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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. Although, it depends on who you are.

But despite what some suggest, reading a bunch of books on a subject, 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. If I read 5 books on medical practices, would you really want me to operate on you? Probably not.

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.