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I Wrote, I Worried, I Pitched

By Peter Desberg and Jeffrey Davis

You’ve been practicing your pitch for weeks: You’ve established a unique protagonist, given him a something he wants with a passion and even better, you’ve created a compelling antagonist. You’ve practiced making eye contact. You know this story backwards and forwards. You are ready to face anyone across the desk.

As soon as you open your mouth one of the executives asks if you’re married to it being aliens. They tell you they’ve had twelve pitches this week about aliens. They want to do westerns. Have you got a western? Or she picks up her cell phone and makes an appointment for a spa treatment, but motions you to continue. Odds are at this moment the index card in your lap has suddenly turned you dyslexic, especially if you believe this script is the one that will free you from that job at Target? Who wouldn’t feel shaky?

When you pitch any genre you hope to hear “and then?” But when you pitch comedy you need to hear laughter. This puts you pants down on a double-edged sword. We feel uncomfortable with people who push too hard to be funny. But pitching comedy to an oil painting can lead you to having the Suicide Hotline on speed dial. Guess what? Nobody knows what will be funny. If they did, standups wouldn’t spend so much time fighting massive cases of flopsweat. Pitches, just like auditions, are full of uncertainty.

Stage Fright in a Nutshell

Woody Allen said, “Any philosophy you can put in a nutshell belongs there.” With that in mind, here is Stage Fright in a Nutshell. We think ourselves into being afraid. When you predict that they won’t like your pitch, that you will be treated rudely, that after this pitch, they’ll refuse to ever take another meeting with you, and worse, badmouth you all over town, your brain and body will reward you with anxiety.

Your Stage Fright is based on your predictions.

Welcome to a large club. If you’ve already come out of bad pitch meetings feeling rejected, humiliated and hopeless or if you’ve heard Hollywood myths or horror stories from your friends, it’s easy to believe your next pitch will go south.

Your predictions are also colored by what is happening in the moment. When an executive yawns, looks at his watch or glances at his iPad or plays with his Lionel train set (all of which have happened to us or close friends), your predictions are immediately affected. The next thing you feel is your adrenaline spike, your hands shake and your heart pounds until you fear it’ll pop out of your chest just like all those Looney Tunes characters. Talk about distraction. While your attention should be on your pitch, you drift into thoughts about fear and failure. We are not built to multi-task. These distractions mean that something has to give and it’s your pitch that suffers.

There are three basic questions you need to ask yourself: How can you prepare yourself to deal with the stress of the expectation of pitching? What do you do when you’re in the room and it begins to go bad? How can you right the ship and perhaps most important of all, how can you avoid feeling like a character in a Dostoyevsky novel?

Think of these stages as pre-production, production and post-production for your pitch.

The Boy Scout Motto…(Pre-Production)

Anyone who’s taken a pitch class knows the Golden rule… be enthusiastic. This is something you can prepare for and practice. Begin by going over your idea and making sure it’s enthusiasm-worthy. Like doesn’t begin to do it. Neither does like it a lot. If you don’t love it, why should anyone else?

Next try this classic acting exercise: First, practice pitching over-the-top; do it exaggeratedly enthusiastic. You are going for a cartoony effect here to get in touch with the most extreme forms of enthusiasm. Important note: This is meant to be a private exercise. Next, look for something within that crazy, out-of-control pitch and find something in it that resonates with you. Try it again, only this time, dial it down to a level you feel comfortable with.

Okay, now get out your video camera and record yourself pitching. See how you like it. Tinker with the presentation until you’re happy with the results. When you’re ready, try the pitch out on a few discerning friends who will give you honest and knowledgeable feedback. Finally, get some other more intense friends to help you simulate a pitch going very wrong. Then ask those friends to push even beyond that point. You’re looking for the worst distractions they can think of. Tell them they can’t hurt your feelings. Remind them that you’re a writer and you have no feelings left.

One of the difficulties in pitching comedy is having the right energy level. If it appears that you’re always doing “shtick,” it’s obnoxious. But when you come from a clearly genuine place, it’s addictive. We were struck by the level of enthusiasm Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (Dinner for Schmucks, The Santa Clause 2, Bubble Boy), one of the writing teams interviewed in our book, Show Me The Funny, generated during their pitch. As they were developing a story, their enthusiasm for what they were creating continued to grow. Soon they were finishing one another’s sentences and feeding off each other’s ideas. We could tell they’d done this kind of thing many times before.

In The Room …(Production)

Once you’re in the room, focus on what you came to do. The preparation you’ve done in the face of distraction will help you keep that focus. A little trick you can use is to tell yourself that your commitment to your script is being tested. The way to pass the test is not to succumb to any distraction. This is a skill that every actor, musician and athlete has to learn. There’s an old boxing phrase, “Fights are won and lost in the gym.” You practice this outside and bring it into the room with you as an essential tool.” It has to be part of you long before the pitch room.

Peter Casey (co-creator of Wings and Frasier) told us he views comradeship as the most important ingredient in any partnership whether between writers or a producer and writer on a pitch. When Peter was a producer on Cheers, he sat in on countless pitches. A writing team was pitching stories and one of the Charles Brothers, the show’s creators, said, “I don’t think our character would do that.” One partner turned to the other and said, “See.” From that point on, they were so distracted that their pitch session turned into a complete disaster. Peter smiled and told us, “Oh, man! That’s not the best partner you want to be with.”

Post Mortem…(Post-Production)

When a pitch goes bad there’s a strong tendency to catastrophize. At this point your goal has to become, “What have I learned that will make the next one better?” The reason every successful writer can tell you so many good pitch stories is because they’ve lived through and survived them. More importantly, they have improved because of them.

Marc Sheffler (Who’s The Boss, Harry and the Hendersons) told us about a meeting he went to at CBS. “The executive asked me a question about the show that I couldn’t answer and I fell flat on my ass. I had flopsweat. Needless to say, they didn’t buy the show. And we’re walking out and my producer was the sweetest man and I had just fallen on my ass.” They got to their cars and the producer said, “You weren’t ready. Now we’ll get you ready and you’ll be fine.” It took another month and a half and I ended up selling it to NBC. “The point is, I didn’t know I wasn’t ready. It had nothing to do with my ability to pitch it or sell it. It had to do it with the fact that I didn’t allow the process to go forward enough to the point where I was comfortable answering those questions. And the thing about pitching and selling is that you should never be asked a question you can’t answer about your show. That’s like somebody asking you a question about your children.”

As you begin to make mistakes or feel outside of your body observing yourself, you are experiencing the essence of stage fright. Fortunately, there’s much more you can do to control it and make your pitch effective.

Meet the Author: Peter Desberg

Peter Desberg is the author of 16 books. A licensed clinical psychologist who specialises in treating stage fright, he has worked with many top stand-up comedians. He is frequently quoted in publications including the Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today and Cosmopolitan.

Meet the Author: Jeffrey Davis

Jeffrey Davis began his career writing jokes for Thicke of the Night. Among his situation comedy credits are Love Boat, Give Me a Break and Different Strokes. He has also written for such shows as America's Funniest People, America's Funniest Home Videos and Bugs Bunny's 50th Birthday.