Thought people might be interested in hearing the origin of MITM. Linwood Boomer originally wrote the pilot episode as a writing sample. Hollywood TV writers routinely write what are called "Spec Scripts" to use as samples when they're looking for work. Sometimes the scripts are written as episodes of existing shows, and sometimes they are original material. But they are almost never produced.
Linwood Boomer had worked as a TV writer for some time but felt that he needed a fresh sample, so he wrote a pilot script based on his childhood. He never thought it would be produced, but when his agent read it, he said, "Why not try to sell it?"
Most TV shows are not created on spec. They come about when an established writer with a development deal with one of the major studios pitches an idea to his/her studio. If the studio likes the idea, they pitch to networks. If a network likes the idea, it hires the writer to write a pilot script. If they like the script, they fund the production of pilot episode, and if they like the episode they put the show on the air.
But at every stage of this process, the network and studio give the writer notes. They give notes on the pitch and notes on the script. They may push the writer to cast certain actors or to hire a certain director. The script goes through multiple rewrites, even once the episode is in production. All of the notes are given by people who are not writers, actors or directors, but businesspeople. And as a result, the script often gets steered more and more towards the lowest common denominator. This is why there is so little truly original content on television. A writer friend of mine who has gone through this process once described it as being like a meteor coming into the atmosphere. You're lucky if even one pebble remains by the time it hits the ground.
But MITM managed to avoid most of this. The script drew the attention of Tracy Katsky, then a development executive at Regency Television, who would later go on to high-ranking jobs at HBO, Fox, and Nickelodeon - as well as marrying Linwood Boomer. MITM became Tracy's pet project and she successfully sold it to Fox TV. She also shepherded it through the production process with minimal tampering. The show had a relatively low profile and Fox paid little attention to the project. As a result, Linwood was able to shoot his pilot virtually as written, with almost no notes or changes by the network.
The result is what was widely considered one of the best pilots of all time. I personally remember viewing the pilot shortly before a meeting with Tracy Katsky, not long before the show was to begin airing. I was blown away. My writing partner and I were certain that the show would be a hit, and it was. Unfortunately, we didn't get hired on the staff at the time, but we did get a chance to contribute several years later, when we pitched the episode that would become "Future Malcolm."
It's just amazing to see what happens when you actually let a creative person see his vision through with minimal interference. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen very often in Hollywood. But when it does, you often get a gem like "Malcolm in the Middle."
As some will know the pilot went through the test audience stage (There is a term for it, but I can't recall it) and got very "bad" ratings. Yet another hurdle MTIM got passed before it hit our screens. If it had been tampered with it would have lost its edge and got "good" ratings from the test audience.
I didn't know the initial idea was never intended to be made.
Ron, do most of the guest writers like yourself pitch an idea or do some get asked to write an episode?
In most cases you get asked to come in and pitch, and if they like one of your ideas you write it. You could also get assigned an episode that they don't have time to write. Kind of varies on a case by case basis. Most shows farm out at least 2 episodes a season to free-lance writers (the rest are written by members of the regular staff.) Every now and then a show will assign an episode to one of their writers' assistants or to an unknown writer to help him/her get a first credit.
Keep in mind that all episodes are heavily rewritten by the staff, with the showrunner (executive producer - in this case, Linwood Boomer) approving everything. As a writer, you're lucky if 50% of what you wrote remains in the shooting draft. For a freelance writer, it's even less than that. The credit (or blame) for the success or failure of a series rests largely with the person at the top.