Ken Levine of M*A*S*H and CHEERS fame teaches us one of the most important lessons a budding TV writer can learn. Do you know the right way to pitch your sitcom?
by Ken Levine
One of the hardest things to do in Hollywood is sell a pitch for a TV series. There’s a real art to it. So much rides on the pitch and it’s a very different skill set from writing. There are some fantastic writers who are terrible in a room and some writers who are Billy Graham in a room but can’t write worth shit.
There are so many ways to botch a pitch that one must tread very carefully. But very confidently.
Time was a writer/producer would have an idea for a show, set up meetings, go in and wing it. Not anymore. Now writers rehearse their pitch. They pitch to their non-writing producers. They pitch to their agents and managers. I’ve even heard of focus groups being called in.
Personally, I think there’s a danger in that. Especially in pitching a sitcom. The pitch can get so rehearsed that you lose the spontaneity of the idea. Producers claim you must come in with detailed character descriptions, and five or six in depth outlines for stories.
There are several problems with that (as I see it): First off, it’s tedious to listen to. If you’re reading a pitch it’s death. If you’ve memorized a pitch you’ll be reciting it by rote and that’s death.
The truth is a lot of pitches are dead in the first two minutes. And it’s not always your fault. For whatever reason the network doesn’t want to do the area you’re pitching. You can have the world’s greatest pitch for a political-themed sitcom and if the network doesn’t want to do political sitcoms you’re toast. And then the poor network official has to listen to fifteen minutes of your palaver (knowing she’s got seven more pitches on her calendar that day). A year later when your agent calls that network person to set up a new pitch she won’t remember the exact idea you came in with last season, she’ll just remember you bored the shit out of her. Not good.
It’s admirable in developing the characters to really get to know them before you pitch, but not so detailed to where things can’t change.