I write best with a partner. I’ve tried a few different ones over the years before finding one who I really click with. And I found him completely by accident.
The hardest thing I found about writing with a partner is that one person is always going to be more motivated than the other. Some days you may be the motivated one, while other days it may be them. No relationship is truly 50/50 all the time.
Whenever I write something, I send it out to a bunch of people to get feedback. Very few people actually ever get back to me. DJ Dangler always does. And when he does, he’s thorough. The first thing I remember critiquing was a spec script I wrote for Bob’s Burgers. We went through it line by line picking apart dialogue that didn’t feel true to characters and moments that didn’t feel like the show. It was incredibly helpful.
Pitching a TV Show
I’ve been fortunate over the past year to shadow an established television writer as he works on various pitches for his own shows. He works predominately in procedurals and political dramas, while I’m mainly a comedy guy. But I knew the fundamentals I was learning were universal.
He always starts with a brief, but catchy biography about himself and why that makes him the best person to write what he’s pitching. His origin story has become like folklore. He was a Washington DC speech writer, but some of the details change a little bit here and there. Most importantly, the drama amps up in a way that always hooks you right out of the gate.
From there he goes into the teaser for his show. If you don’t know, that’s basically the thing you see before the first commercial that, if done right, keeps you from changing the channel for the next thirty or sixty minutes. My mentor is great a teasers. Political drama and procedurals are pretty much at the bottom of the list of things I like to watch, but more often than not, his teasers grab me.
Then he talks about the pilot episode while giving pertinent information about all of the key characters. He gives you enough of their backstories to get you to really know who they are as people. Sometimes if the teaser doesn’t grab me, his ability to create interesting characters does. His characters are always flawed. They feel real. Most importantly, they’re interesting. We always know what their needs are and why they need it.
After he gives a pretty detailed beat by beat run down of the pilot episode, he goes over story beats for the entire first season of his show up to the cliffhanger ending. He wraps up by touching on the themes of further seasons so that whoever he’s pitching to knows he’s thought through this entire world.
Off the top of my head, I’ve sat through seven very detailed pitches in the past year from him. He’s a work horse. In addition to learning how to pitch, I learned how to manage time and projects. I’ll write more about that in the future.
So that brings me to our pitch.
Along with comedian DJ Dangler and artist Axel Ortiz, I created an animated show. My friend Joe Apel has been working in animation for the past ten years and directed me to someone at a network who might be looking for something maybe along the lines of what we created. I sent an email and a meeting was set up pretty quickly.
DJ spends most of his time on the road making his living off of stand up, while I’m currently choosing to take a little break from the road and focus my attention on California right now. When the meeting was set, DJ decided to fly back to not only be there for the meeting, but to make sure we were prepared.
Axel is just as much of a work horse as the aforementioned television writer. He’s a veteran of the pitch meeting, but pointed out earlier that if we had a star attached to our show, that would give us an advantage. Over the past six months, I’ve been working on getting the biggest name I know attached to it. The week before our pitch, we got him. He looked at what we were going in with and said that he was happy to be part of it and if it lands, we can hammer out the details then.
I researched the person we were pitching to. She was a guest on a comedy podcast and spent an entire hour talking about the pitching process. In that interview, I also found out that she, like DJ, is from Indiana and her wife, like me, is from Michigan. She and I both nerd out over character actors too. So I knew we had a conversation opener and I wasn’t going to have to overly explain things like if I said, “Oh this character is a little bit like Miller from the movie Repo Man, played by Tracey Walter”, she was going to know who Tracey Walter is. For the record, many of the scripts I’ve written have characters that I imagine Tracey Walter playing. I know why Jonathan Demme puts him in every movie, because Tracey Walter is a national treasure! I once told DJ that I would be more excited about meeting Tracey Walter than I would be about meeting George Lucas or Harrison Ford. I think Tracey Walter lives within a mile of me too. And if you think every time my girlfriend and I walk around the neighborhood, I’m not on a constant look out for Tracey Walter watering his plants, then you’re wrong!
Axel went in to pitch on another show three weeks prior to our meeting and told us what the executive asked from them. DJ and I wanted to make sure we were over prepared. We had a pilot script. We had ideas for story beats for our first season and I knew what I wanted to happen in the final episode of the entire series. But DJ and I detailed out episode by episode the entire first season of our show. We knew the story beats and what themes each episode would explore. A friend of mine who works in printing made us a really nice pitch packet too.
The idea of writing stories with an overall point of view or theme is something that I would accidentally sometimes hit, but other times missed completely. DJ and I have a mutual friend in comedian turned television writer Nick Anthony who really hammered into us the idea that we sometimes missed that. So when DJ and I started the conversation about each episode of our show, we started with what was the theme for that episode. It really helped us figure out where the other characters were going to be in their individual arcs.
The night before our pitch, DJ and I walked home around five miles from West Hollywood to the far eastern side of Hollywood really exploring every character we created. We knew their strengths, their weaknesses, their desires, their backgrounds, and their secrets.
So going into our pitch I knew we created something cool, timely, we have a big name attached and we were prepared.
The meeting was great. I told her that I enjoyed the podcast she was on and we found out her dad and sister both went to Purdue, same as DJ. Her wife and my girlfriend are from the same small suburb of Detroit. She asked how DJ, Axel and I knew each other. DJ and I have a fun origin story where we both showed up early at Nick Anthony’s home to go do a show in San Diego. Nick wasn’t there yet. I was parked on the street waiting. A guy pulled up on the other side of the street, got out of his car, put a large pizza on the roof and just ate the entire thing in front of me. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. He was so full of unadulterated and gluttonous joy. From that moment I wish I could be that guy’s friend. That guy turned out to be DJ. We hit it off that night and have been friends ever since. Axel and I met at San Diego Comic Con last year and our origin story gave me a chance to really talk about how much I love his work and why he was the perfect person to design our show.
Then she wanted to know about our characters. DJ and I were able to speak passionately and deeply about each of them. I like writing female characters. This show features two really strong female characters. The main character is, in some ways, man boy with arrested development not completely unlike DJ or myself. One of the women in the show is his daughter, the other is basically his boss. Both are strong. Neither of them are bitchy. Both of them are just as cool and quick as he is. They’re strong women, but they’re perfect. They’re deep and rich characters. I can see how it would be an easy trap for a guy writing a woman to over compensate by trying to make her too perfect. Ours aren’t at all. They both have real human foibles. Also, I’m hoping I just used the word “foibles” correctly.
At the end of our meeting she asked us what our roles would be if the show were picked up. I explained that when Garth Ennis created the comic book Preacher he gave artist Steve Dillon co-creator credit because he felt the look of it was just as important as the story. I believe in that. When I asked Axel to draw the characters, I told him very little. And aside from changing the hair color on one of them, I didn’t have any changed. I love his art. DJ and I are great at writing jokes and character, but we still struggle with story and conflict. An analogy a script reader gave us of a screenplay that we wrote was that there’s “a lot of icing, but not much cake”. That’s fair. So I said DJ and I care a lot about our characters, but if the show were picked up, it would probably be best if we were teamed with a producer who was better at breaking stories. So I think that showed that we were flexible and going to be easy to work with.
There’s another show, which I can’t name, where the creators were fired because they were way too difficult and had very unrealistic expectations of what they were entitled to. Hollywood is a city built on collaborative art. Nothing here is a single vision. You have to be willing to trust others to help you create the best product possible.
According to the podcast our executive was on, because she sees so many people, her pitch meetings rarely go more than thirty minutes. Ours went 45. She laughed a lot and seemed engaged. There’s nothing I would have done differently about our meeting. We gave her our book with the character art and descriptions as well as additional information about the show. We’ll know more in a couple weeks.
Yes, at this stage a hundred things would have to happen for this to be a show any of us would ever get to see. We’re going to move forward and continue pitching to other places too. But on the flipside of this meeting, I thought it would be nice to share some of the tips that I learned.
- Know as much about the person you’re pitching as you can. As they say, “knowledge is power”.
- Be prepared to explain why what you’re pitching is important to you personally and why you’re the best person to write it.
- Television is a medium based on characters. Make sure you have interesting ones and you can talk about them.
- As with any speech writing, pepper in a joke or two if it suits the mood. I don’t think I’d try to make anyone laugh if I were pitching Schindler’s List: The Series.
- Keep it pithy, punk. Metallica songs are like three hours long and feel like they include every idea that everyone in the band had. In the time it takes to listen to two Metallica songs, you could listen to seventeen Ramones songs. Be a Ramone. Leave them wanting more.
- Don’t just talk. Listen. We were prepared to talk nonstop for 15-20 minutes, but were totally able to let our exec lead the pitch in a much more conversational and informal manner.
- Television is a flexible art. We didn’t get any notes in this first meeting, but my mentor has. He digests them all and if he has complaints, he does it later to his manager, not in the room.
- Know what you’re talking about inside and out. DJ and I know every in and out of our show where it stands right now. And if you had a question for us that we didn’t know the answer to, we’d make something up. We have an alien character who is the last of his kind. What planet is he from? Zaphodbrock. He’s a Zaphoid from the planet Zaphodbrock. I just made that up. It’s one part Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and one part late singer of Gwar. If you wanted me to talk about Zaphodbrock, I could. And DJ could jump in and we’d piggy back on each other’s ideas. Executives want to feel safe. The words, “I don’t know”, has never instilled security in anyone.
- If you can’t come up with ten items, don’t just make stuff up to fill time or space. See #5.
So there you go. I’m far from an expert, but I know a week or two ago I’d love to have this information compiled in one place. I hope this helps or at least makes for some interesting reading.
2015 Resolution or…W.W.L.D.?
In 2014 I made a huge leap of faith from my long time home in Michigan to the great unknown in California. It was and continues to be scary.
This is a place that’s much more open to helping you when you’re a visitor than it is when you’re a resident. When I would visit, I got on the best shows in town because I knew a handful of people and could say, “Hey, I’m going to be in LA the second week in June, can you put me on?” Now that I’m here, there’s no urgency. I’m just another mouse trying to get a piece of the cheese. As far as comedy goes, honestly, I’ve done more here as a visitor than I have as a resident.
Tales From the Script: Part 5 (Voices Carry)
When Lesley and I initially started writing our script, we were writing it with the intent to find a local production company to shoot it for us with us in the leads. Once we changed our minds on that, we dream cast it so that we’d both be writing towards the same vision.
I know a lot of writers say they don’t do this, but it helped me a lot. Like with writing jokes, most of it happens for me while I’m lying in bed at night unable to sleep. I’ll just lay there with ideas racing through my head until I have to jump up and find a notebook. Sometimes ideas hit me first thing in the morning, which honestly, beating the alarm to jump out of bed with some creative inspiration is a great way to start the day!
Writing with someone in mind helped me find the character’s voice fairly easily. Final Draft has a profile on Facebook where every day they have some sort of writing tip or question. Recently they posed a question asking if you were to block out the names of the characters in your script, would you still be able to tell who they are?
Once we hammered out our first draft, we assigned each other characters and we went through the script focusing on each piece of those lines trying to make sure there was a flow. One thing that came from this that I liked was I had one of the characters often times refer to another by a nickname. I think this was a nice little touch to show that they had some sort of history. The unfortunately short lived television show The Middle Man did this too. The lead was named Wendy Watson. Her partner called her Dub Dub. A little touch like that was nice because it not only showed a little bit of familiarity, but it was so out of character for the straight laced Middle Man to use a nickname that it really humanized him. It gave his character a little more depth.
Another thing Lesley and I did that helped was we had our friends over to read through the script assigning them different roles. Some lines didn’t flow as smoothly out of other mouths, so as we did the readthru I took notes on how the actor initially wanted to read a line.
I tend to flip sentences. Not like Yoda, but a little bit like that. Right now, I’m totally blanking on an example. Hmm. I guess that was an example in itself. Where a lot of people may have said “I’m totally blanking on an example right now.” I lead with the “right now”. I think I’m better at that now. A long time ago a friend asked me where I originally hail from because he found my sentence structure so foreign.
So there you go. That’s a little insight in our process in trying to give our characters unique voices. Does anyone else have any tips?
Tales From the Script: Part 4 (The Book is better…)
I mentioned before that Final Draft is the most important tool and screenwriter can use. Another, almost as important, tool is this great book called Writing Movies for Fun and Profit.
I’ve read a lot…a few…books on writing scripts. This one by far is my favorite. It’s written by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon who are most visibly known for Reno 911. What you may not know is that they’ve also written pretty much ever third comedy made since 2000. They don’t write giant award winning masterpieces, but they do write extremely marketable and successful comedies like the Night at the Museum movies and Herbie Fully Loaded. They’ve also done a literal shit ton of punch ups on movies they’re not credited for.
In their book, Ben and Thomas take you through every step of the career as a screenwriter. They go in depth about the different kinds of writing jobs you can get and really dive into the business side of writing. It’s also a really practical writing guide too. They cover everything form pitching your script to dealing with the Hollywood powers that be once it’s in development.
It’s a really quick and light read that’s full of humor and really great information. I can’t recommend this book enough. In fact, if you’re a screen writer and you don’t own this….then you’re probably and asshole.
I’m in LA right now as you’re reading this. Unless of course you’re reading this sometime other than August 2012. Chapter 22 will tell me what I need to know now that I’m here. Okay, I’m not supposed to write in public because everyone will assume I’m a douchebag. Okay, there’s a list of all the In-N-Out Burger locations as well as a guide to their secret menu. I’m going to grab a bite to eat and go write in private.
Tales From the Script: Part 3 (Tools of the Trade)
The first few things I wrote years ago were done with a regular old word processor. It was a pain in the ass. Every time I went to do a new draft, I’d have to manual go in and change the “continued” and all that stuff. Setting the tabs was awful. Making sure everything was formatted correctly caused me so much panic.
I was never able to full jump into just the creative part of screenwriting because the mechanics were always in the back of my mind. Well, truthfully, they were front and center.
A year or so ago I got Final Draft. It’s the industry standard for screenwriting and I totally see why. It’s basically a word processor program specifically designed to write scripts. I don’t have to think about anything other than the story when I use it. When you hit Enter to go on to a next section, it asks you if you want this to start with a character, dialogue, scene header, whatever. With a click, you can be back on track. It becomes second nature and it makes the whole process so much quicker and easier.
Here’s something else I just found out about Final Draft. Okay, I mentioned before that Lesley and I are going to start on a spec script to show that we can write television as well. I Googled Modern Family scripts and found a link to a template that plugs right into Final Draft! There are plug ins for pretty much every popular show out there. And if you’re writing a spec script, the best idea is to do it for a popular show. As much as I loved The Middleman, writing a script for that would make little to no sense!
Yes, the software is a little expensive, but if you’re serious about writing, I can not recommend it enough. Here’s a link if you want more information.
Tales From the Script: Part 2 (Storytime)
In our last episode, after a few attempts at screenwriting, I found a great writing partner in Lesley Braden.
Lesley’s idea (and the script is already registered with the WGA so just try and steal it, buster) was about a woman in her mid to late 30s who was tired of people either harassing her or taking advantage of her time because she was single. She creates a fake guy on Facebook and puts herself in a relationship with said guy. It’s Bridesmaids meets The Social Network. Both movies just came out. Both movies were successful. Kristen Wiig changed Hollywood overnight and showed the women can open a comedy and make a ton of money. Lesley’s idea was original, fun and hugely marketable. I was hooked!
Initially we started writing it with the two of us in mind to play the lead character and her slacker roommate. I have friends who have production companies in Michigan, so it seemed like something we could potentially try to raise money and make. As it went on, we realized how this script would be a really great calling card for us if we wanted to try to get writing jobs. So we stopped limiting ourselves with set pieces that we could possibly pull off if we were to raise enough money through a Kickstarter campaign of whatever and we decided to shoot for the stars.
When we cracked the story, we didn’t do a traditional outline. We knew key comedy moments that we wanted to happen and then from there we figured out how to get there. Using a basic three act structure, we knew too when certain beats had to happen. As we fleshed out the secondary characters more, our secondary story lines and conflicts started to become clearer too. We were both on the same page that we didn’t want this to necessarily be a joke based comedy. We wanted the humor to come from the characters. We both do comedy though, so naturally the jokes found their way into it.
The crazy thing was that every idea either of us had, the other either found a way to build on it or tweak it into something different. We never pitched a story element to have the other one say, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard”. I think that’s the key to a strong writing partnership. You can’t shoot down someone else’s idea without anything of your own to add. I’m sure it helps that from the beginning we were both really on the same page.
Okay, I’m going to jump ahead in time to the present day. We’re going to start working on a spec script for a television show. It’s an idea that I had rattling in my brain for awhile. I bounced it off of Lesley the other night and instead of shooting down my idea, she said, “That’s great, we could do that or maybe make it this slightly different thing too.” Okay, that’s not technically a quote, but you know what I mean. While her idea was slightly different than mine, it also opened itself up for a neat spin on the ideas I already had. I think the most exciting part of writing a story is not knowing what’s going to happen next. Changing a small detail, or even a large one, can definitely do that! I’m looking forward to cracking another story with her.
Tales from the Script: Part 1 (Partnering Up)
I’m at a pivotal point in the screenwriting process. I thought for my own piece of mind I’d share the journey it took to get here. I don’t know where this story will end. I certainly hope it has a happy ending. Let’s start from the beginning.
I’ve written a lot of screenplays. Most of them were through my twenties. I burned all my bridges in radio and television, moved back to Michigan and had the first “real” job of my life working in a Toys R Us. Over the next few years I went through my Kevin Smith phase. I first wrote my “Clerks” about a guy who was working in a big box toy store cleverly called We B Toys.
Next when I was in an unhappy relationship and feeling like I was hundreds of miles from where I wanted to be, I wrote my “Dogma” about a couple in an unhappy relationship who die and get stuck in Purgatory…which happens to be a small town in the middle of nowhere.
After that, the unhappy relationship ended so I wrote my “Chasing Amy” about a guy who ends his unhappy relationship and starts a non-romantic relationship. I guess it was also my “When Harry Met Sally”. The main character in that one was a struggling stand up comedian. At the time, I hadn’t stepped foot on the comedy stage yet, so it was just a way for me to get out the material I wrote without having to actually perform it. Coincidentally, the arc of that character kind of mirrored what I ended up doing creatively in real life years later.
So, after those first few attempts at screenwriting I started doing stand up and seemed to have a knack for it. Most of my creative juices flowed into that outlet. Friends asked me if I wanted to partner up with them on scripts, but for one reason or another it never really worked out.
Last year a fellow performer named Lesley Braden and I met with some other performers about starting a sketch comedy group. That didn’t work out, but Lesley and I found that we worked really well together. She pitched me her idea for the story we ended up writing and I loved it. It’s like what they say about love. You find it when you’re not looking for it. I wasn’t looking for the perfect screenwriting partner, I just happened upon her!
Next time, I’ll talk about the story.
Joke Anatomy: The Scent of a Vampire
As a new comic, I continue to consider how to put my personality into my humor so others can understand me. I think this is a continuing art practiced by all performers, but I don’t have a big (or even small) audience that follows me. I’ll get lucky to get a nerd or two near my level of geek.
I’ve been working on a deodorant bit that of course skews a bit obscure, because this is the type of knowledge that nerd’s love and that binds us in fellowship like the One Ring. If you didn’t get that reference, you understand my issue and are a hermit or should be shunned like one. Let’s dissect this literally (not with a scalpel … but … yeah):
Premise: Know what’s ANNOYING? The LIES commercials use to sell CRAP.
A true observation made with a hostile attitude (power words in bold) that most would agree with. The question posed engages the audience’s curiosity. Crap can be interchanged with shit, which is better for the second S word after sell. So far, so standard.
Axe Body Spray doesn’t drive women crazy. That LIE just drives douche bags to buy Axe
This is joke number one of the bit. I consider this a chuckle-worthy appetizer punch line. It may insult Axe-wearing douches in the audience, but they’ll feel better by the end of this. Showing the nerd flag makes the average person feel superior, and it’s about to get geeky.
I like the Axe knock-off BLADE. It’s cheap. It works.It SLAUGHTERS VAMPIRES!
Surprise exaggerated connection between the deodorant Blade and the Black half-vampire vampire hunter comic book character played by Wesley Snipes in movie of the late 90’s early 2000s. This get’s a strong to moderate guy laugh but loses most girls. Those ladies that do laugh, I make note of for after the show.
It keeps your armpits from BURNING in sunlight
Tag based on one of Blades special vampire powers that gets a smaller laugh bump. Geek laughter guaranteed though. This is where the laughs begin to die off if I continue connecting to the character. So, I go meta.
Blade does NOT drive women crazy … (beat) … but it DOES give them JUNGLE FEVER.
Another surprise exaggeration connection but to the actor this time. Comic geekery to movie nerdery. Snipes starred in the controversial Spike Lee movie Jungle Fever 20 years ago where his character gets in an interracial relationship.
Obscure for many audiences, but I LOVE it so much! The Jungle fever idea ties in so well with the Axe fantasy of women going sexually crazy. That I’m a Black comic makes it work on another level. A decent amount of Black people will get it, so maybe this version should go in the arsenal for that audience.
For the mainstream, I may as well keep referring to the Blade character with his $2 billion movie franchise.
Blade does NOT drive women crazy … but it drives the undead BACK to HELL … where they BELONG!
“Where they belong” needs to be strongly emphasized to push the implied opinion that vampires or undead should exist, which is ridiculous but absurdly follows the bit’s attitude.
This is where the bit concludes right now. I’ll audience test the revisions later this week, but you can give me a preview. Comic readers (comic book lovers or comedians that read) let me know your comments and suggestions.
Mike Stanley: Part 2
This interview has been reformatted and can be seen in its entirety here. Enjoy!
Arsenic Lullaby Creator, Douglas Paszkiewicz
I’ve been fortunate enough over the years to become friends with some of my favorite creators of art. I spent the formative years of my adulthood hanging out in a Richmond, Virginia factory painting foam penguins with Gwar. Most recently I not only got to become friends with Arsenic Lullaby creator Douglas Paszkiewicz, but he invited me to do voices on the animated version of his work.
Arsenic Lullaby is a book I’ve been reading long before I was a comedian. I’m fairly certain I discovered it right near the beginning when I wandered into Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan asking for something dark and void of superheroes. I was hooked and picked up every thing I could find ever since.
Many have tried to explain Arsenic Lullaby, few have succeeded. I’m not even going to try. Saying it’s an intensely dark Far Side doesn’t do it justice. Like South Park, the brilliance of Doug’s work is that on the surface it’s brutal and hilarious. Just beneath the surface, it’s brutal, hilarious and quite a smart, satirical commentary. I wish one day I can become half the writer that Douglas is.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with him outside Milwaukee at a comedy club a couple of months ago. The club owner just finished yelling at me because he was upset about the playful tongue in cheek ribbing I gave his club. Douglas and I kick things off reminiscing about his start in show business on comedy stages not too far from where we conducted this interview.