A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!
by Kelly Jo Brick
Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence and hard work.
Writer Jacque Edmonds Cofer was living in Detroit when she heard about The Disney-ABC Writers Program. Her spec for A Different World, won her a place in the program and was the starting point for her writing career that includes writing for Martin, Living Single, Moesha and creating Let’s Stay Together
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE INDUSTRY?
So my first job, I guess was as part of the Walt Disney – ABC Writers Program. It was only the second year of the program. I was living in Detroit at the time. I just heard about it sort of through a fluke and applied. So I didn’t know it was competitive. I kinda thought I might be the only one applying for this thing. I wrote my first spec script and got in. It was a spec for A Different World about a student who was HIV-positive.
That was 91, something like that. There was still a lot of fear around that issue, a lot of confusion about what it really meant and the difference between HIV-positive and actually having AIDS. So the message, if there was a message, was that people don’t change just because of their health. If he’s a great guy, he’s still a great guy.
WHAT DID THE WRITING PROGRAM INVOLVE?
There were four of us on the TV side and I think about 11 feature writers. We had seminars at the Disney studio where different feature and TV writers would come and speak, a Q&A or screenings, that sort of thing.
There were a lot of pilot screenings. The sort of self-directed part of it was that you pretty much had access to the lot. And I really took advantage of that. Every day I was at a taping or a screening or something that was going on. You know, there are a lot of resources there.
So in addition to the sort of formal training in outlining and pitching and developing a script and all of that, there was the informal access to the industry. Which I think was very important because of the four of us, two of us were from the Midwest. None of us really had that insight into how things work. In addition to just sitting at your computer writing a script there’s a lot that goes on in terms of how to meet people, how to get a job, what the trends are.
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER ABC?
I really started working on spec material in preparation for staffing. I did get an agent and I got my first staff job on Martin the year after the fellowship.
FROM MARTIN, WHERE DID THE PATH TAKE YOU?
I was there 3 years and had a great showrunner that first year. There were no boundaries there according to your level of writer. So from staff writer I was going to edit sessions, mix session and all that. He was like if you want to come, come. If you want to hang out while I do the first cut, come sit in my office. So that was great experience.
It allowed me to move up really quickly. I started as a staff writer, in 3 years I was supervising producer and then the next season went on to Living Single as co-exec. So it was very fast.
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR IN A STAFF WRITER?
For me, I’m always going to look at personality; how well I think that they’re going to blend in our writers’ room with the other people. They can’t be easily offended. Sitcom writers are a very offensive bunch of people. So you gotta let it go.
They can’t be too defensive or protective of their work which is pretty much a new writer issue in general. I mean, I remember being in tears over my first couple of scripts. Not because of changes per say, but because of the way it was being changed. Now with hindsight, I still of course think I was right, but I guess I now know how to write so things aren’t misinterpreted.
So personality, ability to blend in and then if they’re bringing anything unique. A unique perspective, particularly one that relates to the show. It’s what life experience they bring to the show and this is all on top of me having read the script and saying that they’re a really good writer.
I read a script recently that was passed on to me, someone who’s just a very, very beginning writer and the script it’s kind of interesting, the characters are kind of interesting, it kind of fell apart about half-way through. But what really came through for me in the script was this writer had a really good sense of fun.
The script was very playful. It was very upbeat. She was really going for laughs. And I really like that, even though she’s not there yet, but I can see in her writing that with some training and some experience she’ll get there. The fact that it fell apart when it did, she took a couple shortcuts. Those are rookie mistakes and those are things that can be addressed as opposed to reading a comedy script that’s just not funny, doesn’t have the laughs or just doesn’t have that spirit of fun.
DO YOU PREFER TO READ SPECS OR ORIGINAL PILOTS?
I’ll read specs of current shows, although if you’re a fan of the show, you’re a harsher judge. I would maybe be more critical. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. If I have the opportunity, I want to see both, because if I’m hiring you, you will be doing my show and that’s really what I want to see, how they adapt to my voice.
WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED AS A WRITER?
One thing that I did have to learn is to not take it personally. You know your jokes are going to get killed, your stories are going to get changed. You can’t hold on too tightly. If you’re smart, you just put it in the file and it will show up in another script and it won’t get cut that time.
The second one was to read, write and watch as much as you can. Because particularly now, as there are so many, many different forms of entertainment and ways to deliver it.
Kelly Jo Brick is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. Find out more about her HERE.