Q&A: Robby O’Connor – 2011 FOX-NYTVF Sitcom Script Winner
Since the deadline for the FOX-NYTVF Sitcom Script Contest was last week, I figured it would be a good time to hear from last year’s winner, Robby O’Connor. I was really excited to interview Robby, as the contest is pretty much the only one in which the prize is a $25K development deal. I was curious what exactly the “development deal” entailed and how Robby’s life had changed because of the win. Let’s get on with it:
The Writer: Robby O’Connor
Evan (ES): Tell everyone a little bit about yourself…Who are you?
Robby (RO): I’m a New Yorker born-and-raised and live here still (in Long Island City). A big part of my writing education came from working in film – first at Paramount’s New York book office and then at Dimension Films.
Working in film was great, but when your job is being critical of other people’s work, it’s hard to turn off that part of your brain and allow yourself to take a chance on the page. Once I’d decided I was going to write, I knew I needed to turn off that inner editor (not completely, but enough to be playful with ideas) and that meant NOT working in film anymore. I also knew I worked best in the mornings and needed a good night sleep, so I couldn’t be a bartender or anything. (Not that I know how to bartend.)
ES: I think one of the hardest choices writers have to make is whether or not to quit their day jobs to pursue writing. How did you end up supporting yourself?
RO: To make ends meet, I found a bunch of weird jobs on Craigslist. The first one I had was nannying for a family with six kids on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I wasn’t responsible for all six at once; really I was one of maybe three or four people passing through the house at any given time, corralling these kids. It was pretty funny — the kids were four to thirteen years old and couldn’t figure me out. That I’d grown up in New York, went to a good college, but was now somehow their nanny just didn’t compute. I think the parents probably used me as a cautionary tale: “Don’t try to be a writer when you grow up or else you’ll end up like Robby.” Anyway, that job wore me down pretty quick, but I still do a lot of part-time work; writing isn’t paying the bills just yet.
ES: Once you realized that you wanted to be a writer, did you immediately gravitate to television or did you start out writing features?
RO: I stumbled on TV writing because I needed a really good voice sample. The first script I wrote – a feature – got me a manager, but it didn’t sell. It was an attempt at a broad sex comedy, but broad sex comedies that don’t sell aren’t good samples. I was pitching other feature ideas to a producer friend and nothing was gelling. In the process I wound up telling him about meeting my girlfriend online, internet dating, and the like. That friend pushed me to write a spec pilot about dating in New York. It’s pretty close to a zero-concept idea, but the thought was to write the hell out of it and have a solid voice sample. It was great advice.
ES: What television shows are you currently watching?
RO: For someone without a cable package, I watch a lot. Right now I’m tearing through Justified. I don’t think I could write an hour-long cable drama, but I love it when I find a good one. Like everyone, The Wire might be my favorite show, but I’ve been very happy with Breaking Bad too. ARCHER is also great.
Then what else… well this week alone I’ve watched Mad Men, Veep, New Girl, Girls, Up All Night, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Community, and The Good Wife. That covers it I think.
ES: What specs have you written and/or what shows do you plan to spec next?
RO: I wrote a spec episode of Californication a few years back when I took a class on TV writing. Aside from teaching me how to structure a thirty-minute comedy, I don’t think that sample has done a lot for me. From what I’m told and what I’m experiencing, TV is moving away from that. People are open to reading your spec pilot now. So yeah, right now I don’t have plans to spec any existing seriesezez [that's not a typo, that is how I'm going to refer to the plural of 'series' from now on].
The Script: Adulthood for Beginners
ES: In another interview you described Adulthood for Beginners as being kind of a Friends for this generation. Has the success of shows like New Girl and Happy Endings helped or hurt the development of your show?
RO: I’ve actually just started watching Happy Endings because someone told me my pilot would make a great sample for that show. I should have included Happy Endings above, it’s a great show.
I don’t really know if Happy Endings or New Girl’s existences are helping or hurting my show. They’re both great. The real take-away I have from them is that it would have been smart if my pilot had just a tiny bit more of a hook (like those shows do) to tell stories about friends (like those shows do).
ES: How long did it take to write?
RO: Six months? About a month was spent on characters and the outline and three more banging through a few drafts. The finishing touches came slowly over the last two months.
ES: How many pilots have you written?
RO: That was my first!
ES: Describe your writing process a little bit — Are you an outliner or do you simply start writing and let the story take over?
RO: I try to treat it as much like an office job as possible. I belong to a writing space (kind of like a private library with monthly dues) and on a good day work from 10am to 2pm. (The rest of the afternoon I do my freelance work to pay my bills.) Sometimes it’s not there and you’re better off reading magazines or going for a walk or anything to free up your mind. That’s the hard part for me; I wish I could always be in the middle of a draft and know that three hours spent at my computer is three hours closer to the finish line.
I’m learning how to be an outliner. I outlined Adulthood twice; halfway through a draft based off the first outline I realized it wasn’t working – the A story was off and that was affecting my B story too – so I went back and re-outlined the whole thing. That second outline isn’t exactly what’s on the page now, but it was vital to getting there.
After Adulthood I wrote a feature and really outlined that one well (I’m getting better every time). I was able to get through the first draft of that feature in under three weeks. So that’s what a good outline does for you.
ES: Did you have friends or family to workshop the script with? Are you a part of any writers groups?
RO: As I mentioned, a good friend who works for producers encouraged me to write Adulthood. He read and gave me notes on at least three drafts of the script. He’s not the producer on it and did this only out of the kindness of his heart and it was invaluable. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a few people who’ll read your script once and give you feedback, but few of those people ever read the next draft. Having a friend work through it with me on multiple drafts was amazing. I bought him a big bottle of Scotch when I won the contest.
I don’t belong to any writers groups but would love to find one. Because I used to work in film, I still know a lot of people who work in film, so I have a lot of friends who can give really sharp notes.
ES: Did you enter Adulthood in any other contests or festivals?
RO: Nope. The Fox competition was the only one I knew about.
ES: If you had to give one piece of advice to aspiring writers who have never written a TV script before, what would it be?
RO: Read as many pilots as you can. If you can’t get your hands on pilot scripts, watch the first episode of everything that’s streaming on Netflix and Hulu. Your pilot can’t just introduce your characters – it needs an A story and a B story (and a C if you’re Modern Family).
Also, beware of writing a “premise pilot”. I didn’t know what that meant when I wrote Adulthood, but it’s how other people will judge your idea as a series. John August wrote about this in more depth here: http://johnaugust.com/2011/premise-pilots
The Fox Contest / NYTVF
ES: What was your overall impression of the contest and/or the New York Television Festival?
RO: It’s a really cool festival. Going in I was only aware of the Fox contest, but there are so many sponsored contests within it that there’s really something for anyone interested in any facet of television.
ES: Were there any areas that you feel need improvement?
RO: Not really. The thing to remember is that it’s a “TV” festival and not a “scripted programming” festival. If you go into it thinking “this is a festival about writing comedy” or that TV as a business is just about writing comedy, then you’re in for some education.
ES: I have to imagine scoring a development deal with Fox gets you a ton of attention. What was that first week like after winning?
RO: Really fun. I mean, I got money for writing for the first time in my life. I wish that meant less to me than it did, but that was great. I rode that high for a long time.
But did it get me a lot of attention? Yes and no. It got me the attention that mattered the most, which was professional validation and agency representation. But no, it wasn’t like my phone was ringing non-stop with 310 and 323 area codes. I didn’t quit any jobs. I’m still slogging through it like most everyone. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
ES: Has the contest win led to any new friendships, business contacts, doors to the industry opening, etc.?
RO: What I expected doesn’t mean a whole lot because I just didn’t know much at all about TV as a business. I’m learning that network TV has a very definite calendar, so Fox deals with its scripts during very specific months of the year, then its pilots, etc., before the cycle starts over again for the next year. Right now things are quiet with Adulthood, but fingers crossed there will be activity on it soon.
Having the development deal means building a relationship with Fox. It might be Adulthood that we work on together, though I’d love to be a staff writer on someone else’s show. That would be an amazing education I think.
ES: Your website notes that you currently have representation; was this a result of the win, or were you repped before?
RO: I already had an amazing features manager from before, but winning the contest got me totally stellar TV agents and now I feel pretty well covered.
ES: With this contest, is Fox looking mainly for a show to produce or are they looking for a writer to develop and build a relationship?
RO: Good question and I don’t know. I hope it’s a little of both because that means there’s hope for my show and then hope for me afterwards if my show doesn’t make it to pilot or series.
ES: Advice for anyone entering next year?
RO: Chose a title that starts with an “A”. I’m joking, but it was fun to see my script at the top of the list of 25 finalists. It took me a few minutes to realize the list was in alphabetical order, but for those few minutes I thought I’d already won!
ES: What’s next? What are you working on? Anything you want to pimp or sell to us?
RO: I’m just trying to write more. The contest was fantastic, but winning it doesn’t mean it’s time to rest on my laurels. I’ve got a lot to learn still. Also there are a lot of people who want to break into TV and even people who’ve been employed for years have to hustle to sell their ideas and get staffed.
A HUGE thanks goes out to Robby for taking the time to answer these questions. I think his point about having a good hook for your show is important to note. Based on a lot of interviews I’ve heard with showrunners, you need a strong hook to sell a show, but once the show is on the air there’s less of a reliance on the hook as the characters take over and draw the audience in. Draw people in with insanity and keep them around with empathy.
If you have any other questions for Robby, feel free to drop them in the comments section or contact him directly: