The “write-it-yourself” panel consisted of Kevin Shinick (writer/creator/producer of Cartoon Network’s Mad and writer/creative director of Robot Chicken), Phoef Sutton (writer/exec producer of Cheers, writer/producer Boston Legal), and Aaron McGruder (writer/creator of Boondocks).
According to the panelists there is no one path to becoming the big cheese on a TV show.
Shinick was acting on Broadway and appearing on Public Radio’s Where in Time is Carmen San Diego. He was auditioning for something else in 2003 when Carmen prompted one of the producers to ask, “Do you know anything about Spiderman?” He did. He wrote a Broadway show and submitted it. “A couple of months later they came to me,” he explained, “and they said ‘Yeah, that’s good, now direct it.” Although it never played Broadway, the show played off-Broadway and toured all over the country.
For Aaron McGruder the trick was to escape success. “I knew six months into my career as a cartoonist, it wasn’t me, but i did it for five years. I came out to LA in 1999 and because the strip was in the Los Angeles Times, I was able to get a lawyer and an agent.” McGruder said he never intended to be a Hollywood writer but the offers were overwhelming. “Part of the catch in Hollywood is that you’ve already got to have a thing to get a thing. So my thing was the strip I hated, but it got me into being a show runner.”
Phoef Sutton did it more by the book. “My wife had an agent and he told me to write specs. I wrote spec episodes of tons of shows and none ever saw the light of day,” he said. “But eventually people saw I knew how to get words on paper and I got the invitation to write something. I made mistakes, because I knew so little about the business. I just got lucky.” The harder part, according to Sutton, is staying in the business. “When you hit 40 or 45 in comedy,” he said, ”you have to start over because people think your comedy is dried up and you don’t know what the Internet is.”
Questions from the LA Comedy Shorts Festival audience focused on writing technique, strategies and outlining.
Shinick said the he loved writing and acting equally. “I can’t see myself doing just one, but I will always be writing. People tell you that if there’s anything else besides writing you like to do, get out of this business and do it. I used to think that it was just that they didn’t want the competition, but later I understood. It’s hard. You have to schedule it and sit in front of the screen. If all you do is sit there staring at the screen for three hours, you have to do it.”
For McGruder writing is a nighttime thing. “I usually can’t write until between 10 pm and 3 am. But I’m not really writing all that time,” he admitted. “I like really get going at 2:30 and then I fall asleep. But there are good days when I go to till 4 or 5 and then it takes off and on the second day you get productive.”
McGruder believes in outlines: “It’s difficult, but if you have to do it fast, outlines help. Without one, I start to meander too much with the story. The difference between getting in and being in is you don’t have the luxury of having all that time. You just have to get up and do it.”
Sutton is also a fan of outlines. “I write outlines. i don’t like to do that, because it’s the writing that’s the fun, but I outline and then I write.” He also shared a technique. “One trick I have is I’ll stop at the end of one day when i know what’s coming next. Then I can get started the next day and I have momentum.”
So if writing is so hard, why do it?
McGruder summed it up best: “Everything that you create has a chance of being successful, but you’ve got to get it out there, even if it’s just a pitch. A lot of things I write never see the light of day, but its fun and keeps me going. And the opportunity to have a profound social influence and be richer than god is always there. You just have to understand the odds, so you don’t have a soul crushing defeat that keeps you from moving forward.”