Joel Stein: How Not to Sell Your Hilarious Comedy Pitch
I have started to worry that I suck at pitching. My suspicions emerged from the fact that I’m not selling any shows lately. Also, because the times I have sold shows, I was accompanied by another writer, producer or actor who I split the job with: They explained the premise, and I added, “Yes, exactly.”
I’ve known I wasn’t a natural salesperson ever since I chose a career and didn’t pick salesperson despite the fact that it’s a job that pays way more and is way easier than writer. I chose a job where I assumed you sat alone and never asked anyone for anything. Instead, I become not merely a salesperson, but one with the massive handicap of not having a finished product. Imagine going door-to-door, throwing dirt on people’s carpets and then saying, “Imagine a guy, mid-20s, down on his luck but charming, maybe Timothée Chalamet, has a magical machine he got from the future that sucks up dirt …”
But Roderick Kramer, an organizational behavior professor at Stanford business school who co-wrote the 2003 paper “Assessing Creativity in Hollywood Pitch Meetings” and pitched shows himself in the ’70s, told me not to fret because a sales mentality would actually hurt. Calculating what the buyer needs creates a generic pitch instead of an original one.
What I needed was “vital engagement.” When I asked what that meant, Kramer said, “When people are really committed, like Martin Luther King to his cause, people are moved.” This seemed like a big ask for a cartoon about Mafia-employed monkeys who volunteered to go to space for JFK before starring in a Rat Pack-themed Vegas show in the 1960s and time traveling to the present to escape a rival crime boss, which I thought of because my son didn’t hear the comma in Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” when he lists “space monkeys, Mafia.”
But Kramer is right. I have watched Martin Luther King Jr. speeches, and none consists of 10 minutes of small talk, after which King calls his ideas for racial equality “quarter-baked,” followed by an explanation of why it might not work.
There were several ways I could improve but only one that allowed me to network with powerful executives without even pitching. I called the people who have turned down my pitches and asked them where I went wrong.
Kate Adler, CBS Studios exec vp in charge of comedy development, told me — to my surprise — that I’m actually a “great pitcher.” I’m forgetting, she noted, that I’m being compared to other writers. One got so sweaty when he pitched that Adler called his agent and told him to get his client an undershirt. “You don’t have awkward body movements. You don’t do voices,” agreed Alec Botnick, CBS Studios senior vp comedy development. “All acting is pretty bad. But especially don’t do a voice of an ethnicity not your own.” I never felt so lucky to be unable to act.
It turns out I do a lot right: I tell a personal story that led me to the idea. I explain why it’s relevant to our cultural moment without ever saying “cultural moment.” I deliver my pitches in about 12 minutes, which they say is the perfect time because a pitch should never be as long as the actual pilot episode. I don’t place my Emmy in the Zoom shot, mostly because I don’t have one. I don’t egotistically refer to older series I created as “my show” — again, mostly because I don’t have any. And rather than speak at them, I include the executives in the conversation, which Kramer had told me was key. The best pitch Adler and Botnick remember, which of course was not mine, was when Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna said, “Crazy ex-girlfriend: You’ve either been one or had one,” after which everyone started talking.
Warner Bros., Botnick told me, once created a document on how to pitch, suggesting you start with an exciting cold open before explaining the premise, which works well and I’ve done. But if I was still worried, Adler said she recently heard an immaculate pitch from someone who’d never done it before. “It was personal, it was funny, it was short, it had something to say about the world we hadn’t heard before. At the end, we were like, ‘That was the first time you’d pitched?’ She said, ‘Shonda Rhimes, Masterclass.’”
Jim Donnelly, exec vp comedy at Universal TV, said the fact that I’m not comfortable with sales actually helps me. My low-key, awkward approach leads to a genuine discussion. When I asked him which writer is the best in the room, he said, “If I did come up with a name, that may not necessarily be a compliment. There are people who have made a successful career out of charm. As an executive, you have to pay attention to what’s underneath that with them. Are the nuts and bolts there to make the show last as long as you hope?”
I was feeling good until Todd Milliner, president of Hazy Mills, the production company he runs with actor Sean Hayes, revealed the subtext of what these execs were saying. “You’re a great pitcher. I always want to do something with you. I wish your shows were a little less 1988,” he said. “If television right now wanted a little girl that was part of the family and also a robot, we’d do it.”
If anything, I’m the charming salesman Donnelly was skeptical of. Milliner said: “Your ideas never felt like a new version with Joel’s twist on it that is important to tell. We always got to where I got in college, which was a C+. You get by because you’re likable and really funny in person. How do you apply those skills to a fresher idea?”
The problem isn’t my pitching. It’s my pitches. I don’t have vital engagement because my ideas aren’t vital to me. Sure, I struggle with modern masculinity. But not like the space monkey Mafia do. Those guys throw their feces and masturbate in public.
“What is your show that is rooted in you but it isn’t elitist and a fancy writer?” Milliner asked.
The problem is even bigger than my ideas.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.