Published on January 30th, 2012 | by Sharilyn Johnson


Louis CK on how pilots are made — usually.

Deadline Hollywood reports today that a pilot written by Louis C.K. and Spike Feresten, originally conceived 13 years ago, has been dusted off and picked up by CBS.

Fun fact: before C.K. became a certified Huge Effing Deal, he contributed to comedy-related newsgroups on Usenet (remember that, kids?). He offered up info on everything from how to select the right management, to how to edit your own video (“nothing beats a Mac and Final Cut Pro” – 2001), to… what it’s like to get a pilot made.

Long before the advent of the coveted “Louis deal” (wherein an artist is handed a wad of money, no questions asked, and has total creative control — currently only afforded to Louis himself for his F/X series Louie), he was playing the pilot game just like everyone else. A few pilot orders came and went, which we heard about. Probably a lot more came and went that we didn’t.

in 2006, at the time of this writing, HBO’s Lucky Louie had beaten the odds and made it to air, but would only last a season.

Even if you have no dreams of primetime stardom yourself, C.K.’s non-sugarcoated account of the process is a great read. Trust C.K. to make a painful experience so thoroughly entertaining.

(And kindly forgive his typos. Nobody thought these archives would exist forever, and most of us can only wish that a sticky “l” key was our biggest Usenet-related embarrassment.)

So here’s a rough outline of how it works, taking a show from pitch to series…

The first step is to meet with a development executive at the network or studio and pitch them the general idea of the show. Usually you do this with several companies over a week or so, sometime in July or August. Then the agent fields the offers from the interested people, and you weigh the offers and decide which network/studio to go with according to three criteria: Who really gets your show and will let you do it without fucking it up. Who is actually most likely to pick up the show. Who is paying you the most money (the worst reason to go with anyone). If no one has made an offer, you just go fuck yourself.

If you have sold your show to a studio, you now go on another round of pitch meetings with them in tow, to sell the show to a network. If you are able to sell to a network, then you start working, now for both entities. (In my case, I sold the show to HBO Independant Productions, which is making the show for HBO, which are a lot of the same people, so my life is easier. )

Then the agent makes your deal and you start working.

The first thing you have to do is come up with the general story line for the pilot, which you pitch to the executives, first studio, then network. Once the story is basically agreed to, you write an outline, which is just a blow by blow description of each scene in paragraph form, which should include all plot points and any funny details or jokes you already have. You then pass the outline in to the studio, which gives you notes. You take their notes and re-write it and if they are satisfied, you pass it in to the network. They now give notes which you re-write the outline with and then pass it in until the network and the studio are both happy. When that happens, it’s time to write the pilot script. So you go off and take as long as you need to churn out a first draft. I think this took me a couple of months. Only about three days were spent actually writing. The other fifty seven were spent driving myself nuts while ruminating about what the show is and how to do it. That’s me. Some people write every day, just pounds and pounds of words. I do a lot of work in my head and then just shit it out like fast diarreah.

Okay, so you now have a first draft and you give it to the studio. They read it and then you get their notes. The same thing happens now that happened for the outline only often it takes longer. Unless you wrote a good outline. What I mean is that, if you really tackle to story and get it right in the outline, sometimes the script is a lot easier. In any case, you go back and forth between studio and network until everybody agrees that the script is in good shape. Unless no one agrees or it is not in good shape. Generally, this is the first failure point for most pilots. The writer, studio and network bat the script around and it gets re-written to death, while other pilots are clicking along and improving. You will start to notice that the executives you’re dealing with are showing less and less interest and often you’ll just suddenly stop getting calls and your agent will say “Yeah… um… I think it’s time to move on.”

BUT if your script is good, if it stays hot and people like it and you, it’ll be decalred finished and passed in to the network for consideration for pick up. In other words, the executives you’ve been dealing with at the network, who are development people, will now give it to the top executives, Les Moonves, Kevin Reilley, whoever. In my case, Carolyn Strauss and Chris Albrecht. They read it and sometimes they have notes. If they have big notes, like they think there are essencial flaws in the script, you’re sent off to re-write yet again and they read it a second time. Sometimes this is a good sign because if they just don’t like it, the project will just die there. If they are giving you notes at this point it’s becaus they think it’s worth wasting a little time on it. So you do another rewrite and pass it in. Now it’s time to break out in hives and hit your children for no reason, because you have to wait.

Your script is now finished and on a very big and important desk with, depending on the network, LOTS of other scripts that have been through all the same shit. This point is usually reached, horribly enough,
right before the hollidays. The network presidents take a bunch of pilots home to read over the hollidays, while you spend the hollidays not knowing your future. It’s torture.

And the Hollidays, in Hollywood are a LONG FUCKING TIME. These people go away from about Haloween to New Year.

So now you hate all of life and it’s about the second week in January. People you know are starting to hear that their pilot has been picked up by the network you’re with. And you haven’t heard. You spend HOURS on the phone with your agent and friends, trying to read tea leaves that aren’t there. You run into someone that tells you they just had anal sex with the network president who told them that he is definitely picking up your show. Then your agent calls and tells you they’re passing. OR you get a call from your studio executive who tells you that, congratulations, they’re going to shoot your pilot.
Now it’s time to actually make the pilot. Holy mother fucking shit.

You have to do the following things as every pilot in the city is doing them simultaneously: Find a studio to shoot in. Cast your pilot. Find a director. Get back to work on the script because now that it’s being shot people have a LOT of notes that they held back before, when it was just a pipe dream.
If you are a strong enough and experienced enough writer, you are the show runner. But if you wrote the pilot but are a novice, you are also going to have to find a show-runner. In my case, I needed to find a show-running partner because I starred in the show as well as creating it, so once we started shooting I would not be an effective full–time show-runner without some help.

So you are trying to get the best actors, director and writer in the world at the same time that everyone else in town is trying… Okay, so casting. First you have to hire a casting director. There are only a few good ones and everybody wants them. you have to meet with a lot of people who tell you some ideas of who they might cast in your show. If you click with someone you hire them (if you can) and start casting. You see thousands of horrible actors and hear your pilot script read over and over and over and over again. At the same time, offers are going out to very big named actors, none of which you think fit the parts at all, but you are told they will help your show get on the air. (In my case, HBO doesn’t give a shit about that, so we were able to cast people according to their funninness and acting. Hooray for me) At one point you’re told that your pilot is going to star Brendan Frazier and Jody Foster. At the last minute they both pass and you end up with Kirk Cameron and Shelly Biglachnataps. The way the casting works is that you make usually three top picks for every part in the show. You now take these people to the studio and they decide if they like your choices. If they do, you take those three folks now to network. THey sign what is called a test deal, which means they make their acting deal before the network even sees them.

So yo uhave to negotiate a deal with three actors per part, even though only one of them will be hired. So the three actors (per part) go to the network and audition for LEs moonves or whoever. He/she/they pick one person and you are cast. OR (and usually) they don’t like any of them and you have to start all over again and now time is fucking running out and every good actor is already on a show.

Alright, so you cast your show and you hire a director, also very hard because there are maybe one of those that are good and he’s working on something else.

All of this hiring and setting up takes place over February and March. Some pilots spin out and crash because a good cast or showrunner was never found. So that day in Janurary, when you got the green light, goes from being the best to the worst day of your life.

But if you survive all of that, you shoot your pilot over some week in March or April (we shot ours in April).

The pilot shoot week breaks down like this:

Monday: table read. The network and studio come and watch the actors read the script. Then they give the writers notes. Sometimes the notes are staggering like “We don’t know if the main point of the story is really that good or funny.” And you have to insanely re-invent everything. This is probably not going to be a television show now. Just the worst week of your life. SOmetimes cast members get fired after the table read, and you now have one day to cast a part that took you a month to cast before. But if the notes are minimal and everythign looks like it’s basically working, you do your re-write happily as the director rehearses with the actors.

Tuesday: Runthrough: The show is acted out on the stage for the writers and the studio. the same thing happens as monday, you get notes. Then you give the director and the actors notes and go rewrite as they rehearse.

Wednesday: Runthroug: Now the network comes and watches the show on it’s feet. They give notes and you rewrite and rehearse again.

THursday: the cameras are brought in and you block the show for them, as the director decides how to shoot each scene. The actors should all be pretty ready at this point and the script should be stabalized. If you are still rewriting and casting at this point… you’re pretty fucked. But it happens.

Friday: bring in the audience and shoot the show. Some pilots take hours to shoot because no one has worked together, one or more actors are bad, and the network AND studio are giving notes after every single take so you are doing every scene several times just to placate people. They give the audience pizza but they still leave ande you end up shooting in an empty house for half the night. This didn’t happen to me fortunately. We shot the Lucky Louie pilot in about two and a half
hours (actually we did it twice)

Okay, so now the show has been shot and people get drunk.

THen you start editing which is a long and difficult process. The director edits first, then the showrunners. You pass in your edit to the studio, get notes and then the network. Then, when the pilot is totally edited, you wait. How you wait differs from place to place. I did a pilot at CBS and we had to wait while they tested the show. They do all kinds of screwy marketting experiments and they show the pilot to a test audience. You are given elaborate data according to the test and you often have to re-edit the pilot to adress the testing data. (HBO doesn’t test their shows, so i got to skip that this time) Finally, someone takes pictures of the cast looking desperate as they all sit on the same easy chair, and the pilot is complete. It is put on the desk of the network president, along with elaborate reports and photos of the cast, along with every other pilot that made it that far.

you wait and you wait. If it’s a network, you wait until the “Upfronts” when they announce their schedule in new york. SOme people are told the day of the announcement that they are or are not going to series. When I did the pilot at CBS, we were told we were in the running until the last second. Someone from Warner Brothers called me literally an hour before Les Moonves made his announcement, to say he wouldn’t be mentioning “Saint Louie” although we were strong contenders for mid-season (obviously that didn’t happen either)

HBO doesn’t do up-fronts and they don’t do marketing research. It’s just two people, Carolyn Strauss and Chris Ablrecht, who watch their pilots and then mull it over for a while and then decide. In our case, we were brought in about two weeks after we’d passed in the finished pilot, to meet with Albrecht and basically defend our thesis. We told him what we learned from doing the pilot and how we intended to execute a series if he gave us the chance. We left that meeting having NO idea which way he would go. About a week after that, I was picking up my daughter from her daycare when my phone buzzed in my pocket. It was someone from HIP calling to say “HBO has ordered twelve episodes of Lucky Louie”

Now, you think making a pilot is hard, try doing it twelve times in six months.

(Original post.)


About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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