One of the most common freak-outs we see every year around Fellowship Season here at Script Anatomy is the freak-out about matching samples. Some programs, like ABC and CBS, require two samples upfront. Others, like WB and NBC, require a spec script upfront, but ask to have a second sample ready in case they request it. And every year, when someone asks if their samples “have to match,” our answer is the same…
It’s totally true that the rules are changing a bit in terms of what constitutes a drama vs a comedy. A show like Vida, about a family moving on from their matriarch’s death in their rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, is in the half-hour category, while Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which features several bawdy, biting stand-up routines in each episode, swept the comedy category at the Golden Globes this year. But at the network level, by en large, execs are still staffing in a pretty binary fashion — though on shows like This is Us or A Million Little Things, which my writing partner Ali and I recently wrapped, rooms are starting to mix more comedy and drama writers together as well. But in general, when submitting for fellowships, understand that you are ultimately presenting yourself as a candidate for network staffing. Sure, programs have gotten writers on other shows under that same network’s umbrella — ABC alum recently staff on Freeform shows, for example, and NBC Writers on the Verge alumi often appear in credits on shows on E! or SyFy or under the Universal Cable Productions banner — but in general, when submitting for fellowships, you are essentially submitting a job application for a staff writer position on that network. So it helps to clearly show the execs reading your script what kind of network writer you are. And sending in a This is Us spec alongside a multi-cam pilot doesn’t accomplish that.
In terms of tone, however, you’ll have a little more wiggle room, if you’re able to articulate how it all relates to your brand. We often see students submitting a spec and a pilot that are the same genre, but wildly different in tone. Which is totally understandable — as a developing writer, you want to have a variation of samples in your portfolio. Nobody’s going to crank out 3 crime procedurals in a row, or 3 multi-cam family sitcoms in a row. It’s not an efficient use of your time. And honestly, in today’s market, no agent or exec wants to see a writer that 1-dimensional.
If you find yourself considering a spec that’s very different tonally from the pilot you’re submitting to programs this year, that’s okay, but it does put a little extra pressure on you to sell it. So consider this an invitation to do a little analytical thinking about common themes in the two scripts. If you’re submitting a Killing Eve spec and a coming-of-age dramedy set at a prep school in the 1950s, maybe you dig a little deeper and discover you are obsessed with stories about rebellious women trying to succeed in a decidedly male arena, and that’s what ties the two samples together. Are you submitting a Will and Grace spec and a multi cam comedy about your time growing up in an immigrant family? Maybe this is a reflection of your fascination with stories about unconventional family structures, and maybe that’s something you can thread back through your personal journey in your application essay. Two tonally different samples can either make you look unfocused or show the depth of your range, and at a fellowship level, it’s all about how you sell it. This requires a cohesive understanding of your brand as a writer and how your personal history informs it — which is something that usually takes a lot of practice articulating.
We talk about theme pretty extensively in our Pilot and TV Spec Labs, but our one-day Fellowship Bio & Essay Workshop is really where students have the opportunity to pause and think about your portfolio — and personal story — in more abstract strokes that help you develop a strong, cohesive application packet. If you find yourself looking at your samples and freaking out because you think they’re too different, breathe in, breathe out, and re-group. Instead of focusing on all the ways in which they’re different, try to articulate the similarities. From there, try to find common threads between these two scripts and everything else in your portfolio. There’s a reason you chose the show you’re speccing out of everything else on the drop-down menu, after all. Connecting more abstract dots between your samples like this is a great way to learn more about yourself as a writer and build a stronger application packet. Now that we’ve calmed your fears and answered this evergreen question — get back to writing! Best of luck with fellowship season.