Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Which show to spec?

Yesterday I discussed whether writing a spec script from an existing show was necessary.  You can find it here. I'll save you some scrolling.  Today I’m going to talk about which show to write.

Just as Friday Questions have become a feature on this blog, which spec to write could be a weekly feature as well. That’s because the answer changes almost hourly.

I’ve actually addressed this question before several times and all of those posts are now completely obsolete. Shows change, needs change, and time marches on. A spec you wrote two years ago could be completely useless today. (I told you not to write a spec MULANEY.) Hot shows cool off. Or worse, everybody writes specs for them.

So here are a couple of general guidelines:

Write in the style that you feel best shows off your strengths. If you’re a dramedy person, write one of those. If you can really pull off comedy then go for a show that is really funny. I will say that if you’re trying to get into half-hours, writers who can make you laugh on the page have a huge advantage. Dramedies are no easier to write than comedies. They just require different skills. So again, what genre best fits YOUR sensibilities?

Unless you’re trying to get a job in animation (which is a thriving field), I would avoid writing a spec animated series or at least also have a live-action spec. If someone writes a hilarious live-action spec I have no doubt he can also do animation. But if someone writes an uproarious animated spec that doesn’t tell me he can write real people and grounded situations.

Most new comedies today are talent driven. The star or stars also write the series. LOUIE, MASTER OF NONE, CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, BROAD CITY, etc. Those tend to be difficult to write because you’re trying to mimic a very specific voice.

Another problem is some comedy series are serialized. How do you write one when you don’t know what the showrunner has in mind? For me the answer is just pick a spot in the series and go. Readers understand you’re not privy to the ongoing development of these shows. They’re more interested in the quality of your writing.

Pick a show that is on the rise. What shows are hot? Now is not the time to write a NEW GIRL. Or MINDY PROJECT. The shelf life of your script will be very short.

Some shows are considered sexier than others. LAST MAN STANDING and DR. KEN are not sexy shows. Unless that is the genre really in your wheelhouse, try to find something a little hipper.

Beware of new shows on obscure channels or streaming services. If the reader has never heard of the show you’re specing he probably won’t read it.

And finally, may I offer some advice that totally goes against what most people tell you? The general rule is you don’t write a spec for the show you really want to work on because the producers know that show so much better than you and every fault will stick out. Producers from other shows won’t be bothered by these flaws.

I say write it anyway. It’s the show you know best, the show you like the best, and probably the show you will write the best. Yes, the showrunner will detect minor inconsistencies, but if you can really capture the voice and spirit of the show he probably will be able to overlook the red flags.

So go for it. On the comedy side -- if you’re thinking mainstream and networks there’s BLACKISH, THE GOLDBERGS, FRESH OFF THE BOAT, MOM. MODERN FAMILY and BIG BANG THEORY may be on the downside. Probably best to avoid.

For cable and streaming there’s SILICON VALLEY, VEEP, KIMMY SCHMIDT, SHAMELESS. Edgier fare might be DIFFICULT PEOPLE, YOU’RE THE WORST (when it’s being funny), CATASTROPHE, and BASKETS (although a lot of people don’t think it’s a comedy).

And by the way, these are just SOME of the shows in these genres. If you want to write a MOZART IN THE JUNGLE, don’t avoid it just because I didn’t mention it.

It’s harder for me to suggest which is the best dramedy to write. Not my thing. But TRANSPARENT and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK are always worthy.

I’m sure I’m leaving out ten good candidates. But you get the idea. At the end of the day, you have to feel most comfortable. And you’re the one doing the work. Do the spec you’d have the most fun with.

And as always, best of luck.   Someone has to break in.  Why not you?  


David Schwartz said...

While I'm a therapist these days, I spent over 10 years as an animation writer and can tell you that the idea that if you can write live action, you can also write animation is not necessarily true. When you write for live action, you write dialogue and minimal stage directions for specific comedic moments or scene setting. When writing animation, you have to write every bit of action that takes place so that the storyboard artists can visualize and draw the things that you have described.

While I never worked on the Simpsons, so I don't know how directive their scripts were, on all of the animated series I worked on, every bit of action had to be articulated in a detailed, clear way. This included camera angles, scene descriptions, character movements, even down to facial expressions. So while I agree that if someone can write a killer comedy script, they can adapt their dialogue skills to animation writing, it doesn't necessarily mean that they can visualize and break down their scenes into a director's script which is what is necessary in the field. So if a person is trying to break into animation writing, they really need to study animated scripts specifically, as they are quite different from live action scripting.

Zappa the Unholy said...

I've been tempted to take a run at writing a Lucha Underground but they're not guaranteed a 4th season yet. It also has the pitfalls of being "that guy who thinks he can book a promotion" when what I'd rather focus on is the storyline segments. Best show on tv right now.

VP81955 said...

That was a period following "Mom," right? For a second, you had me concerned that my favorite sitcom was on the downside, along with "Modern Family" and "The Big Bang Theory." Whew!

McC said...

I'd switch 'Speechless' for 'The Goldbergs'. As much as I enjoy The Goldbergs, the kids are starting to age out in its fourth season, while Speechless is in its first season and is just as funny.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this positive, upbeat and encouraging post Ken.


Unknown said...

Master of None is GREAT!

MikeN said...

Friday Question, what is wrong with doing a spec for a show that is not hip?
So what if I did How I Met Your Mother spec back when you said it was the zeitgeist?
Why can't I submit that, or right now submit a spec Frasier?
The reader will know the show, and isn't the point to demonstrate writing ability?

Steve said...

Ken, a few questions, if I may:

1. So someone at these shows is *actually* reading these scripts? I had always heard it's kind of a waste of time to write specs for existing shows, because the producers/writers are (among other things) already paranoid about being accused of plagiarism, and will just send you back your package unopened.

2. Are there any shows in particular which you would say are "friendlier" to specs and new writers? IMHO I could write a great "Simpsons," but I'm sure my spec would only be the 9 billionth one they've received.

3. Would you consider spec writing, even if it turns out a bust, a good prep for feature film writing? I admit I think I would, it's easier to fill 22 pages than 100 and you learn how to pack in the gags and action, but OTOH sitcoms, network TV and features are quite the different beasts.

Okay, thanks in advance. Feel free to use one or more of these in your Friday questions if you want. Have a great holiday season and happy 2017! :-)

DBA said...

MikeN, it's not about being "hip", it's about being current. Some things may be timeless, but generally they want to know you didn't just spend 10 years perfecting that one HIMYM and haven't done anything else since. If you're writing a current show it also proves your sample is something you did relatively recently. You have the luxury of a lot more time to polish a spec than you would on staff, but if your script is ancient, it looks like you can't do anything else or aren't doing anything else.

Charles H. Bryan said...

I'm tempted recommend X-FILES -- they never stop bringing it back every so often.

I'll keep GUNSMOKE 2063 to myself.

Matt said...


Just noticed "Making M*A*S*H" found its way to YouTube. We didn't have a VCR yet when this first aired. I taped it on audio cassette and haven't seen it since 1981.