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Tips for Submitting a TV Writing Packet

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.)
Script format
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.”

My Top 5 Favorite Moments of Improv Nerd So Far

This September, Improv Nerd turned three years old. At this point, we have recorded 106 episodes. Over the past three years, I have gotten to improvise with and interview some of the greatest comedy minds out there today. And lately, I’ve been traveling across the country, bringing the show to different theaters and improv festivals.

In honor of our three-year anniversary, I wanted to share my top 5 favorite moments over the last three years. They are in no particular order, but they are the things that have had a lasting impact on me. What has been your favorite moment from the show so far? Let us know in the comments.

  1. Interviewing George Wendt
    As a fat, insecure 19-year-old kid from the suburbs, I would drive my parents Buick station wagon into the city of Chicago to take improv classes at The Players Workshop of The Second City. On the wall was grainy head shot of a young George Wendt. At the time, Cheers was on NBC and was quickly becoming must see TV. I related to the lovable loser of Norm Peterson and to the actor who played him, George Wendt, who started out at The Player Workshop before making it to Main Stage at Second City.I wanted to be a character like Norm on a sitcom like Cheers and have a career like George’s. He was an inspiration, something I aspired to be. When he agreed to be on Improv Nerd Live in Chicago more than 30 years later, over Facebook, I was so excited and scared. The show was incredible. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who loved George Wendt, because the place was packed. That night, it seemed everything had come full circle. Listen >
  1. Meeting Key and Peele
    It’s always cool to get a guest right when they are about to blow up. We interviewed Key and Peele in a conference room at Second City. Everyone in the improv community knew how great the show was on Comedy Central and it would be just a matter of time before it would become a huge hit. During our interview, we talked about a lot of things: the show, the critics, adjusting to being in charge, being biracial. It is probably one of the most passionate conversations I have had over the last three years. I remember when I was done, I was exhausted and thought I had offended them, especially Keegan. Months later at the Detroit Improv Festival, Keegan was my guest again, and he assured me everything was OK between the two of us. As someone who suffers from chronic jealousy, I am proud to say that I could not be happier for their success, and having the chance to interview them was a dream come true. Listen >
  1. Getting Picked Up in a Lincoln Town Car
    One of my dreams has been to have my own talk show on TV where I get to interview people in depth, like Charlie Rose. I envision myself living in a big house and being picked up in a Lincoln Town car to be driven to the studio.Although I haven’t scored a TV deal yet out of doing this podcast, I have had experiences where I felt like a big deal. One of the best was when I got to interview Horatio Sanz, who I always thought Horatio was one of the funniest people I knew when I was starting out in Chicago. What made it even sweeter was that the interview was held at my alma mater, Columbia College in Chicago. The day of the interview, Columbia sent a Lincoln Town car over to my house and picked up me and Lauren, and we did the show in packed auditorium. Afterwards there was a reception, and I got my picture taken with the president of the college. I felt like a star. Listen > 
  2. Performing with the Improvised Shakespeare Company
    These guys are great, and I highly recommend anyone to see their show. I was so excited to have Joey Bland and Ross Bryant on as our guests to represent the group, even though I was terrified to improvise in the style of Shakespeare. I had never even read a Shakespeare play before, so a few days before the show, tried reading Shakespeare out loud to my wife, and I had no idea what any of it meant.Before the show, I told Joey and Ross how scared I was, and they said don’t worry. They did not lie. In fact, they really took care of me and it turned out to be a lot of fun. During one of scenes I uttered the phrase “oil of my loins,” where that came from I have no clue, but the audience loved it. And when I heard everyone laughing, I realized I had survived something I thought was going to kill me. Listen > 
  3. Intern enters the scene during the Amanda Blake Davis episode
    This was the strangest thing that I think has ever happened to us. One of our interns, who had Amanda as a teacher at Second City, decided during the improv scene with me and Amanda, that he was going to do a walk on. Which he did. To say I was surprised is understatement. Traumatic is the best way to describe it. I had no idea how to handle it or why it had happened. But afterwards, this event became a learning experience for me, because I realized that I hadn’t really been taking ownership of the show. I had never set ground rules for the interns, and believe it or not, I was supposed to be the leader, even though I had little experience in being one. This episode woke me up out of my sleep and made me realize people were looking to me to lead them. Listen >

Let us know what your favorite moment of the show has been so far!