How Does an Aspiring TV Writer Get Discovered by an Agent?

As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and produces on her own, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide.

In show business they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck, because now you know Priyanka!

I want to be a TV writer, but I’ve written a couple of pilot scripts that haven’t really gone anywhere. How do I get an agent’s attention?

Before anything else, make sure you’re desperate to be a TV writer. Is this your dream of dreams? TV writing can be a long slog in which even the greats have lost count of their canceled shows, but they can’t imagine doing anything else. You have to love it, and if you don’t, it is palpable in your screenwriting. If you want to write a book, write a book. If you want to be an actor, act. If you want to be a lawyer, sure, but do you realize how much paperwork it entails? It sounds basic, but follow your actual passion, and the work product will naturally be of a higher quality.

Don’t be discouraged.

I’m sorry if this hurts your feelings, but your first couple of scripts are probably garbage. Whether or not his calculations are accurate, you’re working on your Gladwellian 10,000 hours. You are going to write a bunch of terrible things that no one cares about before The One that gets you an agent, and that One will get you a paid job. The good news is, whenever you have that perfect sample, your agents will send it out to people and claim it’s the first thing you ever wrote, and you will be lauded as a genius. The others will be wiped from your hard drive and memories. I bet you’ve heard lots of stories about people who wrote one pilot over a weekend and then were magically discovered and immediately writing on Brooklyn Nine-Nine — untrue. Writing two half-hour scripts and then waiting for TV stardom is like taking a couple of showers and then signing up for the 200 yard Butterfly in the Olympic Trials. You can get there, but give yourself the space and time to hone your craft.

Write something special.

Eighty percent of writing samples in circulation are about an unconventional family, a workplace, a wacky couple. If you’re a preternatural joke machine or have a shocking personal history, then OK, try it. But representatives have seen everything. Search for a story that is meaningful to you, and excavate the depths of your imagination — what have you dreamed about writing, what do you wish you could watch? It doesn’t have to be a pilot, even. Is there an indie movie idea you’re dying to get out? A play you’ve wanted to stage? My friend Van Robichaux wrote big commercial comedy scripts for years, but blew up when he wrote his legally untenable passion project: a biopic of the guy who played Chewbacca in Star Wars. Carrie Kemper (of the St. Louis Kempers — hi Dotty!) wrote a brilliant one-act play about a dog who committed suicide, and was hired on The Office. Katie Dippold (The Heat, the new Ghostbusters) wrote a pilot about an unfortunate town whose long lucky streak is interrupted by their recurring serial killer. It was like nothing I’ve ever read, I still reference it, and it got her hired on Parks and Rec. One of the most brilliant comedy writers I’ve ever read is Monica Padrick (Community) who I hired for her first gig after reading her loony pilot about an Elaine Stritch type, swanning around a Carlyle-esque hotel. Everything she writes is unconventional and hilarious, and she’s irreplaceable.

A note about spec episodes: so many ‘how to make it in showbiz’ books go on forever about writing TV spec scripts, which are episodes of TV shows that are currently on television. I might be in the minority, but they bore me. Put Taxi in space or something if you really want to, at least that hasn’t been done (I think), but my former colleagues and I want to see who you are, not just that you can parrot someone else’s voice. TV agents aren’t looking for worker drones, they want to make you rich so they can commission your giant paycheck. They’re hoping that you can create your own syndicated show some day, so don’t hold back.

I also hear a lot of “then in episode two, XYZ happens.” There probably won’t be an episode two. Pack all of your good ideas into episode one.

Send it to someone useful, and follow up.

Your soulmate isn’t going to break down your door, and neither is your future agent. Comedy reps actually do hunger for great comedy. They’re always scouring the earth for new talent — at live shows, online, or through people they already represent — so make sure everyone knows you’re looking, and that you have something to offer. Do you, or any of your friends or family, know an influential comedy producer, manager, agent? Does anyone you know have an agent? Agents want to represent their clients’ talented friends! It makes their jobs so much more fun when you’re all famous and they can package big shows by putting you all in a room together.

Gather introductions to reps and producers from people you trust, and get your (proofread!!!) script to everyone. Truly outstanding scripts get passed around and end up in the right hands. Then follow up, follow up, follow up. When you know it’s landed in a rep’s inbox but you have no response, bug them every ten days or so until you do. The key is making them feel guilty without tipping into annoying. Everyone gets so many emails, and attachments are routinely ignored. Being persistent seems counterintuitive to being liked, but think of yourself as a friendly reminder for the recipient to do his or her homework. For the contents of your email, may I suggest a simple, onus-shifting “Hi! Following up. Thanks!”

Caveat: If your friends hem and haw about passing it on, they’re either crappy friends, or your script needs more work.

Make it.

If this process sounds too slow and steady for you and you have a script you love, make it. Shooting a short or a pilot presentation costs like $12 now, offers instant gratification, and is the best learning curve. I don’t need to point out the examples of where this has worked — just turn on Comedy Central or read the internet. However, always remember step one: keep making stuff until it’s undeniably great. If you are talented, and hardworking, and love the process, it will all happen.

The inevitable follow-up question I get is always about perceived shortcuts. But what about Twitter? What about performing every night? Yes! You should totally do all of that, if you enjoy it, if it feels organic to who you are. It’s always good to shore up your reputation and round out your portfolio. But anyone ‘discovered’ on Twitter, or on a stage, has most likely written an actual script before getting staffed on a show. Put yourself out in the community in any way you find enjoyable, and exercise your comedy muscles, meet people, you already know this stuff. The networking and the camaraderie is an important part of your comedy career, but a great writing sample is your ticket to that scripted series interview, and thus the most effective selling tool for a representative.

Have a question about the comedy biz for Priyanka? Send your queries to thebusiness@splitsider.com or bug her on Twitter.

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