interview: Aaron Ho, ABC/Disney Writing Program 2010
i recently met aaron at a CAPE networking event, where we learned we were both comedy writers. aaron went through the abc/disney writing program, then worked on cougar town where he had a produced episode! he’s currently on the disney channel sitcom, austin & ally.
What spec did you submit to get into the ABC/Disney Writing Program? Why did you pick that show?
I submitted a spec of “How I Met Your Mother” to get into the Disney ABC Writing Program. It’s one of my favorite shows on TV. I am a HUGE fan of multi-cam sitcoms, but I enjoy the pacing and ability to have cut-away jokes that a single-cam sitcom lends. “How I Met Your Mother” takes the best of both worlds. Plus, the characters are rich with comedy, and there’s a lot of heart to the show. A show needs heart — it’s the only way you’ll ever care about the characters. I like a show that can make me laugh AND cry. (but mostly laugh)
How many scripts did you write before you were accepted? Did you submit to the other writing programs?
At the time I was accepted, I had written two sitcom specs, a sitcom pilot, and a late night talk show monologue packet. In addition to the Disney|ABC Writing Program, I had submitted to the Warner Bros. Workshop, the Nickelodeon Fellowship, and NBC Writers on the Verge. I had also submitted my “How I Met Your Mother” spec to several contests, such as Script-a-palooza, TVwriter.com’s “Script Spec-tacular”, the Austin Film Festival’s Screenplay/Teleplay Competition, and the CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entrainment) New Writer’s Award. I was fortunate enough to win the CAPE New Writers Award and be a finalist in the Austin Film Festival. (Austin, Texas is one wild and crazy town!)
What was the ABC/Disney program like?
Amazing. It opened doors to executives, agents, managers, writers, and ultimately — the opportunity to write on an ABC sitcom during the duration of the one year program. The other seven writing program participants and I really bonded, and we keep in touch all the time. Between the eight of us, we have connections all over town, and we’d all go out on a limb to help each other out. To break down what happens — during the first five weeks of the program, you’re basically taking a crash course in TV 101. Experienced writers and script consultants come in and give lecture/workshops each day, covering everything from pilots, staffing, writers’ room etiquette, story structure, how to nail a staffing interview, etc. This also gives you the chance to ask any specific questions you may have. Some of the things you may already know, but some of it was new, fascinating, and it helps when experienced writers reinforce important concepts you’re aware of. Also during the first five weeks, you’ll have mixers with all of the executives from ABC Network, ABC Studios, ABC Family, Disney Channel, and Disney XD. In time, you’ll be paired up with at least two executive mentors. One will be an overall mentor, which you can reach out to for career advice. The other is a script mentor, who will help you write a spec script within the program. Your script mentor will give you feedback on ideas and notes on each stage of the process — beat sheet, outline, and script. The ABC Disney Program will then help setup meetings with agents and managers if you don’t already have representation, and finally and most important — try and place you on a show as a staff writer. Once you’re staffed, you are expected to work and behave as a staff writer. Some people have had more positive experiences than others, but it’s on you to get the most you can out of the program. I was very active in working connections, relationships, and wheeling and dealing on my own behalf to take advantage of the program, and the attention it brings to your career and writing.
Can you talk about what happened after the program?
After the program, I worked closely with my manager and the connections I had made to meet with different studio and network executives to get them interested in me for staffing season. I had the good fortune of making friends with some Disney Channel execs over the years, and was able to secure a freelance script for one of their hit shows — “Good Luck Charlie.” That put me in a good position for staffing on their upcoming Disney shows. That is how I found my way to my current job on “Austin & Ally.” Some advice… meetings with execs/showrunners are starting as early as March now, so you need to be ready. As soon as a pilot finishes production, shows start interviewing writers just IN CASE the show gets staffed so they are ready to go as soon as they get the green light at upfronts. Have your writing samples (especially originals) ready to be read by then.
What was it like to work on Cougar Town? And how awesome was it to have your episode produced?
Cougar Town was a blast! It takes some time to acclimate, and feel like part of the staff. It’s always difficult at first being the “new guy.” I think that’s usually the case when you join a show mid-run as opposed to being there from the beginning. All the writers had already bonded for a year — so you’re playing catch up. The cast, crew, and staff were all very friendly and learning from/working with experienced writers who had worked on some of my favorite shows was a thrill. I came out of my first year knowing so much more about my craft. You can read books, take classes, and write specs all you want — but you need to have that room experience to really take you to that next level.
It was an absolute joy to have an episode produced. The most fun you’ll have is writing the first draft on your own. Then the room gets a hack at it, and you hope it doesn’t get chopped up too much. As a writer, you’ll learn not to get attached to anything you write — but still, it takes some getting used to. In the end, the changes are always for the better. Once shooting begins, you can pretty much just sit back, relax, and let the director do their thing. If something doesn’t work, or isn’t said with the intent that it was supposed to be — then by all means, speak up. But always through the director. Actors do NOT want a line read. Pitch some alternate joke lines here and there, but make sure what’s on the page has been shot already.
In your career so far, have you had to deal with any issues stemming from being a minority?
I have, but it certainly has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that you are a diverse voice that TV shows NEED. Most of the writers’ rooms around town are filled with old white guys. You can provide a fresh voice. Also, a lot of networks want good diversity writers so that they can tell the brass upstairs, “Hey, look at us, we’re diverse! This’ll look great to the public!” That’s where you get the advantage when applying to all the network diversity programs and workshops. The disadvantage… you go into the room with the possible stigma — “You’re our diversity writer. You probably can’t write. You just got here because we needed a minority in the room.” This is where you have to prove yourself and show them that you’re here because of your talent. Don’t push an agenda. Television is a mainstream medium — you’re trying to appeal to the largest audience possible. Don’t go in pitching a bunch of Asian characters unless the script calls for it. One day, when you have your own show on the air — pitch them all you want. Till then, be more selective. The other thing… BE LOUD. BE CRAZY. Most Asians get a bad rep for being meek, submissive, and well… not funny. DO ROOM BITS. BE RAMBUNCTIOUS (but not annoying). In comedy, the motto is rude and crude. Tease others and let yourself be teased. Laugh at yourself. Be self-effacing. You don’t want to remembered as just “the nice guy.” That is the kiss of death. If the only thing someone has to say about you is “he/she’s really nice,” that is code in the comedy world as “not funny.”
If you didn’t get into the ABC/Disney program, what would your life be like right now? What would your strategy be to break in?
If I didn’t get into the program, I’d probably be doing the same thing I was doing before I got in — working my way up the ladder from PA, to Writers’ Assistant, and hoping to get that lucky break. I’m always working on new samples and trying to make new connections. Once you meet 200 people in this town, you know EVERYONE through some connection or another. USE THOSE CONNECTIONS. Join entertainment organizations like CAPE or JHRTS (Junior Hollywood Radio & Television Society). Go to mixers, entertainment events, writer panels. Meet everyone you can. Someone will eventually ask to read you.
Everyone seems to say it’s important for writers to have a pilot script or some kind of original material these days. What are your thoughts on that? Is that more important than having a good spec?
I would definitely say having original material is more important then having a spec. Everyone wants to hear your original voice. I think people just got tired of reading the same specs over and over and over. They want something fresh and new. It tells more about a writer than a spec does. By all means, HAVE A GOOD SPEC written as well. But it’s more important to have the original. They’ll usually read the original first, and if they need/want to read a second sample, then they’ll go to the spec.
What kind of hours do you put into writing?
It depends. If I’m not working, I’ll pour every hour of every day into a sample until it’s done. I’m talking 16 hours a day. But if I’m working… I’ll try and sneak an hour or two after work into writing my own stuff. Sometimes there is downtime at work where you might be able to write. (like where and how I’m typing the answers to this questionnaire right now.) Definitely give yourself deadlines. If you have a manager/agent/writer’s group that can push you — even better. Sometimes I like to give myself deadlines based on page count. Write just one page a day and you’ll have a half-hour single-cam script in a month. In the real world, you’ll probably have to turn around a half-hour script in a week, sometimes less (I know I have had too). So get used to that pace. If you have nothing on your plate, you should feasibly be able to write 10 pages (single-cam) or 15 pages (multi-cam) in a day as long as your outline works. You’re always gonna go back and do rewrites anyway. Don’t let the jokes hold you up. It’s fine to have a flat draft, then go back and add jokes later. I’ll literally write PUT JOKE HERE in my scripts so I don’t get held up.
What’s your writing process like? Any idiosyncrasies?
I tend to go from beat sheet, to outline, to script. I tend do everything on the computer now. Makes it easier to keep track of all my documents. Also, having two computer monitors makes things super easy. (trust me, it’s worth the investment) Then I can have Final Draft up on one screen, and my outline up on the other. I usually write at home or at the office (if I’m on a show). If I’m writing a spec, I’ll have episodes of the show I’m speccing playing on the television constantly to get the voices engrained in my head. One thing I’ve learned is that the beat sheet and outline are MOST important. I will spend more time on that then writing the actual script. If the outline works, then the script will work. Story is everything. Jokes can always be added in later. But if the story doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how funny the jokes are because nothing will make sense. The worst feeling is when you’ve written an entire script, realized the story doesn’t work, and then have to pull it apart and rewrite the whole thing. If you have a detailed outline with a story that works, writing the actual script will come very easily.
What makes a script stand out to you, both good and bad?
You need a premise that is inherently funny. I should laugh at the log line itself. Well-defined characters and an original story is key. I should be able to cover the names of all the characters on the page, and be able to know who is talking just by the way their dialogue is written. Everyone should have a unique voice/POV. You want to make sure your story is ahead of the audience. You never want the audience to be able to guess what is going to happen next. You never want someone to read your script and be able to think “I’ve seen this before” or “I know where this is going.” Figure our your character’s flaws and milk them for all they’ve got.
Besides writing skill, what else do you need to be a successful writer?
Television writing is such a collaborative process. You need to be able to work well with others, be quick-witted in the room, and have confidence in your pitches. If you’re trying too hard to be funny, you won’t be. Just relax, be yourself, and have faith that you have good ideas. Also, life experience is important. If all you do is sit in a dark room and write scripts, you’ll never have anything interesting to say or have anything to write about. Experience the world, go out and party, meet interesting people, have hobbies. A lot of the best TV writers had careers before they turned to writing, which inspires their stories. Finally… Network! Network Network! You need to be making friends, meeting new people, and knocking on people’s doors. It’s the only way you’ll make it in this town. People would rather hire their friends, or people they’ve worked with before over the young, hot, new talent. A lot of writers keep their jobs simply because they’re such a joy to be around, and the showrunner wants to make sure they can be locked in the same room with them for 12 hours a day and not go crazy. This means…. show A LOT of personality in the interview. Come across as fun and interesting. Be FILLED with stories to tell.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
I feel like I’ve mostly covered all the important stuff. I guess I’ll leave with this one last tidbit. Every successful TV show and screenplay abides by four rules. 1) Simple Stories. 2) Complex Characters. 3) Unique World. 4) Universal Themes. If you can do these four things, you will have something worthwhile.
Remember, writers write. No one should have to pay you to do it. You write because you want to. Stay positive, friendly, driven, and persistent. You’ll eventually get to where you want to go.
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thanks so much to aaron for sharing his experiences, and congratulations on all his success! you can learn more about aaron on his website – http://www.aaronjho.com, and follow him on twitter at @aaron_ho. be sure to watch austin & ally when it airs.
the notification periods for all the different writing programs are coming up! these interviews should give you a sense of what to expect if you get in, and what could happen afterwards. good luck.
these interviews keep getting better and better with each turn.
i know i will have to really prepare to have a shot.
and aaron really did his homework and preparation.
you’re right, you can replace in the room experience. i will try to use my filming and onset experience toward this in the future.
Encouraging, energetic and a really interesting post. Thanks Kiyong for constantly taking the time to share, and to Aaron for some really great insight. Much success to you, both!
thanks aaron and well done kiyong – as others said, better and better. this is one of the most applicable interviews with a screenwriter around
Incite from writers on the inside, it doesn’t get any bettter (until you’re on the inside yourself)
These interviews are great. You’re a good man Kiyong.
thanks everyone, but i can’t take any credit here. it’s all thanks to the writers willing to take the time to share their experiences with us.
Thanks for the great info – this was a great interview with Aaron.
Does anyone know if ABC/Disney allows original material to be submitted in the second round? I’m not sure if they’ll want more existing TV show specs, or if you’re able to expand a little if you make it to the second round.
I appreciate the help!