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Five Easy Steps To Writing A Comedy Pilot

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I recently listened to a podcast with the legendary TV producer, Norman Lear, during a promotional tour for his memoir, “Even This I Get To Experience“, about his luminous and legendary career. During the interview, I was struck by Mr. Lear’s candor and humility. When asked to speak about his thoughts on why some sitcoms were successful and why some failed, Mr. Lear was very clear that, even today, it was all still a mystery to him. One thing, however, that he was absolutely positive about was that, it had to be good.

As I am somewhat still at the beginning of my career, I can’t speak to Mr. Lear’s notion of what constitutes “good” but, what I can do, is share five easy steps to get you started…

  1. Find a good, not great, idea and get started…

This can be tricky, especially for those perfectionists out there. Most ideas will be good – not great – but don’t be deterred. Often times, a “good” idea may require a little “tweaking” and sometimes a reality check to move you on to a better version of the original idea. One rule of thumb – keep it simple.

A few weeks ago, I was at the mall and I watched two toddlers get introduced and proceed to check each other out. An idea occurred to me. “Hey”, one part of my brain said, “what about an half-hour comedy about the lives of toddlers – but, oh wait, that’s already been done and it was called The Rugrats!” “But then again”, the other part of my brain said, “what if I made them dogs? Do I know that much about dogs? Do people want to see a show about what dogs are thinking? Maybe… No, I got it – how about Twerking Toddler Dogs?” Eureka!

See? A little tweaking, that’s all it needed. Now, let’s move on before I put them in space…

  1. Decide whether it will be a single-cam or multi-cam…

Think about the “feel” you want. Does the idea feel more cinematic, like “The Mindy Project?” Is your story set in a few stationary locations, like “The Big Bang Theory?” Does it have pacing that is best served with “to camera interviews”, like “Modern Family?” Or “push-in shots”, like “Brooklyn 99?” Think about it this way and you should have your answer quickly.

Also, if you haven’t yet, check out the Writer’s Guild Foundation Library where you can read as many scripts as your eyes will allow. It’s open to the public and only requires a photo ID to check out scripts – such a priceless resource! It’s also a great way to study “formatting” because not only does your sitcom have to be coherent and funny, but it’s also important that it look like all the other scripts in the pile.

  1. Create interesting characters, write backgrounds, fill out the world…

Once deciding on whether it’s “single camera” or “multi-camera”, this step should be fairly easy. Take the time to write out 4-5 main characters, their ages, relationships to one another, occupations, etc. Trust me, if you take the time to do this work now, the next step will be that much less painful.

  1. Write an outline…

Now, many writers have varying opinions on this, but I’ve learned that it’s best to start out with at least a “basic” outline. Depending on the format you’re using, this step will force you to decide how many Acts (4 or 6?) you will need. Do you have a cold open? A teaser? A tag? Etc.

How detailed you want the outline to be is completely up to you. But, I can tell you that I’ve learned the hard way, the more detailed, the better. Even if, while writing, you need to change the story because it’s boring or not working or whatever, you will be able to better implement an alternative creative solutions because you already know the basic framework.

  1. Write, rewrite, doubt yourself, ask friends, repeat several times…

Now, it’s time to sit your butt in that seat and put out some pages. Take it slow, break it up into parts, whatever you need to do to get it done, you do it. Whether in the morning, in the afternoon or evenings. At a café or in the park, the only thing that matters is that you produce pages, pages and more pages.

Honestly, this should be the most fun that you have because it’s before all of the criticism, self doubt and pain that comes with rewriting and waiting for feedback.

Lastly, be open to feedback but be mindful with whom you share your creative work. Ideally, it should be someone who understands what “constructive” feedback means. Someone who has respect for the creative process and someone who genuinely wants to help you make your script better. It’s very, very important that you put your work in the right hands – especially for new writers. Give it to someone who will actually help you fix the issues and not try and write “their version” of your script.

Follow these steps and I guarantee you at the end of it, you will have a comedy script! It’s it good? Who the hell knows. Happy writing!

Lavetta Cannon

About Lavetta Cannon

Lavetta Cannon is a nerd/writer/improviser living in Los Angeles where she is in training to become a “cougar.” She loves eating carbs and all things Japanese. When she’s not listening to a plethora of podcasts, she is watching an inappropriate amount of television. Follow her on twitter@lavetta_cannon or on instagram@lavettacannon.