What’s Up with The Help Machine? May 2016 in Retrospect

What’s Up with The Help Machine?

TL;DR – May was about realizing I’d spent some money the wrong way, and doing a quick pivot to some writing opportunities

This month, I shifted focus to a major writing effort (including a paid opportunity with Listen magazine) and some sitcom scripts (which are not paid, YET, but could lead to some cool things should they win a few contests). Also, I figured out what was going wrong with my workshop, and why I had made a terrible mistake in leasing space before I needed it, without addressing the core problem that made me think I needed to lease space in the first place.

I think this is a good to read for anyone interested in start-ups (and thinking about how to spot your own blindspots when planning), in addition to some thoughts on developing creative material for scripted series (i.e., TV writing).

  • What’s gotten done?
    • Thigment Building – Office Upgrade
    • Writing Writing Writing – An upcoming article for Listen magazine!
    • Writing Writing Writing – Sitcom Series Ideas and the New York TV Festival!
  • What’s in progress?
    • Writing Writing Writing – Sitcom PILOT SCRIPTS
    • Thigment Building
    • The Rings of Mikado
  • What’s coming up?
    • “Save it For Later” video and Indiegogo Rewards!
    • Return to YouTube!
    • Website Updates!

What’s gotten done?

Thigment Building – Office Upgrade

So, I did something really stupid, but I learned something important from it. The stupid thing was, I signed a lease for some art space I ultimately didn’t need, and paid for it. The reason I did it was very straightforward.

My home office is a good sized space. But, it’s also very cramped. I was having a hard time working comfortably in the space on the new Thigment bodies. The routine when I would work on them would be to separate out some project materials, then move them upstairs into my dining room to work. I had scored a few contracts in Q4 2015 for doing consulting work, and (based on some income projections) worked out that I could afford new office space. This would solve my problem of not having proper space to work on the Thigments, and also give me some focus; by paying for space, I’d feel obligated to use it and really focus on getting new Thigments put together.

But two things happened. The first thing was that, while I was pretty busy with consulting work, it wasn’t at the income levels I’d projected, by a factor of 4. I’ve earned 75% less than projected so far. This means that the office space I was renting was putting me The Help Machine into the hole.

The second was, I’d hauled most of the materials I needed for the new space, for the workshop, upstairs in my house. I never got around to moving the stuff into the new space. First a month went by, then another. Every time I said, “okay, time to move the stuff,” on the day I’d set aside to do it, there would be rain, or snow, some terrible storm. A few times, I ended up with a gig. So, I’d pull material out of the bins, and sort of do a version of what I was doing before; namely, I’d take over my dining room table and work there.

It hit me this month, that I’d done a lot of stupid things, all at once. The first was, the whole reason I’d gotten the new space was because I was tired of taking over my dining room table, and feeling cramped in my office. Yet, now, the Thigment workshop had essentially taken permanent residence in my dining room. On top of that, the home office space was going idle. And I wasn’t using the space I’d leased.

I went downstairs, and looked at the workspace. With the materials out of the way, it was pretty easy to see that I actually had enough room. It’s just the space wasn’t used very well. And the big problem was staring in me in the face. My workbench was terrible.

When I put the shop together, I built it based on what I thought I might need, instead of how I actually liked to work. I didn’t realize I was doing that at the time, but it became clear to me as I looked at the empty workbench. It fit the space, it could store all the tools and nicknacks I needed. But I hated working at it. I had to sit up on a stool, which I didn’t like. The bench itself was narrow, so, even things like cutting mat I used to trace out patterns in fabric didn’t fit.

It dawned on me. When I put together the shop, I didn’t really pay attention to how I made the puppets in the first place. Like, I kept wanting to work at a dining room table. When I built the sewing table, I made sure it was dining room height. I used an IKEA table that was easy to sit at. It was how I liked to work. When I worked on the puppets, I kept bringing the stuff to my dining room table, because it was the right height and how I liked to work. When I found the shop space, aside from wanting to be around other creative people, I essentially picked a spot that was desk height, that let me work like I did at home. I was completely oblivious to two obvious things. The first was, I had chosen a workspace based on an imaginary picture of how I thought I should work, not how I actually liked to work. On top of that, I spent money based on income projections. The consulting work I had planned on doing to help fund the Help Machine is just not manifesting itself. These two mistakes were costly; not end of the world costly, but costly in a different way. However, making mistakes is how you learn, so I learned some great things from this!

The first is, it’s important to understand how you work best. If you’re trying something new, before you get yourself space and gear based on how you think you work, look at how you actually work. In my case, I like to build the puppets while sitting at a dining room table. Using my dining room table isn’t practical, because, I can’t, like, leave work out on it. If I do, I can’t eat there. But, after a quick search, I found an Ikea dining room table that was perfect. It was the same height as my current one, had more surface area (because it was slightly bigger) and it had storage. I picked up a few pieces of furniture, spent a half a day dismantling my current workbench, and just redid the space. After taking out stuff I wasn’t using and reorganizing the space, I suddenly had more than enough room. It also wasn’t that expensive, relatively speaking. When I added it up, it added up to 1 month rent on the space I had found.

The second is, I shouldn’t have committed a lease based on what I THOUGHT I was going to make. Rather, it would’ve been smarter to commit to a lease based on what I actually made. Rather than spend money based on a maybe, it would’ve been better to spend based on an actual. It would’ve been a better use of my start-up funds.

Luckily, the lease wasn’t a bank-breaker. I have a steady supply of start-up funds into The Help Machine, based on a contribution I make each month. Rather than make an upfront contribution, I try to keep a personal investment account cashed up, and then send funds to The Help Machine once a month. So, The Help Machine is only in the hole in the sense that I’d eaten into funds meant for growth with something stupid. The cash for “Save it for Later” and a few of the other projects is still there, just waiting to be spent!

So, I’ve got a better space to work on the Thigments now, as the month closes, which is important because those new Thigments are needed for videos! However, most of May got consumed by writing a paid article for a music magazine and some sitcom scripts.

Wait, what?

Writing Writing Writing – An upcoming article for Listen magazine!

The big accomplishments on the writing front this month are an upcoming article to be published in Listen, a quarterly music publication, and a bunch of effort into some Sitcom pilots.

Wait, what? Listen Magazine? Sitcom pilots? Why are you doing that?

Listen is a great magazine, and the editor is really smart. I haven’t been professionally published since the 20th century, and never in a general interest magazine. While the consulting wasn’t working out, this would represent a paid opportunity. Any money that comes from creativity that goes into The Help Machine is important. So, I did it both as a way to get a professional credit, and to raise money, for The Help Machine. Hopefully it’s laying the groundwork for similar opportunities in the future.

Also, the piece itself is about Prince, who sadly left the world this month. A chance to write a piece memorializing Prince, in a well-regarded music magazine, that puts a little more money into The Help Machine, and creates a credit that could lead to other paid published work? Yeah, got to do that.

Writing Writing Writing – Sitcom Series Ideas and the New York TV Festival!

Okay, great, but what about the Sitcom pilots again? What?

The Sitcoms came from an out of nowhere direction. On a whim, I decided to check out what was going on with the New York TV Festival. I had sent a (in hindsight) not that great pilot for a Thigment show called ‘Bobidoo and Me’ to them in 2014.

When I went to the NYTVF website, I learned they were accepting up to 1500 scripts for original sitcom pilots via NYTVF Scripts. If you haven’t heard of the NYTVF, it’s a fairly unique conference. In the years since it debuted in 2005, the NYTVF has become a premier event in scripted entertainment. TV itself is a misnomer in a lot of cases; what TV really means is ‘scripted series.’ If you’re at the festival, you could be talking to someone about your web-series, or about YouTube, or about your great idea for the next Netflix hit. Or you could be talking to a traditional broadcaster (like NBC) about a digital show (for Hulu, for their new comedy channel Seeso, or for NBC itself). If I could make contacts, and show some talent, that could lead to other opportunities.

This was the first time in a long time that I’d seen this kind of opportunity at the NYTVF. There’s no prize money associated with the event; however, if your work is accepted, you can become an Official Artist at the NYTVF. TV writing would be a great funding source for The Help Machine. It’s also a huge component of what The Thigments are about.

The Mikado adaptation, as it’s evolved, has become a scripted series concept in addition to the original play adaptation. There’s a version of that script that could be a long show. There’s another version which could be a 6-12+ episode series as well. The more I practice at writing scripted series, the better The Mikado will end up being.

I decided to go for it. The benefit from this particular pivot is skill building, planting some seeds for future success, and creating opportunities for future income sources for The Help Machine.

The worst case scenario is that I have better tools to help me with The Mikado, but have slightly embarrassed myself by saying, publicly “I did all this work to get into the NYTVF, but I didn’t get in, lol.”

The best case scenario is that I hone my skills, and also get into the NYTVF as an artist. That is no small potatoes.

To get moving on this, the first thing I did was to organize a plan of attack to get a sample over to the NYTVF. Based on past experience, I know that it’s important to have a really polished work, but to also have other ideas ready to pitch for people. I took an inventory of existing ideas, including short film scripts, movies I’d written, and even other sitcom ideas I’ve had. I also set a goal, to brainstorm at least 4 new ideas after doing the inventory.

I did a lot of research online, about sitcom formats these days, and read a lot of pilot scripts. I read the pilots for 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Silicon Valley, Two Broke Girls, Brooklyn Nine Nine, Bob’s Burgers, Girls, Seinfeld, and a few others. I watched each pilot at least twice, the first time just to laugh, the second time to pay really close attention to the differences between the pilots and the scripts. How did the beats work? How about the jokes? I mostly chose shows I knew, but also included a few that I don’t necessarily like, but could still learn from. After reading some awesome blog posts on the subject of Sitcom writing, I saw the same book getting recommended over and over again, The Eight Characters of Comedy: Guide to Sitcom Acting And Writing; it’s a cool synthesis of character archetypes that’s covered in multiple blog posts on sitcom writing. I got the book, read it twice, then went back and watched a few of the pilots for the shows I really liked one more time, through the lens of that book.

From there, I made some templates and exercises for myself, to help transform thoughts into solid ideas, and ideas into solid outlines and structures. In the past, this has been a struggle for me to do; like, the ideas would come faster than my ability to organize them into a coherent story. I realized, though, that because I’ve been writing every day since December 2014, and that I’d been writing scripts for The Thigments regularly, that I was able to write this other material without the panic, pacing, and obsessing I’d done in the past.

As May closes, I’ve honed in on 8 ideas. I only took 3 ideas from my short film backlog, but this new framework helped me put together credible series outlines for 5 additional shows. I have no idea how many are going to end up submitted to the NYTVF; my goal is to get at least 1 over there. I’ve got 3 scripts started, we’ll see how many I hit the finish line with by the time mid-June roles around. If the methods produce success, then I’ve also got something worth sharing with other people in the future.

This is another paid affiliate link forThe Eight Characters of Comedy: Guide to Sitcom Acting And Writing. If you don’t want any money to go to The Help Machine, then don’t click the link and buy the book. But if you want to get some amazing insights into Sitcom writing and character, google the book or look for it at the bookstore. If you have interest in sitcoms, comedy, or anything, give it a read. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read on the subject. It’s not an approach for cookie cutter comedy. Rather, it’s an analysis of why people respond positively to certain structures.

What’s in progress?

I’m feeling good about the pivots, and about finally wising up about how I was spending the cash infusions going into the Help Machine. However, all of those pivots came at a time cost. A lot of the stuff I had planned to do in May got bumped into June and July, potentially.

This is (GULP) assuming I’m able to finish some credible Sitcom material by mid-June!

Writing Writing Writing – Sitcom PILOT SCRIPTS

This is the big one. Since I committed to this, and decided to forgo working on other stuff to focus on this, I need to finish. The big thing to finish are the character work, flushing out the ideas, and most importantly getting the pilots written.

It’s not just the pilot, though. There’s a lot of ancillary writing that needs to get finished to support the work.

Like, most script contests will only require either a spec script (ie, a speculative script based on an existing show) or an original pilot script. They may require a logline (itself a separate art). But a lot of the other things that go into a series pitch to a producer, or network, those don’t go in. Like, a Series Bible is a document that is good to have, but that wouldn’t go to a typical contest. The Bible would contain things like a one-page pitch for the show, some character descriptions, notes about future episodes, and some work about the format for the show. Full shows can get really long bibles; shows like Star Trek Deep Space Nine and Battlestar Galactica (2004) had series bibles that were practically book length, in terms of detail.

That level of detail isn’t something you would typically deliver with a pitch. But, at least a sketch of what the show looks like, versus the pilot, is something that would go with it. Alan Zatkow has, as far as I know, one of the few books on the subject available in his store, ‘The Show Bible for TV Pitching.’ Having read it, and having done pitches many years ago, I know at least the basics of pitching for TV. I’m using my own condensed format for all of this, though. Hopefully the approach works.

The only reason this matters is that, at least for the NYTVF, they require a series outline of a few pages; lucky for me, this fits the new style for this I’ve worked out. It’s important that I get some credible pilots finished, some Series Outlines, and then get any other material cranked out. So far, my deliverable list for each sitcom idea looks like this …

  • Pilot Script
  • Series Outline
    • Log Line
    • One Page Pitch
    • Character Descriptions
    • Episode Ideas
    • Series Format and other details
  • Writer CV

Luckily, I only have to do the Writer CV once. All I need to do is just get 1 done, and I’ll be happy with this.

That just leaves, y’know, the rest of it. Which is still a lot!

Thigment Building

With the new space put together, once I’m finished with the Sitcom writing, there should be plenty of room to at least get started with this again. Ambitiously, I want to have all the duplicate Thigments and prototypes finished. If I can at least get F.A. Flannagan’s new prototype put together (and duplicated) that will be a solid accomplishment for the month.

The Rings of Mikado

I’m not certain at this point if The Rings of Mikado will end up with the material I send to the NYTVF. I do have a looming deadline of September coming up to get the draft of the new book and lyrics finished, though. I’m hopeful that the NYTVF sitcom exercise, whether it includes Mikado or not, helps improve my overall scripting skills.

What’s coming up?

I’m really excited about the writing that’s going on, and also at ramping up how much a week I work on The Help Machine. The only thing I find troublesome is that everything that was coming up last month is, basically, still coming up.

Still, progress is getting made, even if a lot of important stuff is far behind.

“Save it For Later” video and Indiegogo Rewards!

This is so far behind, that it’s a moral imperative to get the Thigment prototypes done, then get the new versions of Bobidoo and Kwiddle ready to be on camera. I’m thinking this is going to be either late June or July to get started again. Hopefully Ernio and Michael are available still for the video!

Return to YouTube!

Until the new Thigments are ready, there’s no YouTube videos. The one nice thing is that, hopefully, there’s a very long backlog of scripts here.

The thing I’m thinking through is approach right now. When Shortles launched last July, the hardest part was making videos. Some of them did well, and some did very poorly. When things do go back into production, there’s a chance to make a solid backlog of videos for publishing. Heck, a lot of them could even be set to autopublish. It would make the weekly ‘grind’ of making videos more manageable, potentially.

Website Updates!

I’m just cutting and pasting this set of updates from April; nothing has really changed here. There’s some tweaks that need to get made to TheHelpMachine.com! Like, most of the consulting that got paid for in Q1? None of it is listed on the site in capabilities. Our YouTube videos? You can’t find them on the site. The primary program, Shortles, is only mentioned in the blog posts. Same goes for ‘The Rings of Mikado.’

Anything Notable or Special Happen?

While it’s already covered, I think that the Listen magazine article and the Sitcom opportunity were both pretty notable and special. Hopefully they lead to more awesome opportunities in the future! Maybe the work gets accepted, and I could write some credible articles about process and format, to help some other creators out. That’s pretty cool, and goes dead center to The Help Machine’s concept of helping artists.

And also, that learning about the workshop, paying attention to how to work, and more, also important, essentially for the same reason.

All good stuff!

Important Stuff About Me That Is Important!


Fred Chong Rutherford, that’s me, has been working on the internet since the late 20th century in a variety of digital product and project management roles. I’ve been very lucky, and gotten to work with a lot of smart, incredibly talented people over the years to make cool digital stuff. I spend my time thinking about technology, people, and the how to look sideways at problems to find the best solution. I’ve been lucky enough to work with clients like Amazon.com, Nintendo of America, EA, Tetris Online, NBC Universal and Xbox over the years. I’ve worked in product and project roles for a few companies, including IDT, The Topps Company, Viacom, Time, Inc and some start-ups. I’m currently at American Express.

Short films I’ve written, produced and or directed have appeared at film festivals around the world, including The Kino Short Film Festival, San Diego Comic Con, Seattle Asian American Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival, Satellites Independent Film Festival, StockStock and more. I also love puppets, and do my best to help the Thigments make the videos they like to post on YouTube. I live in Brooklyn, NY, because it’s awesome. Twitter | Facebook | G+ | Instagram | IMDB |

Also published on Medium.