From Judd Apatow's MasterClass

Tips for Writing Television

Writing an entire season of television can be a daunting task. Judd gives you guidance on how to familiarize yourself with writing for this unique format, plus insight into how he and his collaborators plan a full-season arc.

Topics include: Deconstruct Your Favorite Shows • Determine the End of the Season and Work Backward • Take the Opportunity to Explore Characters Deeply

Play

Writing an entire season of television can be a daunting task. Judd gives you guidance on how to familiarize yourself with writing for this unique format, plus insight into how he and his collaborators plan a full-season arc.

Topics include: Deconstruct Your Favorite Shows • Determine the End of the Season and Work Backward • Take the Opportunity to Explore Characters Deeply

Judd Apatow

Teaches Comedy

Learn More

Preview

I met this producer when I was a young, not good, comedian who encouraged me to write a television pilot. And he was someone who had done a fair amount of TV. Very old-school. Maybe he did shows that were like Barnaby Jones-type shows. And he said, you should write a pilot. And there was no reason for me to write a pilot. I wasn't a writer, I wasn't part of that community. But I sat down with my friend Joel Madison, a great comedian from the Midwest, and we wrote a pilot for our favorite young comedy people, The Higgins Boys and Gruber. So how I approached learning to write that pilot was, I had somebody, I don't remember who, hunt me down scripts of Taxi. And I read 50 scripts of the TV show Taxi. And then I had someone else hunt me down the Simpsons scripts. Now, the Simpsons had only been on one season. But I got all the scripts for those 13 episodes. And I read all of them. But what I did was, I would read Taxi episodes and as I read them, I would outline them on another piece of paper. First scene, this happened, second scene, this happened, third scene, this happen. Here's how they resolve that story. And after doing that on a bunch of episodes, I realized that there was a structure. Oh, they set up the problem on scene one, and then they made it worse in scene four, and then there was a big blow up in scene six, and then on scene 11 there was some sort of resolution grace note. And I could see how they were structuring their A and B story, and sometimes a little C story. So without taking a class, I just cracked the code of how they were telling stories. So Joel and I wrote a pilot for them. Nothing ever happened with it, but I think we realized, oh, you can write one, this is what one looks like. And we thought it was OK. It was a decent sample of our writing. But most importantly, it made us realize it's possible to start a script and finish it. That's the main thing we got out of it. Like, oh, you can write something. That almost seems like a sitcom. Oh, people do this. We could be better at it, but this is it. Every year, when a writing room gets together, there are different problems that need to be solved. You have to both come up with ideas for individual episodes and an idea for the arc of the season. So you might have a show like Love, where it's about a relationship and they come together, but very slowly. And the point of the show is, we're going to show you everything that happens in between the things you normally see. So if they meet each other and don't talk for two weeks, we're going to show you the two weeks. So with Love, we do-- the first episode would be where you meet Gus and Mickey. You would see the end of their previous relationships. You would see how they react to that. And then events would happen to them. And at the very end of the first episode, they both go to the same mini-mart at a gas station and meet. So the last second of the first episode is just them meeting. ...

Get serious about comedy

No joke: at age 15, Judd Apatow took a dishwashing job at a comedy club to watch the acts. Today, he’s the comedic genius behind hits including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Bridesmaids, and Freaks and Geeks. In his first-ever online comedy class, the Emmy Award winner teaches you how to create hilarious storylines, write great stand-up, and direct movies that leave audiences laughing.

Reviews

4.7
Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

I wrote new jokes, I got great insights into his feature writing process, I was fascinated to hear his tactics on directing, the examples from his films were helpful, but I was disappointed by the lack of man-tits after all that build-up.

Judd explains comedy in an approachable way and helped me learn to base my comedy in reality.

Fantastic course. Now I have to finish the two screenplays I have in the works and get them out into the world. Thanks for the inspiration and information, Judd. This was such a personal, professional and productive course.

I've been interested in doing comedy for years and I think that this Masterclass showed me how interesting it is to make jokes for a living. Congratulations to all those that are doing it and those who want to should take a leap of faith and give it a try!

Comments

EK T.

Shonda Rhimes has a great lesson that breaks down the structure for television and the Final Draft program features the 1-3-5 structure in the form of a template that breaks down the structure for a feature length screenplay.

Ali A.

Wasn't able to download any of the supplemental material. Was anyone else able to get it?? Love first draft and the Pilot specifically.

Robert W.

Rick Messina!!!! I used to live in his guest house/game room/Woodsie’s! Great Class BTW! Thanks for sharing your wisdom Judd

Marcy S.

Its interesting how obsessively Judd studies and breaks everything apart to a science. I wonder if he could talk about the importance of obsession and success in this or any field

A fellow student

Hi, Would it be possible to get copies of old shows to reverse engineer them as you explained? Thanks, Chris

Warren D.

Not only is Judd's descriptions of writing helpful, but the scripts themselves make it so much easier to understand how to do it. I find the process of going through everything extremely helpful in developing story and character in my own writing. This is such a wonderful presentation and guidance.

Kyle W.

Reposting this here because Judd mentions Joel by name in this video. A CANDID CONVERSATION WITH COMEDY WRITER JOEL MADISON (Roseanne, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Undeclared, Crashing) ME: Were your parents into comedy at all? JOEL MADISON: Not really. My dad was a butcher. ME: A job filled with comedy. But that’s cool. Butchery is an art. JOEL MADISON: Right. Absolutely. When I was really little I used to come in sometimes and check it out but not much. But I remember he used to always have cuts on his hands so, I don’t know, maybe he wasn’t a very good butcher. ME: So how did you get into comedy? Well, I was always funny, you know around the house and stuff. One of those deals. And I know I wanted to be a stand-up when I was younger but it seemed crazy. ME: What introduced you to the comedy world? What were you watching/listening to? JOEL MADISON: I mean, I liked all the comedy TV shows so I definitely watched them. And then my dad used to take me to all these old comedy movie theaters but he’d fall asleep. ME: Like Laurel and Hardy? JOEL MADISON: Exactly. Or WC Fields. Or whatever. And they did have some early comedy records. ME: Borscht belt stuff? JOEL MADISON: No, these group albums from the 60’s that were kind of hip at the time, like You Don’t Have to Be Jewish, and When You’re in Love the Whole World’s Jewish. They were a sketch team and they put out these comedy records. But early on I had a few Godfrey Cambridge albums and those early Cosby records. ME: Me too. First stand-up I ever knew and loved, Bill Cosby. Absolutely sucks now to say that but it’s true. JOEL MADISON: Yeah I know. It’s awful. An incredible story-teller though. I also loved Cheech and Chong in high school. ME: *in Tommy Chong voice* Who is it? JOEL MADISON: “Dave” ME: *in Tommy Chong voice* Dave’s not here. JOEL MADISON: Exactly. So eventually I end up quitting college and working in this scrap iron place with my Uncle. ME: Wait a minute… is your life Flashdance? JOEL MADISON: Close. ME: Only with slightly more erotic dancing. JOEL MADISON: I wish. Sadly there weren’t really any hot chicks up there in St. Cloud Minnesota. So, after that I went to Broadcasting School for a little bit. I wanted to be a radio announcer. And after a bit of happenstance I was offered a gig that I didn't want so I decided to take a job selling stereos in San Diego. ME: Not a bad life. JOEL MADISON: Not bad at all. Making good money, living in San Diego. But the business model started to turn and around the same time I started doing open mics at the Comedy Store down there. ME: La Jolla. Great room. JOEL MADISON: Such a good room. So I did the open mic there for a year. And I had checked out the LA scene a little but I wasn’t ready yet. I didn’t have an act. I was only a year in. So I was back visiting my mom who had moved to Minneapolis and while I was there I started checking out the comedy scene and I found that, you know, there was one. It was Louie Anderson, a guy named Bill Bowers, Scott Hanson… a few other guys. So I walked in one night and told them I had been doing some stand up and they were all really super nice and let me go up. I also started working the door. So I saw like hundreds of comics over that period of time which was like my comedy education. And Louie liked me and said I could come back and work weekends when I’m in town. So I ended up moving to Minneapolis and getting a lot of stage time. And then I started doing the road from Minneapolis and I started to piece together road gigs. But then everyone started moving to LA. Louie moved in ‘84 and that really hurt the scene a lot. All the sudden there was really no superstar. So I didn’t want to move, but I really didn’t care the be the biggest thing in Minneapolis. So I was kind of forced to come out here a little bit. But I came out here and was on the road three weeks a month and I was pretty burnt out when I cam to LA and the last thing I wanted to do was stand in line at the clubs to do stand-up. So that’s when I started to get a little bored and started working more on writing. And that’s when I met Judd, doing like one-nighters an hour outside somewhere, and we would just jam together because he loved to write. I know he was also ambitious, but more than anything he just really liked to write. To joke write. So, either he suggested that I write jokes for him or I suggested he write jokes for me, however he remembers it. And then the idea came around that, “OK what if we write jokes for other people?” ME: So, how did you get started writing narrative stuff? JOEL MADISON: So, Judd actually was the one who said we should write a spec. ME: Do you remember what the spec was? JOEL MADISON: I think we wrote an original one together and then I went off and wrote a Coach. But, I was also writing a little bit for Tom Arnold and Roseanne, because Tom was my old running buddy from back in Minneapolis. He had come up from Iowa. And, what’s funny is, a lot of people were scared of him. Like “who is this big crazy guy?” But I loved him. He was like the most fun guy to hang around with. ME: Yeah I have met Tom once or twice. Super nice. Very gregarious. JOEL: He’s the best. And imagine running with him! I mean we RAN. But, you know then he started getting into drugs a little more than I was comfortable with and so on. But, he needed jokes for Roseanne. I was writing jokes for him for Roseanne. So right at the conflux, Judd was working with Ben Stiller on some stuff… and Roseanne offered him a job too. But he didn’t want it. He didn’t want to do scripted. He wanted to do sketch. So that was cool but I was not interested in that. I had no experience in sketch and I wanted to write long-form. So, she hired me. That was it. I was a “who you know.” ME: So on your journey you ended up writing for the last season of The Fresh Prince. What was that experience like? JOEL MADISON: It was a nightmare. ME: Really? A nightmare? Just a bad writer’s situation? JOEL MADISON: Yeah just a bad room. I’ll tell you what happened. Last season. I had been doing late night writing and then this job came about and not that many people were going out for it because apparently the show had a bad reputation that no one one told me about. Awesome. So, I got hired and on and another supervising producer had been hired first because everyone had left but this one guy. But they didn’t hire top down. They hired us and still didn’t have a showrunner which was a bad sign. But they hired this guy, older guy who was actually really cool. He had worked on Laugh-In and had cool stories and we got lunch and had the best pre-production and we cobbled together a writing staff. But what happened was we got two weeks out from when we were supposed to start shooting and we realized we didn’t have any scripts or stories approved. Because ABC would get a shot at killing the story and then the production company would get a shot at killing the story and then Will’s manager. Quincy’s Jones’ company would get a shot. So ideas would just be shot down left and right. Then, Will’s manager had directed something once and fancied himself a writer and decided that he would be better at running this thing because he has Will’s ear and knows what Will wants, etc. So everybody just says, “yeah.” Because that’s what Will wanted and they just wanted to get this done. So the first showrunner blew a rod and he took his name off of the first script and changed it to a pseudonym and he took off. He left. And that guy, Jeff Pollack, who has since passed away was running the show and he had never run a show before. It was just terrible. He couldn’t string a story together. He had us working insane hours. We’d leave at 4AM and have to be back at 10AM. And they started drinking really heavy. And it was bad. Also he didn’t know how to fix shit so anytime something was wrong he just threw out the whole script and we would have to break a new story right then. It was a nightmare. ME: And that was post-Roseanne right? JOEL MADISON: Post-Roseanne. ME: What was that experience like? JOEL MADISON: Honestly I had nothing to compare it to at the time. Bunch of us sitting in a room. Really disfunction too but it was kind of boring. I had my couple buddies there that I goofed around with, and I goofed around a lot. Got some jokes in. Wrote some descent scripts. Kind learned but the guy that was running it was not a really good teacher or mentor so… ME: I was going to ask you if you’ve had any mentors or great teachers in your life. JOEL MADISON: I’m sure I have here and there, but no one that comes to mind. Not like when you hear the great stories about mentors. ME: OK. SO, you’ve done mostly TV stuff. Do you prefer TV over film? JOEL MADISON: That’s just who hires me. That’s kind of how it goes. But I’ve done features. I’ve done punch up on features. ME: Punch-up is great job if you can get it. JOEL MADISON: Great job. I’d like to do that more. Wrote a couple a things on spec that went nowhere. But yeah, you just go where they’ll hire you. ME: So you were a consulting producer on Crashing last season right? JOEL MADISON: Yeah. Season one. ME: For those who don’t know what exactly is a consulting producer? JOEL MADISON: They usually give the title out when a guy’s been around a long time but they don't know what to call him. I mean I wasn't a staff writer. That would be insanity. And they don’t want me to be co-exec or exec or have any real power or responsibility so they say, “well come on and be a consulting producer.” It is at this point in the meal that we are interrupted by a thirsty writer who someone had told about Joel’s career. She proceeded to take up a lot of his time and then made him recite his credits to see if she knew anything. Now, I’m no expert in being successful in Hollywood, but he clearly hated having to do that and I highly recommend not repeating her mistake. Even though she was annoying, she did ask a good question about process. THIRSTY WRITER: Do you like to write longer or outline longer? JOEL MADISON: Honestly , I think you should be outlining for probably ten weeks and then writing for three weeks. And too many people do it the other way around. After she left Joel continued talking about a class he had just finished teaching at Columbia College. JOEL MADISON: So it’s been interesting to re-examine it (writing) and think about, “well, would would have been helpful to me?” The thing I realized is most people really don’t know how to write for action. Most slide back into being prosaic which is wrong. You just need to get to it. And, big secret, no one who’s gonna read your script really reads action anyway. After that inside info I turned off the recorder and we just hung out for a bit. Joel’s a really fun guy and I’m glad we got to know each other better. I met him only once before this through a mutual friend and he graciously allowed me to speak with him at length despite not really knowing me. I learned a lot, got inspired, and made plans to speak with him again. I love this class.

Mia S.

"When you have ideas, early in the process you usually know if it's a movie or a TV show. Ideas that need to be explored over a long amount of time are the ones you want to do on television; you certainly can at the last minute go, 'I think it's a movie!' But there's a finality to movies. A lot of my movies, I guess they could have been TV shows. It certainly would've been fun to have a TV show where Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen are raising a baby. But you do make that choice early on, and I don't think ideas necessarily scream that they must be a movie or a TV show. When you're making TV it's different than movies because with movies - you have an end. You have to make choices about whether it worked out, didn't work out, whether people wound up happy or unhappy... but with a series it's a continuous exploration of how people are doing, and that's what's fun about television. At the end of 40 Year Old Virgin, we think, 'Oh, he's happy. He had a secret, he was lonely, now he's not lonely, I'm glad that all worked out' and that's a fun experience, but if that was a TV show, then the next episode is - 'Well, how are they getting along?' 'How do they do with the baby?' 'How do all these issues come back to life in their ongoing sex life, when he's a parent?' 'What's wrong with him that made him a virgin that now makes him a weird parent?' That's how series work. If you watch The Larry Sanders Show, nothing is ever resolved. Moments are resolved, daily problems are resolved, but they're all basically continuing at the same time. You don't have to say, 'That worked out.' You're aware that more problems are coming, more challenges, and that's what we love about TV series. Ongoing struggle- am I a good guy, am I a demon? We sense that he's having some inner conflict about what kind of person he wants to be; we're learning more and more about how he was raised, what turned him into Tony Soprano. You can only do that deeply in TV. We watched years and years of that show, and you couldn't fit that into two hours. There's an art to choosing what you want to show in a movie - but it is limited. There's something wonderful about spending all those years with Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad, and they're both fantastic mediums. But TV is really about the deep exploration, without having to make final determinations about these characters. It's an ongoing journey."

Mia S.

"We knew that we wanted the first season to be about all the false starts before they decide that they should be a couple, or they should attempt to date. Throughout the season, they're feeling each other out to decide if they want to go out at all. One of the choices we made was that, at first he seems really into her, but then he becomes interested with someone at work, and then even though we think that she's going to be the one pursued, she gets stalkery and super emotional and is furious that he has a thing happening with somebody at work. She melts down and creates a scene. In a writer's room, we know the ending of the season at some point, and we're trying to build all the steps to get to that ending. We're having a conversation about this one story, which is the 12 episode story, and then we have to figure out the details of the 12 steps of that story. That's not always how it works - sometimes,people on a show are writing episodes and they do not know what the end of the season is. I personally don't love working that way. I like to know where I'm trying to get to. With every season, on every show, we may not know all the beats, but we basically try to know where we want to get at the end of the season, and then we can rewrite the details all day long. But 'this is the season where...' Then Season Two we knew, this is the season they start dating, she gets a little panicked and starts cheating on him; he never finds out that she was cheating on him. And we knew that early on - 'this is the season where she cheats and he doesn't find out.'"

Mia S.

"How I approached learning to write that pilot was, I had somebody, I don't remember who, hunt me down scripts of Taxi. I read 50 scripts of the TV show, and then I had someone else hunt me down The Simpsons scripts. I read all of them. As I read them I would outline them on another piece of paper - first scene, this happened, second scene, this happened. Here's how they resolved that story. After doing that on a bunch of episodes, I realized that there was a structure. 'Oh, they set up the problem in Scene One, then they made it worse in Scene Four - then there was a big blow up on Scene Six, and then on Scene 11 there was some sort of resolution grace note. I could see how they were structuring their A and B story, and sometimes a little C story. I just cracked the code of how they were telling stories. Every year when the writing room gets together, there are different problems that need to be solved. You have to both come up with ideas for individual episodes, and an idea for the arc of the season. You might have a show like Love, where it's about a relationship, and they come together but very slowly. The point of the show is, We're going to show you everything that happens in between the things you normally see. If they meet each other and don't talk for two weeks, we're going to show you the two weeks. The first episode would be where you meet Gus and Mickey; you see the end of their previous relationships, you would see how they react to that, and then events would happen to them, and at the very end of the first episode, they go to the same mini-mart at a gas station and meet. So the last second of the first episode is just them, meeting."