What You Need To Get a TV Staff Job
By Jacob Krueger
With the announcement of our new TV Writing Class, I’ve been receiving a lot of questions about what you need to do to break in to the TV Writing Business. Television is a special kind of beast, with highly specific parameters that vary from show to show. Unlike feature film producers, TV showrunners and producers aren’t just looking for a script with a great hook and a unique voice. They’re looking to see if you can play by their rules, and adapt your talent to the unique requirements of their show.
Thinking about writing an episode for your favorite show? Don’t do it!
You’d think the best way to show a TV producer how well you’d fit in for a staff writing position would simply be to write an episode for their show. But unfortunately just the opposite is true. TV producers are terrified of being sued, especially if one of the ideas from your script ends up appearing in one of their episodes. For this reason, no TV producer or showrunner will even consider reading a sample episode of their own show.
Instead, they will gauge your ability to meet their needs by requesting two sample episodes (often referred to as spec episodes, since the writer is writing them speculatively), from two different shows. But you’ve got to be careful which shows you pick! Here are 5 steps to choosing the right spec to write.
1. Make sure you pick a show that’s in the right genre.
A showrunner for Big Bang Theory is going to have no interest in your Downton Abbey spec script, no matter how brilliantly executed it may be. Proving your value as a prospective staff writer requires choosing a show that lets you show off your ability to shine in that genre, so a showrunner can see how clearly you’d fit in on his or her staff.
Make a list of the qualities of the shows you most would like to write for, and then ask yourself, what other shows are closest to them in tone or style. Ask yourself who the target audience is for the show of your dreams, and consider what other shows are targeting that audience. Watch them all, and think about which are going to bring out the best in you as a writer. Which are the most exciting for you to write? Those are the ones to choose.
2. Make sure you pick a show that is currently running.
Hollywood is a “what have you done for me lately” kind of town. No one wants to read a spec script from a cancelled series. And even if you’re writing for a big hit, you want to make sure your spec script feels like it could fit right into the current season, and doesn’t feel like it’s dated in any way. Old news is bad news in television, and when producers see a spec episode that doesn’t feel current, they assume you either don’t know what’s happening in the industry, or that you’re peddling old scripts rather than generating new ones. TV Producers and Showrunners want to hire ambitious writers who can keep their shows current, write quickly and generate material on demand. So keep your writing samples fresh. And when they start to get stale, write new ones. All that work will only make you a better writer. And will also help you be prepared to wow everyone when that door finally does open for you on your first staff job.
3. Make sure it’s a successful show.
Hollywood producers care about dollars. They want to read episodes of shows that have been successful, not for the flops that no one is watching. And most importantly they want to read episodes of series they have seen, so that they can evaluate your skill in reproducing the essential elements show authentically.
So when considering your spec episodes, pick the series that everyone is watching, and then dazzle them with your ability to fit in with their aesthetic.
4. Think about your own aesthetic.
Remember, a producer or showrunner isn’t just evaluating your talent as a writer. They’re considering how you’re going to fit in with their current team, and how faithfully you can reproduce the qualities that matter to them in their own show.
So the most important thing is to choose a series for your spec episode that is going to bring out the best in you as a writer, and showcase your talent. Don’t ever write a spec episode for a show you hate, no matter how appropriate it might be. Write a spec episode for a show you love. You’ll not only have more fun. You’ll also be a lot more likely to write a script that can wow a jaded producer. Because you’ll be writing something that’s truly in your heart
5. Don’t just write two spec scripts. Write a whole bunch of them.
As a writer on a series, you’re going to have to be able to generate new material every single week, working at a frantic pace. So you might as well get used to it now. You’ll not only build your library, you’ll also be far more likely to end up with two spec scripts that are truly spectacular. Make a list of all the series on the air that you’d like to write for, and write a spec script for each of them. Then when you mix and match, think not only about what your best spec scripts are, but also about what the different pairings say about your abilities as a writer.
Remember, producers and showrunners are not just looking for great writers, they’re looking for writers who can produce on demand, work under pressure, and fit in so perfectly with the existing staff that no one could guess their episode was written by a different writer. What are the best combinations of scripts to demonstrate those qualities in you?
Stay tuned for the next installment of this series, in which I’ll be discussing the 3 Biggest Mistakes that writers tend to make in writing a spec episode.
In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about writing for TV Comedy, please check out our fantastic new TV Writing Class, with acclaimed Showrunner Jerry Perzigian. It’s the only class of its kind, run exactly like a writers room on a real TV series, taught by a showrunner with over 25 years experience on some of the most successful sitcoms in television history, and featuring the work of 12 talented student writers!