Sunday, September 24, 2006

Pitching pilots

It’s the sitcom pilot pitching time of the year.

For the next few months those of us TV writers lucky enough to be invited will schlep over to the networks and pitch our pilot ideas. It’s the comedy version of GLENGARY GLENROSS.

You generally meet with the director of comedy, or VP of comedy, or Lt. Colonel of comedy and three or four underlings. One of the underlings will be holding a pad and taking notes of your pitch. Don’t dismiss this person as someone insignificant. Four years from now she’ll be running the CW. You, on the other hand, will be flanked with a studio rep (or six), a non-writing producer (the style de jour), and maybe an agent. When I was with CAA they always sent an agent. And it was always someone I had never met. He invariably would walk into the meeting and tell the network honcho that we had an “idea that would blow him away” even though he had no idea what the idea was.

After some small talk where everyone tries to impress everyone else with what great foodies we all are, it’s time to launch into the pitch. You lay out the premise, characters, sample stories, and try to make them laugh throughout. Some will, they’ll be rockin’ and rollin’. Others will stare at you blankly like you just ran over their kitty. It’s been described as playing tennis against a blanket. Same pitch. Same jokes. Same delivery. Totally different reactions.

But just because you have the network enthralled and coughing up blood from laughter doesn’t mean they’ll buy it. And likewise, one that is dying a horrible death could be the one you sell right there in the room. Most of the time they will tell you they’ll discuss it and get back to you. That generally means they have to pitch it to their boss who will then make the decision. So you can imagine how sparkling the pitch will be second hand from the tennis blanket.

A few things that have happened to my partner and I during pitch meetings –

We had to pitch a pilot the day after 9-11. The VP cried. (We sold it)

We pitched ABC (years and many executives ago) and started with a joke. We said we had an idea that was tailor made for their network. We called in “Tuesday Night Football”. The girl with the pad was writing it down as if we were serious. (We didn’t sell the idea or TNF that day.)

Our PA on CHEERS who used to get us lunch became the VP of comedy at a major network. We had to pitch our PA. (No sale. But we were offered drinks.)

The comedy VP (who later became the president of that network) once asked us “What is the opening episode of the seventh season?” Huh??? How the fuck do you answer that? We said “the clip show, featuring all the highlights of the many Emmy winning episodes.” (No sale)

This happened several times: The VP hears our pitch then says they bought something just like it only yesterday. But if it’s any consolation ours is better. Oh yeah. Tremendous consolation. That’s like “if I hadn’t met your brother first I would have slept with you.”

We were overseeing two young writers. The studio rep began the meeting by introducing all of us to the network people by saying, “So with Ken & David we have the old with the new.” Jesus! Why not just say, “we went over to the broadcast museum and dug up the guys who wrote MR. PEEPERS”?

We had a great pitch once. The VP called to say it’s not final but we were on “the one yard line”. Turns out we hit a tough goal line stance. And the clock ran out.

We pitched a show that took place between midnight and six. The network said, “We LOVE it. We’ll buy it. Only one small alternation. Can it not take place between midnight and six?” Uh, then what are you buying? They weren’t sure but they liked the area. (No sale there but we did sell it elsewhere.)

Easiest pitch we ever had -- David Isaacs, Robin Schiff, and I went into CBS to pitch ALMOST PERFECT. We said, “a young woman – on the day she gets the job of her life meets the guy of her life. How does she juggle the two?” SOLD. Just like that.

And finally, how original do the ideas have to be? In 1975 we sold our first pilot to NBC. It was called BAY CITY AMUSEMENT COMPANY. The premise was a behind-the-scenes look at SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Considering they have two shows on the air this season with that exact same premise I’d say just pick up our show instead. Unfortunately, half of our cast is now dead.


Richard Cooper said...

You probably couldn't sell Bay City Amusement Company because you were trumped by another "Bay" (Bay Watch) and its bronzed bikini babes.

I pitch new ideas everyday, but the bartender at the Cowgirl keeps telling me she's not buying this season.

Anonymous said...

Ken, could you tell me who played the main characters on "Almost Perfect"? I'm trying to remember the show but I can't, and IMDB for some reason I can't fathom does not list the characters of Kim and Mike in the full cast list. Here's the link:

Anonymous said...

Nancy Travis and Kevin Kilner;cast

Anonymous said...

Nancy Travis and Kevin Kilner;cast

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Alan! I think I'm remembering it now...

BrianScully said...

To paraphrase what the Kevin Spacey character said in "Swimming With Sharks", "They're not dead... they're just unavailable."

Tenspeed & Brownshoe said...

The easiest pitch I've ever done was to MTV. I said it was a reality show about the rapper Foxy Brown.

We started shooting within a week.

But then the network realized it was a show about Foxy Brown and shut down production after a month.


Anonymous said...

Every time I hear about "Almost Perfect", I'm sad to think of what should have been. That show should have run 7 years on the network, and lived on in syndication forever. I understand that it was CBS that wanted to drop Kevin Kilner for the second season. The premise was completely gone, and the show died about 4 episodes later. What a shame.

Dwacon said...

Damn Ken, now I'm going to have to watch TV Land (or prolly ALN Network) to try and find an episode of Mister Peepers.

Dante Kleinberg said...

The opening episode of the seventh season is the one with all the stunt casting.

Colin Hanks is the wacky cousin, Lisa Kudrow comes out of retirement to play the ghost of the neighbor...

Anonymous said...

Re: constance are right.

Why does IMDB feel the need to screw up a very nice, useful website?

Everytime they change things around, they make it that much worse.

ceastwood said...

I am always so hopeful at pilot season, then so disappointed at staffing season.

Has anyone ever actually pitched, "This is a load of crap and won't even see October" and sold it?

I have to believe that has happened... I have to

Anonymous said...

I have a really great idea for a show on BET and I was just wondering if someone can tell me, how to go about pitching my idea to the network? What are the first steps?