Sep 23

Sitcom Pilot Script – Some Traps and How to Escape

Here are a few sitcom pilot scripts traps I’ve experienced myself, and some potential ways to escape.

This is not an exhaustive list of traps by any means. And I am writing from the perspective of a first-time sitcom pilot script writer. Here’s a little background, and then I’ll go over some traps and escape plans.

I managed to finish writing a draft of my sitcom just after my second son was born. I guess, because, I’m a crazy person. It was a challenge to keep within the required script length, as I’ve only previously written full-length feature scripts. At the time of writing, I have actually completed three drafts.

Trap: Your Story Sucks

However, I have run into a problem. I think, fundamentally, I have a problem with my story. It feels a bit overdone. Unfortunately, I didn’t resolve this problem before I wrote the script. It didn’t seem too much of an issue then, but I realise now that it is.

Escape Plan

Before you begin writing your script, make sure you have really worked on the story as much as you can in the outline stage. Work out your script on 3×5 note cards.

It’s also easier to fix a story at this stage as it’s only about 2 pages or so, rather than a 30-odd page script. It’s the age-old way to fix a script, before it’s written. Get feedback from someone whose opinion you trust. You need someone to be completely honest with you, rather than just saying “yeah that’s great.”

Is it too late, and you’ve already written the script? You’re creative, go back to the drawing board and start over. What you’ve written doesn’t have to be completely thrown away. You might have some good ideas, jokes, character moments, etc in there. But you probably should still go back to the note card stage

Trap: The execution of your script sucks

I’m also not fully in love with the way I executed the script. It doesn’t feel genuine or honest to me. It feels as though I am trying to mimic someone else’s comic sensibility rather than using my own. Granted, I feel I’m still finding out what my comic voice is, but something doesn’t ring true. Some of the script works, some of it doesn’t.

Escape Plan

But sometimes, it’s still easy to gloss over and you can think that the story is in place. Perhaps I needed to rely on my second pair of eyes more, in the form of my wife? Still, fixing a 30-odd page script, is much easier than fixing a 120-page feature film script.

Trap: The jokes are lousy

You wrote what you thought were some killer punchlines, but upon review all you can think is; “urgh, what was I thinking? I’m just not funny anymore.”

Escape Plan

Hold your horses there. It might not be because you’re not funny anymore. You can put placeholder jokes, or what John Vorhaus author of The Comic Toolbox calls “joke-oids” in your script. They look like jokes, but aren’t funny yet. Often they contain the raw material of a joke that a rewrite and polish can bring alive.


I’ve put the third draft of my sitcom pilot to one side for now. It needs an overhaul storywise. Whilst the third draft was the tightest, it seemed to lose its way somewhat. I need to have a rethink about what the story should be, and how to execute it. I also need to spend some time thinking about my sense of humor and if I’m trying to put a square peg in a round hole, and trying to do something that’s unnatural. That’s what it feels like right now.

Aug 22

Breaking Comedy’s DNA: Review

I’ve been on author Jerry Corley’s mailing list for a couple of years now. I really enjoy what he has to say. And there’s a lot to be learned, for free, on his blog. He’s always entertaining and insightful. If you’re not sure who he is, Jerry is a comedy who worked the road for a number of years, and also worked the corporate comedy market. Not only that, but he wrote for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for eight years.

Now, before you think “urgh, Leno? But he sucked.” Well, he obviously didn’t suck for a large number of people because he hosted that show for 17 years. Not only that, just think of how great the competition is to get a job writing on staff. In my experience living in the U.S. these last 6 years, broadly speaking, if a comic isn’t aiming to get their own sitcom or movie career off the ground, they frequently aim for being a performer or writer on SNL or one of the Late Night shows.

Anyhoo, the meat of his teachings can be found in his eBook, Breaking Comedy’s DNA.

I have to say, much of what he spoke about in his eBook, such as reverses, the rule of three, etc, I had come across before. But sometimes it’s useful to read someone else’s explanation of a technique. Someone else’s explanation might provide you with the clarification you’ve been seeking.

However, for me, I felt that some of the sections were a little thin on the ground. I wanted more examples, and more techniques to build some of the jokes. For examples, benign retaliation was brand new to me. It really resonated with me and I really got it. But there was only one example of how to create a comedy bit using this technique. I wanted a couple more ways to create material using benign retaliation. I’m sure they exist.

Also, on Jerry’s blog he analyzes slices of different comedians’ stand-up act. I’ve seen Bill Burr, Amy Schumer, and Daniel Tosh on there so far. Now, whether you like those comics or not, reading the breakdown of a segment of material is super useful. It could even provide you with a structural template for your own comedy bits. But I wanted more of this analysis in the eBook.

He also has two very, very useful videos so you can watch him write jokes. The first is a general one about writing topical jokes, and the second specifically deals with writing material for the corporate comedy market. For me, I wanted either additional videos available via links in the Breaking Comedy’s DNA eBook or maybe transcripts of the videos that he already has on his blog.

I do completely agree with him when he says that as comedians and comedy writers we cannot just always wait for things to happen to us, or for us to observe events before we write comedy about them. That way, you might end up forcing yourself to go on weird adventures or have outrageous experiences just to be able to write about them later.

Instead, we need to be able to create material as well as live our lives and write about them. If you get a job writing for television and you have to wait around to experience life before you can write comedy material bout it, you’re not going to have that job very long.

I’m all for writing about what you know, but I think it’s also useful to write about things that you want to know. For example, I have strong opinions about politics. But by writing about them I get to know and understand better what they are, without necessarily having to wait around for, say, an election.

Earlier in the year, when I bought the book, I wrote a bunch of comedy material following along some of the exercises in Breaking Comedy’s DNA. I found them quite useful. I just need to work on them on a more regular basis in order for them to become second nature.

Personally, I intend to use these techniques for generating comedy material alongside the techniques I already use, and others I am learning at the same time.

Ultimately, I found the Breaking Comedy’s DNA eBook thoroughly enjoyable, even though I was nitpicking a little bit. And at some point I would love to purchase one of Jerry’s Skype comedy coaching sessions. But there are a few other comedy goals I need to complete first. If you’re in the market to purchase a book to learn comedy writing, or stand-up material, you would be wise to purchase this book. Even if you’re a veteran, you might learn a new insight.

Aug 21

Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV: Review

Note: This is a version of a review I posted on Amazon.

I don’t believe you can learn to be funny. Some reading this (when I say some I mean all one of you), will disagree with me. Some suggest you can learn to be funny. In my experience, people like this, myself included, have been stuck using techniques that stifled their own sense of humour. Once they break out of that, and learn to effectively capture their sense of humour, then it seems as though they learned to be funny.

What you can learn, however, are methods to structure your funny.

And that’s exactly what you learn from Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV. So far I have only read as far as the chapter on monologue joke writing, but that’s because I am in post production on an indie feature I wrote and produced last year. And I wanted to write an original sitcom pilot I’d been meaning to write for a while.

Oh, and I’m a stay at home dad to two kids. No biggie. But more about my film in a minute. Anyway, that chapter blew my head clean off with its clarity. I read it in bed, and I woke me wife up with my enthusiasm as I tried to explain my huge paradigm shift, but all she said was “that’s nice”.

I have read 13 books and I have done 2 courses on stand-up comedy and comedy writing. I don’t think this puts me at a disadvantage with doing comedy, as some comedians think. I originally did stand-up for a full year tweaking the same five minutes without any understanding how to judge if it was working at a high enough level, what that high enough level should be, and also how then to move and develop another five minutes.

Some comics are able to latch on to mentors they meet on the circuit, and they can provide them with the hard-earned advice they developed through experience.

I learned my skills by a small set of books that I found worked best for me out of the large number of books I’ve read. I then put those skills into practise both by generating material and by delivering that material in front of audiences.

I have worked as a stand-up, an MC, a sketch comedy writer and performer, and a joke writer. And been paid. I think you do what you can to model what has worked before.

But the problem with a lot of books is they try to cover too much ground. They want to show you how to write jokes, monologues, stand-up, sketch, solo shows, sitcoms, and screenplays. There’s no way one 300 page book can cover all those.

The best ones just focus on one area. That’s exactly what Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV does.

The section on monologue joke writing was the clearest explanation I have ever read. Typically, in other books that cover this, you get lessons on how to pick topics, generate ideas, but then you have figure out how to structure them yourself.

You get something like “the punchline is your own reaction”. Huh? I have to make a sarcastic comment on what I’ve written. But not all comedy’s sarcastic, so then what do I do? Other times, the advice you follow allows you to write a joke for a comedian in 1983. But not now. This book explains how to write contemporary comedy.

Also, you won’t learn exercises that exist by themselves as some comedy writing books have you do. These often leave you scratching your head as you try to figure out how to turn them into comedy material. With Joe’s book, you learn how to write usable comedy material from the get go.

Yes, you will learn the formulas regularly used by late night comedy writers. They are used because of the sheer amount of work involved. You may also think, “this guy wrote for Leno? Urgh, Leno’s not funny.” You may substitute Letterman for Leno in that sentence depending on your preference.

But you know, whatever you think of those guys and their late night perspectives remember in order to work as a writer on those shows, you have to be able to pump out 70-150 jokes (sometimes more) a day. A day.

Some stand-ups write a couple of jokes a day for a year and have an hour long show at the end of it. And if that’s your goal, then great. But that many jokes will get you fired from your late night position.

While volume may seem like a negative, the more you practice the lessons learned in this book, the more your quality level will increase.

Right now, due to time constraints of looking after two kids, I can generally write around 10 jokes. Not enough yet to work at a high level on TV, but a good starting point.

If you want to learn stand-up comedy writing, comedy screenplays, solo shows, or sitcom writing Joe’s book isn’t for you. Sure, the mechanics of laughter are the same, but with those different genres I just mentioned there are other things you need to learn as well.

In Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV, you will learn every facet of producing material for late-night, which not only includes monologue jokes, desk pieces, etc but sketch comedy too. So if sketch comedy is your thing, then you can certainly learn a lot about how to write sketch comedy from this masterful book.

I mentioned earlier about being in post-production on my first screenplay. While I wrote that script before I bought Joe’s book, the techniques I have learned so far and will learn once I finish the book will help me on my next screenplay. The skills you learn are absolutely transferable, whether stand-up comedy is your ultimate goal or screenplays. The skills from this book can help you edit and hone your comedy in both stand-up and script writing.

In case you’re wondering, I do not know Joe and I gain nothing from writing this lengthy testimonial. I refer to him by first name, because of the experience I have had in reading this book so far. It has made me feel like I am getting a personal tutorial. So I feel I can refer to him by his first name, even though I have never met him.

I thoroughly recommend Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV. Buy it, but more importantly, read and implement its lessons.


Aug 21

Not Taking No for an Answer

My second son is nearly 4 months old at time of writing.

I cannot help reflect back three years and think about the crummy guidance a nurse gave us when we had our first son. “Your life is now on hold for the next 18 years”.


Naturally, we panicked.

We felt we hadn’t even scratched the surface of what we wanted to do. My son had only turned two a couple of weeks when we wrapped filming on “Falling for You”, our first feature film.

It took a lot of work and planning to get it all done in 52 days or thereabouts. We shot over evenings and weekends, but we did it. Of course having a second baby is harder than having one.

But that doesn’t mean we have to stop doing, or trying to do, the things we want to do with our lives.

You can find a way. We’re now working on finding a new way whilst still being the best parents we can be.

Don’t take no for an answer.

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:

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.

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