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« "The Office" Spec Script Readings at the Lakeshore Theater | Main | Thursday Tidbits »

A Chat With Paul O'Toole

PhotobucketHey writing nerds! Pull up a squeaky computer desk chair and check this out. Ever wondered how you actually go about landing work as a comedy (or other) writer in L.A.? So have we. So when we found out that Chicago-based writer, actor and comedian Paul O'Toole just got back from writing for an animated sketch pilot for the G4 Network in L.A., we bugged him with a bunch of questions about spec scripts, marketing yourself as a writer, and getting some eyeballs on your funniest work. He gave us all that and recommendations for a couple of really great established Hollywood writers' blogs as well. Interview by Elizabeth McQuern.

What show did you spec? How did you decide which show to base it on?

Before I begin, I want to iterate that I'm not an expert on this stuff. I was lucky enough to get a toenail in the door, and I've learned some useful things I'm happy to share.

I wrote my first spec on IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA. The decision for me was easy. SUNNY is one of my favorite shows, but more importantly, the show's comedic sensibilities are in line with my own. It helps to pick a show you can actually write. It's one thing to like a show, but it's another to be able to emulate it. We all have comedic strengths. Our specs should showcase them. You might love 30 ROCK, but if you can't nail the essence of the show (and you must nail it!), you gotta pick another show.

PhotobucketIt's important to note I was lucky in picking SUNNY, because I wasn't aware of a lot of the following at the time, like...

It's best to spec a show that hasn't been on the air forever. No one wants to read another SIMPSONS spec. On that note, I have to imagine the window is closing on THE OFFICE. There are thousands of OFFICE specs out there. It also helps to pick a show that industry people like. SUNNY isn't the most popular show in America, but it's very popular among industry types, probably because it breaks so many rules. So many sitcoms are interchangeable. However, the episode of SUNNY where the guys go to an abortion rally to pick up women... it's just so refreshing! Industry people who eat and breathe comedy want to be refreshed. They've seen it all at this point.

So in sum. Spec a show you like, a show you can actually write, and a show other people would actually would want to read. Oh, and this may be obvious, but the show has to be in production.
Is there one main script you use to showcase your ability?

No, not one main script. There is one particular SUNNY spec that I send to people first. I've gotten enough feedback on it to know this is the one I should use when asked for a spec. But in order to advance the conversation with "my people" in LA, I needed to write an original pilot too. It's my understanding there was a time when you could get an agent or a staff position based on your spec alone, but not anymore. They now demand original material.

In my case, my original pilot was a little too similar in comedic tone to my SUNNY specs. It's not like I ripped off SUNNY, but they wanted to see range. My pilot, like SUNNY, was dirty and edgy. So to make sure I didn't pigeonhole myself, I wrote a spec of THE BIG BANG THEORY. The feedback on that script was very positive, and it answered the concerns of the people who have been helping me along.

Did you ever have a reading for it, and if so, what was that like?

No. In my opinion, and this is just my opinion, I wouldn't want my scripts to be subjected to a staged reading. I find they're really hard to listen to, and the rhythm of the dialogue is mangled by hearing the stage directions. I would probably walk away discouraged if one of my specs was stage-read.

Something to keep in mind: a spec script is made to be read silently, not performed. Barring a miracle, no one will ever produce your 30 ROCK spec. But if you're lucky, plenty of people will read it to themselves. Given that, your spec needs to be readable. It needs to be funny on the page. For example, a typical script may have a stage direction like:

Dennis crosses left and exits.

There's nothing wrong with that, technically speaking. But the fact is, no one's building a set for this scene, directors aren't storyboarding the action, actors aren't prepping their motions based on your commands. Someone is just reading this to themselves. Given this, your stage directions should pop. Using the example above, you should punch it up as appropriate to the scene:

Dennis mopes out the door.
Dennis gets the hell out of there.
Poof! Dennis is gone.

You need to be memorable. I'm not saying "Poof! Dennis gone." is the greatest stage direction ever, but it will stick with a reader longer than "Dennis exits." Your reader wants to know you can write. Stage directions are an opportunity to prove that.

So I went off topic a bit, but that's why I'm not keen on staged readings. These scripts are made to be read. I'd rather have people I trust simply read them. I've been lucky to have a select group give me some excellent advice along the way. There people weren't TV writers, by the way, just people who "get it."

What was your writing process like for it?

When I began the first SUNNY script, I was sitting around watching football when I suddenly had an idea for an episode. I hadn't planned on writing a spec at all. I just happened to have an idea, so I sat down and wrote 20 pages in script form in one sitting. I didn't have an outline and I really didn't know what I was doing structure-wise. I just knew what I thought was funny, which is the most important thing.

After that, I'd work on the script for a while, then put it away, then pick it up again... Finally I kicked myself in the ass and commanded myself to finish the damn thing.

That was a year later. Then I e-mailed the script to a friend in LA for feedback. He liked the script and offered to pass it on to his industry connections. I was floored since I'd only been expecting feedback, but he was confident people would like it. There are, he said, a shitload of bad scripts out there.

This taught me a valuable lesson: use whatever connections you can. There are just too many scripts to be read, so agents and studio-types rely on recommendations. If an agent is told your script is good, she's more likely to read it. Your first script better be good though. If it's not, she probably won't read your second.

So my first spec got good feedback from a few lit agents, and they came back at me with the typical response: "What else ya got?" Gulp. I didn't have anything else. So I cranked out a second SUNNY script in a couple weeks. First one took a year, the second one took a couple of weeks. Shows what you can do with a deadline. (This second SUNNY script is now my go-to spec.) Then I was asked for an original. That took a little longer to write, but I got it done. I think the lesson here is that the hardest script to finish is the first. Now I can write a full script in two or three weeks if I have a good idea.

Did you take a class/how did you know what needed to go into it?

I'd taken sketch-writing classes long ago, but I never took a sitcom-writing class.

In the middle of writing the first spec, I went back and began meticulously outlining a few SUNNY episodes so I could get a sense of the structure, how frequently they use characters, how many scenes they do in a typical episode, etc. Your script needs to feel like a real episode.

I also got my hands on sitcom scripts so I could steal the formatting cues. Your script should look right. Without ever reading a word, someone should be able to flip through your script and see it's formatted correctly.

I began reading blogs by established writers to pick up tips. Jane Espenson of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and BUFFY/ANGEL keeps a terrific blog. She hasn't been posting as often lately, but her archives are well worth reviewing. For someone who's in the same boat as us, Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer is great too. She lives in Hollywood and her blog is loaded with lots of practical advice, as much about the LA writing lifestyle as writing scripts. Jane and Amanda have links to other great blogs as well.

How important have these scripts been in you marketing yourself as a writer?

They're the sine qua non. You cannot market yourself as a sitcom writer without a spec and an original. There's nothing to talk about if you don't have scripts to give people. And the more scripts you have, the better. I actually had a conversation with a studio exec (that sounds more impressive than it is) and I offered my SUNNY spec. She hadn't seen SUNNY, but she had seen THE BIG BANG THEORY. So I gave her my BIG BANG spec and she loved it. Now she's someone I can e-mail for advice. It was nice to have that extra script in my bag.

Here's another thing about having multiple scripts. I have a relationship with someone at a lit agency in LA who complains that so many writers don't write. If you want to be more likable to an agent, be productive. He's trying to get you a staff job. It makes him more confident in you when he knows you are actively working on your craft.

Oh, and even though you're pursuing TV, it wouldn't hurt to have a screenplay too.

How are things in general, what were you doing in L.A., did you enjoy your experience out there? What do you hope to do in the next year or so?

I was writing for an animated sketch pilot for the G4 Network. It was fun. I worked with some really nice people. I'll have to wait and see what happens with the show. By the way, even though it was sketch, they still wanted to see sitcom scripts: a spec and an original.

Now that I'm back in Chicago, I just want to keep writing. I'm developing another original series. I enjoyed my first pilot a lot, but I wanted to try something different, something more complex. I say that in the sense that SUNNY has a different series structure than ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. Not that one show was better than the other, but SUNNY does not have the running through-lines and complicated relationships of ARRESTED. So I'm working at something more complex like ARRESTED. Maybe I'll just rip off ARRESTED entirely. That would be easier.

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