Rise of the Spec TV Pilot
Every screenwriter alive wants to write a great pilot episode of their own, if the spec pile is anything go by. When I started B2W back in the day, I hardly ever saw spec TV pilot episodes of any kind. Fast-forward fifteen years and I would venture I read more spec TV pilot episodes than anything else! It also means THE most popular article on this entire site is How To Write TV Series Bibles – over 130K+ unique hits now. Wow!
That said, spec TV pilot episodes are notoriously difficult to write. Whilst many in the spec pile are pretty good, they’re rarely a great example of a FIRST episode. With this in mind then, I am going to look at the Friends pilot as a case study, plus what it can teach us about writing episode 1 of our own series. Enjoy!
The Friends Phenomenon
We hear a lot online about how dated (or not!) Friends has become, but that’s the nature of comedy and time. The fact is, regardless of how you feel about the jokes, the show actually holds up very well on a craft level. As a result Friends remains a classic, especially considering so many screenwriters want to write a ‘flat share comedy’. This is one of the best examples of making it work, plus producers are always interested in good sitcoms. When so few in the spec pile are good, it’s a great idea to work why successful and iconic ones WORKED.
In addition, people all over the world still love this show, waaaaaay after the fact. Check out instagram and other social media for pics and accounts, there is an INSANE amount! What’s more, Friends still brings Warner Brothers a reported $1 BILLION YEAR. That’s also an INSANE amount of money, so it’s no wonder producers love the idea of finding more like it.
Do Your Research
So, love it or loathe Friends (or maybe you are a youngster and can take it or leave it!),itcan teach us A LOT as writers. The show has made it back to Netflix in its entirety, which means it’s easy to find and watch again. You may have been a Friends-holic back in the day, but TRUST ME … You won’t remember it exactly as it was, so DO be sure to check out and watch the pilot in conjunction to this post.
Also, one other thing: make sure you read the original, first draft pilot script as a PDF, HERE. You will see there are some significant differences, starting with the title (‘Friends like us’?? Seriously?). But whatever … Research people! Can I *be* any more clear?? (Couldn’t resist).
Anatomy Of An Awesome Pilot
As described by Wikipedia, a pilot episode is a standalone episode of a television series that is used to sell the show to a television network. Put simply, the pilot is meant to be the testing ground to gauge whether a series will be successful. Some people believe the pilot is dead now streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are changing the television landscape. Whatever the case, if you are writing a spec TV drama, you need a first episode (whether we call it a pilot or not).
Literally everyone wants a ‘good story, well told’ from their entertainment. What that means can depend on who is reading/watching it, of course. But at craft level, there’s just two things EVERY spec script needs, pilot or not …
- Great Characters
- Great plotting/ structure
In the case of a sitcom pilot like Friends, the pilot also needs to be FUNNY. Note this doesn’t mean just funny dialogue (though it is a big part of it). Being funny is about …
- The tone the show sets, right from the offset
- Character-specific ‘funny’ – no one character is funny the SAME way
- Characters still need to be authentic and holistic
- Sitcom is HIGHLY STRUCTURED – got to pack a lot into just 20-30 minutes!
- There needs to be a lot going on plot-wise too. Characters can’t just sit around, ‘being funny’ endlessly.
This all means that even if you’re not writing a sitcom yourself, studying them can really help you get to grips with characterisation and structure. With the five pointers above in mind then, I am going to look at characters and structure in the Friends pilot, plus what we can learn. Note that I am going by the produced version we all know, NOT the first draft screenplay (beyond the character descriptions). Are you ready? Let’s go …
Everyone has a favourite Friends character. Back in the day, mine was always Chandler. (I know, I know, BIG surprise given I definitely play snarky hands right out of The Bing-A-Ling’s handbook). Anyway, here are the original character descriptions of each character:
As you can see from the PDF, the pilot might have changed drastically from script to screen, but the characters haven’t really. Chandler’s snack-tastic habits ended up as Joey’s, plus I would add ‘self-pitying’ to Ross’ bio. Phoebe also has a stupendously sad back story. Otherwise, the bios are pretty much on point.
Fans of the show all have a favourite Friends character. Though it’s by no means a diverse cast by modern standards, each of them is highly differentiated from one another. There’s a strong contrast between each of them, not just in terms of jobs but personal outlook and experience. Even Monica and Ross as siblings have different outlooks on life.
What’s more, the bonds of the group are strengthened by a shared personal history. Ross and Chandler were room-mates in college; Monica and Rachel were best friends in school, who then lost touch. . Even Joey and Phoebe, the ‘outsiders’ in the group, are bonded to the rest of them by living with the others. Ross being Monica’s brother brings a new dynamic to the group, too.
What Can Writers Learn?
We need to write highly differentiated characters that will bring viewers in, investing in their favourite. We also need to write great roles for actors, who will give their all to that character. Characterisation is the foundation of great TV writing, especially sitcoms. One of the conventions of sitcoms is that they ‘reset to zero’ (more or less) each episode. So it’s those characters bring viewers back, week in, week out (or make them binge-watch series on Netflix and Amazon!).
All About Structure And Plotting
The Friends Pilot is called ‘The One Where Monica Gets A Room-mate’. The Netflix listing for it says:
Rachel runs from her wedding and meets the friends in the coffee place. Ross is depressed about his divorce but he still has a crush on Rachel (22 mins).
Remember, I am looking to the produced version of the pilot. At twenty two minutes, I’d argue there’s roughly 4 ‘blocks’ of story (or Acts!), of approximately 5 minutes each. (This makes sense, based on the notion of ad breaks on 1990s networks, so 2 Acts per half with an ad break in the middle. Whether this type of will remain in the age of streaming remains to be seen). So here we go …
Introducing The Friends
We start at Central Perk, the coffee place – Monica, Chandler, Joey and Phoebe are there (no Ross or Rachel). Monica is talking about her date that is NOT a date. We get the feeling she is a dating disaster (character-specific from her bio!). Joey makes a comedic remark about her going out with losers (NOT character-specific, but setting the tone – ‘this is a comedy’). Chandler then makes another comedic remark about losers, that is also character-specific. Phoebe then makes it clear what a space cadet she is.
From there, we get more character-specific stuff. As a comedy, the pilot can get away with a significant amount more dialogue than average. (Plus Chandler leads this scene, whose comedy is primarily dialogue-based). Then Ross turns up, depressed. There are more jokes, plus Joey’s characterisation comes more into focus here. Monica is introduced as Ross’ sister, though crucially no one mentions this. Instead it’s made obvious by the way she is maternal towards him, plus she seems to know a lot more than the others about his life (‘Carol moved her stuff out today’).
Ross declares, ‘I just want to be married again’ … Rachel appears, dressed in a wedding dress! More jokes, primarily from Chandler and Joey. It becomes clear Rachel was specifically looking for Monica. Her characterisation as a spoiled princess comes into play straight away, with Ross having to put sugar in her coffee FOR her.
What’s more, Rachel’s appearance utilises the age-old plotting technique of what I call ‘the intro scene’. This means bringing a new character into an established group and literally introducing them to everyone. Lots of Bang2writers resist using this in their spec TV pilots (whether sitcom or drama series) because they think it is ‘lazy writing’ or ‘too blatant’. It is not. It is necessary exposition.
What Can Writers Learn?
Even though the friends don’t physically DO anything particularly dynamic in the first five minutes of the show, there’s still a lot HAPPENING. They are not just sitting around, telling jokes. Very quickly, Act 1 establishes what the story is in terms of tone and genre. It also establishes who the characters are, what they are like, plus what their problems are … Monica is nervous about her date. Ross is depressed about his divorce. Rachel has jilted Barry at the altar. Crucially, this all happens HAND IN HAND. The Friends pilot also uses the ‘intro scene’ technique – because this is NOT ‘lazy writing’, it’s needed!
Story Strands In Friends
So, as established by Act 1, there are essentially 3 ‘story strands’ to Friends, which it continued through the series in most, if not all, its episodes. Before this, more often the traditional sitcom structural method was two strands like in The Simpsons. The popularity of Friends changed this. We’re now far more likely to see three, especially in US sitcoms (and drama series, too).
- Monica’s date with Paul The Wine Guy (which obviously ends in disaster, after he ‘plays’ her)
- Rachel on the run from her wedding and what she’s going to do about it (she ends up cutting up her credit cards and getting a job downstairs at Central Perk)
- Ross is depressed about his divorce, but rekindles his high school crush for Rachel
Story Strands in the Acts
These strands are ‘woven’ together in the course of the episode. As mentioned, each of the four Acts (five with a ‘tag scene’ at the end) are approximately 5 minutes and worked out something like this:
- Act 2 – Takes place entirely in Monica’s apartment. The Friends watch television as Rachel argues with her father on the phone. Monica’s date arrives. They go out, the boys and Phoebe prepare to leave. Rachel insists to Monica that she will be fine alone.
- Act 3 – Ross’ apartment. He is still depressed about Carol. He makes furniture with Joey and Chandler, who try and give him advice to ‘get back on the horse’. at a Japanese restaurant, Monica eats out with Paul the wine guy who tells her about *his* divorce. Back at Monica’s, Rachel is on the phone again, this time to Barry’s answer machine.
- Act 4 – At Monica’s, Rachel makes coffee for Joey and Chandler, does a terrible job. We hear about their jobs. We see Monica at work; turns out Paul the wine Guy is a rat. At Central Perk, Rachel has to realise she can’t live on her Dad’s credit cards. They all cut them up at Monica’s apartment and this is where we hear about Phoebe’s tragic backstory. Ends with Ross and Rachel sharing a cookie.
- Tag Scene – that last credits scene that Friends was so famous for … In this first one, Rachel appears serving coffee at Central Perk. She has a job! From episode 2, there will be a pre-credits sequence too. Sometimes these will be teasers, setting up the episode. Other times there will be ‘cold opens’, which are disconnected, comedic and character-specific sequences to get a laugh.
BTW – you’ll note Phoebe doesn’t *do* a lot in this pilot episode! This is a clever move, because she is a free spirit. When the guys ask her to assemble furniture with them, she says ‘Oh I can’t … because I don’t wanna.‘ That, combined with cleansing auras, singing randomly and announcing her tragic back story, does enough to establish her in the group. Anything else might have been overkill.
What Can Writers Learn?
The Friends pilot makes all this look easy, but it’s damn hard writing. Good structure and plotting is about starting as you mean to go on … Introduce your characters and story TOGETHER. Identify the ‘story strands’ and weave them together across your pilot episode. If it helps, write each strand out individually into separate beats, colour coding them as Story Strand 1, 2, or 3. Then cut them up or write on index cards. Physically move each colour-coded card around until they are in the ‘right’ place in your plot. (There’s software that help you can do this too, if you prefer – Final Draft has this feature).
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