Tuesday, February 22, 2011

More pilot writing advice

My post on pilots last week generated a lot of comments and questions. One reader astutely noted that a lot pilots, like THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW have their main character get a job in the first episode. This is called a “Premise Pilot”.

There are several advantages to Premise Pilots. You have a built-in story and you need a minimum of exposition. HOT IN CLEVELAND. In the pilot we see the main characters land, discover with them that they’re considered hot commodities, understand just why they decide to stay, and get the added bonus of meeting the Betty White character when they move into a new place. Imagine how much harder it would be to just begin the series with everybody already in place then having to somehow verbalize all that backstory. “Remember when that flight we were on experienced turbulence and we had to land in Cleveland and…” Ugh!!!

Here’s the problem with Premise Pilots: the networks have gotten wise to them. A Premise Pilot will generally test better than a typical episode. Why? Take BETWITCHED for example. In the pilot Darren meets Samantha and learns she’s a witch. You get his initial reaction. He has to come to grips with what that means. We meet her mother who hates him. Darren has to decide whether to commit to Sam or just move on. Name me a bigger decision he’ll ever have to make during the course of the series. Name me a bigger surprise he’ll ever have than learning that the woman he loves can turn people into hamsters.

There’s a reason why in practically every romantic comedy we see how the two lovers meet. It’s just good storytelling.

For a few years the networks insisted on no Premise Pilots. But the creators ran into that pesky exposition problem. Eventually they went back to Premise Pilots when they realized the finished product was just that much better.

My partner, David and I encountered an even bigger writing problem. We were doing a pilot for NBC set in the world of improv comedy. Our initial idea was to have the two leads (a man and woman) meet on stage doing an improv together. They realize there’s incredible chemistry between them. So they decide to work together and we’re off and running. The moron network suit said we couldn’t open the show in the club. He said that Fred Silverman (then the president of NBC) hates shows that begin in the workplace. We had to do the first scene in her apartment.

So now we start at this apartment of a woman we don’t know. A man we don’t know enters. They have to explain the concept of what improvisational comedy is. He has to say that they had magic chemistry together, even though we haven’t seen it for ourselves. And he has to convince her to team up with him, a la Nichols & May. Holy shit! It took us forever.

We finally turned in the script and heard NBC was luke warm about it. We drove to Burbank to get notes for a second draft. This time it was Brandon Tartikoff who conducted the meeting. He was Silverman’s number two guy back then. He started by saying, “Let me ask you guys a question. Why did you start in the apartment? Wouldn’t it be better to start the show in the club and just see how everything plays out instead of just hearing about it?” We both almost kissed him.   We explained why we did it that way and he just shook his head. “Do it the right way,” he said. Other than that he really didn’t have many notes.

We thanked him profusely, went home, rewrote the first two scenes in about an hour, and turned it in a couple of days later. NBC greenlit the show. We went back to Burbank to meet with the casting department and encountered the moron. He said to us, “Boy, I don’t know what you guys did, but you really turned this thing around”. That’s the last conversation I ever had with that cretin.

But getting back to you, if you’re writing a spec pilot, is it okay to do a Premise Pilot or are you better off doing an episode where everything is already in place? If your pilot works as a stand-alone episode then great. No worries. But if you’re best served with a Premise Pilot, I say do it. Again, you’re probably not going to sell this. It’s a writing sample. So make it as easy on yourself and the reader as possible. The idea is to impress people, not get accurate test results. Your biggest problem should be that you do sell the pilot and the network wants you to write a non-premise version instead. In the meantime, do the show where your main character gets the job so you can get the job. Best of luck!


Manodogs said...

As always, excellent and practical advice, but I have a question:

What if your premise is literally just backstory, which is pretty easily explained?

For instance, a show about raising kids and running a business set in the family-owned hardware store -- it seems to me all of this can be established very easily each episode. I can think of several more examples, but you know the kind of show I mean.

Should you make a Premise Pilot from this, even if it's largely just padding, or just go with it?


Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Yeah, I definitely prefer premise pilots. I like having a tangible story that I can use as a way to introduce the characters and not have to worry about exposition and backstory.

But this approach seems to work better on a show like Lost, where the island mythology drives the characters. Sitcoms and shows with stand-alone episodes can afford some exposition.

I liked The Simpsons pilot the best. It just did a burglar nanny story that let the characters shine, without getting bogged down on introduction. And we slowly got to know the secondary characters as the episodes progressed.

I think the Friends pilot had a bit of the original exposition problem. It introduced Rachel on the coffee house and only made references to her dumping the fiancée (we never saw the wedding; I know it's a budget conscious three-set sitcom and all, but still; at least the jokes were good and it was a well directed pilot).

On the other hand, Modern Family showed much of the adoption process through the eyes of Mitchell and Cameron, adding up to the scene where they introduce Lily to the extended families. That was a smart approach to their pilot, and it set the tone for the show right away (it took a while for The Simpsons to find its own).

Max Clarke said...

When Phil Rosenthal was writing the pilot for Everybody Loves Raymond, he ran into the same problem. His boss at the network rejected one or two ideas as "too premisey", then told Phil he had doubts if Phil could do the show.

Phil called his boss back with a simple idea -it's his wife's birthday and they don't want the parents visiting on what should be their night alone- and that was accepted.

The premise pilot would have been better.

There's a value to the premise episode if the show ever goes into syndication. It becomes the first chapter of a book you're reading again.

Before DVDs were released for Cheers, when it was broadcast locally on KTVU, it was fun to see them wrap up the final episode of Cheers and return to Give Me A Ring Sometime. We got to see Diane Chambers enter Cheers for her first time, accompanied by B.U. professor of world literature Sumner Sloan.

Larry said...

Woody Allen once wrote a TV pilot that dealt with improv. I don't think it was picked up and he later used some of that material in Take The Money And Run.

Robala said...

Friday question: How many pilots will a network allow for a new show? For instance, I know that there two previous pilots for "All in the Family" (with two other actors cast as Mike and Gloria) and another pilot for the "Bob Newhart Show" where Jerry wasn't a dentist but in practice with Bob.

Phillip B said...

I've always been hung up on point of view, and always looking for the character who provides us a consistent entry into the "crazy" world and "zany antics' of the other characters.

Shifting points of view are seems difficult. Over the run of Friends, the story was amazingly consistent - this was all stuff that happened to Rachel and her group. The show starts when she enters and she eventually exits (kind of) and the show ends.

"Mr. Ed" - for a weird example - is told from the point of view of Wilbur, and since he doubts his own sanity you can too. It almost justifies the premise - except for those shows where the horse tries out for the Dodgers!

I'd argue that "The Simpsons" started telling stories from Bart's point of view and largely shifted to Homer's view point as the Dad emerged as the main character. This was an incredibly important cultural event - worthy now of a really boring academic study.

"Cheers" starts when Diane Chambers walks into the bar. of course, but it is not her story. Sam Malone gets to turn out the lights at the end...

Anonymous said...

The classic David Janssen series "The Fugitive" had an interesting pilot episode -- it began with Dr. Richard Kimble already on the run for six months. Later in the series they did an episode which filled in all the back-story with flashbacks. Fans still debate whether this was the right approach, or if the series should have begun by showing Helen Kimble's murder, the trial, the escape and so on.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Okay, but if you are not writing a premise pilot, should the pilot be the first episode? I have run anto a couple of executive who insisted on seeing the eight episode or so... which was always impossible for me, because whatever I did, I always ended up writing the first episode. Maybe not always a premise pilot, but always the first. Because as a writer I get to meet the characters for the first time as well.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Note to the previous comment... on my most recent series, we had one of the characters grandmom die. That was such a great part and the shock of her dying worked so well, that we decided to add three previous episodes, making the grandmom into a character that is important for our main character... and it worked out very well. But we still wrote the new first episode first, because all that was decided at plot level (and the series was sold at plot level as well).

Jaime J. Weinman said...

A non-sitcom example is Remington Steele, where NBC insisted that the creators not do a premise pilot but do a regular episode that showed how the very high-concept premise (a stranger assumes the identity of the nonexistent detective a female P.I. created so she could get cases) would work in a regular story.

Then when NBC accepted the pilot, they asked the creators to do a premise episode which would run first, and ran the original pilot as the second episode.

Both decisions were actually pretty sensible on NBC's part, though.

TVDUDE said...

The Simpsons pilot was them getting their dog, not the nanny episode. It was an X-Mas episode and the characters had already been established for a while on the Tracy Ulman Show.

benson said...

Got to thinking about some pilots from classic tv, and some did and some didn't use a premise pilot.

Lucy, I don't think did. Dick Van Dyke, not really. MTM, yes. Frasier, yes, brilliantly. MASH I don't think did, but didn't need to. Seinfeld, how can a show about nothing have a premise pilot?

Jaime J. Weinman said...

TVDude -- The Christmas episode was the first one aired, but the nanny episode was the first one written and produced. It was held back because the animation was not up to snuff, so while it was the first produced, it was the 13th to be aired because of all the re-takes required.

Animated sitcoms can't usually have full-fledged pilots because they take so long to produce, so the network has to commit to 13 episodes before seeing a finished episode. There might be a short pilot presentation, or, in the case of "The Simpsons," the short cartoons from the Ullman show.

GRayR said...

Best blog, best writing on a blog, like your stuff a lot.

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Brian Doan said...

Ken, maybe a question for Friday, riffing on the anecdote you told-- what was it like working with Brandon Tartikoff? When you worked on CHEERS, did you come in to contact with him a lot? Especially since his passing, there seems to be a legend that's grown up around him, as one of the last TV execs to fill both the "creative" and "business" sides of the job. Did you find that to be true? Sorry if you've answered this before!

Brian Doan said...

Oh, and thanks for the post a week or two ago about the ARTHUR remake-- I read it, followed back your links to posts on Steve Gordon, then watched the original version on Netflix Instant (I'd seen parts of it as a kid on TV, but was too young to really get it back then). What a spectacular movie-- so beautifully written and paced, and Dudley Moore is a wonder (and I liked him a lot already). My only "complaint"-- which I really mean as a compliment-- is that I thought it was almost too short-- at 97 minutes, it could have kept going and I would've loved it. More Gielguld, more Moore!

Waihesia said...

Hi Ken - completely off topic, but I wonder if your legion of readers are aware of the powerful earthquake that hit the South Island of New Zealand yesterday.
Today the are 75 people confirmed dead, and at least 300 still missing. This is not a movie. This is real life and death. If anyone reading this is in a position to donate to help us come back from this tragedy, please use the link below.

Thank you.



analee said...

Thanks for the advice and intelligent post.

You're always doing a great job.

Mac said...

Great advice. Thanks. I'm wrestling with this very dilemma at the moment so that's useful to hear.

Anonymous said...

Your blog teaches me so much about a field I know so little. I just know what I think is funny.

One of the funniest scenes (and it still makes me chuckle) was when Danny DeVito was introduced in Taxi (and if memory serves, it was the premise pilot - a term I never knew existed).

Funny is regional. I remember going to see an early Woody Allen movie in Norfolk, Va. I was the only one laughing in the theater.

I also remember going to a theater in my home town and laughed during Blood Simple. The woman in front of me turned around and told me I was mentally ill - there was nothing funny in that movie.

So when you write, do you write for yourself or do you write for an audience in middle america?

Unknown said...

What advice would you give to the gang at "Mr. Sunshine."

I really want to like this show - Matthew Perry was my favorite on Studio 60, Alison Janney was great on West Wing, Thomas Schlamme did great work on both of those and Sportsnight.

Is the only thing missing Aaron Sorkin?

Unknown said...

What an amazing insight! I'm mostly a fiction/novel/short story writer, but I have tried my hand at scripts on occasion. It's interesting to see some of the politics and plot involved in writing for television. I've never thought myself quite creative enough to be able to write for TV because I don't think I could write something new once a week! Thanks for the tips, though!