Each year, the Writers’ Program has the privilege of naming two instructors as Outstanding Instructors of the Year. At the 2012 awards luncheon to be held next month, onsite television writing instructor Phil Kellard will be recognized as one of this year’s recipients. For six years, Phil has taught the full spectrum of television spec and pilot writing courses. His courses are always among the first to fill, and like any good show runner, he retains his audience.
Here’s what his students say about his classes: “Class was so good, I took it twice!” “Third time taking a class with him and loved the experience!” “[I’ve] taken four classes with him! Phil is great!” And finally: “Phil Kellard is without a question one of the best teachers I have ever been taught by. His vast experience within his field, in tandem with his teaching style, made for a perfect combination. I loved this class!”
If you haven’t had the chance to work with Phil yet, be sure to grab a seat in his Writers Studio course, “Creating the Television Pilot,” or his upcoming winter course, “Advanced Sitcom Rewrite,” before it’s too late!
Writers’ Program: What originally made you want to become a television writer and how did you get your start?
Phil Kellard: The films of Preston Sturges–Sullivan’s Travels, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, etc.–inspired me, because he took the ‘Screwball Comedy’ and raised the bar. Also the Marx Brother’s movies influenced me tremendously. I grew up watching the golden age of the television sitcom — I Love Lucy, Ozzie and Harriet, right through All In the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I never missed an episode of those shows. I didn’t know what or how, I just knew I wanted to be part of all that.
Eventually I submitted jokes to a very popular show of the 1970’s called The Hollywood Squares. They liked the jokes I submitted and I stayed there writing hundreds of jokes a week for three years. After that I moved on to variety and sketch shows and basically buried those two genres. Then I finally landed on my first sitcom for Redd Foxx. I started as a punch up writer coming in one to two nights a week. I wrote my first script for that show and then wrote three more. On various different half hour comedies, I went from staff writer to working myself up through the ranks to eventually becoming an Executive Producer/Showrunner.
Wp’: What’s the driving force that keeps you writing and pitching new projects today?
PK: I’m a big fan of television. Always have been. I’m probably more excited about it today than at any other time. I think there is better writing going on in television right now than in motion pictures or anywhere else for that matter. And we’re expanding the characterization of sitcoms. They are musical; they’re darkly complex sometimes. The narrative is stronger and the jokes are tighter. A lot of them are more ambitious than the sitcoms of ten years ago. And hour dramas are unbelievably good. I’m working in developing both comedy and drama right now and all of this keeps me incredibly enthusiastic.
Wp’: I’m sure working in TV has produced as many memorable moments behind the camera as well as on screen. Is there a particular experience you look back on fondly? Or conversely, not-so fondly, like a bad horror story about rejection?
PK: I guess the years I spent working with Steven Bochco, my brother Rick, and my partner Tom Moore on Hooperman and then on to Doogie Howser, M.D., were the most memorable for me, because, at the time, we were creating the first real run at single camera half hours. They were branded as “dramedies.” We were doing little movies every week that had a lot of comedy, but a lot of drama also. We also dealt with a lot of issues in a real, but comedic way. It took my writing to another level and I loved going to work every day.
Wp’: Do you find that teaching enhances your career, or vice-versa?
PK: I feel that teaching is a two way street. I learn from teaching. I also receive a greater understanding of what I do as a writer from teaching it. I love the process of a Writer’s Room and I get to experience that and share it with my students every time I teach. It keeps me fresh and current and it informs and energizes my career. It also reminds me to listen to myself. I pitched a show a few weeks ago at ABC and a couple of days later to NBC. The ABC pitch was a good pitch; the NBC pitch was great. In between the two meetings I did a lecture on pitching to one of my class. I guess it was kind of a ‘practice what you teach’ moment.
Wp’: In your opinion, what is the single most important thing a teacher can impart to his or her students?
PK: I think inspiration. I hope I light a fire somewhere in them creatively. I hope I inspire my students to have a passion for writing and to put passion into their writing. I hope I inspire them to have an appetite for telling stories. Story instructs. That’s its job. A writer’s job is to always have a story to tell.
Wp’: Lastly, what does winning the 2012 Outstanding Instructor of the Year Award mean to you?
PK: It’s a terrific honor. It means a great deal to me. It means I’m doing a good job. I love writing and it continues to be the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. Teaching gives me those same feelings. As achievements go, it’s right up there. The award will go right next to my Emmy.
Jeff Bonnett is the Program Assistant for Screenwriting (Onsite & Online). Contact him at email@example.com or (310) 206-1542.