Breaking into sitcom writing is a daunting task. As Mort Scharfman, the Director of Development at Epigram Studios and former staff writer for shows such as All in the Family and Too Close for Comfort put it, “The only key to the Hollywood door is three things: submit, submit, submit.” However, submitting isn’t as easy as it sounds. Before you can submit a spec script to an agent, you must get permission from the agency. Agents almost never read unsolicited submissions.
Querying an agent is the only way to get an agent to look at a spec script. Unfortunately, agents may receive hundreds of query letters each week from aspiring sitcom writers. Querying over the phone is the best way to get an agent to look at your script.
Here are several steps to successfully querying your spec scripts over the phone:
1. Know what a successful phone query is.
A successful phone query is an agreement to read one of your spec scripts. No agent will represent a new, unproven writer without seeing at least one, if not two, of your spec scripts.
2. Do your research.
Compile a list of agents from the WGA West website. The WGA West website does not list which agency represents sitcom writers. You’ll have to find out which agencies represent sitcom writers when making your calls (or from books listing literary agencies). However, it does list the phone numbers and addresses of agents and, more importantly, tells you which agencies represent new writers.
You should put the agencies that represent new writers and the ones that indicate they’ll accept a letter of inquiry, at the top of your list, but do not rule out the other agencies. “Any agent who is a Guild Signatory and who represents sitcom writers should be on your list,” comedy writer and script consultant, Evan Smith, points out in Writing Television Sitcoms.
3. Have a logline ready for each of your spec scripts.
If you haven’t done so already, write a logline for each of your spec scripts. Your logline should be a very brief 1-3 sentence synopsis of your script. Scharfman adds, “A model logline to emulate is Neil Simon’s Odd Couple synopsis: ‘Two men estranged from their wives become roommates and end up undergoing the same domestic trials and quarrels each had with his former spouse.'”
4. Rehearse a brief introductory speech and your loglines.
Make sure the person you are speaking to knows why you’re calling. This sounds obvious but agencies will try to get you off the phone as fast as possible. For example, “My name is Brad Manzo and I’m a sitcom writer seeking representation. I was wondering if I could pitch you a logline for a Scrubs spec script that’s going to make your day.” If they say yes, go right into your best logline.
Keep a cheatsheet with your loglines handy in case you get nervous. To overcome nervousness and to hone your pitch, Scharfman recommends, “testing your pitch on five agents only. The number who consider untried talent is small and you want to be certain you’re doing your eloquent best before presenting to the lot of them.”
5. Pitch your best script’s log line.
Always pitch your best script. If you’re not sure which one is best, get a second opinion from a mentor or another writer.
Occasionally, agents will tell you they don’t want to read spec scripts from certain shows. As Smith points out, “They are looking for ways to screen you out and get you off the phone.” In this case, pitch your next best script or the script most suited to their interests.
6. Be clever or funny.
Query letters should show cleverness and your phone pitch should, too. Keep in mind, though, “It better be good comedy or they’ll be quick to dismiss you. Agents and assistants don’t have patience,” Smith says.
They also don’t want hear what a great writer you are. “Query without pomposity or conceit,” Scharfman says. If you are a great writer, it will be apparent in your scripts.
7. Try to get the agent to agree to read your script.
It may take a few phone calls but if they agree, get that person’s name (you’ll need to mention this person’s name in an accompanying cover letter, when sending your script). It can be an agent, or an assistant. “However, once someone agrees to read your script, get off the phone. You don’t want to lose the sale,” Smith says.
8. Compile a list of responses.
Create a list, or spreadsheet, that has each agent as well as the date(s) contacted and the exact response. Typical responses can vary from “we prefer a letter of inquiry” to “try us again in 6 months.”
If they ask for a letter of inquiry, “send a very brief, very good query letter. Then call in a week (ostensibly) to see if the assistant received the letter, and again try to talk him into letting you submit a complete script,” Smith wrote in Writing Television Sitcoms.
Evan Smith summed it up best in Writing Television Sitcoms, “If you are serious about launching your career, you need every advantage you can get. The sooner you land an agent, the sooner you can stop chasing agents. So, use the phone.”
Brad Manzo has written for several magazines including Writers’ Journal, the Writer, and Writer’s Digest. His spec script for The Simpsons was a finalist in the TV/Movie category of the 72nd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. When not writing, he teaches technical writing at Hofstra University. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.