Monday, February 25, 2008

What is the best way to write a pilot?

Reader Brad from Boston asks: What is the best way to write a pilot? I can’t speak for dramatic pilots since I’ve never written one but here are some thoughts from the trenches on comedy.

First off, there is no easy answer. But here are some pointers:

Make the premise simple – something you can pitch in one or two sentences. If you have to say

it’s about two brothers who were separated at birth and now find out they had a sister by another mother who has a diner that she wants to convert into a pizza place but needs help running it because she’s also an actress at night and is raising five kids, three of them orphans from Africa

then your pilot is dead and you’re dead because you’ve killed yourself trying to write this unwieldy mess.

Make the show about something – I put that in bold because it's important. You know me -- I don't put things in bold haphazardly. Have a theme, a reason for being. Example: THE OFFICE. Trying to survive and find some happiness in a go-nowhere career.

Remember: You have to set up your premise, introduce your characters, establish the tone, and be funny all in the first five minutes. It’s a bitch. Don’t make things harder on yourself by overloading the show with too many characters, too much exposition, a Byzantine story harder to follow than THE BIG SLEEP, or a part for Jim Belushi.

Don't give the girls boys' names and the boys girl' names. It's confusing enough remembering who all the characters are without Sam being a girl and Jan being a guy. And every pilot seems to have a "Kevin". Even if it's set in ancient Rome.

The most common mistake most young pilot writers make is that they over-reach.

It’s part romantic comedy, part workplace comedy, set in a foreign country with its own language and customs. Kinda like ENCHANTED meets THE WIRE”.

Trust me, by page five you're throwing yourself in front of buses.

When Studio and network people read pilots they ask themselves these questions: Do they like the premise? Does the show make them laugh? Do they get a sense of what the series is about and where it’s going?

Where it’s going is especially key. I once helped out a night on a pilot. (Yes, I was the “creative consultant”) It was about midnight and we were bogged down in the story. I said to the creator, “What is episode two of this show?” to which he blurted out, “There is no episode two! Who are we kidding? This show will never get picked up!”

He was right. When you’re developing your show ask yourself: Are there five years worth of stories with this? Don’t write FADE IN until the answer is yes. On the other hand, you don’t need to know all five years worth of stories. We once pitched a pilot and the network president said, “What’s the first show of season seven?” How the hell are we supposed to know that? I said, “The Clip Show because if we’re in season seven we’re a fuckin’ HIT!” And we would’ve been too…if only he didn’t pass on the pilot.

Best of luck with yours.


dub said...

Read your post, and it provided some good laughter as right now I'm sitting in a writers room with three other people working on a pilot. Some good pointers! The show starts shooting Thursday and we've been on some pretty serious 1st act re-writes, 63 of the last 72 hours locked in a room trying our best to be funny...wish us luck!


By Ken Levine said...


A cold breeze went right up my sphincter imagining what you guys are going through.

Best of luck. Let me check if I have some unused jokes from some of my pilots that I can give you guys.

Anonymous said...

I'm gonna chime in and wish you luck too Brad!

Oh, and good post Ken.

Anonymous said...

ENCHANTED meets THE WIRE. Only if Amy Adams's true love is Omar.


I am a Writers' Assistant available to help you guys out immediately. I am located in LA.
Contact me at

Anonymous said...

"or a part for Jim Belushi." should also be in boldface.

Anonymous said...

Great advice as always, Ken. So do you think people are better off writing a single camera comedy pilot or multi-camera one? Single camera has been all the rage of late, but I wonder if the networks are now looking to multi-camera as the way to go as they seem to have larger audiences (to generalize completely.)

Bitter Animator said...

Clip shows make me want to beat someone with a dead fish, but I'm not sure who I beat.

Who do I blame for clip shows?

Tom T said...


You are invited.

Tom T.

Gail Renard said...

Good luck, too, Brad, and let me know if you want someone to write the British Changed Format deal.

Another tip is never make a new series so complex that, for the first five minutes of every episode thereafter, you have to re-explain the premise. "No, you're right, ma'am, there aren't a lot of plumbers with six kids who retrain and become a Catholic priest after losing a bet... out of my way! Someone needs a ballcock and Extreme Unction!"

Tom Quigley said...

Best of Luck and God Bless to everyone working on or developing a pilot right now -- masochist that I am, wish I was out there working with ya!

VP81955 said...

A few years ago, I wrote a pilot and five other episodes about a sitcom writer who happens to be a (male) witch; I viewed it as sort of a retro-style comedy with wit, ideally blending the charm of "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" with the sensibility of "Frasier."

Needless to say, no one bought the concept.

LouOCNY said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LouOCNY said...

oh...and good luck brad!

LouOCNY said...

Bitter Animator said...

Clip shows make me want to beat someone with a dead fish, but I'm not sure who I beat.

Who do I blame for clip shows?

Not all clip shows are created equally! One of the best was Barney Miller's tribute to Jack Soo, after he had died from cancer. Instead of an awkward story line, they simply had the cast come on as themselves, and reminisce about not only the character, but about the person as well. An intensely moving half hour which set the bar very high not only for clip shows, but on how to handle a cast member's passing.

Lane said...

ballcock is never not funny

Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. Renard,

Despite the cruel and excessive abuse I have suffered on this site over the course of several days, I must applaud your pilot-writing caveat this morning. Based on my recent success, we are proud to announce a backend deal to launch my very own two personal fragrances Ballcock #5 and Ultra-Extreme Unction. As such, we now consider these brands proprietary.

Diablo Cody
Water Closet Productions, Van Nuys

As further discouragement from attempting any pilot involving this subject matter, I would only call your attention to the following advice as to the level of difficulty involved, taken from Robert McKee’s popular Principles of Plumbing and Style of Screenwriting:
Step 3: If the ballcock assembly is sealed, replace it as a unit. Loosen the coupling nut to free the water inlet pipe. Then use an adjustable wrench to grip the retaining nut immediately above the sip nut. Use another wrench to grip the base of the ballcock assembly shaft. Unscrew the locknut to remove the ballcock assembly. If the nut is stubborn, use penetrating oil to loosen it. Keep the old parts until you’ve installed the new ballcock assembly in case new parts are damaged during installation. Note On many older ballcock assemblies, a pair of thumbscrews holds the valve plunger. You will have to unscrew them to remove the valve.”

Hey, works for me.

Mary Stella said...

This is great!
Someone needs a ballcock and Extreme Unction!

What's the working title for this pilot? Flush and Faith

Northern Renter said...

Mary Stella,
How about "Holy Water"?


Gail Renard said...

Well it was "Pope Pipe" when I stole it from Mel Brooks.

Anonymous said...

Good luck, Brad.

And especially good luck if you don't name one of your female characters "Sidney" or "Sydney."

It's been done. And done. And done...

(And I won't even start in this season's "Chuck" fixation.)

Emily Blake said...

Hey, don't knock Kevin.

I used to live across the street from St. Kevin's Catholic church. Kevin is a saint, dude. And he rocks.

Anonymous said...

after reading today's post,at least 5 guys are now working on their treatment for a sitcom about brothers separated at birth

Anonymous said...

WOW! An Oscar winning poster! Ken, you have really arrived.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget to explain that making up a new show is NOT the way you break in the business. People should know that you build a track record working on shows others have created, and then you might get the opportunity to create something new.

People don't want to hear this, I know, but we should not be encouraging the sort of people who say "I've got this great idea for a show. You write it up, and we'll split the money!"

I tried to explain this to someone once, and he got indignant. He told me "Everyone knows that great ideas are currency in this town!"

Anonymous said...

Another possible title for the plumber turned priest show: "Throne of God."

Tom Quigley said...

...'Well it was "Pope Pipe" when I stole it from Mel Brooks"...

If Mel Brooks had anything to do with it, it probably started out as "Hail Mary, full of gurgle-de-glunk-de-swish"...

Anonymous said...

Whatever you do, please don't write another sitcom about a young guy who moves to a new city / apartment / job just because he met a girl there he likes, only to find out afterward that she's married / engaged / involved / gay. That's been done eight billion times already.

Oh, right, I said that like it's a bad thing. You'll probably get a full-season commitment.

Anonymous said...

Hey Brad, here's an unused joke from one of Ken's pilots:


Cap'n Bob said...

Yeah, the Frech's are famous for that.

Anonymous said...

If you want an immediate laugh, go to Google. Type in: French military victories. Then click "I'm feeling lucky," and see what it asks you next. Report back.

While in HS, our daughter taught horseback riding entirely in French to the children of people who were working here in Dallas for Alcatel. I joked that the great thing about French horseback riding is that when you're finished you can eat the horse. She is a vegan and no longer likes me.

Joey H said...

Please don't stop writing parts for Jim Belushi. I teach at his alma mater and we need his money.

Mary Stella said...

a. buck short said:
If you want an immediate laugh, go to Google. Type in: French military victories. Then click "I'm feeling lucky," and see what it asks you next. Report back.

It asks if we meant French military defeats. That's great!

Now if only my Google stock would go back up in price. Sacre bleu! *le sigh*

Anonymous said...

As a Brit, I have to say that the French Military Victories google search is the funniest thing I've seen in days. Thanks for that!

SilverGoldfish said...

Wow, great post! Very funny and extremely informative. I'm a hope-to-be television screenwriter, so this kind of advice is priceless.
I actually have a question too: I'm trying to send out a few scripts to be read (How I met your mother, Glee, Psych, Fringe, etc) and to attach a resume to so I can inquire about available intern/p.a jobs--any advice? I'm having trouble getting ahold of the right people and their contact, so I could use some advice in this area if you're willing! :) Thanks!