So the other day you were watching reruns of Three's Company, when it hit you: "This is so lame. Even I could write better stuff than this crap." Maybe you could get a job writing for a TV sitcom. How hard could it be to write for Friends? You have friends, you drink coffee, your mom thinks you're funny . . . why not get paid for it? And now that you think about it, being a TV sitcom writer is a pretty sweet way to make a living. You get to live in a big house in Hollywood, hang out on the set, hobnob with celebrities, and maybe shoot a few hoops with George Clooney between takes. Picture it now . . . "And the Emmy for best writer on a sitcom goes to: You!" But before you rent a tuxedo and write your acceptance speech, you better get the real scoop on what it's actually like to be a sitcom writer in new Millennial Hollywood.

P.S. - For those of you who are a tad slow, "sitcom" stands for "situation comedy" . . . you know, the shows on TV that clear up all of life's problems in 22 minutes.


Let us tell you this right at the start: it is incredibly difficult to become a sitcom writer. The market is extremely competitive, with thousands of people trying to break into the business. However, with some perseverance, luck, and good advice (such as the advice we give), you'll at least boost your chances of success.

First of all, there's no degree you can get that will increase your chances of being a sitcom writer. Anyone can do it if they have the talent . . . which is both good and bad. It's nice that sitcom writing tends to be based on talent, but it would also be nice if there were some training course that could guarantee your admittance into the big leagues. Sure, many are Ivy League graduates from Yale and Harvard (Conan O'Brien is one of 20+ Harvard graduates who has written for The Simpsons), but others are former stand-up comics, and others are people who just decided wanted to give it a try. You don't even have to be a funny person, just a funny writer.

So, you aspiring writer you, here are some facts about the industry you're thinking of joining:

  1. How much will I get paid?The Writer's Guild standard pay for a half-hour episode of network television is $17,076. Keep in mind that your agent gets 10%, and the government gets roughly another 20%. Pay varies for weekly staff writers (who don't necessarily write their own shows, but work on the shows that others wrote), but the minimum is around $1200 a week. Of course, it goes way up from there.

  2. Do I have to live in Hollywood? Chances are, yes, eventually. It just happens to be where most of the sitcom writing work is. Even if a show shoots out of New York, it's generally based and staffed in LA. Furthermore, there are tons of connections to be made in Hollywood that you just can't get anywhere else. This is where blind luck plays a part. You meet someone in the grocery store checkout line, talk a little bit, suddenly find out that he's a TV producer, and he'd like to see your work. He'll give you the right name to put on the envelope to make sure that the right people give it consideration. By no means will it guarantee you anything, but it's better than a poke in the eye. However, you should also keep in mind that if you're just starting out, you can start from anywhere. You don't have to be in Hollywood to tape a show, know it, get a script software program, and write a spec (that is, your "try-out" script). First get noticed, then worry about moving.

  3. Is it a stable job? OK, this is where confusion often enters the picture. If your script gets bought, you will get paid for that one script. It's just like freelancing. This almost never happens. Rather, your script will function as a sample of your capabilities, and if someone likes it, you'll be asked to join the writing staff of a show. That means that you become a full-time writer for the show, working on your own scripts and scripts that other people send in.

    But think about how many shows are on TV . . . many of them are on the air for only an episode or two, many never make it to the end of the season, and even more never get renewed for a second season. Furthermore, when a show isn't doing well, writers are often the ones that get blamed (and fired). So as you've probably figured out, IT IS INCREDIBLY UNSTABLE. Most sitcom writers live in a perpetual state of fear, never knowing when their show will be cancelled and if they'd be able to get another job afterward.

  4. What kind of writers get hired? Several reports have come out recently talking about the characteristics of sitcom writers. Most sitcom writers are white males between 21 and 35 years old. Because advertisers value young dollars, the TV industry is constantly on the lookout for young writers (to bring young eyeballs to the screen) to up the "edginess" factor. Women tend to have a tough time breaking into the business because of an idiotic Hollywood stereotype that "women aren't funny." While women should never be deterred from trying to become a sitcom writer (it's estimated that ¼ of TV writers are women), they should nonetheless be prepared to face an incredibly male-dominated (and often misogynistic) industry. Our advice: stay strong, and use the power of your ovaries.


Now that we got you in a good mood and all, let's get you writing.

First of all, you have to know what a sitcom is. It should be easy; you've seen enough of them. But there are specifics. Quite simply, a sitcom is a story told in jokes. Just as an opera is a story told in songs, characters in a sitcom communicate through funniness. A sitcom script is about 22 minutes long (commercials take up the other 8 minutes). While many sitcoms are trying to break away from the standard boring format, most sitcoms are structured in the exact same way: each week, a familiar group of people (like a family, or co-workers) are faced with a humorous situation that is resolved in a humorous way. Every good story can be summarized in one sentence: Drew gets fired, Frasier loses a contest, Al Bundy gets a raise.

So, let's get started.


Spec script

In Hollywood, you're already at a disadvantage if you don't know the lingo. You'll hear the words below all the time, so you better get familiar with them.

Usually called a "spec," this what the script that you write for a show is called. If you want to become a writer for a show, you have to prove that you're a good writer, so you have to write a sample script of a show that already exists and that people are familiar with . . . a spec script.

When you write a spec, it's supposed to look exactly like a normal TV script looks, complete with language, conventions, and stage directions. It should look as close to professional as possible, as if it were an actual script for that show ready to go to production. So in order to write a proper spec, you have to know exactly what a script should look like. We'll help you with that later.

Set up This is the unfunny part of a joke meant to set up the upcoming funny part. Often, one character delivers the set up and another character gets the punch. Punch

This is the funny part of the joke.

LAVERNE: It's Thursday, we should take the trash out.
LENNY and SQIGGY enter: Hello!

Laverne's line is the set up, and Lenny and Squiggy's entrance is the punch.


Just like a play, a sitcom is usually broken into three acts. The break between the acts occur at the commercials.

Scene Again, just like a play, there are scenes within the acts. There could be one long scene or several short scenes. Cold open This is that part of the show at the very very beginning, before the credits begin. Sometimes it sets up part of the overall story, and sometimes it's an unrelated funny scene. A cold open is also called a "teaser." A & B stories

Each show has more than one story going on, there's always the main plot, but sometimes there are subplots. The main plot is called the A story, and the subplot is called the B story. If there are more subplots, there can be C or D stories too. The A story is the biggest and most important one, and usually involves the main character, while a B story might be a spinoff of the main plot and involve secondary characters.

Here's an example. For The Drew Carey Show, an A story might be that Drew won the lottery. A possible B story would be that Oswald and Lewis like the same girl. A C story might be that Kate has a new date. They are labeled A, B, or C according to how much of the show they're given.


This is the problem that is established. In other words, at the climax, the audience should be asking, "How are they going to get out of this one?" In a sitcom, there are two climaxes. The first is at the end of Act 1, right before the first commercial (ya gotta keep 'em watching!). Act 2 shows the character trying to get out of that predicament and making things worse. At the end of Act 2, is the second climax, which is like, "I would so never want to be in that situation."

Using the example above, a climax after Act 1 might be that Drew can't find his ticket. A the climax after Act 2 might be that he finds the ticket, gets to the lottery office, and they arrest Drew for impersonating Drew Carey (because Mimi stole his wallet and replaced his pictures with somebody else).


This is Act 3. In one final scene (or couple of scenes), everything gets worked out for our stars.

Keeping with our Drew Carey example, it might be that Kate's date is the new guy in Drew's pictures, so the lottery is awarded to him. Then the girl that Oswald and Lewis liked decide to go with Kate's now lottery-rich date, and Drew, Lewis, Oswald and Kate are back to the normal living situation.

Choose a show

Now it's time for you to pick a show and write a spec of your own. First of all, write for a show that's been on TV for 3 and 5 seasons. This is because the people that are reading your script will be familiar with the show and its characters, but not completely sick of them. This means that you should not write a spec for Friends or Frasier. Also be sure that the show you write is still on the air. No agents or producers would read a Married . . . with Children or I Love Lucy.

Currently (at least, as of May, 2000), there are a lot of King of the Hill, Everybody Loves Raymond, Will and Grace, Dharma and Greg, Just Shoot Me, The Drew Carey Show, and Sex and the City scripts that people are writing as specs.

Why not write for a brand new show? Two reasons:

  1. Who knows if it will be a hit? If it doesn't come back in the fall, you've got a spec that no one will read, and that doesn't do you much good.

  2. It's so new, the people reading your spec won't know if you captured the voice because the show is unfamiliar. However, Everybody Loves Raymond is a show with which people are generally more familiar, so the reader will get a good sense of your ability.

Write for the show that you like the most and feel you'd write the best script for. Your enthusiasm will really shine through. But keep in mind that you won't get hired to write for the show that your spec is about. In other words, don't send your Sex and the City script to the producers of that show. There are three reasons: 1- the producers aren't allowed to read it for legal reasons (you might claim that they stole the idea from you, when they really thought of it on their own), 2- that show already has enough writers, and 3- they know their own show so well that you could never live up to their expectations. So if you want to write for a particular show, make sure that your spec is NOT of that show.

Watch the show

So you've chosen your show, eh? Before you start writing for it, you should absorb every detail you can get about it. If you want to write Just Shoot Me, tape every episode you can and watch them all several times. Learn the backstories. To learn about the history of shows and characters, it's a great idea to do some web searching and look at some Internet fan pages. Also see if you can find synopses of shows that series has already filmed. You'd be quite embarrassed if the show you write had already been written two years ago.

Get your hands on a script

And get a copy of the show's written script if you can. It helps to see it in print, and you're going to have to match their style EXACTLY. Scripts are available from Script City in Hollywood (323) 871-0707, but you can also find tons of scripts at and Sitcom Format 101.

Read the scripts. Read them again. And again. You need to know how many scenes and acts the show has, how long it should be, and what the format is. Is it double spaced or single? Is it written like a film script (like Sex and the City) or a traditional sitcom (like Drew Carey)? You need your spec to look and sound as if were written by a writer on staff.


We can't tell you exactly what to write. All we can tell you is that the spec should look EXACTLY like a professional script. However, we can give you some general guidelines:

  1. Remain true to the characters. The characters in your spec should sound like the characters and act like the characters in the show. Don't go changing them, because it'll sound like you don't know how to write. And it's best not to introduce new characters.

  2. Characters should be active. Not necessarily "active" meaning that they should continually be moving, but that the characters should not be passive and reactive. The fun of watching a show is seeing a character get in trouble, and how they choose to get out of it. In other words, make the situations arise out of stuff the characters do instead of stuff that happens to them.

So now we're at the tricky part . . . coming up with an idea. You need an interesting, funny story that the character in the show would do, but hasn't already been written. It has to be simple enough for sitcom fodder, but complex enough to give you two story climaxes.

How do you come up with a story? Generally, the best stories are character-driven. Yes, there's a funny situation, but the situation should be especially uncomfortable for the main character. One writing instructor explains it as follows: "If it's a situation you wouldn't want to be in, it's worth writing."

One way to generate stories is to make a list of the characters and their flaws. Then, choose a few flaws and find a story that highlights them comedically. For example, Niles and Frasier are both competitive. A story that highlights their competitive natures could be that they somehow get involved in a marathon and have to race each other. Come up with an A story for the lead character. And B and C (and even D stories, if the show usually has them) for the supporting characters.

No matter how tempting it is, don't change the basic premise of the show. You shouldn't write an episode where the lead character dies, permanently joins a convent, runs off to India, or gets married. Stick with the main characters and the types of problems they generally have.

Write an outline

Now that you have some ideas flying around in your head, it's time to write an outline. This is an ultra-detailed treatment of your script. The full, complete story. Every turn, every beat. It makes it much easier to write the script.

Write the spec

We don't have the space to write every single law about spec-writing. There are steadfast rules about what scripts should look like, though, and you should be aware of them. An extremely easy way to make sure that you're following the rules is to buy a script software program for your computer. The most common ones are Final Draft and Scriptware (they're pricey, costing at least $200, but they're what the pros use). It's nearly impossible to make a script look script-ish any other way. To find these (and other) scriptwriting programs, check out or Honestly, virtually every writer has a scriptwriting computer program, so of all the investments that you make, this should be the first one.

Rewrite it

You've written your script. It's perfect. It's hilarious. Now it's time to put it to the test and let friends read it. Take notes about what they thought and make changes. No matter how brilliant you are, your first draft WILL suck. Rewrite it over and over and over again, until you are confident that it looks better than all the stuff you saw on TV last week.


You may have written a great script that looks super-professional, but you have to make sure that it's compatible for TV fare. Remember how we talked about acts and scenes earlier? It's time to talk about them again.

The first act sets up the main story, the problem for the main character. After the climax, there is a commercial. The second act explores the problem, and it is the longest act. The problem usually has a second climax right at the end, and is resolved after the commercial, when the third act begins. The third act is the shortest. While you should never believe anyone who talks about how many pages everything should be, we're going to give you a quick quick guideline here:

  1. Act 1 - 6-7 pages. The entire situation should be crystal clear by this point.
  2. Act 2 - 10-11 pages.
  3. Act 3 - 5-8 pages.

You also have to make sure that your structure fits the show you're writing for. For instance, if every episode of Home Improvement involves Tim meeting the faceless Wilson toward the end of the episode to receive some moral guidance, then you must remember to have this element in your script.


Once somebody reads one of your scripts and likes it, the first question is, "What else have they got?" And it's up to you to show them. So pick another show and do the whole thing over again. The same rules apply: it should be on for 3-5 seasons, you can't kill anyone off, etc. Do everything you did for the first script. Put just as much love and funny into it. Chances are, it'll be better than the first one.

You MUST pick another show, preferably one that's completely different from the first one. Show your range. If you wrote a Sex and the City, try a Drew Carey. Now, everyone knows you can write about women discussing sex and relationships, and about silly drunk guys.


You've written a spec. Then you wrote another one. You've done all you can-almost. Now you send it out to the right people. But to whom? The answer, dear child, is to literary agents. These are agents who specialize in finding talented writers and getting them to meet with producers. Agents get really specific; different agents specialize in hour-long dramas, TV movies, feature films, or sitcoms. You need the sitcom agent, genius. Again, 95% of all sitcom agents are in LA, so you have a built-in advantage if you live there. Getting an agent is a potentially complicated process . . . so complicated that it deserves its own SYW. But we'll give you the bare bones basics here.

  1. Register your spec with the WGA. The Writer's Guild Association (WGA) is the writer's union, and it protects writers from being abused (keeps them from being forced to sew sweatsuits for 10¢ a day). You need to register your script, though, because if you don't, then someone else can steal your idea and you couldn't do anything about it. What if someone reads your script, writes the exact same story, and then claims it was a coincidence? So before you send anything out to anybody, register that script. It'll cost you $20. To register your script, go here.

  2. Write a query letter. Since you probably don't know that many literary agents, you need to write them a short one-page letter convincing them to read your spec. They're busy people, so your letter has to grab them right away. Make your letter creative, and give a short synopsis of your script. It should list the titles of your script and the other scripts you've written, and it should be confident. Finally, always include a self-addressed stamped postcard or they won't bother responding to you. If they are intrigued by your letter, they'll send you back your postcard asking for whichever scripts they'd like to read. If they like those scripts, they might represent you and try to get you work as a staff writer on a show. Here's a sample.

    Who, exactly, should you send your brilliant letter to? Well, no matter what, you should always get a name. No "To whom it may concern," or "Dear Sir or Madam," - you MUST get a name. If you go to the WGA website, you'll get a huge list of literary agents. There are hundreds. So get to it and figure out who you're going to send your query letters to. Do that research. Also get the word out that you're interested in doing some sitcom writing. You'd be surprised how many important people your friends know.

    If you're nervous about sending tons of letters out, it would not be inappropriate for you to call some agents before sending them your letter. The more people you know and talk to, the better your chances.

If you do get picked up by an agent, then what theoretically happens next is that your agent will send your specs to producers looking for writers. If the producer really likes your specs, then you'll go meet with him/her for an interview and hopefully get hired.

And that's the whole story! Yes, this is a relatively surface-level discussion of what goes into becoming a sitcom writer, but at least you have a clue now about how complicated the whole thing is. But if you really want to write, then you won't let that get you down.

Here are some websites that will offer you further guidance: