Q & A with Michael Jamin

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.

You can also follow me on social media:
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/MichaelJaminWriter/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/michaeljaminwriter
Twitter:    @MJaminWriter

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?

What a pleasant surprise

killer joke

The past few days have been all about working through the horror-comedy outline. Lots of figuring stuff out, cutting, adding, tweaking, and so on.

Got through a sequence and was just about to move on to the next one, when I realized “this is too serious. The horror aspect is covered, but what about the comedy?”

I looked it over again, trying to think of what would work. What would be the most unexpected thing here?

Several options were weighed, and then one suddenly popped into my head. Something nobody would ever expect me to write, but I figured “why not?” My initial reaction was “It’s a little silly, but I like it.” Zipped through a quick rewrite of the sequence, followed by a little set-up work in the scenes leading up to it (to make it fit within the context of the story, of course).

I can honestly say reading the end result made me laugh. Out loud. And the more I thought about it, the more I laughed. Even now, it still makes me chuckle.

I think part of the appeal comes from the thought of “I can’t believe that I, of all people, came up with that joke.” I guess sometimes you never know what you’re truly capable of.

All I have to do now is the exact same thing for every scene and sequence throughout the rest of the script, and I’m all set.

No problem!

-mini bulletin board time!

-Author Brian Gallagher’s new book Doing Time in Hollywood: The Chronicles of a Movie Journalist by Day, Screenwriter by Night and His Quest for a Happy Medium in the Age of Outrage is now available. I’ve had some great online discussions with Brian about screenwriting, and he really knows his stuff.

-Author Robert W. Jackson is offering a very limited time offer on some of his YA books, so you have to act quickly. On Sept 15th, you can get his book Karistina and the Enchanted Kaleidoscope for free by clicking on the link. He’s hoping to do the offer again for a few days starting on the 21st, so keep a look out for it. He’s also offering his book The Tale of Hester for free Sept 15th-19th. This is the first of a series, so if you like this one, there are more to choose from.

 

Story first, jokes second

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Well, that was fun. A bit of an uphill battle, but I’ve survived.

The good news – the basic foundation for the horror-comedy outline is complete. Even though I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen, it consistently went through a steady stream of changes, edits, tweaks, and so forth.

Let’s just say that what I ended up with is several versions removed from what I started with. For the better, I’d say, but still pretty darned close to keeping with the original idea. Even managed to come up with some new twists and wrinkles along the way.

Despite still considering the story as pliable as warm Silly Putty, it really is coming together and I’m quite happy with the results. Sort of a pre-first draft, one could say.

But in addition to the ongoing process of fine-tuning the story, there’s the just-as-if-not-more-so important part of making it funny.

When they say “dying is easy; comedy is hard,” they’re not kidding. Quite an apropos phrase, especially in this context.

Like with the comedy I’m polishing now, the more I work on it, the more opportunities I expect to find to work in a suitable joke of some sort. Sight gags, plays on words, what have you. I think that’s similar to how the ZAZ team did it with Zero Hour for Airplane!. Not that this script will be anything like that, but you get the idea.

I think I’ve discussed this before, but as I outline, I’ll also include potential lines of dialogue or specific actions for each scene. Same thing applies here. But now that the story is (somewhat) set in place, I can now fine-tune both that and punch up the jokes as I work my way forward.

Luckily for me, there are also great examples of films that did this sort of thing, so I can watch those to get a good idea of how to approach it with this story. Not a bad self-imposed homework assignment, right?

Finding the funny for this won’t always be easy, but coming off doing it for the previous script, and with the burden of telling the story in the first place somewhat out of the way, it seems just a little bit more so now.

Easy, that is.

At least 11 choice “re-” words

teacher
No, class. “Relapse” is not one of them.

Progress on the latest draft of the comedy spec is coming along. Slowly, but still coming along.

Among the highlights:

repairing the script. Previous drafts had some notable and sizable problems on several fronts, so this is all about fixing them, or at least figuring stuff out to make it better overall. This is the main priority.

revising the story. Some of the scenes still work. The ones that don’t are out, with variations and totally new ones being developed and considered. A work in progress is a beautiful thing.

reviving older ideas. I keep all the notes and items jotted down over the course of working out the story, so there’s always a few items worthy of dusting off. This time around is no exception.

reorganizing the tone. Notes on a previous draft stated how uneven the story felt; like it was a few opposing ideas competing for attention. Currently working on streamlining things to make it all mesh better.

refurbishing characters and/or their traits. From the protagonist and antagonist to supporting characters to those appearing in one scene, everybody gets some kind of modification. Some big, some not-so-big.

reinvigorating the jokes. With comedy already being a subjective topic, I’m trying to come up with stuff I think is funny. Influences abound, and I want my sense of humor to be what runs that particular engine.

remaining calm. Finishing this draft won’t happen overnight, and trying to force creativeness or rush progress is the absolute wrong approach. Preferred method – taking it one step at a time.

resuscitating self-confidence. Writing a comedy’s tough enough to begin with. I’ve done it before, and despite a few missteps along the way, feel pretty solid about my chances this time around.

relinquishing the self-imposed pressure. Naturally, I want to have a good, solid script when I’m done (hopefully it won’t take many more drafts). Stressing about getting to that point won’t do me any good, which leads to the final point…

relaxing and recharging the writer. A good portion of my available time is spent writing or at least thinking about it. Working on it too much runs the risk of burnout, which would be completely counterproductive. Therefore, I allow myself time to simply step away and do something totally non-writing-oriented.

And when the time is right, I return to the rewrite.

Whew! Took me a while to refine this, but I don’t recall being so resplendently relieved to be done. Even better, none of it had to be redacted.