Thursday, February 02, 2012

How to create a series that lasts more than six episodes

Here’s another one of those Friday Questions that warrants its own dedicated post.

Andy Cook wrote in to say:

When creating a new show to pitch to a network, how do you test whether that idea (the location, situation, characters etc) has legs?

Do you have any techniques to check if you’ll run out of ideas 6 shows in? Is it simply a case of coming up with a long list of ideas and if so, how many would you start with on a show?

The first question I ask is “what is this show ABOUT”? Unless there’s some theme, some basic value or issue then you just have a bunch of people trading jokes in various settings. What are your characters trying to achieve? What do you as a writer want to SAY?

30 ROCK is ultimately about a woman trying to succeed in a man’s world. BIG BANG THEORY – how do social outcasts get along in society?  During your pitch, if you’re can say in a sentence, “This show is about…” then you’re on your way.

Also, I build series around relationships, not settings. Then you can ask the question, how much mileage will you get out of this relationship? Again, 30 ROCK – the Liz/Jack relationship is the center of the show. He’s her mentor, antagonist, friend, father-figure. There are layers. Quite often sitcom relationships are one-note or one joke. He’s a guy who likes fantasy football. Period. She hates football. Period. Try getting seven years out of that.

Conflict is a key element. Your lead vs. other leads. Or your lead vs. the world. Or your lead vs. himself. A lot of writers make the mistake of just building a show around a workplace. I can’t tell you how many times people have approached me and said, “I work in a bakery. You should do a show in a bakery. You can’t believe the funny things that happen in a bakery.” That’s not a show. That’s a place.

THE OFFICE is about working drones trying to find some measure of happiness in a drab existence. It’s not about pranks or that crazy night when they had to fill a big order. We follow the characters – how they annoy each other, compete with each other, fall in love with each other.

Make the premise as open-ended as you can. There was a show on ABC a few years ago about a group of idiots trying to rob a celebrity. What are you going to do episode ten, much less one hundred? There was another show that all took place during one wedding day. You’ve got to leave yourself some room going in.

Remember that TV characters can only evolve at a glacier’s pace. If your antagonist learns his lesson in the pilot you’ve got nowhere to go. So make sure your characters have issues and flaws and objectives that will take time to resolve.

And then comes the big question: How do I make this funny? Is there a built-in absurdity to the world you’re creating? Or are there enough funny things that audiences can relate to to justify this comedy? EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND was a great example of that. You laughed because you experienced the exact same things the Barones did.

And finally, if you can find original characters, a setting we haven’t seen before, or a style that’s a little off-center – that wouldn't hurt.

Once all of those tiny questions are answered THEN come up with stories for future episodes. If you can bang out seven or eight with relative ease you’ve good. If you find yourself stumped after two pour yourself a scotch and go back to the drawing board.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Well, it IS. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration. But at least you now KNOW the factors. Hopefully that will give you a leg up.

Best of luck!  As always, thank me when you win an Emmy.


Chris said...

Does the network ask you about future episodes and how many stories do you think you have or do they just order episodes if they like the pilot and it tests well?

ithor6 said...

I loved KNIGHTS OF PROSPERITY! At the end, they had switched from robbing Mick Jagger to robbing Ray Romano, but there's no way they could have kept that up for years. It had good characters. I think they could have survived moving away from the premise, but they unfortunately never had the chance.

Terrence Moss said...

I'm seeing a lot of shows that get picked up to pilot or actually make it on the air that should actually be limited series of about 6 to 10 episodes.

Development executives, particularly at FOX and ABC with the high-concepts, clearly don't know any of these rules.

Max Clarke said...

Using that approach, Ken, what was Cheers about?

Anonymous said...

KNIGHTS OF PROSPERITY was a good show! Similar to COUGARTOWN, I think they could have moved from the central/initial concept and had some room to grow.

Also introduced us to Sophia Vergara.


Anonymous said...

Similarly, Prison Break had trouble with that over it several seasons. Spoiler Alert: after breaking out of prison the first season, they really faltered in season 2. Putting them back into prison for season 3 (this time in South America!) was a bit of a groaner, and when the TV-movie conclusion aired (this time, it's a women's prison, and they have to help his girlfriend break out!), the show should have been done for a lot longer.

Brian Phillips said...

Friday question: ( Emmy. Thank you, Ken Levine! They spelled my name "Parsons" again.) I've been watching a lot of "Frasier" lately. In the first season, I've noticed applause after some of the jokes. In later years, no applause. The script quality was certainly quite good for many years, but why is the reaction different?

Tom Quigley said...

The premise of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was pretty close to that of 30 ROCK, in that it dealt with a young woman who was trying to succeed in a man's world.

More specifically, it was about a young woman who had just recently gotten out of a bad relationship (no, not her marriage to Dick Van Dyke -- or Rob Petrie, if you prefer! -- which is why the producers wanted her to be single from the start, and not divorced) who had moved to Minneapolis and began working in what was traditionally a male-dominated business in order to make a new life for herself.

Every element about the show's premise -- her new city, her new job, her new home and especially the new people she lived and dealt with all provided endless possibilities for stories or backgrounds for stories.

wv: cetti -- the Italian version of the search for extraterrestrial life?

Jim said...

a show that all took place during one wedding day? That would be the British series A Bit Of A Do, which set the opening episode at a wedding reception then followed the same group of characters through a series of big social occasions (dos, if you don't speak Brit, hence the title) over a couple of years.

Of course being British there were only thirteen episodes in total, all written by one man, the very highly thought of David Nobbs. If you want to get an idea of his work then try tracking down his book Second From Last in the Sack Race too.

Mike Doran said...

Knights Of Prosperity was more or less a direct steal from Donald E. Westlake's Dortmunder novels, several of which had been filmed with varying degrees of unsuccess.
The basic idea of the Dortmunders was that a gang of thieves could come up with the most brilliant plan for a crime - and then have so many things go wrong at the most mundane level. Putting it another way, Dortmunder and his gang had more talent and less luck than anybody.
The major mistake made by KOP's writers was making all the characters stupid. After a while, I started yelling at the TV "Not that way, Dummy! This way!!!". That gets to be frustrating.

Don Westlake wrote about twenty Dortmunder novels and almost as many shorter stories (I could be wrong on the count - correction welcomed), so coming up with stories would not necessarily be a problem.
The problem would be that there just aren't that many Don Westlakes around to write those stories.
And since Westlake passed on New Year's Eve of 2008, there's been one less.

Matt said...

Ken, thank you so much for this post. I've been trying to come up with my own pilot checklist forever and this is so helpful. Much appreciated.

Brian Doan said...

Ken, here's a potential Friday question:

A couple of weeks ago, Katherine Heigl announced that she'd be open to returning (I suppose as a guest appearance, although she didn't specify) to GREY'S ANATOMY. I mention this because I know you've talked about her on the blog before, but also because I was wondering if departed actors on shows you were a part of ever made similar requests. For instance, I know Shelly Long came back for the series finale of CHEERS, but were there ever overtures or requests from her (or her management) to have her appear again before that? Or actors on MASH or other shows? And did it ever go the other way-- did you ever think of a great story for a character who'd left and ask that actor if he/she would like to return to do it?

Johnny Walker said...

This is an AMAZING post. Everybody starting out should read it. When I've worked with other people trying come up with ideas for shows, these are precisely the pitfalls you fall into.

One thing I would add (which is pretty impertinent of me, I know, but it's something I've noticed after listening to other established writers) is that it's quite a good idea if you can get a "family" out of your characters.

As Ken noted, there's a sort of "father/daughter" dynamic between Liz and Jack in 30 Rock, and if you look at other successful shows, you do tend to see familial relationships between the core characters.

Harkaway said...


I think Big Day was based on The Worst Day of My Life, a BBC comedy that starred Ben Miller and Sarah Alexander. It was followed by The Worst Christmas in My Life, but only 17 episodes all told. It was created by Mark Bussell & Justin Sbresni.

I wouldn't be surprised if they were inspired by David Nobbs' A Bit of a Do. He's a brilliant writer whose The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin remains a highwater mark of British television.

Film Buff Rich said...

I’ll do you one better than the show about a group of guys planning on robbing a celebrity for a limiting premise. Several years back Comedy Central had a short-lived series called “Frank Leaves For The Orient.” It ran for six episodes. The basic idea, as I recall, was that the show would chronicle a week in the life of a man who has decided to give up his worldly possessions and move to Tibet. The first season of six-episodes was just the first day of that week. I watched the whole run and was intrigued as to how they were going to continue it if it had gotten picked up for additional seasons, which it didn’t. I’m guessing that the entire seventh season would have taken place in an airport departure lounge or something. I have to admit that I am attracted to shows that have limited-sounding premises just to see if the writers can do something interesting in such a confined story space.

tb said...

"Up All Night" - What are they thinking, exactly? They don't WANT to stay on the air?

Jake Mabe said...

Re: Actors asking to come back to series, per Brian's question: I bet McLean Stevenson *wished* he could have come back to "M*A*S*H," especially after "Hello, Larry."

Chris said...

Friday question: Seinfeld was famous for not having a writers' room, do you know of any other shows this has happened on? (Peter Mehlman said it was the only show he knew of where you had to come up with your own stories and scripts). How much time does a writer usually have to go from outline to script?

You can call me Owl said...

This actually leads to a question I intended to ask as a Friday question one day soon, but I guess I'll make it today.

We talk about a show working or not working. Do you feel that when something works or doesn't work, one can always, by dissection, find the things that make it work or not work?

Or is there some intangible layer to "works" and "doesn't work" where even something that seems like it should work because every piece of it works, somehow, as a whole, doesn't work, for no reason that anyone can pinpoint?

wv is "viabl" by the way

gottacook said...

Mike Doran: Did you enjoy the 1972 adaptation (by William Goldman) of the Dortmunder story The Hot Rock? I did, but I'd be interested to hear why you didn't (if you didn't).

Larry said...

Sometimes to sell something you've got to have a high concept or at least a twist. Otherwise, the suits will stare at you blankly. The irony is the twist gets you the pilot, but you've sometimes got to move beyond it to make the show work.

The best example might be Bosom Buddies. Putting them in the dresses got the show made, but getting them back into men's clothes made the show work better.

A smaller example is Seinfeld. I just bet it was sold with a pitch about "we'll see how his comedy act relates to his real life, and vice versa"--until the show realized the act only slows things down.

Paul Duca said...

Tom Quigley...Mary Richards was supposed to be divorced, but the network put the kibosh on that. Some say it would make people think she left Rob Petrie, while another. more blunt comment was that "People will not watch divorcees, people with mustaches, and Jews" (changed to "New Yorkers" in some versions).

WV: adsman--the person who may be the happiest to see a series last more than six episodes

Mike said...

I'm not Ken (I don't even play him on TV), but Brian Phillips, I think I can answer your question about Frasier. Maybe. I've heard it's because James Burrows was the house director for season one (and most of season two), and he liked bigger reactions from the studio audience, such as louder laughs, applause. (Not Married with Children type reactions, with all the raucous cheering whenever anyone would enter a scene, just mainly louder laughs and applause.) Then after he left, the newer directors favored a softer approach.

But I was thinking about that just now. Wouldn't it be the call of the showrunner as to how loud the studio audience reaction is, and not that of the director? As great as James Burrows is, he was never the showrunner of Frasier, as far as I know. Maybe because he was James freakin' Burrows the showrunners deferred to his tastes or something?


Mike Doran said...


Of all the Dortmunder adaptations, The Hot Rock was the best - by default.

Robert Redford was completely mis cast as Dortmunder; he was too young and handsome(at the time) and played the part way too seriously.

George Segal was OK as Kelp, but really, he should have played Dortmunder, with Paul Sand as Kelp.

Ron Leibman was perfect as Stan Murch, and the rest of the casting was OK.

Most importantly, Goldman's script stuck closely to Westlake's original as closely as "70s moviemaking would allow. I missed Chefwick and his trains, and I'd have loved to see the raid on the mental hospital ... but you can't have everything.

Of all the actors who played Dortmunder (or his equivalent), the one who came closest to what I think Westlake had in mind was probably George C. Scott in Bank Shot, but that one was sunk by a bad script.
Honorable Mention to Christopher Lloyd, who was inWhy Me? - but played the wrong part (the mistake the movie guys keep making is casting leading men as Dortmunder; a character man would be a far better choice {Westlake's own choice was Harry Dean Stanton}).
In the name of mercy, I won't mention any of the others.