Mar 12

3 Things Before You Write Your Sitcom Pilot

You’ve had an idea for a sitcom. You need to find out not only if it has legs for a pilot but also for a series. Now, you don’t necessarily have to write al the episodes, especially if you’re trying to get an agent. You just need a pilot script. But it would benefit you knowing if it would work as a series. Particularly if you get to the point where someone wants to know more information about it and whether it would work as a series. Or if you decide to produce it yourself.

Here’s what I did.

After exploring the information provided by Dan Harmon on The Hero’s Journey, which I have prior experienced with, as well referencing Ellen Sandler’s book. Both of these are mentioned in a previous post. I after a lot of research, began working an idea for an original sitcom pilot which I’ll call Untitled Jason Peck Pilot (UJPP). Technically, I have 3 ideas for original sitcom pilots, but this is the one that has resonated the most with me right now. I may go through this process again at a later date.

1. Write an Outline

I plotted out an outline. My outline is 2 pages long, as I’ve left in the act the act breakdowns in. I think one page should be enough. And if you need to know, the font is Courier and the size is 12. This is the industry standard. In fact, I used Courier Prime create by screenwriter John August as it’s a little thicker and easier to read than regular Courier. I figured this is only for my information, so what does it matter?

2. Write a Treatment

I then expanded this into a treatment, which is currently 2 pages. I think that’s about the right length. I did this so I am familiar with the process, and so it provides me with enough information I’m not winging it when it comes to writing the script.

3. Write a Series Overview

I also decided to write a series overview. This was originally because I was considering entering into the Sundance Episodic Storytelling program, but I didn’t enter in the end. I didn’t enter because I didn’t want to rush the project for the sake of the contest. However, it provided me with a lot of useful information so I could see if the project has legs for a full series.

Here’s the breakdown of what I included in the 5-page document, which is about the right length:

Premise
Show’s Themes
Central Characters
World of the Series
First Season Episodes: Plot Synopsis
Season One: Story Arcs & Character Arcs
Future Seasons (Broad plot outlines for each season)

This is all useful information to help explore the idea of your sitcom pilot. I am in the position now of having done all this preliminary work, and have now written the Cold Open for my pilot. But, to borrow from Neil Gaiman, I just have to finish the damn thing. Whatever you’re working on just finish it.

Mar 02

Sitcom Writing: Pilots and Specs

I’ve Never Written a Sitcom… Yet

Please note, I am writing this not from experience of being a professional sitcom writer, but from the perspective of having read and researched a lot about it. Not claiming to be an expert by any means. Sure I’ve probably read more books, and websites on the subject than you. But despite what some suggest, that doesn’t make you an authority or an expert. Neither does have a blog that ranks number one on the search engines for certain keywords.

I am simply passing along information that I’ve found, and providing you with some food for thought.

If you want to attempt to become a sitcom writer, then you’ll need sitcom scripts. No excrement Britain’s top fictional consulting detective.

For the longest time, wannabe sitcom writers had to create two spec sitcom scripts based on an existing show. I know this was the case way back in 2000. Now agents and producers want to see original sitcom pilots too. Originally sitcoms created by you. A nice added layer of challenge. However, I’m not sure when this trend changed.

From what I’ve learned it goes in circles. Agents wanted to see original pilots, then they didn’t and now they do again. So this will change again at some point. Here’s what you’ll need:

What Sitcom Scripts are needed?

2x original pilot scripts
2x spec sitcom scripts

A lot of work, isn’t it? Well, not really. The estimated number of pages for a sitcom script is around 30 pages. It varies depending on your source. 4 scripts roughly totals 120 pages, the same length as the average screenplay. If you’ve written a screenplay before, like I have, then in theory you can write 4 sitcom scripts.

In theory, because like life it’s never that straightforward.

For the spec scripts, you have to capture the voice of the show.Usually, you don’t get hired for the show you write a spec for. At time of writing, if you write a spec script for Modern Family, you’re unlikely to get hired to write for that show based on your script no matter how good it is. The writers of that show know it better than you do. But it could help you get hired on a different show like, say, New Girl.

Before you leap into watching Modern Family from the first episode until now, know that this is one of the over-specced show. Check out the blog A TV Calling, it has up-to-date lists on the hot shows to spec. It tells you which shows are over-specced, mainstream (which show scripts are currently being read), wildcards (not quite widespread), outsiders (cable shows), and gamblers (risky shows to spec).

If You’re Not an Expert, who the Hell is?

Ken Levine, he’s one. Now, he may poo-poo me calling him an expert, comedy writers can be like that. Maybe not I don’t know, never met or spoken to the man. However, I’ve been a reader of his blog for a long time though. This guy wrote for “MASH”, “Cheers” (for which he shared an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series), “Frasier”, “The Simpsons”, “Wings”, “Everybody Loves Raymond”, “Becker”, and “Dharma and Greg”. Check out his blog: By Ken Levine.

He also runs a seminar in L.A. called The Sitcom Room, where you get to spend two days living the life of a sitcom writer. It’s frequently sold out. I’m not sure if he’s going to hold another or not. I think it’s a couple of thousand dollars, so it’s well out of my price range. There are lots of cool information on his blog about sitcom writing and other thoughts on TV and life.

Ellen Sandler is another. She wrote for “Coach” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” and has created original television pilots for ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox Family, Oxygen Network, and the Disney Channel. She has a book, The TV Writer’s Workbook, as well as consultation services. I own this book, and while it’s great it leans more towards helping you create a spec script than an original pilot.

Dan Harmon as well. He created “Community”. He has some free information as it relates to The Hero’s Journey. This is something that resonates with me the most as I first read about The Hero’s Journey in 1992/93. Check out his story structure wiki: Dan Harmon: Hero’s Journey.

If you’re in the UK check out the BBC’s Writer’s Lab.

Feb 26

Late Night Talk Show Packet

The talk show packet is supposed to model a late night talk show of your choice. At the time of writing, we have pretty much finished a major shake-up in Late Night TV hosts. As writers, we have to try to capture the unique voice of the show’s host.

Current Late-Night line-up

Across the U.S. networks the hosts are as follows; Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, James Corden, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, and Seth Myers. Some writers often include “The Daily Show” as well, even though the format isn’t strictly the same. In which case, you could probably add “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore”, and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”.

A typical Talk Show Packet contains the following:

Character and commentary monologue
pitch concepts for desk piece
remote ideas
various segment ideas
two parody sketches

I think it would make more sense to write for a show that you enjoy watching, rather one you don’t. This may seem like the sucking eggs analogy, but I do occasionally think about writing something I don’t enjoy. But why would I want to waste my time doing that?

Freelancing?

It used to be, that you could try to submit freelance jokes to Leno and/or Letterman. Faxing in jokes was what the process was called long after people stopped faxing jokes in. If they bought one you’d get $50 from Leno and $75 from Letterman. Probably not out of their pocket though. The concern for some about doing this is that it takes away writing jobs from union writers, because if you’re “faxing in” you’re non-union. I am not sure if that is something that still happens with the new hosts.

Resources

Again there are some brilliant resources out there for learning how to do this. Well, to be honest, I am guessing they’re brilliant as I haven’t actually used them myself. Once again, both iO Chicago and iO West (L.A.) have a course that covers this. The cost of the class is $305 and is 7 weeks long. But I think in order to do it, you have to have completed some of the other classes too. Good for networking, but right now I cannot find any info about the teachers.

There is also a book I am very keen to buy called Comedy Writing for Late Night (not an affiliate link) by Joe Toplyn. He wrote for both Letterman and Leno back in the day. The book is currently priced at $19.69 for the paperback. I think it only comes in paperback.

Not only that, but there’s a workshop you can take with another former writer for Leno and that’s Jerry Corley. His workshop, based in L.A., is The Late-Night TV Comedy Writing Workshop (also not an affiliate link). At the time of writing, it’s $99 for the online version of this course (regular price is $297). The in-person version of this workshop would be good for networking too.

And in case you’re thinking “this guy wrote for Leno?” While I’m not exactly a fan of Leno’s, Corley probably got paid $4,000 a week (at least that’s the current going rate) to be a writer, and he routinely pumps out up to 80-120 jokes a day. If I had the money, I’d take his online class in a heartbeat.

Additionally, in 2014 NBC created a Late Night Writer’s Workshop. It’s every January and, judging from this year’s submission dates, the doors open Jan 1st.  I haven’t submitted yet, as this not something that should be rushed. If you getting admitted, you go to NYC for a workshop and they don’t guarantee you a writing position. If you Google Late Night Writer’s Workshop, you can read about the experiences of people submitting to this workshop. Note that, at time of writing, there is an emphasis on diversity.

Conclusion

For me, personally, I am thinking about picking up a copy of Joe Toplyn’s book, because that’s the only one I can afford right now. Creating a Late-Night Talk Show portfolio is definitely something I’m interested in doing. I think the very process of going through it will make me a better writer.

Other than being able to generate enough material on a consistent basis, some of these resources would teach you how to lay the material out on a page. This is something that is equally as important.

Certainly, having such a portfolio with some of the other additions mentioned in other posts could be a good way for you to land an agent.

But with thousands of comedians and comedy writers submitting to only a handful of shows and hardly any staff writer position openings I’m not going to hold my breath. I’ll probably still apply, but I have o keep things in perspective.

Feb 24

The Sketch Comedy Writer’s Portfolio

Saturday Night Live Writer’s Packet info

This is a follow-up to my previous post.

So here’s a further breakdown of the comedy writing portfolios agents expect you to have. Bear in mind, I don’t have direct experience doing this myself… yet. This is just research that I’ve conducted and figured I’d share. Typically the sketch show packet is modeled after “Saturday Night Live” (SNL).

Here’s the breakdown for you.

SNL packet:

cold open
Host monologue
Weekend update material
Two commercial parody sketches
Digital short
TV show parody sketch
Movie parody sketch
Cast scene with six or more characters

How Do I Learn to Write This Stuff?

There are classes you can take if you live in the U.S. Both iO and Second City teach this stuff.

The iO course, whose website I compiled this list from, takes you through different writing as mentioned in my previous post. Second City, however, only teaches you how to write sketch comedy with a view to creating a revue show. To be clear, I haven’t taken any of the classes.

Saturday Night Live? Really?

Look, if you hate SNL it might be wise to skip this packet. I’m not a fan per se, I certainly watched the show when I was younger. These days my taste is more towards “The Daily Show”. However, they have been running for more than 40 years so they must be doing something right.

I do have experience writing and performing sketch comedy back in the UK and I’ve seen a lot of it both there and here in the US. Right now, I’m not sure if I’m a fan of the medium. I think I’m not a fan because, with something like SNL, the sketches go on too long. 5-7 minutes for a sketch is waaaaaaay too long. And with all the budding comedy writer-performers coming out of Chicago training centres, as well as NYC, L.A. and Toronto there just seems to be too many sketch shows that are the same.

When it gets to nearly ten minutes I think, just write a scene. Or it’s a very under-developed short play. I know it’s not a popular point of view.

I get that perhaps it’s easier to 12 five-minute sketches or 6 ten-minute sketches it fills out the hour timeslot easier than 2-3 minute sketches and once you’ve built a set, on a TV show, you want to get as much use out of it as possible. I get that.

Also, as a performer I prefer performing my own material, rather than have someone else perform it. Unless it’s a stage play or a screenplay.

So, for me, it would be a challenge to be able to just create this packet.

 

Feb 23

What Pro Comedy Writers Are Doing That You’re Not

Other than working and getting paid, I mean.

Here in the U.S. comedy writers are expected to have certain calling cards in order to get work or get an agent, which don’t always go hand in hand.

I’ve procrastinated on my own writing samples long enough. Admittedly it has been tough having a kid, and working a day job whilst trying to leave that day job for something less soul destroying. That and making my first feature film last year.

This is something I’ve wanted to take care of for a while. Not because I want to necessarily work in each of these areas of comedy, some are more appealing to me than others.

But mainly because I think it would be good for me as a comedy writer to know these things and to have experienced writing them. It can only improve my overall writing ability. It may help you too.

What follows is a list of writing samples that the average U.S. comedy writer is supposed to have in his or her portfolio:

– A sketch show packet
– A Talk show packet
– Screenplays
– Sitcom scripts (both original pilots and spec scripts)

If you know this already, then apologies for telling you something you already know.

Anyway, I will break this information down further in future posts. Hopefully.

I don’t know that every single comedy writer or performer has a writing portfolio. But I suspect the vast majority do or did at some point.

If you want to get hired to write for a sitcom, a Late Night show, SNL, or if you want to sell a screenplay then you will need some combination of the above.

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