NOTE as of 5/27/20: This was written a long time ago. I have added an update at the bottom!
This past fall, I had the amazing privilege of hiring a writing staff for my upcoming TV show, Nikki & Sara Live. I was flattered and honored when hundreds of people applied. It was a super fun experience, but it was also an incredibly illuminating one. Reading so many packets made a couple of things very very clear: there are some really easy, basic things you can do to improve your chances of getting a job writing for TV. Before I give you those tips, however, I want to give a little context.
I think that hiring writers is a built-in fantasy for any comedian. Because naturally, if you’re the one doing the hiring, it means you got THE job, so yeah, it’s a mind-blower. Over the years in my day-dreaming about such things, I would often think about an interview with Conan O’Brien, in which he described what it felt like to hire all his friends to write for Late Night. It sounded glorious. On top of that, in the comedy business, there is sometimes a myth that the only way to get hired to write for a late night show is to know someone on the inside. It’s why some have surmised that there are very few women writers in late night. (Man-host hires man-friends to be writers. Consequently, man-writers hire man-friends to also be writers, and so forth.) I say it’s a myth, because I don’t think it’s a rule or even true in most cases, but I do think there’s a pinch of truth to it.
Having said all of that, my own experience of hiring people was quite different than what I expected it to be. Early on in the discussions of who we would hire, the idea of doing blind submissions came up. By “blind,” I mean, we would not know whose packet we were reading. The person’s name would not be visible anywhere on the submission. They would be identifiable only through a number, and an MTV staffer would hold the master list secret until we were done. We decided it was the best way to go. Part of the reasoning was that Nikki and I are equal partners, and with two other executive producers involved, I worried we’d start arguing over our respective friends, as opposed to seeing very clearly whose packets were the strongest. And, not to mention, it would be easier to explain to rejected friends that it wasn’t personal, because it actually wasn’t! It also forced us to read each packet carefully and fairly, because hey, what if packet #98 is my best friend??? As someone who’s mostly been on the other side, I would have loved to have been treated with that type of even-handedness and respect.
Above all else, I wanted to find the best possible writers to help us make this show. I wanted to make sure we weren’t dismissing people who were perfect for us, just because they were strangers or unknown in the “scene.” For that same reason, anyone who wanted to submit was allowed to do so. It wasn’t invite-only, or open only to those with representation. While reading the mountain of submissions, I judged each packet with equal harshness, not knowing who they were. I wasn’t imagining the material in the voice of the person who wrote it, I was imagining it in MY voice – and it really helped when figuring out who naturally fit our vibe. I wasn’t considering their gender, race, or coolness. I was just reading what they wrote.
And when it came time to discuss our favorites, there were clear frontrunners, and it made our decision-making process more focused. Of course, once we narrowed it down to our top submissions, we had to find out who they were and make sure they were people we were excited about working with. Even if your packet is technically the best, it won’t help you get the job if you’re a bat-shit a-hole that no one wants to be around. (I thank Tina Fey for that nugget of advice in Bossypants. Hire someone you’re actually happy to see in the hallway at 3 am!)
It felt like a bit of an experiment, and wow, I am SO glad we did it. Out of hundreds of submissions, we found 4 amazing writers, none of whom have agents, and 3 of whom I had never previously met or even knew existed before they submitted. 2 of them are men and 2 of them are women. (For those who enjoy tallying these types of things, we have total 3 male writers including our head writer, and 4 female writers including Nikki and myself.)
Okay, sorry for the long-winded explication. Here’s the advice part!
Disclaimer: these are only my little ole opinions, and of course every TV show has its own methods. That’s why I’m trying to keep this very basic. BECAUSE YOU WOULD BE SHOCKED TO LEARN THAT THE VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE DID NOT FOLLOW THESE SIMPLE GUIDELINES!!!
1. Follow the instructions.
Remember those tricky worksheets teachers would sometimes hand out that would be a long list of simple tasks like “name four vegetables” or “draw five circles?” But at the top it would say clearly, “Please read all instructions before beginning.” And then you’d get to the end of the test and it would say “Please disregard all of the above and turn in the sheet blank to your teacher.” Your dumb ass had already started filling it out and then you would see the smart kids turning in the sheet literally 45 seconds later, and then it’s like a wave of kids figuring it out, and you’re in your seat sweating bullets realizing you got duped, trying to erase your four vegetables and five circles and get that thing turned in blank before the teacher could lump you with the really stupid kids. No? Just me? Okay. Well my point is, READ THE INSTRUCTIONS AND FOLLOW THEM LITERALLY. Do not get liberal with them and decide you know better and submit a novel you’ve written instead of what they are asking for. Do not submit it to the wrong e-mail address or label it incorrectly. Pay attention to these things. Because when you don’t, you come off like either (a) you don’t give a shit about working at the show or (b) you’re a dullard.
2. Do not use tiny, weird, or hard-to-read fonts.
Remember that whoever is reading your submission is most likely a comedian or comedy writer, which means they most likely have poor vision from years of not being good at sports. Your 8-point single-spaced submission is going to not only make it hard to read, but it will incite rage. I can tell you that after reading about 50 packets my eyes were starting to glaze over and the Taylor Swift jokes running together in my mind. When I’d get to a new packet, and see it was in a tiny font, I’d immediately get annoyed. That may sound selfish and ungrateful, but I’m telling you, this is what naturally happens to any human after reading one packet after another.
3. Realize that your packet may be read in paper form.
I was given a gigantic binder of packets printed out. So guess what? All those links you included in your packet? I didn’t click on them. If your idea or joke relies on a picture or graphic, embed that shit into your packet, so we can see it and get what you’re talking about quickly and without effort. If your idea relies on a video, yes, put the link in. But also describe it, just in case we’re reading it in print-form, or we’re on an airplane without internet. Don’t assume we’re reading it in the exact same environment in which you’re writing it.
4. Think about formatting so we don’t have to.
This goes hand-in-hand with the fonts point. Think about how you format this thing. Don’t clump all your ideas all together in one long paragraph. If you are asked to submit jokes, space them out evenly and neatly. If you are asked to submit sketch ideas, bullet-point your beats. Space each one out from the other. The reader should be able to skim from joke to joke easily. They should know when one idea ends and another begins. AND FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DO NOT SUBMIT A PACKET IN ALL CAPS. YOU WILL COME ACROSS AS SOMEONE WITH ANGER ISSUES AND/OR A METH PROBLEM. EDIT: In the years since I wrote this post, I have changed my mind on this all caps point. I now realize that some screenwriting programs and TV shows use all caps for shooting scripts, and it is not ~crazy~ to submit in all caps. I think for our show, ONE person submitted in all caps, but not in a script form, just in a blank Word doc, and it looked like we were supposed to scream the jokes. Which actually would have been funny, looking back on it. Anyway, my updated advice is to just make the thing easy to read. In some cases, you’ll receive a sample script in the packet submission info, so be sure to follow that as closely as possible.
These tips about formatting and fonts may seem insignificant to you, but remember: anything you do that distracts us from getting your jokes will hurt you. We are reading these to find out if you’re a good writer and good fit for the show. Think about formatting and stuff ahead of time so WE DON’T NOTICE IT. We should only be noticing how funny you are.
5. Know the show!
I know this may sound really really obvious, but at a minimum, do some LIGHT googling about the show you’re submitting to. In our case, we didn’t have a TV show already on the air for people to reference, so that made it slightly challenging. But there was a ton of information about us, our comedy, the show, etc. available on the internet. Try to get a sense of the tone of the show as much as you can. Ask yourself, “Can I imagine the host of this show saying this on TV?” and maybe even, “Can I imagine ANYONE saying this on TV?” I could not believe some of the crazily unusable and offensive jokes that people submitted. I started calling them “career-ending jokes.”
Oh, and make sure you know how to spell the host’s name.
6. Do I even need to tell you to spellcheck that shit?
Yes, yes I do.
7. Keep that shit tight.
This one is probably the most important one on the list. BE CONCISE. Be clear. Monologue jokes should be short – like 2-3 lines max. When I came to a packet with long, paragraph-like monologue jokes, I would immediately become disappointed and struggle through it. This of course is a larger note about practicing joke writing. If that’s something you want to do professionally, you need to get that shit TIGHT! Write jokes every day. Twitter can be very helpful in learning brevity. Watch the late night monologues, Weekend Update, anything you can to learn solid joke structure. Learn that stuff first, and then try to get creative with the form.
This is also important for sketch. Outline the concept as clearly as you can – make us SEE it and love it. Give it a title (a clever one can’t hurt!) so we’re immediately drawn in. Remember that our brains are turning into mush after reading so much. Make it simple and clear and effortless. Include beats, sample lines, sample dialogue – but do NOT include an entire script! That is too much and will make us cry.
8. Write your joke. Then write it again.
I hate to break it to you, but we are all unoriginal. I was shocked to find that almost everyone would make the same jokes OVER AND OVER AND OVER. Some jokes were verbatim, and I’d start getting confused and paranoid that everyone had conspired and written jokes together. Turns out, the first joke that comes to mind about a current event is probably similar to the one everyone else will make (myself included!). That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make that obvious joke. Make it – but make it special. Give it a second pass and come up with an alternate angle or wording. A joke may be hilarious the first time I read it, but after reading it 25 times, it starts to sound hacky (even if it’s truly funny!). Try to protect yourself from that situation.
9. Do not recycle a packet you wrote for another TV show. (Unless of course you’ve been told you can do that…more on that in my update below.)
The comedy world is small. We know what other shows are hiring and what their packets look like. We can tell when your packet is simply a duplicate of something for another show. Have the courtesy to submit something specific and original. That’s not to say you can’t have some crossover. One sketch idea for Fallon might also be a perfect fit for Kimmel. Definitely submit your best ideas, just make sure your packet looks like it’s meant for the show it’s being submitted to. i.e. do not submit a “Top Ten List” to Leno. Make sure it’s following the specific guidelines. Even if we don’t know what show it was for, it’s easy to spot one that was written for someone else (especially if the jokes are outdated!). EDIT: I updated this one to include the fact that you certainly can submit a packet from another show – IF they have told you it’s okay to do that.
10. Follow the instructions.
11. Write constantly, submit often.
Submitting is an art in itself. The more packets you do for all types of different shows, the better you’ll be. Of course, none of this matters if you’re just terribly unfunny.
So. Those are the things that stood out to me as simple things you can do to improve your chances of getting your packet taken seriously. Overall, I think you need to come across like you really want to work for the show and that you put a fair amount of thought and work into it. If you can’t even do a spellcheck or follow the simple guidelines, then all that says to us is that you don’t have the motivation or stamina to hack it in a fast-paced TV environment.
Note: I’m fully aware that I wrote this in the style of an old man who has been working in the biz for 30 years. And I’m even more aware that I may be taking my own advice a few months from now. Our show may not last forever, but I’m learning a lot along the way. Why not share some of it? Nobody from a TV show has ever given me specific feedback or any tangible tips like this. I figured it might help someone else following a dream. Take it or leave it, y’all! Many people asked me how one goes about finding opportunities to submit. I have answered that question here!
UPDATE, 5/27/20: Hi, it’s me, 2020 Sara, eight years later. I am now officially an old man who has been working in the biz for almost 20 years! Someone asked me for this link recently and I hadn’t read it in a long time. I got nervous at first, wondering if I would sound like a fool to my older, wiser self. For the most part, I don’t! The vast majority of this still applies, though I have added some edits in italics to update my thinking on some things. I did get squirmy reading that last paragraph, because my show DID get cancelled! I have had to ride the ups and downs of this business ever since, following my own advice many times over. There have been moments when I’ve been begging friends for job leads, and there have been other times when I’ve been in a position to hire again. I’ve written for all types of shows and had amazing experiences, and harrowing ones too that will haunt my dreams forever.
In these past eight years, I’ve also come to learn that the world of comedy/variety is a bit of a wild west, and there isn’t much by way of an industry standard when it comes to the soliciting of packets. I’ve heard much discussion over the years about how some show packet requirements are essentially partial or full scripts, and are technically violations of WGA rules, because it is unpaid work – especially the ones that are very long and unreasonably labor intensive.
For the record, our packet for Nikki & Sara was very short and easy in comparison to many others, and, while we’re here, for our second season, we did invite-only, instead of blind submissions, to fill one or two available spots. These days, I would do (and have done) things a little differently. For one, we didn’t do well with racial diversity on NSL, and that is something I regret. I have been working to ensure that doesn’t happen again, when I can. I also now have mixed feelings about a totally blind process, because, in order for it to work, it does sort of require the applicant to do original writing and/or brainstorming for the show.
Anyway, some shows also make you sign waivers, so that you can’t sue them if you see them later doing an idea similar to something from your packet. I understand this on some level, because as I mentioned above – parallel thinking is FOR SURE a thing, I saw it with my own shocked eyes over and over again when I read our packets. But I’ve had friends see their very specific ideas show up on a popular show they submitted for and it just feels shitty, because it’s like, “damn, I was good enough to get that job, but they didn’t hire me.” On this note, I do advise to be careful what you submit in a packet. Maybe hold back on sending in ideas you really want to save for yourself, even if they are so funny and good and would prove how awesome you are…there is (an albeit small) chance of it getting stolen. In fact, I would advise you to go ahead and make the idea come to life yourself: shoot that sketch, perform that joke, and then put it online! Bam, now you have a sample of your work ready to send to anyone hiring, AND one million new followers because it went viral.
Which brings me to my next point: more and more shows are hiring based off of work samples, as opposed to packets. This practice tends to favor writers who have been around longer, so I’m not sure I think it’s the only way. I think the best is probably somewhere in between – a submission that includes both samples of your work (things you’ve already written / created that fit best with the show in question) AND some sort of packet that is VERY short, and does not require a lot of heavy lifting on your part. OR maybe the industry gets some kind of standard going that is a “generic packet” that we all agree to, that you only have to write once and can use for multiple shows? Like how a pilot or spec script works for the scripted world? It’s tough because many talk shows are topical and you want your writing to feel fresh. It’s interesting to think about!
Okay! I am rambling and there’s a global pandemic raging outside my window. My point is, things are always changing. I love discussing this stuff, even when I’m grumbling that I’m tired of working in the comedy/variety space – pining for the greener pastures of scripted, or fantasizing about moving to the woods and becoming the type of woman the village children call a witch, but then one day they discover that I’m actually really nice and have their backs against the real evil in the world. A girl can dream.