'Earl' writer inks deal with Universal


In one of the biggest success stories for NBC's diversity writing program, "My Name Is Earl" writer-producer Danielle Sanchez-Witzel has inked a two-year overall deal with Universal Media Studios. The seven-figure pact marks the first overall deal to come out of the 8-year-old program.

In the first year of the deal, UMS will loan out Sanchez-Witzel to 20th Century Fox TV to continue working on NBC's comedy "Earl," where she will be upped to co-executive producer beginning in the fall. She will be developing new projects for UMS during both years.

Once an aspiring sports broadcaster who covered the Stanford baseball team for the university's radio station while a student there, Sanchez-Witzel shifted her attention to feature producing when she enrolled in the masters program at the UCLA School of Film & Television. A sitcom-writing class in the second year changed her career path yet again, and after graduation, she took a year writing comedy spec scripts until landing a staff writer job on the freshman half-hour "In-Laws" in 2002 under NBC's diversity initiative for writers. The program, launched in 2000, sponsors a staff writer position on almost every NBC series for a minority scribe. The job on the short-lived "In-Laws" led to a story editor position on another new NBC comedy, "Happy Family," the following year.

Sanchez-Witzel made her mark on "Earl," a show she joined in its first season.

Her script for the second season's "Sticks & Stones" episode, revolving around circus freaks, earned rave reviews. In an interview, "Earl" creator Greg Garcia called it his favorite episode of that season.

UMS executive vp Erin Gough Wehrenberg, then head of NBC's current department, also was impressed by that script.

"I noticed Danielle had come a long way," said Gough Wehrenberg, who had followed Sanchez-Witzel's career. "She brought so much heart to the story and crafted characters that are relatable and make you root for them."

Gough Wehrenberg kept Sanchez-Witzel on her radar and orchestrated her signing in a rare post-strike overall pact.

"She really has the makings of a next-generation showrunner," Gough Wehrenberg said. "She has a fantastic voice and great comedic instincts. There is commercial quality to her writing, and she is not afraid to be crazy funny and offbeat."

Sanchez-Witzel is not the only successful graduate of NBC's diversity staff writer program: Mindy Kaling, a writer-producer and co-star on NBC's "The Office," also got her break on the Emmy-winning comedy though it.

Still, "Danielle is one of the best examples of somebody moving up the ranks and getting a deal, getting the opportunity to create her own show," said Ted Frank, executive vp entertainment strategy and programs at NBC, who oversees the diversity initiative for writers.

The goal of the program is "to bring these writers into the pool of available writers so that there is more diversity in the pool as a whole," Frank said. "The key measure of success is whether or not they continue to thrive as writers and be part of the writing community, though we like it best if they continue at NBC Universal," he said.

Sanchez-Witzel, repped by UTA and attorney Karl Austen, is philosophical about her success.

"My parents taught me that you have to work twice as hard than the person next to you," she said. "If you continue to do that, not lose focus and not be discouraged, things will begin happening. I feel very fortunate about that."