The budding sitcom writer’s guide to Hollywood

producers, agents and other unctuous weasels...

producers, agents and other unctuous weasels

chuck tatham is a Canadian living in l.a. where he is a writer on abc’s Full House series.

Many times, people involved in the entertainment industry who aren’t burdened with a great deal of creative integrity (am I being redundant?) end up living where I do: Los Angeles. A former resident of Guelph, Waterloo and Bathurst Street in Toronto, I now spend my days (and the occasional night) writing for abc’s primetime workhorse Full House.

While trading the Gardiner Expressway for the Ventura Freeway may sound straightforward enough, before anyone cancels their Argos season tickets and loads up the U-Haul they should understand the nonsense which must be endured before relocating to the land of the earthquake shelter and the bulletproof bathrobe.

The obligatory biographical paragraph which is actually sort of autobiographical because I wrote it

I was still on Bathurst Street in the spring of 1991, and my partner/brother, Jamie, and I had written two episodes of Maniac Mansion for ytv (Family Channel in the u.s.) and co-penned a sitcom pilot, with mentor/pal, Perry Rosemond, for the cbc. Pleasant successes, certainly, but two things nevertheless bothered us: first, the good people at Maniac Mansion, friendly as they were, seemed entirely reluctant to hire us permanently and second, early 1991 was when the cbc fired everyone from the guy who delivered the coffee and Danish to the guy who ordered the coffee and Danish.

So we headed south.

Some facts about executive producers and why they have so much power and cars and stuff like that

To acquire a writing job on a sitcom entails writing a ‘spec’ sitcom script which is so well-crafted, funny and nicely typed that it impresses an executive producer to the extent that he or she asks you to work for them. The method by which you create such a priceless document, and then get it into the jewel-encrusted hands of the mighty exec producer, is a complicated one.

The rule is this: unless it’s submitted by an agent, a producer won’t (or at least shouldn’t) read it. This is partly because tv people are elitist weasels and partly because they would rather not wade through drifts of unsolicited dreck. Also, they’re not big fans of spending every other week in court defending themselves against plagiarism charges brought forth by a housewife from Don Mills who thought the Seinfeld episode she saw on tv reminded her very much of the Seinfeld script she mailed to the show two years ago, especially the part where Jerry complains about how chocolate Quik never stays mixed with the milk.

Those lucky few who are either related to an executive producer or park his car at the gym (true story) can circumvent using an agent, but the smartest route (unless you’re the Larry Gelbart of the valet set) is to find ‘representation.’ And, to the best of my knowledge, no rookie writer ever got an agent without writing a spec script which left that agent thoroughly impressed. (Note: plenty of crappy veteran writers with equally crappy writing samples have gotten an agent for the simple reason they were employed and thus represented, in the agent’s watering eyes, Samsonites full of $50 bills and the down payment on a Palm Springs condo. It’s not unlike dangling a pot roast in front of a rottweiler who hasn’t eaten since the Trudeau administration.)

Writing the extra special spec script, regardless of what Uncle Benny says

The actual writing is a painful, generally futile endeavor which is never easy to discuss with relatives. Uncle Benny never seems to understand what you’re writing (Mad About You? What happened to shows like The Trouble With Tracy?), why you’re writing it (You mean they didn’t hire you? You’re writing it just to show someone?), or why you would undertake something so tenuous when there are plenty of openings in the stereo department at Bad Boy.

The script is infinitely easier to write if you ignore Uncle Benny and adhere to these general rules:

a) Write an episode of a show you know and like. Much as a spec Frasier may sound good, it won’t fly if you refer to the main character as Frankie.

b) Make it easy on the reader; write an episode of a show that is presently on the air. Sure, you loved King of Kensington (who didn’t?) but a well-known American show is a wiser choice. Current favorites of the break-into-the-business set are Frasier and Mad About You.

c) Get your hands on an actual script and try to recreate the format exactly. (If you’re writing a Grace Under Fire you have to know things like whether or not it’s double-spaced and if a new scene starts on a new page or not).

Also, keep it as close to 42 pages as possible because the page count is the only thing most agents can be absolutely certain of. They might not recognize a good joke if they had one lodged up their Armani-clad backsides, but they do know 40 pages isn’t enough and 45 looks like you don’t know what you’re doing.

d) Proofread your script after you get it back from Kinko’s. (We once sent out 10 scripts with no page 12 and an upside down page 32.)

e) Don’t swallow too much of the cheap advice offered by know-it-alls in articles like this one. Just remember, if the jokes are truly funny, the story’s solid, and the voices in the script sound like the voices on the show, it might get you an agent.

The Writers’ Guild of America: it’s more than just validated parking

If and when the spec script is finally completed, it’s time to consult with the good people at the Writers’ Guild of America. Contrary to popular belief, the wga does several important things other than take one point five percent of a writer’s income and hold symposiums on topics like ‘Gilligan: Why the Upper Hammock?’ One of its more vital duties is to compile the list of accredited agents whom you need to represent you. Simply phone the wga and ask them to mail you a list.

When you receive the list, ignore the notation beside many of the agencies: ‘Will not read unsolicited manuscripts.’ Maybe producers won’t read an unsolicited script, but some of these agents will. The only truly essential information on the list are the addresses of the agencies you should pursue (located in Beverly Hills, Century City, and other l.a.-area boroughs) and the addresses of the lesser-known places you should probably ignore (located in Buffalo, Moose Jaw, and other places entirely too far away from Larry David’s office.)

Getting yourself an agent while doing permanent damage to your self-confidence

To save gobs of money on long-distance calls (and spend gobs of money on plane tickets) consider doing what my brother and I did. We flew to l.a. and, armed with the wga list, locked ourselves in a motel room and phoned every l.a. agency on the list (somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 calls). Our mission was to harass defenseless receptionists into divulging the name of an agent who might, possibly, maybe just maybe, read a spec script.

The vast majority of these receptionists were pleasant people who, nevertheless, wanted nothing to do with us. We heard the words ‘No new writers’ and ‘Sorry, no unsolicited scripts’ more often than Bill Clinton has heard the words, ‘You want fries with that?’

We soon discovered that our most effective technique, tragically, was to feign interest in the receptionist’s past (‘You’re from Kentucky? We used to drive through Kentucky on the way to FloridaÉ’), and otherwise pretend to care about a complete stranger who is the thirty-seventh person you’ve talked to in the last half an hour.

Once you’ve finished calling every agency on the list (and this takes a while; the ‘cheer yourself back up’ time required after each rejection is very time-consuming) you will have, possibly, the name of two or three agencies which have grudgingly agreed to thumb through your script. They, of course, get the script, but they also get a cover letter.

The cover letter and, thankfully, second to last irritating subhead

Except for the most obnoxious and defiant agencies, everyone gets a cover letter because, as the saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat. An agency’s receptionist may have given you the brush-off, but a well-crafted letter might fall into different, more responsive hands.

Mail it to an agent (maybe you got his/her name out of Variety or coaxed it out of the receptionist) and make it funny, snappy, tell them about your spec script, and above all, make it overwhelmingly simple for the agent to contact you. If this means writing ‘call me collect at 416-555-1212′ in block letters, so be it.

Remember, with few exceptions you’re talking to a person who wouldn’t help Mother Teresa get her head out of a bear trap unless there was money up front and 3% of the gross.

Some final words of advice and encouragement plus a reference to George Plimpton

After mailing out seven dozen splendid cover letters the foolish writer expects immediate, enthusiastic responses. The realistic writer, conversely, understands that from Wilshire Boulevard to Doheny Drive the cover letter is being used to wrap haddock. Every agency gets dozens of these missives every day, and even if you put together a piece of correspondence George Plimpton would be proud of, a cover letter from an inexperienced writer has ‘recycle bin’ written all over it.

Having said that, miracles do happen. Not only did we obtain our agent through a cover letter, he turned out to be a decent, hard-working guy whom we actually trust around children. When we finally landed him though, he reminded us that our work had just begun, because, as they say, a writer who depends on his agent is a waiter.

To get that high-paying tv gig a writer must do whatever dehumanizing task is necessary; memorizing names out of Variety, hobnobbing with vacuous slicky boys at industry functions, or putting on a pith helmet and climbing up the side of Warren Littlefield’s villa.

Also, through it all, never, ever take rejection too seriously. A spec Simpsons script my brother and I innocently wrote was deemed so mean-spirited by one industry executive that she said she would never meet with us.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to feel sorry for ourselves for very long. Three weeks later that same Simpsons script landed us a job on the nicest show on television: Full House.