Saturday, March 15, 2008

Notes from the front: our pilot pitch meetings

Now that the strike is over writers are beginning to come up with pilot ideas for next season. To help get you in the mood, here are a few things that happened to me and my partner during some of our network pitch sessions:

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 1976 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 had two shows on the air last season with that exact same premise I’d say just pick up our show instead. Unfortunately, 30 ROCK is better than our show, and half of our cast is now dead.

Tomorrow: What if a major Hollywood studio gave notes on JUNO?


Anonymous said...

Is 1975 a typo? Last year you wrote about BAY CITY AMUSEMENT COMPANY, "Ohmygod, what a mess! It aired on July 28, 1977." Since SNL only went on the air in fall 1975, that would mean you dreamed up, wrote, and sold the pilot in what remained of 1975, and then it wasn't aired until summer 1977. Is that correct? (sorry, I'm an editor)

By Ken Levine said...

In double checking, we sold BAY CITY AMUSEMENT COMPANY in the fall of 76, it filmed in early 77 and aired that summer as part of Failure Theatre.

Anonymous said...

I think if they aired a show today that was a behind-the-scenes look at "SNL" in 1977, it would be a huge hit. Matthew Perry could play the one guy who's not on drugs.

Bitter Animator said...

80s Man - The coolest party guy in 1982 falls asleep behind a couch. He wakes up in 1986 and totally out of touch. How does he survive?

Minute Man - A man lives one minute in the future somehow. It's like Radar O'Reilly crossed with Quantum Leap and that show about the newspaper.

Dead Detectives - an otherworldly sitcom featuring the detectives who died in Homicide: Life on the Street. Features time travel.

Man, I'd be so good at this pitching thing. That's three sales right there.

Anonymous said...

Ken, I'm curious what you think of this new "ordering straight to series" thing the networks are doing. Well, I guess it's not "new" new, but being used more at the moment for several reasons. Seems like a big risk to me, but I'm just John Q. Public, so what do I know?

Also, I'm curious what the on-site fan reaction has been over there in China? Looking forward to the BoSox stuff here, although I wish the Angels will still our last pre-season exhibition.

Unknown said...

Sounds tacky but I LOLed when I read the 1 yard line bit :-)

(you know how you always write "LOL" when somebody says something funny and don't actually laugh out loud - well I did and my brother then asked me what was so funny :-D )

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

i guess the only way to answer the question about what happens on the first show of the seventh season is to say,
"Why do you ask? Were you planning on re-negotiating already? cause we were planning on going out on Top like Newhart after the 6th.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Yeah, that 'dead' thing sure gets in the way of casting now and then...

Anonymous said...

you had me at "mr. peepers."

i wondered which series took place between midnight and six - john larroquette's? - so i had to look it up.

was it "open all night"? with cassandra peterson (elvira)? the review over at IMDB says it was ahead of its time, so of course it was cancelled. not sure how i missed it, tv geek that i am.

another good column, ken!

Anonymous said...

[yo, barefoot billy - great web site. great voice.]

Anonymous said...

According to IMDB, "Mr. Peepers" was created by David Swift, with writers including Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, and Robert Alan Arthur.

Today's networks should have such talent in regular supply. Alive, of course.

Anonymous said...

barefoot billy aloha said: "Yeah, that 'dead' thing sure gets in the way of casting now and then..."

Hey, it hasn't stopped the career of Abe Vigoda.

Mike Barer said...

I had to look twice to make sure I was on the write blog! lol I think the "Unsold" book was the first of many of Lee's books.

Tim W. said...

Ken, just out of interest, how many pilots HAVE you sold? And how many made it to air besides Almost Perfect?

Alto2 said...

Sports Night! I want Sports Night back or something like it. The cast was phenomenal. The writing was witty and clever. And it was over in a wink. ::sniff::

Bob Bourne said...

Just a minute here. James Fritzell, your fellow writer from M*A*S*H wrote a good thirty episodes of Mister Peepers!

By Ken Levine said...

I love Jim Fritzell. But the point is he was thirty years older than me.