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"The Office" Spec Script Readings at the Lakeshore Theater

PhotobucketThe Lakeshore Theater hosted a live spec script reading on Wednesday August 27, 2008. Todd Edwards and Dan Telfer both wrote spec scripts for The Office. It’s pretty much the coolest thing ever that the LST gave these talented writers such a high profile venue for a reading. It made us think a lot about the spec writing process and what the process entails. We know that both writers completed their scripts after taking the Level 3 writing class at iO with Michael McCarthy. McCarthy had to return to LA to work on a pilot of his own and now his mentor Nate Herman is teaching the class. Photos by Bryan Bowden. Interview by Rachael Mason, who performs improv, works at iO and is the Chicago Comedy Examiner.

"The Office" spec script reading - Dan Telfer's reading1. Why did you pick the spec you wrote?

TODD EDWARDS (TE)- Week one, Mike McCarthy, told us that we were to spec a currently running, half an hour sitcom. He said we should know this sitcom fairly well. I took this to mean watch on a weekly basis. But other people might have interpreted know the sitcom fairly well differently. So for me the Office was the only show that fit the parameters given by Mike. So picking the Office was an easy decision. If I remember correctly 12 people in our class of 30 also picked the Office. The second most popular was 30 Rock. Dan even asked a question regarding this in our first class, before people even began to pick our spec, if everyone doing the same two shows was an issue. He said no, but a lot of people are specing 30 Rock and the Office, so yours will really need to be good. So, somewhere around 10 people did 30 Rock. Another 5 people did "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." There was a "South Park", "Til' Death", and a "How I Met Your Mother."

DAN TELFER (DT)- I watch a lot of TV, but not that many sitcoms. The Office was one of only a couple I watch regularly, and I thought I knew those characters' voices best.

2. How did you luck in to the LST as a venue for your lowly reading?

"The Office" spec script reading at Lakeshore Theater, ChicagoTE- That was all Dan, he had a relationship with them through prior gigs. We looked at Beat Kitchen, and Uncommon Ground on Devon as well. I lucked into being paired with Dan because Mike randomly assigned to read our specs the same night, Aug 28 at iO. I was to read at 7:00 and Dan at 7:45. iO eventually decided to move the readings to an earlier time, which we thought would not work for us. Thus the decision to move to another venue.

DT- They've been kind enough to let me do a lot of stand-up there, and I had just found out I could open for one of my favorite stand-ups ever, Maria Bamford, at the Lakeshore in December. I felt like my luck there was good, so I approached them. It turned out they had wanted to do more and more non-traditional comedy shows there, and so they were very supportive of the idea.

3. What was the purpose of doing your reading?

TE- I think it was threefold. 1). It gave me a deadline; I knew I had to finish the spec for the reading. 2). After spending so much time on it, it was nice to hear where people laughed. Some throw away lines got big reactions. Other parts that I thought were funny didn't land. So it was nice to take notes and gauge reactions. So to answer the question put another set of ears on my spec. 3). Finally, to determine if my writing translated when it was performed.

DT- Readings serve to get you some attention from the entertainment writing industry (much easier in other cities where those people exist) but also to hone your script. I got some awesome feedback in the form of a pile of comment cards, but the best part was hearing a live audience react to the script.

4. Was it helpful to your process?

TE- Immeasurably. First, it made me finish. I don't think I would have if it weren’t for the reading. Also, the feedback. Now it's a matter a making it better.

DT- Absolutely. My cast was so good that when something fell a little flat, it was clearly a conceptual or dialogue problem, not an acting one. It's the kind of observations that are hard to make when you are simply showing the text to people for feedback.
5. What did you get out of it versus what you were hoping to get out of it?

TE- I really had no expectations going in. I think it was a relief to have finished it, so everything else afterwards was just gravy.

DT- I got exactly what I wanted out of it. The only difference was my cast knocked it so far out of the park that I was more flattered and entertained than I thought I would be. I'd expected to be more nervous, my elemental state.

6. What was your process in writing the script?

TE- We followed Mike McCarthy's eight week process. First we dealt with 5 Pitches with A, B, C story lines, then we spend two weeks working on the Outline. After going through the process, I think I would have put more time into my outline. The rest of the time was writing Act I and Act II with edits and revisions.

DT- Per Michael McCarthy's suggestion, we wrote episode pitches that summed up plotlines, then outlined the script, then wrote the script chunk by chunk. By the end my "B" and "C" plots were thrown out and re-invented several times. It was such a relief when I got to the point where there was a flawed, rough, but complete plot. Getting to go back and fine tune dialogue is one of my favorite ways to write, and one of the few times I enjoy the process as much as the final result. Most of the process is quite a slog, because you have these huge ideas and such a tight formula to smash it into.

7. Will the script change now?

TE- Once I go through the feedback, I will edit the script with that in mind

DT- Definitely. I feel like all the important parts are there for my script, but I could be making it flow a lot better.

8. How did you get ready for the reading itself?

TE- Dan really handled that. I spend most of the time finishing my spec.

DT- I made all the programs, comment cards, and scripts. The printing, folding, stuffing, cutting, and binder clipping took more time than you might think and I had to enlist my wife for assistance. Also, I couldn't stop my "hustle" at snagging the Lakeshore. I was nagging press and posting about the show online every day for several weeks. As someone who obsesses, however, this was 100% necessary. I felt so good about the hustling I'd done that, by the night of the reading, I was completely relaxed.

9. How did you pick your cast?

TE- The only person I really had in mind was Tim Pinto who played Dwight. He is not a performer, but I knew he would do a great job. Most came from our writing class, and few friends rounded out the rest of the cast.

DT- In my head I lined up all the most talented people I knew. Then I sort of ran their "voices" as performers against my knowledge of the show's characters. My wife, also a performer, was great in helping me manage my memory and who would read what character best. Dwight was hardest to cast. I asked Todd right away if he'd do it, because he'd read some chunks of my script in class and he does a deadly accurate Dwight impersonation. But, because he wanted to focus on his script, he turned me down. I then contacted no less than 5 people asking them to be Dwight, and all of them were too busy. I came back to Todd begging, and he accepted. Thank goodness too, because my script is very Dwight-heavy and I was grateful for his top-notch job. The very first person I cast, Erica Reid as Angela, was also a big part of helping me come up with the cast.

10. Did you rehearse?

TE- No

DT- I tried to schedule a rehearsal, but my cast was too talented and busy. Instead I set writing goals for myself. I finished a rough draft three full weeks before the reading and sent it to the cast I had so far. Then, I finalized the cast, and I sent a "reading copy" of the script to the cast 3 days before the show, with the promise that I would make NO changes. This gave everyone time to get familiar with it and ask me questions about it, and I think it was enough. It even inspired someone to bring a prop, which was fun.

11. Could you have written this script with out the class that preceded the reading?

TE- I could have, but I would not have, if that makes any sense. Mike's class gave me a process to approach writing a spec, and that's what I needed a step-by-step process.

DT- Nope. I mean, I could have, but it would have been chaotic and completely unworthy of being read aloud.

12. Are you going to submit this script to a network?

TE- That's the goal.

DT- Yes, but generally networks don't care. You have to submit it to an agent (who only 99% won't care) and if you're lucky enough to impress an agent they will nag a network for you. But even then, the staff at The Office won't read this. I have to amass a library of specs, and they are contractually bound to only read specs from other shows or other various commissioned samples.

13. You going to write another one?

TE- Yeah, "they" say you need a one camera show, and a four camera show in your portfolio. Also, one of those should have a kid in the cast.

DT- I am going to write several. I love doing it. The next one will probably be 30 Rock or Futurama. Then a more traditional sitcom that I normally wouldn't watch. In addition to sitcoms, I would also love to try something like Doctor Who.

14. Will you do it differently next time?

TE- I think I will to try to do a little everyday instead of big chunks during extended periods of time. I also won't start writing until I have completed an outline.

DT- Well, I will have to do it without Michael McCarthy encouraging me once a week, which is a huge bummer. The notes he gave me on my rough draft made my reading draft exponentially better. Hopefully I can still get a favor from him again one day and get feedback on another. As far as the reading itself- I would try to emulate the first as much as possible, with the possible exception of seeing what it takes to do it in New York or LA, where the networks actually "live".

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