via deadline.com

via deadline.com

Sitting comfortably on a bench in Washington Square Park, the spatial center of New York University, Monica Skoko seems very relaxed for someone just weeks away from graduation and jumping into a highly competitive job market: television writing. Perhaps it is the newly arrived spring weather, as flowers peek through April’s thawing ground. Or maybe it is simply because she is facing the future with a resume boasting numerous internships and comedy experience. Whatever the reason, Skoko enjoys the sunshine while casually talking and laughing about her future plans, despite any nerves that may be below the surface.

On May 24, the Tisch School of the Arts senior will join her classmates at Radio City Music Hall to receive her bachelor of fine arts in dramatic writing, with a concentration in television writing. Her post-graduation plans are split between two very distinct options, an entry-level entertainment industry job that could potentially lead to a highly-sought spot on a TV writing staff, or alternatively, any paying job that lets her dedicate most her time and energy to writing while she applies for TV jobs. “There are two schools of thought to get into writing,” she says of the advice she’s received from working TV writers. “I don’t know what’s right, I sort of am going to take what comes and see.”

Gone are the days when it was a straight line from the Harvard Lampoon, the University’s humor magazine, to a job in TV comedy, Skoko’s ideal genre. Other paths have developed as the industry gained popularity thanks to the successful writers who became stars, such as Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling. Even with the increasing amount of writing opportunities as online content and comedy platforms expand, there remains a lack of women in the field. Still, it’s a long road for anyone from taking college TV classes or performing improv to writing for a successful television show, but one that aspiring writers are willing to travel if it means a shot at that coveted spot in a writers’ room.

That traditional Harvard Lampoon route to TV was taken by Emmy-nominated writer Steve Hely. He spent his Needham, Mass. childhood writing stories and plays, and encouraged by good grades on high school writing assignments, continued to practice writing. After enrolling at Harvard University, he heard about the Lampoon and after seeing some issues, he decided to join its staff.

The Harvard Lampoon boasts such alumni as Chevy Chase and Conan O’Brien, as well as many others who have gone on to write for shows including “Saturday Night Live,” “Seinfeld,” “The Simpsons” and “The Office.” “The Lampoon has two big ways it helps people: you can meet graduates who have become TV writers, and that gives people the idea that this is a real job you can pursue,” Hely said in an email interview, adding that its collaborative atmosphere “replicates, in many ways, the experience of being in a TV writers’ room.”

After graduating college in 2002, Hely was hired for his first writing job at the “Late Show with David Letterman,” where he made some great memories.  He recalls, “A favorite moment is one that happened a few times, when I’d be riding home from my job past midnight, and the taxi driver would listen to the ‘Top Ten’ list broadcast on the radio, and I’d get to see someone get a laugh out of something I’d worked on.”

The next step in his career came thanks to a spec script, something that is still a standard requirement for writers. Short for writing a script on “speculation,” a spec script is used to prove that a writer understands and can replicate the structure, characters, and tone of a preexisting show. Hely’s spec script for “The Simpsons” landed him a job on Fox’s then-new cartoon “American Dad,” where he worked until 2009 and learned how writing for a sitcom is different from late night comedy. “On late night shows, you’re just writing jokes,” he says. “On a sitcom, most of the hard work is coming up with stories, plots that have a beginning, middle and end, that get more interesting, and that can hold an audience’s interest for 22 minutes.” Since then, Hely has written for shows including “The Office” and a season four “30 Rock” episode, “Blacklight Attack.”

To demonstrate her writing ability, Skoko has already written multiple spec scripts for episodes of “Modern Family,” “Parks & Recreation,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Girls” and her personal favorite, “Workaholics.” She was able to workshop most of these scripts with her TV writing classmates, as part of Tisch’s curriculum.

A professor with NYU’s dramatic writing department since 2006, James Felder has taught such classes, ranging from intro to sitcom, the TV concentration’s first-level class, to thesis in television writing, one of its most advanced. “You don’t need a degree to go into TV writing, but there’s a two-fold advantage,” he says while sitting in his office. “The TV craft is so specific that for students who come here, it shortens the learning curve. The second thing is there are so many people trying to get into the industry that I think we do a pretty good job of helping people avoid the common mistakes.” In his time as a professor, Felder has not only seen an increase in the program’s popularity, but also in the preparedness of hopeful applicants. “In the last six years, we get so many students that are submitting fairly polished spec scripts,” he says. “That was certainly something we never got to see in application materials.”

Felder also explains that every few years, he notices certain trends within students’ interests, based on what is happening in television at the time. “The main thing that most of our students are watching at the moment are non-paid-cable shows, ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘The Walking Dead,’” he says. “And we have a sort of invisible track at the department in improv. On the sitcom end of it, we do have a lot of students who I think gravitate towards ‘Community,’ ‘Parks & Rec,’ Adventure Time,’ because it’s the same skill set.” While the strength of New York’s comedy clubs, like the popular Upright Citizens Brigade theater, have always lead to an interest in improv among TV writing students, Felder now sees high school applicants who are drawn to the program because of these opportunities, along with NYU’s highly selective sketch group, Hammerkatz.

When Skoko first entered NYU’s dramatic writing program, she intended to make her concentration playwriting, only to change her mind after taking Intro to Sitcom. “You can be more creative when you do TV writing,” she says. “You have to write within a set structure, you just have to be creative within boundaries rather than playwriting. And you also make money, potentially,” she adds with a laugh. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the 2010 median salary of a TV writer as $62,000 per year, those working for major network and cable shows can often make much more, often up to a six figure salary, especially when serving as both a writer and producer.

Though her portfolio includes both genres, Skoko hopes to start her career in writing for a TV comedy rather than drama, because she feels it will be more appealing to potential jobs, in addition to her experience with improv and stand-up comedy. “So I just wanna start off as a comedy writer, and it’s also a little, I guess hotter, to be like a ‘woman in comedy,’” she says with a laugh.

The media-hyped success of female writers/performers like Fey, Kaling, and Lena Dunham has drawn attention to the lack of women in TV writers’ rooms, especially when it comes to comedy. During the 2011-2012 television season, women constituted only 30 percent of writers, according to the Writers Guild of America, West’s 2013 Staffing Brief. The Brief also shows that since 1999, the number of female TV writers has only increased by five percent.

Even Fey, the go-to example for successful women in television, has often criticized the industry for its treatment of her female colleagues. Her book, “Bossypants,” and former television show, “30 Rock,” both address these disparities between the sexes. Fey’s ability to make these criticisms and remain well-liked is credited to her “everywoman,” relatable persona, writes Martha Lauzen in 2011’s Media Report to Women. Lauzen also notes that the media’s questions for Fey often focus on topics like fashion and maintaining the work-life balance, not normally asked of her male counterparts.

While the odds seem to be against them, young women like Skoko hoping to make a career in comedy writing won’t let statistics get in their way. Gaby Dunn, a journalist with a lifelong love of comedy, has performed stand-up, sketch and improv. Now, she hopes to combine her interests and become a television comedy writer. “I love TV, I watch a lot of it. I really like the way it works, and studying it. It’s interesting to me to sort of like crack the code of ‘okay, how does this work,’” she says of the transition. “I was always a writer, just in a different form.”

Dunn currently works for The Daily Dot, contributes to publications including Cosmopolitan and the New York Times Magazine, and founded the blog 100 Interviews, which she believes helped her get a jumpstart into TV writing. “I got very lucky because I already had a fairly significant Internet presence, and I wrote a bunch of scripts, and I posted on my blog ‘Does anyone who does this for a living want to look at my scripts?” she says. She received responses from a reader who works for Nickelodeon, and someone from the Gersh talent agency, who, after reading her scripts, offered to work with her. Dunn travelled to Los Angeles recently for meetings about developing her ideas and potential staff writing positions.

Dunn realizes that her online route into television writing is untraditional but thinks it is a sign of how the industry as a whole is changing. “You can’t just be a talented white guy like you used to, like if you were just some white guy who went to Harvard, you were in,” she says. “But now it’s not like that. They want diversity hires, they want women, they want different backgrounds.”

Though Dunn sometimes felt excluded in the brotherhood-esque world of stand-up, she isn’t worried about that happening in television comedy. “I think it’s really turned on men. The numbers are still not great, definitely, there’s less women in TV than there should be,” she says. “But I heard in LA a lot, ‘oh, it’s a really good time to be a young woman trying to do what you’re doing.’” Other notable include 26-year-old Dunham, creator, producer, and writer for HBO’s “Girls,” and the 31-year-old Amy Schumer, star and writer of Comedy Central’s new sketch show “Inside Amy Schumer,” where the female writers outnumber the men.

One of Dunn’s goals is to lead a show the way Dunham does on “Girls,” as a showrunner. It’s the showrunner, often the creator as well as writer and executive producer of a series, who has the most creative control and daily responsibilities. It’s what Fey was to “30 Rock,” Kaling is to “The Mindy Project” and Skoko hopes to be in the future. However just like staff writer, showrunner is another position with limited women. Included in The Hollywood Reporter’s “Top 50 Showrunners 2012” list were only 15 women.

As her college thesis, Skoko wrote the pilot of a 30-minute comedy. “It’s about a woman in the 1960s who marries a gay politician and her sort of realization that there’s another world of birth control and sex and all of those things,” she says, trying to summarize the show. The somewhat controversial topics means the show would likely air on cable, still, Skoko wants to eventually work on network TV. “It’s a bigger challenge because nobody really likes what’s going on in network right now, so the opportunity to maybe be the next ‘Parks & Rec’ or ‘Community,’ would be exciting,” she says, referring to the NBC comedies critically acclaimed for their sharp humor and excellent writing.

An experienced showrunner, Jon Hotchkiss decided to stream his newest show, “This vs. That,” online to avoid what he believes are creative limitations placed on shows that must answer to network executives, both cable and broadcast. He has previously written for shows including Comedy Central’s “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher” and CBS’s “The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn,” where network restrictions and demands could clash with the decisions of a show’s staff. “People who create things, movies, television shows, they want to make rocky road ice cream. People who broadcast television shows want to broadcast vanilla ice cream,” Hotchkiss says of his decision to independently produce “This vs. That.”

Hotchkiss has been working in television since 1994, when he graduated college and worked as an NBC Page, part of the network’s entry-level career development program, for about 18 months. After his time there ended, he was hired as a writing assistant on the just starting “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.” Within six months, he was promoted to a writer and worked on the show for the next five years, until moving on to Showtime’s “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!” During his four years as a writer for “Penn & Teller,” Hotchkiss also served as showrunner for two years.

Hotchkiss characterizes the shows he has worked on as “factual entertainment,” a sort of reality show based on informaton rather than housewives or teenaged mothers. “This vs. That” seeks to answer common questions with real, scientific answers. In one episode, they explore what’s actually the fastest way to get through traffic: Being patient? Changing lanes? Getting off the highway to surface streets? By choosing to have the show stream online rather than air on TV, Hotchkiss avoided issues such as the homogenization of programming at the expense of more unique content.

Placing “This vs. That” online also lessens the pressure of needing a very large audience to cover production costs. Since the show costs less to produce, it needs less of an audience to earn back its budget. Yet this also creates the burden of Hotchkiss needing to market the show himself, and since he has fewer resources than a television network, he must be creative. But he is happy to be marketing rocky road, and not vanilla.

While a webseries appeals to Skoko, she sees it more as a vehicle to get noticed professionally. Still, she finds encouragement in the opportunities afforded by the Internet. “It’s just an exciting time that you can say, ‘Hey, I’m funny, grab a camera.’”

 

Advice for the Aspiring

All of the writers interviewed, from established TV writers to comedians and journalists looking to make the leap, had advice for those hoping to join the field. A common theme? Write constantly. Here’s what else they had to say.

“One, get books about screenwriting, sit down, watch a zillion shows, and make lists. Just make lists in a notebook about ‘okay, in this show who usually makes the jokes?  When are the commercials? How many pages until a commercial?’ Basic structure, it’s like math work. Then you write a spec that is to that exact number specification and you’ll start to get the hang of it. The other thing is you have to have a presence. You have to brand yourself. You have to write all the time. You have to have people be able to be like, ‘oh this is your voice.’ If you’re a person that’s not precious about their work and is just constantly creating, then you’re gonna do better.

–Gaby Dunn

 

“People who want to be a writer should write all the time and stop worrying about what will it be for and who will see it? None of those things matter until you’re good at what you do. Write sketches if you wanna write comedy, write long form, write a short story. Write all the time. Stop worrying about if the form is right or where will it be shown or published. Then when you work in television, if you ever end up working in television and you want be a writer for a television show, remember you’re going to kill yourself to make some other guys dream come true. However, the pay is quite frankly, about as good as anything you’ll ever do.”

–Jon Hotchkiss

 

“Taking improv or stand-up or joining a sketch group or something like that, getting your feet wet on your own time, help you figure out what you like and what you’re best at, and sometimes those are the same thing. Twitter and Tumblr, and being able to make a mark online is good too.”

–Emmy Blotnick, writer for MTV’s “Nikki & Sara Live”

 

“Keep writing!  You’re definitely going to produce a lot of terrible garbage.  Get through that as quickly as possible; don’t let it slow you down.  Try to find a place where you can be around other people who are trying to get better. Try everything; don’t shy away from trying stand-up or making little videos.  The people that I’ve known who are really successful work incredibly hard at it, they’re disciplined. They just keep generating material and experimenting until they find something that really hits.”

–Steve Hely