Thursday, July 9, 2009

3Questions: David Light - TV Writer

As part of our continuing 3Questions series, I present David Light, a television writer.

HBAD: So, tell us about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, what does that position involve?

DL: I am comedy writer who specializes in creating TV pilots that never get made. Really. My crowning achievement to date was selling the Handicapped Stall Etiquette episode to Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. Though, I have developed, written, and sold 4 pilots -- I have yet to have one my shows produced.

HBAD: How did you get your start?

DL: I studied Poli-Sci at Columbia University, but found the doodles in the margins of my notebooks to be some of my finer work. So, I moved out to Los Angeles to become an animator. Only problem was cool doodles are not exactly transferable skills and I had no contacts in animation. So, I'd wait until after hours at the big studios and dial variations of the main number, cribbing names and titles off of voicemail, hang up, and cold call during the day. I bumbled my way into any animation meeting I could get, I was a networking machine.

Then, one night over at a friend's house, I shared my frustration that I had nothing to show for all the hard work and, as luck would have it, I was seated next to a producer who was staffing for a feature animated film! He invited me to take an animation test. I passed and was trained to work as an in-betweener. I worked in animation for four more years, developing cartoons for Nickelodeon and MTV Animation.

While working in development, I became fired-up about story telling and learned that at the heart of every idea I felt passionate about was fully drawn characters and well written scripts. And so I set out to learn how to become a screenwriter and applied film school at Columbia University's School of the Arts.

Film school is a place where students, or more specifically, "artists" try to out-suffer one another. As if whoever has the more tragic and grotesque story of personal human suffering will be the best artist. So, it was surreal to be writing comedy there. I used to get backhanded compliments like, "I wish I could be commercial." In grad school, I wrote a bunch of scripts and made a couple of shorts, always with an eye on the business. I even ghostwrote a Disney feature while I finished my MFA.

Then, I moved back to Hollywood, this time with my wife - who in the meantime had become a young superstar Rabbi (Rabbi Sharon Brous). I worked in animation for a handful of seasons on the Japanimated hit Yugioh, which meant I was demigod to eleven year old boys. The studio would send me transcripts and I'd have to rewrite them to match the lip-flaps of the pre-existing animation. It was a strange way to write - sort of like animated Mad Libs.

Meanwhile, I wrote spec scripts of existing TV shows. Though my writing samples won some awards and were well received, I found that every interview I went to, people never wanted to hear about my comedy writing, but found the fact that I was married to a rabbi to be infinitely more interesting. And it was.

And so the first original TV pilot I wrote, Morningside Heights, was about my wife's experience surviving Seminary. The idea was about clergy-to-be struggling with the mysteries of the universe, while just trying to find a date. And it miraculously sold to NBC and I began developing and selling TV shows.

HBAD: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in this business, looking to become a television writer?

DL: My advice is that you have to constantly produce and create. This is what separates you from the folks that think they want to write and the people that are writers. Try to choose ideas that excite you, that have some meat to them - because this takes a long time. Choose ideas that are radically original and yet feel like they must've been done before and if not they need to be done now. At every level you need to believe in your idea. If it doesn't excite you - how is an agent, producer, studio, stars, and marketing department going to get on board? My buddy has a good way of judging if an idea is marketable - if you bring it up at party and people want to talk about it, debate it, and have experienced something similar, you're onto something. If people avoid the topic like it's swine flu - well, then it stinks.

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