I recently sat on a panel with four other veteran TV writer/producers at the 2007 UCLA Writer's Faire. Our panel's topic was, Writing Funny TV: The New World of Sitcoms and Spec Pilots.
What is this new world of sitcoms and spec pilots?
I'm not sure how well we defined our topic or even stuck to it. As comedy writers, we were too busy making jokes. But the theme that seemed to emerge from our free-wheeling discussion was that there are new and creative ways for aspiring writers to get noticed and gain a toe-hold in Hollywood that go beyond the traditional spec screenplay or script.
YouTube naturally was mentioned more than once. One panelist talked about how the creators of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a sitcom that now airs on F/X, had made their own video presentation, posted it on YouTube, and then found Hollywood knocking on their door. For the first time in a hundred years, you don't have to be in Hollywood to get noticed by Hollywood.
Beyond the "new" ways of getting noticed, you might also try a fresh approach to some of the traditional means of attracting attention, such as live performances in night clubs and small theaters where you can showcase a comedy act, sketches, or even an entire play. (And you can record your performance on video and post it on the web.)
After our panel discussion at the UCLA Writer's Faire, an aspiring young writer asked me if she should take a sitcom writing course or a screenwriting course. I asked her what she was working on. She said she had been writing some monologues. She worked for a company that produced comedy concerts for TV, and she was drawn to the form. She also wanted to integrate other characters into her monologues. She had a unique approach to expressing her feelings and ideas, but she didn't know what to do with it.
I suggested that she try performing these monologues herself, either on stage or in front of the camera attached to her computer. I reminded her that many successful writer/performers - Woody Allen, Lily Tomlin, Albert Brooks, Tracey Ullman - have used the one-man or one-woman show, the stand-up comedy set, or the sketch format to showcase their writing talents. You can put together ten or twenty minutes of material and then try it out at an open mike night at a club. You can also join an improv group. And today, in the "new world," you can also just perform your material at home and post it on the web.
Even if performing is not your thing, you may be able to find an actor or troupe of actors for whom you can write. You might collaborate on a show that you then can post on the net, or present live at a venue in your city or town, or both. Keep in mind that a million other people are doing the same thing, but so what? Somebody has to succeed. It might as well be you.
When I broke in as a sitcom writer, all I wanted was to write for the shows that were already on the air. I wrote traditional spec scripts for current series, found people willing to read those specs, and eventually got a job as a sitcom writer. That is still a viable path.
But in this "new world of sitcoms and spec pilots," you may want to consider an alternative path to success that goes beyond just writing a script and hoping that someone will read it and give you a job. You may want to participate more actively and aggressively in the expression of your ideas.
The TV networks and movie studios are looking for anything that is new or seems new. From what I hear, executives are less and less willing to read traditional spec scripts. Perhaps executives are also less and less able to recognize something fresh and exciting on a printed page. That doesn't mean you should give up on writing traditional spec scripts. All of us on the panel agreed that you must know how to write a traditional script if you ever hope to make a living doing it.
But in this "new world" of hand-held cameras and wi-fi, your best chance of being discovered may be on a lap top in an airport by an executive surfing the web while waiting for a plane. In that case, you may want to go beyond just writing as a way to find success as a writer.