard to nail but if you do it could be a home run.

But at the end of the day it still is which show best fits your voice and sensibility? Good luck, and just so you know – the characters on YES, DEAR are Greg, Kim, Christine, and Jimmy. And the main character on RODNEY is Rodney.

More later.


Anonymous said...

One thing is interesting is that they have posted Earl's list on the show's website - so on the one hand, you can pick something from Earl's list and write about it - on the other, sooner or later the show runners will write about the item on the list (and they are crossing them off as they do) - so do you stick to the list or make a chore for Earl off-list and hope show-runners don't notice?

What what should you spec if you want to write for Earl?

What should one do about new works, treatments, etc.?

Anonymous said...

If you've written a spec for a show, and then something major changes in that show's world - characters break up, move out etc. - is your spec useless? For many shows (particularly serialized dramadies) it seems like it's impossible to write a spec that lasts more than a few weeks before contradicting a story arc. Even if the spec avoids any revelations about the major mystery/season-long story, they don't remain relevant for long. Are showrunners more concerned with seeing that a writer can capture the tone and voice of a show, or do differences between a script and the direction of the show make a spec feel dated?

Geoff Thorne said...

See. Now this is exactly the kind of thing that drives me insane.

I'm directed here by one of my friends in order to learn a little something at the virtual feet of one of the masters of a craft with which I am still wrestling.

So, I come. I drag my digital ass all the way over here and what do I get?

A stack of blogs each displaying an even more effortless way with humorous words than that I find to varying degrees in those pals of mine who are similarly employed.

Bastards, all of you. Really. just stop.

Funny can't be learned. Stop pretending that it can. It's just too cruel.

But keep with the jokes, please. I can still be a good audience.

Julie O'Hora said...

Enjoyed reading your blog, Ken.

Also, it's been years since I last saw it, but VOLUNTEERS was very funny. A lot of the moments have stuck with me over the years.

(Huh. I just realized why your name seemed familiar -- I think I dated a Ken Levine in my freshman year. Once. He actually said to me, "C'mon, Julie, you're in college now." But I'm sure that wasn't you...)

By Ken Levine said...

Isaac, don't throw away your spec. That sort of thing happens all the time. Producers are more interested in whether or not you captured the show, have a flair for comedy, etc.

Jeff, what can I say? Happy to help or sorry you feel that way depending on what you meant.

Julie, you're way too pretty to be any girl I dated in college. That would be UCLA, by the way. And thanks for liking Volunteers. I'll have much to say about that experience in future posts.

Julie O'Hora said...

And thanks for liking Volunteers. I'll have much to say about that experience in future posts.

Right on. Thanks for writing it and I look forward to your stories. I hope the experience was a good one for you. Just remembering John Candy singing the fight song still makes me laugh.

Hell, it's gotta be at least a decade since I've seen it. Would I still love it? Would I still snort when Gedde Watanabe says, "You're an asshole Peace Corps guy?"

(Btw, mind if I link to you, Ken?)

Unknown said...

josh: Earl's list on the show's website is far from complete. The list is supposed to be around 262 offenses long, whereas the NBC site only lists about 42, and wikipedia, 50-something. That should give your spec plenty of wiggle room, especially since Earl keeps adding to the list.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I've always wondered -- though I would never actually dare to do it -- whether a writer could get away with doing a spec of a "classic" show. Not an obscure one, just something like Taxi or Cheers or Dick Van Dyke that a sitcom producer is likely to be familiar with. If the test of a spec is whether a writer can capture the style of a show, then does it really matter that the show is off the air?

I know that in reality a spec must be of a current show (I've heard stories of people doing an older show and getting hired, but they're just stories); but hypothesis is way more fun than reality.

By Ken Levine said...

Julie O,

Please link me. Thanks. I'd thank you via email but can't find your email address.


Seventeen writers in a room is usually thirteen too many. Good luck with your pitch.


I wouldn't worry about the list. I'm sure it's not written in stone. Come up with something better and they'll use it.


Urban legend has it that a writer got an assignment with a spec DICK VAN DYKE SHOW but no one can confirm that. It's tricky. The vintage show you pick has to be far enough in the past that it doesn't look like you've been peddling it for years, it has to have a similar sensibility to shows today, and it has to be recent enough that the young story editors are familiar with it. I bet if you did a great JEFFERSONS they'd take notice at EVERYBODY LOVES CHRIS.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Urban legend has it that a writer got an assignment with a spec DICK VAN DYKE SHOW but no one can confirm that.

I think that's the one I heard. The other urban legend I heard was that somebody wrote a Gomer Pyle spec, though that might just be the rural version of the same urban legend.

By Ken Levine said...

It wasn't a spec GOMER PYLE. It was MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT 2000.

Grubber said...

Hi Ken,

As before, loving your blog.

Just wondering if you would be able to explain why Scrubs isn't a more popular choice as far as comedy spec's go?

Does it simply come down to always trying to spec the most popular shows in your chosen genre?

Many thanks if you are able to answer that.

By Ken Levine said...

I don't know why SCRUBS doesn't more recognition. I know I'm spitting on the cross but I like it much more than ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.

Anonymous said...

Great site. What would I do without writers who blog!?

I've always thought Scrubs was better than Arrested Development.

Both shows do well by eliminating the laugh track!

Should a spec ideally pick up from the most recent episode? Or is it okay to write a story during, say, Season 3 of Scrubs- when it was really good? (Season 4 wasn't so hot)

Anonymous said...

Does anyone even try to write 24 spec scripts?

And has anyone encountered any really bad Lost spec scripts? For some reason I think that one must be a gold mine for mind-shatteringly bad spec writing.

CDP. said...

Ughgh, laugh tracks... *shudder*

What do they really accomplish other than showing the audiences the jokes that bombed?

Anonymous said...

Hi , great advice but where can writers find out which shows are open to specs?

I guess I'm weary of wasting time, like querying agents (almost every hack book says to query agents out of the blue but a good, busy agent is unlikely read it).


Piers said...

On the Urban Legend front, I also heard (from a friend of a friend etc etc) that someone got a job off a Mary Tyler Moore spec where Mary comes out of the closet.

Who knew?

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