Interview with TV Comedy Writer F.J. Pratt

By Natasha Guimond · November 12, 2018

F.J. Pratt has been a TV comedy writer for over 20 years. He has produced and written over three hundred hours of television. F.J. has been on the writing staff for such network shows including, Frasier, which won an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy, Ellen, the “coming out” season and ABC’s, Less Than Perfect. For three years he was the Executive Producer/Showrunner of Sullivan & Son on TBS. F.J. completed his undergraduate work at UCLA’s Theatre Arts Program. He continued his education at UCSD, where he received his MFA. During his college years and upon graduation F.J. lived the life of a stand-up comedian and performed in comedy clubs around the country. F.J. has developed shows for ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CW, Dreamworks, Imagine Entertainment and Disney.

We had the opportunity to speak with him recently about the craft of TV and short-form writing, as well as the FiLMLaB.TV program by Willamette Writers, where he is a mentor. The FiLMLaB.TV program isn’t just a screenwriting contest – it doesn’t stop when the winning script is chosen.

Pratt will guide the top ten finalists through a post-table read with trained professionals and a polish of the winning pilot. Upon completion, and time permitting, the writers’ room will collectively write episode #2 and map out the entire first season. The finalists will then have the opportunity to participate as they take the web series into production.

1. You’ve written for such TV shows as Ellen, Frasier, and Sullivan & Son. How has your experience writing for major network shows influenced how you work with independent filmmakers during the FiLMLaB.TV program in Portland?

Well, I think when you write for broadcast, like Frasier and Ellen, there are certain parameters in place that you have to adhere to. A lot of it’s dictated by time, content, the FCC… so like independent filmmaking, you have a similar dynamic in the sense that you have prompts, you’re limited financially to a budget. And I think, within those constraints, you end up having to get even more creative in terms of trying to tell a story.

If given a blank canvas, sometimes that can be too overwhelming. But when you have certain prompts and certain restrictions, it forces you to think about storytelling, it forces you certainly to think about producing, because any time you’re writing a location or a set, you have to ask yourself, “Do I have the means to do this? Will the network allow me to put in another swing-set?” It’s that sort of thinking that forces you to question your creative choices; I think for the better.

2. What makes FiLMLaB.TV unique? What’s the creative development process like and how do writers collaborate?

Collaboration is everything in the writing room. It’s where big questions are answered. What I like about FiLMLaB.TV is you’re given parameters that you must adhere to. It immediately weeds out so many options. I always say to the Lab writers, “Before you write ‘fade in’ you have to know what ‘fade out’ is.” I know a lot of writers that say, “I just like to write and lead where the characters take me,” and that’s great, there are writers out there that can do that. I’m not that type. I need to know where the finish line is, because I find I just spin my wheels… when I’m supposed to write a 38-page script, but then my first draft is 59, it’s like, okay now, it’s all over the place… now I have to take a big weed-whacker to it.

I always encourage the writers with, “What’s the story in a sense? What are the themes you’re hitting? Is it a father/daughter story we’re telling?” The reason I like themes, and this doesn’t happen much in comedy, is because nobody tunes in to watch the recent Will & Grace and, “Oh, did you see the themes of loss and redemption last night?” But in terms of coming up with an 8-minute film, what I like about theme is, it sort of permeates in your writing. For example, if this is a story about redemption, a story about second chances, when I’m writing a scene, how does that theme infuse into that scene? So it forces the writer to really think about what they’re going to write.

3. FiLMLaB.TV focuses on short-form storytelling. What advice do you have for writers and filmmakers setting out to write a compelling short-form web series or short film?

Well, usually in a short series or short film, it’s got to have a culmination of a big moment. For me, good storytelling is a character’s got one point of view and at the end of the scene, at the end of the movie, at the end of the installment, they have a different point of view. I always find that to be very interesting. When I first got Netflix, an episode would end and they would say, “In 30 seconds the next episode will begin.” Now, it’s like 5 seconds — they don’t want to lose you!

The same can be said for a web series. You better tell a compelling story, even in 3-4 minutes, because in the age we live in, we’re moving on. If it’s not, we’re on to the next thing. It’s all about audience retention. I see my teenage sons… they watch more on their phones than they do on the television. The content is smaller and it’s more bite-sized.

Everyone’s vying for eyeballs and it’s super important that you tell a story that is not too big and splashy, it just needs to be compelling. You’re not going to compete with an action movie or a hostage crisis, but if you can create characters with distinct points of view, you could potentially have something.

I remember, not too long ago, I would pitch a series and they’d say, “Okay, tell us what the first 5 episodes are like.” Now they want to hear, “What’s your season arc? Where are we ending for the first season?” The days of being on for five, ten, twelve years, is not necessary. The days of TV shows hitting 100 episodes are very rare.

4. What are some examples of great short-form web series or short films that have inspired you?

When Insecure got picked up by HBO, I thought that was pretty great. I liked Broad City in its early stages, just because it’s kind of raw and unfiltered. Then when given a budget and more resources, I felt the series stayed true to its DNA. And Billy Eichner, when he did Billy on the Street, it was the only show I could get my two sons to sit and watch. It was just so… he makes me laugh! And that guy, Adam who ruins everything, that too.

I also watch the short films that are up for Academy consideration, because I get invited to the screenings and I’ll sit through eight in an afternoon. I love the short film animation. What I love about short films, is they introduce you to a very specific world, because you’ve got to understand what that world is, right away. Like, if you’re in a small family in East LA, and this short film is all about deciding what to do with an elderly parent, I mean, it’s a small story, it’s relatable, but it’s filtered through that lens of that family and that environment. We don’t need a big smorgasbord of a meal. Sometimes it’s the small bites that resonate and satisfy us the most.

The great thing is now, and I always say this to the FiLMLaB.TV people… If you write, if you create content that is interesting, and you upload it, and it’s good, it can find an audience. You don’t have to get on a bus from Iowa to Hollywood to make it. If you create something interesting in your home, or in your studio apartment, put it together and upload it, and it’s got some merit, it can find an audience anywhere in the globe. It’s that whole do-it-yourself attitude that I think is so amazing and inspiring.

And now, when I meet writers, I say, “Create content.” You know, when I started, you just had to write scripts, now it’s write that short film. Take that character that you find so compelling and write five 5-minute little vignettes of that character in different situations. If you can shoot it and upload it, someone can find you. And Hollywood loves to be the one to discover people. Especially in an age when it’s all about voice. It’s all about finding that unique voice. And in the age of inclusion and diversity, there’s an even bigger appetite for finding that new voice.

5. Going back the beginning of your career, when did you know you wanted to be a writer, and consequently, when did you realize you wanted to produce? Is there anything else you want to achieve, career-wise?

You know, you should really ask my parents, they always thought I was funny since I was a kid. I have a twin sister, so, out of that dynamic, someone’s gotta listen, so I did most of the talking.

I started writing plays in high school, and then I started doing stand-up. I learned at an early age what tickled me in terms of humor, and I learned a lot on the fly. I went to UCLA undergrad, and it was a good time to be there; Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) was there, and Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson (Bill and Ted).

I had an agent come and see a play of mine, and he said, “I want to represent you… Have you ever thought about writing TV?” And I went, “Uh… not really, but I’m open to it.” So I wrote a bunch of scripts on spec, and it took me a few years to get things going, but I had a good agent and I got one job that led to another, and your reputation helps. If you’re perceived to be a good team player, and you’re fun to hang out with in a room for many, many hours… I was fortunate to have enough people like my work and support me.

I kept getting offers to do family shows and I wanted to do adult comedies, more like office comedies, so I wrote a spec script and out of that got me a job on Frasier. I wanted to be offered certain types of jobs and I knew that I was going to have to be proactive on my part.

To me, it’s always about… I mean look… you always want to get your own show on the air, and I’ve had pilots, you know, but for me, it’s all… When I think about working on a show, I think about shows I’ve worked on and I never think about episodes that we produced. I think about the times in the writers’ room. The moments that we shared, the jokes that were pitched around, getting to know each other, that second family that you create, and I always remember those stories. So to that end, my ultimate goal is to be on a show where you’re surrounded by friends.

When I was working on Sullivan & Son, I had a writing staff that were all of my closest friends. So no matter how hard the grind of production can be, I knew that in the writers’ room, it was the safest, it was the best place on the planet for me. I was hanging out with people much smarter than me, much funnier than me, and I was getting credit for all their work, and I just loved it. It’s like what athletes say when they retire. What do you miss about the game? And they say they miss the locker room. I totally understand that mentality.

It’s the moments that, at 3:00 AM, and you’re at Warner Bros. and you’re stuck in a horrible rewrite and someone goes off on this tangent, this funny thing, and you laugh for ten straight minutes… those are the things you remember. I have moments, over 20 years ago, on shows where, to this day, if I bump into someone on that show and we’ll recount that story.

6. Beyond FiLMLaB.TV, do you have any current or upcoming projects you’d like to share with us? What can you tell us about them?

Well, I have this one pilot that I wrote on spec that takes place in Oakland, 1975, it’s about a recently divorced wife who’s got a 14-year-old son and she goes back to college to figure out what she’s going to do with her life. And he son is a high school freshman, so for me, it’s a mother and son coming to age at the same time. Especially in the age of 1975 where divorce is just being part of the zeitgeist, where women were standing up and saying, “Look, I want my life to be different,” and they were going back to college, they were broadening their opportunities outside of the home. I just found that to be thematically really interesting to me.

It’s a dramedy, because I like comedy, it’s hard for me to not think of things through a comedic lens. I really enjoyed writing it and we’ll see what comes of it.

7. Why did you choose to focus your career on TV over Features? Or did TV choose you?

TV did choose me. You know, it was that agent that asked, “Have you ever thought about writing for TV?” Also, I felt like my comedic rhythms were suited for half-hour television. I grew up on that art form and it just kind of made sense to me. I like movies and all, but it just felt like my rhythms were better suited for television. I’m pretty satisfied in these waters, especially now. There’s so much great comedy being produced. I don’t think I’ll jump into the feature world.

8. What’s one surprising, non-industry related fact about you?

I’m an Eagle Scout. And the reason I say I’m an Eagle Scout with pride is because it’s an accomplishment that takes many years, at a young age, and when I tell people that I’m an Eagle Scout, it almost colors the perception of me. It speaks to dedication, it speaks to perseverance. And about three years ago, USC Film School called me and said, “Hey, we’d like you to teach a class, could you come in?” I said, “Sure.” I went in, and I had a CV with a list of my credits, they’re looking at it, turn it over, and the first words out of their mouths were, “You’re an Eagle Scout?” And so I said to my son at the time… Short of winning the Olympic gold medal as a teenager, what other accomplishment can you receive, that you can brag about your entire life? This is one of them. So that’s one that I’m proud of.

And my other non-industry thing is I’m a total music-head. I have about 10,000 albums, 8,000 CDs… Music is not a luxury, it’s a necessity in my life. I turned a walk-in closet in my home into a place where I store all my records, had shelves built and everything.

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