By Roadmap Top Tier Writer Michi Broman
Stand-up comedy can be brutal. Getting an act together takes work, practice and, even more importantly, it takes an audience. Doing open mics – going to a bar, signing up and getting time in front of people – is the best way to build your act. You can see what jokes work/don’t work; you can practice timing; you can even blow it and it’s okay because everyone (supposedly) knows that this is a safe place to take risks. (Read about Chris Rock’s thoughts on banning cell phones from open mics so that comics can get the vital work they need to hone an act).
When building an act by doing open mics, the key question each time I go up is: What I’m trying to learn? By having specific questions before I do my set, I’m able to later keep the good, throw out the bad and find the seeds of something better. Here are some things I might want to find out:
- Which jokes got laughs?
- Did anything seem inappropriate?
- Did I have the audience’s attention? If not, where did it lag?
- Overall, did the jokes flow together into a cohesive set?
When I do an open mic, I never get to ask: Did you like it? Did you get it? I know they got it if they laughed and I had their attention. These principles have also worked really well for me in pitching. So I approach practice pitches with the same discipline as I do comedy (which is so not funny but it works for me).
The issue is finding that safe place where I can hone my pitch. A pitch in front of an executive that you want to buy your script is, obviously, the wrong place to be practicing. For me, there are two places I will practice pitching: My “Community” (writers, people in the biz, friends, etc.) and Pitch Roundtables.
Pitching to Your Peeps
Many might argue that you shouldn’t pitch to your friends or family who are not in the business but I find that they are a good audience if I’m clear on what I’m looking for. And the best way to be clear is to write down what I want. Having this checklist takes the like/don’t like out of it because, as we all know, we can’t please everyone. Here is what I ask after I pitch friends and family:
- Can you see this on TV/in a movie theater? (Be honest!)
- What is this TV show/movie about in one or two sentences?
- Do you like the main character? Why/why not?
- Who’s the bad guy?
- For TV – What happens each week?
- For film – What happens at the end?
- How do you think you’ll feel after you watch this?
The answers to these questions helps me know if the person listening understands my show. If these questions can’t be answered or are not what I intended in my story, that’s what to work on with my pitch.
Note: If you cannot sit and listen without saying one single word during the answers to the questions, have the person write down what they think. In stand-up comedy, I do not get to ask why people aren’t laughing. They just aren’t laughing. When I pitch to my friends and family, I don’t get to explain what they don’t understand. It’s up to me to fix it LATER!
Pitching in a Roundtable
Once people understand what I’m trying to do, I try it out in a “safe” place with a professional. The Roadmap Writers Pitch Roundtables have been awesome as I get to hear what’s working/not working with other people as well as myself.
My objective at a Pitch Roundtable is: To hone my pitch so that when I’m in front of an executive, it’s spot on.
Notice that I didn’t say “like my pitch.” I’ve removed “like” from my success criteria as not everyone will like my story. I don’t particularly like action movies and I downright hate any kind of horror. How can I expect everyone to like my story? I can’t! If someone doesn’t like my story, that doesn’t mean my pitch was bad. So asking, “Did you like this?” or, “Is this something you would do?” is not my objective at a roundtable, or anywhere else for that matter.
This is important because I’ll get valuable feedback, and sometimes, the feedback can be inconsistent and it’s not about like/don’t like. Here’s how I got my Palm Beach Arcade pitch (one hour drama for premium cable) to where it is today by working in roundtables.
Background story up front or at the end?
The short version of the background story is this:
I worked at Microsoft, then left and opened an interactive agency that was acquired by a giant advertising agency conglomerate. During this time, my younger brother died and left me and my mom with a porno store.
When doing my pitch for friends, nearly everyone stopped me and said they were sorry for my brother dying, so I put the “where the inspiration came from” at the end. When I pitched in a roundtable setting, the executive gave me some very good reasons to put it up front:
- I use the word “porno” several times in the pitch, which could be uncomfortable for a room full of executives. If I put the story up front, people can see that I’m not “crazy porno girl” but a pro, and if this really happened to me, then the porn part of the story is way less scary.
- The true story is crazy/amazing! That it really happened makes the exec listen really differently and makes the pitch way more interesting.
Because it was a roundtable and it was expected that I may have questions, I got to voice my worry: I am concerned that people feel like they have to take care of me when I say my brother died. The exec totally got it and gave me some tips on how he might be put at ease with just a few words up front. I’m now ready to put anyone at ease and move forward if the pitch gets stopped at the beginning (which it has but was not a problem!).
Comedy or Drama?
In a pitch roundtable, I was asked if my one-hour drama might be a ½-hour comedy and we had a discussion about genre. In making the opening more “lightweight,” it came across as funny, especially when I said, “left me and my off-the-boat Japanese mother with a porno store.” It’s not that the story was funny, it was that I was practically doing stand-up act while putting people at ease. That set up the expectation of a comedy, which I’ve toned back considerably.
Season 2 overview or not?
I had a discussion about whether to talk about the second season (which I was doing) or not. The exec said to take it out because the people are more interested in the pilot and that the second season would not be what I expected anyway. I did that and at the next pitch, got a question about how this would go on for multiple seasons.
I find that when I don’t talk about season 2, I get, “I don’t see how this can be a series with 5+ seasons.” And when I put it back, I get the “I don’t care about season 2” comment. I now leave in, and no one ever says they can’t see it as a series. That is more important than whether the exec “likes” the season 2 part of the pitch or not.
Is it working?
The bottom line is that I’m getting a script request pretty much every time I pitch now. I’ve had lots of nibbles on Palm Beach Arcade… now if I can just get a firm bite!