In the writers’ room with Bob Kushell

The Anger Management exec producer and creator of BBC series Way to Go talks about the elements of a good pilot and pitch document, and his best pitch that didn't make it.
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Leading up to the 4th annual Toronto Screenwriting Conference on April 6 and 7, Playback is featuring Q&As with some of the all-star writers leading the conference, which takes place at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto.

Anger Management exec producer Bob Kushell is also the creator and writer of new BBC comedy Way to Go. His TV writing and producing credits also include The Simpsons, 3rd Rock from the Sun, American Dad and Suburgatory. During the Anatomy of a Pilot session at the TSC this weekend, Kushell will discuss his writing strategy for the Way to Go pilot, including how the pilot was conceived and how it was sold to the BBC.

Here, Kushell tells Playback about the elements of a good pilot and good pitch document, and his best pitch that didn’t make it.

You’re doing a session on the Anatomy of a Pilot – so what ARE some of the considerations in creating a successful pilot? Is it about establishing the characters in the single episode, or building the story so that people want to see more?

BK:The most important consideration in creating a pilot – or any dramatic writing, frankly – is populating it with dynamic, extremely specific characters who conflict with each other. There were only four main characters on Seinfeld, but they were so specific and well-developed that their inter-personal dynamics were enough to last nine incredible seasons. The audience may be initially attracted to the concept. But they’ll always come back for the characters.    

How do you turn a good idea into a good pitch document? What are some important points to include in a pitch?

BK: The difficulty most inexperienced writers have in presenting a pitch is their ability to articulate the story, character and tone without being verbose and confusing. The challenge is to keep everything being read or heard by far-too-busy executives simple and digestible, while staying specific. Capture their attention by relating the pitch back to your own life, give a reason or two why you’re passionate about the project and then grab them with an exciting opening that captures the tone of your show… then go on from there. Take no more than 15 minutes. Like a script itself, it’s important to rewrite and refine, until it’s the most concise version of your vision.

Did you have to make any considerations or do anything differently in writing for U.S. TV versus the U.K. (BBC Three)? Any differences in the process (considering you’ve done it multiple times for U.S. comedies and this was the first for the U.K.?)

BK: The only difference in the process of writing a pilot in the U.K. was the completely hands-off approach by the executives running the network. Once the project was greenlit by the BBC, they were completely hands-off. Leaving my producers (including Jon Plowman who brought the world The Office and AbFab), directors and I to be the arbiters of every part of the process. I was allowed to have absolutely creative control and achieve a vision was completely my own.

You’ve worked extensively on U.S. comedies – is there one experience that stands out where you learned the most?

BK: I never learned more about writing then during the five years I had the pleasure of producing for 3rd Rock From the Sun, starring John Lithgow. I was in my mid-20s, and fortunate enough to be under the wing of Bonnie and Terry Turner, the brilliant husband and wife writing team who created the show. In addition, I was blessed to be surrounded by an amazingly gifted writing staff, who all learned from each other.

How do you get through writers block? 

BK: I don’t think I get writers block as much as I get “idea block.” Once I have an idea I’m passionate about, I can pretty much write my way through any obstacle I’m confronted with. That’s never a concern. The challenge for me has always been in finding an idea that interests me enough to live with, develop and ultimately write. They are few and far between. But when one comes, it’s like manna from heaven!

What was your best pitch that didn’t make it?

BK: In 2004, I wrote a situation comedy for Jeff Goldblum to star in, loosely based on his life. It was about a jazz pianist who, like Jeff, had been married three times to three completely different women, all of whom he continues to have relationships with. It was called The Nick Cooper Trio. And to this day, I continue to play with the idea, trying to make it work.

And in 2010, I wrote a one hour drama – my first – for Idina Menzel about the life of an aspiring Broadway star. It was incredibly well-received, but never happened. And to this day, I always wonder “What if…”

What advice would you give to an aspiring screenwriter?

BK: Many aspiring writers at the beginning of their career fall into the trap of writing what they think will sell. My strong belief is you have to write what you are passionate about, because that will always reveal your true self and get the attention you want and deserve.