The writer-producers at the top of their ultracompetitive class share career lows, the spec scripts they'd rather forget and their stranger-than-fiction fan interactions
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BET's reigning scripted team, the married duo signed a new two-year deal and launched a crown jewel in 2014 when 3.3 million viewers tuned in to Being Mary Jane, the continuation of an equally successful 2013 telepic about an Atlanta cable newswoman. Salim, 50, and Mara, 44, also boast The Game, a huge hit going into its eighth season (it's set to end after its ninth).
I knew I wanted to write for TV when (Mara): "Dwayne stopped Whitley from getting married on A Different World."
Three things always in our writers room (Salim): "Ice, fancy glasses and tequila."
Hardest scene I had to write this year (Mara): "Mary Jane offering to buy a teen girl to save her from sex trafficking."
Worst career advice (Salim): "Change your name or you'll never work in Hollywood."
Most embarrassing thing I've ever written (Mara): "My first script. My ego must believe I get better with every new script."
Best career advice he ever received (Salim): “Don’t f— it up”
Worst pitch meeting (Mara): "The one where I got cotton-mouth and asked to start over. I knew I wouldn’t sell the show, but I had to leave with some dignity."
Weirdest series on my DVR (Salim): "Wilfred"
Cinemax's vote of confidence in this foursome shouldn't be underestimated. The Clive Owen drama — about modern medicine's bloody early years in New York City — is leading the pay cable net's rebrand as its critical hit. A second season was ordered even before its August bow. Bonus? Pseudo-retired Oscar winner Soderbergh will have helmed 20 total episodes by next year.
Best moment that never aired (Amiel,46): "A man from the Edison company gives a lecture to the hospital staff on electricity safety. He demonstrates the dangers by electrocuting a cat."
Best career advice (Begler, 46): "Don't wait for permission."
Worst career advice (Amiel): "I took a TV writing course, and the teacher admonished me for writing an outline. 'Just write the script, it'll be better that way.' I dropped out that day."
Nominated for four Emmys in its first year of eligibility, including one for lead Lizzy Caplan, Masters continued to charm critics during its second season. With Mad Men ending in 2015, the drama about real-life sex researchers Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson is poised to become TV's most stylish look back at the '60s.
Weirdest show on my DVR: "American Hoggers."
Most embarrassing thing I've ever written: "Always sex scenes, which makes Masters of Sex a strange career move for me."
I knew Masters had hit the zeitgeist when: "We [inspired] a headline graphic on The Daily Show: 'Masters of Sexism.' "
Worst pitch meeting: "I called the president of the network by the wrong name."
The Stephen King sci-fi drama from Baer, 59, returned to a smaller audience for its season two, but there's no ignoring Dome's lingering value to CBS' summer: The show is profitable before it airs thanks to its giant Amazon streaming deal.
My first spec script: "I never wrote a spec. I ran into John Wells in a grocery store in 1988. He and I had been friends since the fourth grade in Denver, Colorado. I told him I was working on an ABC afterschool special, which I wrote and directed, and he invited me in to China Beach to pitch. He gave my writing partner and me an episode, my first one. I always tell new writers to write a spec for a show they love or grow up with someone like John Wells."
My first Hollywood gig: "An ABC afterschool special called Private Affairs, based on a real story from high school where one of my friends saw her dad cuddled up in a car with a woman — and it wasn't her mother. I wrote and directed it — it's the last directing gig I've had."
I knew Dome had hit the zeitgeist when: "A movie had copied our ad campaign by showing characters pressing against an invisible dome."
Overseeing Arrow — the 3-year-old hit leading The CW's pursuit to skew older and more male — hasn't slowed Berlanti, 42, one of the biz's most ambitious writer-producers: He is launching two shows, Arrow spinoff The Flash and NBC's dramedy The Mysteries of Laura.
My first spec script: "An episode of Seinfeld, in college. The whole gang took college extension classes — Kramer took magic, taught by Doug Henning, and made Newman disappear for real. Someone from Seinfeld actually called me. I'm pretty sure it was the writer's assistant but still I took it as my own personal sign."
My first Hollywood gig: "I temped at Hanna Barbera and would sit with Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera while they signed old animation cells and told me great stories. They were each so different and both amazing guys."
Favorite scene I wrote this year: "Oliver Queen meeting Barry Allen in Arrow."
Favorite TV moment this year: "Any scene from [HBO's upcoming] The Comeback."
FX's celebrated comic auteur, 47, won a writing Emmy this year for the "So Did the Fat Lady" episode — which enjoyed a viral moment thanks to Sarah Baker's poignant monologue about weight and body image — and continues to march to the beat of his own drummer as writer, director, editor and star. His latest overall deal has him producing other projects, like the collaboration with Zach Galifianakis that just scored a series order
Revered Lost vet Cuse, 55, has become a go-to showrunner, tackling Bates Motel with Kerry Ehrin, FX's horror drama The Strain and A&E's upcoming remake of French hit The Returned — all while escaping comparisons to his landmark ABC drama.
First Hollywood gig: "I wrote a couple of episodes of Crime Story, a '60s-era Chicago crime drama, for Michael Mann."
Favorite scene I wrote this year: "Norman Bates taking a lie detector test"
Most unintentionally hilarious network note: “Could we understand this scene from the rat's POV?”
I knew my show had hit the zeitgeist when: "Damon Lindelof and I were reading the Top Ten List on Letterman"
Weirdest series on my DVR: "Bud Greenspan's documentary on the 2004 Olympics, which is not so much weird as awesome"
Strangest fan interaction: "At a party, a woman said, 'I'm a huge fan of Lost. I have a tattoo of the [code] numbers.' She showed me they ran across the bottom of her breasts as my wife looked across the room."
The other show I'd write for: "Fargo. Noah Hawley has struck a perfect tone."
HBO's coming-of-age comedy (and the buzzy trio behind it) remains a critical darling — despite its boutique audience — even as the series approaches its fourth season. Mastermind Dunham, 28, is the series auteur, whose work presses buttons and moves the pop-culture dial.
My first spec script (Dunham): "I never wrote a spec, unless you count my Charles Dickens fan fiction from fourth grade."
Most unintentionally humorous network note (Dunham): "We're pretty lucky in the free-rein department. That said: 'Lena, do you really think this semen is a story point?' "
The funniest moment in our writers room (Dunham): "Jenni Konner getting the giggles means it's all over and we are headed into mania. It doesn't matter what it's about, just that it's happening and we can't return to serious work mode until the madness has run is course. But it gives me the giggles, and then …"
Showrunner role model (Dunham): "Jenni Konner and Shonda Rhimes"
Three things always in our writers room (Dunham): "Almonds, pita chips and Jews"
I knew our show had hit the zeitgeist when (Dunham): "Kathie Lee and Hoda started talking dirty about us."
If I could write for any other show, it would be (Dunham): "Scandal. I have very clear and probably incorrect ideas about how the government works so it would lead to some deep Private Benjamin-style comedy."
A&E's push into scripted hasn't been easy (RIP, Longmire), but 49-year-old Ehrin's serialized Psycho prequel set in modern times has what any cable net would kill for: 4.6 million loyal viewers, genre appeal and Emmy and Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga.
My first Hollywood gig: "Getting paid $500 to write a completely original screenplay for a 'producer'; which he would then own. Welcome to Hollywood!"
Showrunner role models: "Jason Katims and Carlton Cuse. They share a Zen quality that keeps everyone calm no matter what shit is hitting the fan."
Most embarrassing thing I've ever written: "A play in third grade about an organ grinder whose trained monkey gets lost. I made my teacher let me perform it for the class."
My favorite scene I wrote this year: "Probably the scene where Norma and Norman try out for Community Theater and get in a huge fight in the parking lot. It had a lot of layers and levels and humor and pathos and was kind of an operatic and darkly humorous marathon of dysfunctional gymnastics."
If I could write for any other show, it would be: "Louie. I love that show and everything about it."
Best moment of TV this year: "My personal favorite was the subway sequence on Louie. That was amazing."
NBC no longer needs to hang its hat on The Voice. And why worry after the giant James Spader spy drama from Eisendrath, 55, and Bokenkamp, 41, lured the same big ratings in its season-two premiere as it did in 2013, during which it averaged 14.9 million weekly viewers.
My first spec script (Eisendrath): "The short-lived Steven Bochco dramedy Hooperman, starring John Ritter. I’m embarrassed to say it took me three days to write. Really inexcusable."
Favorite scene I wrote this year (Bokenkamp): "The stroganoff scene, in which Red [Spader] invites himself over for dinner at the home of a delightful couple and proceeds to shoot the husband in the leg and lock the wife in the closet. He takes a 'rain check' on the stroganoff."
Best moment of TV this year (Eisendrath): "When Jon and I wrote 'The End' on the final episode of the first season and we got to go on hiatus. For a week."
My first Hollywood gig: (Bokenkamp): "Doing a rewrite on a horror film for Billy Friedkin. I’m confident I did a sufficiently terrible job as the movie was never made and I was fired."
(Eisendrath): "Freelancing a script to the even-more-short-lived David Milch dramedy Beverly Hills Buntz, a spinoff of my all-time favorite show, Hill Street Blues."
It may be down one big star (so long, Brody!) and absent its former Emmy-darling status, but the 53-year-old's plot-twisty Homeland is still an international phenomenon — and its network's marquee property.
My first spec script: "Howard Gordon and I wrote a St. Elsewhere spec about a boxer with dementia named Rocket al Akeed who was forced to retire. No one ever read it and no one ever will."
Series I refuse to miss: "Happy Valley on Netflix."
Showrunner role model: "Howard Gordon"
Strangest fan interaction: "President Obama telling us we need to take it easy on Carrie this season."
Most embarrassing thing I've written: "Whatever I wrote last night and am reading this morning."
Our best joke from last season that never aired: "We had a scene where Carrie shows up at Saul’s house, clearly intoxicated. After she barges in, Mira asks if she has been drinking and Carrie replies, "Less than Churchill when he defeated the Nazis."
I knew our show had hit the zeitgeist when: "They parodied us on Sesame Street. We all thought 'Homelamb' was brilliant — Ba-a-a-a-rody as a redheaded wolf in sheep’s clothing still makes me laugh. Everything about it was spot-on."
What more can be said about the man, 43, who runs TV's highest-rated show — other than take bets about whether the zombie saga will get even bigger (last season hit a live 8.2 rating with adults 18-to-49) when it returns Oct. 12.
My first Hollywood gig: "In comics, it was a story for What If? in which Galactus is transformed into a human being and mistaken for Elvis Presley. In animation, it was working for Disney TV Animation. In live action, it was a Fox TV show called Drive."
Moment I knew I wanted to write for TV: "About 90 seconds after I saw it for the first time."
Weirdest show on my DVR: "The Eric Andre Show on Adult Swim."
Series I refuse to miss: "Rick and Morty on Adult Swim."
I knew our show had hit the zeitgeist when: "After I saw dialogue from the show tattooed on people."
It's the gift that keeps on giving. Under Glasberg, 48, the mothership of CBS' ever-growing franchise became the most watched show in the world in 2013 — with an estimated 57.6 million global viewers.
Three things always in our writers room: "We don't have one, but if we did, you could count on coffee, chocolate and lots of dry-erase boards."
My first spec script: "An episode of Northern Exposure. It didn’t get made, but it got me some meetings and that’s all you can ask for.”
One part Washington Irving, one part Quantum Leap, Sleepy Hollow was just what Fox needed when it kicked off the 2013-14 TV season as a ratings success. Yes, it's lost considerable steam, but the network's only other returning drama (Bones) is now 10. This makes 46-year-old Goffman's series a linchpin for the network and studio 20th Century Fox TV.
Worst pitch meeting: "My then-agents said these high-profile producers were buying a spec pilot I'd finished and wanted to discuss a game plan. When I arrived, the producers said they loved my 'sample' and were excited to hear my new pitch. I didn't have one."
Best moment on TV this year: "Game of Thrones finale, the scene between Tyrion and his father was incredible. Breaking Bad, when Walter and Skyler have an honest moment and goodbye. His admitting why he did it, and her getting to hear it was insanely satisfying. And the climax of Louie, 'So Did the Fat Lady.' Just brilliant."
My favorite scene I wrote this year: "In 'Necromancer,' I got to write a sequence where Ichabod Crane interrogates the Headless Horseman, aka one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. First, we came up with the origin story that, unbeknownst to Crane, the Horseman was his former best friend, betrothed to Katrina [his wife]. But then how was this scene going to play out? How do you interrogate a character that doesn't have a head? It took a while, but when we landed on bringing in Abbie's former colleague, Andy Brooks, who can speak for the Horseman because he's dead — and a necromancer. As crazy as all that sounded, it made sense. The scenes got to be outrageous, funny and then deeply personal, leading to a sword fight in a Masonic cell designed by Thomas Jefferson. What more could you ask for?"
ABC's affection for the 38-year-old's autobiographical 1980s-set sitcom is paying off with a second and thus far thriving season, with 7.3 million viewers on the more-hospitable Wednesday block.
Three things always in our writers room: "Mini footballs hitting someone who isn't looking, doughnuts stolen from the stage and drawings of robot dicks."
Favorite scene I wrote this year: "When Barry [Troy Gentile] does his epic nunchuck routine for his parents set to Stan Bush's 'The Touch.' This moment happened to me in real life."
My worst pitch meeting: "I once worked on a pitch for a big-budget family adventure movie based off a book I loved. After three months of preparation, I had my pitch with one of Hollywood's biggest producers. Within five minutes, they fell dead asleep, head back limply, mouth hanging open. I kept going not knowing what to do and when the pitch ended I slammed my foot on the coffee table to wake them up. The producer woke with a start and told me it was a brilliant pitch. Needless to say, I didn't get the job."
My first Hollywood gig: "When I was 17, Jonathan Lynn, the director of My Cousin Vinny, saw a play that I wrote and very generously invited me to shadow him on the movie Trial & Error. It was an amazing learning experience, as I got to lurk behind the scenes and see how a movie was made and watch Gary Ross rewrite the script on the fly."
Gordon's school yearbook superlative might be Class Overachiever. The 53-year-old added two new series (Tyrant and Legends) to his catalog this year, revived 24 on Fox (the highest-rated Big Four entry last summer) and still has a hand in Homeland.
My first Hollywood gig: "Spencer for Hire at ABC. What was certainly one of the last of a now bygone genre of private eye shows."
Series I refuse to miss: "The Honorable Woman."
The moment I knew I wanted to write for TV: "When I found out my dream job of becoming an astronaut wasn’t going to happen."
Showrunner role model: "A dead heat between Alex Gansa, Evan Katz and Manny Coto."
I knew our show had hit the zeitgeist when: "President Obama told Ellen DeGeneres that he watched Homeland."
Hardest scene I wrote this year: "The first one in Tyrant's second episode, which required, narratively, putting toothpaste back in the tube."
Nathan, 66, runs day-to-day on Fox's aging workhorse, while creator Hanson, 57, splits his time with midseason entry Backstrom. No other scripted series of Bones' age is as prized by its network.
Worst pitch meeting (Hanson): "Pitching Bones to Dana Walden and Jennifer Salke. I talked with great enthusiasm for a [long] time, only to have Dana say, 'Wait a minute. Is this a TV show?' "
I knew our show had hit the zeitgeist when (Nathan): "Bones was a punch line on 30 Rock."
My first Hollywood gig (Hanson): "Cupid on ABC, created by Rob Thomas, starring Jeremy Piven." (Nathan): "Singing 'Momma, Look Sharp' in the film version of 1776. Which still delights Bill Prady."
My favorite scene I wrote last year (Hanson): "Booth and Brennan's wedding vows and/or a scene in Backstrom, where Rainn Wilson interrogates a miscreant while stoned out of his gourd on oxycontin."
My first spec script (Nathan): "In 1375 for Chaucer's anthology series The Canterbury Tales."
Best moment of TV this year (Hanson): "Sherlock Holmes giving the Best Man's speech at John Watson's wedding"
The 47-year-old TV vet finally had a hit in 2014 -- and it hit big. Fargo's rapturous critical reception was followed by strong ratings, 18 Emmy nominations and a win for best miniseries. The anthology will return in 2015 with a new cast and wintry setting.
Series I refuse to miss: "Game of Thrones. They're brilliant at bringing their story to a crisis point with two possible outcomes and making you want to see both."
Strangest fan interaction: "Chuck Lorre pointed at me at the Critics' Choice Awards and said, 'Huge fan.' All I could think was he meant I was a huge fan of his, which seemed a weird thing to tell someone."
My first spec script: "A former con man who starts an alibi service for people who cheat on their spouses. Summit made it [Lies & Alibis] in 2006."
My favorite scene I wrote this year: "The scene between Martin Freeman and Bob Odenkirk after Martin’s character, Lester, frames his brother Chazz for killing his wife. It’s the scene in which we realize that Lester is through playing defense and he’s got a plan. And Bob’s character, rather than interrogate Lester, is heartbroken for him and is telling him exactly what he needs to hear. The juxtaposition of Bob’s inherent decency in contrast with Martin’s cold cunning, made the scene tense and funny and terrible to write. And then watching those two actors do the scene was truly a writer’s dream come true."
My worst pitch meeting: "The time I was in the middle of a pitch and an announcement came over the building’s loudspeaker telling me that a tree was about to fall on my car."
Our best joke last season that never aired: "We had a bit in the second episode where Malvo [Billy Bob Thronton] asks a sample lady at the supermarket where her boss is. And she’s handing out 'nut free trail mix,' and when she turns to point, he pours a can of nuts into the bin. And she sees he’s done it, but the social contract, that Minnesota nice, keeps her from saying anything. It worked on paper, but the actress we cast against Billy just didn’t land."
Hirst, 62, has created the perfect marriage between History's fact-friendly roots and its ambitious scripted aspirations. The historical epic's viewership average of 3.4 million is a serious boon by cable standards.
Three things always in our writers room: "Me, me and my dog."
Series I refuse to miss: "Frasier"
Most unintentionally humorous network note: "Could you not show very much sex and violence in your show?"
Synergy poster children Horowitz, 42, and Kitsis, 43, are toeing the Disney line this season by adding characters from blockbuster Frozen to Sunday's already sprawling fairy tale. The trick spurred a 42 percent ratings surge from last fall's premiere.
Our strangest fan interaction: "Finding out William Shatner was a fan as he tweeted with us during one of our airings."
Our favorite moment of TV this year: "The 'Mom Computer Therapy' sketch on Inside Amy Schumer. For anyone who's told their parents how to use a computer, nothing rang truer."
The politics-skewering comedy continues to gain viewers, three years in. Iannucci, 50, saw the show net nine Emmy nominations this year — with his A-list star Julia Louis-Dreyfus winning her third straight statuette for the lead role.
They didn't just give HBO the dick joke heard round the world. Judge, 51, and Berg, 45, rocketed out of the gate with their first season and scored a comedy nom at the Emmys — stealing a spot from better-known shows like NBC's Parks and Recreation.
Most unintentionally humorous network note (Judge): "When MTV standards suggested that Beavis say 'dick breath' instead of 'ass munch.' "
Showrunner role model (Berg): "Vladimir Putin. He seems stern, but fair. Not afraid to admit when he's made a mistake. Generous, but not too generous. And he looks good with his shirt off while he's on the back of a horse."
My first spec script (Judge): "I made a movie called Extract (bad title) that started out as a spec script that I wrote. I also wrote a spec script called The Gonorrhea Hyenas (great title) but haven’t made that one yet."
My first Hollywood gig (Berg): "Working for a Fox show called Great Scott that starred young unknown actors named Tobey Maguire and Kevin Connolly. Never did find out what happened to those kids."
The funniest moment in our writers room (Judge): "That would definitely be when Alec Berg, Clay Tarver and Dan O’Keefe were riffing on the elaborate dick joke in the season finale and writing equations and diagrams on the board."
My favorite scene I wrote this year (Berg): "The jerk-off scene in our season finale. It was a very satisfying combination of really smart math and very low-brow penis humor. And the thing that made it work was is that there were really no jokes. It was all just a serious and totally fact-based discussion of how to maximize efficiency in an extremely graphic situation."
Our best joke that never aired (Berg): "We had a scene in the finale where Peter Gregory confronts his nemesis Gavin Belson right after Pied Piper has shown up Gavin’s Nucleus platform in a very public and humiliating way, and the whole scene was just a litany of very milquetoast pleasantries. Those two are so passive aggressive with each other, the entire confrontation was played in subtext. Wow, I just made it sound unbelievably boring, didn’t I? It was really funny. We got to hear it at a table read before the brilliant Chris Evan Welch passed away, but we never got to film it. That’s a scene I really wanted to see."
By most standards the least formidable entry on the list, The Mindy Project remains an immense value to Fox and studio NBCUniversal thanks to its co-showrunner's multihyphenate status as the only marquee name starring in her own creation on broadcast. Kaling, 35, has clout that keeps her in the conversation, with or without ratings impact.
Favorite scene I wrote this season (Warburton, 36): "Mindy and Danny's first kiss on the airplane. We spent time working out every little detail, except for Chris Messina grabbing Mindy's butt at the end. That was all Messina."
(Kaling): " 'You've Got Sext' where Danny asks Mindy to pretend to be his girlfriend. There's a scene where Mindy slaps Danny for 'cheating' on her. That was really fun to write — and even more fun to act."
My first spec script (Kaling): "I wrote an Arrested Development spec where Tobias thought Lindsay was having an affair."
(Warburton): "An episode of Malcolm in the Middle. The B-story had Jane Kaczmarek selling the family’s unused prescription drugs at a garage sale, and she quickly becomes the neighborhood drug dealer. In retrospect, this B-story might have worked better with Bryan Cranston."
First Hollywood gig (Kaling): "I was a part-time production assistant on Crank Yankers in New York City."
(Warburton): "Doing joke punch-up on the weed comedy How High, where Method Man and Redman go to Harvard. I didn’t know the weed stuff, but man could I pitch on the names of Harvard dorms and dining halls. Needless to say, nothing I wrote was used."
Three things always in our writers room (Kaling): "Matt's indigestion tablets, my sour straws and a space heater, which we named Lasko and glued googly eyes on."
Passing the torch to himself this season, Katims, 53, is putting family drama Parenthood to bed after six seasons and managing the second season of comedy About a Boy. (Film-to-TV adaptations are sort of this guy's thing.) The latter was strong enough to be one of just two NBC comedies returning for this season.
First Hollywood gig: "Staff writer on My So-Called Life."
Strangest fan interaction: "I went to the Austin Television Festival and was surprised that more fans came up to me to talk about Roswell than Friday Night Lights or Parenthood. One of them kept asking me to bring Roswell back and didn't seem to accept it when I told her that would be very unlikely."
My first spec script: "It was for a short-lived show called The Amazing Teddy Z. No one mentioned to me you were supposed to write specs for shows people had heard of."
Favorite scene I wrote last season: "I enjoyed writing the scenes with Jason Ritter in the one episode he appeared in last season. We didn't know he'd be available so I never broke a story for him with the writers. When I found out he'd become available I wrote it into the script days before we started prepping the episode. Usually, you have such a clear roadmap when you get to the stage of writing a draft. It was fun going rogue and just writing what came into my head."
A rare constant on the cable net's frequently fluid schedule, the teen-targeted blackmail drama stands as ABC Family's highest-rated and one of Twitter's most talked about, like, ever.
Series I refuse to miss (King, 47): "The Strain on FX, my guilty pleasure."
Most unintentionally humorous network note (Goldstick, 53): "In an outline for a proposed miniseries on the Mayflower, I was asked by the producer to 'age down' the pilgrims so they would 'still be sexy when they're wet.'"
Most embarrassing thing I've ever written (King): "The Untitled Talking Dog Movie."
My first spec script (Goldstick): "A Roseanne episode where a beleaguered Dan, desperate to provide for his family, moonlights at a nearby museum, falls asleep on a 17th century bed and breaks it. Roseanne defends him at his subsequent 'trial.'"
Hardest scene I had to write this year (King): "The Pretty Little Liars and Mona’s mother learning she was murdered. I loved Mona as much as they did."
My worst pitch meeting (Goldstick): "A legendary exec producer who disappeared into his private bathroom halfway through the story pitch and remained in there for about an hour. When he finally returned, he seemed to have forgotten who I was. And what show I was pitching for. But he sent me off to write an outline anyway."
Strangest fan interaction I've had (King): Leaving a hotel in New York thinking fans were outside waiting for someone famous. Turns out they were waiting for me."
It's not the net's typical procedural cash cow, but the prestigious legal saga is single-handedly keeping broadcast in the drama Emmy race. And unlike cable, married couple Robert, 54, and Michelle, 52, are putting out 22 episodes a season — a fact that Emmy winner Julianna Margulies was quick to note in her acceptance speech.
Worst pitch meeting (Michelle): "It involved a junior executive falling asleep while I was pitching and Robert kicking him awake and saying, 'Pay attention! This is really good!' We sold the idea."
Favorite scene from last season (Robert): "A sequence involving Will [Josh Charles] preparing his cross-examination of Alicia [Margulies]. I loved how it was filmed — we dip into his mind, his memories, his anticipatory imagination of how the cross would go."
My first Hollywood gig (Michelle): "I was assistant to a 26-year-old vice president at Kings Road Entertainment. I thought he was an adult."
(Robert): A Roger Corman movie called The Nest. It was about killer cockroaches on an island. I had three weeks to write it because they were already in preproduction. The one-sheet was excellent. It had a human-sized cockroach mounting a woman in lingerie. The tag line was 'She’s just an appetizer.' "
Solidifying her prison dramedy's status as one of the most-talked-about series (not) on TV, Kohan, 45, released the second season at a crossroads of Emmy love (12 nominations), current events (breakout transgender actress Laverne Cox) and a preemptive pickup for more.
In a post-Burn Notice and post-Psych era, USA's slimmer drama catalog is dominated by 47-year-old Korsh's slick legal drama — a combination of cases du jour and Twitter-approved characters. (Characters are still welcome, by the way.)
Showrunner role model: "[Everybody Loves Raymond's] Phil Rosenthal."
My first spec script: "A Friends episode where I think Ross catches Chandler pleasuring himself in the shower. Or maybe the other way around. Doesn't really matter, cause it sucked."
Moment I knew I wanted to work in TV: "My friend from college took me to a table read in 1997. It was a sitcom pilot starring Bryan Cranston. I had never written a thing — and after it was over, we stayed to do a punch-up. I couldn't believe this was what these guys got paid to do."
Best moment of TV this year: "What comes to mind first is the fight between The Hound and Brienne of Tarth [on Game of Thrones]."
Among Arrow's biggest fans is CW chief Mark Pedowitz, who started prepping a spinoff (Flash) after just one season of the comic book adaptation. It doesn't hurt that the show makes Wednesday the biggest night on the network's schedule.
First Hollywood gig (Kreisberg, 43): "I was a tape-vault intern at Entertainment Tonight."
Worst pitch meeting (Guggenheim, 44): "I pitched ideas for Star Trek: Voyager over the phone. Never pitch when you can't see your audience's reactions. Oy, it was ugly."
My favorite scene I wrote this year (Kreisberg): "The opening scenes of the second season premiere of Arrow was one of the toughest things I have ever had to write. I generally don't get blocked but I had a lot of trouble just getting started. But once I did, and seeing how well they were realized on screen by the cast and director, they were some of my favorites."
Three things you'll find in our writers room (Guggenheim): "Action figures, action figures and action figures."
Strangest fan interaction (Kreisberg): "I was signing comics at Comic-Con, and I had a small bag of almonds next to me. A fan asked me to sign one of my books and while I did he just reached down and dug out an almond from the bag. I said, 'Excuse me,' and he looked at me like I was a jerk and said, 'What?! I only took one!' "
Lawrence, 45, has quickly gone from in-the-trenches showrunner to the executive producer behind a mini-empire as one of Warner Horizon's busiest sellers, with second seasons of workplace comedy Ground Floor and multicam comedy Undateable on deck.
Strangest fan interaction: "On Scrubs, we gave out Turk's new cell phone number. Anytime we turned on that phone, it constantly rang with people wanting to talk to him. When Donald Faison answered, their heads exploded."
Best moment on TV this year: "Veep. Amazing acting, jealousy-inducing writing. Very annoying."
Three things you'll find in our writers room: "People arguing about lunch, someone's gross feet on the table even though I don't like seeing feet and the walls covered with jokes that we either use or paint over at the end of the year."
The comedic brain trust behind ABC's biggest series surprised many (including themselves) when their family comedy scored a near-unprecedented fifth consecutive best comedy Emmy in August. With Levitan, 52, and Lloyd, 54, continuing to share showrunning duties, it also remains ABC's top-rated series.
Strangest fan interaction (Levitan): "In 10 Downing Street, hearing how much British Prime Minister David Cameron loves Phil Dunphy."
Three things always in our writers room (Lloyd): "Believable supportiveness, a lurking competitiveness and a palpable neediness. Shorter answer: ego, anger and gum."
My first Hollywood gig (Levitan): "I started off in Hollywood doing trailers and TV commercials for Disney/Touchstone."
My favorite scene last season (Lloyd): "The extended slamming doors sequence in our Las Vegas farce, because it took us weeks and weeks to set up all those dominoes. When they fell just the way we wanted, it was a joy to behold."
Straddling the line between critical glee and horror, the 41-year-old's first TV gig post-Lost gained fans and favor over its summer run. A coup for studio Warner Bros., it's now a potential heir to the cable network's drama throne and garnered a speedy sophomore pickup.
Favorite scene I wrote this year: "Nora Durst [Carrie Coon] making out with a life-sized dummy to Crowded House's 'Don't Dream It's Over.' "
Funniest moment in our writers room: "N/A. Our writers room is where funny goes to die."
Weirdest show on my DVR: "Black Jesus on Adult Swim. Aaron McGruder is a genius."
My first Hollywood gig: "As a staff writer on Kevin Williamson's Wasteland, a show about beautiful 20-somethings in New York burdened with spiritual ennui and unrealistically large apartments."
I knew our show had hit the zeitgeist when: "Everyone I've ever known started asking me if I was severely depressed."
Showrunner role model: "Shonda Rhimes. I am simply in awe of her."
The moment I knew I wanted to write for TV: "After watching the Twin Peaks pilot, I thought to myself, 'If I can ever make someone care as much about something as I care about this show, I will die happy.' "
The king of CBS and the man who put multicam sitcoms back on the map boasts the most successful comedy catalog on TV, devoting his days to fledgling Mom as he gets ready for Two and a Half Men to sign off for good. Lorre, 61, still finds time to pen unique vanity cards for all four of his shows. BBT, with a 7.4 demo rating in its first live-plus-3 day showing this season, is second only to Sunday Night Football on the Big Four.
Favorite scene I wrote this year: "I wrote nothing. I co-wrote with many great writers quite a bit."
Worst pitch meeting: "Early in my career, I pitched a horror-musical movie to a woman who condescendingly blew me off because I wrote for TV, specifically Roseanne. In her office was a big poster of her most recent film effort, Kid 'n Play's House Party 2."
TV's home for big-name guest stars — Jessica Biel popped by the September premiere — and Fox's highest-rated live-action comedy still is the Zooey Deschanel ensemble vehicle. Manned by the trio of creator Meriwether (32), Baer (44) and Finkel (48), New Girl also is enjoying a season-four critical reboot and recently landed a choice syndication deal on both TBS and MTV.
My first Hollywood gig (Finkel): "I was an assistant to funny man Dom Deluise. That is all I have to say about that."
(Baer): "The night of my 16th birthday, I was plucked out of a line of extras and given one line in a little picture you might remember called Risky Business. I got to hang out with pretend hookers and they gave me twenty extra bucks for bringing my bicycle. Sweet. It rained a bunch that night, so I spent some time huddled in a garage with some nice kid I thought worked in the makeup department. I made a complete ass of myself. Turned out to be the star of the movie."
Three things always in our writers room (Meriwether): "Condiments, for some reason. The table is covered in bottles of sriracha, ketchup and mustard."
Strangest fan interaction (Finkel): "The woman who told us how much she loved our show, quoted specific lines from episodes and proceeded to tell [co-star] Hannah Simone how much she loved her book. See, the joke here is that Hannah has not yet written a book. But Mindy Kaling has."
(Baer): "Back in the day, Dave and I starred in a children's show where basically we just broke stuff and threw food all over the place. Many years later, a YouTube viewer wrote a comment below one of our shorts about how much he loved our show. Later we realized that all of this 'fan's' other links revealed him to be a huge cream-pie fetishist and our antics were giving him more than just laughs."
Best moment of TV this year (Baer): "Mr. Kotter convinces Vinnie Barbarino to stay in school. Most people watched this episode 35 years ago, but I'm just binge-watching on Netflix, and it's well worth the wait."
(Meriwether): "I loved The Honorable Woman."
(Finkel): "'When are you gonna make flowers on me again?' True Detective. Hands down. I'm still coming down from that arousal."
Who's worth $1 million an episode? Molaro's three leads (Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) of broadcast's reigning champ and a billion-dollar property for Warner Bros. CBS even is using it to rebuild its troubled Monday night during the eight-week NFL takeover of its Thursday slot.
Favorite scene I wrote this year (Molaro, 47): "While I can't say just 'I' wrote it, my favorite scene [we] wrote is a tie: Sheldon and Amy's kiss on the train; and Leonard proposing to Penny, where we learn he has had the ring in his wallet for years."
My first Hollywood gig: "I moved to Los Angeles to be a staff writer for Amanda Bynes' sketch show on Nickeldoeon, The Amanda Show. The first thing I ever wrote for it was a fake commercial for a breakfast cereal called, 'Meatloaf Crunch.' It looked like it turned the milk chocolatey -- but that was gravy."
Three things always in our writers room: "A black-and-orange Nerf football, complicated paper airplanes and a desperate wondering of when lunch will arrive."
Strangest fan interaction: "Does the letter I received telling me I'm destroying society with every line of dialogue I write count?"
Starz got a welcome breakout hit — and female fans — with Moore's adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's beloved novels about romance and time travel in Scotland. The built-in genre cred that accompanied Battlestar Galactica's Moore, 50, hasn't hurt either.
Most unintentionally humorous network note: "A memo regarding the number of pelvic thrusts that was permissible during sex on NBC."
I knew we hit the zeitgeist when: "When Salma Hayek wore a 'What the Frak?' T-shirt on 30 Rock."
Best career advice: "Harlan Ellison, who told me, 'Don’t be a whore!' "
Weirdest show on my DVR: "[Animal Planet's] My Cat From Hell."
As they prepare to sing a farewell tune for Glee, Murphy, 48, and Falchuk, 43, still boast one of the buzziest (and creepiest) series on TV — one that inspired the current wave of anthologies (see Fargo and True Detective), hit record ratings in its third outing and scored four Emmys.
Favorite scene this year (Murphy): "It's something we all wrote together, but the last scene between Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson in the Coven finale. It was poetic, and they knocked it out of the park."
Strangest fan interaction (Murphy): "I had a scary one. My [first] baby was a month old, and my doorbell rang at 11:30 at night. It was a crazed Glee fan who demanded I read a treatment for an episode she'd done. When I asked her to leave, she would not, so the SWAT team came. It was a two-hour ordeal. That was probably my weirdest one. She later fled the country and wrote me a letter of apology. At least she apologized. It was a very sweet, awful letter basically saying, 'Sorry I woke your baby. I was just so passionate about Kurt.' But for that horrible one, there's a lot more great ones."
Three things you'll find in the writers room (Murphy): "We keep a lot of vitamins, a lot of pens and some very bizarre things that fans have sent in — like macaroni portraits of the cast. We prop them up for inspiration. They're sweet. They show that people really have a connection to the work."
I knew our show had hit the zeitgeist when (Murphy): "After the first episode of the first season [of Horror Story], I remember going to a Halloween party the next week and three people dressed up as Jessica Lange as Constance — with that beehive hairdo. I remember thinking, well, that permeated the culture rather quickly."
Best moment of TV this year (Murphy): "For me, the insanely brilliant tracking shot on True Detective that Cary [Fukunaga] directed. When I was watching it, I was completely blown away."
Taking the helm in 2013 of TNT's most watched show (which has nearly eclipsed The Closer as TNT's biggest ever with an average 6.5 million viewers), Nash, 53, has steered the ship into clear waters and made the female buddy-cop procedural a keystone of the net's schedule.
Hardest scene I had to write this year: "Where we buried the character of Detective Barry Frost, played by the late actor Lee Thompson Young. Trying to write scenes about a real loss without collapsing into melodrama pushed me in all sorts of new ways."
Most embarrassing thing I've ever written: "My first comedy spec script, followed closely by my second. Perhaps this explains why I became a drama writer."
Not missing a beat after the shocking departure of star Dan Stevens in 2012, one of the globe's most watched series — about England's nearly extinct upper class, circa 1920s — is growing its U.S. audience (a record 10.2 million viewers in 2014) while also driving PBS' originals renaissance. With Fellowes, 65, still penning every episode, Downton remains a serious Emmy contender going into its fifth season.
Series I refuse to miss (Fellowes): "I'm equally addicted to Mad Men, The Good Wife and Scandal."
Strangest fan interaction (Fellowes): "A woman followed me into Barnes & Noble in New York. When I finally asked if I could help, she burst into tears and wailed, 'Please let Edith be happy!' "
I knew our show(s) had hit the zeitgeist when (Fellowes): "I opened the Times [of London] one morning and there was a huge picture of the three sisters and over it a banner headline: 'The Chancellor Belongs on the Set of Downton Abbey!' It was some complaint against a new fiscal policy being put in place by the government."
Favorite scene I wrote this year (Fellowes): "I did enjoy the moment when Carson and Mrs. Hughes went paddling in the sea together, and some of the Anna/Bates scenes still make me cry."
My present-day showrunner role model is (Fellowes): "Matt Weiner. For me, his achievement is keeping the style of Mad Men so distinct and so solid when the show is being written under his supervision by several writers. His vision is strong enough to prevent it ever running down."
The first spec script I wrote was (Fellowes): "It was an adaptation of Anthony Trollope's novel The Eustace Diamonds. It was the script that persuaded Robert Altman to let me send in some story and character suggestions for the film that would come to be known as Gosford Park."
The best or worst career advice I've ever received (Fellowes): "A rather unpleasant drama teacher at my school shook my hand as I left at the end of the course. 'Stick to singing,' she said."
The Oprah Winfrey Network's long road to profitability practically was paved by Perry. The 45-year-old's four series (and counting) stand as OWN's highest-rated and still account for only a fraction of his entertainment empire.
Eight episodes was all it took to make Emmy nominee Pizzolatto, 38, his dark Southern crime anthology and his A-list casting choices the stuff of daily speculation for insiders and fans.
Funniest moment in the writers room: "Probably when I blew off working for two days and just marathoned three seasons of Seinfeld in my office."
Three things always in our writers room: "The King James Bible, Swedish snus [tobacco] and a yoga mat."
My first Hollywood writing gig was: "Adapting my novel as a screenplay and writing an original pilot for HBO."
The spec script I wrote was: "I wrote three original pilots on spec and a spec episode of Justified where Raylan crosses paths with a man who's basically an older version of himself while stopping some bank robbers trying to fund their hillbilly-metal band."
My favorite scene I wrote this year was: "I really enjoyed the two Cohle-and-Hart-in-a-bar scenes, one in 1995 in episode four, and one in 2012 in at the top of episode seven."
The worst career advice I've ever received is: "Something about following 'chain of command.' "
If I could write for any other show — comedy or drama — it would be: "Arrested Development"
Not many can creatively drive two network-defining hits — both about vampires! — and do it so well. Plec, 42, is the official first lady of The CW.
Best career advice: "If you don't know the answer to a question, say, 'I'll get back to you on that,' and pick up the phone and call someone who knows."
Series I refuse to miss: "Scandal, of course!"
Best moment of TV this year: "When Jane Fonda told Will McAvoy he wasn't allowed to quit his job on The Newsroom, I stood up and applauded."
My first Hollywood writing gig was: "I was producing Kyle XY for ABC Family and we needed an extra female voice on the show, so the EP David Himelfarb suggested I write one. That opportunity began my writing career."
My favorite scene I wrote this year was: "I decided to write the second episode of The Vampire Diaries while I was in Rome on vacation. I wrote Act 1 sitting on a park bench in Villa Borghese at the top of the Spanish Steps."
The moment I knew I wanted to write for television was: "It was the year Ally McBeal, The Practice, Once and Again, West Wing, 24, Alias, Buffy, Angel and our beloved Dawson's Creek were all on television at the same time, and I realized I was watching some of the most spectacular dramas on a weekly basis that beat any movie I had seen in the theater all year."
The three things you’ll always find in our writers room are: "The $5 "best pitch" bill that gets thrown at you when your pitch gets applause; a half-empty bottle of Irish Whiskey (symbolic, not practical); and a treadmill desk that I occasionally walk on while we're breaking story."
In early August, Shonda Rhimes read a draft announcement for an event where she was set to appear. It called her "the most powerful black female showrunner in Hollywood." She crossed out "female" and "black" and sent it back.
As the mastermind of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal and the producer of top-rated newcomer How to Get Away With Murder, all for ABC, she didn't believe either modifier was necessary — or relevant. "They wouldn't say that someone is 'the most powerful white male showrunner in Hollywood,' " she contends, her tone turning momentarily stern on this morning in late September. She pauses to gather her thoughts and then continues: "I find race and gender to be terribly important; they're terribly important to who I am. But there's something about the need for everybody else to spend time talking about it … that pisses me off."
Read the rest of THR's cover story.
With Fox's Golden Globe-winning cop comedy (and its only returning new hit from 2013) and civic-duty fave Parks (about to wrap after seven seasons), Schur, 38, and Goor, 39, have solidified their status as two of the biggest names in scripted comedy today.
Favorite scene this year (Schur): "Leslie [Amy Poehler] and Ron [Nick Offerman] talking on a bench in London."
(Goor): "When Detective Boyle won an award for bravery and had to share the stage with a police horse named Peanut Butter."
Worst pitch meeting (Goor): "When I applied to med school. The interviewer asked what I thought would be the hardest part of being a doctor. I said, 'Being around sick people.' "
My first Hollywood gig was (Schur): "Saturday Night Live in January of 1998."
(Goor): "Writing for The Daily Show."
First spec script I wrote was (Schur): "A Curb Your Enthusiasm script. That's right — a script for a show that has no scripts."
(Goor): "An episode of The Office, in which Pam goes to the bathroom and stumbles upon the night janitor who died during his shift."
The three things you’ll always find in our writers room are (Schur): "Some disgustingly flavored gum, a Sharpie with no ink left, and a YouTube page open to Rita Pavone's 1977 classic 'My Name is Potato.'"
(Goor): "Note cards, crumbs and dried tears"
The best moment of television this year (Schur): "Skyler: 'If I have to hear, one more time, that you did this for the family—' Walter: 'I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really ... I was alive.' "
Could Michael Bay's summer blockbuster track record translate from the cinema to the small screen? The answer was a resounding yes when Steinberg and Kane's Navy drama collaboration with the producer opened to a 2014 cable-launch high of 5.3 million viewers.
Moment I knew I wanted to write for television (Steinberg, 44): "When Jerry Bruckheimer and Jonathan Littman brought me the idea for Without a Trace. It was a no-brainer."
I knew our show had hit the zeitgeist when (Kane, 45): "The Last Ship appeared as a clue in the Wall Street Journal weekend crossword puzzle."
The best moment of television this year (Steinberg): "The death of Joffrey on Game of Thrones."
Strangest fan interaction (Kane): "When William Shatner started giving me story notes via Twitter."
The best career advice I've ever received (Steinberg): "Don't take a job just because you want to work with somebody you admire. You've got to believe in the material and think you can knock it out of the park or else you'll burn your one shot at working with that person you admire."
My worst-ever pitch meeting (Kane): "When the executive was called out of the room and fired. I was only three minutes into my pitch. And they didn't validate my parking." (Steinberg): "When I realized I had literally put one of the producers to sleep in his chair."
If I could write for any other show it would be (Steinberg): "Louie. Of course, I can't because Louis C.K. does everything on it, including craft services. (I might settle for that job if it were available.)"
Weirdest thing on my DVR (Kane): "The finals of the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions"
The three things you'll always find in our writers room (Steinberg): "Index cards, pretzels, coffee breath"
First Hollywood gig (Steinberg): "A miniseries about the Founding Fathers for Oliver Stone and HBO." (Kane): "A feature film for James Cameron about the Russian Mafia. Fun script, but never got made."
After seven seasons, during which his show became the biggest in FX history, Sutter, 50, is wrapping up his biker drama and still setting new records — 9.3 million people watched its September return.
Hardest scene I had to write this year: "The death of ... (fill in name of series regular here)."
Worst pitch meeting: "Pitching Sons to [an executive at] HBO. She was the most arrogant and disrespectful c— I'd ever met. That's not the case now. HBO is a lovely place."
I knew our show had hit the zeitgeist when: "Fans began tattooing cast autographs on their genitals."
First spec I wrote was about: "A girl with multiple personalities who was manipulated by her shrink to become his ideal woman."
First Hollywood writing gig: "The Shield"
The series currently on air that I refuse to miss: "The Leftovers"
The moment I knew I wanted to write for television: "From an early age, TV was my only friend. I knew we'd always be together."
Wrapping up its seven-season run in 2015, the 49-year-old's retro ad-world drama remains a source of awe among his peers and fans — even if its awards heyday is long gone.
My first spec script: "Larry Sanders accidentally says something racist."
My first Hollywood gig: "Writing Hanukkah Tales and Tunes, a children's video."
Game of Thrones hit new highs in 2014, becoming HBO's most watched series of all time with nearly 20 million viewers tuning in each week. Weiss, 43, and Benioff, 44, manage the distinctive task of juggling production in four countries while building a pop-culture phenomenon from George R.R. Martin's action-fantasy source material.
Strangest fan interaction (Weiss): "At Comic-Con, I was talking to three [people dressed as Thrones character] Daenerys while a guy in a Men in Black suit walked around behind them playing our theme song on a saxophone."
Showrunner role model (Benioff): "[It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's] Rob McElhenney is my role model as both a showrunner and a human being."
(Weiss): "Vince Gilligan is an inspiration. To create a sustained work of such power, while also creating a work environment that is so overwhelmingly positive for all involved, that is a feat that only a truly impressive person could achieve."
Worst pitch meeting (Benioff): "The executive left the room to get a bag of candy but told me to keep going. There was no one else in the room."
(Weiss): "The one where they told me they'd already given the job to someone else. Then asked me to pitch anyway since, you know, I was there."
The moment I knew I wanted to write for television was (Benioff): "When we read A Game of Thrones."
The three things you’ll always find in our writers room (Weiss): "One Relax the Back zero gravity chair, hot sauce and whatever the latest Game of Thrones beer is"
First spec script: "We wrote one together once about a prep school that groomed the world's power elite that was actually run by Satan. It was called 'The Headmaster.' "
The most embarrassing thing I’ve ever written is (Benioff): "The Headmaster."
(Weiss): "I’ve done worse."
The 36-year-old's Machiavellian Beltway drama isn't just Netflix's first child, it's a critical and industry obsession (it nabbed 13 Emmy nominations in its second round of contention). But what makes Willimon's creation unique is how the drama, currently filming season three, redefines the "watercooler," begging viewers to binge before spoilers creep in.
Three things always in our writers room: "Natural light, coffee and dents in the wall from banging our heads against it"
Weirdest show on my DVR: "It's not weird, just badass, but I can't get enough of Les Stroud's Survivorman. Hauling around 60 pounds of film equipment in the Arctic Tundra or the jungle is what I call commitment. [Also], it doesn't get much better than Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown. Love that freak."
The most unintentionally humorous note I've received from standards and practices: "Luckily, since our show streams on Netflix, I've never received any notes from standards and practices."
My first Hollywood writing gig was: "A pilot I pitched to AMC about nine years ago called Hickory Hill. The story centered on an African-American freedman during the Civil War who is wrongly accused of murder. At the time, AMC was developing another show about advertising executives in the '60s. They couldn't afford to produce two shows that year, but clearly they made a very good choice."
My present-day showrunner role model is: "Among them are Vince Gilligan, Tom Fontana, David Simon, David Milch and Jenji Kohan. Collectively I feel like all the showrunners out there are expanding the landscape of television, challenging its traditional forms and exploring stories and characters you can't find anywhere else."
The moment I knew I wanted to write for television: "When I watched the first season of Deadwood. It was a revelation that TV could be so sophisticated. Then I went on to devour The Sopranos and The Wire. The possibilities seemed limitless."
The best career advice I've ever received is: "You can't do it alone."
The only EP with enduring (SVU just turned 16!) and newcomer hits (P.D. is Chicago Fire's spinoff), Wolf, 67, is as crucial to NBC as its flagship show, The Voice.
Worst pitch meeting: "The rough-cut screening for my pilot The Invisible Man, when Peter Roth was running Fox. Peter said, 'Can we change the opening scene?' And I said, 'No, we don't have anything else.' He let out what could only be described as a primal wail."
Best moment of TV this year: "The dancing panda on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."