How to get a job writing for a TV show
October 20, 2014 2:48 PM   Subscribe

what's the trajectory of someone who wants to eventually write for a comedy/drama or even a kid's show? Is there an entry-level equivalent for that kind of thing? What skills are necessary besides screenwriting experience?
posted by ennuisperminute to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The two TV writers I know followed (what they say) are common routes:

Writer #1: Went to Harvard, wrote for the Lampoon, got his first job through connections on the fifth season of one of those sitcoms that was an institution for ~10 years.

Writer #2: I have no idea where she went to school. She worked open mic nights around Chicago for years, did lots of Second City improv classes, got a paying gig doing one of their second-stage shows, and got noticed and invited for a try-out on a popular sketch show.

That being said, these are jobs that lots and lots of people want, and very few people actually get.
posted by Oktober at 2:59 PM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have written for television -- an animated Cartoon Network show called "Codename: Kids Next Door." My personal trajectory toward this job was very weird*, and is probably not all that helpful. But due to the people I met along the way, I've talked to other folks who followed the more "traditional" path.

I can only speak to the American animation scene, but my understanding is that live action television is similar in the basics, anyway.

That path toward a traditional writers room is pretty much:

Intern ---> Writing Assistant ---> Staff Writer

However, many animated shows are basically "written" by the storyboard artists. Which might look more like.

Intern ---> Storyboard Revision ---> Storyboard Assistant ---> Storyboard Lead

Job titles vary, but that gives you the idea.

Being in Los Angeles makes getting onto this sort of path -- and staying on it -- exponentially easier.

The really hard part is getting your foot in the door, as it is for most industries. This happens via all kinds of channels -- internships, personal or professional connections, some studios (like Nickelodeon) run writing fellowships that anyone can apply for. Going to film school can help. Being personally acquainted with someone who's putting a writer's room together or looking for freelancers helps a lot. Once you're in the pipeline at a given studio, it becomes much easier to hop from one show to the next as various productions begin and end.

Again, it's pretty much like any other specialized, skill-based job.

As for skills other than screenwriting? Being easy to work with. Being able to produce good work very quickly and on a schedule. Having a great attitude despite feedback that can be extremely harsh. Good note-taking and organization, especially if you're coming up from the bottom -- writers' assistants are there to keep the logistical gears turning so that the rest of the writers' room doesn't have to worry about it. Confidence. Listening skills. As deep a familiarity as possible with the medium -- not only what's come before, but what shows are airing NOW.

*Short version: interned during the first season, was hired as a production assistant in the color department, pitched a story idea to the creator even though I was absolutely not supposed to be doing that, sold a bunch more "loglines" over the next year or so, was eventually hired to write four full episodes. However, as the studio was based in NYC, when the show ended there was nowhere else for me to go.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 3:07 PM on October 20, 2014 [9 favorites]

The podcast "Sam and Jim go to Hollywood" documents a writing team who did just what the title said. They are doing "Haven" and have another series upcoming.
posted by Sophont at 3:12 PM on October 20, 2014

These days a lot of folks get started on Youtube. Either they're part of a comedy troupe or they do their own stuff solo and get noticed that way. You can learn on the job, and if you're good you'll probably find an audience. (But that's hardly guaranteed. Some very talented folks stall out at 135 views, while some 3-second clip of a dude sneezing gets 9 million views. Youtube is weird.)
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:13 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are two paths, though they are not terribly distinct from one another and most aspiring TV writers are usually trying to do both at the same time.

Path A:

Become a PA in the writers' office of a TV series, or perhaps some sort of assistant to a producer or writer. Over the course of working closely with writers, you not only learn on the job, but there are opportunities for your bosses to read your work, get a sense of your abilities, have you do lower-level scutwork writing-adjacent tasks, etc. Ultimately this leads to the ideal writer's assistant wet dream scenario: you are asked to write an episode of the show. Usually this first assignment will be on a freelance basis, but it's expected that an assistant who gets thrown a task like this will eventually be staffed on the show, or potentially be recommended by the producers for a staff job on another similar show.

Path B:

Write and produce your own material until you are "discovered" as a writer. Most commonly this happens by submitting to various network writers' workshops and fellowships, but it can also happen by simply creating something yourself that gets you noticed. For example, the comedy Broad City started as a web series, and the strength of the work plus the creators' connections to the UCB improv theater ultimately netted them their own show. A larger scale example would be Lena Dunham, who started out with an indie feature called Tiny Furniture. There are also a few examples of comedy writers who were discovered through Twitter, for example Megan Amram. That said, comedy TV writers' rooms are often looking for people who churn out a high volume of quick verbal jokes, and Twitter is a great medium for that. I'm pretty sure one can't get staffed on a drama through social media, and even for comedy, it's new, rare, and potentially just a huge gimmick.
posted by Sara C. at 3:44 PM on October 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Also, as Oktober says, yes, if you're a comedy writer, one way to get "discovered" along the lines of my Path B is to be a working comedian. It's by no means the only way, though. There are as many sitcom writers who wrote a bunch of spec scripts and submitted to a ton of fellowships as there are sitcom writers who double as standups.
posted by Sara C. at 3:45 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Then there are these two stories:

My sister. Got a degree in Television at a California State School. Went to Hollywood and worked as a dogsbody for a producer. A famous producer who produced movies that were very famous in the late eighties. Movies starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Was treated appallingly. Hung in there. Left when it became apparent that this awful producer was never going to give her a chance. Sissy started working in advertising and is now a media buyer.

An internet acquaintance. Went to a UC school, moved to Hollywood. Got an admin job at a studio. Worked like a fiend. Joined writers groups, did some improv, really worked it for five years. Gave up, went to law school.

There's no guaranteed method for getting into the business. You have to be talented, but for every 1 person who gets a series, or a movie, or whatever, there are hundreds of other talented, beautiful, amazing people who don't.

I'd say move to Atlanta. Between Adult Swim/Cartoon Network, all the shows that are shot here and the whole Tyler Perry industry there's a decent chance you could get a job in the film industry/TV industry here, and get your foot in the door.

Good luck to you. It's hard as hell.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:25 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

It should be said that getting a job for a studio is not really a path to becoming a TV writer, in any way.

If you want to be a TV writer, you want to be a TV writer. That is an entirely different thing from "making it in Hollywood", which is generally understood to be more about the business side or maybe producing. It's helpful to know about that stuff if you end up succeeding as a writer, and jobs like studios, agencies, working for big important feature producers, etc. are great day jobs. But none of that leads to a career as a TV writer.

It's easy to get lost in all the different jobs and potential career paths in the entertainment industry as a whole. Especially since a lot of people start out post-college not really knowing what they want, just that they want to "make movies" or "get involved in Hollywood". If you want to be a TV writer, you already have a head start, and you should ignore all the "how to make it in the Industry" stuff in favor of advice specific to becoming a TV writer.

I would definitely not recommend relocating to any city but Los Angeles if you want to write for TV, since Los Angeles is the only city in the US where TV writing happens. Living in the city where Tyler Perry is based is not going to do anything for you, because Tyler Perry doesn't hire TV writers. And if he does, those writers 99 times out of a hundred are going to actually work out of Los Angeles and email this week's episode to the production office in Atlanta. You don't want to be the person getting that email. You want to be the person sending it. So go live where the writers live. Los Angeles.

(That said, I think if you don't live in LA now and aren't quite ready to relocate, you should keep writing and making stuff where you live now rather than waiting till you can relocate to LA.)
posted by Sara C. at 6:45 PM on October 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

Listen to The Nerdist Writers Panel podcast, you will hear many different stories of how people got their starts.
posted by oh yeah! at 9:36 PM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Lots of hard work and many, many years. I can tell you that my entire life has been about becoming a TV writer. As a kid I was always making movies, writing stories, just developing that creative muscle. Then I went to college in Chicago where I actually majored in Television writing. After that was done I moved to Los Angeles.

I spent years working in post production. Starting at an office of a place that worked with TV shows, managing to parlay (through dozens of e-mails to people I barely knew) that into a post job on a TV show. While all of this was happening I was always writing. A friend and I decided to team up to write a movie and after that great experience decided to partner up full time. Through her connections in working her way up the ladder we now get to write TV and that first movie we wrote together ended up catching an actor's eye. The rest is history.

Now, that's my story. Every writer and aspiring writer I know has a different one. I have a friend who's been working the same PA job for four years. I have friends who've left, friends who've moved into reality TV, and two friends who've done the literal "perfect climb" up the writer ladder (PA at a studio - writers' PA - show runner's assistant - script coordinator - ?? and intern - script coordinator - freelance writer - writer).

The truth is what everyone's been saying, there's no one path. You could come out here and toil away working on shows for thirty years, maybe falling into another specialty, and never get a break. Or you could write a script that falls into the right hands at the right time. Here's what I recommend to everyone:

1. Be really, really, really sure. I don't believe in dissuading people from their dreams but one piece of advice I heard upon moving out here was that if you could do anything else, you should go do that. Because otherwise it isn't worth it. I've struggled a lot and worked some truly terrible jobs that wrecked my psyche, but there was never a moment I thought about quitting. This was what I had to do.

2. Move to Los Angeles. No matter what it takes. The odds of you becoming a TV writer from anywhere other than LA is statistically insignificant. It's not just that the jobs are out here but that the people are, networking is hard but it's your friend and the only way to get jobs in entertainment.

3. Get any job doing anything. The job market out here is rough for anything because people want to live out here. Do whatever it takes to just survive in LA.

4. Get a job doing anything in entertainment. While my first few gigs didn't put me near any writers once I got on a show I had access to writers that I never dreamed of before then.

5. Meet someone who can give you a writers' PA gig.

This is the only route that I think is feasible to work towards, any other way of becoming a writer requires connections, timing, luck and tenacity. While working your way up the ladder you absolutely have to be writing. Write all of the time, every day. Also, be prepared to share your work and get feedback about it. There's nothing worse than someone asking to read something of yours only to not have anything to show.

Watch Brian Koppelman's vines (, he's a genius.
posted by iguana in a leather jacket at 12:59 AM on October 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

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