Roundtable: Seth MacFarlane, Ryan Murphy, Chuck Lorre, Doug Ellin, Steve Levitan, Linda Wallem
By Matthew Belloni
"This place looks like Johnny Sack's office," Seth MacFarlane noted at the outset of our comedy showrunner panel. It was the first of many obscure TV references during the hourlong discussion, during which Ryan Murphy revealed the only two artists to deny their songs to "Glee" and Doug Ellin admitted he takes notes on "Entourage" from bloggers. Below is our conversation with Chuck Lorre, "The Big Bang Theory," "Two and a Half Men" (CBS); Doug Ellin, "Entourage" (HBO); Steven Levitan, "Modern Family" (ABC), run with Christopher Lloyd; Ryan Murphy, "Glee" (Fox); and Linda Wallem, "Nurse Jackie" (Showtime).
The Hollywood Reporter: You're all pulled in so many directions. How do you decide where to focus your energy?
Chuck Lorre: It's all about the writing. If the script doesn't work, the show doesn't work. So most of my attention is on that. The jokes have to work. After that, it's not that tough if you have a great cast.
Ryan Murphy: (I do) all of it, really. I choose all the songs. That's my favorite thing about the gig. There are different kinds of showrunners, but what I really love is choosing the vase and the buttons and really getting in there and creating a world. The hard thing about ("Glee"), production-wise, is that you have to choose things four months out because you have to clear the music and get the dancing going. That's been the tricky part. None of us really knew what we were doing when we started. I feel like I just figured out how to do a musical.
Steven Levitan: Your job will get so much easier next season when you can have any song you want because it lifts sales so much.
Seth MacFarlane: Companies deny songs just to be d***s, though.
Murphy: At the beginning, a lot of people didn't know what we were and asked to see pages (in advance) but I refused because I didn't want to set precedent of them having any involvement. My favorite rejection was Bryan Adams. Coldplay and Bryan Adams were really the only rejections. But Coldplay called a week ago and said, "We're sorry, you can have our catalog."
MacFarlane: So even on the phone, they're whiny. (Laughs.)
Doug Ellin: Our first season, we tried to get an Usher song and his label actually said, "Send over a $300,000 Bentley and we can talk." I'm not even kidding! Now it's gotten much easier. But, like Steve said, the first year was very difficult because no one knew what the show was. Now they come to me and want to break artists.
Lorre: We had trouble clearing the cha-chunk from "Law & Order." I had to call Dick Wolf. He actually said, "That's not my call. I'll try." And we got it, but it was ridiculously expensive. It was $5,000 a note, and it's only two notes!
Levitan: We just paid a ridiculous amount of money for "Eye of the Tiger."
Ellin: I guess Survivor needs the cash.
Murphy: Did you have to pay a lot for the "Lion King" stuff (in the "Modern Family" pilot)?
Levitan: Yes. It was (ABC head) Steve McPherson actually calling Elton John and making the personal plea. We never would have had a prayer had it not been ABC.
MacFarlane: We don't even bother trying to clear Disney songs anymore. We just get the finger.
THR: Well, you had a little dust-up with them over "When You Wish Upon a Star."
MacFarlane: Yes. There is a weird list of people who have sued us. I think it goes from Disney to (actor/comedian) Art Metrano and ("Sanford and Son" star) Demond Wilson.
THR: Don't forget about Carol Burnett.
MacFarlane: Ah yes. The Carol Burnett joke. They were in a sex shop and it had something to do with the washer woman character from her show. She was mopping up (a spot) and the implication was that it might have been semen. (Laughs.)
Lorre: She took offense?
Ellin: Well, Seth put ("Entourage" co-star) Kevin Connolly on ("Family Guy"), which (Connolly) thought was hysterical. He put him next to a Lucky Charms box.
MacFarlane: It takes nine months to do each episode. We wrote that and then I met Kevin and he's a cool guy and I had forgotten that we'd done that.
Ellin: He called me right after and was like, "Did you see this?" And I was like, "Are you mad?" And he said, "No, everyone's calling me to tell me I made it because they called me Kevin Connolly, they're not calling me E."
THR: What has been your biggest mistake as a showrunner?
Levitan: I left a show too early. It was "Just Shoot Me!" It was early on, the first pilot we ever wrote. I thought, "OK, that was easy." Some deal issues came up (two and a half years in) and I was lured away, and I look back on that with great regret. It's not that I'm so brilliant, but a creator's voice -- right or wrong -- is still a guiding light (for a show). The vision stays consistent, and I think a show can live up to its potential if it's run by people who created it. By leaving, it was in very talented people's hands, but I was still half-involved, so I'd come back and shift things around and it made their jobs difficult. Anytime I see a network or a studio fire the creator to bring somebody else in, I say it's a season 'til it's done. I've rarely seen that work.
Ellin: I wish I did more episodes. I look at all of (these guys), and it's truly ridiculous how many episodes they do. But HBO was both great and bad because in the beginning. (Executive) Chris Albrecht was like, "You can do as many as you can possibly handle." I'm kind of a lazy guy, so why do so many? But the actors went from getting paid nothing to getting paid a lot and now that I want to do a lot more, they're like, "Well, now we can't do it because we don't have the money."
MacFarlane: How many episodes did you do the first season?
Ellin: We did eight the first season and then Chris just pushed me and we did 20 the second season and I thought I was going to die. Then he said, "Do whatever you want," so I was like, "I'll do 14, 12, 12 and 10." Obviously now I look back and wish we'd done more. Now that we're coming to an end, you realize you had so much good stuff with these characters and so much more stuff you would have liked to do.
MacFarlane: So you get asked how many episodes you want to do a season? You a**hole! (Laughs.) We do 22, and at one point we asked Fox if we could please do 18 because by the end of the season we're barely making the airdates -- and they scream at us. It's just this horrible, horrible time of the season. They said no, it's got to be 22.
Ellin: They told us, "If you can do 20, we'll put you behind 'The Sopranos,' " so I was like, "I gotta do it." But I have very few writers; right now I only have one that I write with. I put a chart up like in prison, counting the number of episodes.
THR: Chuck, what's the biggest challenge for you in balancing two shows?
Lorre: Not dying! We need enough time to work on the scripts and make sure the stories have some merit, that they're worth doing, that they're not generic. The whole season starts for me in June. We start production in August, but we start writing in June, and that's like a six-week run. If we can bank some scripts before production starts, it kind of creates a cushion for the year. Then it starts to collapse after the holidays. And then you're writing on Friday going, "We have no script for Monday." The lack of time is what crushes the material, and you look back on it and say, "I wish we had more time." It's not a question of money, because I'm shooting guys on a couch. There's no production elements, really, it's two people talking at a breakfast table.
Levitan: It's like Indiana Jones and the big ball. You start off with this big lead and by the end of the season, no matter how far ahead you were, it's always scraping against your back on the last couple.
Lorre: I liken it to running down a tunnel with a train behind you for nine months.
Ellin: These guys all hate me because we start in September but we start shooting in April. I have ample time, even though I still don't finish the scripts.
Levitan: You've got a ridiculously small staff -- and Ryan, you (only) have three people writing, right? But some staffs are enormous.
MacFarlane: "Family Guy," "American Dad" and "Cleveland" each have about 17 writers. You have to. There's the pace of an animated show, where even the line deliveries tend to be a little faster, there's no laugh spread, you're cramming twice as many jokes an episode. Even with that many people, to generate that much material (is difficult).
THR: When you cast your writers' room, are you looking for writers who are simply strong on the page or do you weigh the group dynamic?
Linda Wallem: You want writers that are going to follow your lead about what the show is. "Nurse Jackie" has a really specific voice and point of view, and we were lucky that we have a small group because we break every single moment together in the room. I actually learned this from Chuck a long time ago; he's the best story-breaker in the business, and he taught me that you stay in there until the story makes sense.
Lorre: I have no memory of that.
Wallem: It was on "Cybill." What I learned is that you have to figure out what the beat-by-beat outline of the story (is) before you can send a writer even to outline. Because if you're not cool with it, you're wasting a lot of time.
Levitan: It's like a baseball team. You have different positions and you have different people who help keep the room alive and moving and funny. Everyone can do everything, but what's their forte? (And) you try to avoid having that person in the room that drives everyone insane. (Laughs.)
Ellin: When I first started, I had no TV experience so I was so desperate. I didn't have time to debate whether people knew what they were doing or not -- because I didn't know what I was doing. I wish I had learned from Chuck.
Lorre: I've got guys on "Two and a Half Men" and "Big Bang" that we go back 20 years. ("Men" executive producer) Don Foster and I were on "Roseanne" in 1991. ("Bang" co-creator/EP) Bill Prady was on "Dharma & Greg," and so was ("Men" executive producer) Eddie Gorodetsky. ("Men" co-creator/EP) Lee Aronsohn was on "Grace Under Fire." We've known each other a long time. We truly dislike each other. (Laughs.)
THR: Is there someone you trust on your show who you can go and ask, "Is this funny?"
MacFarlane: If enough people laugh in that room, it's got to be an accurate cross-section of the country. (But) it's really up to you as the showrunner. The dynamic for "Family Guy" is a fine line to walk, (because) you want, to some degree, your writers to feel free to tell you to go f*** yourself, without it being anarchy. It can't be a democracy, but they have to be comfortable enough to tell you when you're making a bad decision.
Murphy: There's three of us. So with the three of us, it is a democracy. Between us, whoever is the most passionate about it wins. If they fight for something the most, they win.
Wallem: I created the show with Liz Brixius. Sometimes we have to fight each other and be a**holes and run to Edie (Falco) and be like, "Is this funny?" It's great because Edie is like, "I don't know what the f*** is funny." She doesn't trust her sense of how funny she can be.
Levitan: Chris Lloyd is my partner and it's an equal partnership, so we don't have the benefit of that third person. Sometimes, you're having the debate in the room. You get a sense if the room is really leaning a certain way. We've also devised a system, at least for Season 1, where we alternated showrunning, essentially. I had the final say on the odd episodes; he had the final say on the even episodes. So he would be on the set for his episodes and I'd be on the set for mine.
Ellin: When I started out, I (hired) a couple of my high school friends who hadn't done any TV. All the people in my office used to hear us and we'd literally be like, "I'm going to f***ing kill you!" HBO would call up and say, "You guys can't have actual fist fights in the office." (Laughs.) But now I just have one person -- actually, my assistant in that first year, who would call her parents and go, "This show is never going to see the light of day. These people are crazy." Now it's very calm; (she and I) basically just (write) in a peaceful, quiet manner, and I do trust her almost entirely. Also, with the actors, I give them the scripts three months before we're shooting. I listen to opinions. And, of course, when I don't like their opinions, it ends.
THR: When actors say, "I can't say this," what's your reaction?
Ellin: I hate that more than anything. A lot of times they're protecting their characters or their own images. I've had discussions with them about it and usually I say, "Just trust me." Sometimes it gets more vocal than that.
Murphy: I only allow them to change the script if they have trouble with animal cruelty. That's the rule. (In one show, actress) Jane Lynch was going to get a cat and give it to someone as a present -- but then sneak in and kill the cat. And she was like, "I'm not going to say that. I work for PETA. I can't say, 'Kill the cat.' " So I said, "OK, you can change it to 'Smash them in the face.' " (Laughs.) The joke then made no sense. I (also) had that on "Nip/Tuck" toward the end. I got a lot of, "My character wouldn't say that," and I found that to be troubling. That comes from boredom from actors.
Levitan: There are certain actors where I'm like, "Trust me, it will work." But fortunately, we went to great lengths to hire people that are very smart and very funny on their own. So if they're having trouble with something, it usually means there's a problem with the writing. I've worked with some troublesome actors who need to create trouble. Those are the ones you learn to tune out and placate.
MacFarlane: These are things I don't have to deal with. I have a cast of people that come in once or twice a week, they're there for an hour.
THR: Plus, the cast is mostly you.
MacFarlane: I've never done the Mike Myers "Deiter" thing (and said), "No, I can't do this thing that I wrote." (Laughs.) I've heard stories from other people who've run animated shows where you can have people who are extremely difficult, and it's just not worth it. There are a lot of good actors out there. You can find somebody who is good and is not going to be a jerk.
THR: Chuck, you work with arguably the biggest star on television. What happens when you see something differently than Charlie Sheen?
Lorre: We don't. Charlie, Jon (Cryer), that whole cast has been extremely trusting for seven years. On the rare occasion that something is difficult to articulate -- or the words or the rhythm (don't work) -- we'll adjust. But they've come to trust us. And we have a different process, because we're having run-throughs every day. It's four days of seeing material on its feet before it gets shot in front of an audience. There's a lot of time to work with it. Same thing with the guys on "Big Bang." If it doesn't work on Tuesday, they know that on Wednesday it will be a different scene.
Levitan: I remember a scene with George Segal (on "Just Shoot Me") many years ago. He was having trouble with a scene and I was telling him all the reasons why it was great scene. We ended up filming it and I watched it on television and I'm like, "That was a bad scene and he sensed it but couldn't quite articulate it." After that -- fortunately, it was pretty early on -- when he said he was having trouble with a scene, I knew it wasn't right.
THR: When you watch your shows back, what's your biggest criticism?
Murphy: Sound. We work so hard to mix sound and then everything gets pressed and pumped and they just jam it up.
Wallem: I completely agree. It's so frustrating because with sound, I spend all that time on every little thing, and then you hear it and -- I couldn't understand what that British lady said!
Levitan: My (criticism) is the sitcom-y joke that I let through. It's a little dagger.
MacFarlane: When we're mixing musical numbers and spending all this time mixing a 70-piece orchestra and trying to do it in an hour, you can't get everything. You want to go back and fix it for the rerun, but once you start tinkering with shows that have already aired, you could drive yourself crazy.
Ellin: All of this stuff is why I never watch anything back. Once I'm out of the editing room and it's mixed and done, I never watch it.
MacFarlane: You watch on TV, right?
Ellin: Never. Well, I can't say "never" because my son's been in a few episodes, so we get people over for his episodes and cover his ears for most of it. But I would rather watch "Family Guy" or "Modern Family" than sit and watch my show.
Levitan: I watch with my family and they'll talk! (Laughs.) Are you kidding me? And often, the stories are about them!
THR: How has your job changed in the past few years?
Murphy: One thing that's different now is the Internet and the blogs. You have to be so super-protective now.
MacFarlane: You can drive yourself crazy reading your own press.
Murphy: Do you Google yourself?
MacFarlane: I don't Google myself, but I read comments on some of the shows.
Ellin: I have Google alerts. I like to read every last thing that comes out.
MacFarlane: Do you find that it's universally negative? Because I do.
Ellin: It's become so unbelievably negative that I use it to humble myself constantly.
Wallem: It's hard enough getting notes from your studio and network.
Ellin: I don't get notes from the network, so I like to get them from the Internet. (Laughs.)
Levitan: I'll cop to what our writers' room does -- it's ridiculously annoying, we've dubbed it "Google Mirth." We do a "Modern Family" search in Twitter as the show airs and we just watch the live comments. People are literally going along, "Ahh, I love that joke!" And in the room we go, "My joke! My joke!"
MacFarlane: Yeah, I don't think I've read anything negative about your show.
Levitan: It's early, the honeymoon period.
Ellin: The New York Times called us the best show on television in our first season. And it's gotten so bad since then. You don't know; has the show gotten that much worse?
MacFarlane: It's popularity. It's like an indie band. "The Beatles: When they were the Quarrymen they were great and then they just went to s***." (Laughs.)
THR: How do you make the leap from being a writer to someone the network will trust as a showrunner?
Levitan: The more important question is, Are you sure you want to become us?
Lorre: How much do you like your marriage?
Wallem: Do you really want to have kids? Go to Betty Ford?
MacFarlane: Get ready to become an a**hole.
Ellin: I came from film. I directed a couple of movies that failed and nobody saw and I was fortunate enough to have Mark Walhberg think I was amazing enough to do this. The network, they didn't trust me at all when we started. I didn't realize this at all, but when I started they had me meet showrunners -- and I didn't realize I was hiring my boss! Which is one of the most bizarre things, because nobody told me. I called up my agent and they were like, "Yeah, that's now your boss." So I had to figure out a way to get rid of him.
MacFarlane: During the writers' strike, there was this big meeting. Not every showrunner in Hollywood (came), but there had to be at least 100 of them. Sitting in this room are 100 people who are used to having the final say in their respective domain." And I remember, when each person got up to talk, I was thinking: Everyone in this room is a f***ing a**hole. And then I thought: Oh s***, everyone in this room is a f***ing a**hole, that must include me. And Steve Levitan was the most reasonable guy there!
Levitan: That's saying a lot.
MacFarlane: Do you guys do your own firing? I don't, I have somebody else do it.
Ellin: I can't fire anybody. And I need conflict.
THR: Ryan, do you think conflict helps the creative process?
Murphy: No. But in the first year of the show, the great work comes because you're staying true to a vision. You try to be original, but the network or studio is questioning you a lot. This is the hardest part for me, that constant fight, "Trust me, trust me, trust me, trust me." But they're giving you money, so it can't just be, "My way or the highway" and throw the cape over your shoulder.
Wallem: When you first get those notes, it's an explosion in your chest. It f***ing hurts, and then you go, "Wait! The big thing, it doesn't have to be that big." Usually it's just confusion.
Ellin: It took almost three years from the time I sold the ("Entourage") pilot to get them to greenlight the script. I must have written -- the Writers Guild won't be happy about this -- 100 drafts with just notes, notes, notes. And I'll never forget the executive who was giving me these notes; she was sitting and watching the scene and she goes, "I may actually watch this show." It was the most stunning moment. There must have been notes from her for three years and she had actually been trying to develop something she's not interested in.
MacFarlane: The first thing you have to know is that, as much as you like the (network) people, they don't know what they're talking about any more than you do, and usually (they know) a lot less. Certainly when I started, I knew nothing about story. Only in the last five years I feel like I'm comfortable enough to break a story without the help of someone more seasoned. That's just from writing and more writing. How do they know what notes to give? It has to all be nonsense.
Lorre: A long time ago, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner used to give notes on "Cybill" and "Grace Under Fire." And it took me a long time to figure out that their problems were worth listening to -- but their solutions were disastrous.
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