Friday, August 11, 2006

Do not try this at home

In case you missed it the first time around:

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.


Richard Cooper said...

Dear Mr. Levine:
I am learning more from your blog than from the entire year I spent at USC back in the eighties--I wonder if it's too late to get my tuition money back? Well, at least the football was entertaining.

I have a hilarious spec script for MAGNUM P.I. in which the characters of Apollo and Zeus (the dobermans) are revealed as aliens from the distant planet Murgatroid. You might also be pleased to see that the red Ferrari has been written out and replaced with a more fuel efficient hybrid vehicle, the result of reverse engineering an alien dog "biscuit." It's funnier than it sounds, believe me.

I haven't heard much from Orson Welles lately, so I'll bet we could get him for a song as he's the only actor that can properly play the voice of Robin Masters.

And, sadly, Tom Selleck has to lose the mustache due to the colonoscopy-gone-bad cliff-hanger ending.

(Maybe you were right: don't try this at home…)

Dante Kleinberg said...

I always love hearing these kinds of stories. It makes me feel qualified for a change.

Mystery Man said...

Hee hee hee... I loved this post.

Ya know, a friend asked me why I'm such a stickler about formatting (with respect to screenplays.) I told her that I believe we're entering a new era where the next generation of screenwriters must write at a more heightened level of craftsmanship than ever before simply because of the competition (and the fact that we already have a century of filmmaking behind us). We have to impress the reader with the confidence of our skill, that we are devoted students of craft. Shit sells only if you're in the fertilizing business.