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Comedy Spec Script 2016 – What is hot and what is not


UPDATED:
A brand new 2019 list has been posted.
Click here to access it.

Like every year, it is now time to review which TV shows are good to spec, and which are not.
Dedicated posts will be made respectively for the best comedies (half-hour) and the best dramas (one-hour).
As the title says, this post is all about the comedies.
In addition, you’ll also find (when available) a script for the corresponding show for educational purposes only.
Canceled or dead shows have been removed since last season’s spec list.

NOTE:
Given Warner Bros’ rules for their fellowship, I have indicated with an asterisk (*) series that they will not accept specs for (mainly first-season series).

Here is a quick recap of how the list works:
The shows are divided into five categories regarding their appeal to readers and how well they are known/read:
Over-specced (shows that have passed their prime, try to avoid doing them)
Mainstream (shows that have matured enough that they have become on-the-nose speccers–and a lot of people are speccing them)
Wild Cards (soon, everyone will spec those, maybe you can get a head start)
Outsiders (specs that will get you out from the pack)
Gamblers (risky shows that could pay off, or bomb)

There is also a grade regarding the show’s longevity in relation to its speccability.
Meaning, how long can you keep your spec script fresh without having to throw it in the trash?
To do this, we will use the greatest grading system on Earth; stars:
★★★★★ – Excellent
★★★★ – Very Good
★★★★★ – Average
★★★★★ – Fair
★★★★ – Poor

Let’s get started.

Over-Specced

Re-tool your spec if you have one, but you probably shouldn’t bother beginning a new one for these shows.

Archer (FX)
Yup.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Still here.

The Big Bang Theory/Two Broke Girls (CBS)
Bazinga!
Longevity: ★★★★ – Ad aeternum.

Bob’s Burgers (FOX)
We’re going up to eight seasons, which should already tell you something about its popularity.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – It’s still an animated show, meaning you could pull off a rabbit.

Episodes (Showtime) *
Limited spec appeal for what used to be a gambler.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Especially with potentially a fifth (and final?) season.

Girls (HBO) *
So outdone that some fellowships don’t even accept the show anymore.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Over it.

The Goldbergs (ABC)
Replaced by fresher single-cam fares.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Four seasons and counting.

House of Lies (Showtime)
Listen to your spec consultant.
Longevity: ★★★★★It’s Showtime, it won’t end. Apparently the show may be ending this season (if you needed another reason as to why a new Lies spec might be risky).

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FXX)
The Simpsons of basic cable, in that it’ll run forever.
Longevity: ★★★★ – The Gang wouldn’t write a new spec.

Louie (FX)
Beyond the fact that we’re on season six, it’s in an extended hiatus.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – On the bright side, it prolongs your spec one more season.

The Mindy Project (FOX)
If you already got one, good. Otherwise, I wouldn’t start.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Some serialized changes last season.

Modern Family (ABC)
I guess you could write another college episode about the grand-kids.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Another generation is upon us.

New Girl (FOX)
Used to reign among the single-cams.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Over 100 episodes. Enough said.

Veep (HBO)
Insert 2016 presidential election joke.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – A return to form last season, which also brought some changes in one specific area.


Mainstream

The current and new widespread shows in town that are getting read.

Black-ish/Fresh Off the Boat (ABC)
On top of their single-cam game.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Go, go, gadget.

Broad City/Workaholics (Comedy Central)
Succeeded in going beyond their niche statuses into becoming a lot of people’s go-to specs.
Longevity: ★★★★★

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX)
Big success in the spec world thanks to two very popular seasons, which means…
Longevity: ★★★★★ – …it’s probably living its last year in this category.

The Last Man on Earth (FOX)
A wild card in terms of storytelling, but definitely a hot pick for your ambitious single-cam.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Can you predict where they’re headed to?

Mom (CBS)
Still the strongest multi-cam on the board.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Also, the only viable multi-cam on the board.

Silicon Valley (HBO)
A curated comedy stack for your future open-source, community-driven jokes.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Made with ❤ in Los Angeles.

Transparent (Amazon)
A critical sensation becomes a go-to dramedy spec.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Already working on season three.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
Season 2 is still not out yet, but that shouldn’t stop you.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Very likely to be renewed beyond if it can further its critical acclaim.

You’re the Worst (FXX)
Has matured into a serious contender for a lot of people.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Depression is in the air.


Wild Cards

Not quite fully widespread but will get there given the chance.

Faking It (MTV)
Dark horse among the half-hours but gaining momentum.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Already on its third season.

Life in Pieces (CBS) *
Broad family comedy that could become a great Modern Family replacement.
Longevity: ★★★★ – Pending a renewal.

Master of None (Netflix)
Gaining traction as a spec, but its anthology formula can be a put-off.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Season 2 isn’t for another full year.

Superstore (NBC) *
The lone NBC comedy on the board, barely making it…
Longevity: ★★★★ – …thanks to its precarious renewal.

Grandfathered/The Grinder (FOX) *
A full comedy slate rejuvenation for FOX single-cams…
Longevity: ★★★★ – …assuming they go beyond their first season.


Outsiders

The shows (mostly cable) you may be tempted to take a risk on, getting you on top of the reading pile. Beyond that, it depends on the willingness of the reader and his/her knowledge of the show. Who knows, maybe the showrunner is into less popular shows and will value your risk-taking.

Baskets (FX) *
In the same spot as last year’s Man Seeking Woman, which could also mean a move downwards next season.
Longevity: ★★★★ – FX seems to love its bizarre post-modern comedies.

Bojack Horseman/Rick & Morty (Netflix/Adult Swim) *
Although fairly popular in the mainstream, they still haven’t showed real success among specs.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Can you outcrazy and outsmart them?

Togetherness (HBO)
Mumblecore will not help the writing.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Slightly precarious spot in both the real, and spec-world, given its reserved nature.


Gamblers

For one reason or another, these are much riskier specs to do right now. You have been warned.

Baby Daddy/Young & Hungry (Freeform) *
Unknown to a lot of readers, which could jeopardize your chances.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – And they’re 4+ seasons deep.

Casual/Difficult People (Hulu) *
Not even on most people’s radars, yet has potential to grow if it gets more recognition.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Hulu’s betting on its slate.

Man Seeking Woman (FXX) *
A slight downturn from last year’s Outsider category, if only because it hasn’t gained the traction it needed in specs.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Similar boat to Baskets, albeit a season older.

Playing House (USA Network) *
Beyond niche, but could become another Broad City-type spec assuming it garners more eyeballs.
Longevity: ★★★★★ – Hard to predict where USA is headed with its branding still in flux.


2016 Trends

A lot of older shows and very few climbing newbies means that, this year, we’re not even cracking 40 half-hour series in our list (nearly stagnating from last year’s 38 half-hours).

The big domination this season is coming from dramedies. Half of all “comedies” listed are blurring the line between drama and, well, comedy; most notably with Master of None, Transparent and Togetherness.
This is without a doubt linked to the equally-dominating presence of cable in the half-hour world (over 20 of all shows listed!). ABC rules the network side of single-cams, while NBC is barely on the board with only a single half-hour. How times have changed.

The expansion of niche comedies has brought variety, but also makes this an even tougher year for comedy specs. Apart from a few shows that were able to grow from their initial fanbase (Black-ish, Broad City, Fresh Off the Boat, You’re the Worst), the choices really lie between comedies on the verge of being over-specced, and obscure cable series. Tough call.

12 Comments

  1. Dee Dee

    Just wondering why “Jane The Virgin” is listed in the Drama section? Should not the dramedy “Transparent” also be there, then?

  2. Simply put, Jane the Virgin is a one-hour show (i.e. 45-minute runtime) while Transparent is (literally) a half-hour.

    Given the continuing blurring of genres, runtime is the only tangible delineation between what constitutes a “drama” (one-hour) or a “comedy” (half-hour).

    Ultimately, each fellowship is the judge of what is or isn’t a comedy/drama for their own program–sometimes with strange outcomes. For example, this year, the WB Writers’ Workshop seems to have classified UnREAL as a comedy (even though it is a one-hour with a dramatic tone) and Master of None as a drama (despite its half-hour length and comedic sensibilities).

  3. ,Dee ,Dee

    Thanks, Alex–what I needed to know. Running time doesn’t seem the most accurate way to classify a story by genre, does it?

  4. Running time may not seem accurate now, but “one-hour vs. half-hour” is (was?) a pretty accurate shorthand that has been in existence for decades.

    For one, WGA television compensation is, in part, based on the length of a teleplay (i.e. 15-30 minutes, 60-90 minutes, 120 minutes).
    In fact, it is still very common for any TV writer to “declare their major” (i.e. wanting to be a comedy or a drama writer).
    The lines are more blurred today, but it wasn’t long ago that a jump from one to the other was almost impossible. (Jane Espenson is a famous counterexample.)

    One can also tie the need for specific runtimes to the intrinsic narrative need for content (i.e. pages) between what constitutes a “funny” episode or a “dramatic” one. The complexity of set-up between “make me laugh” and “make me cry” is drastically different. (This is not to say that writing comedy is simpler than writing drama–both require different muscles.)

    Whether initially due to advertising breaks, or narrative needs, the “act structure” (e.g. 5-6 acts in a one-hour drama) is also a fundamental part of what makes an episode of television what it is (as opposed to some bastardized version of a feature script).

    As networks evolved over the years and the need for content exploded, the borders between what constitutes a “drama” and a “comedy” eroded. This became even more prevalent when premium cable networks began making their own rules. “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.”

    Up until the last few years (and the expansion of what some are calling “Peak TV”), this runtime division was still fairly cut-and-dry. For all intents and purposes, “one-hours” were all dramas, and “half-hours” were all comedies.

    But now, even the Emmys are confused by the evolution. Last year, the Television Academy tried to simply things by officially declaring all half-hours as comedies, and one-hours as dramas.

    There’s a lot more to this, of course. I may need to expand in a future post…

  5. ,Dee ,Dee

    I wish you would. Your take is very interesting. I imagine that it is cable and the newer platforms that have caused these lines to blur–not just in running time, but in the emphasis on character vs. “formula”. There’s seems to be more room for flawed characters, edgy stories, and the expansion of opportunities for women, in all areas of production (which is a definite plus).
    Thanks, Alex.
    Dee

  6. Michael Michael

    I’m interested in speccing Baskets or Master of None, but can’t find any scripts online.

    How would you suggest approaching the prose and format if no script is available?

  7. Andrew Andrew

    Hey Alex, upon hearing the recent announcement that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” will be back for a 9th season, I had an unorthodox idea…what if I wrote a “Curb” spec?

    I understand that the series isn’t scripted. But purely as a way to stand out from the crowd, how wise/unwise will attempting to nail a spec of the show be? I feel as though the show is so beloved by many people, and that it’s sort of timeless.

    I appreciate any advice on this.

    Thanks,

    Andrew

  8. Sid Grey Sid Grey

    where would someone submit a spec for one of these shows?

  9. Michael: Interesting question. If you’re in Los Angeles, I definitely recommend going to the Writers Guild Foundation Library, which is open to the public. They have numerous recent TV scripts, including Master of None.
    If you can’t do that, then next best thing would be to get a pilot script for a similar “cable comedy” (whether FX, HBO, Showtime, etc.) and see how they format it.
    Note that Master of None scripts actually do have act breaks within them, so be careful with those specificities.

    Andrew: “Stunt specs” are definitely a thing. I generally advise against them since 99.99% of the time, they’re disasters. That said, I never want to stop people from writing what they’re passionate about. If that’s something you think will be fun for you, I’d say go for it. As long as you understand it is by definition (as you yourself put it) an unorthodox sample.

    Sid: These are specs for your own portfolio, not to be sent directly to the shows. You can learn more about on my “TV Writer Roadmap” page over here: https://www.tv-calling.com/the-tv-writer-roadmap/

  10. Crystal Crystal

    Wondering about The Real O’Neals and if it’s worth writing a spec scrip do that show.

  11. Andra Lee Andra Lee

    What about The Odd Couple? I would guess the danger there is accidentally rehashing story lines from the original. Would you recommend speccing it?

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