Know Your Job!
Assistant Job Descriptions
Twenty years ago, the assistant ranks in television were “day jobs” more or less like any other, a decent way to pay the bills while looking for other work. Writers usually broke into TV by writing freelance episodes of shows because when shows ran 26-39 episodes a season, they required a lot of freelance episodes. In the era of 6-13 episode seasons, however, the breaking in process has changed. Freelance opportunities on shows almost always go to the show’s assistant support staff, making those jobs among the most coveted in the industry for those trying to break in.
This is a short summary of what those jobs entail:
Writers’ PA — The first step on the writers’ room ladder. You run a lot of errands, often food related, and help out or fill in for other assistants when their hands are full. You’re the person who takes over the phone when the EP’s assistant is out or fills in taking notes in the room when the writers’ assistant or script coordinator are unavailable.
EP’s Assistant — The Executive Producer’s left brain. You manage the schedule, roll the calls, and take everything you possibly can off the EP’s plate so that she or he can handle the tasks and decisions about the show that nobody else can. When an EP-level writer is developing shows, EP assistants often end up acting as sounding boards, helping test ideas and break stories.
Writers’ Assistant — The note taker. When the writers’ room is in session, the Writers’ Assistant is almost always there, pounding away at a laptop, making sure that all of the brilliance (and even occasional non-brilliance) is recorded for later reference. Writers’ assistants may also be called upon by individual writers to help hash out particular scenes or story beats.
Script Coordinator — The last eyes on a script before it goes out into the world (usually). Script coordinators need to make sure that everything in the script is formatted correctly so that everyone else on the production can use it to do their jobs. SCs are also required to catch continuity errors or awkward wording which the tired writer may have missed. SCs then send scripts to studio, network, and the production office, and on some shows, SCs are also tasked with distributing the scripts electronically to the cast and crew.
NOTE: On many shows, showrunners and co-EPs will say that they WANT the assistants to be giving totally honest feedback and pitching story beats. They may not mean to be, but they are lying. Even the highest level showrunner wants to be told that his or her work is great. Even the most confident staff writer or story editor will feel annoyed and insecure if an assistant comes up with a good idea and they didn’t. As an assistant, your goal is to make everyone like you enough that they give you freelance opportunities and maybe promote you to staff writer in a future season. Only contribute creatively to the degree that it advances that goal. That way if something fails, it’s not on you.
A priceless resource to working in a television writing office comes from a podcast hosted by experienced writers and long time Friends Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Jose Molina. The Children of Tendu is a resource you can’t ignore if you’re serious about becoming a professional television writer.