Before I regale you with observations from our recent foray to New York, I want to clean up the debris on my desk and in my brain concerning issues related to sitcom pilots, spec, premise and otherwise. I received some disagreeing feedback on these subjects, and rather than moving on, I find myself reflexively digging in, defending my attitudinal and point-of-viewdinal turf.
I don’t know…“but I’ve been told”…writers breaking in are now being asked to provide, along with spec scripts for current series, an original spec pilot script. Before I give in and say, “If that’s what they want, then that’s what’s they want”, let me first observe that, to me, the requirement of a spec pilot script makes an understandable but miniscule amount of sense.
Asking a starting-out writer to write a pilot script is like asking an intern to perform brain surgery, minus the life-and-death concerns, and the breaking the bad news to the families. Meaning it’s not really that serious. But it is, to my way of thinking, equally unreasonable.
INTERN: “I don’t know what they expected. I just bought my ‘scrubs’ yesterday.”
Before I wrote a pilot, and only then because I was invited to do so by a network executive – okay, so I’m not aggressive and I wait for things to come to me, but may I move on to the point I am trying to make here? Thank you.
Before writing my first pilot, I had worked on network television shows for seven years, and had written close to thirty episodes produced on half-hour series such as: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Phyllis, The Tony Randall Show, The Betty White Show and Taxi. In addition, I had also written for two Emmy nominated specials starring Lily Tomlin, one of which won. (The other of which lost to various colorful pieces of felt, otherwise known as The Muppets.)
So I’d done stuff, okay?
But that’s not the point: Earning your stripes. Working your way up. Paying your dues. That’s not what I’m talking about. Although, you know, there may be something to that as well. I mean, wait your turn, eh?
What I am talking about is the prerequisite of an essential and priceless education derived from working on established shows before attempting to (even on spec) create from scratch a series of your own.
As an episode writer, you have the opportunity to learn from your betters, regularly participating in story meetings where you can you observe first-hand how the experts handle the essential elements of the process:
How to structure a story, building organically to its climax and its ultimate resolution.
How to move the story along, rejecting extraneous, albeit hilarious, side-trips.
How to exclude jokes, albethey hilarious– if there’s an albeit, why not an albethey? – that obliterate character.
How to write scripts to fit the time allowance for the episode – not nineteen pages, not a hundred and twelve.
Which leads to:
How to cut your favorite joke, because, from a clear-eyed perspective, it slows down the story. (This is often referred to as “killing your babies.”)
How to favor the series “regulars”, rather than giving the best moments to a one-time-only, visiting guest.
How to write something which, while nudging the envelope, remains within the range of what whatever network you are pitching it to will find acceptable to do.
To name just seven indispensible lessons you pick up. Not to mention working to an externally-determined deadline. And also seeing the “finished product”, learning through the audience’s reactions what worked and what didn’t.
I recall reading spec scripts for series I worked out which, when I finished them, left me wondering,
“Has this person actually seen this show?”
Trying overly hard to distinguish their efforts, wannabe writers, in what they might defend as a dazzling display of originality, made the characters behave exactly the opposite to the way they normally behaved on the show. “Mary Richards” as a slut. “Tony Banta” as a genius. Possibly as a result being hit on the head, or consuming “a drink that does funny things to people.” Or maybe, in the end, “It was all just a dream.”
New writers will not generally – I exclude the Lena Dunham anomalies here, and besides, that’s cable – be selling pilots before putting in at least a little time working on somebody else’s series. Why not focus on the skills involved in what they will first be asked to do – working within the demands of an existing structure. Show runners don’t want you to write like you; they want you to write like them.
Okay, so there’s the question of getting a sense of the writer’s “original voice.” Trust me. Evaluating a “voice” does not require an entire pilot.
The episodes of Phyllis written by Earl Pomerantz, Michael Leeson (The War of the Roses), Glen and Les Charles (Cheers) and the show’s creators, Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels, despite working with the same concept and writing dialogue for the same recurring characters, were significantly and identifiably different.
Beginner writers: Do not worry about it. (As I did earlier in my career.) Your “voice” is your voice. It is inevitably present in everything you write. Teachers, agents, producers, executives: It is not that difficult to detect.
In the two-page outline that I wrote on spec for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which got rookie Earl Pomerantz’s sitcom-writing career off the ground, I included one line that was subsequently quoted back to me as the reason they brought me in and gave me a chance. A single line…and they knew recognized my “voice.”
It did not take an original pilot script.
I will now return to where I started. If they require aspiring writers to include a spec pilot script as part of their submission “package”, then that’s what you have to do. I write in opposition to this requirement because, A, I disagree with it, and B, you know, when you wind up on the losing side of a Supreme Court decision, you are nevertheless permitted to write a “dissent” for the record. Sometimes, down the line, these dissents become influential, being quoted in cases that lead to reversals in the original decisions.
Consider this my (hopefully influential) dissent.