Well After We’re Crushed Under Priuses
January 8, 2012 1 Comment
A realistic projection of what it takes to become a professional TV comedy writer coming from someone barely in the infancy of his writing career. Read on if you’re tired of the same generalizations and cliche statements about how making it in showbusiness is impossible. (It’s not… you’ll just be very old if/when it happens.)
Whenever I visit my family I typically face a gauntlet of questions about my career in Los Angeles. These two were among the questions asked by my sister this past holiday:
“So how long before I see your name in the credits?”
“Have you gotten published yet?”
I want to clarify that these questions are never asked with the tone of When are you going to bring home a nice girl? or I want a grandchild! – two things I have yet to hear directed at me at Christmas dinner, thank god. I’ve been blessed with a supportive family. They’re invested in my well-being, and they simply seek a better understanding of my career and goals.
The answers to my sister’s questions (“I am in the credits, but only on Fridays, as a PA”; “Yes, online”) didn’t excite her as much as they excited me when I first heard the news. She revised her questions to include qualifiers like “top-billed” and “print.” And I revised my answers to “Never,” and “No, not for a long time,” because I try to be an optimist.
I found myself explaining to my sister’s sympathetic face that these answers weren’t a bad thing, and that the bulk of people who have made successful careers in the entertainment industry would answer those questions the same way. And as I briefed her on the hoops I would have to back-flip through in order to attain the level of success she had anticipated, my calm surprised me. Here I was throwing in the towel a minute into Round 1 and smiling because the Gatorade was free.
The reason for my calm, I have since realized, is that while success in the entertainment industry is certainly important to me, fame never was. And after living and working in Hollywood for over a year, the notion of success has been wholly redefined.
Mostly for my own benefit, and perhaps for that of anyone interested in pursuing a career in Hollywood or looking for a realistic (albeit narrow) perspective of the prospects, I have outlined the little I’ve learned on the subject. I don’t see this as a “how-to” guide – I’ve only lived in LA about 16 months, and my knowledge of this industry is based far less on empirical evidence than it is on second-hand advice, extrapolation, and pure conjecture.
My goal is to be a staff writer on a good TV comedy. Let’s examine what it takes to get there.
According to my spec script class instructor, Michael McCarthy, every aspiring TV writer goes through three phases in his/her career, each of which can last any length of time, and none of which can be skipped, regardless of natural talent:
- You pay to learn how to write.
- You write for free.
- You get paid to write.
Spoiler alert: Being in the third phase doesn’t mean you’re famous. Nor does it mean the show you’re writing for will be any good, last longer than a few episodes, or ever see the light of day. More on that later.
1. You pay to learn how to write.
When I arrived in LA in August 2010, one of the first things I did was meet with my parents’ friend’s son, whom I was told wrote for television. It’s a common practice for parents to try to set their children up with all sorts of distant friends and relatives when they move to LA, and not buying my mother’s pleas of “Who knows?” I walked into the lunch date at Café 101 reluctantly. Turns out, the guy was a former writer on Deadwood (and now currently writing on HBO’s Luck) and gave me some awesome advice. I asked him how I should use the pilot I had written to get an agent.
“Don’t worry about networking right now,” he told me. “Just focus on becoming a good writer. You’ve written some stuff, great. Keep writing. Take writing classes. Write another pilot, and another. Trust me, you’ll know when you’re a good writer, because then the agents will be coming to you.”
When people talk about “paying your dues,” this is what they mean. No one is born with innate knowledge of screenwriting, and it costs money to learn how. The following are costs you may incur during this process:
- Tuition for a degree in screenwriting or filmmaking.
- Classes in improv, sketch, writing for television, stand-up comedy, acting, etc.
- Workshops or coaching.
- Entry to WGA writers panels.
- Books on writing and storytelling (Robert McKee’s Story and Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces are good starting points).
- Scripts for reading. (You can find a number of scripts for free online, and a number of classes hook you up with them.)
You have to take time to learn your craft before you try to get paid in it. You can move out to LA with a feature or a pilot in hand, and if you’re lucky enough to get a manager or literary agent to read it (they won’t), they’re going to know immediately if it’s the first thing you’ve written, and they’ll tell you to write something new (more likely they won’t call you back and never look at your stuff ever again). Television scripts are coded in a highly specific form and language that you need to master before you should ever worry about the next step.
The secret value of taking classes is the “networking bullshit” more or less takes care of itself. By taking a class you will inevitably start to form relationships with other writers, actors, script readers, PAs – people who might get a big break one day and be in a position to help their talented friends out. (A large portion of the cast of 30 Rock are people Tina Fey took improv classes with in Chicago.) You will start to understand how the industry works, and the world will look and feel much smaller and digestible to you. And once you can see the beast for what it really is, you will be able to plan how to strap a saddle to it.
2. You write for free.
(Full disclosure: I speak from little experience from this point forward, as I feel I’ve barely started to transition into Phase 2. So take this all with a grain of salt.)
The Agent Paradox: You cannot get work without having an agent, but you cannot get an agent without having done work.
While aspiring actors can always get a little cash, free lunches, clips for their reels, and possible SAG vouchers by doing background work, there is no such safety net for writers. We must write for free until the agents notice us. This is a difficult task, because agents do not accept unsolicited material, and most of them won’t even read a query letter. I’m told that agents are always looking for new talent, but they’re excellent about making you feel like you aren’t worth their time.
In my spec writing class, one assignment was to try calling various agencies and ask for the name of the head of their TV literary department, with the intention of mailing that person a query letter. Somehow, when I called Paradigm (a high-profile agency that represents people like Neil Patrick Harris and Philip Seymour Hoffman), I got patched through to the head TV literary agent himself. For several minutes he was convinced I was “Drew,” a friend or client posing as a nervous fledgling writer, and he wouldn’t stop laughing. Finally, he realized I was who I said I was, stopped laughing, and politely told me whatever I sent would probably end up in the trash.
I was not worth this person’s time, and he knew it by the mere fact that I had called him. Agents do not want to be called. They call you. In order to get their attention, you have to do interesting work and be creative in the ways you market it. This may include:
- Pilots, specs, shorts and features that you submit into contests and use to apply for fellowships and internships.
- A web series that you write, act in, shoot, edit, and make a website for.
- A one-man show, sketch show, or pilot/spec reading for which you send out invitations to various small boutique agencies, or hire an established director who might help you get representation.
- Hundreds of stand-up comedy sets or improv shows for which you will never get paid.
- A pilot, short or feature that you shoot, post online, and submit to festivals.
From what I’ve witnessed from other people currently in this phase, this is the time your “voice” as a creative individual begins to emerge. You’ll discover the type of humor that you enjoy writing and performing the most, and what types of creative decisions you make that generate the biggest responses from your audiences.
There are people I know who have figured out exactly what their voice is, and they know exactly how to share it with the world. All of those people either have agents or have made a ton of money without one. I doubt that’s merely a correlation.
3. You get paid to write.
I can’t say I know too much about having your agent book you for gigs, other than it’s a lot of waiting for calls that never come. However, as a writer for a website that keeps track of all the shows/projects in development every season, I do have a decent understanding of how the sausage gets made.
According to Justin Halpern, creator of Twitter feed turned CBS sitcom Shit My Dad Says and writer on the quickly canceled How To Be A Gentleman, only 7.3 percent of shows make it to a second season. That means 92.7 percent of television shows get canceled during their first year. Let that sink in.
For me, that statistic hits on two levels. Firstly, as a consumer of television, I’m amazed that what I considered to be a vast spectrum of programming is actually a tiny sliver of survivors from an annual massacre by the networks. We never hear about the loser shows because, well, we and no one else ever watched them.
Secondly, as an aspiring producer of television, I can’t ignore the fact that the remaining 92.7 percent of loser shows each had their own talented showrunner, as well as an entire staff of accomplished writers, each of whom spent years honing their craft, writing all sorts of interesting scripts and projects without getting paid for it, and enduring the process of getting an agent and trying to get staffed on a bunch of different shows before finally getting hired on this exciting new show… just to see it get canceled after a few months.
Below are among the various scenarios that may play out for professional screenwriters:
- An old friend from your improv team got a development deal with Comedy Central, and you get brought on to help punch up the pilot. After the pilot is rewritten, recast, and reshot several times, the network decides it isn’t working and shelves it indefinitely.
- You get hired to help work on a pilot for ABC. The network loves it, so much in fact that they decide to air it after the season premiere of Modern Family. Unfortunately, it doesn’t retain enough viewers, so it gets canceled.
- The pilot you’re working on doesn’t have enough confidence from the network, so they decide to air it during the summer. It runs for eight episodes and then the network doesn’t renew it.
- You get hired to write for a new animated series on Fox. The creator’s original pilot script was fantastic, but the network watered it down, forcing critics and audiences to tune out. The show gets canceled after two episodes.
- You get hired to write for a new sitcom on NBC, and the show looks promising. However, it airs the same time as The Big Bang Theory on CBS, so your show gets low ratings and gets canceled.
- You get hired to write on a variety or talk show with a huge writing staff. None of the jokes or sketches you pitch during the meetings gets much a response, and you get fired after a few weeks.
- You get hired on the most popular late night talk show, hosted by your comedy hero. But the network decides to bring back the former host, forcing your boss out. Your entire staff loses their jobs.
- You get hired to write for the most watched sitcom on television, but the star goes crazy and does all these interviews calling you and your boss a hack. He storms off set one day, forcing your show to go into hiatus.
- You’re writing for the show you always dreamed of writing for – smart, hilarious, respected, popular. But benefits negotiations go south between the networks and the heads of the WGA, of which you are required to be a member, so you’re forced to go on strike.
- You get hired to write for a CBS sitcom starring an obnoxious comedian, and the show is just as obnoxious. However, inexplicably, the show gets huge ratings. You stay on the show, because you’re married now, with a baby on the way, and you need that money. After a few years, you read an online review written by some snobby kid calling an episode you wrote “bland, pandering garbage.” When the show ends its eight-season run, the network approaches you to develop a new sitcom, and they want it to look exactly like the last show. So you become the executive producer of a spinoff series, and retire off of residuals in your mansion in Hancock Park.
These aren’t worst-case scenarios… this is what a successful TV writer’s career looks like. There are hundreds of successful TV writers who are not Chuck Lorre, Aaron Sorkin, Ryan Murphy, Steve Levitan, or David Milch… and even those guys aren’t exactly household names, either. Hundreds of writers you’ve never heard of writing for dozens of shows you’ve never heard of.
The good news is you will get paid very, very well. Also, you get to tell people back home that you’re a professional TV writer. Never mind if they’ve never heard of the show you write for, or if they don’t like it. No one in my family has ever heard of Community, and when I told my dentist my favorite show was Modern Family hoping for some common ground in the conversation, she said she had never seen it because it comes on the same time as Criminal Minds.
You won’t be doing this for recognition or fame. You’ll be doing it because, after years and years of learning how to write, and writing for free, and dealing with agents, and writing new specs and pilots every year… you will finally be a writer. That is your function. It’s what you find fulfilling, and how you’ve chosen to make your living and your mark. Granted, the living may not be very large, nor the mark particularly deep. But it’s still pretty neat.
* * *
So where do I stand? I am still very much learning my craft – taking improv classes, performing on improv teams, writing scripts, participating in storytelling events, acting in friends sketches and videos, etc. I am currently writing for free, but not to the extent that I deserve any attention from literary agents just yet. One day I’ll hopefully join the writing staff of a good TV show, but right now I would just take the spot of a better, more deserving writer – something my boss would realize well before I did and fire me accordingly.
It will be a long time before I reach my goal to be a professional TV writer. How long depends on a lot of factors – how much and how often I write, how much I learn, how well I market myself, how I treat other people, how quickly I discover and hone my voice, the relationships I form and the success of my colleagues, the amount of risk others will be willing to take on me, the degree to which the improv community is valued as a talent pool, programming and cost-cutting decisions made by network executives, the tastes of American audiences, market supply and demand, and a lot of luck.
So… 10 years? 15 years? Some time well after the Mayan calendar expires, well after Kim Jong Un nukes the Hollywood sign, or well after the cars on the 405 just start piling on top of each other like breeding rabbits, crushing us all. Yeah, then I’ll be a TV writer. A completely non-famous TV writer who only writes on shows that get canceled after two episodes, and who then gets crushed under a Prius.
But a TV writer, nonetheless. And I’m very excited.