Thursday, February 17, 2011

What not to do when writing a pilot

Mitch Hurwitz, the creator of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT and RUNNING WILDE wrote a somewhat facetious article for on how to get a sitcom cancelled. He brings out some good points like have a confusing title, hint at incest (always a crowd pleaser), offend minority groups, and not use guest star Liza Minnelli to her full advantage. These are all true, but there’s an added factor he mentions which I think is really key. Don’t overreach story-wise.

I bring this up because agents these days are requiring new writers to submit original material in addition to spec scripts for existing shows. For the most part, that means pilots. This is a complete reversal of policy from ten, fifteen years ago. And it just makes a hard process even harder. It’s like getting into college and suddenly learning that starting this year you must also take Advanced Physics and six semesters of Russian.

Pilots are a bitch to write. They are loaded with traps; traps many experienced writers still fall into (read: me). And a big one is that you do too much, trying to dazzle the reader. This is the warning that Mitch heeds. Do not try to do eight stories in one half-hour pilot. Even if you do it well, and the ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT staff did it as well as any show ever has, it’s difficult for an audience to process. Add to that another sign-of-the-times issue: program lengths are shrinking. Back when I was writing MASH (the Pleistocene Era) we had close to 24 minutes of content. Now it’s under 20. We did two or three stories an episode and even then we thought we were putting ten pounds of show in a five-pound bag. I marvel at how MODERN FAMILY does it under today’s conditions. Their writers room will someday be located at the UCLA Medical Center.

When you write a spec pilot, make the story as straightforward as you can. I don’t mean so linear that we see every step coming a mile away, or so simple that nothing happens. Your story can be clever and original with delightful surprises but make it easy to track.

Remember, in a pilot you’ve got to establish the premise, establish the characters, establish the tone, show where the series is going, and make it funny. And getting laughs is extra hard because the audience is not familiar with the characters. Throw in a confusing story or six stories and the audience is completely lost.

But here’s the good news: You’re not expected to do too much story in a pilot. Your story should just be a dramatic device to introduce all of the above elements. So let it breathe a little. Let your characters just inter-act for a moment or two. Give the audience a few minutes to get to know them.

You might be saying, “Well, I have nine characters. I need three stories so they all have something to do.” To that I say, then lose three characters.

One of my favorite pilots is the one from TAXI. Here’s the premise: the pay phone in the garage is broken and all the cabbies can make free long distance calls (this was before Sprint). As each character uses the phone we learn who they are and what they want. One character, Alex (Judd Hirsch) wants to talk to his daughter in Florida and we discover they’ve been estranged for fifteen years. The cabbies all have opinions on that, informing us even more as to who they are. Ultimately they all drive down from New York for a reunion. There’s suspense. How’s it going to go after fifteen years? SPOILER ALERT: It goes okay.

Simple. Economical. Clever. And taking a tip from Mitch Hurwitz, there’s no incest.

The truth is, when an agent or producer is reading your spec pilot, they’re trying to learn about YOU. Your voice, sensibility, and level of humor. Don’t cloud that by trying to show you can construct SLEUTH in nineteen minutes.

Best of luck. May you too be in a position someday to have your series cancelled.

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