by Jim Foreman
WRITING HUMOR FOR TV AND THE MOVIES
Two things which the freelance humor writer should remember when trying to break into either of these markets is that they are awfully hard nuts to crack and there is no honor among thieves.
For every situation comedy script which makes it onto TV, there are twenty, and perhaps fifty or even a hundred, which never get past one reading by some guy wearing an expensive suit. In fact, one is very lucky if they get that far because many of them are seen and rejected by someone so far down the ladder that they have to look up to see the basement. The odds aren't much better for those which finally work their way to the surface and pilots are actually shot. The streets of Hollywood are littered with reels of both good and bad humor which fell by the wayside.
It takes far more than being able to turn out a few funny lines to make the grade in that town. Even if some network executive gets excited enough about your ideas to call for a pilot to be produced, before your work ever gets before a camera, it will have been written, changed, re-written, laundered and altered until it will bear little resemblance to your original thoughts. In fact, what finally goes before the camera will most likely have been written by some staff writer who has never met you nor seen your original work. They usually give him your basic ideas in memo form and let him do his own creating from that.
If all this isn't enough to make you decide to forget the whole idea and look elsewhere for a market for your talents, consider the fact that an individual writer has absolutely no protection for his work once it sinks into that quagmire. Many a writer has sent a dynamite joke or idea to some producer for consideration, only to see it used in an altered form on another show a few weeks later. No matter how much effort that you might have used in order to copyright and protect the idea, it will be up to you to prove that it was your original idea, and that will be awfully hard to do. Millions of dollars have been spent in vain by people trying to prove their literary rights. You will not only be fighting an uphill battle, but you will be attacking a totally closed society in which the outsider hasn't a ghost of a chance of victory.
There are three basic ways for a person with the proper talent and perseverance to break into this market. One method of protecting your work is to obtain the services of an honest agent. Perhaps using honest and agent in the same sentence constitutes an oxymoron. An oxymoron is a combination of two words which, when used separately, are perfectly logical but when joined, form a contradictory statement. Some famous oxymorons are military intelligence or postal service. Anyway, If you can locate an agent who will represent you, he will protect your rights to what you write. Also, using an agent is often the only route by which you can get your material seen by someone who can get it to the right person.
The problem with most ten-percenter is that if they are good at their trade, they already represent top people and usually aren't inclined to take on an unknown writer. Further, those who are looking for new people to represent are doing so because they are usually less successful or less reputable, or both. Also, most of the thousands of agents around Hollywood represent actors while only a very few look after the affairs of writers.
The second method of seeing your work on the tube or screen is by getting it published as a book and then letting the publisher sell the movie rights to someone to make it into a movie. Most humor writers find this route equally difficult because what works well on paper usually doesn't transfer easily to the screen. Even if it can be made to work, the changes can become so drastic that little is left of the original work. A good example of this is a book written by a good friend, Andy Anderson. The title of both the book and the movie is Bat-21. In the book, which was based on fact, the hero is shot down in enemy occupied territory in Viet Nam and needs help in finding safe escape routes to where he can be picked up. He finally escapes to safety through the efforts of his fellow officers who guide him out of the jungle by having him follow directions which represented golf holes which he had played at various military courses. This was not only logical but the way that it actually happened. When the movie came out, the whole plot had been turned around to where the downed airman was telling them what courses he was going to follow so they would know where he was going. This wasn't even logical when one considers that his main problem was not knowing where the enemy was located so he could avoid them.
There is one ray of hope for the person who is looking for a market for his work on the TV tube and that is the whole new field of movies made for TV. These movies are basically low budget productions made especially for TV and probably never will be seen on the screen. They use little-known actors and every effort is made to keep the production costs to a minimum. In fact, most of them are shot on video tape because this is far more efficient and less costly than film, especially when it comes to editing. These movies are shot in a studio or on a single location, much in the same way as the daily soap operas. As a result, they cost a very small percentage of what one made for the screen does.
When a producer finds an idea for a TV movie, it is sold to either a network or syndicate before any production is ever done. Many times it will be sold to some actor who is willing to put both his money and talent in the starring role into the production. Once that it is sold, screen writers take over and script it to make the story fill the exact number of minutes to fill a certain timeslot, usually two hours. Rather than beginning with a book, they prefer to have a raw manuscript to work from. The producers also like to work with an unpublished manuscript because it has no history, either good or bad. If the book was a bomb, it will be very hard to sell it as a movie. However, if it was very successful as a book, the cost of the movie rights could easily exceed the entire production costs. Right now, there are at least ten made for TV movies being shot for every one made for the screen. A whole new group of agents and producers have come about to promote these movies and most of them are looking for material. They can usually be found in the Los Angeles yellow pages under AGENTS, Television Production.
The final and even more precarious route into Tinseltown is the direct approach by sending out letters and knocking on doors. You have nothing to lose except time by asking for a job on some show's writing staff. First of all, you will find yourself at the back end of some very long lines and should you ever be able to work your way to the front and through the door for an interview, you will probably find yourself in the same position as the man who was sleeping in an upper birth on a train. He had to get up to get out and had to get out to get up. Or, in plain words, you will need experience in order to get a job and you must have had a job as a comedy screen writer in order to have the experience. No matter what route you choose, before you can go to work for anyone, you will have to become a member of the Screen Writers Guild and that in itself if a hard union to crack.
It may carry some weight with the interviewer if you have several published humor articles behind you but even then, he will recognize that while you might have the talent, you will be entering an entirely different world of writing. Writing for this media is far more visual than vocal and much of your training in the basic arts of humor will not be applicable here. Still, if you are exceptionally talented, or just plain lucky, you might be considered to be raw potential and given a trial shot as a junior writer. After all, every writer out there today had to start someplace and it might just be your lucky day.