The Trouble With Specs

Charlie Chaplin supposedly once entered a  Chaplin look-alike contest—and lost. Badly. Maybe he had a cold that day…

Last weekend I shared a coffee with my friend Jeff Paul, another L.A. writer. When conversation turned to current projects, I mentioned I had put aside my pilots to work on a spec. I’d stopped writing specs two years ago, thinking that fresh material was paramount for today’s market. Hell, I’d also just rather write my own stories than fit a chapter into someone else’s. Y’know? Nevertheless, 2018 is fast approaching, and that means another year of fellowships and contests that all rely on a solid spec. So, Why not? An opportunity is an opportunity. Jeff sipped his coffee with a nod. “Specs are certainly easier to write than pilots,” he said. I agreed.

Oh how we eat our words.

Yes, with a spec you know your format. You know your characters. You know your locations, and your commercial breaks, and your recurring jokes, and, yes, you have the benefit of established through-lines and backstory. So how can a spec possibly be as hard a pilot?

A spec needs to both fit a mold and stand out—a fine line that can leave you second-guessing yourself into circles. Is it okay to deviate ever-so-slightly from your show’s tone so you can include your brilliant, Emmy-worthy ending? Or do you play it safe with something 100% form-fitting, yet uninspired? Ideally you can manage both, but even the writer’s room gets the benefit of staff meetings and script notes to to help meet the visions of Marta Kauffman, David Milch, Vince Gilligan, Ann Biderman… But you’re writing for the intern staffer at Nickelodeon; the producer you met at Starbucks; to anyone and everyone who says, “Sure, I’ll take a look.” What are they looking for? You get one chance to get it right, and you better be more right than everyone else. Good luck.

Because for all you do know (characters, storylines, act breaks…), what you don’t know is your audience. Are they familiar with every detail of The Good Place, or have they just caught an episode here and there? Are they exhausted with Better Call Saul scripts, or is yours a breath of fresh air? Will they recognize that your on-the-nose dialogue and info-dump-exposition perfectly match your show? Or will they just see on-the-nose dialogue and info-dump exposition?

Despite what everyone else says, I would argue that a spec’s job isn’t to perfectly match the show—it’s to earn you the gig. Others may say that the former leads to the latter, but even Charlie Chaplin can lose his own look-alike contest, and let’s not forget that we’re trying to impress the same brilliant minds who couldn’t decide how they felt about Chuck Ross’s “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” I’m not saying I’ll set a Cheers episode outside of the bar or try for a Law and Order without law and order, but I will tweak my show’s structure to highlight my writing strengths. Then again, my specs haven’t gotten me anywhere, so what do I know. But when the notes come back saying “The writer displays little understanding of theme,” you don’t get to rebut: “When has Game of Thrones ever been about theme!” Ultimately, it’s a crap shoot, and one with zero room for error. That’s the hard part. So how do you deal?

I think you’ve gotta make the hard decisions, write your show, accept the outcome, and move on. Win or no win, you’ll build your portfolio, and learn from the process.

If 2018 isn’t your year, 2019 is just around the corner.