I met Richard at a mixer, then saw him again at the Austin Film Festival, then we ended up in the same writers group.
You wrote a great pilot about North Korea in our writers group that got you an agent and led to other great things. Can you talk about that process and all the different iterations you went through? I remember you did a page 1 rewrite for at least 3 completely different versions of the story.
I had a pilot that was a semifinalist at the Austin Film Festival in 2013. It was about a gung ho principal trying to change her public school for the better but facing bureaucratic and political issues. I was pretty proud that it made it into the top 10 at AFF, but when I got the judge notes, the main comment/issue/criticism was that the setting felt like it had been “done before.” Which is to say the school setting was a bit too normal. So, in response, I wanted to try something really not normal. (And show that judge who was boss!) So I decided to write a sitcom set in North Korea.
From there, I was trying to come up with fun ideas that I could set in North Korea, but two of them felt really forced. You know, like I was just jamming some funny characters into bizarre situations set in North Korea. But each of those two ideas had one similar character: a reluctant and sad Kim Jong-un. For some reason, I was really drawn to this character who regretted becoming a dictator. And while the majority of the first two ideas didn’t work, this version of Kim Jong-un’s dictator really spoke to me. So, on my third try, I decided to focus on him and figure out how to tell a story around this character.
As I went through my brainstorming phase, I couldn’t quite figure out how to humanize a dictator. Even though my version of the character was depressed, it was hard to ignore how bad he is in real life. It was a fine line to write a reluctant dictator. But then I realized if I tell the story in flashback, I could soften the issue. So, I decided to spoof The Wonder Years (and a bunch of other “flashback” sitcoms that were on the air while I was writing the pilot). From there, I treated the script like any other script and went through the brainstorming, outline (brief, very brief – I hate outlines), writing, and rewriting phase.
You wrote a freelance episode of Dr. Ken. The season one finale! How did that happen?
I went in to meet with the showrunner and other EPs about a staff position when the show was picked up in Season 1. While it didn’t work out, I seemed to have impressed the showrunner enough that he brought me back. I really have no advice on how to get freelances. Looking back, I feel very, very lucky to have had that opportunity and I will be forever grateful for the assignment.
What was the process for writing the Dr. Ken episode? Did you go into the writers’ room? Did you pitch episode ideas first? What about rewrites and punch ups?
I started by pitching a few ideas, but ultimately the showrunner wanted to use an idea that would help lead into Season 2. I was presented with a treatment that I turned into an outline and then a draft of the script. I was lucky to be invited into the room during rewrites. I got to go to the table read and meetings, as well as the shoot day. (Dr. Ken was shot before a live studio audience.)
You had an agent first, then a year later you got a manager. What made you want a manager? How’s your relationship with your agent different from your manager?
I got a manager because I wanted to broaden my reach. My thinking was that if I had more people looking out for me, I’d be in a better position for meetings, potential jobs, etc.
In the brief time that I’ve had both agents and managers on my team, I’ve found the agents are more hands on with getting me meetings and jobs, while my managers have really helped me polish my scripts and discuss potential next ideas. So, beyond just having more people look out for me, they play different roles in my career and I’ve found it useful.
You just wrote a freelance episode for Walk The Prank, a Disney XD show. What was that like? Did your experience from Dr. Ken help with your second job?
Writing for Walk The Prank was another great experience. It was all done remotely via email and phone calls. I pitched a few ideas, the showrunners picked one, and I went from outline to script to shooting script. Unlike Dr. Ken, however, I was not in the room. I was able to visit set on production days, which was a blast.
As for how I got the job, my agents got me a meeting. My guess is that having the Dr. Ken experience definitely helped in some way.
You started a podcast about people’s writing process. Do you want to share yours?
Ha, my writing process is pretty convoluted for a written response. Maybe one day I’ll interview myself for a podcast episode…
Okay, I’ll say this, briefly: When I’m working on a script, I do a lot of thinking and brainstorming and if you were to be a fly-on-the-wall for this, it’d look like I was pretty lazy. Then, after I’ve started to hate myself quite a bit, I often write two full drafts that suck and really despise myself for picking the idea. But then, in some weird burst, the “best versions” of the script appears in my mind. I really can’t explain that part. But then I often skip the outline phase and go right to script, usually finishing in a week or so. And, strangely, the first draft is usually pretty close to the final draft.
When you take meetings, how do you prepare? Do you have a short bio of yourself that you pitch?
It depends on the meeting. If it’s a general, I usually prepare an updated version of my life story (I’m constantly refining it as I tell it to people), a few funny anecdotes that recently happened to me, a few pitches (just in case), and some info on the person I’m meeting with as a way to bridge a connection.
If it’s meeting for a job, I make sure I’ve seen all the current episodes, read as many scripts as possible, analyzed story and characters, and created a mini-bible of the show for myself.
You wrote and directed several short films on the YouTube channel Aisle Five Comedy. Would you recommend writers do that? Do you think that influenced your writing? Did it help in getting your reps or writing jobs?
I think writers should definitely shoot stuff. Really, I think writers (and everyone else who wants to be creative) should make as much stuff as they can. I think the (unofficial) trick to this industry is to produce as much stuff in as little time as possible. Because I think on some level, it’s about quantity. Even if you only make one good thing for every four bad ones, you gotta still make five things. So as soon as you can fail and learn, the better.
As far as influencing my writing and helping me get jobs or reps… I’d say no to both.
You were interested in writing and directing a feature. Is that something you’d still like to do?
Definitely. However, I’m someone who can really only focus on one thing at a time and right now I want to break into TV. So, while writing and directing a feature is still on the horizon, it’s pretty far off.
Any last bit of advice you’d like to share?
Write as much as possible. Join a writers group. Find friends who will struggle along with you. Go to therapy. Meditate. Take care of your health. Work toward your dreams as soon as possible. Don’t give up. Fail and learn from your mistakes.
Thanks to Richard for taking the time to share his experience!
You can learn more about Richard at his site www.thisisrichard.com.
Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardonthego.
And listen to his podcast at pullingyourhairout.com. I’m on one of the episodes!