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.

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.

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.

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.

Dec 07

It’s Behind You! The Christmas Panto

Panto Day image

Today is Panto Day! The Christmas Pantomime is that curious British tradition of a family comedy variety show where the Principal Boy is played by a woman, and the middle-aged spinster, known as the Dame, is played by a man. Pantomimes, or Pantos for short, usually incorporate singing, dancing, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, topical references, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo.

Brief, Brief History

Over the last 40 years or so, in order to help keep shows selling out, it has become popular for many shows to use C- and D- list TV celebrities, pop stars and now old Hollywood film and TV actors. There have also been times where panto has become the performance retirement home for once popular comedy stars from British television’s heyday.

Sadly, this, along with recycled, hoary jokes, has given panto a bad reputation of being tacky and many people in the British theatre industry look down upon the art form. The difficulty is two-fold; the first comes from the panto writers and actors trying to keep the traditional comedy routines alive by handing them down to the next generation. The second difficulty lies with the theatres trying to make enough money to stay afloat, so resorting to various celebrities.

Part of the fun of Panto lies with the audience being familiar with the old comic routines and jokes and they are often disappointed when they don’t feature. The problem with this comes when there are jokes made about targets from the 1970s or 1980s that are just no longer considered funny. Derogatory jokes against homosexuals or slightly dubious racist/sexist jokes crept into scripts written during that time period, but the scripts were probably not updated to remove those jokes so, sadly, many pantos in Great Britain continue to use that material.

Even some of what Abbott and Costello did, were classic routines that many comedians before them had used. They just perfected and honed them and made them their own. It would be difficult for a double act to perform the “Who’s on First” routine without being compared to Abbott and Costello or feeling like they were being ripped off. Even some of Charlie Chaplin’s early comedies were filmed versions of sketches he performed live in British Music Hall; I am all for preservation of comic routines and finding ways to make them relevant for a modern audience. But one has to be careful of not attacking an old target.

Participation

There are also key moments of audience interaction such as when a character onstage says something like “Oh no I shouldn’t” the audience is encouraged by the other actors to reply “Oh yes you should”; or variations of that phrase. There is also the participatory line “it’s behind you”, which the audience get to shout out when there’s a scary creature or another character behind one who is already on stage.

Having seen a number of pantomimes in my youth, I am still a relative newcomer when it comes to performing in them. Early in my career I played Hansel in a touring production of “Hansel & Gretel” and also Ernie the Elf in a touring production of “Sleeping Beauty”. Yeah, I don’t remember that character appearing in the original story either…

The Archetypes

The Principal Boy role usually played by a woman and the Comic Lead played by a Man who has a lot of interaction with the audience. Each of us performed characters that blurred those traditional panto archetypes as there were only three actors in each show.

Although there have been productions of shows such as Cinderella since the late 1800s, this type of Entertainment is still little-known in the United States. According to my research there have been intermittent productions in California, with more regular shows performed in Ghent, New York and Evanston, Illinois.

In late 2012 I played the role of the Dame in a production of “Bah, Humbug!” for Piccolo Theatre
in Evanston. Like the PantoLoons Bah Humbug the Pantoproduction company in Ghent, Piccolo were in their 12th season with their annual Panto. The archetype of the Dame is sometimes referred to as the Principal Comedian and is played by a man. On the right, that’s me as Belle Bakewell the Dame in “Bah, Humbug!”

Pantomime Dame vs. Drag Act

A common misconception is that the Dame is drag act; it’s not. The documentary from the early 1980s, “The Art of the Pantomime Dame”, talked about how the Dame is a man trying to be a woman, but failing. A drag act tries to be successful as a woman.

If the make-up and costume are too perfect the character tips over into being a drag act. In my mind, what hasn’t help the misconception over the years is when drag acts such as Danny LaRue, Paul O’Grady and Dame Edna Everage have played the role. It gets a bit confusing.

There need to be subtle reminders that the performer is a bloke in a dress, without going so far has having facial hair. Legendary Panto Dame, Berwick Kaler, manages to achieve this with his annual shows at the York Theatre Royal. While he wears the outrageous dresses, he doesn’t wear make-up.

“It’s Behind You”

If you have the opportunity to see a pantomime then I would highly recommend it. As Sir Ian McKellen, who twice played Widow Twankey in Aladdin, once said: “Panto has everything theatrical – song, dance, verse, slapstick, soliloquy, audience participation, spectacle, cross-dressing and a good plot, strong on morality and romance – what more could you want from a family outing?”

To learn more about Panto online check out: Celebrate Panto (which talks more about Panto Day) and also It’s Behind You, which was a great resource when I was doing research for Dame.)

Picture courtesy of REP3 Photography

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