This week, Phil Stark, screenwriter turned therapist, answers a question about what kind of sample is worth writing to showcase your talents as a writer.

PHIL STARK | JUNE 11, 2024

Many of the problems we face as screenwriters are related to the reality of the craft: third act structure, navigating notes, character development, the pitch process, etc. At the same time, there are personal and emotional issues that influence the practical work: imposter syndrome, the inner critic, shame and anger, professional jealousy, etc. I have the screenwriting experience to address questions about the practical aspects of the work, and the therapy experience to explore the personal and emotional considerations that inform the work of screenwriting.

My email address will be at the end of every column, so please send in your questions and comments about life at the intersection of screenwriting and mental health. It’s a busy intersection!

Dear Phil,

I’m considering what kind of script to start for my next writing sample. I want to get into scripted comedy, so I’m thinking about writing a spec of an existing show, but there are so many shows out there I’m struggling to figure out which one to write! 

I’m also thinking about writing a pilot because that way it would be both a sample and a shot at selling something original if people like it. I also have a feature idea I was considering writing, but that’s more of a time commitment, so I’m wondering if that will be worth the effort, or at least not as efficient as writing an episode of TV. I guess my question is, in terms of coming up with my next sample, what should I write?

Signed, What Should I Sample?

Dear What Should I Sample?,

This is an interesting question, What Should I Sample? because the answer seems to change over time. In the late 90s when I was starting out as a television comedy writer the acceptable form for writing samples was a spec episode of an existing show. Of course, back then network schedules were packed with 1/2 hour multi-camera comedies, so the format and content was very similar among your options. Later on in the 2000s, the trend became more about wanting to read an original pilot. It seems like the ideal sample changes over time, but let’s not gloss over the whole point of the sample: to show you’re a talented writer who would be an asset to a writing staff.

How does your sample show this? It should prove that you know how to craft a story. You can write compelling characters. You can create enjoyable, believable dialogue. You understand formatting considerations. And if you’re in comedy, you can be funny. 

In my mind, the best sample does all this, regarding of the specific kind of script you write. So yes, it is smart to consider whether to go with as spec of an existing show or an original pilot, but don’t limit yourself to that. There are all kinds of other ways to provide a sample that proves your skill and talent as a writer. Personal essays and informative articles are also great ways to showcase yourself. Of course, you need to have some baseline samples that are in script form to show you can do the work specific to writing on a TV show, but once you have those I would encourage you to think outside the box.

The agents, executives, and producers who are going to read your material are, I imagine, getting all kinds of different specs and original pilots, and probably all kinds of similar specs and original pilots to the ones you might write, so I would challenge you to write something that would cut through the clutter. A personal essay about something you’ve experienced in life that shows your sense of humor and what kind of person you are. An article that shows the thoughts you have on a particular subject and how you can communicate that in a clear, humorous way. Anything you can write that someone can read and appreciate can be a sample.

That includes scripts that could never get made. I remember an original pilot I read in the late 90s that was basically a version of Friends but with four terrorists from the Middle East living in an American city, biding their time, learning about American culture, until they got instructions on how to proceed from their handlers. It was a pretty serious premise but the story was about being single in the city and dating. 

Now this script would NEVER get made, but it sure made me curious about reading it, and it turned out to be really funny. 

Or what about a mash-up of two existing shows, like what if the child of one of the House of the Dragon characters went to school at Abbott Elementary and showed up for parent-teacher conferences? Or the cast of The Office went on a boat ride and ended up stranded on Gilligan’s Island?

And you can even go further than that. A funny collection of crudely drawn cartoons with a really smart (or really stupid) comedic point of view. A collection of knock-knock jokes that has some deeper meaning than the typical joke book. A parody of the typical political or media newsletter. These can show your talent and skill as a writer in non-traditional ways, and I suspect that it might be a breath of fresh air for an executive to see, among all the Hacks or Ghosts specs, a weird, crudely drawn cartoon book about a guy trying to impress his father in law while avoiding the urge to kiss him, or an essay about what stepping on a child’s lego taught someone about how to be a parent. 

Get creative with your samples, because if you write from your heart and gut, regardless of the format, you’ll create something that will showcase your talent and voice as a writer. 

Therapist and screenwriter Phil Stark answers reader questions about topics at the intersection of screenwriting and mental health. Got a question for Phil? Email him at
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Phil Stark is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Los Angeles. He is also an author and screenwriter, with credits such as Dude, Where’s My Car?, That ‘70s Show, and South Park, along with a book about talk therapy, Dude, Where’s My Car-tharsis?. Learn more about Phil at

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