Ali Farahnakian is the founder of the Peoples Improv Theater (PIT) in New York City. An improv legend, Ali studied at iO-Chicago and Second City, was a founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade and wrote for Saturday Night Live. Now, Ali Farahnakian sits down with Jimmy at The New York Improv Festival to talk about his amazing career in improv.
If you’re an improviser, you’ve probably thought about it: How do I get a writing job on TV?
That, my friends, is a very good question, and the answer is not as simple as you may think. Unlike a regular job where you just send in your resume and cover letter, when you apply for a position as a writer for a TV show, you have to submit a writing packet to show off what you can do.
Since I have yet to write for a TV show, I decided to ask a couple of my friends who have gone on to write for successful shows for a little advice on how to submit a TV writing packet that will really get you noticed.
Here is some of the advice that writers in the industry had about submitting a TV writing packet:
Brian Stack, writer for Conan
“Don’t drive yourself crazy second-guessing what people want to see. Write what you’d want to see yourself if you were watching that show.”
Tom Purcell, head writer for The Colbert Report
“Write clearly and concisely as if it is dialogue for the show. Even when pitching an idea, give examples of dialogue. Using objective language when pitching a possible idea often comes off flat. Bring the idea to life with a snippet of script. And always include a shit ton of jokes. I cannot emphasize that enough. Write jokes. In the end, I am much more concerned about a young writer’s ability to write jokes off a decent premise than I am with so-so jokes on an awesome premise.”
Rich Talarico, writer for Key & Peele
“Write more than you need. So if you need to submit 10 monologue jokes, for example, write 30 or 40. Ten will be good enough to submit. And don’t be too funny in the cover letter. It can be a turn off if you come across as personally wacky.”
Brian McCann, former writer for Conan
“Every show has different guidelines for what they would like to see as a writing submission. I think you increase your odds of being considered if you focus on the one show you’d really like to be a part of, and spend the time to truly learn the voices that are used on that show. If you can submit a package that honestly hits the host’s tone with some solid jokes, as well as hits the overall tone of the show with some larger pieces (field pieces, correspondent suggestions, guest ideas), your packet will stand out. Keep in mind that at the end of the day, all anyone wants is to see that there is a writer available who can deliver exactly what the show needs on a consistent basis.”
Peter Gwinn, former writer for The Colbert Report
“First, make a list of the shows that you would be interested in submitting to if you were someday asked. Then watch those shows, starting right now. When shows ask for packets,
you usually have a week max to write it. So there’s no time to cram lessons on the show’s voice. You need to already be familiar with it.
When you get the packet instructions, read them carefully. Don’t be the guy whose packet is eliminated immediately because you submitted 10 segment scripts when they asked for 10 segment pitches. If you ignored Tip #1 and haven’t been watching the show, and you don’t know what something is that they’re asking for (like a “Tip/Wag” or a “desk bit”), don’t be afraid to ask.
Here are three things not to worry about:
1) Exactly nailing the voice of the show
You need to be in the ballpark (maybe don’t send Fallon your best racist gags), but the head writers don’t want what they already have. They want something familiar, but new. Much better for your packet to nail your voice.
2) Repeating a minor bit that they’ve already done
Follow Tip #1 so you know the Big Famous Bits, and don’t repeat those. But don’t worry about pitching an idea that they did once, four years ago. Probably half the staff doesn’t remember it. (To give some Colbert Report examples: submitting the pitch “Stephen reveals he is a huge Lord of the Rings fan” would be bad, as it would indicate you don’t know a single thing about the show—Stephen liking LOTR came up in like, 80 episodes. But submitting “Stephen creates his own MMORPG video game” would be OK, even though that happened once.)
Every show has a unique format. As long as your packet looks professional, and the parts that are scripts look like professional scripts, you’re fine. (If you don’t know what a professional script looks like, look that up right now).
Finally, the big one:
3) PROOFREAD YOUR SHIT.
If you’re terrible at spelling and don’t know how to use a comma, get someone else to proofread your shit. But make sure the packet gets proofread. You could have the funniest joke in the history of comedy; if there are three typos in the setup, no one will ever read the punchline.”
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