How to Become a Television Comedy Writer
Have you always wondered how to become a TV comedy writer? The job of a TV comedy writer can be quite lucrative. To some, it might be a bit lacking creatively, as your job is to mimic the voices of pre-established characters.
That said, you're also working every day with a group of talented and funny people, so it's also one of the most fun jobs you'll ever have! There are a lot of ways to break into TV writing, but what follows is what you might consider the basic steps on how to become a TV comedy writer.
Study the TV Format
If you haven't already, the first thing you need to do is to make sure you understand the structure of TV comedy. Whether it’s a sit-com (e.g., “Two and a Half Men”, “My Name is Earl”) or a drama day (e.g., “Sex in the City”, “Ugly Betty”), half hour or hour, you need to get clear on how the show is broken down. Is it a two- or three-act structure? Does it have a clear A story? B story? Runner?
If you don’t know what I’m referring to here, you may want to start by reading a few books on script and story structure. This will help you to understand the basics of scriptwriting. You should also start to learn about how a television show is produced.
What is an executive producer? What does a showrunner do? Understanding how a television show goes from an idea to your television set is good knowledge for you to have. Once you have a sense of how a show is produced, how a TV script is written and what the basic structure of your favorite show is, you’re ready for Step 2.
Write a “Spec”
Now you need to show the industry that you can actually write by writing a “spec” script. The same way an artist or photographer has a portfolio, a writer has a collection of samples that he or she can show a potential employer.
So, what is a spec script? Technically, a spec refers to a “speculative” script. You’re writing it for free and speculating that someone will read it and hire you. It’s essentially a sample script that is either of an existing and popular TV comedy (e.g., “The Office”, “Two and a Half Men”) or a piece of original material that highlights your ability to create voice, situations, characters, and, ultimately, tell a story.
Keep in mind, that if you want to be a comedy writer, then whatever piece you use as your spec script should at the very least be funny. Tip: Write a spec of a popular show. After all, it won’t do you much good to write an episode of a TV comedy that only a handful of people are aware of.
Now, it used to be that if you wanted to be a TV comedy writer, you would simply write up a spec or two of your favorite shows, send them to an agent and hopefully impress them enough to inspire them to go out and find you a writing job.
Things have changed a bit since then—and, actually, it was never quite that easy. The industry (meaning potential employers) is much more open nowadays to reading different types of material. A lot of the shift has to do with the fact that there just aren’t as many comedies on the air as there used to be. That said, it’s recommended that you write at least two spec scripts: one script of a popular TV comedy and one original pilot concept.
It’s a bit more work, but it gives people the chance to see that you can not only recreate the character voices and story dynamics of an existing show, but that you can create your own voices, characters, and storylines that are unique to you, as well. Some writers balk at the notion of having to write an episode of an existing show, but consider that the job you’re going after is exactly that. So, if you show people you can do it, you’ll dramatically help your chances of getting to do it.
Get Usable Notes on Your Spec Script
Before you show your “hot off the press” spec scripts around town, you need to make sure they’re as good as you think they are. Find a minimum of three people who can give you “usable notes.” Usable notes are notes that help you address problems in the script. This is also referred to as constructive criticism.
A Note About Notes
A note from your mother telling you how much she enjoyed the script is not a note. That is an opinion (of course your mother is going to like it). Frankly, opinions are useless. You need someone to read it who is a bit more qualified and who can give you specifics on what’s not working and why.
If you don’t have any friends who are in the “biz” then consider giving it to another comedy writer. You want them to be brutally honest with you. If the story doesn’t seem feasible, or they say the character voices are way off, or your jokes aren’t funny enough, take heed. These are usable notes that will help you to create a better script on your journey to becoming a better writer.
Tip on Notes
It can be trying to hear someone tear your work apart. But if you can learn to remove any emotional attachment to your work and simply listen to the notes that are being given, you’ll be able to calmly discern which notes will help you to improve your script.
Don’t justify why you did something. In fact, don’t say anything at all. Just listen to the notes as they’re being given; use what works for you and filter out what doesn’t. But remember that, if something isn’t coming across to your reader, it won’t help you to explain “what you meant.” If it’s not working, it’s not working, so consider fixing what might be broken.
Pack up Your Specs and Move to Los Angeles
Unfortunately, Los Angeles is really the only place to be a TV comedy writer. Of course, there are similar jobs in England and in Canada, but to work on 99% of all comedies on U.S. television, Los Angeles is where you need to be. Unlike writing for movies, your options for living anywhere other than Los Angeles are nil.
Most TV writing jobs are found through personal connections. Rare is the occasion that someone lands in Los Angeles with a script tucked under their arm and suddenly starts working in the TV biz. So, you need to start networking. Here are a few suggestions:
- Go to Writer's Events
There are a number of events in Hollywood that are geared toward aspiring television and screenwriters. Whether it’s a screening, lecture, or social event, you can find many of them advertised online or in the trade magazines.
- Take a Class
UCLA Extension, AFI, and USC all offer high-quality writing classes that will not only help you to improve your writing skills, but they’ll group you together with a number of like-minded individuals. They’re also often taught by professional writers.
- Start a Writer's Group
Through Craigslist.com, online chat rooms, or even through local newspapers, you can identify other writers whom you might want to start meeting with on a regular basis. A writer's group is not just a great networking tool, but it can help you get a host of constructive criticism on your writing.
- Take an Assistant Job
Find a job working at one of the networks, studios, or agencies as a low-level staffer. By working as an assistant to a development executive, agent, or producer, you’re not only learning valuable information about the business as a whole, but you’re developing relationships with people who have the power to help your budding writing career.
- Consider Working as a Writer’s Assistant
Not that these jobs are easy to find, but many television writers began their careers as a writer’s assistant. The job is exactly that—working as an assistant to the writers. It will not only familiarize you with the process of writing for television, but you will be working directly with the writers on staff. You will be in direct communication with the people that might one day hire you as a writer.
Get an Agent
Now here’s the big catch-22 of Hollywood—to get an agent, you need to be a working writer; and to become a working writer, you need an agent. Frustrating as that may seem, it’s not impossible to get an agent.
Randomly submitting your spec scripts to agencies has been known to work for some people, but it is both time-consuming and expensive. Besides, most agencies have a policy against people blindly submitting material and in fact, may either return the package to you or simply throw it away and never respond (this way they can say it was simply never received).
So, the easiest and most productive way to go about getting an agent is to focus a lot of your attention on steps 2, 3, and 5 above. Make sure you have spec scripts that are of the highest quality possible and that you’re networking any time you’re not writing. More than likely, you will soon come across someone who is in a position to help you.
Let us repeat the importance of having your spec scripts in tip-top shape. When the opportunity to have someone of importance read your scripts comes along, you’ll want them to be so impressed by your writing that they can’t possibly pass you up.
If you remember nothing else, remember these three tips:
- Always be Writing
Remember, writing is a craft and the only way to get better at it is to keep doing it. So, just because you have your two spec scripts ready and in hand, don’t think that’s all you have to do. You’ll want to start creating a body of work that you can use to enhance your career and your skill set. If you don’t want to write another script, then practice writing scenes from your favorite TV shows. Practice mimicking the voices (on paper) of your favorite TV characters. Develop new ideas. The point is never, ever stop writing. You’ll only get better and better with each passing day.
- Writing Is Rewriting
Your first draft is most likely not your best draft. You will perform an infinite number of rewrites over the course of your writing career. Don’t let this discourage you. After you complete most rewrites you’ll soon discover that what you wrote was much better than what was there previously. Story pieces, jokes, character arcs, and dialogue that weren’t working suddenly work better than you ever imagined. Be open to this possibility and don’t let yourself get married to something you’ve written. Be willing to change whatever you need to change to make your scripts as good as they can possibly be. Personally, I prefer rewriting, because at least I have something other than a blank page staring back at me.
- Have Patience
From the moment you first start writing, assume it will take you anywhere from six months to three years (or longer) to get your first TV comedy writing job. Just like anything, it’s a process. Not only in learning the craft itself, but in meeting those people that can help you achieve your career goals. Look at it this way, if you dreamt of becoming a surgeon, you wouldn’t pick up a scalpel on Monday and expect to be operating on people on Tuesday, right? You have to learn the skills, you have to practice them, and then you have to surround yourself with the right people who can help you achieve your dream.
Becoming a TV comedy writer is an admirable career goal. It’s a great job and can, in time, be quite lucrative. Don’t get discouraged by those lucky few who get hired right out of college or after only two weeks of living in Los Angeles; for most people, it’s a long, hard road. If you stay focused, stay driven, and keep writing, you will eventually get where you want to go. The job is well worth the wait.