We spoke with Jay Cundiff and Kyle Jorgensen, ScreenCraft’s Comedy Half Hour Winners, and talked about their winning script, Special, and the overall craft of screenwriting. Special centers on a group of adolescent special needs students who must sell the most magazine subscriptions for a fundraiser in order to win a bet against bullies and enjoy a pizza party with the local weatherman. It’s a darkly hilarious pilot with a distinct and endearing ensemble cast, sharp dialogue, and believable conflicts.
What is your writing process and how long have you been writing?
We’ve been friends since the third grade, but we didn’t start writing together until 2013. As far as we know, our writing process is pretty standard. First, we get together and pitch random ideas around until we land on something that we both really connect with. Then we take that basic idea and build the characters and world of our script. Once that foundation is in place, we come up with the main turns of our story. Then one of us goes off and writes a beat sheet. Through notes and further discussion, it gets built into an outline. The outlining phase is by far the most important part of our writing process. It’s where we spend the majority of our time when creating a new pilot. We’ve learned the hard way that it’s a lot easier to rework an outline than it is to rework a completed draft. So, we don’t typically move on from the outlining phase until it’s pretty much perfect. After that, one of us will go off and write the first draft. Once that first draft is complete, notes are given, and the other person writes the next draft, and so on. We’ll go back and forth this way until we find ourselves debating minute details that ultimately don’t matter. By the time we’re through, we will have written anywhere from 7 to 10 drafts.
How have you honed your craft since you began writing and what resource or activity has been the most helpful in that regard?
JAY: I’ve taken writing classes at The Second City and iO, belonged to several writing groups and read all the usual screenwriting books. The TV Writer’s Workbook by Ellen Sandler has been an invaluable resource that I return to often. However, the thing that has helped to improve my writing the most has been actually sitting down and doing the work. That seems so obvious, but I’m always surprised by the number of people I meet who attend all the lectures and have read all the books but never seem to sit down and actually do any writing. That really is the only way to improve. If you put in the hours, you will get better.
KYLE: I’ve read several how-to books, and Jay and I share articles and writer interviews we find online. I took a course at iO West in the summer of 2015. It taught me basic sitcom structure, key concepts, what a pilot must do, etc. The most helpful activity though is writing, getting feedback, and trying again.
What was the genesis of Special? How many drafts have you done and how much has the story evolved? Having multiple contest finalist placements and wins under your belt now, any advice you would offer screenwriters about potentially entering screenplay competitions?
Special was inspired by the special needs kids that we grew up with. We attended a school district where they were integrated into our classrooms full time, so we had the opportunity to really get to know all of them. One thing that really struck us back then though was how much the faculty underestimated the emotional and intellectual intelligence of those kids. Teachers would always treat them as if they needed to be protected as if they were incapable of surviving amongst the so-called “normal” students, but we always knew better. The truth is, they were sociable, funny, and often times completely devious. So, we wanted to write a show that conveyed that experience.
Initially, the show was about a down and out, rock ‘n’ roll tour bus driver who, after a major screw up, ends up taking a job as a bus driver for a group of special needs kids. The intended hook was that of a rock ‘n’ roll lifer vitalizing his group of meek, special-needs kids with an anti-authority spirit. It was a lot (probably too much) like School of Rock. However, after the first draft, it became very clear that the kids needed to be the focus of the show. So, we completely overhauled the premise. In the end, we probably wrote around ten drafts.
When it comes to contests, the most important bit of advice we can give is you have to be strategic about which contests you enter. There are hundreds of contests out there, and 95% of them are not worth your time or money. There are twenty or so well-known contests that have a track record of their winners obtaining representation, and those are the contests you should be entering. A win is nice, but representation and paid work should always be the goal when ponying up that entry fee. If you do decide to enter a lesser known contest, at least do a little research first. Who is running the contest, and who are the judges? Do they have any real influence or connections in the industry? What are the previous winners up to now? Have any of them gone on to obtain representation? If you are less than impressed by the answers you find, it probably isn’t worth your time.
What kind of stories are you drawn to tell? Favorite genre? What other projects do you have besides SPECIAL?
We’re drawn to stories where the kids are in charge, but still look and act like kids. Stories where their problems and desires are relatable, even if the kids themselves or the environments they live in have a surreal bent. The old Nickelodeon shows from the early 90s always managed to pull this off perfectly, and without being condescending. Our go-to genres are comedy and whodunits, but we’re always looking for ways to step out of our comfort zone and incorporate other genres into our writing. We have a pilot called Elvis Bites Man that we’re really excited about. It’s basically a grown-up, hour-long version of Scooby Doo, with some of the broad elements of Angie Tribeca. We’re really proud of it. We also have a children’s mystery show in the works. It’s in the same vein as two of our childhood favorites, Encyclopedia Brown and Eerie Indiana. If you haven’t already figured it out, we wish it was still 1993, and we’re just writing shows for the 8-year-old versions of ourselves.
What’s the best operating principle or piece of advice on screenwriting you’ve ever gotten?
JAY: The best operating principle I’ve come across is the Trey Parker and Matt Stone “Therefore or But” rule. The idea is that if you can take the beats of your script and place the phrase “and then” between them, your script has no causation, and therefore is super boring. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens. However, if you can place the words “therefore” or “but” between the beats, then you have causation and a real story.
KYLE: In Syd Field’s book, he talks about conflict being the nucleus of any scene. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially what he says is that whether the scene serves to illuminate character, move the story forward, or both, the galvanizing force by which that is accomplished should be a conflict of some kind. So basically, every scene needs conflict. If not, it will be flat.
Who are your writing influences?
We’ve always gravitated towards subversives and anti-authoritarians — Will McRobb & Chris Viscardi, Savage Steve Holland, John Hughes, Paul Reubens, Amy Heckerling, Ben Hardaway, Trey Parker & Matt Stone, Alex Cox, Mike Judge. We’re always hoping to capture the same kind of attitude and energy in our own writing that they bring to theirs.
What are your short-term and long-term goals in the industry? What have you been able to do in your career so far and what would you like to do next?
Our goal right now is to cut our teeth as staff writers and learn everything that we possibly can. We’ve placed in a handful of contests, and that’s been incredibly gratifying, but we’d really love to take that next step and get hired onto a writing staff.