Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Premise Pilots vs. The Other Kind"

Horning in on a debate posted yesterday between blogger extraordinaire Ken Levine (bykenlevine.com) and a respected television writer named Bill Taub who teaches a spec pilot-writing class at UCLA, let me inject some comments of my own, not about spec pilot script writing, but writing actual pilots scripts themselves.

From what I understand, television writers trying to break in these days are expected to write not just a spec (Read:  audition) script for an existing series, but an original pilot script for a series created from scratch by the neophyte writer. 

When I started in half-hour comedy, I submitted a spec two-page outline for an episode of an existing series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Apparently, more is demanded of a starting-out writer today.  That “more” includes a spec pilot.

The issue in discussion concerns the advantages of writing a premise pilot – which is a pilot that lays out the premise underlying the series itself – over a pilot script that reflects, what they used to call, “Episode Six”, meaning, a prototypical episode of the proposed series.

Of the four series I was involved in, three of which made it to air, one of them did not require a pilot at all.  That series was Family Man, which, because it was originally bought by Fox, which at the time was just getting started and in an effort to attract experienced writers, was, instead of a pilot, ordering multiples of scripts, in the case of Family Man, seven.  Because no pilot was required, any of those seven episodes could have wound up being the first show on the air, so there was a practical incentive to write seven prototypical episodes.

The other three pilots, Best of the West, Major Dad, and a pilot for a series called Island Guy which did not sell, were all “premise pilots.”  The reason for that is this:

I was trying to sell the show.

The argument for a prototypical pilot episode is that it gives the network, and the writer as well, what Mr. Taub observes is “a clear idea of what the series is going to be.”  The thing is, however, that if you fail to sell the show, the series for which you have written that pilot is going to be nowhere. 

Because the network passed on the show.

When I think of the pilots I enjoyed, pilots that made me go, “I love this show, and I am going to be a regular viewer”, I think of The Dick Van Dyke Show pilot and The Mary Tyler Moore Show pilot.  What’s interesting is, one of them, the Mary pilot, was a premise pilot – Mary Richards moves to Minneapolis and gets a job in a newsroom – and the other, Dick Van Dyke, was a prototypical episode, Rob and Laura are reluctant to go out because their son Richie is refusing to eat his cupcake.

For me, it would seem, whether the pilot is premise or prototypical is not fundamentally important.  In fact, I don’t even care that much about the stories.  More important, by far, is the wavelength-connecting tone of the comedy, whether it’s fresh and real and surprising (“You’ve got spunk’ I hate spunk!”), or whether it’s “setup-punchline” business as usual.  (Though, I admit, the tone is also reflected in the storyline, particularly whether it’s a sitcomical only-on-television “stretch” or a funny and observant insight into the world the series has selected to focus on.)

Major Dad was a series nobody wanted.  (Nobody wanted any of my shows.  It was only the overwhelmingly positive reception of the pilot before the studio audience in attendance that sold them.)  The original Major Dad premise, devised before I came on board, involved a Marine widower and his children.  This was changed – by one of the CBS executives themselves – to a show about a single Marine who marries a liberal journalist with three daughters.  I heartily approved of the revised concept,  and have, in another post, given credit to that executive for coming up with a good idea.  (Every rule, including the rule that all TV executives are horrible, has its exceptions. )

Having agreement on the series’ concept, it now fell to me and the writer I am collaborating with to come up with the pilot story idea.  My comedic instincts immediately drove me to a “how this mismatched couple came to meet” story, and then – more comedic instincts – to push the idea to its extreme, so that the Marine startlingly – and, hopefully, to the delight of the audience – proposes to the journalist at the end of the first episode!

This pilot idea might easily be labeled the diametrical opposite of a prototypical episode.

But I didn’t care.  I was trying to sell the show.  And in order to have my best shot at doing so, I needed to go with my most attention-grabbing idea.  Also, from a comedic standpoint, I knew there were no funnier jokes than the jokes emanating from these two opposites’ initial encounter.  Seeing these emotionally-charged moments first would be exponentially funnier than seeing them in a down-the-line “Remember when” “anniversary” episode.

The network had serious objections to this idea.  But they finally signed off, probably thinking, “We’re not buying the show anyway.  Let them do whatever they want.”

And so we did.

On “show night” the studio audience – bless them! – went nuts over all the premise-driven jokes, and blew the roof off when the “Major” spread a spotless white handkerchief on the floor in the journalist’s kitchen, dropped down to one knee, and proposed. 

Major Dad was picked up, and ran for four seasons.   

With ownership in the shows, the networks have even more power – and they had a ton beforetoday.  They can demand a prototypical pilot episode, and that’s that.  Therefore, as a result of what Jimmy Durante used to call “the conditions that prevail”, the prototypical pilot is what teachers need to train their students to write.

That’s what I did with Family Man, which fit, partly because its concept involved a typical family – well, a typical family whose husband’s a comedy writer – experiencing typical, everyday problems.  Plus, as I mentioned, there was no actual pilot required.

But if you’re trying to sell the show, and your only “selling tool” is your pilot, in my view, you’ve got abandon the rules and fight for you’re your highest possible odds of pulling it off.


JED said...

I don't know if this ranks as a good question for a future post (the answer may just be "no") but I was wondering if you've ever seen (or written for) a show where the pilot was the highlight of the series. Or would a series never get to that point?

The reason I ask is that you mentioned that if you have a number of ideas to choose from, you should pick your best one to sell the show. Does it ever happen that the writers can't rise to that level again?

Jim Dodd

Mike said...

And that's why networks request representative episodes for evaluation prototypes. So they don't get suckered into buying a series with only one joke.

canda said...

They must not have done that with "Neighbors" on ABC.

Bill Taub said...

I don't know Earl Pomerantz -- but I do know his brother Hart from my days in Toronto -- and heard some wonderful anecdotes about the Lorne Michael days. My lips are sealed.

As to his thinking about pilots -- two things I would like to make clear:

One is, the set-up of the series is part and parcel of the pilot script -- it's just that more time (and pages) are devoted to the '6th episode'.

And two: Whether the pilot sells or not does not make it worthless any moreso than a feature script that didn't sell. Buyers are using pilot scripts as another tool in figuring out who to staff on their shows. The anecdote I like to tell is several years ago, in the post 'Desperate Housewives' world (which was a spec pilot that saved a network) -- I was at a network meeting in New York and they wanted to know if I had a spec pilot. I had never been asked for that before. I did. Even won a script writing competition that paid out real money for my spec pilot 'Raffle Guy'. But I asked they why they wanted to see a spec pilot? They answered: Because if we read your Sex & The City or whatever we don't know who you are. But if we read your spec pilot we know who you are. -- To which I chided, up until this point nobody cared who I was.

But that's what they're looking for these days. They want an idea of who you are -- as well as how good a mimic you are.

Whether people who have never written anything but a blog should be writing pilots is another story.

At UCLA I request that the writers who sign up for my course have screen-writing under their belt -- whether they sold it or not.

But I truly thank Earl for his perspective and anecdotes.