It’s an awesome feeling when you figure out what you want to do with your life – it’s definitely half the battle. But then you have to work out the best way of breaking into your chosen profession… and that can be slightly more daunting, and even disparaging. And although I’m definitely not at the “top of my game” yet, I feel like I might be able to lend some advice on how to get your toe in the door to becoming a working comedy writer. In television. In Canada. I know that might seem like a small demographic, but hopefully these tips will help or inspire anyone interested in writing comedy professionally.
First of all, I should speak to my experience a bit. I hate it when people give advice, but you don’t know where they’re coming from. I’m currently a story coordinator on a Canadian sitcom, and I’ve worked as a story coordinator on three more sitcoms before this one. I’m also the head writer and co-creator of the web series “Versus Valerie” and “Sexy Nerd Girl”. I got into comedy writing through doing live performances of stand-up and improv in Toronto, and I still keep that up because it’s really fun, great joke writing practice, and you get to see your pals.
Okay, so here are some ideas for those of you who want to write comedy but are feeling stuck and don’t know what to do next or where to start. Please keep in mind that this is what I personally found helpful, but there is not just one way to do it. Hopefully you can use these ideas as a jumping off point to get you started down a path that works for you.
I started off by doing improv. I learned about it in grade seven, got addicted, and then continued to study it at Second City in Toronto. I personally found improv very helpful for writing, for comedy and for life in general. Improv is all about creating scenes, stories, characters, and settings in the moment and without second-guessing yourself. As a writer you are CONSTANTLY SECOND GUESSING YOURSELF. It’s really annoying actually, and super hard to avoid. But if you’re constantly doubting your own abilities, it’s tricky to ever finish a script. Improv helped me to curb that nagging voice inside my head and to just trust my instincts, and my fellow scene partners as well (helpful if you write with a partner). It also teaches you to focus on building the story and the characters first, and putting the jokes second. Jokes will come naturally when you have a solid story and solid characters. Another really helpful thing about improv is live performance. In the industry you’ll have to pitch your ideas all the time – in the writing room or to executives. It helps to be comfortable and confident when delivering jokes. And finally the people you meet while learning and performing improv are invaluable. Chances are that you’re going to see them again in the writer’s room so it helps to have relationships with comedians off stage as well.
The same can be said about doing stand-up, but I think that stand-up is even more valuable when it comes to showcasing your own writing voice. You get to work on jokes, and test them in front of an audience to get immediate “notes” (in the form of laughter) on what works and what doesn’t work. As a stand-up I focus on telling personal stories, which helps me get more in touch my own “take” on life – which can be good ground to mine when writing your own sample scripts.
If you’ve never performed live before and you think you’d benefit from taking a course first to get your feet wet, I think that’s a good idea. Your classmates and teacher will be super supportive, and they’ll probably be great contacts for you in the comedy scene later on too. In Toronto there are great classes at Second City, Bad Dog Theatre, Impatient Theatre, and the Kate Ashby Academy. Once you feel comfortable performing (your class will probably stage a performance at the end of the term), then you can look for open mics and improv jams in your city to get stage time. It’ll be a great way to dive into performance, and to meet new contacts and friends.
I don’t personally think that classes can teach you “how to be funny”, but I do think that they can teach you story structure, provide hard deadlines (so helpful when you’re having trouble motivating yourself!), and give you valuable feedback on your work. I went to Ryerson University in Toronto for Radio and Television Arts. I focused on screenwriting, and I found the courses there super helpful. They taught me how to deconstruct shows to figure out their structure, their show engines, and what makes a good script. There I also had the chance to write a few spec scripts and get feedback from the knowledgeable professors. (It can be hard to get people to read your scripts and give notes – scripts tend to be long and people are busy – so having a teacher do it is awesome). If you can find a course that teaches you how to write a spec script, so that when you’re finished the course you’ll have a polished sample script ready to go – I say do it because you’re going to need one, it’s always good to practice writing, and you’ll be happy you had the help. So check out your local colleges or comedy companies (like Second City or Bad Dog in Toronto) to see what kinds of writing courses they offer.
WEB SERIES or YOUR OWN STUFF!
The biggest thing about having downtime when you’re a writer is that you SHOULD BE WRITING! It’s so important to practice, to improve your skills, and keep your ideas fresh. So when you have time, try to write your own sample scripts, or shorts, or blog entries, or even just some Twitter jokes – to keep your brain going.
Producing your own short films and comedy videos is a very helpful tool. You’ll learn about various funds that are available for film/television projects, you’ll learn the fundamentals of production, you’ll make contacts in other areas of the business, and most helpfully – you’ll have a calling card to showcase your writing voice. It’s way easier for you to send a producer your two minute video, instead of trying to get them to read a 30 page script. Also, putting videos up on the internet is a great way to get audience feedback, and to demonstrate to executives that your video has a market (if it gets lots of views).
Finally, I think web series are a particularly great way to showcase “proof-of-concept”. With a web series you are demonstrating that you know how to write episodically or in a serialized way, you can show character development, and it’s possible that it could be aired on television or on a network’s website. In Canada there are some great funding options currently available for web series like the IPF (Independent Production Fund) and the OMDC Interactive Digital Media Fund.
WRITING SPECS (Creating a writing package)
You’ve definitely gotta write some of these (unless you get really really really lucky). To get a writing job and to find an agent, they’re going to want to read spec scripts of yours. Specs can be either of an existing series or an original concept. It’s good to have both. It’s also good to have some sketches on hand in case you want to write for a sketch comedy show, and some “desk jokes” too if possible.
When spec’ing an existing series it’s always helpful if:
1) The show is still on the air – preferably in its 2nd or 3rd season. You want it to still be relevant (ie: The Simpsons has been on for awhile now so it might not be a good idea to spec it). You also want the show to be successful enough that it probably won’t get cancelled in the immediate future. That way your spec will stay relevant longer.
2) You love the show. This really helps because you’re going to have to watch every available episode of the show before you write the spec. And when you write your script, you want to be able to hear the characters’ voices in your head – so it helps if you enjoy it.
3) The show is only moderately loved. Shows that are critically acclaimed, and that everyone loves, can be tricky to write because if the person who reads your spec loves that show and doesn’t think your script holds a candle to it then they’re going to judge you more harshly on it.
4) Breakdown the show before you write it. Know which sets they usually use, how many acts there are, how long the acts are, how many pages the scripts usually are, what kinds of stories the show tells, how many scenes are usually in an act, etc.
There are great books you can read to help you do this. One that really helped me is called “Elephant Bucks” by Sheldon Bull. This book is extremely handy if you’re spec’ing a half hour multicam sitcom. You can also scour the internet for scripts of the show that you’re spec’ing so that the formatting of your script is correct. (There are different templates available in Final Draft too).
Also, you’re going to want an original script or pilot in your arsenal. For this, I’d personally say that the most important thing is to write from your heart, and even from your own experience. A personal story will come easier when writing your first original, and it’ll be easier to pitch it because you’ll be more connected to the source material.
FINDING AN AGENT
This is usually easier to do after you’ve gotten your first job. It seems like a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario (like you need an agent to get a job, but you need a job to get an agent) but if you can get your first job on your own through personal contacts, it’ll be way easier to get an agent on board.
I would try your best to make your own projects and get your name out there, and have some sample scripts before you contact an agent. But you could also just call or email literary agencies in your area and ask what they need for submissions. They’ll usually want an existing spec, an original, and a resume – but definitely find out first. Having reference letters from industry professionals might help too, but isn’t necessary.
It’s also a good idea to meet with more than one agency to find out who you get along with, and to learn about their style and approach. Some agencies are more hands-on than others so it’s important to find one that works best for you.
MEETING OTHER WRITERS
Attending writing conferences, joining writing groups, going to Writer’s Guild events, or even just taking a writer you admire out for coffee are all good ways to gain exposure to the industry. As a writer you have to work really closely with people, and writing comedy leaves you especially vulnerable because you’re putting jokes on the table that may or may not get a laugh – so it’s important to trust the people you work with and to get along with them. That’s why making friends in the industry is really beneficial – they might be able to help you find work, or you could collaborate on a project together. Two heads can be better than one when it comes to brainstorming ideas, editing a script, and motivating each other towards meeting deadlines. It’s really good to socialize in this industry and be yourself. You want to have good relationships with potential coworkers because you have to spend a LOT of time together in a small room. If a showrunner has to choose between two equally good writers, they’ll pick the one they’d rather spend time with.
It’s always good to look up programs, grants, or awards for emerging writers. There might be something that you fit the criteria for. Having an award listed on your CV could help get you in the door, and will lend you some clout. Also there are some great writing awards and competitions out there that could win you money to produce a project, or pay for you to attend industry events and conferences, or get you into exclusive classes, or internships in writing rooms, or even the opportunity to pitch your TV show ideas to network executives. Do some research on awards/competitions in your area. For example, in Canada you can check out the Canadian Film Centre (CFC), and the Just For Laughs ComedyPRO.
There are so many outlets for writers to get their material out there for free – like on blogs (Tumblr, WordPress) or through social media like Facebook, Twitter, Vine, YouTube, and Instagram. I know it might not seem like a big deal, but nowadays it looks really good to potential employers if you have a lot of Twitter followers. And tweeting regularly can actually help you get better at writing one liners and short jokes. You’re getting your name out there and you’re also getting practice and inspiration through reading hilarious tweets by awesome comedians. Social Media outlets are a great place to showcase your unique voice, your creativity, your motivation to write/improve (by using them often), and to show executives that your material is in high demand.
STORY COORDINATING (or Writer’s Assistant)
I’ve been a story coordinator four times now, and only recently got a few short scripts to write. So basically, don’t get discouraged if you’ve been a story coordinator multiple times – it typically leads to getting a script so you’re on the right track! For those that don’t know what a story coordinator does (I’ve also heard the position called ‘writer’s assistant’ in the States, or on some productions they can even afford to have both positions and they are slightly different), they sit in the writer’s room taking notes on EVERYTHING (story ideas, jokes, character details, etc) and make sure everyone has a copy of these. Notes are very useful when going to script, especially once the story beats have all been broken out. Some story coordinators also get to make edits to the script, sometimes in front of everyone on a screen so all the writers can see what’s being changed. And in some rooms, you get to pitch story ideas and jokes of your own – but try to gauge the tone in the room before speaking up, make sure it’s an appropriate time and that you’ve thought out what you’re going to say. Finally, during production you might have to keep track of all the production drafts (Whites, Pinks, Blues, etc) and make sure that everyone has the most up to date pages. Other assistant duties like going on coffee or food runs, keeping track of the showrunner’s appointments, etc might be expected of you as well.
Those are my basic ideas for getting started as a comedy writer, but like I said, there are many ways to get in the door. If you have any questions about anything I’ve suggested, don’t hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My apologies in advance if I don’t answer right away.