What goes into a comedy writing packet

Even the best standups seem to just scrape by. Then you hear about a guy who got a late night writing gig. Pay's nice. Long hours but hey, it's a gig. Plus it's a credit.

So how do you get on that gravy train? Do you even want to? First you need writing samples ready to go. Kent Haines discusses how Donald Glover got an email from the producer of 30 Rock one night (that happens to you too, right?) and sent over scripts he had ready to go.

As Donald tells it, he just got an email from the producer of 30 Rock asking to see some of his material. So Donald replied that night with two spec scripts and a bunch of his sketches, and he was hired almost immediately.

When I hear that story, it sounds like a classic overnight success, the sort of thing that could happen to anyone. But it couldn’t. Because Donald had two spec scripts just sitting on his hard drive. Two spec scripts that were good enough to impress the best writers on television. Sure, he got a great opportunity. But he only succeeded because he was ready.

And that’s the problem for me. Because I don’t have two spec scripts. I don’t even have one. If I got that email today, I would be absolutely unprepared to impress anyone with my writing skills.

Don't expect to put together a killer packet overnight either. TV writer Dan French talks about what you need to get hired in How Do I Get Your Job? Some excerpts:

So there aren't many jobs. Less than 100 total talk show jobs, maybe another 50 asundry game show jobs...

It's a good question, because, you see, comedy writers write. Every day. Hours on end. They generate piles and piles of useable, polished material. Comedy writers are obsessive about generating new material, with reworking old material. They have big comedy muscles that don't get tired from generating day after day after day, for hours on end...

I constantly get asked about what goes into a writing packet. The useless but most truthful answer is that it doesn’t matter as long as it's great. It can be sketches, top lists, jokes, columns, standup, etc. It doesn't matter so much what it is, just that it shows that you are drop dead, unquestionably, and forever funny...

The honest part of putting together your writing sample is that you have to work on it not over the course of a weekend when someone asks to see your stuff, but every single week over the course of a couple of years. You want every joke to burst off the page. Those types of jokes don't come out in a week. They pop into your head once a month, if you're lucky.

By far the most common mistake I see beginning writers make is to not have great samples ready when asked. Instead, comics try to throw together stuff in a single night, and it comes out a mixed bag of weak jokes and strong jokes. It comes out not good enough to impress...

My writing packet is a result of four years of daily joke writing, all of which I've reworked and rewritten on my own hundreds of times, and which I've also shown to friends and professional writers who have given me suggestions and led me away from bad choices.

Sounds like a haul. And tough odds. But I guess that's true about most things worth doing in life.

Fwiw, The PIT in NYC offers classes on writing for late night shows.

Want to learn how to write for a late-night show like the ones hosted by Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, and Jimmy Fallon? This class will teach you how. Through easy-to-understand instruction, writing exercises, and constructive feedback you'll learn how to craft monologue jokes, desk pieces, sketches, reality-based comedy segments, and more. This class will give you all the tools you need to put together a strong submission packet for the comedy-variety show of your choice. You'll also pick up skills you can use in writing comedy for game shows, reality shows, and other formats.

I heard someone mention once that you can find sample writing packets online. Anyone got a link?


Abbi Crutchfield said...

This Hollywood Screenwriter has an online resume that details in bullet point the samples in his packet. You can contact him with requests, but he probably only wants paying inquiries. You never know.

DailyScript.com has published TV scripts you can download (not sure if it's free). Comedy scripts include How I Met Your Mother, My Name is Earl and Arrested Development. Those might be good to review for format, but I hear the best is to write a spec script of a show that is currently airing. For that you might be able to contact a network insider about buying a script from the studio.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Just double-checked and DailyScript.com has a free, downloadable script from The Office, a show that is still on the air! Woo hoo!

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

From what I've pieced together, 30 Rock must have been chimeraed together overnight. Splitsider did an interview with Kay Cannon and that's exactly how she got hired to write for the show - except she wasn't already prepared:

"It’s that thing where you decide, I could not do this and I could say, 'No, I don’t have it' and I will get another opportunity at some other point. Or you challenge yourself and you say, 'I’m going to do this.' This is the opportunity. This is the time. And I’m going to go stay up all night long and hope that this works out."

She literally scraped her packet together overnight.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

Thanks for linking to that interview Rebecca! Also, How I Met Your Mother is still on the air. I thought it was off because it is syndicated. And because I like everything late. Have you guys tried Bugles?

Meghan said...

The big thing that I learned taking sketch classes at the UCB and Magnet was that it is important to have a cache of stuff ready to go if you get that rare submission opportunity. The Kay Cannon thing is weird because she had half a spec script and an original ready to go. She had stuff to work on but it was an insanely stressful experience having to finish her first Office spec in a short amount of time. You don't ever want to be in that position. You want to have the first draft--at least--done so you can spend that night editing your work to make it better and fit the type of show you are submitting for. More to that point, you never know what kind of writing opportunity will come your way. This goes for style and formatting. Even if you have a late night packet put together, you're going to need different monologue jokes and desk pieces for Jimmy Fallon than you would for Dave Letterman or Chelsea Handler. That same reasoning goes for any submission packet. So how do you reconcile the quandary of being prepared for an opportunity you can't anticipate? Never stop writing. If you keep giving yourself little goals like finishing an SNL style cold open, writing a desk piece pitch, slapping together a Modern Family spec, you will at least have the experience of trying to think as a writer in the different modes would. I think people laughed at me outside a show once because I said I was working on a new pilot. I'm ridiculously new to the stand up scene so the logic is why even bother? But down the line I might get a call, and I'd like to have some stuff up my sleeve so that at least I have SOMETHING. Plus, like in stand up, practice (and revision) makes perfect.

Luke Cunningham said...

I'm currently writing on the new Sports Show with Norm MacDonald in LA. It's like the Daily Show but about sports.

I was asked to submit a 3 page packet of topical material with a 48-hour turnaround. This was a Friday. It was due Sunday. I had a gig hosting at Helium in Philadelphia that weekend. I would come off-stage and immediately get working on it. What I ended up doing was mixing my best stand-up jokes and lines into topical material.

Now that I'm here and writing, here's how it works:
- Every morning, I get a packet of 9-10 pages of topical stories from the Writers' Assistant. I'm expected to go through the 9-10 pages and write jokes underneath each story in Norm's voice.
- By 2PM, we meet in the Writers' Room and table the jokes. Norm picks what he likes.
- Then we go back and punch up those jokes to be re-tabled at around 5.
- We are also putting together segment ideas through the day which get tabled at the same time as the later meeting.
- It's 12 hours/day and mentally exhausting but I've loved every minute of it.
- I have no idea if every show works this way.

Networks and agents are much more interested in original scripts then spec scripts right now. Though I've been told that the paradigm swings back and forth every few seasons.

Matt Ruby said...

That's awesome Luke. Congrats on the gig and thanks for sharing details. How'd they find you in the first place?

Luke Cunningham said...

I worked as an assistant on "Important Things with Demetri Martin." Was referred by that producer, Rich Korson, to this show's producer, Daniel Kellison. They took my packet. I made it to the final 12. Had to go to LA to interview with Norm and the showrunner, Mike Gibbons. Key in those meetings is NOT being on. They think you'll be annoying in the writers' room.

David Angelo said...

My packet is just 20 pages of fake names. "Phil DiFrancesco" "Arthur Middleton" "Brianna Hersch" (some of the better ones)

Anonymous said...

I'm on a Yahoo Groups email thing for tv writers: tvwriters@yahoogroups.com. Some of the people who write on it are whiny and bitter, but I've learned a lot from some of the good discussions. Also, if you are looking for a specific script, you can ask for it and somebody will probably know how to find it.

Jane Espenson has a great blog with lots of valuable information about writing for tv: http://www.janeespenson.com/

Adam said...

Speaking as someone who's written a half-dozen packets for various shows and been hired for none -- so take my input for what it's worth -- I'll say that, while I'm sure that it's important to have a solid gold packet that you've spent months working on, many late night shows have their own guidelines that will make any preprepared material hard to use, because the call for submissions asks you to specifically write for the show in question. For instance, while SNL just wanted four sketches, and Jimmy Fallon wanted a packet of monologue jokes and desk pieces -- both easy to adapt from the material you have in your back pocket -- I've also had to write packets like:

* The Colbert Report: A complete "The Word", and a complete "Tip of the Hat, Wag of the Finger", all based on this week's news.
* The Daily Show: A complete opening segment (Jon introducing and discussing the news), a complete "chat" with a correspondent, and a handful of miscellaneous jokes, all based on this week's news.
* SuperNews (now cancelled): Two sketches specifically written for SuperNews, on one of four topics (Technology, Topical, etc), using their characters.
* Important Things with Demetri Martin: In addition to a handful of sketches, three pieces for Demetri to do on stage, based on the themes of one of their previous episodes, "Chairs", "Power", or "Games."

In the case of the Daily Show and Colbert, you're basically asked to write an entire episode, on your own, based on the news of the week. Likewise, while Important Things let you rely on your previously written sketch packet a bit, they also asked you to write specifically for the show. So while it's undoubtedly awesome to have a rock-solid sketch or late-night packet in your back pocket (and speaking of which, I have to get working on mine), it's just as important to develop the skill of being able to write in the voice of another performer or show at a moment's notice, because often that's all the time you'll have. I didn't get any of those jobs -- nor did I expect to, as these jobs are so competitive that even the best packet only raises your chances from 0% to 1% -- but I really enjoyed writing them, as it stretched muscles that I know will serve me well in the future.

I've also noticed a bit of a conflation between narrative comedy writing (i.e., writing for sitcoms or single-camera comedies) and other forms of comedy in the comments here -- in my understanding (and very limited experience) they're very different worlds, with very different demands for submission. Your 30 Rock spec script or original pilot isn't going to help you a whit when you're submitting to SNL or Fallon, and vice versa.

Abbi Crutchfield said...

"but I really enjoyed writing them, as it stretched muscles that I know will serve me well in the future."

Awesome Adam! And thanks margaretams for the Jane Espenson blog.

Adam said...

Yeah, I just want to second the recommendation of Jane Espenson's blog -- most of the good stuff is in the archives, but they're a treasure trove of really good advice on writing half-hour comedies.

Clean Person said...

Thank you all, this was super helpful.

The Intercollegiate said...

Wondering... If I've written a sketch with two other people, or five other people or whatever, does that sort of thing belong in a writing packet? Should the piece be attributed to everybody that worked on it if it was a communal effort and not a solo one?

Kate Complikated said...

You answered all my questions!Thank you so much.

Joe Toplyn said...

I teach that class in late-night comedy writing at the PIT. I also have a new book out called "Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV"; it's available on Amazon. It teaches you everything you need to know to write a solid late-night TV submission packet. It also contains a full-length writing sample you can consult for format. Visit me at www.joetoplyn.com.

RobotShlomo said...

This is all well and good, but it doesn't address the actual question of WHERE and to WHO do you send it to. I know most comedy writers and production people aren't going to just give you an address and say "Send samples to Show X at Culver City, CA", but Donald Glover didn't get that email just from sitting around and HOPING somebody would notice. Somebody had to read his stuff, and for the majority of us it's not as easy as having someone just coming up to you and saying "hey kid, you got some good chops on you, wanna have lunch?".

I've submitted material to NBC and it was soundly rejected in favor of more "established" writers, and there in lies another problem; penetrating the secret door in order to even get that initial email or phone call.

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