What not to do in spec sitcom writing: ‘Schmuckbait’

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New Girl!

It’s hard to believe I’ve been in school (and LA!) for a month now. I’ve had to learn a lot about the city and UCLA really quickly, but now that I’m comfortable with my courses and more confident about approaching a new industry, I’d like to share the big takeaway from my spec sitcom writing workshop.

On Monday, we had to present our ideas for a spec script. I of course chose to spec New Girl, as I love everything about the show and strongly identify with lead Jessica Day, portrayed effortlessly by fellow wide-eyed lass Zooey Deschanel. One would think I’d have an easy time coming up with episode ideas given how much time I’ve spent reading New Girl scripts, watching and re-watching every single episode, and living in the Jessica Day mindset, but my initial spec plan was no good and I knew it.

During class, I said I’d like to spec an episode in which Nick and Jess decide to take their relationship to the next level and get a place together. I knew going in that they wouldn’t end up doing it, and so did my professor. Big shocker, right? The professional TV writer calls bullshit in a second!

“This is what we call ‘schmuckbaiting,'” she said. “Because it’s so obvious that they’re not actually going to move out of the loft to live together as a couple.”

My professor went on to warn us all about slipping into “schmuckbait” territory even though so many shows are guilty of it. Here’s how one blogger describes the word, which I hadn’t heard until my instructor used it:

The general sense, as the etymology would suggest, is to refer to something that the writer is doing to try to trick the audience … or to trick the more gullible segment of the audience anyway. To “bait” the “schmuck,” if you will … Most writers, and most writers’ rooms, however, use the term to refer to an attempt to fool the audience into thinking something is going to happen which any intelligent viewer KNOWS won’t happen.

Here’s another good description of “schmuckbaiting”:

Okay, so “schmuck bait” is the term for teasing the audience with something that is not really ever going to happen. Uh-oh, what if Rachel moves to Paris and never comes back to Ross? Uh oh, what if a sniper blows Jack Bauer’s head off? I’ve also seen it used in a different way in a Buffy script: Giles works a flashlight, poking about in the mist-shrouded, schmuck baity cemetery.. Here, we’re expecting something is going to leap out and attack him. But nothing does.

Thankfully, the entire class brainstormed strategies for me to further my spec in a smart and creative way: have Jess merely move into Nick’s room, get Winston to use the extra space as an amusement park area for his cat, etc. I ultimately chose to scrap the idea entirely, but I have a much better episode plan now. It’s also important to avoid putting life-changing situations in specs, so I’m staying away from the dramatic as well. It really feels good to receive feedback for my spec pitches and ideas, especially when I’m on the fence about the storyline I’ve created. Sitcom writing is collaborative, and in the past, that would have scared me, but now I’m just thankful for the guidance.

What’s been your experience with spec writing? Do share in the comments section.

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