From TV Writing Nobody to Disney/ABC Program Participant in 2 Years: Guest Blog
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat across from an eager-to-break-in television writer who told me that, despite his diversity, he wasn’t applying to the network’s sought-after TV writing programs because “Not just any good writer can get in” and “it’s all about who you know,” implying that if you don’t know one of the people running the program or get a recommendation from Shonda Rhimes herself, you stand no chance of getting into a TV writing program.
Just to be clear, the TV network’s writing programs are today perceived to be one of the two sure paths (in a world where there is no sure thing) to staffing on a TV show (the other path being starting out as an assistant). Well, my client, talented comedy writer Jessica Combs doesn’t know Shonda. In fact, two years ago when she moved to Los Angeles, she didn’t know anybody at all, and yet was just named to the prestigious Disney/ABC TV writing program.
How did she do it? She threw hard work at the problem. Challenged herself – a self-confessed introvert – out of her comfort zone. Which is why I asked her to write the below guest blog post.
(for the record, I am not a fan of using my blog to brag about what I do, but since Jessica wrote about working with me without me asking her to, I decided to include this information, as it does play a small part in how she got her screenwriting career to such a great start)
One of my favorite things about working with Lee is hearing stories about how her writers break in. Most exciting for me, are the ones about writers without any industry connections or background in entertainment (or, mostly relevant to comedy writers, without a degree from Harvard). I’m always interested to hear how writers like me got from zero to their first staff writing job. Or the lead up to them getting into a fellowship. So for any other information hounds like me, I thought I’d share how the first few years of my TV writing journey have gone for anyone who is looking for some hope in this crazy trip we’re sending ourselves on – because like many of you, I moved out to LA with no connections and no idea what I was doing.
I had my “I want to be a TV writer” realization at a relatively random period of my life. It was 2008, I was living in Orlando, and in the midst of getting an MBA. One night, I was watching The Office bloopers on my laptop and I realized — that’s what I wanted to be doing! I wanted to be writing the lines and scenes Steve Carell couldn’t get through because he was laughing too hard. It seemed an impossibility though, given my complete lack of writing experience and industry connections, so I tucked my secret wish away and finished my MBA.
But in 2012, then living in NYC, the desire crept back in after a friend took me to a show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. Things snowballed from there. I decided pursuing comedy writing as a career wasn’t crazy like some people in my life had suggested… So I signed up for improv and sketch classes and never looked back.
While I was developing my comedy chops, I was also reading every book about TV writing and comedy writing that existed. I eventually gathered enough knowledge to write a spec script and in 2015 I began applying to fellowships and contests. That year, I placed in the top 5 of the comedy spec category for Final Draft’s Big Break competition with my New Girl spec. One of the perks of the top 5 placement was a webinar with Lee. I learned so much from it I couldn’t not reach out to Lee for more.
I happened to be visiting LA on vacation a few months later so I purchased an intake and coaching session. I asked Lee what her #1 piece of advice for me was. She said, “Move to LA.” I took her seriously and moved a year later, in December 2016.
I was lucky enough to work for a software company that allowed me to move and work remote. I know I wouldn’t be here without the insane flexibility that job allowed me. I assumed when I arrived that I’d be able to write and work and eventually quit my job after getting staffed. LOL. So naive, Jess…
In November 2017, after nearly a year of working 70 hours a week, I decided to set aside some money, quit my job, and give myself a year to focus solely on my craft. I know this isn’t a possibility for everyone, and honestly, not totally necessary, but finding ways to dedicate time to some of the activities below will benefit you all the same. During that year off, I took TV writing classes, went to panels and workshops, attended networking events, joined a writing group, joined another writing group, listened to a zillion TV writing podcasts, read every single one of these blog posts, and kept working with Lee. She introduced me to other writers who I met for coffees. For lunches. For drinks. And I built my community.
While all this was happening, a drama pilot I wrote with a friend garnered more attention than any comedy pilots I’d written. We entered the pitch into a contest on a whim. But it ended up getting us to the final round where they read a draft of the pilot. We didn’t win, but one of the contest founders liked our writing and introduced us to a manager who we started working with. If I’m being honest, it was a bit discouraging for my personal *comedy* brand. I know, “Shut up, Jess. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” I get it! I was incredibly grateful and excited, but I was bummed to feel like I wasn’t able to do it on my own and the thing I wrote with a partner was what got attention. While the pilot didn’t go anywhere and the manager relationship didn’t work out for my comedy writing, it was definitely an informative dip into the world.
But I didn’t stop working on my own stuff. I kept writing specs and pilots and applying to fellowships. And this year, after four years of applying religiously to every fellowship and writing program, a truly shocking thing happened: I got into one of them. I have no idea what my future holds but I can say with confidence, you should not let your lack of industry connections discourage you from pursuing this!
In the spirit of that, here are my biggest takeaways from the last four years of pursuing TV writing:
1. Build your community
Lee impressed upon me how important it is to build a community and she’s right. When I moved out here, I didn’t have friends or family in the industry. I had Lee who encouraged me to sign up for a Script Anatomy class, and I had couple friends in the UCB community, but I built from there. And let me tell you, it wasn’t easy. I’m on the extreme end of the introvert side of the scale. I get my energy from being alone so networking is truly my nightmare. And small talk makes me want to die! (For those into Myers-Briggs, I’m an INTJ.) But I sucked it up and did it. I’m still alive, and now I have an awesome community of writers around me. They give me the emotional support I need when things feel hopeless and remind me to celebrate the little (and big) victories.
2. Get to know your voice and personal story
Some writers have a very clear voice immediately but I struggled for a while to figure mine out. For a while, I’d been trying to write more cynical, dark comedy but something about it didn’t feel right. So I wrote a list of all my favorite TV shows to see what they had in common. Then I started writing down my favorite scenes, moments, and jokes from those shows. What was it about them that appealed to me? I eventually realized what I was actually writing and wanted to write was comedy with heart.
As for my personal story, lucky for me, I’ve been in therapy since college. No, really. I feel lucky I’ve been in therapy for so long. Everyone should be in therapy if they have the means! Getting to know myself has been incredibly helpful in being able to tell my personal story. Applying for fellowships year after year has also helped me define my voice by way of the personal essays. Though to be fair, those essays have always been 10000x more difficult than writing specs or pilots. But use them as a tool, not just a means to an end.
3. Take classes
For the skills and for the people. While each class was great for learning tools for writing, it was even better for meeting people. The writers and teachers I have met through Script Anatomy classes have become some of my closest friends and biggest cheerleaders.
4. Join/Start writing groups
I’m currently in two writing groups. One is 8 people, 4 hour writers and 4 half-hour writers. We meet every other week and two writers are up each week. We do a little dinner/catch-up chat to start and then get into it. My other group is with 2 friends from my comedy writing community. We meet every week and all 3 of us are always up.
These groups are incredibly important because it is CRITICAL to get notes on your work. Don’t be afraid to share your stuff! I learned through these groups is that there is no shame in vomit drafts or outlines that aren’t fully thought through. Nobody is going to judge you for a mess of a draft. We’ve all been there.
5. Write a lot and read a lot
Write a spec. Write a pilot. Rinse, repeat. I try to always have two active projects at a time, in different states of development. Once I get to rewrites on a pilot, I start ideating the next project. One thing I wish I’d learned earlier is to not rewrite the same pilot 10 times until it’s “perfect.” It’ll never be perfect. Just start a new one. Come back to it later if you want, but you learn new things about yourself and your writing with each new pilot you start so, just start a new pilot!
And get your hands on as many scripts as possible. If you can, go to the WGA library and read scripts from your favorite shows. If you can’t, there’s a ton available online. Read good scripts, read bad scripts, read ‘em all. Read your friends’ scripts when they ask, and ask to read them even if they aren’t asking you. I was always thankful when someone offered to read because I used to be nervous to ask. Which leads me to…
6. Give notes
When someone asks you for notes, spend time on the notes. Don’t rush through it. Don’t be that person. It can be a symbiotic relationship and is part of building your community (I swear that’s the last time I’ll use the word community in this). I’ve learned a lot from giving notes. I have literally never turned down an opportunity to read and give notes to a friend and never regret saying yes.
And one final unrelated piece of advice that I wish someone had told me… When breaking down shows for specs and research: keep one special show for yourself. After analyzing 4 billion episodes of Superstore to write my spec last year, I haven’t been able to watch the show the same. So I refuse to do any analyzing of my favorite show (Schitt’s Creek!!! Catherine O’Hara!!! Dan Levy!!!) and instead I let myself just enjoy it.
You got this!
Jessica Combs is a Cuban-American comedy writer who moved to LA by way of Miami and New York City. She’s an alum of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, an amateur lock picker, and currently learning Norwegian. In her pre-writing life, Jess worked in the tech industry, managing developers and project managers. Jess is currently in the 2019 Disney | ABC Writing Program.