Why is writing a pilot sitcom script SO INCREDIBLY HARD?

Screwed up bits of paper

James Cary explains how you can find your way into the process of writing that script.

Writing a sitcom script is really hard.

There's so much to think about. Situation. Characters. Plot. Pace. Oh, and jokes.

Writing a 'spec' pilot sitcom script is even harder. Why? It helps to know, so you can be ready for the long road ahead.
To find an answer to that, we need to understand that in writing a 'spec' pilot sitcom script, you have to do two very hard things, rather than just one very hard thing.

Wait, wait. You keep using that word 'spec'? What is a 'spec' script?

A 'spec' script is a script that has been written 'spec-ulatively'. That is, in the hope that it will lead to something. No-one has asked you to write this script. You're not being paid to write it. You are speculating with your time and effort.

But if you're wanting to get into writing sitcoms, you'll find that pretty much no-one is going to commission you to write a script off the back of an idea, no matter how good or original you think it is. You won't get commissioned unless you've got a decent track record. Heck, I've got a decent-ish track record (Miranda, Bluestone 42, My Family, My Hero, Citizen Khan) and people like me are having to write 'spec' scripts. (The reason why is one for another time.)

The reality is that you need to show your sitcom intent by writing a 'spec' script. This script demonstrates your skills and talent, proving that you're ready to be hired for an existing show or commissioned to write five more of your show.

And here we come to the two parts of writing a 'spec' pilot script, which I will come to in a moment. But it's worth looking back to how this used to work and this, I think, will make the point.

What was a 'spec' script?

Seinfeld

In the USA, at least, it used to be standard procedure to demonstrate your skills as a sitcom writer by writing an episode of an existing show. So you might write an 'spec' episode of Seinfeld or Frasier.

Let's say you write a 'spec' Seinfeld episode in which Kramer (and Newman) persuades Jerry to do ventriloquist act on a kids TV show, which he would obviously hate, while George and Elaine are having some feud over a recipe for apple sauce.

The aim for writing this Seinfeld was NOT so that you could send it to Larry David in the hope that they will just buy your script off you, shower you with money and residuals, and make the episode, and invite you to be a regular writer.

No, the aim of that script was to demonstrate to the showrunner of a new sitcom in development looking for writers that you can work with existing characters and find original, interesting funny stories and execute them in a script.

Don't forget that in the 70s and 80s, there were only a handful of TV networks making original sitcoms and a dozen or so successful sitcoms were actually on those networks. The cable channels were then buying them in batches and repeating them, not making original shows of their own. New shows were being created and piloted - and cancelled - every year, unlike today when there are full series of literally hundreds of scripted shows being made right now.

Back then, your way into the industry, and the best chance of getting work as a sitcom writer, was to write episodes of an existing show, which is really hard. But once you'd done that for a few years, you might get a development deal where you could pitch a new show that you had created. Which is really really hard.

The 'Spec' and The 'Pilot'

So here are the two parts of sitcom writing separated out. Let's spell them out:

Part 1 - Writing a Sitcom Episode

This means taking tried and tested characters in a situation people have already decided they like, be it field hospital in the Korean War or a bar in Boston - and giving them new, interesting, funny things to do in way that is fresh but familiar. That's hard - but write a 'spec', get hired to be in a room of writers for a few years, get really good it and then you're ready for Part 2.

Part 2 - Coming up with a Brand New Sitcom

This means creating new characters in a new situation - or a familiar situation (see? There's one variable straight away) - that hasn't yet found an audience. This is really really hard. And in order prove the concept of your new show, you need to write a 'Pilot' script which is the first episode. It introduces all of the characters and themes in one perfect little story with a beginning, middle and end.

Here's the difference between Parts 1 and 2.

Part 1 is baking an excellent cake with good branded ingredients you've been handed.

Part 2 is baking an original but kind of familiar cake with ingredients that you've found, grown yourself or produced that may or may not turn out to be flour, eggs, sugar, butter and whatever else you decide to throw in because, hey, it's 2021. You put it in the oven and hope for the best.

Except For Writers in the UK

'Spec' scripts never really caught on in the UK. There was never a call for them. If you wrote a 'spec' script of My Family, that probably wouldn't open any doors for you, with the possible exception of working on My Family. I was hired to write an episode of My Family because I'd got a sitcom on BBC Radio 4 called Think The Unthinkable in which I'd miraculously pulled off the trick of writing a Spec Pilot Script that went to series. And it did okay. And I pitched enough ideas that they liked and commissioned one of them.

My Family. Image shows from L to R: Abi Harper (Siobhan Hayes), Janey Harper (Daniela Denby-Ashe), Michael Harper (Gabriel Thomson), Susan Harper (Zoë Wanamaker), Ben Harper (Robert Lindsay)

There is a still a demand for sitcoms, or comedy narrative, but where is that talent coming from? It's not really clear, especially if you don't want to make and appear in YouTube videos or Edinburgh Fringe shows. In the past, there were only a few channels buying a sitcoms and a few production companies making them, like Hat Trick, Talkback and Tiger Aspect along with BBC in-house production.

The good news is that Hat Trick are fully behind our competition which is all about nurturing the fledgling talent behind writing a new script.

What does a writer need do if they want to get into writing sitcoms?

Bad news: Write a spec pilot script.

Yes, you need to do those two incredibly hard things right out of the gate.

You have to somehow acquire and master the craft of writing sitcom episodes, which is hard enough, and also conceive of a brand new sitcom, which is harder still. And blend them together in your smoking hot, funny, fresh pilot script. All on your own time. It's a 'spec'.

So, is it worth it?

Well, that's entirely up to you. For me, I couldn't bear the idea of not writing sitcoms, since that was pretty much all I ever wanted to do. Even when I was applying for jobs in advertising over twenty years ago, it was obvious that this was just a way of writing comedy on TV, and a means to an end.

What about for you?

Is this something you really want to do? If you've read this far, I'm guessing that it is.

In which case, good news: we can help.

There's a lot to do, but it can be done. And has been. And will be. People are doing it all the time. You could give it a go. I blagged my way into this industry despite being a farmer's son with no contacts, failing to get into Cambridge (where all the comedians go) twice, and getting a degree in Theology from the University of Durham. I just loved comedy and wanted to write it.

Over the next few weeks we'll be looking to build that sitcom from scratch. Can you write a sitcom in eight weeks? Yes you can!

The Hat Trick script competition opens on Wednesday 1st December. More info

James Cary and Dave Cohen talk about comedy writing via the Sitcom Geeks podcast