A ‘spec’ script is one that is written speculatively. Or ‘on spec’. Which means that no-one has paid you or commissioned you to write it. Because of the way the TV industry in USA has worked in the past, a ‘spec script’ implies that the script written ‘on spec’ is a script for an existing show. So not too long ago, an aspiring writer might have written a ‘spec’ episode of Frasier or Seinfeld.
Why would you write an episode of an existing show?
In America, especially in the 80s and 90s when there were only really a few networks making sitcoms, the emphasis for writers was on getting work on long-running existing shows. You’d need a room of 8-12 writers for that. So the most common writing job for the sitcom writer was, and still is, writing on someone else's show. To get that job, you'd need to demonstrate your ability to write funny lines for existing characters and plot episodes that worked for a specific world. Originality was not really required.
These days, I believe that spec scripts no longer open doors as they used to. Show-runners are now expecting to read original material and hear fresh voices. But this is a tall order, since presumably they expect the same level of competence at writing for existing characters. Plus, wannabe writers now have to be able to write cracking pilot scripts, which is, ironically, the hardest episode to write. Still, far be it from me to tell the Americans they are going about it all the wrong way, since they making all the shows I love like Brooklyn 99, The Goldbergs, Silicon Valley and Modern Family.
What about in UK?
'Spec scripts' in the UK are not a thing. Traditionally, British shows are written by one person (eg. Carla Lane, John Sullivan) or a writing partnership (eg. Marks and Gran, Esmonde & Larbey). The chances of working on someone else’s sitcom is fairly low. I was lucky enough to work on My Hero and My Family, both of which had ‘teams’ of sorts, but this is quite unusual. Therefore, the concept of writing spec scripts never really took off. Why would you spend weeks perfecting a script given there’s almost no way that script will get you work?
Bear in mind your original script needs to do three things.
Objective One – Proof of ConceptYour script needs to demonstrate that your characters, your idea, your scenario works as a half-hour comedy. You need to show that your sitcom about a nanny in space, or set on in a betting shop, or based on Timon of Athens, will sustain for half an hour with decent jokes. Your characters need to be consistent, and are undone by their own flaws and do all the things sitcom characters need to do. And the reader of the script is left wondering what will happen next week. (You should probably tell them, with a paragraph outline a few more episodes)
Objective Two – Proof of WriterYour script needs to demonstrate that you are technically competent to write the show you are proposing. This is often neglected. You need to execute your idea in a way that gives the reader the confidence that you could pull off this trick six times over. Ideally, 18-24 times over.
Producers are excited about finding new voices, and fresh ideas, but they need to see a baseline level of competence in a script so they can be confident they have something to work with.
Imagine it from their point of view. They have a pile of thirty script to read. Thirty different situations (okay, at least six of those script will be about out-of-work actors, and another six will be flat shares. Three will be set in the future. Etc.) and in the right hands, a dozen of those situations or sets of characters could work, with a bit of luck and development. But your script has to show that you are a safe pair of hands, or at least that you can learn and improve.
Your script can and should also do something else beyond display technical competence. It should demonstrate insight into the human condition, or the particular world you're opening up that feels fresh and original. Or timeless and classic, but timely. If your sitcom is set in a very specific location, like an operating theatre, a refugee camp in Somalia or behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House, you need to show that you know that world. It needs to feel authentic, even if it is heightened.
Objective Three – Proof of PotentialYou do need think of your script as a ‘sitcom-in-waiting’, a show that could actually happen. But you also need to realise that your sitcom is statistically very unlikely to make it to the screen, for a whole number of reasons. But if you’re writing scripts that feel like they at least ought to be on TV, you will look like the kind of writer who producers want to work with. Your sitcom script will do the job of a ‘spec script’ and possibly open the door to other opportunities. Maybe the producer reading your script is looking for someone to work on a script they’ve already got in development but isn’t quite working. (I know, you’d think they’d ditch the idea that isn’t working, and start developing your idea instead, but it doesn’t work like that for some reason.)
Your script needs to do all of the above. It’s a tall order and no-one said it would be easy. But hey, no-one asked you to write a script.
If you need a hand with that, dip into my book which takes you from, as the Americans say, soup to nuts on turning your sitcom idea into a script that you can send out.