Interview with Steven Priggé, author of Created By: Inside the Minds of TV's Top Show Creators
Steven Priggé, a one-time assistant on the hit sitcom Spin City starring Michael J. Fox, has written a new book entitled Created By: Inside the Minds of TV's Top Show Creators. Between the covers, Priggé delves into the minds of people like Max Mutchnick and David Kohan (Will & Grace), Brenda Hampton (7th Heaven), Josh Schwartz (The O.C. ), Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel), Bill Lawrence (Scrubs), Ilene Chaiken (The L Word) and others, to ask the questions all aspiring TV writers want answered, such as: How do I get an agent? What spec scripts should I write? How do I get staffed on a show? The book also chronicles the unique journeys that many of the TV show creators went on to get their own ideas aired on the small screen. Legendary producer Aaron Spelling said it best in his blurb on the cover: "The stellar line-up of creative minds in this book represents the top talent in this business. Priggé brings out the best in them."
Steven Priggé answered The Writers Store's questions via email.
What is the best piece of advice you gleaned from your interviews with the show creators?
With regard to making it as a professional writer, I think the best thing you can do is, in fact, write. That might sound like simplistic advice, but it holds true. Writing is a craft where the old adage "practice makes perfect" truly applies. For instance, Yvette Lee Bowser (Half & Half) said in my book, "The first key to becoming a writer is writing. It is not just a thing you say that you want to do. You have to just do it." Writing is just like exercising at the gym. Depending on what kind of writing you're doing (comedy, drama, etc.), you're working different muscles. If you haven't written in awhile, you might work at a slower pace and have less stamina. So, it's important to have a writing regime. Also, many of the show creators felt strongly about listening to one's peers early on during your career. You should take your bosses' advice seriously, because chances are they have been through the trials and tribulations you're experiencing at that moment. Tom Fontana (Oz) got some very solid advice from his boss and mentor Bruce Paltrow during his first TV writing job on St. Elsewhere. Tom said, "He told me, 'Don't believe them when they tell you how wonderful you are because if you believe them when they tell you that you're wonderful, then you have to believe them when they tell you that you suck. And believe me, they will tell you that you suck."
Why do you think there is so little information available on breaking into TV as opposed to the abundance of material on breaking into feature film?
I think that more people have written books on breaking into feature film than TV because of two things: first, the advent of independent film changed the industry and, second, the rise and impact of digital video. I think because of the digital age, making a feature film is more accessible to the average person than ever before. Today, you can buy a quality digital camera for $3,000 and go off and shoot a short film that could be seen at some major film festivals. How can you shoot a television show on your own? I think the general public believes that the "breaking in" aspect of making it in film is a lot more possible to happen to them than in TV. However, I think people have a misunderstanding that most television writers had an "Uncle Bernie" who was an agent out on the West Coast and hooked them up. More times than not, that's simply not true. The people in my book broke into television writing following their own unique and exciting path and none of them had an uncle named Bernie.
How can a writer get their first job (not an internship) in television with no connections?
There are many different ways to get a writing job that doesn't include fetching co-workers' lattés, Frappuccinos or any other coffee oriented beverage. Many sitcom writers have been discovered as stand-up comedians. For instance, Larry David (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm) was discovered while performing stand-up comedy at Catch a Rising Star in New York City. Shawn Ryan (The Shield) won a playwriting contest in college, and one of his plays was entered into the American College Theater Festival. The play Shawn had written ended up winning "Best Original Play" in the New England region of that competition and it won "Best Comedy" nationwide. Because of the acclaim of his play, Shawn was rewarded by being brought to L.A. to spend a few weeks hanging out in the writer's room of My Two Dads. He eventually sold a story idea to the producers and his TV writing career began. Alan Ball was discovered by a talent scout at Carsey-Werner Television who came to see Alan's play, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress. It essentially comes down to finding a platform where your voice can be heard by others who are in the position to hire you, or can get you hired. The bottom line is that you have to get yourself out there and get noticed.
Is the sitcom on its way out?
I don't think sitcom is on its way out by any means. However, there are a couple things that have happened in television over the past few years that have put less focus on the arena of sitcom. The first is reality television. This concept has become an extremely attractive avenue for the networks because they don't have to pay the talent millions like they would a star of a top-rated show. Next, the quality of drama series is at an all-time high. Some of the best shows on TV, like The Shield, The Sopranos, Alias, Lost, etc. can be compared quality-wise to any major motion picture. Because of CGI, you can take a drama series further than it has ever gone before. But, I also believe television goes in cycles. In the '80s, sitcoms like The Cosby Show and Family Ties ruled the small screen. I think viewers will head back in that direction. It's just a matter of time. With HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage and network shows like Scrubs and Arrested Development, I think we have some prime examples of sitcoms that are original and fresh that we can build to the future from.
What are the showrunners looking for when hiring a writer?
Many of the showrunners are looking for an original voice. Even though many want to read spec scripts of existing shows, many also want to read original pilots. They want to know if someone can "create a world." They also want to feel emotions when they read your script. "I enjoy the writing qualities of those people who have the power to make me laugh, cry, or think," expressed J.J. Abrams (Alias, Lost). Putting the writing aside for a moment, many creators also look for a person who they could get along with for long hours in the writers' room. Unlike writing books or feature films, television is a collaborative medium and good work relationships are very important. It's a combination of things, but a well-written script is definitely the first step.