Thursday, April 18, 2013

5 Questions with a comedy showrunner assistant

Scott Brody works for comedy writer-showrunners Andrew Reich and Ted Cohen. He was kind enough to answer 5 questions about his job:

1. How did you get your job?

I think the same way most people end up getting jobs.  Timing, luck, having a good relationship with past employers, and a smidgen of balls.  I glued myself to the trades and created a spreadsheet of development and pilot news (something I didn’t realize at the time futoncritic.com was already doing for me).  I wrote down any connection to any pilot that I could possibly string out, no matter how remote, and started emailing friends and former colleagues.

One such connection was from my time working as an assistant at a production company that had developed something with Andrew Reich and Ted Cohen.  I remembered chatting with them and figured they might be nice enough guys to pretend they remembered me, too.  So, I emailed my old boss at the production company and asked if he might reach out to them on my behalf.  The assistant they had lined up had just fallen through and they happened to need someone urgently.  I got called on a Thursday, interviewed Friday, and started the next Monday.

2. What are the basic duties on a typical day of your job? Do you have time to write?

My job has changed in nature a few times.  When Andrew and Ted were doing two pilots at once, my job was a lot of scheduling and coordinating.  Then when Work It got picked up, I got to/had to read tons of scripts from writers at all levels for staffing.  That was also an opportunity for me to give some input and show that I have a brain.  Opportunities to prove you have a brain are important as an assistant.  You want to make sure your boss doesn’t end up just thinking of you as Assistant-bot 5000, or “that dude who fixes my iPhone.”

In series, my job was a lot of “shadowing": always following my bosses around so that I was there if they needed anything, but trying not to get in the way or generally say anything stupid.

Finally, when we transitioned to development, my job became more flexible and I’ve had to be game for anything from scheduling to proofreading scripts to picking up my boss from the mechanic when his car was getting serviced.

I have had time to write, and I’m sad to say I didn’t always take advantage of those opportunities.  But ultimately, I learned how to be productive in the stretches of down time I had and quickly shift gears when necessary.

3. Have your bosses read your stuff/helped you at all?

Yes.  And I think that probably most bosses, if you work hard for them and take the time to develop a good relationship, will want to help you out even if it is just in some small way.  Andrew and Ted have been amazing in this regard, and have mentored me through the process of writing a fresh spec.  They’ve been really hard on me at times, even asking me to do a page one rewrite at one point - but it has very much made me a better writer, and I was able to eventually get that script to a place where they were really happy with it (and so am I).  With any luck, it will end up being a good and useful writing sample for me.

4. What's something you learned about writing or the industry from your job?

Don’t pitch problems.  Pitch solutions.  You’d be amazed how many writers forget that.

Also, the thing that seems like the most important thing in the world to you is probably pretty low on the list for just about anybody else.

And make sure you earn your favors, whatever they are, through your relationships with people.  Nobody is going to help you if you haven’t given them a chance to get to know you (and ideally like you) first.

Along similar lines, as an assistant, make sure you are absolutely certain it’s okay for you to be pitching something before you open your yap.  It will be frustrating at times. (I know it was for me, as the former kid in class who always had his hand raised.  Shut up.  I liked school.)  But, pitching at times you shouldn’t be pitching is a big no-no.  Until you know for sure when it’s okay, better to play it safe and run your pitch by a writer on staff who you trust, in private.

Also, the other assistants are not out to get you.  That is in your head.  Probably.

5. When you had to read lower-level staffing submissions for your bosses, what did you look for? What were common mistakes writers made?

The most unbelievable thing was when a script had bad typos, weird formatting, or seemed just plain unfinished.  I don’t think there is anything worse than coming away from a script thinking that either the writer or the rep was lazy, or that some kind of mistake had been made with what file was sent over.

The most important thing in a script was just that it was good.  Funny, clear characters, clear voice, engaging story, well paced...you know, good.  I don’t think it’s as important to match the exact tone or style of a show you’re being submitted for.

One thing I think is important to keep in mind for low level writers submitting for network comedy in particular, is how difficult it is to execute a good original pilot script.  And the reality is that the skills involved in writing a good pilot aren’t necessarily the skills you’d need as a staff writer.  Whereas the job of writing a spec episode of an existing show closely aligns with what you’ll likely need to be able to do as a staff writer.  It will vary from showrunner to showrunner, but I know that during my experience, at a certain point we told agents to only send us specs for staff writer level submissions.  So, in the great debate of spec vs pilot, I think the only real answer is both.

If you are lucky enough to get called in for a meeting, be sure to show off your personality and really be yourself.  Probably 90% of the meeting at that point is whether or not you mesh with the showrunner and they could stand to be around you for 14 hours per day and until 3 am if necessary.

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