15 May 2014
basac's picture
I've been asked by a comedy writer friend about writing spec scripts of comedy shows. These are scripts you write of sitcoms that already exist, that you send off in the hope of showing off your sitcom-writing ability to comedy producers. The script is written for free, and on speculation of getting work, hence the name.                                                                              
It’s the standard method for starting your writing career in American comedy, and in his book 'Writing For Television' the top screenwriting agent Julian Friedmann suggests that when putting a portfolio of TV scripts together, one of them should be a spec script for an existing UK show.                                                                                                                        
This advice runs counter to everything we’ve been told about writing scripts in the UK, and that we should all concentrate on producing original scripts. 
“Would there be any point at all”, my friend asked, “in writing a spec script for ‘Rev’ or ‘W1A’ or ‘Toast of London’? Would agents actually read it? Or would it just be six months of effort wasted?”                                                                                                                                                                      
It used to be the case that you could define comedy writing in the following way: American comedies were all team-written, and were all made in industrial quantities, 24 episodes per year, because in America comedy and making TV is an industry. In the UK, where no one would ever have been so vulgar as to describe what we did as an 'industry', sitcoms were the singular vision of one or at most, two writers, and episodes arrived in batches of six per year.                                                                               
Then a couple of small changes happened, but each has led to a blurring of the lines between British and American comedy. First came the rise of American cable networks such as HBO, and they began to commission series that were, like British shows, the vision of one writer. Meanwhile in Britain, the BBC was looking to more efficient ways of producing comedy, and so they turned to the American model and began commissioning team-driven shows creating 13 episodes a year.                                                                                                                                                                           
I talked briefly about my own experience in my book ‘How To Be Averagely Successful At Comedy’ (link below):                                                                                                                                                                           
“In 2003 I went to a talk given by Fred Barron, a successful American sitcom writer and producer who had moved to the UK and created the hit sitcom ‘My Family’. At the talk, someone asked, ‘how do I get to work for you as a sitcom writer?’ to which Fred replied, ‘write a speculative script of an episode of your favourite sitcom, send it to me, and I’ll read it. If I like it, I’ll hire you.’ So I wrote a speculative script of an episode of ‘Frasier’, sent it to Fred Barron, he read it, liked it, and asked me to come and write for ‘My Family.’"                                                                                                                                                                                                              
Should you try and do this? It’s how all comedy writers start out in America. I recommend trying if you have the time: it’s easier than creating your own new show from scratch, because all the characters are defined, and you only have to develop new stories and jokes for them. Nothing may come of this work, but at the very worst you’ve performed a valid exercise, a good lesson at how to improve at your craft.                                                                                                                                                                                         
To be more specific about it, the question is should my friend be writing a spec script? And, by definition, should you? At this point it becomes a matter of how you would best like to use what spare time you have. I can't give a definitve answer, but here are a few points that might help you decide...                                                                                                                                                                                                                  
1. You shouldn't need six months. As I say above, the characters and the settings are all there for you. Plotting, scene by scene breakdown, then script.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
2. Even if you don't end up writing the script, you can spend some time coming up with a load of plot ideas (James Cary has written half a dozen excellent columns on this:  HYPERLINK "http://sitcomgeek.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/storylining-plotting-part-1.html" \t "_blank" http://sitcomgeek.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/storylining-plotting-part-1.html ) This is a really good exercise, it forces you to think about plot in relation to character, and it teaches you how to come up with loads of plots when it's your own project.                                                                                                                                                                  
3. My friend was right, agents might not read it, but producers/script development people might. If you can get a meeting with a producer or development person, it shouldn’t do you any harm to say 'by the way, I wrote a spec script of x'. It's something you can give them that shows you know how to write.                                                                                                                                                                                                  
4. BUT... do you think you can write an episode of ‘Rev’ or ‘W1A’ that will make a producer go 'wow! Amazing! That's so good I can imagine actually seeing that episode.'? It's a big ask. I partly got lucky with Fred Barron - I sensed (correctly) that no one else was going to bother writing a spec script, so I didn't have any competition. But I also had experience, and had written a number of pilot sitcom episodes of my own shows that had been through various notes and redrafts.                                                                                                                                                                                   
I understand that the culture in this country is sometimes hostile to the spec script. I’ve written three in ten years – two have directly led to sitcom-writing jobs but the third was greeted with utter bafflement by the writer-producers. In two out of three of the cases, I had an ‘in’ contact, so I knew my script was being read by the right person. In the case where I didn’t have an ‘in’, my script was rejected by a junior member of staff, but luckily for me the script found its way into the hands of the right person, and he liked it enough to take me on.                                                                                                                                                                                      
Knowing the right person is a big help. But it’s definitely worth considering, if only to keep your brain working along the right lines.                                                                                                                                               
What makes it a useful exercise is that it's a chance for you to shine within someone else's strict rules. For instance, if you want to write a spec episode of 'Rev' you're going to have to involve all the characters who appear every week - not just Adam and Alex, but also Colin, Nigel, the Archdeacon and Adoha. They don't all need to feature prominently but every character should be part of one of the plotlines you have running through the show.                                                                                                                           
And you should probably limit your settings to those you have seen in the show - the house, the church, outside the front door, the park, the office and a taxi for the Archdeacon.                                                                                                                                                                                  
Given the extremely conclusive ending of 'Rev', and the closing down of the church, you'd have to set your episode earlier than the end of series three. But that's okay, you're not asking anyone to make this script, you're just trying to show a producer or an agent that you can write. At the end you will have, at the very worst, a sitcom episode you have created and seen through to the end of the first draft.                                                                                                                                                                                     
Whether you feel that's the best use of your time...                                                                                                                                                                   
That book (soon to be an ebook)