Ken Levine on How to Begin a Series Pilot

The Big Man of sitcom and baseball announcing strikes again!

We know this is the wrong kinda pilot. But it's so damn cute....

We know this is the wrong kinda pilot. But it’s so damn cute….

by Ken Levine

Let’s say I’m given a pilot to write. And for whatever reason, this has to be my first scene: Young guy brings the girl he’s recently dated back to her place. She invites him in the for the first time. He’s excited because he figures he’s going to get laid. But when they step inside he learns that her ex-fiancé is on the couch. He still lives there.

Okay. That could be funny.

Actually, it better be. Pilots are much harder to write than normal episodes and the first scenes of pilots are the hardest of all. Why? Here’s what you have to do: Establish the premise, introduce the characters, begin a story, forge the tone, and make it really funny. As the expression goes: You only have one chance to make a first impression. That first scene has to hook the audience. Viewers have to feel they’re in good hands; that they will be rewarded for spending their precious time sampling your pilot for thirty minutes.

So that’s my assignment.

First, a disclaimer. I realize I’m old school, retro, out of touch, whatever. My approach is based on experience, a certain sensibility, and principles I believe to be universal and timeless. Feel free to seek other approaches.

My initial thought is: who are these characters? How can I make them interesting? How can I give them traits or behavior that is fun, identifiable, and sets up an intriguing dynamic between them? For now I’ll call the young couple Matt and Colleen.

And in concert with that, how can I make the situation as funny as possible? Not just amusing, not just wry – this is the opening scene of my pilot, maybe the only scene a viewer will watch – I can’t afford for it to be anything other than laugh out loud funny. It’s always best to give characters strong attitudes or goals and for this particular situation I would think it would heighten things if Matt really needs to get laid. He hasn’t had sex in awhile so he is champing at the bit. Guys will go to great comic lengths to get sex (so I’ve been told).  Now the scene becomes one of frustration and my job is the construct the funniest cock blocking scenario.

So I consider possibilities. What if…?

What if they get in the house, the ex-fiancé is there, and he’s really belligerent? “This is the ferret you left me for?” The couple get into a fight and the poor Matt is in the middle, all the while being belittled. Maybe. Matt could be somewhat insecure and this feeds into his neurosis. But he still tries to work things out and get the ex-fiancé to leave.

Or they get in the house and the ex is crying? Matt has to console him.

Or the ex goes on an on about what a bitch Colleen is. He shatters any illusion. Matt is torn between wanting desperately to sleep with her and to run.

Or the ex is not there when they get to the house. Things heat up quickly. Matt is practically undressed on the couch when the ex comes home. Puts Matt in the most compromising position possible. (Comedy writers are evil, aren’t we?)

Or….

Read it all at Ken Levine’s great blog