Writing the Spec Pilot

Aspiring writers that used to correspond with me when I was writing my blog would sometimes ask if I was going to write another book on how to spec a pilot. I never really considered doing that for several reasons. Elephant Bucks didn’t sell well enough for the publisher to ask for another book. Writing EB took almost a year. I wasn’t willing to devote that much time to a new book when I only made a couple thousand dollars off of EB. Most of that tiny amount of revenue arrived several years after the book was published. The only economic reason for writing one of these how-to books for screen scribes is to use to book to sell yourself as a speaker or seminar leader or consultant. There are a number of people who make a modest living doing that, but it was never something that interested me. Blake Snyder, my old friend, who wrote what is arguably the most successful how-to book for screenwriters ever published, died nearly broke.

It’s very, very hard to write a great pilot or even a decent one, even after years of experience working as a TV writer, yet that’s what novice writers are asked to do instead of writing spec episodes of existing series. It’s unfair. It’s much more reasonable for an aspiring writer to tackle a spec episode of a series that she or he knows well than to try to create a series out of thin air when seasoned professionals have a hard enough time doing the same thing.

But agents and executives don’t want to read spec episodes. I think in part this is because years ago, when the spec episode was still in fashion, aspiring writers were drawn to only a few of the top series. There were thousands of spec episodes written of Friends, Cheers, The Simpsons, etc., to the point where agents and executives, who hate to read scripts in the first place, just couldn’t pick up another spec Seinfeld and plow through it.

As audiences for TV series split into smaller groups, and as new delivery platforms appeared, agents and executives were also looking for something “different” to attract an audience. The spec pilot offered the potential for an aspiring writer to “speak with her own voice,” or “push the envelope,” or “think outside the box.” These calls for creativity and innovation now sound horribly cliché because they are. But one can understand the thinking. “Don’t bring me another Friends,” the network or studio executive would say, “Bring me Orange is the New Black.”

One might argue that the lowest rated sitcom on broadcast TV still wildly outperforms the highest rated sitcom on cable or from a streaming service, but when you’re trying to make a name for yourself, and get the attention of a gatekeeper, something “edgy” and “controversial” is probably a good thing to have if you can manage it.

The ironies of the spec pilot phenomenon are that: a) even if you write the best spec pilot ever, if you haven’t worked in TV before, no one is going to let you run your own series. They’re going to assign an experienced producer to run it for you, and you may not even survive on your own writing staff, especially if you are too strong with your opinions, and b) more likely, your great spec pilot is going to land you a staff job on an existing series where the “unique voice” that got you the job in the first place will be silenced, and you’ll have to learn to write in the voice of the show runner, which is exactly what the unfashionable spec episode of the past taught writers how to do.

It’s very, very difficult to create a TV series. Even seasoned professionals make stupid mistakes in creating a new series. Hot writer/producers with great credits and years of experience write pilots that are deeply flawed. That’s why so few new series succeed.

My advice on how to think about a spec pilot is to start with a strong main character. Don’t even worry about the premise of the series yet. Don’t worry if it’s a workplace series, a domestic series, or something else. Start with a strong main character. By “strong” I mean a character that has a well-defined personality and a powerful yearning for something.

The main character on The Big Bang Theory is Leonard. What Leonard wanted more than anything else in the world – from the first act of the pilot – was Penny. Leonard was a deeply insecure, tortured, frustrated, slightly angry, short, physically unattractive, defensive, romantic, naïve, self-destructive, cloying, dweeb who falls head over heels in love with a blonde, street smart, poorly educated, sweet, tough, sexually vibrant young woman who moves in across the hall. Look at all of the adjectives I used to describe Leonard and Penny. All of those characteristics were there in the pilot.

Sheldon, who is not the main character on The Big Bang Theory, was also a complicated and very well defined character from the first moments of the pilot. He’s a genius. He probably has Asperger’s. He’s selfish, rude, childish, opinionated, obsessive, controlling, petulant, and unconscious of his affect on other people. Look at all of the adjectives I used to describe Sheldon.

Just by describing the three main characters on The Big Bang Theory, one can already see a series before one adds the premise – that the four main guys are all scientists who work at the same university and all suffer from arrested development. The series premise develops from the characters, not the other way around, and becomes about whether these four boy/men can grow into functioning adults.

Another way to create a series is to start with the premise. Friends and Modern Family seem to have started that way.

Friends was not primarily about any one of the six main characters. It’s a premise series. It’s about being single. That’s a very simple premise. It’s about an experience most people have had: the gang you ran around with after college and before marriage. That’s been the subject of numerous movies, plays, novels, and even musicals. It’s not a new idea. But it’s simple and it works. Everyone on Friends has the same goal, which is to grow up and pair up. The key to Friends was the mix of characters. Again, we’re back to characters. Friends was the right mix of characters for its very simple premise. That’s very tricky and to a certain extent depends on luck. The creators of Friends wrote the right characters, in the right number, and somehow found the right actors to play them – very tough to pull off.   Controlling, mothering Monica, neurotic, funny, insecure, smart-ass Chandler, deeply neurotic and self-loathing Ross, perky, sexy, naïve Rachel, dumb, sweet, sexy Joey, adorable space cadet Phoebe. Friends to me is still lightning in a bottle. I don’t know how the creators pulled it off. It’s not my favorite series of all time, but you can’t argue with its success. Very, very difficult to create a series like that when casting is so critical.

Like Friends, the premise of Modern Family is in the title. It’s a modern family, which in this case means that sixty-ish, conservative wasp-y Jay has married Latin firecracker Gloria who is half his age.   She has a kid. Jay’s resentful daughter, Claire, is married to goofy Phil. They have two kids and are trying to be traditional yuppies. Jay’s son, Mitchell, is gay and married to Cameron. Come up with a strong premise like this that was right in the zeitgeist of 2009, then add the right characters – we’re back to characters again – and you’ll have a big hit on your hands.

When trying to cook up a spec pilot, I recommend starting with the characters. Who is your main character and what does your main character want?

Years ago I helped to develop a series called Newhart. The main character was an uptight and somewhat neurotic writer named Dick Loudon who had always dreamed of owning a bed and breakfast in Vermont. The character of Dick Loudon was easy to create since we knew that Bob Newhart was going to play him. But picking the right premise was key. The New England Inn worked pretty well for nine seasons. The series was populated with a group of eccentric small-town characters. Dick Loudon had something he wanted: to run an inn. That’s all we needed to get started.

Later I worked on Coach, which was about an ambitious and morally flexible football coach at a small college in Minnesota. Hayden Fox desperately wanted to win, and would do almost anything to accomplish that. He had a chip on his shoulder, was impulsive, emotional, childish, sexist, and boorish. He got himself into all kinds of trouble because of his competitiveness, his loose relationship with the truth, and his inability to control his emotions. Sort of sounds like our current president.

When planning your spec pilot, if you can come up with a colorful main character and think of at least five or six adjectives to describe him or her, you’re off to a good start. What does your main character want? Is it love, success, control, revenge, acceptance, freedom, a home? You need to have an answer to that question.

With each additional character, make sure you can come up with at least a handful of adjectives to describe her or his personality.

The premise of the series serves the characters. The heart of any series is about the characters’ relationships to each other. That’s what matters most and is where most of your effort must go.

I hope that helps a little.

Skater Dater

I was in Pismo Beach, CA, over New Year’s. The area of Shell Beach where I was staying reminded me of parts of the South Bay in Los Angeles in the 1960’s, back when beach communities in Southern California were often a little ramshackle and run-down, before every square inch of coastal property was crammed with hotels, restaurants, and the weekend homes of rock stars and billionaires.

Somehow, looking at the modest seaside houses and apartments of Shell Beach, the liquor stores, diners, and bait shops, made me remember a short film I saw in a movie theater around 1965 or 1966. The film was called “Skater Dater.” I didn’t remember much about the film other than I thought it had been shot in the South Bay, and I remembered loving it. The film is eighteen minutes long and concerns a group of young boys between 12 and 14 years old who ride skateboards on the streets around Redondo and Hermosa Beach and Rolling Hills. I didn’t go to see “Skater Dater” intentionally. It just happened to be playing between whatever two feature films I had gone to watch on a Saturday afternoon fifty years ago.

Thinking about this short film, I went on YouTube and typed in “Skater Dater.” The 1965 film came right up. I watched it. It was charming. I also loved seeing the Southern California of my youth – the 50’s and 60’s era cars, the bushy blonde haircuts on the boys, the primitive wooden skateboards that all of us had in those days. It was a trip back in time. I was the same age as the boys in the film at the time I first saw it.

Then I read about “Skater Dater” on Wikipedia. I was surprised to learn that the film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966 and was nominated for an Oscar that same year. No wonder it showed up at my local movie theater all those decades ago. It was an award-winning short.

I read that “Skater Dater” inspired David O. Russell to become a filmmaker.

For some reason, I never forgot “Skater Dater.” I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was because it’s a coming of age story about a young boy who is ready to move on from his childish pursuits and get interested in girls. That’s where I was emotionally when I first saw the film. “Skater Dater” also has a wonderful soundtrack of surf music. And there’s no dialogue. Every part of the story is conveyed visually, through shots and the looks on the faces of the characters.

I always figured that “Skater Dater” wasn’t much of a movie, and it was probably my unsophisticated tastes that made me like it in the first place. Now I find out it’s a memorable short film that kind of made history.

I’ve learned over the years that many of the movies I loved in my youth, much of the music I enjoyed, and many of the books I read – stuff that I was often embarrassed to admit I liked – was actually pretty great. I wasn’t as uncool as I thought I was.

What did this experience teach me? Trust your instincts. If you love something, maybe there’s a good reason. And likely you’re not the only one.

I think that’s important for writers to remember. Yes, we ought to listen to criticism of our work. What we write can always be improved. But what gets the words onto the page are your gut instincts. If those instincts are good, then you’ve got a shot at having your work appreciated.

I always loved “Skater Dater.” I’m glad that director Noel Black trusted his instincts and made a short film, for $17,000, that meant something to him. It won awards. It opened doors for him. And all these years later, it still means something to me. That’s success for an artist.



So Long, Wilbur Post

Alan Young, a wonderful and versatile actor, died today at the age of 94.  He is best known for starring in the iconic TV series from the 1960’s, Mr. Ed.  If you’re too young to remember the show and/or have never seen an episode in reruns or on YouTube, may I suggest you treat yourself.

Mr. Ed was a silly show about a talking horse.  And I loved it.  I mean, I loved it.

In the late 1980’s I had the great privilege to work briefly with Alan Young on a short-lived CBS sitcom called Coming Of Age.  It was about two retired couples living in Arizona.  Alan played the cheerful next-door neighbor to star Paul Dooley.  The series also featured Phyllis Newman, Glynis Johns (the mom from Mary Poppins) and Kevin Pollock.

Though the series never found an audience, I had a great time working there for part of the first season.  I was under contract at Universal, waiting for Coach to start.  Coming of Age was being produced by Barry Kemp’s production company.  I was invited to pitch in and was delighted to do so.

I’ve always been a little worried about meeting performers who I loved as a child, fearing that they won’t be as wonderful as I hoped.  Sometimes that concern has been justified, but plenty of times I’ve found the performer to be even nicer than I could have imagined.  Some examples of performers who I loved as a kid and then turned out to be wonderful people in real life were Betty White and Shelley Fabares.  Alan Young was also someone who just made me happy to be around him.

I got to work with some wonderful older performers on Coming of Age, including Bob and Ray and Van Johnson.  If you don’t know who they are, look them up.

I’m sad at Alan Young’s passing, but I’m very grateful I got to know him and work with him.  I loved his show as a kid, and I loved him as an adult.  Alan was one of those people who really do help make your dreams come true.

Wired and Hired

I haven’t put up a post in a long time, and perhaps I’ve waited too long.  There’s the whole matter of having something constructive to say.  What prompts this post is an article I happened to read in the March 23 issue of Wired Magazine.  I hadn’t read an article in Wired in a long time.  I picked the magazine up in a hotel in Hawaii. The cover featured the actors from Silicon Valley.  Since I love that show and had some time to kill, I thought I’d glance at the article.  It’s worth a read for all of you looking to break in to show biz.  The article also seemed to nicely follow a conversation I had a couple of weeks ago with my twenty-something friend, Sam.

Here’s the takeaway from the Wired article about Silicon Valley:  those guys have a hit show but they are all still out hustling every week on other projects.  They haven’t kicked back to enjoy their success.  The article suggested that part of the reason is because they aren’t paid that much to do the series.  But more than that, they have long breaks between seasons, and the series isn’t seen by that many people, so in order to keep their individual brands hot they are all working on other things: stand up comedy, indie films, improv, writing, podcasts, etc.

This brings me to my conversation with Sam.  He, too, is working on multiple projects.  Even though he has gotten his foot in the show biz door, he isn’t resting.  He’s got a lot of irons in the fire.

When I broke in a million years ago, once you got a job writing on a series you didn’t have to work on anything else.  (And there wasn’t time.)  But now, with shorter orders for series, even if you get a gig on a writing staff you will likely enjoy less pay and have much more down time during the months when the series is on hiatus.  The Wired article said to me, “even if you hit it big, you still have to keep hustling.”  So why not start the hustling now?

The people who are going to make it are the ones who have the drive and talent to pursue multiple goals simultaneously.  You don’t want to lose focus, but you don’t want to put all of your eggs in one basket either.

I get it that it’s harder for you to make it than it was for me.  The Wired article told me that even after making it, you can’t let up.  You’ve got to keep reaching for new things.  When you’re in your twenties and thirties, you have the energy.  Use it.