Have an idea for a new hit television series? With staffing season just months away, a spec script of 30 Rock or an original pilot can be just what you need to break in. Shopping a spec script was all it took for Writers’ Program alum and new instructor Christopher Parrish to make his mark in Hollywood. After his spec got noticed, Chris went on to write for The King of Queens and also created numerous comedy pilots including Old School starring John Krasinski. You can learn how to do likewise in the spring course, Writing the Half-Hour Comedy Pilot Script on Spec where Chris will offer his unique expertise to students.
I recently chatted with Chris about his experience as a television writer.
Writers’ Program: What drew you to television writing and how did you get your start?
Chris Parrish: Ever since I attended my first UCLA Extension Writers’ Program class in 1993, I’ve wanted to write television comedy. Oddly enough, it took breaking into features before I was able to break into TV. Back in 1999, I sold my first feature spec, “Cidney Crawford Wants to Bone Me” to New Line Cinema. The spec got some buzz and was passed along from film executives to television executives until it landed on the desk of the former head of Grammnet (Kelsey Grammer’s company.) The executive loved my spec and brought me in for a meeting. I pitched him an idea I had for a comedy series based on my experiences working at an offbeat video store in downtown Chicago. He liked it and my first studio pilot deal was born.
WP: You’ve written/produced your own pilots as well as worked on established shows. What is it like working collaboratively with other writers on staff?
CP: I come from an improv background studying and performing at The Second City in Chicago where it’s all about comedic collaboration. The writers’ room is an extension of doing improv with your friends, except you’re shaping your stories, dialogue and characters inside a writers’ room and not on-stage. When you’re working on someone else’s show or pilot, the challenge is to be heard and to prove your worth to the showrunner(s) by contributing in the writers’ room. And rightfully so. It’s a very well-paying and competitive gig.
WP: What is it like doing your own show?
CP: When you’re working on your own show or pilot, the challenge is to hear everything your writing staff suggests (often all at the same time) and make immediate decisions on what suggestions you’re going to take. But the script isn’t where your responsibility ends. When it’s your own show, you supervise and sign off on everything from cast to costumes to sets to props to editing to music to making certain your star gets that special organic peanut butter he wants on the craft service table. It’s exhausting. It’s demanding. It’s stressful. And it’s the greatest job I’ve ever had.
WP: Your new course is called Writing the Half-Hour Comedy Pilot Script on Spec. What does it mean to write on “spec”?
CP: “Spec” is short for speculative. When a writer (novice or seasoned professional) writes on spec, they are writing a script without receiving any initial payment or salary or guarantee of payment by any network, studio, production company or individual. That’s the sucky part.
WP: What are the benefits to write comedy on spec?
CP: The awesome part about writing a half-hour comedy pilot spec is that you answer to no one. You have the opportunity to execute your own personal vision, get out your point of view, deliver your brand of comedy without being edited, censored, filtered or noted to death. A spec pilot allows a writer to make no compromises. It’s liberating. It’s exciting. And it lets the television world sit up and take note of who you are and what you’re all about.
It also means when your spec is complete and if it prompts an option, sale or, better yet, a bidding war, there is no already agreed upon maximum price for your material. Translation: if there is a demand for your pilot spec, the sky’s the limit.
WP: The growing industry trend seems to indicate that the television spec market is now the feature spec market. Why do you think there is such a dramatic shift in interest toward television today?
CP: Up until the mid-1990’s, feature writers seemed to be selling specs for half a million bucks a pop every other week. Studios mostly made bigger budgeted movies, as well. Today, studios typically don’t and can’t shell out as much for specs as they have in the past. This may have curbed some of the feature spec frenzy. Also, it has never been easier or more economical for ambitious storytellers to go ahead and make their own features without waiting for a “green light” from a movie studio.
The networks’ and studios’ willingness to take a chance on pilots from rookie television writers has never been greater. In the past, the networks and studios leaned mostly on expensive television comedy writers/creators with very pricy development deals for their pilots and didn’t take outside spec pilots or pitches from up and coming writers as seriously.
Today’s economics have changed all that. Studios and networks have been forced to greatly reduce their overhead on these very expensive A-list television creator/showrunner deals and take a chance on fresh, new voices without a seven figure pilot quote. As more and more rookie writers continue to deliver great pilots and comedy series, studio and network executives have more confidence in this process and gone from merely being willing to read spec comedy pilots from new writers to demanding them.
WP: What are some of your favorite shows and how did the pilot episode hook you as a viewer?
CP: I love The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. What hooked me as a viewer from the pilot on was how incredibly original and hilarious each shows’ characters truly are. The humor from the characters on both shows always seems to organically come from the characters’ personalities. It’s never forced. Never funny for funny sake. Never contrived. Plain and simple– that’s just damn good writing!
WP: What advice would you give novice writers who are ready to shop their pilots around town?
CP: Do your homework. Don’t submit blindly around town. Come up with a game plan. If you want to get a specific producer, agent or manager onboard ?find out what they’ve already sold that season, what they’re presently trying to sell and what their needs are. If you’re going directly to a studio or network executive try to find out what they need. Are they looking for a vehicle for a certain actor? Do they need a companion piece to an existing show on the air? Has the network or studio president handed down a mandate for a specific type of show? If you can, team up with someone who will be an advocate for your pilot (agent, manager, producer.) Outside validation makes a big difference. It doesn’t matter if your advocate is a little guy or from a major agency. If they’re persistent, and if they truly believe in you and your project and will fight for you, then you’re halfway home.
WP: Anything else you would like to share?
CP: People are starving for comedy, especially considering how hard the recession has been on everyone. We’re all so stressed out and worried about so many incredibly serious situations, we need a little comic relief and a temporary escape even if it’s only for thirty minutes at a time.
Chae Ko is the screenwriting program assistant in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.