Michael Jamin has been a television writer/showrunner for the past 25 years. His many credits include King of the Hill, Wilfred, Maron, Just Shoot Me, Rules of Engagement, Brickleberry, Beavis & Butthead, and Tacoma FD. He’s currently working on a collection of personal essays to be published in 2021. Some of them can be read on michaeljamin.com
What’s the last thing you read or watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?
I thought the show Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge was a masterpiece. She wrote one soliloquy towards the end of the series that made me want to stand up and applaud.
I’ve also been re-reading David Sedaris’ works. To me, his writing is like watching a magic trick. When you finally arrive at the end of one of his pieces, you ask yourself, “How did he get me here?” It’s just so lovely. When people read a good book, they often say, “I couldn’t put it down.” But I put his books down all the time. I’ll read a particularly poignant passage, or beautifully craft line, and stop reading for a few moments just to admire it.
Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?
In high school and college, I very much enjoyed writing, but I wasn’t a good writer. I was funny, but I didn’t yet understand story structure so my writing lacked cohesion and purpose. Even though I studied under some very talented authors, I don’t think they knew how to convey this. They just wrote from the gut, and because their talent level was so high, their writing was very engaging. It wasn’t until I got work as a staff writer in television that I really started started to learn about structure, and that can applied to so many different mediums.
How’d you get your start in the industry?
A year or so after moving to Hollywood to follow my dream of being a sitcom writer, I met a guy who would eventually become my writing partner. For a couple of years, we worked every night and weekend to assemble a good collection of spec scripts. Probably close to a dozen. Eventually we landed on the writing staff of Just Shoot Me and we’ve worked steadily ever since.
What do you consider the components of a good script?
Even in comedy, it’s not about the jokes or funny situations. It’s all about story and how engaging you can make it. Until the audience can identify the three main components of every story, the writer is just wasting their time… daring them to find something better to do.
What are some of the most common writing mistakes you see?
Most new writers don’t really understand what makes a story. They think they understand, but if you ask them to define what a story is in one clear sentence, they’re at a loss. It’s a difficult question! But if you can’t define it accurately, you’re never going to be able write one on a consistent basis.
What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
It’s not so much tropes that bother me as it is tired old cliches. In comedy rooms, we call them clams. They’re jokes that have been floating around the zeitgeist and you’ve heard a million times. “Asking for a friend.” “Said no one ever.” Those are clams. You see them on dopey friends Facebook posts. That’s fine for them, because they’re not writers. But if you want to be a writer, then your job is to create new things to say, not transcribe old ones.
What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?
Start the story sooner.
Raise the stakes.
What’s the story really about?
Does the idea have enough weight to be a story?
Do your act breaks pop?
What are your thoughts about writing a spec script for an already-existing show as opposed to a totally new and original pilot?
When I’m staffing for a show, I much prefer reading scripts for existing shows. Writing an original pilot is very hard, and it requires a completely different skill set from writing a spec for an existing show and it’s a skill set that I’m not really looking for. I don’t care if you can create an entire world. I want to know if you can write a compelling script for characters who already exist.
Have you ever read a spec script that immediately told you “this writer gets it”. If so, what were the reasons why?
Most spec scripts from new writers are mediocre. And these are writers who are good enough to land representation. But there’s no demand in Hollywood for mediocre writers. If the story doesn’t start quickly enough, or that first act break doesn’t pop, I’ll put down the script and pick up another one. That may seem unfair, but viewers are no different. If they’re not engaged by the story, they’ll click the remote and find a story that does engage them. I’ve got a huge pile of scripts to read and one of them will be great. I decided to hire one new writer without even finishing the script. I could tell he knew what he was doing.
How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?
I’ve been a sitcom writer and showrunner for 25 years. A friend of mine who is an aspiring writer had been begging me to create an online course, but I just didn’t have the time. When the pandemic hit, that excuse went out the window. So I spent a few months creating an online screenwriting course. This is everything I wish I had when I was trying to break in. If anyone is interested, the first 3 lessons are free.
Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
Speaking of tropes, there’s nothing more familiar than the standard apple. But it works, so why are we trying to improve on it?