interview: Erica Peterson, Script Coordinator on New Girl
I met Erica when I started a pilot writers group last year. She was the first to respond to my post on the yahoo message board, and I knew I wanted to work with her right away. She was a finalist in the ABC/Disney Writing Program, won Scriptapalooza, worked in the industry, and liked the Simpsons. I got to know her through our writing group, and I asked if she’d share some of her experiences.
You came to LA knowing nobody. What was your first job in the industry, and how did you go about getting it?
Yeah, that was pretty scary. Even scarier was the fact that I thought I could live in Orange County and commute to work. I thought: “Thirty miles should be about thirty minutes. No problem.” So that was a fun lesson.
My first job in the Industry was as an assistant to a Producer who shall remain nameless. His wife didn’t like how friendly I sounded on the phone and by day two his other assistant told me I didn’t need to come in on Friday… or ever. So that happened. Sorry, I feel like I should unload on everyone so it feels more authentic.
The one I truly count as my first job was as an Office PA on the TV show Medium. Since I didn’t know anyone in LA my only thought was, “I need to contact every single show and see who will give me a chance.” I was extremely eager and not willing to take no for an answer. I bought the Creative Directory (back when it still existed in print) and I literally went through the entire book and called every single show, scripted and reality, asking if I could send in my resume, even when they told me they were staffed. After about a month of doing this I got a call from a few shows. One was The Amazing Race, which I actually agreed to take because I had no other bites at the time and I needed a job. Of course as soon as I said yes to that job, I got a phone call from the show, Medium. They interviewed me that day and then about an hour after I left the interview, they told me I was hired. I felt bad about calling the guys at The Amazing Race to turn the job down but I knew I wanted to be in scripted TV and couldn’t pass this chance up. I made it! Kinda.
You wanted to work in comedy, but you had jobs on dramas, where you were a writers’ assistant on Medium and script coordinator on Ringer. What were those jobs like? What did you learn?
Boy, I was on Dramas forever! In hindsight, it was the greatest thing for me. I went to film school but I didn’t go for writing. I actually had no writing experience in terms of scripts what so ever. Being on Medium was possibly better than any writing course I think I could have taken. I read over a hundred scripts, multiple times and in all stages of draft and was able to see how a script really turned into a story. Glenn Gordon Caron was a big believer in story and strong characters and you could see that every time he would write something. He could take a script that was very good and somehow make it even better. He was also very nurturing and encouraging with my writing aspirations as well. He gave me the chance to write an episode in our final season, but alas the order was cut back and this didn’t happen. I did get a nice little story payment check out of it. Bonus! Ringer was a whole different ballgame. As a writers’ assistant on a Drama it is very difficult to transition to the comedy world because they really are two separate realms. And getting a job as a Writers’ assistant is damn near impossible unless you know someone on the show or can blackmail someone. That’s not a bad idea, actually. But I knew that being a script coordinator you tend to have more opportunities cause it’s kind of a job not many people want or have the skills to be and once you’re in, you’re kind of always in. So one of the Co-EPs from Medium was going to be on Ringer and basically said, “If you want to be the Script Coordinator on this show, you can but you have to pretend like you know what you are doing or I’m going to get in a lot of trouble.” So basically it was a couple months of pure panic and blind faith but with the help of my script coordinating friends, I quickly picked things up. With Ringer, I learned a lot about Production. Being a Script Coordinator you have to be in constant contact with the writers and the Production side because you’re their liaison and your job is to keep everybody in the loop. I also learned a lot on Ringer from the Showrunner, Pam Veasey. She was actually a comedy writer, writing on shows like In Living Color and was another Showrunner who was extremely nurturing and wanted people to succeed. She knew I wanted to be a comedy writer so she would read my sketches and give me notes and guidance other drama writers couldn’t give me because comedy really is a whole different ball of wax. I also learned on Ringer that it was time for me to get my ass on a comedy. And so I did.
You finally made the transition to comedy and are currently working as a script coordinator on New Girl. Congrats! I love the show. What has that experience been like so far?
Thanks! I love it too! And the experience has been pure shit. KIDDING! It’s been incredible, scary, exhausting and amazing. It’s like having my own multiple personality disorder! Being on a comedy is definitely my wheelhouse. This sounds strange but when I’m asked to come up with euphemisms for boners and masturbation, I’m pretty sure I’m the luckiest girl in the world. It’s the best! And to work with people I’ve admired since I was a kid – it’s pretty insane. One of our writers, Donick Cary, wrote for the Simpsons and actually made sure I got to go to a Simpsons table read where Nancy Cartwright sang happy birthday to my friend in the voice of Bart Simpson. I couldn’t handle it. It was seriously one of the best days of my life. The people are great and it’s such a different energy. Typically we have multiple rooms going and one room is purely designated to coming up with Alts – which are alternate jokes for lines in the scripts for the actors to do on the spot, just to see if something works better than the original line. Seriously, spending a whole day trying to make people laugh is the only thing in the world I want to do. That and travel through time. I’ll say this though; the hours and the panic on a comedy (at least our show) are leaps and bounds longer and higher. So it’s been an adjustment with learning how to sleep in shifts or not sleep at all. But it’s been great. To get to read scripts, every day, of a show I love – it’s a dream. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Wow. That last line sounded like a load of shit but ironically, it’s not. So there.
What are your responsibilities as a script coordinator? What’s your typical week like?
Responsibilities… Well, basically I am in charge of the script in terms of formatting and editing – the boring stuff. But also I have to make sure everything makes sense within the story and the time line. If I’m reading something and it doesn’t line up with something someone said or something that happened earlier in the episode or even in a previous episode – I have to make sure it’s addressed otherwise if it gets shot – then that’s a mistake that costs the show thousands of dollars – so there’s a lot of pressure there. Also, I am in charge of dealing with clearances in relation to the script which means I am in contact with the legal department, Broadcast and Standards and the clearance department. So on a daily basis I’ll get emails that say we can’t say, “I can’t self complete – it’s like a taffy pull down there.” And I’ll have to let the Showrunner know so adjustments can be made or more typically it’s a branding issue where they don’t want us to say “Google” and sometimes the writers will ask me to fight for something and then I have to plead their case to BS&P and legal to see what we can and can’t use. Another part of clearances is getting permission to use certain things. There was one time we had Schmidt quoting Eminem in dialogue. This actually falls under the music department’s area to make sure it’s clear. Well, we shot it and it wasn’t clear yet and then we found out Eminem wanted ten thousand dollars for us to be able to quote his song. We did not go that route and had to do some creative editing and some work in ADR in order to fix it. Another part of my job is literally being on call 24 hours a day – I try not to do it but sometimes it’s inevitable. You work your regular 8am to 10pm then I may be on call to put out pages for tomorrow’s work and have no idea when that work is coming. It’s kind of gotten into the routine of knowing when I have to get it to production so I can go to sleep at 10pm even if that means waking up at 2:30am to work to then go to bed at 5am until 7am then go back to work. I pretty much work six to seven days a week and it’s a day to day, play it by ear schedule. I literally can never make plans because I don’t know what’s going to be needed of me when – it’s an adjustment for sure. This also sounds like a cry for help, but I promise it’s not. (help me!) Also, I probably shouldn’t forget this, a big part of my job is putting out pages and scripts for the show! From the Writer’s Draft all the way to 2nd Goldenrod Revised RESHOOT Pages – I’m the one who’s in charge of making sure that everything gets to production and the actors and that it all makes sense. Now that I’m typing this it’s actually more responsibility than I realized. Yeesh.
Do you get a chance to observe the writers’ room or interact with the writers?
Definitely – not as much as I’d like but I do get to go in sometimes and take notes or go in and just sit in the room when they are punching or blue skying an episode. That’s the part of my job where I’m always reminded, no matter how crazy it gets, this is EXACTLY what I want to be doing. And the writers are great. I interact with all of them on a daily basis and couldn’t ask for a more supportive group of writers to work for.
What’s the likelihood of transitioning from your current job as script coordinator to writers’ assistant, and then to staff writer?
Well, in my experience you don’t transition to Writers’ Assistant from Script Coordinator. I’m sure it’s different on every show. Technically speaking, the Script Coordinator is sort of the supervisor of the assistants, including the writers’ assistants. Honestly for me, I like my position and the ability to go in the room when I want and then also be able to be out of the room so I can work on my writing. That’s just me though – everybody’s different. Most likely the transition that would take place would be from Script Coordinator to Staff Writer – but not necessarily on this show. More often than not – writers on the show you work for, when you’re in my position, will read your stuff and if they like it will then help you get representation and then recommend you to other shows to be put on staff. I know this isn’t for all comedy shows but that seems to be the pattern I am aware of – it’s different everywhere. There are shows that bump you up on their show and more often it’s the writers’ assistant that gets that chance because of them always being in the room and having that exposure but there really is no set rule. On Medium it was the Showrunner’s assistant who got bumped and then the following year it was the Showrunner’s assistant and the Script Coordinator who got the bump to staff writer. I should emphasize that for those that also believe that the only way onto a show is by working on a show. This is not true. There are soooooo many ways to become staffed where you don’t climb the ranks through the show. Yes, it’s a great way to make contacts but it is not the only route. My experience has been, most of the writers I know didn’t actually come up through the assistant ranks. I say this so hopefully people can see this isn’t the only way. It’s actually much more rare than the other ways people break in. Not saying it doesn’t work – it obviously does.
If someone with zero industry experience wanted to get a job as a script coordinator or writers’ assistant, how should they go about doing that?
They need to make connections and realize, unless they are lucky or know someone really well on a show that owes them a favor that they typically are going to have to start as a PA. I realize that sounds glib but that’s the reality I’ve seen. I started from the bottom and that’s how it’s worked for me but I’ve seen others who have college connections to the Showrunner and were just given that chance to be a writers’ assistant – I would say that’s rare but honestly. You never know – which is why people should never give up because you just don’t know. Back to climbing the ranks. Someone could start as a Set PA, or a PA in any other department. I know a lot of people are focused on being a writers’ PA but I didn’t start out that way. The whole idea is to get on a show, make relationships, make your wishes known (AKA to get on the writers side) but don’t be an asshole about it. Don’t let the job you were hired to do suffer from you overwhelming need to be a writer – you will get canned. Do your job, whatever it is and do it well and people will notice. Then when space opens up on the writers’ side, make sure your hat is in the ring. That’s what I did – so that’s one way I know it works. Another way to nab those positions? Blow jobs. And loooooots of them.
Any advice for anyone writing a New Girl spec?
The only advice I can probably legally give is to read the scripts. I recently uploaded three to the TV Writers board and the Script Coordinator Board because I know they were like this elusive mystery last year. But just read at least three scripts of the show, watch the show until you literally can hear those characters in your head and know that though it is an ensemble show – Jess is typically the A story, followed by Nick or Schmidt being the B story and Winston is usually in a C runner. Sometimes we do an A, B, C, D runner format but that’s rare. Also, don’t bring in new characters. Utilize the ones you have, I’m sure most people know this but you never know. I feel like I just told you really basic stuff that most people already understand, so… yeah, that was helpful. Also, if you can get 17 writers to then rewrite your script and punch up all your jokes – you should be in good shape. I’m kidding. Not really. But kind of. I’m going to stop talking now.
How is it to finally work in comedy instead of drama? What’s the same? What’s different?
They really are two different worlds. When I was on Dramas – you didn’t have a room dedicated to making every single line funnier up until and sometimes during the moment it’s being shot. Typically with a drama – the script is done much further in advanced – there’s not as much panic. Not to say we didn’t get revisions on dramas, we did and sometimes the day before but on New Girl – they are coming out, sometimes as the scene is being shot. The hours are much longer and your day is unpredictable on a comedy. It could be different on other shows, I’m sure it is, but it’s almost like working on SNL where it’s this “go, go, go!” feeling every day and you have to be prepared for anything to happen. What’s universal is the importance of story – if your story doesn’t work on a drama or a comedy, the script is going to be crap no matter how many funny bits you have or for a drama, maybe, how many dead bodies you find in the abandoned/haunted farmhouse. Tip for all you drama writers out there – ALWAYS put an abandoned/haunted farmhouse in your script – it will always get you noticed. This time I am actually kidding.
I haven’t see you since you started your job, so I’m guessing New Girl is keeping you pretty busy. How do you find time to write? Is there any down time at work where you can write?
Oh, where does the time go… Busy is quite the understatement – or I guess it’s not, yes – they keep me busy, very busy. Like I said before, I can work a normal 14 hour day then go home knowing I’ll get three hours of sleep to wake up and then have to put out pages or a script or a pitch page at 3 in the morning to then somehow go back to sleep for a couple hours. Or more often, I’m wide-awake at that point so I go to the gym and run and cry on the treadmill. Ladies, if you ever want guys to leave you alone at the gym just ball your eyes out while working out. Works every time. That’s a little bonus advice. Guys too – I imagine if you cry at the gym, people will leave you alone as well so, you’re welcome. There are moments through out the day where I can write and I have utilized it just not as much as I would like but for me it’s hard to jump in and out of a rhythm with writing but it’s a skill I’m learning and hopefully it will help me. I do have down time on the weekends, though typically I’ll put out a draft at 4am on Saturday so then I sleep till noon and spend the rest of the weekend catching up on all the things I couldn’t do during the week. As I type this I feel like I really do sound horribly sad. But, yes there is some down time it’s just a matter of making it work for you and then on the weekends squeezing some time in as well. Also, I go to the bathroom a lot, I’m very hydrated, and I do a lot of thinking there, a lot of brainstorming on my commute, in the shower and I’ll take short 5 minute walks at work – so that’s kind of how I make it work.
You have some impressive credentials as a writer. You were a finalist in the ABC/Disney Writing Program, and have won Scriptapalooza, among other things. Did Scriptapalooza do anything for you after you won? What about Disney? What are your thoughts on contests and writing programs?
Why thank you, Kiyong. Scriptapalooza got me a big ol’ fat check! They also, I believe sent out my spec to be read by certain agencies but I think, and this I my opinion, most places really want to read original work to know if you can write or not. What about Disney!? Ah Disney. I have fond memories of interviewing with them while on heavy pain medication since I had just had kidney stone removal surgery. Here’s a little tip – don’t interview while on medication that might have you say things your brain is thinking but that should not be said out loud. I’ll leave it at that. With that said, Disney was great and I think it’s a great program. It’s tough to get into and I think it’s prominently a diversity program – which I think is fantastic because, especially in comedy, it’s rare to see anything other than white dudes in the room. I feel like I can say, “white dude” because I’m a white dudette – so let’s all calm down. But in general with contests and programs – though the chances of getting in are very small I think it’s important for people to apply, mainly because it keeps you writing and that’s the most important thing anyone can be doing is just writing their asses off because that’s the only way to get better. Or if you’re Kiyong, dominate the fellowship scene and make my words look like a big steamy pile. Basically, don’t give up kids. Apply for everything because you never know. I think that might be my worst answer yet.
What are you working on these days? I want to read your pilot when you’re done!
For a minute I thought this was just a personal question between you and me – and it still might be but I’ll answer anyway. I’m working on a pilot – family based that has changed about a dozen times but I think I finally found the story I feel good about. It’s geared towards cable and is pretty dark but I like it. No spoilers! And I’m also working on another pilot that could possible be animated but I think it’s going to be live action – I’m working on it with a friend of mine. I don’t want to give too much away because if someone else writes it, I will hunt you down, skin your ass and wear it as a hat. With pride. Sorry I couldn’t be more descriptive in exactly what I’m working on but definitely no specs for a while. And just something I want to share with everyone, this is some advice I’ve received from very successful writers and showrunners. If you are not staffed yet, this is the best opportunity to write what you want. Don’t look at other things and try to emulate other shows. Write what you are passionate about and something that shows your voice because this might be the only time, for a while at least, that you are able to do this.
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A HUGE thanks to Erica for taking the time to share her experiences, when clearly she has absolutely no time to spare. Damn you, Erica, for inspiring me to work harder! I want to sleep, but I know at 3am, you are running on a treadmill, working on a new pilot. You can find her on Facebook.
This is probably one of my favorite interviews. You can definitely read in her responses how much she belongs on the comedy scene. I’d gladly watch one of her shows. Good luck to you Erica!
Fantastic! Erica is a humble hoot and Kiyong, thank you so much with sharing this.
Really loved hearing her perspective! I feel like my first experience as an Assistant to the Producer on a network sitcom has given more context for how people get jobs and what everyone does and her interview helps to confirm these lessons. Thanks Erica and Kiyong!
Funny. Insightful. Awesome. Thanks Erica and Kiyong!
I love the message I’ve been hearing continually: original material wanted!
One question regarding your closing bit of advice on Question 7 (If someone with zero industry experience …). How many is lots?
That was fantastic!
Where exactly can I find copies of those New Girl scripts?
A fantastic interview, indeed! Thanks Erica.
And Morucci, the answer, according to Mr. Owl from the tootsie roll pop commercial, is three…
Interesting interview. I am exhausted just reading about her week let alone living it.
Just wondering if it’s possible for you to post links to some of the stuff you mention in the interview? A Google search is not bringing up the Creative Directory, TV Writers Board or Script Co-Ordinators Board for me.
Yeah, great interview. Found it funny her confirming that Winston only gets the C stories/runners…lol. They really need to do something with that character.
Awesome interview. Thanks to both of you. John–Creative Directory went out of business, but you want to search on yahoo.com for “TV writers.” That should do it.