Wednesday, July 06, 2011

50 ways to get a script assignments

Opportunities don’t come along very often. You've gotta take advantage.

When David and I were starting out, our first sale was to THE JEFFERSONS. The story editors had liked our spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and invited us to pitch stories. If the producers responded to one of them we would get an assignment.

The ground rules: Each story had to be no longer than one paragraph. Basically loglines, the type you used to see in TV Guide when there was a TV Guide. And you could only pitch three stories.

Back then you could actually make a living as a freelance writer. Shows had smaller staffs and left a lot assignments open for freelancers. That and the sexual revolution were the two best features of the ‘70s. So THE JEFFERSONS invited quite a few people in to pitch. Giving each writer three shots seemed fair. 

We pitched our three stories. The story editors liked one and passed it up the line to the producers. A week later we get a call. The producers didn’t buy our story. Shit!

But we were invited back to pitch three more. Which we did. And they liked one of them. Again, it was passed up the line. And this time the producers responded favorably. We got our first assignment!

Flash forward a few months. Among the other clients at the agency that represented us was Gene Reynolds, the showrunner of MASH. Our agents submitted our draft of THE JEFFERSONS and Gene liked it well enough to invite us in for a general meeting. George Jefferson is so similar to Hawkeye that if you can write one show it just stands to reason you can write the other.

We did feel we could write MASH, primarily because we had both spent some time in the army and had a good handle on that world and its idiocy. The meeting was lovely. Gene loaded us down with research material and said he’d be happy to entertain some story pitches from us. As we left, I asked how many? He shrugged and said, “I dunno.  As many as you got.”

A week later we were back in his office. And we had prepared fifty story notions. That’s right. 5-0. Given this once-in-a-lifetime chance to write a MASH there was no way we were going to walk out of that room without an assignment.

Gene liked two of the first ten and put them together. After that he stopped us. His head was exploding. We got the assignment. (It was the episode where the gas heater exploded and Hawkeye was temporarily blind. (Sorry. I should’ve said SPOILER ALERT.)

Now you may think that with fifty story ideas, selling at least one would be a cinch.  We thought so, too.  But no. 

Another show we got to pitch was MAUDE. There they let us come in with ten stories. Same deal as with THE JEFFERSONS (same company). The story editor liked one of our ideas but the producers above him nixed it. This happened five separate times. So we were 0-50 with MAUDE.

Meanwhile, on MASH, we wrote three episodes for them that season, and the following year we were brought aboard as story editors. We moved up the chain eventually to head writers. And I would say over the next couple of years we probably did 39 of the 50 ideas we originally pitched. Hey, we liked them when we came up with them; we liked them two years later.

The point is, whatever the opportunity – pitching shows, pilots, interviewing for PA positions or mailroom gigs, or whatever – do the maximum. And then do a lot more. Show more initiative than anyone else in the room. And never lose that mindset.  I’ve since become friends with that story editor from MAUDE and damn it, we’re still going to get as assignment on that freaking show!


Betty May Knows Nobody said...

This brings up the question of how did you get that first spec to the producers of MTM and did you have an agent before you made that spec and how did you get him/her?

benson said...

George Jefferson is so similar to Hawkeye that if you can write one show it just stands to reason you can write the other.

Needed a laugh today. Thanks.

Debby G said...

Great to hear perseverance pays off!

I also am an over-achiever. I was once asked to pitch a new novel in an already existing series of books. The publisher asked for a summary of the main characters and plot. I gave them three different summaries, with different character sketches and plot ideas for each of the three. I got the gig, turned in the manuscript a month early, and was hired to write a sequel to that book and then my own book series.

Breadbaker said...

I'm awaiting this inevitable scene in the inevitable updating of "My Favorite Year" or "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" set in LA in the 70s on the thinly disguised M*A*S*H set ("what do you mean, it's M*A*S*H, this is the Air Force and those aren't asterisks, they're ampersands!").

We already know what Ken and David looked like, too.

So the thinly disguised Gene Reynolds sits through all 50 pitches and then asks, "So what else you got?"

Andy said...

Did (do) you have any particular techniques to generate the 50 story ideas?

Paul Duca said...

"And then there's Maude...NOT!"

Brian said...

Ken, you have mentioned several times that you got your first writting assignment on The Jeffersons. What was the story line and how did you come up with it?
(Friday Question)

gottacook said...

A few days ago I happened to see (on Ion, a channel we started receiving over-the-air after the digital broadcast changeover) the MASH episode in which Hawkeye is blinded. I last saw it many years before your blog began. One nice thing about the atmosphere you've created here - and I hope this is true for readers who are in the business, too, although I'm not - is that one can watch this episode, enjoy it, and not be envious, but instead get a taste of what it must have felt like to see the credit "written by," followed by your names, at the start of a MASH episode. In your 20s, yet.

I haven't the time to search past entries, but have you written in any detail about Gene Reynolds? Do you know anything about the circumstances under which he left MASH to produce/write/direct LOU GRANT (which I consider a damn good series)?

Kirk said...

I have a SPOILER ALERT of my own, concerning the Hawkeye-goes-blind episode.

At the very end of the episode, the tag ending, Hawkeye, who's eye sight's since returned, walks into the nurses tent and tells them he's had a relapse, that he's blind again. One of the nurses, suspecting he's faking just so he can watch them all undress, throws a ball or something at him. Hawkeye catches it, the nurses realize he's faking, and chase him out. Here's my question. His eyes are bandaged in the tag ending. Even if he's faking, he's still shouldn't be able to see anything. How in the world did he catch the ball?

Galen Sisco Kid said...

And then there's...Adrienne Barbeau. I'll bet no first-time viewer ever mistook Adrienne for Maude. Did you ever do any ALL IN THE FAMILY episode(s)?

What's David doing these days?

Is it ok if I mention Dan Raley's book on your blog's comment section? I won't do it (beyond what I just said) unless you say it's ok since it is your blog!

M's coming on the AM radio, shortly, then heading your way. If things get slow and one team gets way ahead of the other team this weekend, maybe you could start reading from your book, starting on page 102? But read slowly so my lips don't chap. (That's a bit Radar-esque.) Adieu!

Bob Gassel said...


Your final writing credit for MASH was “Goodbye Radar”, apparently written as the 7th season finale but held back (at the network’s request) til the 8th season. Did Gary Burghoff or anyone have special requests for the episode in terms of storyline or particular scenes? And by the time the episode was produced you and David were no longer the head writers, did the new regime tinker with your script at all? Any other tidbits?

Blair Ivey said...

The first part of the last paragraph reminded ome of your graduation day 'address' post. You could ditch the whole thing, as could every other speaker, and just speak those few sentences, and the world would be a much better place. Marry that advice with Woody Allen's take on success, and you'll be a world-beater. It works. I know.

fred said...

Maude would be so similar to Sarah Palin...just stands to reason.
they both just say what ever pops up in their pea brain. only one problem,some people thinks that's cool.

ghanistha said...

Getting an assignment right, and in accordance with the demands of the professor is a daunting task. Good writing assignments always start with a clear goal that the teacher can express, usually on the assignment sheet so that students understand the goal as well.

Assignment Help

mike said...

The hope here is that homeboy realizes that Maude is/was a fictional, scripted character, and Ms. Palin is/was an actual person who some believe is qualified to run the country.

cityslkrz said...

Ken, wasn't that the episode where Hawkeye mentions that falling rain sounds like a steak on a BBQ? I always remembered that reference.