Our favorite sitcom writer who doesn’t know us has some excellent advice about sitcom format. (And, no, we don’t know what the picture has to do with it. You’ll have to ask Ken. Tell him TVWriter™ sent you.)
Advice for Young Writers
A question I’m always asked is:
If I’m writing a spec script for an existing sitcom, should it be in a two-act or three-act format.
Some backstory. For years sitcoms followed the two-act formula. There was a big commercial break in the middle. Then some networks decided it would easier to retain the audience if they sprinkled the commercials throughout. Thus there were two breaks during the body of the show, not one. And thus the three-act format was born (or hatched).
By the time I managed to locate Bert Leonard, all that was left of him fit into a small unit in a self-storage facility in Los Angeles that was hemmed in by concertina wire and a row of spindly palm trees.
– Susan Orlean
All that was left of him was not a storage unit. That wasn’t all that was left of his life. He had all of his children around him, and he got to understand that he was leaving us behind. He didn’t die alone.
In the late ’50s, Herbert Leonard, known to all as Bert, was a force to be reckoned with. He had a ton of series on the air, including two dramas that could be considered the best series of that decade: ROUTE 66 and NAKED CITY.
For me, they’re way up there. Only thing that keeps ’em from being at the top of my list is all the great live drama anthology series of that same era. You know, little things like PLAYHOUSE 90, STUDIO ONE, GE THEATER.
Today, on one of my favorite sites, The Classic TV History Blog, I learned two interesting things.
The complete ROUTE 66 is out on DVD
Bert Leonard is dead
I love blogster Stephen Bowie’s love for all things that have to do with that period in TV, and usually I agree with everything he says. This time around, though, I’m not sure of what he’s saying. By which I mean that he presents quite the balanced view of a man who’s been described not only as a brilliant visionary but also as an obnoxious con man. And much as I love the concept of balanced news, I feel obligated to stick my 2 cents in on this matter.
In either ’86 or ’88 – one of those years the WGA went on strike – my then partner and I were hired as Executive Producers of a version of RIN TIN TIN (one of my favorite shows when I was kid, and produced/owned by Bert Leonard) to be called KATTS AND DOG in Canada, where it was being made, and RIN TIN TIN: K-9 COP in the U.S. Bert was totally out of it then, as far as the business was concerned. But I was, you know, a fan.
My partner and I were action/drama writers, and Bert said that’s what he wanted this show to be. When we asked for more details, he gave us a short synopsis. Characters, setting, potential stories, you know the drill. He brought us to Toronto to meet everyone involved (where I met a terrific guy named Sam Manners, the legendary production manager who’d kept ROUTE 66 going on the road back in the day), then sent us back to L.A. to write what would be the second script. (Another writer, whose name I don’t recall, was already working on Episode One.)
When we were halfway through the script, Bert called to apologize for what he said was a “slight hold-up” in the deal. “I can’t give you screen credit as Executive Producers because you’re not Canadian. That’s got to go to someone here in Toronto. But you can still do all the work. Meanwhile, start packing. I’ve found a great place for you to live while we shoot.”
A couple of days later, we finished the first draft, messengered it to him, and started packing ourselves and a couple of kids.
And a few days after that I came home from an evening out to find a message on my answering machine in which Bert said. “Hey, read your script. I was wrong about drama. This show should be a sitcom. You’re fired.”
Never heard from him again.
Neither did my agent. Or business manager.
No matter how many times we called.
And, no, never got paid.
I did hear from Sam Manners, though, who called to apologize for his old friend. And to say he was quitting the show.
Bottom line: I don’t know what Bert was really up to during that Chinese Fire Drill. I do know that he didn’t seem to care about anything but sex with his current lady love, who, according to Stephen Bowie, he later married…twice. If he’d ever been a visionary, he sure wasn’t now. It was all con man, all the time.
Still, though, after all these years. I find myself hoping that Gina Leonard’s comments, above, are at least as true as those of Susan Orlean. And maybe even a tad more.
And wondering if I’m responding to him as a visionary legend, a typical flawed human being…or as a con man who even in death just worked his magic on me again.
In the course of my so-called career, I’ve found that new writers always lead off any conversation with the same two questions:
How did you get started?
How do I get an agent?
Even I get tired of talking about myself, so let’s move on to the agent thing for now, okay?
To unsold, unpublished writers agents are the Holy Grail. To old pros they’re a necessary evil. As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.
Beginners need agents to get started. Most production companies, broadcast and cable networks, etc. won’t talk to or accept material from unagented writers. Those that do make the writers jump through hoops of paperwork – releases, disclaimers – first. You just plain aren’t considered a real writer unless you have representation.
Established writers need agents for different reasons. Writers are usually loners by nature. We need someone who can understand our problems and fight for us when we just plain can’t get up the oomph. Need info on what’s happening in the marketplace? Hate to make calls looking for assignments? Terrified to negotiate? Let your agent do it instead.
Besides, what better scapegoat is there than our agent? It’s his fault that we aren’t working. Or being paid top dollar. His fault that the network decided not to shoot our last pilot.
Don’t get me wrong. I love agents. Why else would I have had so many? (Thank you very much. I’m here all week.)
But although switching agents is relatively easy for writers who already have a reputation or are currently employed, getting that first one is a real bitch. The best way to go about it is by is personal recommendation. No, not by having an agented friend recommend his/her agent to you. (That would be way too easy.) By being recommended to the agent by your friend.
Your lucky buddy has to put in the good word about you and your talent. When an agent hears how good a writer you are, how close you are to the big breakthrough, s/he starts salivating. The slobber is everywhere. (In fact, here’s something important to remember: Agents work harder at signing new clients than they ever do at representing them. So if you don’t find the agent aggressive enough in the beginning, you’ll never be happy with the way the agent sells you if you sign on.)
What’s? You don’t know anyone who has an agent? In that case, it’s time to hit the books. Get hold of the WGA’s list of signatory agents. Look for the ones who say they’ll take on new writers. Odds are they don’t really mean it, but at least their assistants probably won’t scream at you when you call.
The reason most agents don’t want new writers, BTW, is as much an ethical one as a practical one. (What? Agents have ethics? The good ones, yeah.) The vast majority of agented television and screenwriters in L.A. are unemployed and/or haven’t sold anything in one hell of a long time. A responsible agent has an obligation to look out for them first, before taking on any new clients.
Plus (and maybe this should’ve come first), most agented writers already have a track record and therefore are easier to sell.
Ready to give up yet? If not, then start calling. Forget letters of inquiry. Showbiz is personal. Whenever possible, everyone likes to work with their friends. Letters from outsiders are much easier to ignore than phone calls. If you’re calling a big agency, ask the receptionist for the name of the head of the lit department. Then have her put your call through to that person. You’ll be greeted by an assistant, of course, and your job is to make nice to this all-important gatekeeper. If the assistant finds you charming, s/he probably won’t just blow you off. Stay on that phone until you get a hook to hang a submission on. A fragment of conversation that can be loosely interpreted as, “Yeah, yeah, send us your material,” usually followed by a sigh.
Once you get that hook it’s time to write an equally charming yet businesslike letter and send off your sample scripts.
That’s right. Scripts with an “s.” Plural. A spec screenplay alone isn’t going to do it. Agents know better than anyone how difficult it is to make a sale, and as a result most of them don’t really try. Their business isn’t selling your work, it’s selling you. Getting you the big pitch meeting, making the contact you need to become the friend of someone who can give you a writing assignment.
If you want to write television, a solid spec pilot script is imperative these days. Many TV producers only read pilots because they believe that’s the only way to know what a writer is all about. But you also need two or three spec teleplays. These should be for series that are currently on the air and are highly regarded within the biz. (To find out what those in the biz like, you’ll have to start visiting sites like Deadline.Com, The Wrap.Com, and their ilk, sites whose attitudes reflect those of the folks at the top.)
If you can demonstrate versatility you should – within certain boundaries. TV pretty much keeps its comedy writers separate from its dramatists, so if your prime interest is writing sitcoms, send the agent three of those – a sample of a sophisticated, adult show; a sample of a zany, wild show; and a sample of a middle-of-road, appreciated-by-anyone show. If drama is your bent, send a mature drama with lots of talk; an action show with hardly any talk; and a whimsical “dramady” for good measure. If I were looking for drama work, I’d use a spec pilot plus a spec episode for a current medical show, a police procedural, and a science fiction or fantasy episode to top it all off.
After you’ve sent in your package, call to make sure it got there. Then wait about a month – or as long as the assistant may have suggested (unless he said,”until hell freezes over”), and call again if you haven’t heard anything. Unlike book agents, film and TV agents for the most part don’t bother writing rejection letters and returning material. Silence almost always means no. They may, however, call…if their reaction is, “Whoa! This is great! I can sell you in a second.”
The good part about agent hunting is that you can do it from wherever you live. Agents understand that beginners don’t always live in L.A. Be prepared, though, to move to the Land of La as soon as an agent accepts you. Again, it’s a matter of proving that you’re serious. A writer who wants to work in the Industry shows it by living where the Industry is. Hey, even Steven Spielberg lives in the smog.
I know. I’m not exactly describing a high concept technique. It depends on execution, timing, talent, and lots of luck. But it’s what you have to do. And keep on doing. If the the first agent turns you down, go to another, another, on and on. Call me a romantic, but I believe that eventually, if your work displays genuine talent and potential (and/or you make the right friends), someone will take you on, and you’ll be in the game.
After you’re agented up, however, remember one more thing. Don’t expect miracles from these guys. After all, they’re only getting ten percent from you – less than you’d tip even a lousy waiter. Plus, they’re only human. No one believes in you like you do. In the long run, we’re our own best sales people.
Be prepared to shop, shop, shop yourself – even after you drop.
And now, due to popular demand, the second of the “Zeitgeist Boom”/”Drunken Monkey” columns from wherever the hell it is I first published them (It’s fiction, dammit! Don’t forget – it’s fiction!):
Mean Woman Blues
By Drunken Monkey
I’m in the Airstream, on the not-so-foamy pad that passes for a bed, playing a sweet shuffle beat on a little gal I met at the Chimacum feed store across the highway, when my cell phone rings.
Well, it doesn’t ring, actually, it starts thumping out the opening of “L.A. Woman.” Which, if you’re old enough to remember that song, you’ll know is totally out of sync with my fucking, or anybody’s, for that matter.
I’m so thrown that the little gal (who wasn’t really all that little, but she’d showed me a picture of the tiny thing she’d been back in the day and that was who I was banging in my mind) raises up her head and turns so she can see me, and her Absolut-soaked voice gives out an angry, “What the hell? I was just about to make it. Get back on track, monkey man!”
“You were just about to make it? What d’you think I was gonna fucking do?”
The phone stops. Both of us realize it at the same time.
“Hurry, babe,” she says. “Now, now now!”
“Honey, I’m so there—”
I push her face down into the mattress, pull up her butt—
And I remember another time, back in ’68 or ’69, when hearing “L.A. Woman” threw me off so badly that the genuinely little thing I was humping on stomped out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and out of the house without bothering to put on her clothes.
Probably, she didn’t even remember she had clothes. Because we weren’t fucking in just any bedroom in any house, we were fucking in the back bedroom of Eighty Something Something Wonderland Avenue, off Laurel Canyon in La La Lovely L.A., in a session that’d already gone on for two nights and two days of ‘shrooms and acid and shit I can’t recall. The real wonder of that night wasn’t that I’d managed to get my pecker up in the first place, it was that I still knew what a pecker was and that I had one.
“Christine, my little mescaline queen! Don’t go….”
Then I stopped. From the next room I heard Jim’s voice:
“Well I just got into town about an hour ago.
Took a look around, see which way the wind blow….”
Now when I say I heard Jim from the next room, I mean that literally. The Wonderland Avenue house belonged to Morrison’s keyboard-playing pard in The Doors, Ray Manzarak, and I was crashing there after being tossed out of my little Hollywood bungalow by a certain Ms. I can’t name because she’s still alive and miserable mean, who came home with me one night after a recording session on Cahuenga where I was teaching the music lovers of the world how to play drums.
I tripped downstairs and saw Morrison and Manzarak at Ray’s beat-up upright. Jim was wailing, but he stopped when he saw me.
“What’re you doing, standing there naked and watching me, man?”
“Your goddamn song made me lose my hard on,” I said.
“You’re lucky, man. Everything makes me lose my hard on. Fucking downers.” He turned to Ray. “I’m thinking we should shitcan this damn song anyway. Fuckin’ Po’ Boy hates it.”
“Fuckin’ Po’ Boy” was their producer at the time. And his opinion of “L.A. Woman” is more proof if anybody needs it that the minute you give a dude a title with “producer” in it his brain turns into a turd so hard it won’t float.
So I’m in the Airstream, remembering all this and how great that Wonderland Avenue bitch was in bed, and my fucking gets right in the groove.
Until the trailer door bursts open and this Paul Bunyan sized guy crashes in, just as both me and whoever are once again about to cum.
“Arlene! You damn whore!”
“Baby! Shit! It’s not what you think. This gentlemen was helping me load the Nutrena into the truck —
“Don’t talk to me about loads, bitch—”
My cell rang again. I rolled off the pad and grabbed it, keeping myself out of their way.
“Yo, Monkey!” It was the Kid Editor. “Just want you to know our first issue was a big success, and everybody loved your column. We need more…except we’re changing the format so we need it to be half as long.”
Which is a good thing because that’s when Chimacum Bunyan caved in my nose and I stopped being able to think about anything, except one last word:
Viewers love watching mini-series. Writers love writing them. So what the $#@! happened to them? According to Kimberly Potts, the answer is simple: Nothing personal. Just “business.
Why Broadcast Networks Killed the Miniseries
By Kimberly Potts
“Roots.” “Shogun.” “Rich Man, Poor Man.” “The Thorn Birds.” “North and South.” “Gulliver’s Travels.” Those classic broadcast network miniseries from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s made for marquee television. They were multi-night programming events that drew people to their TVs in numbers unachievable today outside televised sporting events. They won awards for their networks.
And then the networks stopped making them. The last broadcast-network miniseries to receive an Emmy nomination was CBS’ “Elvis” in 2005 — and in 2011, there were so few miniseries in the running on both broadcast and cable networks that the Television Academy surrendered to the inevitable and folded the Outstanding Miniseries category into a newly combined category, Outstanding Miniseries or Movie.