Specing blows

For those not in “the biz,” a spec script (for TV) is basically a writing sample. Professional and aspiring writers who are looking for work write episodes of shows they like. But because the world is crazy (and for reasonable legal reasons), these episodes won’t be read by anyone who works for the show the episode was written for. They’ll be distributed, instead, by an agent, to producers of similar shows in the hopes that said producers will hire the writer as a staff member or bring him in for freelance work. I’d been told, when I first started asking about these things, that it’s a painful, idiotic process. I decided writers were babies and that I should probably stop taking advice from them. They are babies, but they’re also right. It is painful.

My main obstacle presented itself before I even started writing. What show to choose? I had never considered that might be a problem, but here’s the thing: despite the fact that I’m looking to write TV, I watch far less of it than the average American. Oh, I like the stuff. But most of the time, I have shit to do.

When I do watch TV, it tends to be on DVD. And this is a problem, because that means old shows. And you see, it’s sort of an unspoken rule that you shouldn’t spec for shows that are more than, say, 5 years old. Because producers are sick of them. Or it shows you’re living in the past. Or something. Whatever; it’s a rule. And cancelled shows are right out.

So no West Wing. And no Firefly. And no Gilmore Girls. But GG probably wouldn’t work anyway, because its major storylines are never contained to one episode, so your spec becomes dated instantly (and probably won’t make any sense when the writers go a different direction with the story).

Oh, and here’s another “rule.” If you spec for an animated show or a sci-fi show, you’d better be hoping to write for animation or sci-fi. I wouldn’t mind writing in those genres, but do I really want to box myself in before my career has even begun? So no Simpsons. And no Battlestar Galactica.

And so after crossing all this off my list, I discovered there was no scripted TV left that I liked and was familiar with. So I started searching out new TV. I watched Grey’s Anatomy, and enjoyed the hell out of it, but it’d be even harder than Gilmore Girls to write a stand-alone episode for. I watched House MD. Fun character; mediocre show.

Oh, and one more thing. Apparently in Hollywood, you’re a half hour comedy writer or a one hour drama writer. Nevermind that some of the funniest shows are an hour in length. Nevermind that most serious writers are talented enough to both make jokes and make you angry at that dastardly (but oh so charming) House MD. So that’s another decision to make, but one I probably don’t have to worry about just yet. I was still focused on finding a show, any show, that I liked and fit the criteria of acceptable spec material.

I watched Huff. I watched Two and a Half Men. They weren’t any good.

Finally I found a pair of shows that could work. They’re both going into their second season, which means they’re younger than the ideal age, but they both already seem to have found a unique voice, which takes away one of the age obstacles (the other being that executives may not yet have seen the show). They are My Name is Earl and How I Met Your Mother. Neither is perfect, but they’re good-hearted and they’re funny. And that’s enough.

Now I just need to figure out how to write for other people’s characters. I assumed this part of the process would be fun, but it goes against every natural instinct as a writer. Natural instincts suck.


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