September 11, 2002
HOW TO BREAK INTO THE WORLD OF SITCOM WRITING By Peter J. Fogel | printable version
Ever watch your favorite sitcom on television and think: "I can write that." Better yet, ever watch a mediocre sitcom and yell back to the screen... "This is so bad... I KNOW I can write better than that." Well, there's a chance you might be able to.
Television writing pays very well. Beginning writers can earn $2500 a week (13 to 26 week contracts). Additional scripts assigned to them can earn an additional $18,000, plus residuals (which vary). Executive producers were all beginning writers once and can demand salaries that reach the high six figures to... millions.
With tenacity and some old fashioned luck you might be able to enter the highly lucrative and competitive world of writing television situation comedies. Get paid the big bucks, hobnob with the stars, and eat catered food that's brought to the set everyday...by some delivery kid who also wants to break into television writing. Yes, everyone wants to do what you're doing. In Hollywood, it's the law.
Before you put a down payment on your Malibu estate and its mudslides (usually included in the price of the house), you're going to have to pay some dues and first write a "spec script." Actually, you're going to need two. (Powers that be want to make sure you're not just a one-script wonder.)
It's your calling card...proof that you can write well, and write funny. And make no mistake, this spec can't be good. It has to be great. The competition for fame, fortune and getting into the Betty Ford center is that fierce. (It's actually easier to get into Betty Ford.) But every day Lady Luck smiles down on someone and a career is made. Why not you?
There's an old saying in Hollywood. You can't teach "funny." And it's true. Either you are, or you're not. And hopefully you'll know it. You can always learn structure, character development, and story. Know your limitations and work to improve upon them.
Common sense dictates you should write a spec script on a show that truly makes you laugh and also one that's an industry favorite, but that hasn't been on very long. No Frasier's, or Just Shoot Me's. They've been on the air for a while. Agents and producers have read literally thousands of them. They'll be biased - and may not read it at all.
Industry people want fresh and new material. Your best bet is a sitcom that's been on at least a season, is a critical hit, and will likely be renewed. Never write a show that is not current. (No Gilligan's Island or The Jeffersons.)
My partner and I were an exception to a rule. Years ago we wrote a spec Cybill. Our agent at the time gave it to his client who was the co-executive producer of the show. Surprisingly enough, he really liked it. One of the reasons was because no one had ever done a spec Cybill before. So it was really fresh. He said if the show came back for another season - we would get a story pitch session to sell them a script idea. Success, right? Nope. As fate would have it - it got cancelled.
But this isn't about my career. It's about yours. Tape the show you want to write at least ten times. Study each episode. Focus on the type of stories they do. Know the characters inside and out and how they relate to one another. Study each character's "individual" voice. If it's a well-written show you'll soon find out that one character's line can't be used for another. On Will & Grace a "Will" line cannot be interchangeable with a "Jack" line. It won't ring true.
Don't repeat a story that's already been done that season. Want to make sure that doesn't happen? Then do your homework. Go on-line. Every hit sitcom usually has an obsessed fan website. The Internet is a wonderful reference tool. Use it. In some instances, you might actually be able to download unformatted scripts from the site as well (i.e. Will and Grace).
Okay. Your story. It should be original. Your spec script must grab the reader in the first ten pages. It must be---as they say in the biz--- a "good" read. You want the agent or producer to want to keep turning the page. A pro knows in the first ten pages if "you've got it" and if they want to continue reading. Or... take your script and toss a "three pointer" into the trashcan with it. Time is a precious commodity in Hollywood.
You need a good story weaved throughout your script. On the other hand, funny dialogue is useless without a good story (and vice a versa). Your story should be original and a tad over the top, so they'll want to talk about it the next day at the water cooler.
It should have lots of crisp, funny dialogue. Although over the top--- it should still be a story that the show could do. In other words, push the envelope. But remember: each show has its own sensibility. A good "Everybody Loves Raymond" story idea will not fly on "Will and Grace." They both are very succinct.
On the Internet, there are a few sitcom writer sites that can give you tips on writing sitcoms. You can also find a few "how to" books. I recommend two. Writing Television Comedy by Jerry Rannow and Successful Sitcom Writing by Jurgen Wolff and L.P. Ferrante. Both can be found on Amazon.com.
These books go into detail about dialogue, structure, and character arcs as well as the "show" business end of breaking into television. There are also websites that tell you where to buy exact scripts from the show that you want to write a spec on.
Once you get the nuts and bolts down of writing down and you're ready to actually write a script, you should purchase scriptwriting software available, which will make your life much easier. I use and recommend Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000 - http://www.screenplay.com. It is excellent and very user friendly. They also have templates of certain sitcoms and one-hour dramas that are on the air. A good site to check out for purchasing scripts of shows that are on the air is http://simplyscripts.com/link.html.
Your spec must be formatted correctly. It must look like it came from the show itself. No distractions here. Don't give the reader a reason to hate your script before they've even read it. A sitcom format is different from a screenplay, which is different from a one-hour drama. And each individual show has its own quirky formatting as well. Try to get as close to original as you can. To stand out, you must be better than the next guy. Sloppy, unprofessional formatting? You're done. D.O.A. End of discussion. Nexxxxxxt!
If your show's actual scripts come in at forty-three pages, then yours should come in at no less than forty-one and no more than forty-eight, not sixty-five. If it does? Red flag! Lots of times a reader will go to the last page of a script just to see how long it is.
Too long and it means you don't know the show and another reason for them to skip to the next script in a pile. Folks in Hollywood read because they have to, not because to want to.
Here is a hint to get your script looking as professional as you can. If you can get a copy of a script from the show itself, photocopy the cover page, which has the show's logo on it. Use it in your script. When someone reads it and sees the exact logo of the show, they are more apt to read it. (Hey, you never know. It worked for me.)
Okay. You have your scripts. You think they're great, but you're not sure. Mom thinks it's "funny as all hell," but she's mom. That's her job. You need unbiased feedback.
If you don't have a friend who's a professional writer to give you notes then you need find a "script doctor" in Hollywood who'll be more than happy to do it for a fee. They can be found in the back of industry magazines - which I recommend you subscribe to. One is Creative Screenwriting - http://www.creativescreenwriting.com.
Your script has to be as perfect as you can get it before it's ready to be sent out. You only get one chance to impress someone enough to hire you. A man once wrote in Hollywood --- "It's not what you know, it's who know..." (I think his name was Anonymous. And I am pretty sure you've read his work before. )
The person you hope will read your script on the show is called the Executive Producer. He's the "show runner." His job is to, uh, --- "to run the show." He most likely has a beautiful Mercedes and his own parking space. I don't know which came first. (The old chicken and the egg story.) But, rest assured, he won't be driving anything remotely domestic.
He is in charge of all creative decisions, such as hearing story pitches, supervising scripts and... hiring his staff of writers. Your script will be read first by his lower chain of command. But the final decision to hiring you will rest with him (or her.) He is the "Great and Powerful Oz," the person to impress. How do you get to him?
One way is try and get invited to the "right" parties in Hollywood where you'll be able to network and "schmooze" him. "Schmooze" is an ancient Hollywood Yiddish term that means: "Make small talk, be extremely friendly, and God-willing you won't see how desperate I am and still offer me work." You have to give this man a reason to hire you.
Get an agent. Agents are a necessary evil --- with the emphasis on "evil." You need them. (That's for another article.) No person of authority will read your script unless you're his friend, a member of his immediate family, or it comes from a sanctioned WGA (Writers Guild of America) agent. Shows will not accept unsolicited scripts from anyone off the street. They don't want to be held liable for theft of ideas.
"Hey, I sent my script to that show and they stole my idea. I'll sue their asses, get a bad rep, and never work in Hollywood again. I'll show them."
It is never a good idea to send a spec script to that particular show that is hiring a staff. Why? The Producers know the show better than you. They know every nuance that you don't.
You won't be able to compete against a show that's written by eight disgruntled, funny, bitter writers that are stuck together fifteen hours a day. It's not a good idea and they will not accept it. (Lawsuits again.)
There are exceptions when a script is so great; the story is so unique, and the agent has a strong relationship with the Show Runner and insists he reads your work. In some cases, "that story" was actually sold to the show (not the script, but the story). It's not unprecedented. I also might add that a white guy won the Slam-Dunk contest in an NBA All-Star Game... once. But I bet you can't name him (Brent Barry).
Okay. Your scripts are in excellent shape and ready to be sent out to an agent. Here's the hard part. For screenwriting --- you can live anywhere in the free world including Cleveland. Television is done in Hollywood. It's a 9-5 gig. And that's where you're going to have to move to... if you're serious. You're Mohammad, now go to the mountain. An agent will not take you on for representation unless you live in the Los Angeles area.
They're not going to invest time with somebody out of state. For now, get a local voicemail # in LA. Hey, Los Angeles is the land of make believe. Make believe you live there. Of course, don't mention this in your query letter. If the agent shows interest and contacts you, let them know that you are seriously thinking of relocating to LA in the future and that you would like to set up a meeting with him... now. Once you meet the agent "schmooze the pants off of him."
You can get a list of WGA agents from the Writers Guild of America West. (323-782-4502) Or the Writers Guild of America East (212-767-7800) when you call ask for the Agency Department. See: http://www.wga.org
Once you get the list, cold call agents and ask them if they are reading unsolicited material. Be nice to the assistant who answers the phone. They're the "gatekeeper" today... but could be an agent tomorrow. Keep it brief. They will explain the procedure.
But please remember that it's very competitive in Hollywood. Sitcom writers like to guard their turf. Tenacity, hard work and "being in the right place and the right time" got these folks hired. So if it can happen to them - if can happen to you. Stay the course and God speed.
PETER FOGEL is a NY based comedian/writer/copywriter who performs around the country. He's appeared on Comedy Central, HBO, and Evening at the Improv. He's also worked on such shows at Married With Children and Unhappily Ever After. Out in LA he was a member of the elite WARNER-BROS. COMEDY WRITER'S WORKSHOP (class of 1999) and is also a WGA member. His material has been quoted in such books as THE COMEDY QUOTE DICTIONARY. He presently writes for Germany's #1 award winning sitcom RITA'S WORLD. (Yes. They have comedy in Germany.) He can be contacted at: CompellingCopy@aol.com