When you first have some success as a writer, producers, agents, other writer’s immediately want to put you in a box. It’s good and it’s bad. You can create a satisfying career in your genre, provided you keep getting writing assignments. And that works for some writers.
More likely, however, you’ll want to branch out. Most writers find they’re better off being good at many different types of writing. Some writers can write comedy and drama. My partner and I wrote comedy. And we wrote different kinds of comedy.
We started off writing for Mork & Mindy and the The Jeffersons. Three camera sitcoms. At the time, they were two of the highest rated shows ever. Our agents wanted to get us onto other shows like that – it was a no-brainer. They could sell us at Sanford and Son, but we wanted to work on Barney Miller.
How we broke out of our niche.
You’ll need to write new spec scripts. You need something to show that you can write in different styles. Even better, use those specs to get you freelance episodes on different style shows. How do you do that?
This is where shameless self-promotion comes into play. Don’t just rely on your agent. You have to promote yourself. When we went on story meetings at The Jeffersons, we used to slip over to the next office and not-so-subtly drop copies of our spec Taxi and Barney Miller scripts on the Story Editor’s desks at other shows.
One day we got a call from the Story Editor at One Day At A Time, who liked our script. We wrote an episode for them and they liked it enough to hire us to write on staff. This was a ground-breaking show (at the time) about a divorced mother raising kids on her own (Valerie Bertinelli and MacKenzie Phillips). Our work on that show got us on another single-mom themed show, Alice.
By this time, we had made a lot of contacts. We stayed friendly with people like David Duclon and Ron Levitt (who created Married With Children). We were friends with Peter Casey and David Lee (who went on to work on Cheers, and later, to create Frasier.)
Branching out into features.
All of us were thrilled to be making six figure incomes on hit TV shows. Of course, everybody wanted to write features. During the breaks, between seasons, everyone gets time off and they write plays, pilots or features. Sometimes shows were cancelled and you went onto unemployment.
Some of us wrote features during our time off. I pitched a feature comedy to a producer who sold it to Dino De Laurentis. So I created another box to be included in – comedy features.
Your agents and managers will try to keep you in your box (like half-hour-comedies), so it’s important to work on other kinds of projects, too. You have to remind agents that you can do other jobs. They tend to fly on auto-pilot.
Transitioning into animation.
After one of the big Writers Guild of America (WGA) strikes, my partner and I were out of work for many months. My partner wrote an episode for Winnie the Pooh, an animated show that was not a signatory to the WGA. Then I saw he was making six figures on staff. And he won an Emmy.
I started pitching animated shows, too. It became something we’d do during strikes or off-season. Eventually we worked on many animated shows, and even ran Xiaolin Showdown, and created The Wild Thornberrys and Spacecats.
When staffing season comes around, you need to research the new pilots, find out who’s writing them and who their friends are. If you have a connection with the writer of the pilot, offer to punch up their pilot for free.
If you impress them with your ideas, they’ll remember you if they get picked up and go to series.
So, you start out in a box. You sell a feature, you write for “women’s shows,” and write some animated shows, you write dark, edgy humor, you write three camera and film shows, so you’re in a few more boxes. The more boxes you fit in, the greater your chances of working on different type of show.
We went after freelance episodes of certain shows. We went after ALF, Bob Newhart, because they were considered “A” list shows run by writers with “pedigree.” This meant they had experience on Emmy shows like Taxi, or Cheers.
We also went after freelance episodes for Duckman – a show that had a very dark, very edgy style of humor. How did we get that show? We made phone calls.
Now showrunners could look at some of our scripts that felt darker. The Duckman script got us into South Park and onto an animated, Emmy-winning show called Dilbert, a satire of cubicle life based on Scott Adams’ brilliant cartoon.
We kept our career alive by opening up as many boxes as we could. My partner made an independent film called “Lucky,” that won awards at a festival. We were called in to develop a feature called “Politenessman”, an edgy concept from the National Lampoon.
Punching up feature film scripts.
We worked on a feature called Blow Hard that satirized Die Hard, which led to other work for a showrunner/friend who directed a comedy for Spielberg. More work came from Amblin, doing rewrites based on actors’ note for the screenplay.
Animation experience opened opportunities for us to create our own animated shows, like The Wild Thornberrys and to produce animated shows like Xioalin Showdown.
For your career to last decades, like ours, we had to re-invent ourselves many times. We were known for being “big joke” guys, then for being “women’s writers,” then for being animation writers, then for being “darkly comic” one camera writers, and for writing dark and edgy humor.
What have you done lately?
You can’t rely on your old scripts and your resume to keep you working. The “what have you done lately” mentality kicks in. You have to keep reinventing yourself, writing new spec scripts based on the latest shows, or writing sketches, plays, features, and even webseries.
If you want to keep working, it helps to have a great reputation for being amiable, flexible, being good in a room, and to being able to adapt to trends that change both television and film.
You have to reach outside of your comfort zone in your writing and networking. All during your career, you have to think about reinventing yourself, about writing in different styles. You have to be an opportunist. And if you’re good at it, you’ll increase your odds of getting jobs.