Sunday, April 06, 2008

What spec scripts should you write?

Now that NBC has already announced its schedule for next season (renewing a show because it’ll be co-financed and a spin-off they know nothing about) it’s a reminder that spec script season is pretty much here. If you’re an aspiring writer this is the time of year when agents and show runners looking to staff-up are most receptive to reading new material.

So what should you submit?

I can speak primarily from comedy but the rules for drama are pretty much the same.

It used to be that show runners/agents (let’s just call them THEY) only wanted samples from existing shows. Tony winning playwrights were banging out spec DHARMA & GREGS. If you submitted something original THEY would not look at it.

Things have changed. Now that networks are trying to shake things up (translation: the old tired formulas they’d like to hold on to forever aren’t working anymore) THEY are looking for fresh voices and ideas. But not enough that they don’t also want to see how you operate in the formula world too. You can be daring just as long as you can also write NCIS.

So the new mandate: submit two samples. One from an existing show and something original. It could be a play, screenplay, one-act, series of sketches, or pilot. In the coming weeks I will share some tips on writing pilots. Just keep in mind there is a fine line between “original” and “scary bizarre”.

As for what existing show to write – the overriding rule is pick the show you love and feel best exhibits your strengths. You’re going to do a better job if you really know and understand the show. That said, it’s probably not wise to write a LOST or 24 – any show that has a continuing storyline (although if you have Jack Bauer trying to disarm a bomb while his daughter is kidnapped, there’s a mole in CTU, and the President wants him arrested you have an 89% chance of being right).

Procedural shows like CSI show off little character but if that’s your genre, go for it. I might hire any writer who does a CSI: MIAMI where David Caruso gets whacked.

For comedy – THE OFFICE is probably the hot spec now, followed by ENTOURAGE, 30 ROCK, EARL, and HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER. SCRUBS was big for awhile but has kind of run its course. Shows always on the verge of cancellation tend not to be good bets. TWO AND A HALF MEN and OLD CHRISTINE are more mainstream, UGLY BETTY and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES are hours but contain a lot of humor. What best fits your sensibility?

It’s a gamble but sometimes if you can jump on a new show that you think will be around you’re ahead of the curve and won’t have as much competition from competing specs. The danger of course is that you kill yourself writing an episode of THE RETURN OF JEZEBEL JAMES and it’s cancelled the minute you get the 50 copies back from Kinkos. And I hope you’re not halfway through your CAVEMAN.

New comedies I might spec today are BIG BANG THEORY, SAMANTHA WHO?, and maybe PUSHING DAISIES. If I wanted to go more edgy I’d look towards THE RICHES or FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS.

But again, if RULES OF ENGAGEMENT or TIL’ DEATH is your favorite show, write that.

Some people have written novelty scripts – a spec DICK VAN DYKE SHOW or JEFFERSONS. Agents I’ve talked to think that’s a bad idea. Don’t out-cute yourself right into the reject pile.

Getting your script to agents/showrunners/anyone who can help you is another discussion. But if you don’t have the goods it makes no difference. Concentrate first on writing the best damn scripts you can. Good things will follow.

Every year new writers break in. Why not you?

Best of luck.

Tomorrow: Based on a TV Squad post today -- my answers to the five mysteries of CHEERS.


Bitter Animator said...

For some reason, studios and agents don't ever seem to look in that drawer I keep my scripts in.

Unknown said...

I have got a script where David Caruso is drawn and quartered. Will that do to?

blogward said... about a comedy set in a field hospital in Iraq?

Anonymous said...

I once heard (from a reliable source) that you should NEVER submit a spec script of the show you're trying to write for to the show you're trying to write for because its writers will just focus on what you got wrong about that world they know so well. The advice I got was to write up something for a show with a similar sensibility and submit that.

Is this not true?

Anonymous said...

What makes it hard for me to submit a spec script for anything is geography. It's the same geography that seems to prevent anything new hitting our TV's - our two biggest home-grown drama series have been running for over twenty years, everything else (that isn't news, general interest and some reality programming, which is really our version of another country's reality programming) is taken mostly from the US.

We have three television networks out of a total seven (not including cable channels) that may give a new person a chance to do something different or even a new copy of an old original, but the LCD rule comes into play and unfortunately people are happy to laugh, cry, be happy and be sad all depending on when the big sign tells them to.

I like a lot of shows they play here from the US, and I admire some of the people who make them. I'm sure it's not easy, but it does seem far easier to make something new there than it is here.

Excuse the tangent, I'm annoyed now.

Anonymous said...

Is it near impossible to submit a spec script if you don't live in NY or LA?

Chris L said...

The Star Trek writers have an awesome collection of fan-submitted material. One guy keeps writing about the ship turning into a giant crab. I hope he succeeds one of these days.

By Ken Levine said...

Your chances of selling a spec to the show you've written for are greatly diminished because they know their show so acutely, but it's not impossible. And what do you have to lose? You're sure not going to impress them if you DON'T send a script.

By Ken Levine said...

You can sell a script if you don't live in LA. But once you do it might be best to think about coming out.

Anonymous said...

I'd also heard there were legal reasons producers don't want a script from their own shows. Someone writes (for example) a THREE'S COMPANY spec script where someone overhears part of a conversation and it leads to wacky misunderstandings. Then when a similar episode airs (since that was pretty much every THREE'S COMPANY) the writer accuses the prod co of stealing the idea.

Is this true or folklore as well?

Anonymous said...

I'm always fascinated, when I surf by, about who actually thinks David Caruso can act? Who watches that show?

Why hasn't he been drawn and quartered yet?

Can I read that scrip? Pick me! Pick me!

Anonymous said...

"THREE And A Half Men"
They added a man? Or two halves?


I'm gonna duck outside for a fresh breath of smog.

By Ken Levine said...


I can't believe no one else caught that. Thanks. It's been corrected. Man overboard.

Cali said...

Like, Grant, I've heard that the reasons showrunners won't look at specs for their own show are more legal than creative, for fear of getting sued if they happen to already have a similar idea in the works. So I've heard that it's best to spec a show similar to the one you want to write for.

i.e. If you want to write for Pushing Daisies, spec Ugly Betty or Desperate Housewives.

Anonymous said...

What does the recent strike do to new writers' chances of breaking in?

Annie said...

Ken, thanks for writing this just for me. I will now burn my "Green Acres" spec script in effigy, or Moorpark, whichever is closer.
Sidenote - the proper Irish term is 'HUNG, drawn, & quartered.' When people omit the 'hung' part when referring to Caruso's hoped-for demise, I giggle.

Anonymous said...

annie: re Caruso and "hung" - maybe the NYPD Blue Season One DVD includes some outtakes that settle the question.

Annie said...

jb - Caruso's a soprano? Why don't you go research that and get back to us. I couldn't handle it (shudder).