Staffing season is upon us yet again and the legions of veteran and baby writers will march into meeting rooms and offices in hopes of landing one of the few precious slots on a television writing staff.
We spoke to a number of our favorite working and established TV writer/producers and asked them to give us their best advice for newer writers for staffing season. This is what they said:
The thing to keep in mind when going into a staffing meeting is to know that the showrunner is looking for a sense of who you are as a person and what you’ll be like in the room. If you’ve managed to get a meeting, that means he or she has already read your stuff and liked it. Now they want to see what the chemistry will be like. They’re putting together a group of people who’ll end up spending an inordinate amount of time together, so they want to make sure everyone will get along. You can’t have people on staff who’ll screw up the creative flow.
To that end, you don’t want to be the person who comes off as the weird loner (as writers sometimes are) or someone who can’t collaborate. You don’t want to be narcissistic (avoid making everything about “me” and “I”). And you don’t want to be the person whose “process” is weird and singular (“I can only think when I’m standing on my head in the dark”).
On the flip side, you do want to be enthusiastic about the show. That may sound obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve interviewed people who think they should come off as “too cool for school.” Or that they’re deigning to meet with you (“You know, science fiction isn’t really my thing, but your script wasn’t bad…”).
Ultimately, it’s just about making it clear that you’re someone who’d be fun to hang out with for days on end. In that sense, it’s a lot like dating.
MEETINGS: When you’re meeting a showrunner for a staffing gig, you’re not only there to talk about your spec/sample/the potential job, you’re also showing these people your personality. A writer’s room becomes an enmeshed, co-dependent, very intimate little group and a lot of times, a showrunner is also contemplating how you (and possibly your writing partner) will be like for a 100 hour work week. Some people are great on the page but not great in a room. Some people are great in a room and not as strong on the page.
SPECS: Nowadays EPs are asking for original samples (pilots, etc.) as opposed to spec episodes of existing shows. They’re looking to see if you have a voice that fits into the palette of the show, the way you structure your spec when you’re on your own and not in the template of the show, and your choices – jokes, characters, moments, etc.
SPECS: Have a spec for single-camera shows (LAST MAN ON EARTH, BROOKLYN 99, etc.), multi-cam shows (BIG BANG THEORY, MOM, UNDATEABLE), and possibly even an animated sample (ARCHER, FAMILY GUY, ADULT SWIM SHOW). In your single-camera show, you might want to go toward the cable-centric shows (SILICON VALLEY, MARRIED, WORKAHOLICS) to show that you can write for that brand of comedy. For multi-camera shows, make sure you follow the templates (Act Break structure, format, etc.) of the respective show you’re writing. On Undateable, we use a four act structure, Big Bang or Mike and Molly may use three. Get shooting drafts of one of those shows and mimic the format. A big rookie move is to not write the spec in the same way the actual staff does it.
MEETINGS: When discussing the show you’re meeting on, have ideas for future episodes based on character, not as much plot. The best comedy comes from character and not necessarily plot machinations. I.E. on Undateable, if you say “The characters are stuck in the bar because the Pistons won the NBA Championship and the city is on lockdown.” That’s a plot, not a story. To go deeper, take that scenario and detail how it challenges the characters. I.E. While stuck in the bar, Justin (Brent Morin) and Danny (Chris D’Elia) are forced to deal with a problem that’s been festering, causing the gang to have to pick sides. Might be a rough example, but hopefully makes the point.
MEETINGS: Once you’ve had the meeting, pull out all the stops to get people of influence to reach out and recommend you. If a high-level respected show runner makes a call to the show runner you’re trying to work for, it can be the difference between landing and losing out on the job.
PILOT TABLE READS: In the Spring, when pilots are getting into production, there will be a time when the creator/showrunner will reach out to friends and other writers to come to the table read, run through, and even tape night/shooting to help with jokes and address the onslaught of studio and network notes. This is a volunteer, unpaid situation but it allows the show runner to see you in action. If you get a joke into a pilot that makes the final cut and that show goes, you have a pretty good chance of being on the show runner’s radar. To get into these table reads, etc., it can be challenging. If you’re a represented writer, oftentimes your agent/manager can suss out these opportunities and pitch you to help. If you’re not represented, it will go back to that wonderful Catch-22 of Hollywood of “who you know.”
Do your research. Know who you’re meeting with — whether it’s an executive or show runner. Research them. Everyone in this town has given an interview or at the very least has an IMDB or LinkedIn site. See if you have anything in common (i.e., Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon). Be able to talk intelligently about their past work.
If the show is an existing show, watch a number of episodes before you go in. It’s time consuming, but it helps greatly. You can talk about the show in specifics. If they talk about how they want to change directions, you won’t be faking your understanding of what they mean. Put in the homework if you want the job.
Don’t lie. Be honest — about yourself, your background, your desires. Lies ALWAYS come back to bite you in the ass. Short term wins usually end up in long-term (and embarrassing) loses.
Do practice. Rehearse your preamble about yourself out loud, as if you were prepping for a monologue or speech. There are certain questions you can anticipate when you take staffing meetings early in your career. They’re usually “How did you end up across from me today?” or “Tell me about your background.” These questions shouldn’t throw you. Anticipate them. Create a narrative about your own history that is as clear, concise and focused as an “elevator pitch.” This is your first chance to pitch a story — YOU. If you do it well, you will have passed your first test.
Don’t try too hard. This town smells desperation and they avoid it like an open can of Ebola. The more you treat the staffing interview as a conversation and less a tribunal, the more comfortable BOTH of you will be. If you make your interviewer relaxed, they will be appreciative of that. In general, good show runners want to be around people who aren’t annoying. Writers spend a lot of time cooped up in rooms with each other. If you are the annoyingly loud or overeager “go getter” amongst a group of seasoned professionals, you will stick out like a sore thumb and likely won’t get picked.
Do have solid writing samples. If you don’t have an original pilot (or at least strong sample from an existing show), don’t be surprised when you don’t get the job. Show runners need to be able to see your original, unfiltered voice. If you haven’t done this part, then you won’t be taken seriously.
Don’t take it personally. If you get a no, it’s rarely about you. There are a million factors that go into choosing a junior writer. If you take each rejection personally, it will overwhelm you and depress you. Admit that this is a long, difficult process with many, many disappointments. It’s like trying to get into one of the most exclusive clubs on the Sunset Strip. Make sure you have a support group of people who help keep you positive and don’t feed the resentment.
Do write thank you notes. Some people disagree with me on this one, but if the meeting was a productive one, I always send a handwritten note to the executive or writer thanking them for their time. Do not be manipulative. Be sincere. Good meetings don’t always happen in this town. So, make sure you take the time to thank people who give you the time and respect in the room, regardless of whether you got the job or not.
– Know everything you can about the person you are meeting with. Do your research. Ask your agent/manager/writer friends what they know. Get prepped by them if they’ve met with that person before. The more informed you are the better. Knowing where an executive or showrunner is from, where they went to school, what their pet peeves are, or anything else you can find Google stalking might help you find common ground. Work it into the conversation.
– Know the pilot script (or series if you are going up for something that has already aired) inside and out. Be able to talk about what you love about the show. What character you relate to and why. What you would fix and how — though don’t bring that up unless they ask! Think about how your background and life experience can add to the show, whether it be the arena or a specific character, and be prepared to talk about that. And have pitches ready!
– Wear clothes that represent who you are as a person and as an artist. Not only because you want to be comfortable but because what you are wearing is a part of your personal story.
– Take the water. I remember once hearing a big “take the water/don’t take the water” conversation and I thought if someone offers you water, take it. In some circles not taking the water would be rude. Besides, if you’re nervous or talking too much and your throat gets dry it’s going to be a lot more pleasant for you to take a drink than have a coughing fit.
– Be prepared to “run the meeting” if necessary. Once in awhile you will have a meeting that just doesn’t go as smoothly as you’d hope. Either the person you are meeting with is newer and not used to running a meeting well or maybe they are sick or had a rough day and not able to bring their A-game… whatever the case, you should be comfortable steering the meeting in a direction you want to go. If you know what info you want to get out that connects you to the material then you can work that into the conversation. And more importantly, when you feel like the meeting is slowing down or a conversation is dying on the vine – you want to get out of it gracefully. Besides, sometimes it’s awkward for people to wrap it up, so don’t be afraid to do it — they’ll likely be grateful.
– They want to like you and get to know you. So relax and have fun!
Everyone has a say. Don’t think you’re only there to win over the Showrunner. Your interview started when you checked in with the assistant, maybe even when you talked to security at the gate. I’ve seen people not get a job because they rubbed someone the wrong way, and that someone wasn’t a writer on the show, but was someone whose opinion the Showrunner respected. Be nice to everyone. Which you should be doing out in the real world anyway.
Don’t make direct pitches. The writers have spent far more time with these characters than you can imagine. They love them. You’re are a stranger saying, “Here’s what you should do with your family.” It doesn’t come across well. But, there is a method to show your ability for creating story without making an obvious pitch. Relate the characters to yourself or people you know. “My Dad used to work with his best friend, too, just like the main character in your show. One day, such and such happened between them. Then I thought, what if this thing happened at the same time? It would create this and that conflict…blah, blah, blah.” You just demonstrated your ability to build a story, relatable to the show, and didn’t have to make a direct pitch.
Have a personality. That doesn’t mean putting on a show. But realize, your interview is essentially saying, “Here’s why you want to be stuck in an elevator with me.” Show how you’ll make that time more interesting, entertaining, or helpful. Because that’s where you’ll be if you get the job.
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