Hollywood

10 Things I”€™ve Learned About Writing For TV

June 16, 2010

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10 Things I”€™ve Learned About Writing For TV

The first thing you need to know about pitching TV shows is, you are not going to get a show. Television is 1,000 burn victims trying to seduce a supermodel; what was considered an OK deal ten years ago looks like a lottery win today. The good news is, you get paid for each rejection. In fact, many of us burn victims make pretty good money getting rejected. Eventually, most throw up their hands and agree to work on someone else’s show but that’s giving up. So here’s ten things I”€™ve learned about the Sisyphean stage before that.

1) YOU NEED AN ENTOURAGE
Before you even get started, you need to get like Tyson and surround yourself with people who are going to take your money. Give an agent and a manager 10% each and throw a lawyer another 5%. They get this until you die. If you try to pitch a show without an entourage and it works, weird things will happen like your credit card will stop working and restaurants will tell you they”€™re closed even though you can see people in there, eating (people who play the game).

2) GET AN ARC
I could write a funny show about accountants with AIDS or a group of teenage girls in Bavaria. I don”€™t give a shit what the context is because it’s just a springboard for jokes. Unfortunately, “€œWho cares what it’s about?”€ doesn”€™t exactly blow minds so you need to know each character intimately, have a dozen hilarious anecdotes about each one, and know how they”€™re going to evolve over time. The easiest way to do this is to actually go out and write the thing. It’s only thirty pages. Just don”€™t tell anyone it’s finished because that’s what you”€™re trying to get paid to do.

3) GET A PRODUCTION COMPANY ON BOARD
You need someone who’s done this before at your pitch meeting because when the show flops, the guy who gave you the check needs to prove to his boss he didn”€™t throw money away. This means the production companies wield enormous power and you have to actually go pitch them and get them interested before you can go pitch the networks.

Special note: Once you choose a producer, there’s no turning back and you have to take them to all your meetings so figure out what network is most likely to say yes to your show and choose a production company that network already likes.

4) DAZZLE THEM IN THE PITCH
Don’t panic. Network execs do not have high hopes when it comes to meetings. It’s usually just the writer reading his pitch aloud from a piece of paper and even when a celebrity comes by it’s usually just to say, “€œHello there.”€ If you rehearse the shit out of it and treat the whole thing like a Carrot Top show, you”€™ll get a pilot. I know of one guy who just got a pilot-development deal because he built a miniature model of the town the sitcom will be in. 

 

Of course, it’s not unusual for the network to take a pitch meeting just because they”€™re bored. I was pitching a “Jackass 60 Minutes” show with Johnny Knoxville and we met with Spike/Comedy Central head honcho Doug Herzog. About two minutes in I realized Herzog only took the meeting because he wanted to talk to Knoxville about how awesome Willie Nelson is.

5) MENTION IT’s ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA
I”€™m not exactly sure why but broadcasters are into this show like zombies are into brains. If you mention it in a pitch, you will see eyes light up like fluorescent balloons and ideally, it will be the only thing they remember when they think of your name.

6) CATER TO THE BROADCASTER
Every network wants something very specific so cater your pitch accordingly. If there are kids in the show, cut them out of it when talking to an everyman network like Comedy Central. “€œFamily”€ is their No word. Cut all the female characters out of your pitch when talking to Spike and if you”€™re at FX, make it appealing to everyone over 40. IFC is becoming a comedy network so if you make them laugh their asses off, they”€™ll figure something out. And MTV will most likely say yes if you agree not to swear and can cater to 16-year-old girls but when a broadcaster’s paying upwards of $5k per pilot, they can”€™t afford to be choosy. Pitching MTV is kind of like a burn victim hitting on a supermodel burn victim.

Mainstream networks like NBC, CBS, etc. are obviously not interested in rookies but you”€™d be surprised at how completely and totally impossible it is to even go near HBO. Despite their raucous content, the pitch room over there is more like the LGBT department of the yearbook committee complete with clipboards and scowling faces. Jackass was originally pitched to them and the tension in the room is the stuff of legend today.

7) THERE ARE NO HIGH FIVE MOMENTS IN TV
Did the pitch go amazing and everyone was on the floor in tears? Sorry, no high five. If it’s time for a cowboy show and that’s not what you pitched, it’s out of everyone’s hands. If they say yes to a written pilot, you can sort of high five but it still doesn”€™t mean they”€™ll want to shoot it. If they decide to shoot the pilot the odds are still very high it won”€™t go to air so, again, no high fives. Finally, say they buy a few episodes and it goes to air. You still need to keep your fives low because they may still kill it by quickly moving it to a new slot as Comedy Central did with David Cross and Jon Benjamin’s Freakshow (back in “Killer of Comedy” days). The only real high five moment in TV is when it gets picked up for a second season but as Zach Cregger from The Whitest Kids You Know put it, “€œAt that point, you”€™re so beat, you just say, “€˜All right, back to work.”€™”€

8) FAILURE IS SUCCESS
I shot a pilot for Showtime that went nowhere. Did the same for Current TV and it was rejected. I developed a show for Planet Green they didn”€™t want, wrote a pilot for Adult Swim that got a “No” and received the same response for the one I gave Comedy Central. However, simply writing a pilot usually garners about $25k. Shooting a pilot nobody wants does even better. The networks OK about 50 pilot scripts for every one they take so failing is a given at this point. It’s a job that’s based on being fired. In fact, I know writers who don”€™t even want their show to be picked up because they don”€™t want to move to LA. Dan Harmon is one of the few writers to crack the code and went from co-creating Sarah Silverman’s show to getting his own show on NBC called Community. But even Harmon admits the job is ridiculous and created a website/short film festival called Channel 101 that lampoons the whole process by airing fake failed pilots and cancelled shows.

9) THERE’s NO MONEY IN COMEDY
Before it was cancelled, the hilarious Sarah Silverman Program cost $1m per episode and garnered 200,000 viewers. Demetri Martin’s show is their other big hit and it gets about twice that for a slightly lower cost. One of the funniest shows on television, Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job, is lucky to get a tenth of Sarah’s viewers. Take a show like History Channel’s Pawn Stars on the other hand, and the network’s looking at shelling out $250k for 5 million viewers.

10) HAVE HALF A DOZEN SPINNING PLATES
Once you get an OK on your deal, know that it is going to sit on a lawyer’s desk for the better part of a year. I”€™ve tried ripping the contract out of the lawyer’s hands so I can solve the problems myself but got lost after the first, “€œHeretofore the second party not withstanding shall, at the behest of the subject whence it cometh…”€ This is especially frustrating because without a finished contract, there’s no check. I remember seeing a writer (who won”€™t let me use his name because his show’s still on the air) exasperated about the rent his credit card was spending waiting for his show to go through legal. He had booked a production company and was also paying for them to wait around. “What the hell do other people do,”€ he asked, “€œmove back in with their parents?” We both realized what everyone who’s trying to make money in today’s economy has realized: You gotta hustle. In other words, the only possible solution is to have tons of shows on the go at once.

That’s right. You have to assume this show isn”€™t going to go past the written pilot and start getting conflicting deals simultaneously. If, by some unprecedented piece of super-luck you find yourself with networks wanting to make several of your shows at once, you can deal with it then but tell me, when was the last time you saw a burn victim with too many supermodels on his hands?

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