Home Contact Biography Works Media News

Jane Recommends
Who Hates Whom / Bob Harris

Who Hates Whom: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up A Woefully Incomplete Guide by Bob Harris

"The geopolitical equivalent of scorecards that get hawked at ball games. Only Bob could make a user’s guide to our increasingly hostile world this absorbing, this breezy, and—ultimately—this hopeful."
~ Ken Jennings, author of Brainiac


Jane in Print
Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe, edited by Jane Espenson

Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, edited by Jennifer Crusie and including Jane Espenson's short story, "Georgiana"

Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly, edited by Jane Espenson and Glenn Yeffeth

Jane in DVD

Jane in DVD

Now Available:
+Battlestar Galactica Season 3
+Dinosaurs Seasons 3 & 4
+Gilmore Girls Season 4
+Buffy: The Chosen Collection
+Tru Calling
+Angel: Limited Edition Collectors Set

Jane in Progress


Home » Archives » February 2006 » A New Angle
[Previous entry: "Specs From Beyond the Grave"] [Next entry: "Pop Quiz!"]

02/10/2006: A New Angle

The plot thickens. I got an answer from the final show-runner on my list. I wrote back and asked him if I could quote him and haven't heard back yet, so this one is going to be an anonymous quote for now. But I assure you he's a big-deal half-hour show-runner type. Here's what he says:

Mystery Man: I've read and enjoyed many "vintage" TV specs over the years and generally I give the writers extra credit for hipness. Especially in this age of quickly-forgotten new sitcoms, I'm more likely to hook into the characters and tone of a "Taxi" than an "Emily's Reasons Why Not." There are a couple of traps however. If you write a spec of a beloved classic sitcom you better nail it, because it might be my favorite show and I might know it better than you do. I've read a few specs where writers spoof the show or where the "Beverly Hillbillies" get into a space ship and crash on "Gilligan's Island." If you're going to goof this aggressively on something I might hold dear, your script better be damn funny to earn it. Another pitfall speaks to the difference in "jokiness" between shows of the past and now. The original "Andy Griffith Show" and "Dick Van Dyke" are amazingly light on actual jokes comparatively. It was a simpler time without all the table reads and run-throughs (and, in most cases, live audiences) and that desperate hunger for big jokes three-a-page. So the danger is that, in sticking to the tone, your spec might feel joke-light to our modern sensibilities and cause a cynical reader to suspect that you can't write jokes very well. It would certainly put more pressure on the cleverness and originality of your story idea. The best balance might be a tonally correct sample that goes a little heavy on the jokes. The bottom line is that I'm looking for two things when I'm reading a spec: Is this a good story? Are the jokes funny? If specing a classic TV show allows you to display these two skills, then nanu-nanu to you!


This is new.

Mystery Man is advocating the NON-post-modern version of the novelty spec. This would seem to contradict everything we've heard up until now. What is new here isn't the warning about the postmodern option. MM's caveat, ("If you’re going to goof this aggressively on something I might hold dear, your script better be damn funny to earn it.") is really very similar to what everyone else has said about this option.

What's new is his taking seriously the idea of writing a straight episode of an older show – it would have to be a genuinely great one – while upping the joke ratio. This is the first time I have seen this path advocated. But the point is well-taken. Sure, a great contemporary show would work as well, but we're not exactly overflowing with great contemporary shows. Did Taxi have more great episodes left in it? Did Buffy? Hmm.

So how do we sum all this up? Look at the bottom line that MM lays out above. Good story. Funny jokes. To which I would add Accurate Voices. Showing off your skills in these areas are all that really matters. Skills are the peanut butter. The kind of script is only as relevant as the kind of cracker. It changes the experience somewhat, but it's still all about the peanut butter.

Your main task is clear. Write two (or more) specs that you love for current shows. Not "Emily." Something with some sticking power. And then, when those are done, get creative. If you have a great idea for a postmodern dissection of The Patty Duke Show in which we learn that her "identical cousin" is a figment of her own imagination, and it shows off your skills, then go for it. OR if you have an amazing episode of M*A*S*H that doesn't deconstruct the show, but that simply lays open the characters like a funny filleting knife, if it's the episode they should've done but didn't, and it shows off your skills, then go for that. Personally, I think that is by far the harder option. Which leads us to the meta-lesson:

Show-runners differ from each other. There is no show-runner school. Which makes it very hard to teach a making-show-runners-happy school. Don't listen too much to what you’re told in books about TV writing. Don't even listen too much to me. There is so much in this business that is subjective. If you take anything away from this little three-posting exploration, it's that there is no one right answer. Do your compulsory exercises, but when it's time to try something more adventurous, write what delights you. Create your own cracker.

Researching this question, dear readers, has reminded me of what it felt like when I was just dreaming about getting into this business. When I was writing what delighted me. When writing for television seemed to mean walking into the screen and talking to the characters themselves. Are there characters you wish you could write for, but they belong to another time? Is there a story you're dying to write because it breaks every convention? This is your chance and I urge you to try it. A lot of the time, you won't get to use it. It'll be too difficult to finish, or to sustain, or an agent won't want to send it out, or won't even agree to read it.

But it might work. And it will certainly be fun. It will be re-energizing, liberating. And it won't be an exercise in fanfic (fan-written fiction using established characters), because as you write, you will be thinking about how to demonstrate your skills as a television writer. In other words:

Show me the peanut butter!


Get Blog Updates Via Email

Enter your Email

Preview | Powered by FeedBlitz


Walt Disney Writing Fellowship Program
UC Berkeley
Jane recommends you also visit BobHarris.com



February 2006

Valid XHTML 1.0!

Powered By Greymatter
Greymatter Forums

Home | News | Works | Biography | Frequently Asked Questions

Site design Copyright © PM Carlson
This is a fan site owned and operated entirely by PM Carlson with the cooperation and assistance of Jane Espenson. This site is not affiliated in any way with Mutant Enemy, 20th Century Fox or ABC.