PSA: So You Wanna Be a TV Writer
A letter of advice in the worst of times from a comedy scribe
I’m a TV writer who writes for The Ankler under a pseudonym for obvious reasons. Today’s edition is for the muckety-mucks who read this newsletter to send to your kids and poor friends to talk them out of working in this business.
The editor Nan Graham has said that before he started writing Mao II, Don DeLillo “told me he had two folders: one marked ‘Art’ and the other marked ‘Terror.’” DeLillo’s folders were literal and filled with pictures. Mine are on my Desktop (I don’t fuck with the Downloads folder) and are filled, respectively, with scripts and unreimbursed medical bills. You can probably guess which one is bigger.
It’s not the best time to become a TV writer, or any kind of writer, really. It’s also not the worst. That would probably be the Stalin-era Soviet Union or the waning days of the Florentine Republic, when the Medicis threw Niccolo Machiavelli in prison and ordered him to be tortured by strappado. (The strappado was a device used to secure victims’ hands then lift them off the ground and dislocate their shoulders. It’s now mostly used in porn and fitness classes at Orangetheory.)
It’s getting harder to make a living as a TV writer, but people keep trying to do it, and with good reason. It’s a great job. My grandfather was a coal miner. My other grandfather died falling off an oil rig. Getting paid to eat peanut M&Ms and argue about whether a train goes choo-choo or whoo-whoo is a luxury few people enjoy. The process by which those people are chosen is arbitrary and unfair. This is the reality of elite institutions. There are way more qualified people than there are cool jobs.
So the first question to ask before “How do I get staffed?” is “Should I try to be a TV writer?” My answer is, “Can you do anything else?” Are you good at organic chemistry? Overthrowing democratically elected governments? Poker? If you are, I strongly suggest avoiding the entertainment industry altogether. I’d kill to be a surgeon or a Managing Director at Goldman Sachs. (I think killing someone may actually be a prerequisite for the Goldman Sachs thing.) Unfortunately, this is the only thing I’m sort of good at.
I’m not being flip or trying to discourage anyone. I just want you to know what you’re getting into, because I didn’t. I moved to L.A. in the 2000s. The days of personal chefs and bowls of cocaine in writers’ rooms were long gone. Network comedy was dying and cheap-to-make reality programming was ascendant. I have distinct memories of watching TV with friends and saying, “We are so fucked,” while our eyes were glued to Survivor. Even then, we knew we’d rather watch reality TV than another sitcom called Dudes about two dudes moving in together/trying to date/dressing up as women to get jobs at a pharmaceutical company. It’s not like I thought I’d get a writing job immediately, but I didn’t think it would take eight years. Still, through a combination of luck, high tolerance for rape jokes and utter stubborness, I got staffed.
It was hard getting a job then, and it’s even harder now. Smaller budgets, shorter seasons, pennywise/pound foolish lack of investment in lower levels: it’s real. You’re not crazy. There are hundreds of shows but no jobs. And getting your first, or even second, job is no guarantee that you’ll get another one. Shit’s Koyaanisqatsi. “Has staffing season started?” is the new “what party?”
That said, if you’re still reading, that means writing for television is probably your dream, and I want to help you achieve it. I’ve cultivated the same attitude about people getting into TV writing that liberal ‘90s parents cultivated about their teenagers having sex: “I don’t like this, but I know you’re gonna do it anyway. Here are some condoms.”
MY BIG POINTERS
The Rep Question
New writers are obsessed with getting repped, which is understandable, but it shouldn’t be your focus. I spent years trying and failing to get an agent. I got my first staff job through a blind packet submission, but the show was on (eww) cable. It still wasn’t enough to get me a meeting with a Big Three agency, a term that now seems as out-of-date as this joke structure. A few years later, a writer I’d done punch-up for a few times, got a pilot on a network, and the next thing you know my T-Mobile Sidekick was ringing like crazy. (I told you I’m old.) The spec that had gotten a soft pass by every major agency was now apparently “amazing.” I felt like the homely girl who suddenly got hot over the summer. (Note: that never happened to me, it happened to Brianne. I’m still waiting.)
First, Learn to Write
I doubt anyone at my agency read my scripts, but other people did. Eventually, someone who matters will read your script. (You should have multiple scripts on hand, but don’t send more than one unless your reader asks.) That reader could be a showrunner, or an assistant, or someone who knows someone. Before you even think about approaching reps, applying for fellowships, or taking up a professional writer’s offer to read your work, make sure it’s as good as you can possibly make it. One of the mistakes I made early in my career was approaching people with half-baked scripts that I thought were great because well-meaning friends said they were. First impressions are important, and I still rue the day I let anyone with any clout in the industry read my South Park spec about… I can’t tell you. It’s too embarrassing. I still think about it at least once a week.
Another problem with sending out iffy scripts is that you might actually find a rep, but chances are they won’t be a good one. Sketchy managers abound in this business, and you need to ask around and find out which managers have an actual track record of helping their clients.
Does networking matter? Yes, and some people have more of an advantage in that department because of where they went to college or if they have family in the industry. There’s nothing you can do about that. The thing you can do something about is your writing.
Focus on getting good. Really, really good.
Study the shows you like. Read their pilots. Compare the scripts with the actual show so you can get an idea of how words on the page translate to the screen. Join a writing group. If it turns out to be full of weirdos, find another group. Don’t be ashamed if your work is bad at first. I knew a lot of very successful writers when they were starting out. I read their scripts. They were bad, although not as bad as “Cartman Joins the Nation of Islam.” (Okay, there, I told you.) It takes time. And the truth is, you’ll never know for sure if you’re good, unless you’re a total dick.
Okay But At Least Tell Me What People Are Looking For!
People who hire writers are looking for the same thing you’re looking for when you’re watching a show, or reading a novel, or playing Call of Duty: Drone Penis. They want to be entertained. They want to keep going. They want to feel something, anything. Your work is inherently interesting to you because it’s yours. Learn to distance yourself and put yourself in the shoes of the world’s most cynical, indifferent reader. Remember, nobody needs you. Or at least they don’t think they do. You have to talk them into it.
When I started working in the industry, there was a lot of talk about “your calling card” and “that one great spec.” And yes, a great script can open doors, but always have a second thing ready. That’s a minimum. Between the number of shows out there and the randomness of staffing in general, I try to keep a few scripts on hand that showcase different aspects of my writing style.
A lot of shows that are popular within the industry (think Succession or The Bear) mix genres. As much as I love those shows, I’d advise going against the tide here. There are a lot of great shows that wouldn’t necessarily work as specs. I suggest picking a specific genre. Think: thrillers, soap operas, hard comedy. There’s bound to be at least one you like. Take a traditional format then twist it, just a little. Make it yours. Have a point of view.
Get as many notes as you can. Feedback from actual professionals helps, but good notes can come from anywhere. (I recently got some of the best notes in my life from a labor journalist I met randomly on Reddit.) Be clear to your reader about the kind of feedback you want. “Give me your general impression” is fine, but I prefer, “Tell me where you were confused and tell me when you got bored.” The people who will eventually read you are incredibly busy. You need to hook them into your story right away.
The other advantage to getting notes from a lot of people is that it will help you know which notes to take and when to follow your instincts and ignore them. If one person is confused by a scene, it might be them. If three people are confused, it’s probably you.
You Got a Meeting!
This is an amazing first step. When I was starting out, showrunner meetings were basically job offers. They were a formality, a last-minute test to make sure you weren’t completely insane. That’s changed over the years. There’s more competition than ever, and you need to make an impression. Needless to say, you should watch as much of the show as possible. You might be asked what other shows you like. Make sure you have an answer. Even though I do nothing but watch TV, I have a tendency to completely blank out when I get asked this question and end up blurting out something embarrassing like “I just watched that Armie Hammer cannibal murder documentary. Pretty weird stuff.” Have a couple of anecdotes ready, just in case. Funny stories about your childhood, a weird thing you read about in the news — anything novel and fresh that you can relate to the show. Be someone people want to be in a room with. Try not to have a panic attack.
Don’t Get Bitter
TV writing isn’t professional sports. It’s extremely subjective. The industry is not fair, no matter what people tell you. A lot of writers who lean to the left suddenly become boot-strapping free marketeers when it comes to assessing their own success. Financial considerations aside, a lot of hiring decisions come down to chemistry and vibes. Writers are neurotic, irrational people. You will get rejected, and you’ll never know if it’s because your script was “meh” or because the showrunner hired an upper-level sex pest who’s “good at story.” (I put my odds on “sex pest” but that’s just me.)
Stop looking at Twitter. Or better yet do what I did and quit. There was a time when you could find useful information there, but at this point I think the bad advice outweighs the good. Use that time to work on your scripts or your stand-up or any other creative endeavors you’re engaging in. I could have shot multiple feature-length films on my phone in the time I’ve wasted on Twitter. There are also some Facebook writers’ groups that are worth checking out, just remember to mute your aunt who thinks people from Saturn are invading the country.
Accept that it might not work out. That doesn’t mean you have to be negative or pessimistic — just realistic. This business can be very unfair. I’m lucky that I’ve been able to hang on this long. I didn’t have student debt and I had parents who helped me out. Can you make it without those advantages? Absolutely, but whatever you do, don’t blame yourself if the stars don’t align. Try as much as you can to decouple creative success from self-worth. One thing I’ve learned from talking to people who seem to have everything is that having everything gets old fast. Work hard but don’t neglect your friends/significant other/people in your polycule.
Read Priyanka Mattoo
Everyone’s path to TV writing is different. If you want more advice on finding mentors, writing a great pilot and the pros and cons of going the assistant route, I highly recommend her work. Her archive is here:
Finally, if you’re still having a hard time finding someone to read your work, reply here! I might be able to help. You can also reply below to tell me I’m an idiot and have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m used to it. I’m a TV writer.