How Exactly Does Someone Pitch a TV Show?
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 just signed with a manager based on a short film I made, and he thinks I should come to LA and pitch it as a TV series. I’m in a total industry vacuum — what does a pitch even entail?
–Jason S., Michigan.
First, congrats! You made something that someone likes, and that puts you leaps and bounds ahead of many working writers. You can’t see me rubbing my hands together in glee right now, because I could talk about how to pitch for about a year straight.
New writers curl up and die when they hear “formula” and tune out when I start talking “structure,” so let me say there is a basic… recipe to pitching. When you’re in a room with TV buyers, you’re describing a world to them, and a set of characters within that world who can get into an innumerable number of scrapes. You’ll hear execs say it needs to be able to work for 100 episodes so the characters’ interactions, and their world, need to be made rich with potential conflict and amusement. So here are the ingredients to a good pitch.
- The “Why” of the show — why this show, why you, why now
- Sample episode ideas
In in that order. Walk through it all, no dilly-dallying, no veering off course, no being creative with format. You’ll just seem disorganized, and there is a math to all of this. Yes it is a little paint-by-numbers, but you get to pick the image and colors. Write this all down in a pitch document that is around seven or eight pages (single-spaced), tops. The “why” and intro can be a page, the characters three pages (for six main characters) or so, and the episode ideas a page. Then memorize it and practice it enough times to sound like you just thought of it. Your pitch should be no longer than 20 minutes.
The first sentence of your pitch is “(TITLE) is a (single-cam/multi-cam) comedy about ____________________.” Just one sentence. I’m assuming you know this but just in case, single-cam looks like a movie (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Modern Family, The Office). Multi-cam shoots on a stage and usually has a laugh track (Two and a Half Men, Will and Grace, The Carmichael Show). Then, dive in.
The Why: What is the (condensed) origin story of this idea, and why was it important to you? There are no more magical words in a pitch than “this happened to me.” If this didn’t actually happen to you, don’t lie, but talk about what in your life may have inspired the idea or drawn you to it. What themes do you want to explore, and why are they important to you and the audience at large? You don’t want them to get a whiff of “I just thought this was a good idea I could sell,” which I hear more often than you’d think. At least pretend there is some art to it, and that you care. Work in why now as well — was it inspired by something in the news or pop culture, is it a comedy satire of a popular drama, why did this occur to you now, and why would people be interested in watching it, now?
Characters: This is the meat of your pitch. Pick four to six series regulars that will be the central focus of your show, and describe them, one by one, like they are your best friends: where they come from, their families, strengths and weaknesses, their desires (micro and macro), and how each character interacts with every other character who is a series regular. Feel free to dream-cast the roles like like “Marie is a sweet midwestern girl, say an Ellie Kemper type,” and briefly cover their interactions with the other series regulars. This is where you spend the most time thinking, in creating your “triangles.” Even a sitcom is set up as elaborately as a soap opera — every character should have a history or future with every other character. Link your characters in inextricable ways with each other — whether they are past or future lovers, rivals, siblings, colleagues — to lay the groundwork for those 100 episodes.
Make sure those four to six characters have plenty of non-phony opportunities to be in the same places. There is a reason most shows are workplace or family — other than being the most relatable setups, it’s also a mechanism to get everyone bumping into each other a lot. You might be asked where your show “lives.” They mean pick a couple of locations that we always see.
Your world will have more than four people in it obviously, so work in a couple of supporting (“recurring”) characters, who don’t need more than a sentence or two of explanation. Then say “So that’s our show, and we have some episode ideas, if you’d like to hear them. For example…”
Episode Ideas: come up with five to seven and pitch three or four depending on the vibe in the room. Pitch standard episodes, not too many unusual locations or special guests. Episodes should all be a day in the life of your show — all characters you pitch should be series regulars, and put in situations that tell you how they’re going to react on an average day. Pitch A story and a B story so they can see how all the characters fit in. Just a couple of sentences each.
You might notice that we haven’t discussed pilot story. That’s because buyers want to hear a bunch of ideas and decide which one will be the pilot. Generally they avoid premise pilots like the plague — rarely are scripts commissioned which is the first day everyone meets each other — they’d rather you write episode two or three, so that we are just popping into the world midstream.
Serialization used to be a death knell for comedy pitches, because the dream for network shows is alway syndication — note how you can join in anywhere on a rerun of Friends and not need to know hat happened before and after. But now buyers are buying serialized comedies in the hopes that you want to know what happens next, and binge watch (OITNB, Transparent, etc.). If you are pitching cable you can build in a season arc — so you can loosely describe what happens to the group over the course of a season, but it’s not usually necessary to work out the story beats, unlike a feature pitch. Pitching a movie is like describing a short story, while pitching TV is like analyzing a literary novel: It’s almost irrelevant what happens — the engine that keeps a novel running is the characters and their interactions.
Then practice, practice, practice. Have your manager or whoever hear it at least three times and ask questions to figure out holes, weak spots, lulls in the pitch. Make sure there are plenty of great jokes in it — a bunch of good jokes won’t save a bad pitch, but it will enhance it and make people want to work with you more. Obviously you know this, which is why you work in comedy. You can have a bullet-point outline to glance at while you’re in the room, but please don’t read off the page — it will sound like a grade school book report. Learn to pitch your show in your sleep, and then have your manager or producers hold onto your long document during the meeting so they can smoothly fill in anything you might miss. Break a leg! You’ll be great!