Ken Levine Asks: What comedy spec to write in 2013?

Is Ken Levine comedy writing’s Larry Brody? What would either of them think if they were asked?

Oh dear. If we had to ask that second question, that means we’re worried that the answer wouldn’t go down well. And if we’re worried about it, then it probably won’t. So forget we said anything. No comparisons from here, no sir. Just, you know, read:

by Ken Levine

Here’s a question I get (and am happy to answer) every year.

Beardly Mustachington asks:

Will you again grace us with your comedy spec recommendations for 2013? Program deadlines are fast approaching and I’m struggling between a few choice shows. I value your insight, as I suspect many readers do. Thanks!

I always preface this by saying (a) this is just one person’s opinion, and (b) the most important factor is what show do you feel best shows off your strengths?

If you are great at jokes write shows with lots of jokes like BIG BANG THEORY. If you’re more of an irony fan, go for something like PARKS AND RECREATION. Is your sense of humor primarily dark? Go for a SHAMELESS. Wry and caustic? CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM.

What are producers and agents looking for? Ask ten and you’ll get ten different answers. For existing series I would say show that you can really write their characters and their rhythms. And make the script is FUNNY. Everything else can be taught.  But a writer is either funny or he’s not.

There is one thing all producers/networks/readers all agree on – make sure your script is in the correct format and there are no spelling errors.  A sloppy presentation will surely result in a rejection. You can usually find script formats for specific shows on the internet. Or see if the show will send you a script. It’s worth the effort to do it right.

Okay, so which show should you do?

If there is one rule I would say don’t do a spec for a show that is at the end of its run. Don’t write an OFFICE. Don’t write a 30 ROCK. Or a TWO AND A HALF MEN. They’ll be obsolete by the time you’re done. HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER is coming back for one more season but still, you’ll have a very short shelf life with a HIMYM. Ditto RULES OF ENGAGEMENT.

Probably MODERN FAMILY is the spec de jour. There are big pluses and minuses to MODERN FAMILY. Plus: it’s very character-based and funny. It wins Emmys every year. The standards are high. Minus: It is also a trap. The stories on MODERN FAMILY tend to be very intricate and clever. If you can pull it off your script will really stand out, but if your storytelling falls short it will sink you.

The other popular spec is BIG BANG THEORY. The stories are thin at best, but the jokes are solid and plentiful. If you attempt a BBT load it up with jokes. Then go back and add fifteen more.

2 BROKE GIRLS is broad and crass. But it’s popular. The trap here is that a lot of the jokes on the show are obvious and easy (when stuck for any punch line they just have a character say vagina). But that’s not to say you can’t write better, funnier jokes than they do. Now the 2 BROKE GIRLS producers will think their vagina jokes are the most hilarious lines on television. But trust me, producers of other shows don’t hold those jokes in such high esteem.

PARKS AND RECREATION is smart, funny, and places a premium on character development. Don’t make the mistake of just making them all cartoons. They’re exaggerated but still straddle the line of reality.

If mainstream is your wheelhouse then consider a LAST MAN STANDING,THE MIDDLE, MIKE & MOLLY, and maybe GO ON. And by the way, don’t feel defensive about wanting to write mainstream. Just because a show isn’t edgy doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, you may enjoy a longer career if you write mainstream. There will always be more need for writers who can write all age groups and not just twentysomethings.

That said, a lot of young writers do want to establish themselves ascool. HAPPY ENDINGS is too cool for school. But there’s a trap with that show. They rely a lot on catch phrases for their humor. First off, they’re easy un-earned laughs, and secondly, if the reader is not totally into that show a lot of your jokes will just read like straight lines.

There are the Fox comedies, but again – beware. You want to write a show that’s fresh and on the upswing. But despite its pick up for a full season, THE MINDY PROJECT is not a hit show. Same with NBC’s NEW NORMAL. Their networks are saying all the right things but there’s no guarantee either will be back. Same with WHITNEY, THE B IN APT 23, and COMMUNITY.

UP ALL NIGHT is going through a transformation from single to multi camera. Until they figure out what they want and what their show is, I’d give it a wide berth. And chances are these changes are just a Hail Mary and the show is gone after this year.

If you want to write a spec for a show a little more off-center then I would think about SHAMELESS and RAISING HOPE.

And then there’s GIRLS. Write a great GIRLS and it could be a home run. But if it’s not great you’re dead. And my guess is most of the GIRLS specs miss the mark. They’re very exact and hard to write.  Another thing about GIRLS – realize that there are a number of producers who actively dislike the show. You’re toast there. But you could argue that if GIRLS is your sensibility and a producer doesn’t like it then he’s not the producer for you. Still, if you’re going to write a GIRLS I suggest you also have another spec in the drawer. I don’t want to see you rejected even before the producer opens your script.

So there you have it. And as always, things change. If I do this post again in six months all the recommendations might be completely different. Again, write the show you write best regardless of what I or anybody else says.

Also, remember, today you also need a piece of original material. But that’s another conversation.

Best of luck with your specs. Someone has to make it. Why not YOU?