CB: I guess we should start with how you got started.
JM: Well, I only have the long version; there is no short version. In college I did a lot of theater. I started out acting and quickly got more into directing. And then reality struck and I didn’t know quite what I was going to do to make a living. I didn’t feel I was ready to come to Hollywood. I felt despite my background that I didn’t have a lot to offer the world necessarily as a writer.
I was a cub reporter for Fairchild Publications in Washington, then Miami, and that led in turn eventually to work for Time Magazine as a correspondent in New York, and I thought, this isn’t what I want to do, but I can do this for five years, and quit when I’m 30 and have my creative life ahead of me. It gave me a lot of different experiences. I worked in the Boston bureau after New York, then Los Angeles, and I had done a number of interesting stories in the past month or two, and I thought it wasn’t going to get any better, so I walked in and resigned.
I called a friend of mine who worked at MTM [Mary Tyler Moore Productions] and I said I want to write scripts. He said, “TV or film?” I said, “What’s the difference? He says, "Nobody tells Paramount how many movies they have to make every year, but TV needs three hours a night." And I thought, that sounds like a better bet. There was a show, REMINGTON STEELE, and I thought, I know something about detective fiction, and I really loved the form, so he helped me put together a spec script, and I ended up getting hired by REMINGTON STEELE to do a script, and while I was working that out, for the second season, they made me an offer to join the writing staff. I went from staff writer to story editor to writer-producer and by the time the show ended I was a supervising producer.
And then I became a co-executive producer on HILL STREET [BLUES], which was a rather chaotic year in its seventh season, but an honor to work on that show. Then I went into development, which doesn’t quite exist in the same way as it did then. Back then there was a lot of money being thrown at people, and I actually made more money in an office writing two pilots a year than I did when I was working my butt off helping HILL STREET in its final year. I ended up having three pilots produced in a four year period but nothing that made the fall schedule, which is probably just as well because I don’t know if I was really prepared to what it would have done to my marriage or psyche at the time.
I was discouraged and I thought I would start to write movies, and my wife said that there was a new show on the air that she thought I would like and it turned out to be NORTHERN EXPOSURE. I stayed on for four years until the series ended, wrote 18 episodes and rewrote a few others. And that springboarded me to my first executive-producer job, which was working on PICKET FENCES. David Kelley had had three years of PICKET FENCES and was burnt out on it, wanted to do other things, so he asked if I would take that over. I call that chapter of my life “fools rush in.” David was great, and it was a terrific experience but it's not easy to follow someone like David Kelley.
Since then, there have been plenty of offers to help shows that are getting on their feet. In the case of ALIAS, for example, I happened to be in Rome with my wife on our anniversary and I got a call from J. J. Abrams in the middle of the night saying he was looking for someone to help with the fourth season, and it turned out that I knew half the staff, and I liked the show, and my kids liked the show, which was very important, and so I did that. That was a situation where I was helping out with a show that was an established hit, but after the third year, which is the one where Jennifer Garner wakes up and it’s two years later, people got a little confused, and the network still harbored this hope that they could get new viewers to the series, so we tried to find a way to reboot the series in a way that you could bring new eyeballs to it. From the most bottomline perspective, the idea was to get a fifth season, and we did that, so at that point I felt my job was done, and moved on to IN JUSTICE, a short-lived series created by Robert and Michelle King, who went on to create THE GOOD WIFE.
Sometime after that, I got a call that there was this Lifetime series that was in trouble, and I told my agent that I wasn’t interested in a Lifetime series and I really wasn’t interested in something called ARMY WIVES, and he said just take a look at it, and I did and thought it was terrific. And I said, you know what, I don’t care what you call it, I don’t care what the network is, this is really interesting work. I’ve never seen these characters before, I’ve never seen a situation quite like this, and I think I can help it.
CB: It seems like it must have taken a tremendous leap of faith to quit Time and say I'm going to write this script. What gave you the faith to do that?
JM: It was really just a pact I had between me and myself, that I said this is what I want to try. And I do believe we only go around once in this life. And through both choice and circumstance I was still single, so I had no obligations. I was just very drawn to it. And I also felt that you had to make a total commitment to it at some point. I don't want it to make it seem like it wasn't without bumps and scratches. At one point I even took the law boards. It makes a better story than it was actually at the time. It was full of uncertainty. But someone who's truly ambitious often develops this sense of patience about things.
CB: Just to go back to something, I’m curious what sort of stuff you learned on REMINGTON STEELE.
JM: There is no one way to do a show. There’s a lot of ways to fail, but there’s a fair number of ways to succeed, too. There are a few basic principles that apply, and the most important is that you have to have quality scripts on time. And so one thing that I learned as I was moving from writer to more of a writer-producer is that if you have to err on giving more time to the outline or more time to the script initially, depending on the show, and again this was a mystery, I would err on the side of the outline, because it’s much easier to fix the story in outline than it is in the script. If you get to the script and you say these stories aren’t working, then you have to kind of reverse-engineer them and figure out where the problems are, and that’s a lot harder. It’s like cutting through the brambles to get back to a bigger picture. When you’re writing a script, you are slogging through the jungle. When you’re writing an outline, you’re more at 10,000 feet and you can survey the landscape and get a sense of what’s going on. But when you’re in the swamp, it’s hard. And when there’s pressure and time is running out, it’s even harder.
Another thing that I would advise people is try to get into a “teaching hospital.” I’ll explain: six, seven years ago I approached John Wells with this idea of a showrunner training program because I felt that since the time that I had started, the apprenticeship way of learning was becoming increasingly rare. With more people competing, even with more spaces, the talent was getting thinner, shows were lasting a briefer period of time. An analogy I like to make is that shows tend to be either teaching hospitals or private hospitals. A teaching hospital is where the resident in charge looks at his staff like a bunch of interns he’s taking on rounds, and you can look at the patient, which is the script, and say, okay, what’s wrong with this. And very often in new shows, the creator is teaching themselves at the same time, so there’s no opportunity to provide a teaching hospital.
CB: It sounds like you’re saying that there are very few teaching hospitals nowadays.
JM: I think you’re right, I think there are fewer. But I think it’s not necessarily because there are fewer people who are willing to mentor; it’s because the pressures and the multiplicity of voices giving notes and the impact of those voices have become more pronounced over the last years. We’re in a very curious time because the pie is being sliced into many, many more pieces. Which should provide more opportunity, yes, but it also provides more opportunity for hysteria, chaos, and just general madness. I think that people who want to make it as writer-producers are more responsible for learning as much as they can on their own without the benefit of necessarily being a part of a stable organization. It’s very tough to even assimilate what it is you’re learning, because if you’re just trying to keep your head above water, it’s not the best way to learn how to swim, or swim competitively and improve your time, especially if the writer next to you is grabbing your head to keep from drowning him or herself.
CB: So what does that mean for a writer trying to break in? Obviously it makes it more competitive, but because we have to be responsible for learning as much as possible, do you suggest going to film school? Does that seem required these days?
JM: I don’t think so necessarily. What I do think is that there’s value to living as an adult outside of this town prior to trying to make it as a writer. I think that while there are a hundred examples of people who can make it having come out here from college, I think what helps your writing is developing confidence in yourself as a person, having experiences that don’t necessarily reflect those of everybody else in town.
CB: More specifically, how about writing samples?
JM: Well, let's talk about spec scripts and then about spec pilots. The way it was when I got started, there was far less competition. There were three networks. The universe was very understandable and there were several genres and not too many shows that didn't fit into one of those genres. So if you wrote a REMINGTON STEELE, you could use it for a spec for HART TO HART or RIPTIDE. And also there was a common assumption that if I gave it to you, you knew those shows, so you could judge whether that was a good script. Today, any one of us would be hard-pressed to name a show that you think six people all watch. Let's take a show that's very popular, MAD MEN. It'd be very hard to spec a MAD MEN because it's serial. There was always a discussion when I was coming up, and I've been on many panels discussing it, if you write a spec, should you write it on the show you want to be on, and I said hell, yes. Why wouldn't you? And people would go, because they'll know where all the problems are. Well, okay, so you're saying, gee, I'm good enough to write on MAD MEN, but I'm not going to submit it because I'm afraid you'll see I'm not that good. Also, the show you love is the show you're going to write best because you're going to have to rewrite it many times to make it really good and only a show that you really care about is going to make you exert that kind of effort. But let's go back to the MAD MEN episode. Even if you wrote that really well, what else could you use that script for?
CB: Breaking Bad?
JM: That's another show that comes to mind. You have these edgy dark shows. But one's about a corporate environment in the 60s, the other's about the Southwest today. But again, good writing to me is good writing, so if you write a sensational script, I don't care what it is. Anyone with sensitivity should see that it’s quality work. That being said, that's not necessarily the way the world works. So you try to be smart as you can about what you pick. What can I write a spec of that I think would be as useful and as versatile as I can? Pick something you love, something you think you can learn from. Pick something you think will have the broadest appeal possible. If it's a choice between MAD MEN and HOUSE—let's say you like both those shows. House, being a one-off, it's easier to judge that script. It shows you can write a procedural at least. And there's a pretty good assumption, since HOUSE is the most popular show in the world right now, that a number of people will at least be familiar with the characters, and so if they read it, they can judge how well those characters have been used. And as a procedural, it shows that even if I, the prospective reader, am doing a procedural about cops in New Jersey, at least I see you understand how to put together a mystery. So having written your HOUSE, and saying, okay, well, now I have to write my MAD MEN, because that's what I want to do, fine, because at worst, it's another chance for you to write and get feedback from other people. And when you call a place and they say what do you have? You say, I have a MAD MEN, I have a HOUSE, they'll say, send me the HOUSE, or send me the MAD MEN. You never know.
But the big change is this idea of writing a spec pilot. Why would you want to read a spec pilot? You can understand it on its own terms. You don't have to watch the show the writer has written a spec script for. The problem is that pilots are terribly difficult to write well. It is a very strange form. And why write a pilot instead of a spec screenplay? It's length. To ask somebody to read 120 pages as opposed to sixty pages is to ask a lot. Which isn't to say that if you've written a really good screenplay, that you shouldn't submit that. But also, a well-written pilot will show an appreciation for the form. But where things get complicated is, subscription cable doesn't use act breaks, whereas most shows do. And I'd say that if you want to make a spec script as versatile as possible, I'd write one with act breaks. If you haven't written with act breaks, it's a little bit harder to appreciate, does the person really understand the form?
But pilots are just so hard because you're trying to create a vessel that can contain a hundred hours. I think the advantage is that you can write about something that really excites you, and structurally maybe it's a pilot where you can make a few changes and roll film. That's the other upside to the writer: it's not idle work. In the past, it would have been completely idle because no studio or network would ever consider making a spec pilot, but now there's more examples every year of spec pilots that got made: THE SHIELD, MAD MEN.
CB: So what would you recommend for people writing pilots?
JM: One of the advantages of writing a spec script—is that so much of the playing field is already determined for you. It's like going out to play tennis. You know what the rules are, you know where the lines are, and you know what you're supposed to do. But if you're writing a spec [pilot], you don't even know what the game is. Is there a net? What are the rules? What are the dimensions of the court? You can get agoraphobic almost. I think it would help to say, if I had to choose the show that I was working on, what would I like to be known as? Do I want Ryan Murphy's career? Do I want David Kelley's career? Whose material do I like? What kind of shows do you like, did you like growing up? So you say, all right, I'm going to write that kind of show. You want to provide as much discipline for yourself as you can. I fought this a lot when I was starting as a writer because I thought it was uncreative to compare yourself to anything else. The fact is no matter how complex or sophisticated your idea is, at the end of the day, if you can't explain your idea in two or three sentences, you'd better go back and think about it some more. And it needn’t come to you as two to three sentences necessarily, but it can. What inspired MIAMI VICE was two words, which was MTV cops: to use the hipness and all of the edge of MTV and marry it to a cop show.
Be your own worst critic. Show it to friends who won't just say, wow, this is great. You want people to say I don't get it. But you're not going to be judged on "could this really be made?" You're going to be judged on the writing. What you're really looking for is an intelligence, a sensitivity, a personality, something that comes through in the writing that makes you want to meet that person. If people want to turn the page, you're doing the job. The goal of the spec script is to get a meeting. Wow, who wrote this? Who could write this line? Who could have thought of this inventive twist? Eighty percent of the script was okay, but, man, you really hooked me here, and I laughed here, and yeah, I think your script's a mess, but I think you have talent. The first thing I sold, I wrote this spec Remington and I got a call right away that they wanted to buy the first scene. I'd written a costume party, and our heroes were looking for a thief. REMINGTON was dressed up as Sherlock Holmes looking very distinguished and he put Laura in a bunny outfit, and it turned out the thief had come dressed as a carrot, so you had this bunny running after the carrot. It was pretty stupid. But the thing is, at one point they see the guy make a snatch and run away, and [executive producer] Michael Gleason told me, "I wanted to meet the writer who wrote the line 'stop that carrot'."
CB: Was that the first script you ever wrote?
JM: Close to it. Idiot that I was, I’d actually written a spec pilot with this friend of mine. But the REMINGTON STEELE was the first spec script I had written. But I was 30, I had studied the form, this friend at MTM had given me a great deal of advice. When things broke, they broke rather quickly. I resigned from Time at the end of the year and I was on staff the next May. And then I found out, like Woody Allen said, 90% of life is just showing up. I think in this business, once you get your foot in door as a writer, if you can deliver, then you can hang around. This business always needs new talent. Most executive producers of any longevity and wisdom are always looking for writers to help, not because they want to help you, necessarily, but they want to help themselves. They don't want to be up until midnight every weekend rewriting. They want to find writers who can make their lives easier. And the best of them want to be able to say, oh man, I just hired the greatest writers ever; they're stars.
It's an illusion to think that once you're in as a writers assistant or a staff writer or any place that your future's assured because you're in the system, like school: now you're a freshman and then you're going to graduate. The lesson is just learn the craft and learn the underlying principles of what make scripts work, and what makes shows work, because you may not have the luxury of being on anyone's show for very long as a writer in this environment.
CB: So what’s next for you?
JM: Teaching holds a lot of appeal. I'm trying to do some other writing. I'm pleased that my showrunning ability has given me a certain profile and viability, and I don't minimize that, but the writer in me would like more opportunity to get back to work a little bit. I help break every story on ARMY WIVES and I do a fair amount of rewriting, but in the question of original writing, I haven't had much opportunity to do that. So some combination of teaching and continuing to write.
Of course, one of the things you learn in this business is that things can change in a heartbeat, but that's the way it looks right now.
Ron Rappaport is the Co-Creator of I’M IN THE BAND, which debuted on Disney XD in January 2010 with its second season set to debut in January 2011. Ron Rappaport discusses how he made the transition from being an assistant (when I had met him) to having a show on the air that is both musically charged as in the vein of GLEE or HANNAH MONTANA and is geared towards the tween demographic. Here is a closer look at what this Economics and Psychology major from UC Berkeley, and now full time writer/producer, has to say:
JW: At what point did you want to write? Were you ever close to almost doing something else?
RR: I graduated [
Within a year, I got a job working as an assistant to a partner at Broder Webb Chervin Silberman, a lit agency, which later merged with ICM. I worked for Ted Chervin there for a year. I’m eternally grateful for that opportunity. It allowed me to understand how the industry works from the inside while interacting with veteran writers on different shows. I got to read their scripts as they were coming in, which helped me in my own writing. I got to learn about the development process while listening in on conversations between executives and agents. And I got to understand a side of the business many writers rarely get to see. It was the hardest job I’ve had, but arguably my most important one.
Off of that desk, I landed a job working for a writer/producer – Bob Kushell – who had an overall deal. Working for Bob was great as I got to experience the sitcom writing environment on shows he was working on. I also got to learn from his experiences while he was developing.
While working for Kushell, I got offered my first writing job as a creative consultant at MTV. I worked there for 2-3 years on shows including DATE MY MOM and NEXT. Kushell was really cool about letting me work at MTV as a writer a few days a week and developing projects on my own while still working for him. Working for MTV got me writing pages and pages of jokes, which was invaluable experience that I later put to use in pitching jokes in the writers room and on stage when a joke didn’t land in front of an audience. The pressure of coming up with 20 jokes in two minutes in front of my producer/director at MTV really prepared me for what I do on a daily basis now. My work at MTV ended with the writer’s strike.
Coming out of the writer’s strike, which was a tough few months, I realized that budgets were shrinking and staff writer jobs were getting harder to come by. So I decided I was going to skip that brutal step and sell my own show. As soon as the writer’s strike was over, I took out seven different pitches spanning animation, half-hour, reality, etc. Disney had read one of my specs, responded to my writing and brought me in to pitch.
JW: What was that writing sample that you had that got this attention?
RR: It was actually one of the first things I had written. I wanted to write something that would stand out in a pile of scripts and get passed around by executives. So I wrote a very traditional multi-camera sitcom about a family… of terrorists.
JW: Wait, did I hear that correctly? Terrorists?
RR: Yes, you heard correctly. [laughs] It’s called GROWING UP JIHAD. It was very polarizing. Half the executives who read it were offended and never wanted to meet with me and the other half wanted to meet with me immediately.
Ironically enough, the place that responded the most was Disney. They told me that a lot of the family-oriented scripts they received were very saccharine and sweet, whereas GROWING UP JIHAD was an edgy family comedy. I didn’t put anything in there that was religiously offensive or graphically offensive -- no beheadings or anything! If you think about what EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND was, this was in the same genre, except that instead of a sports writer in the suburbs, it was about a single father with three kids who wanted to be martyrs living in a cave 500 feet underground somewhere in
JW: Going back, even though you didn’t major in writing, did you pursue the industry in school?
RR: Sort of. When I was in college, I thought I wanted to get into the industry on the music side. I interned for post-production music editors on the film HOCUS POCUS. It was a wonderful experience but watching the process of scoring a film ruined its magic for me. I knew if I pursued that career, I’d never be able to watch a film without analyzing its score. So I realized that I didn’t want to be in post-production, as I love a good film score and didn’t want to poison that experience for myself.
I realized I wanted to be a writer in my11th grade English class. Nothing matched the high I got from writing something great, and I still get that high when I finish a script I’m proud of today. Slowly, over my early career out of college, I was engaged in aspects of writing at my jobs but they weren’t actual writing jobs. Eventually, I was just hungry enough to write full time. And I was ready to starve for it, which is an important moment for every writer – realizing it all may not work out and you literally may not be able to put food on your plate while you pursue it.
JW: Speaking of your interest in music early on and writing, how did the idea of I’M IN THE BAND come about?
RR: I have a huge passion for music, I play piano by ear and grew up in concert bands and marching bands. Disney was looking for edgy, boy friendly comedy and I came in to pitch for a new channel called Disney XD. I knew they wanted an aspirational boy friendly show. I had been watching my nieces and nephews and friends’ kids playing GUITAR HERO and ROCK BAND and saw the look in their eyes when they were playing and I realized “what could be more boy friendly aspirational than being the lead guitarist in your favorite rock band?” I threw together two paragraphs in an email and sent it to Michael McGahey, Disney XD’s Executive Director of Development. He brought me in to pitch it during the summer of 2008 and they bought the pitch.
JW: I read in a Variety article that THIS IS SPINAL TAP and ALMOST FAMOUS were inspirations, elaborate on that.
RR: THIS IS SPINAL TAP is a definite comedic inspiration for the ridiculous comedic tone of our band members. It was a brilliant film and we really try to capture the same irreverent tone of our show that is in SPINAL TAP of “rocker idiots who don’t think they’re idiots.” The characters I love the most on TV are the ones who are hilarious without realizing they are hilarious, the guys who think people are laughing with them while we’re laughing at them, like Michael Scott and Homer Simpson. We try to deliver “smart dumb” comedy on our show, and have learned boys love that kind of humor.
JW: I saw the show was co-created even though it seems you came in as the sole creator. How is Michael B. Kaplan involved?
RR: Michael is our showrunner. We aren’t a writing team, but we were paired up early on. I had never run a show before and Disney had a feeling even from the pitch stage that this could be a show they could potentially order to series and as this was the first show I created, they wanted a veteran eye at the top. I was totally open to that as I wanted somebody I could learn from during my first time out as a show creator.
But one of the conditions I had when I was looking for a showrunner was that I would be involved in all high level decisions and could help run the show. There are a lot of people out there who wouldn’t have been cool with that, but Michael was. He’s definitely in charge but we run the show together along with another Executive Producer, Richard Gurman, who spent many years on MARRIED WITH CHILDREN. We have a nice triumvirate of power that balances out in hiring and editing and production and all decisions in between. And when we disagree we’re very fond of saying, “That’s why there’s three of us.” It’s a fun group. They are great guys and they are wonderful mentors for me.
I’ve learned a ton working with [Michael]. I’m okay if he thinks we should go in one direction and I think we should go in another. It gives me a chance to evaluate my opinion in the context of somebody who has had far more experience than I have and learn and grow in that process. Ultimately, we talk it out and always do what’s best for the show, egos aside.
My agent at ICM paired Michael and I up. He was the first and only showrunner meeting I took. He’s a smart, strategic and efficient producer, a very funny writer and a great guy. I’m lucky to have him on the show.
JW: Speaking of your agent, was he the same agent you had worked for as an assistant?
RR: No. Interestingly enough, my agent Mark Gordon and I were assistants together at Broder. I got signed at the agency around the same time he became a coordinator and he took me on as he became a coordinator on his way to becoming an agent. Now he’s made a real name for himself over there.
We laugh all the time, because in our heads, we’re still just two assistants having fun on other people’s dimes.
JW: After seeing the show, I noticed, as opposed to other shows in the Disney brand, your show seems to come up with these crazy, fanciful names like Iron Weasel, Sushi, Hip Hop or Jazz? I have to know, why the name “Iron Weasel?” Or the other names?
RR: Iron Weasel was not the original name of the band. The band name went through 3-4 iterations from the time I pitched it to the time it got on the air. Part of that process was coming up with an original name whose domain wasn’t taken and was kid friendly. We ended up with Iron Weasel after a conference call between ourselves and Disney, who had a few tweens in the room to bounce ideas off of. They liked it, we liked it and it has a hard rock sound to it with a little bit of a wink and a smile with the word “weasel” in it. As for Sushi, Hip Hop, etc., those were episode specific names we came up with in the moment, every writer will find those.
JW: Peter Murrieta on another Disney show, WIZARDS OF WAVERLY PLACE said running a show is like running a 7 Eleven. What are your thoughts on that?
RR: Every show is different, but I think the 7 Eleven reference speaks to how many things you have to deal with at once each day. I can tell you what running our show is like. It feels like a marathon. If you’re ahead when you’re in a race, you can coast a bit later; if you coast early you have to use all your energy in the end, which sucks when you’re burned out en route to shooting 22 episodes. That may work for some people but I’ve learned that the farther ahead you get earlier in the process, the easier and happier your life gets later. I think we started production this year with eight scripts done and nearly a dozen stories broken. We try to get far ahead in pre-production because inevitably something will slow you down in production. We’re a very production-heavy show, with big gags, lots of physical comedy and concert performances with pyro, lights, etc. We keep our stunt coordinator very busy. It’s tons of fun, but it requires planning and getting ahead early, which we’ve been able to do. Everyone on the show, from our writers to our actors to our production staff, is very happy. And that’s rare.
JW: In terms of your writing staff, how many people are on staff? What did you look for in hiring writers?
RR: We have seven writers. We really looked for “silver bullets” at every level and found them. At the end of the day, you’re really looking for writers who write scripts you love and who you can spend 15 hours in the writers room with.
JW: How many of those on your show have you worked with before?
JW: Oh wow, that’s interesting.
RR: We have a unique sensibility on our show and had a high bar in staffing. We asked for references from friends for writers who could write hard, multicam friendly jokes, versus more single cam, subtle irony and adult innuendo. We really wanted hard joke writers who were joke machines, as kids don’t understand irony, or so we we’re told.
JW: Back to the writing staff, in terms of actual writing samples when you were staffing, were they kid friendly or not? Or outrageous like your Jihad sample [laughs]?
RR: I always say, prior to I’M IN THE BAND, I had never written a kids’ show and I don’t plan to start writing one now. We don’t want kids’ show writers or kids show oriented specs. We want to read the funniest scripts out there because we basically take every joke pitched as if we were writing for a network sitcom and we adjust it to fit the show we’re on. We never want to write DOWN for kids. Kids are very smart and savvy and I personally do think kids get irony. They like being challenged.
RR: And you don’t want to dumb down jokes that are so simple that kids get bored. They are going to be on their ipads, laptops and iphones, playing games and watching your show anyways. Give them something fun that they can be challenged by. Also, we wanted a show that parents could watch and wonder “why isn’t this show on Friday nights at ABC?”
JW: What do you think of other musically minded shows like GLEE or HANNAH MONTANA?
RR: I love music centered shows. They are not hard to do; they are hard to do well. We put a lot of effort into music on the show. Michael and I co-write many of the songs and I help produce all the songs on the show with our fantastic writer/music partners – Stacy and Dave Wilde at Wilde West -- who have done an amazing job with the songs on the show.
When music shows are done right, they are some of the best entertainment on TV. There’s a reason that GLEE is hitting, they are tapping into something in the zeitgeist and using music to deliver comedy while having fun with universally relatable emotions and experiences.
There are days where I enjoy writing songs for our show more than writing for the show itself.
JW: Disney XD’s brand is geared towards a young male demographic. How do you see your show if it wasn’t on Disney XD. Would it be anywhere else?
RR: This was what I called a “sniper shot pitch” – targeted for one network -- versus other “machine gun pitches” which can be pitched in various places and you hope you hit any target across many networks. I had pitched Disney XD 1-2 ideas before. By the time I came to pitch I’M IN THE BAND, I knew what they wanted and tailored my pitch to exactly their needs. I was very lucky we saw eye to eye, and they had some great notes during the development process that really helped the show.
But could it work somewhere else? We do feel this show could live in what used to be TGIF evenings on ABC. Because unlike many kids shows on Disney or Nickelodeon, we have four adults as series regulars. That’s a risk Disney took and it’s rare. Our actors are really fantastic comedic adult actors, including Logan Miller, who is 18 playing 15, and I do think this show could live and be successful in a primetime ABC block targeted at families. We try to push for the edge, but it’s challenging doing a show about sex, drugs and rock and roll without the sex and drugs.
JW: Jane Espenson’s blog posted an entry on how very different the
RR: Not on a weekly basis but at the series level on an annual basis, yes. Disney does focus group testing with kids to see what works, what doesn’t work, etc. We, the producers, get invited to these focus groups and sit in on one side of a two-way mirror as kids either rave about or tear apart various aspects of the show. It’s a sobering experience hearing that brutal feedback -- some kids you shake your head at, some you want to adopt -- but we incorporate it all into our upcoming season’s direction and the show is ultimately better for it.
On a week-to-week basis, the challenge for us is dealing with Standards and Practices who have strong guidelines for what a Disney show should be. There’s a back and forth with that as we try to push for edgier content and they try to protect the brand. They know what parents will tolerate. We know what kids will laugh at. We meet somewhere in the middle.
JW: Were there edgy jokes you wrote and surprised you got away with?
RR: Absolutely. (But if Disney’s S&P group is reading this, then no, none at all.) We got away with things in season 1 we can’t do in season 2. Standard and Practices moves the goal line occasionally. But again, they’re just protecting the Disney brand, and I can understand and appreciate that as that’s their job.
JW: That’s interesting, because I watch a lot of ABC FAMILY shows like PRETTY LITTLE LIARS and SECRET LIFE OF AN AMERICAN TEENAGER are very much pushing the envelope. On PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, there was a long make out scene of a lesbian teenage couple and it feels like this isn’t even been seen on a network show?
RR: I had actually pitched other ideas to ABC FAMILY prior to pitching I’M IN THE BAND and they said the word “family” in their name was misleading because they were trying to edge up the brand. When you have the word “family” in your name, you think of wholesome content like LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and so forth. I don’t want to say that has been a hindrance for them, because they have been ridiculously successful. But their name doesn’t match their brand, which is one of the reasons why I think Disney launched Disney XD to target boys. It’s edgier than Disney Channel.
JW: With the recent move of Steve McPherson and now Paul Lee from ABC FAMILY to ABC, are there any programming hopes you have or even what you predict will happen?
RR: I don’t know if I can predict. But historically multi-camera sitcoms have been among the most successful programs, especially with recent syndication sales like BIG BANG THEORY. They’re cheaper to produce and are comfort comedy food that
That’s part of the reason I was excited to work at Disney. When I was pitching a few years ago, there weren’t a lot of multi-camera shows at the networks. Disney and Nickelodeon were largely the ones developing them, and giving big orders. So that’s where I went to pitch a multicam show.
JW: And also CBS has a lot of traditional multi-camera shows.
RR: The funny thing about the word “traditional” is that as recently as of 2004/2005, shows like FRIENDS and WILL AND GRACE were “traditional” multicams and those shows were wildly successful. When I was at MTV, I asked the teenagers I worked with what they watched on TV. So many of them would say KING OF QUEENS reruns or similar sitcoms in syndication. We have a whole generation of viewers being raised on multicam sitcoms at Disney and Nickelodeon. They are primed for watching this format. And they’re catching it in reruns on cable. We’re not past the point of enjoying multicams; we’re breeding a new generation of multicam viewers. I’m hopeful that networks decide to develop multi-cams that are smart and savvy in the spirit of many single camera shows that have been developed recently.
JW: Stepping outside of what we’ve talked about, what are your favorite shows?
RR: ANDY RICHTER CONTROLS THE UNIVERSE was one of the reasons I became a writer. It was quirky and irreverent and more recently and 30 ROCK has captured that same quirky brilliance. COMMUNITY’s writing has such great cadence and is always good for a smart laugh. On the non-scripted side, I love TOSH.0 on Comedy Central. I’m laughing my butt off at that show. Notice that there no multicams on this list. Not enough on the air right now to choose from.
JW: Are there any of these shows you mentioned or didn’t, Emmy-wise that you’re rooting for? Or even shows that you wish were nominated?
RR: A huge omission was I’M IN THE BAND for a kids’ show nomination! [laughs] I would have loved to have seen COMMUNITY nominated. But they’re a first year show, they’ll hopefully earn it next season. 30 Rock is just genius. You could shoot that show in front of a live audience and the jokes would get huge laughs.
But one of my biggest gripes about the Emmy nomination process is that many dramedies are being considered as comedies. I would love to see half hour comedies, dramas and dramedies in their own categories.
JW: What about half hour comedy blends? Like NURSE JACKIE, WEEDS or HUNG?
RR: I’d have to watch those shows more closely but I’ll say half-hour comedies are half-hour comedies. If a half-hour show’s primary goal is to make people laugh, they belong in the comedy category. Otherwise, I think these half-comedy/half-drama one-hour submissions just muddy the process of selecting a best comedy. There are some great one-hour shows that fall into that category, and they deserve their own “Dramedy” category to be nominated in.
JW: Any last words? Or anything else about your show?
RR: Thanks for taking the time to interview me, I appreciate it. As Ash on our show would say, “All good questions, bro. All good questions.”
Also, just wanted to take a moment to thank our friend Amanda (http://aspiringtvwriter.blogspot.com/) who plugged us on her blog. We think she's awesome. It's obvious but just so you know...
HWAS would like to thank everyone for coming out to the Disney ABC Writing Program event on May 17th. We would also like to thank our friends from ABC: Frank Gonzalez, Ollie Ashtari-Larki and this year’s fellows: Zahir McGhee and Phonz Williams. (Phonz is a part of HWAS and attended last year’s event).
Below is a summary of the event. Not a lot has changed since last year. But we have also included more details of the selection process and pointed out changes where there are any.
This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the Disney ABC Writing Program. As the program continues to evolve, some key things of note are:
- The program will no longer be referred to as a “fellowship”. ABC believes that disbanding the moniker is a more appropriate way to designate that the program is not an internship or place where one trains to write, but is a program of professional writers.
- The program is about a diversity of voices, not necessarily about diversity of an ethnic background.
- Disney’s affiliate networks and ABC Studios do not have a diversity hire so the Disney ABC Program works similarly to an in house agency.
- The Disney ABC Program is the only one of its kind in that it is WGA sanctioned. This is why the program does not accept original material. The program is designed to develop writers, not material. Fellows who are accepted actually earn WGA points.
- The Program is built to be long-term where Frank and Ollie try to help you even when you leave. They try to help you find an agent and manager and to connect with past fellows. It’s about building one’s career.
Applications for the 2011 fellowship became available online June 1st-July 1st. Frank and Ollie recommend that you download the application first, create a checklist for yourself and put it aside to work on you spec script. Your script will not be read if your application is not filled out properly or is incomplete. Furthermore, this will allow you to focus solely on your script knowing that all other application materials are prepared. It’s also important to note that no original material is accepted and like always it is one (1) spec script from an existing show still on the air as of July 1st (i.e. renewed shows).
Also, if you are a writing team, you would take up two spots in the program and both writers need to apply separately. Frank expressed that while it’s not impossible to get in as a writing team, it is much more difficult because the team would take two spots and writing teams have been rare.
Some changes: there is no notary this year and everything is electronic (last year it was both electronic and hard copy applications).
Applications are due July 1, 2010.
APPLICATION PROCESS (June 1st- July 1st )
Last year there were roughly 1500 applicants. Eight were selected as fellows (four drama writers and four comedy writers). Each year the program runs from February through February, paying fellows $961.54 a week ($50,000 annually) with benefits. Many fellows get staffed as a writer on a show associated within the Disney Corporate family (i.e. ABC Entertainment, Disney Channel, ABC Family, ABC Studios, etc).
Once your application materials are in, 22 professional readers will do a first pass reading of your spec script. All readers are given a “test” to make sure they meet the sensibilities and standard of what the program looks for. This “test” is consists of giving the reader a script to do coverage on. All readers have worked professionally doing coverage before. As to which scripts go to which readers, the readers are asked to list the shows they watch and scripts are assigned accordingly.
It’s important that you spec a show that people are familiar with. It’s okay to spec a cable show, but make sure it’s a successful and well established. If a reader doesn’t know the show you’ve written a spec for, they’ll have a difficult time judging your writing. Ollie suggested that how to gauge if a show is specable is that if it’s a network show, it should be in its second season at least and a cable show to be in its third season. It’s important do a show that is well known. For example, don’t write a SPARTACUS.
And as for the spec itself, it’s about having a good script with a great voice that SPARKS. Capture the show with an interesting twist.
Random note. A lot of scripts that came in last year included: Entourage, The Office, 30 Rock. Some that came in moderately included: The Big Bang Theory. Ollie said there were only a handful of Fringe scripts.
When submitting your application you have to check a box for comedy or drama. If you write a DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES spec (drama), you would check 1 hour drama. All one hours are dramas and all half hours are comedies for the sake of this application process. To get an idea of what got in last year, Phonz wrote a MAD MEN spec and Zahir wrote FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS spec.
THE SCORING PROCESS
The scripts are read blindly by the 22 readers and scored from 1 to 100. The highest scoring scripts from the first pass and by two readers (i.e. a score of 88 and above by two readers) are passed on. The top 60 scripts are read by Disney ABC executives.
These 60 scripts receive a phone interview. Applicants who make the cut will be contacted between November and mid-December for a phone interview.
Some tips including SHOWING YOUR PASSION FOR TV. An example Ollie brought up was someone who mentioned he/she was a feature writer and decided to give TV a try on a whim. This program is not for those who want to “try” TV. It is for those who are passionate and know the TV landscape and are serious about working in TV. Fellows chosen are those who watch TV and write. One thing both Frank and Ollie emphasized is that “writers write.” It’s about being serious and wanting to work in TV and continually honing your skills.
Phonz mentioned that he didn’t get into the program until the fourth time he had applied but kept writing and honing his craft every year.
Some sample questions that have been asked include:
- What do you watch on TV?
- What is appointment TV for you?
- What do you think of (insert show here aforementioned)?
- How do you think this show demonstrates who you are as a writer?
- What do your friends say about you?
The phone interview is to assess what you bring to the table as a writer and WHERE you fit/can be staffed. BE CLEAR who you are as a person and writer and have a strong sense of self.
What can make or break a phone interview is to not be articulate. And not know who you are as a writer.
Another thing of note was having industry experience, while it’s not required, a lot of the nuances of working and fitting in a writers’ room are things you learn through practical experience. You have an advantage as someone who understands how the business works and how to make contacts. The program has noted a higher success rate for those with industry experience too.
For example, Phonz worked in the TV Lit department of an agency and was a writers’ assistant. Zahir is an MFA Screenwriting graduate, participated in the CBS Writing Program last year, and worked for the NAACP Image Awards.
At this point, it becomes crucial to have a second spec script and a full portfolio (roughly two specs and an original). Again Frank and Ollie emphasized “writers write!” And your portfolio does not break down into all one hour drama scripts or all half hour scripts. You can have a half hour spec and a one hour dramedy. In fact, the more ways you can stretch yourself and sell yourself as a writer is better. For example, when fellows went out to be staffed on a dramedy such as UGLY BETTY in the past, you could be asked to send in a half hour sample or a one hour sample.
Applicants are given a “survey” at this stage, which is a follow up to their application to update the Disney ABC Writing Program on what you have done as a writer to further accomplish your goals. This can include, listing more scripts you’ve written, obtaining an assistant job on a show, taking a writing class, obtaining an agent or manager, etc.
Finally, if the phone interview goes well, the applicant proceeds to the three-day interview process.
INTERVIEW PROCESS/FINALISTS STAGE…A THREE DAY PROCESS
The top 28 applicants are called in for the final interviews. The interview process tests their interpersonal skills, personality and experience. The key to this stage of the game is to be able to show the program how well you represent yourself and it’s about finding a candidate who you can work 12-14 hour days with i.e. someone who can imagine being in a writer’s room with. Don’t be afraid to talk and engage with others.
- Day One Mixer: There will be a mixer with finalists and executives. When the night is over executives will discuss their perception of the finalists individually. They will be asking questions like; did he or she treat everyone at the mixer with respect? Can he or she work on a staff? Could he or she function within a writing room?
Phonz shared that the people who made it into the program this were people who stood out at the mixer, were friendly and MEMORABLE. Something else to point out is that the mixer also includes executives, the Disney ABC Program staff and showrunners.
- Day Two Interviews: A group of nine ABC Disney Executives will interview finalists individually.
- Day Three Panel Sessions: This was liken to a “firing squad.” The panels will consist of producers from different shows who will ask further questions of finalists. This will give finalists a good idea of the kind of questions that Showrunners ask. Zahir and Phonz jokingly mentioned people such as Carlton Cuse may be interviewing you, so no pressure.
THE INNER WORKINGS OF BEING A FELLOW
First 30 Days: When you start the fellowship, the first thirty days is like a boot camp. It’s actually the only part of the program where you don’t write.
You come in for four hours each day. You focus on story structure and participate in workshops. You will not only be improving your writing, but improving how you present yourself as a writer and how you pitch yourself. There will be guest lectures about pitching and how to present yourself, as well as an improv workshop.
During this time, executives will be looking at your material to see if they respond to it and to get an idea of where you would fit in. You’ll have the chance to take meetings with Disney ABC shows, where showrunners will be interviewing you not only as a fellow, but as a potential staff writer.
Also the spec you wrote to get in will get a polish with more notes and table reads.
First 60 Days: If you haven’t been staffed within the first sixty days of the program you are now paired up with:
- Overall Executive Mentor: This Executive will be in current programming or development. This person is your checkpoint through the duration of the fellowship.
- Spec Script Mentor: This Creative Executive will work with you on your second spec.
- Alumni Membership Component: You will be paired up with three to four fellowship alumni who will mentor you throughout the year.
Here it is a continual process to get the fellow staffed, A CD is made of the writer (bio, headshot, video) and sent internally to execs (kind of like an internal writers’ road show) as shows get picked up, you start meeting on shows.
- Download application now and finish first, then focus on your script. Make a checklist to ensure that all application materials are together.
- Don’t be too fancy with your presentation.
- Scripts should be typed and in standard industry format. Nothing handwritten.
- Triple check for typos and other mistakes as basic grammatical errors will hurt your application.
- Autobiographical Summary: This should be about one paragraph. Be honest and open. What have you done that maybe isn’t listed on your resume? What kind of experiences have you had?
- Statement of Interest: What’s your pitch? Why would this program be good for you at this point in your career?
In all, good luck with your applications and spec scripts everyone and we look forward to seeing everyone at the next mixer!
Frank Gonzalez and Ollie Ashtari-Larki from ABC will speak to the HWAS folks on 5/17 Mon. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you haven't already gotten an invite.
As always, if you would like to approach a writer for a blog interview please let us know and keep an eye out here for notes posted from the ABC/Disney Television Writing Fellowship event in the event you're totally uncool and decide to miss the event! Repeated "event" three times. But anyways, just sayin', don't be uncool..