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02/09/2006: Specs From Beyond the Grave
We're talking about novelty specs. Those comically oversized eyeglasses you get in gift stores. Hee! Also, that's how I'm referring to any non-standard spec script. The examples we've been talking about are specs written for shows not currently on the air. I contacted showrunner friends about this.
So, Tim Minear (Angel, Wonderfalls, The Inside), what do you think of novelty specs? Like, say, a brand spankin' new Bonanza?
Tim: "It's so funny you would ask this -- I did a seminar at the screenwriting expo and when asked about specs I said write an I Love Lucy. Maybe even a dark hour version. I'd sure read that! But not Bonanza. No, no. Classic Trek, sure! An old Night Stalker? Okay! Alias Smith and Jones, even! But not Bonanza."
Notice that Tim went right away to the postmodern version of the novelty spec. It really does seem to be the only version worth considering. It's the dangerous option that Joss spoke of above -- I mean, below. You know, in the previous post. This kind of spec is difficult. It's risky. But...
Big risk, big possible payoff. Here's a story as related by show-runner Jeff Greenstein (Will and Grace, Jake in Progress).
Jeff: "I once hired a young writer based on a spec That Girl, a very cleverly written script that boasted what was possibly the best cold open I've ever seen in a half-hour comedy. We open in a grim, squalid whorehouse in a bad part of New York City. A fourteen-year-old punk is doing shots at the bar as the madam shows him one filthy crack whore after another, and the kid just keeps turning them down: "No. Nope. Nah."
Meanwhile, over at the front door, an anxious-looking Anne Marie enters and looks cautiously around. She turns to the bouncer. "Hi," she says brightly. "I'm here for my audition." (then, looking around uneasily) "Um... is this 336 West 86th Street?" "No, Sissy," grunts the bouncer. "This is 336 East 86th Street."
At that moment, the punk spots Anne Marie across the room and levels a finger at her. Turning to the madam, he barks, "I want... THAT GIRL!!"
CUT TO: Main titles.
Really, really funny script. I met the writer and hired her on the spot."
Jane here again. With a little story of my own. I once read a spec Caroline in the City in which a sexually-transmitted ass-rash was passed from character to character throughout the script. It's the only spec I ever kept. It's in a cabinet in my home right now. If I were in a position to hire writers, I would want to meet that writer.
If you do it well, a novelty spec can get you noticed. It will certainly get you read. ALL the showrunners said they'd reach for something, anything, different. But if you do it poorly, if it's unclear, crude (the ass-rash was walking a very fine line), unfunny, if it doesn't demonstrate your skills, it can burn you bad. Because if you guaranteed that someone will remember your name... make sure you want them to remember your name.
So what's a writer to do? Next entry, we'll sum it all up.