Friday, June 09, 2006

Do not try this at home!

Another re-post from when I had only family members reading my blog. Timely advice for aspiring writers and non-writers who want to see what stupid things aspiring writers have done.


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.


Anonymous said...

GREAT POST! Really useful yet funny advice.
A casting director I knew, the late Bill Hudnut, once told some actors "Watch the shows you are reading for. If you read for 'Family Ties' (Okay, this was over 20 years ago) and they say 'You're talking to Alex Keaton', if you reply "Who's Alex Keaton?' All they'll say is 'Thank you for coming in. Goodby.'."
I read once where Harlan Ellison's first draft of "The City on the Edge of Forever" had the crew of the Enterprise staging a mutiny against Captain Kirk. Needless to say, this script was tossed out. The episode aired under that title still said "By Harlan Ellison" but it was by Roddenberry and was a sore point between them for years, though Harlan got over it eventually.

stephen said...

The Harlan Ellison story is one of those Hollywood urban legends spread by Roddenberry. The first draft has been published and none of the script obstacles Roddenberry told fan conventions about were in it.
Ellison said he had repeatedly asked Roddenberry to stop telling these stories. Roddenberry would blame it on a faulty memory, then continue to tell the stories.

Rob said...

I'm actually a little surprised there weren't more cover letter snafus.

"I assure you gentleman, this radical departure is exactly where this series should be headed. All McBeal needs this sexual reassignment surgery to keep the character vital to today's changing world. Her change is a metaphor for the world's."

To be clear, I never wrote that spec. As for the letter...

Anonymous said...

I stand corrected. Thanks for the clarification, Stephen.
Does this throw everything Roddenberry said into doubt? Because 32 years ago I won a competition for which Roddenberry was one of the judges. Do I have to renounce my forgotten title? Rats!
As to the main topic, also about 30 years ago a partner and I wrote a spec script for "Happy Days". We had Fonzie getting his draft notice and the gang working together to help him dodge the draft.
It was read and rejected because "Fonzie is a role model for young people, and would NOT dodge the draft." Having at the time spent years protesting and trying to dismantle the draft, I saw Fonzie avoiding the draft AS Good Role Model Behavior. The show's reaction simply never occurred to me. Of course the show runners saw it differently. I forgot that my definition of Good and Evil wasn't the same as the network's. Good lesson though.

Shimmy said...

Mary Tyler Moore attends her class reunion at Leif Erickson High. There, she runs into Howard Arnell, her goofy ex-boyfriend . . .

Anonymous said...

I was really interested in the point about production costs, and I can see how a plain vanilla ep of MASH would cost a fortune. A jillion nurses and wounded, many who often get lines. I imagine you've got to spring for a safety guy on the set if you even have the blades of a chopper spin, and if you have one in flight the expenses skyrocket. Probably why the wounded usually came by truck. All of that even if you don't have visiting brass/journos/etc.

There are a lot of half hour comedys that are easy to do on one set with no extras. MASH seems like it would be the hardest show to reasonably budget and still look like a normal episode.

Anonymous said...

Didnt you already recycle this columns at least once in the last few months? Nice column, but don't start going all Lost on us...