Time flies when you’re having fun. It’s been (gulp!) two decades since I started teaching screenwriting workshops through UCLA Extension’s world-famous Writers’ Program. I’ve realized over the years that, although I know a great deal about screenwriting, I don’t have a clue when it comes to writing for television. That’s why I approached with great interest a 2013 publication edited by Linda Venis, who directs UCLA Extension’s Department of the Arts. The book is Inside the Room: Writing Television with the Pros at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. (The companion volume, which deals with writing for the big screen, is called Cut to the Chase.)
The room in the book’s title refers to the place where a writing staff meets regularly, under the direction of a showrunner, to hone ideas into workable TV episodes. The art of collaboration is one of many things that contributors to this volume have to teach. As veteran TV writer Alison Lea Bingerman warns, in a chapter titled “Launching and Sustaining a Television Writing Career,” “I’ve watched several writers’ careers go south because they always had to be the smartest kid in the room.”
While giving constructive advice, the book also introduces us to a lot of jargon that TV writers favor: the cold open, the act out, the callback, the tag, the bible, for starters. Contributors Julie Chambers and David Chambers (whose credits include The Simpsons) are particularly good at coming up with snappy aphorisms like “Think and write in screen time.” They give specific tips for how to shape a comedy spec, while others clue us in on writing dramatic specs and pilot.
Screenwriters too start off their careers by circulating spec scripts, but they do not generally base them—as TV writers do—on existing characters and premises. Joel Anderson Thompson, who’s written for House M.D., advises readers to “think of writing a spec as being allowed to throw a big party in someone else’s house while she’s out of town. You can do almost anything you want, so long as you maintain the owner’s level of cleanliness and leave her furniture in the same place.” Phil Kellard (who produced My Two Dads) clarifies: “When you write a spec of a current show, you have the distinct advantage of working with an established world and characters; you are following a template. This is where aspiring sitcom writers need to start their education.—you’re Picasso copying the great masters of figurative art; after that, you can invent Cubism or write a sitcom pilot.”
Perhaps my favorite chapter is Richard Hatem’s “The TV Year,” in which the reader imagines herself coming up with a spec idea for a pilot, refining it, pitching it, writing it, recalibrating it, selling it, casting it, shooting it, and then waiting for that golden moment when it will—or won’t—become a network series. Hatem knows enough about TV to remind us of what works: “Television is about comfort first and novelty second.” And he knows enough about human nature to warn the reader about the emotional toll that this field can exact: “You know that you will feel bad if your pilot is not produced. You will instantly put on ‘the failure coat,’ that heavy, wet garment you’ve spent so many years schlepping around in, feeling embarrassed and ashamed and angry and self-loathing in varying degrees.
(I admit it: been there, done that.)
Hatem concludes, “It’s a horrible feeling, but it is familiar. It’s a part of your life, and there’s not much you can do about it. Like rain in Portland, it’s just the cost of doing business.”
Spring quarter at UCLA Extension starts soon. For more information, phone The Writers’ Program at 310-825-9415 or visit www.writers.uclaextension.edu Online as well as on-ground course offerings make it possible for students worldwide to take advantage of The Writers’ Program’s many offerings.