Comedy Showrunners Roundtable: Chuck Lorre, Jenji Kohan, Mike Judge on Ejaculation Shots, Awful Pitch Meetings and Salary Negotiations
Seven hot writer-producers — also including Marc Maron ("Maron"), Jenni Konner ("Girls"), Mike Schur ("Parks and Recreation") and Armando Iannucci ("Veep") — sound off on everything from how they keep their casts happy to the too-personal storylines that have permanently severed relationships.
This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
How early is too early to talk about male ejaculate? As it turns out, 11 a.m. on a spring morning at the SmokeHouse restaurant in Burbank was as fine a time as any to address the appropriate stand-in synthetics for semen (hair conditioner is a must-have) and a myriad other topics at the top of the modern showrunner's to-do list.
But also nestled inside this spirited gathering of top show creators -- Maron's Marc Maron, 50; Silicon Valley's Mike Judge, 51; Mom's Chuck Lorre, 61; Girls' Jenni Konner, 42; Orange Is the New Black's Jenji Kohan, 44; Parks and Recreation's Mike Schur, 38; and Veep's Armando Iannucci, 50 -- were conversational gems that only further highlight the travails and delicate triumphs of minds behind television's most successful series. From keeping their casts happy (hint: give them time off to make movies) to the too-personal storylines that have permanently severed relationships to their idolatry of drama writers, join in as this year's top comedy contenders tell all.
Chuck's shows notwithstanding, we seem to be in a golden age of niche comedy. Is this trend good or bad for the genre?
MARC MARON: It's great for me. I wouldn't have had a shot five years ago to pitch a show about me interviewing people in my garage. I'm actually here today to find out what it's like to produce a show with money.
JENJI KOHAN: There's never enough money. Unless you're on Chuck's shows.
CHUCK LORRE: Niche audiences? That's what gets you canceled on CBS!
ARMANDO IANNUCCI: Netflix and HBO are all about actually getting bigger and bigger and sort of meeting the networks somewhere in the middle.
Mike, you have two shows on different broadcast networks, but they don't have the kind of audiences that, if they were on more than five years ago, would have survived …
MIKE SCHUR: Shhh!
But they're embraced anyway.
SCHUR: There's this weird thing in the way that ratings are reported …
KOHAN: If they're reported!
JENNI KONNER: It's so outdated. "Seven people watched Girls last night."
MARON: I was one of those people!
SCHUR: But HBO's model is to play it again and again on other HBO channels. Then with HBO Go, it's up to 5 million people. But we're all living in this old universe where at 8 a.m., we get our numbers sent to us. "This is the number of people who watch your show," and it's just not true! It's super depressing.
KONNER: Do you remember when there was the phone line to call and a recorded voice would say what the ratings were? I always felt like you could hear him being disappointed. Maybe I was projecting that.
MARON: Aren't there several tiers of numbers now?
SCHUR: On NBC, there are overnights, there's live same day, then there's live-plus-three, there's live-plus-seven, they do live-plus-30 now. You get reports on episodes that aired in October!
IANNUCCI: HBO wants to know how many over the month have watched, and it could be four times as many as the opener.
KOHAN: I get, "We are pleased," or "We are very pleased." That's it.
KONNER: You don't even see numbers?
KONNER: That's like schools I went to that didn't have grades.
LORRE: Everybody wins a trophy!
KOHAN: It's unnerving, though. It makes it hard to negotiate later because it's like, "I'm a hit, I think?"
KONNER: Right, because you can't prove anything.
IANNUCCI: You can't go into negotiations saying, "In four months, I'll be a hit."
LORRE: I have a question: I got Netflix to watch House of Cards and loved it. But now that House of Cards is done for the time being, what am I doing with Netflix?
KONNER: You're watching Orange Is the New Black!
KOHAN: Thank you!
KONNER: Let's spend the whole time giving Chuck recommendations on what to watch on Netflix!
Mike, do you think King of the Hill, arguably a niche show, would have succeeded in primetime today?
MIKE JUDGE: Probably not. You'd have to have nudity, I think. We started working on that show in 1996, and things have definitely changed. But The Big Bang Theory, you could argue, also is niche -- it's about nerds. I'm definitely not attempting to be niche with Silicon Valley. … I just want it to be good. But I do think HBO early on was kind of wondering, "Wait a second, what is it about this that makes it HBO?"
Mike, you mentioned working with HBO. You all deal with executives to some degree on a daily basis.
JUDGE: Except Chuck.
KONNER: Even he is not immune to this.
LORRE: Never. There's always someone somewhere who's frightened.
What is something they do consistently that frustrates you?
MARON: Second-guess jokes? Sometimes you're like, "How could you not get this?" But other times, it's, "Yeah, maybe we didn't have to say that. Maybe 'pussy' was not a great choice there."
KOHAN: Pussy's always a great choice.
LORRE: Always! But no matter if you're a good soldier and take the notes, it's your failure. Nobody steps in, goes up and says, "I know this show failed, but they took my notes!"
KONNER: Phil Rosenthal always says, "Make the show you want; they'll cancel you anyway."
LORRE: If it succeeds, they take credit. If it fails, it's your fault. So you might as well go ahead and do your show and risk their displeasure.
Who has ever gotten the note, "Make it funnier"?
KONNER: Not for a lot of years. HBO has very few notes. It's like a joke. It's something I don't want to talk about with other writers because they'd be like …
IANNUCCI: …"I hate you." Yeah, their notes are very constructive. The only difference of opinion we had was over the title sequences. In the end, they said, "It's your show." Although, if the show gets successful, the more nervous conversations you have with the network about the next one.
KOHAN: I never get "Make it funnier" because they don't know if Orange is a drama or a comedy! Sometimes they want to kill the jokes because they thought it's a drama. Other times …
Wasn't that the case on Weeds, too?
KOHAN: Yeah. I f--- myself during awards season. My shows are all weird hybrids. I wish there was just "half-hour" and "hour." Let's vote on those categories!
KONNER: The biggest fight we've ever gotten in with HBO was about a cum shot, a money shot. They thought it was really gratuitous. We obviously did a prop thing with an injector, a sprayer …
LORRE: Taking all the magic out of it.
MARON: What did you use for the cum?
KONNER: A combination of conditioner and something else. … Cetaphil?
LORRE: That sounds right.
KONNER: They begged us not to do it. We said, "OK, fine." Then the next year, we had a story-motivated, emotional money shot, and they let us keep it. It really felt like we all grew together.
IANNUCCI: And now you're getting notes saying, "Can we have more cum?"
LORRE: We used to have that note a lot on Dharma & Greg. "More cum."
What is the weirdest or worst pitch meeting you've ever had?
SCHUR: I once pitched a feature, and the executive was so bored, he was laying almost upside-down. The second my writing partner and I finished, he said, "You guys should do this as webisodes for Pop.com." This was 1998. We were like, "OK, thank you!"
KOHAN: My best pitch was with Paul Simms, who is writing for Jenni now.
KOHAN: It was for Larry Sanders. Paul was lying on the couch with his hand over his face. Then he got up quickly and said, "I have to barf," and ran to the bathroom. He laid back down, covered his head again and said, "OK, pitch."
KONNER: I'm going to give him a really hard time about that.
IANNUCCI: Living in London, when you come to L.A., you do this round of "half-hour here, half-hour there" meetings. A British writer who was working on South Park warned me about what she called "depressed hyperbole" -- you go in the room, and there's a guy who goes, "We're so excited to meet you, we're big fans, we love everything you do!" And then after the 30 minutes, even if you're having a great time, they throw you out of the room.
MARON: When I was a younger, angrier comic, I went into [then network exec] Rick Ludwin's office at NBC to pitch a talk show. Ludwin says, "Well, what do you want to talk about?" I was in this rebellious mode of comedy, and "abortion" and "AIDS" were the first two things that came out of my mouth. It looked like I'd punched Ludwin in the stomach.
JUDGE: I almost put a woman to sleep pitching Office Space. It was the first time I pitched something. I'd been really lucky because Beavis and Butt-head was a short film I made in my house.
KONNER: Office Space is one of my favorite movies of all time, but it doesn't seem like it'd be a great pitch.
JUDGE: It was horrible. The only other thing I'd finished was animating this other short film, Frog Baseball. The Office Space short was just about this character, Milton, at his desk, with the boss taking his stapler. When I was first meeting with people, my manager took me to Sony, and this woman said, "Do you have any movie ideas?" I was like, "Uh …" Then Peter Chernin at Fox liked the short and said, "Make a movie." I never had to pitch it again.
LORRE: I remember seeing Frog Baseball and laughing my ass off.
JUDGE: Oh, thanks. It was very weird. I'd just been animating things in my house outside of Dallas. I would send them out on tape -- I hadn't seen them play in front of an audience. I think the "viral" concept sort of happened back then, too. You'd get a VHS that had been copied a million times. Like that preacher, Robert Tilton.
MARON: The farting one?
JUDGE: Yeah, everybody had a copy of it.
MARON I remember the first time I saw it. Louis C.K. took this VHS out of a drawer, put it in, and we laughed hysterically. He put it back in the drawer and said, "That's the last time I'm going to watch this for a few months. I want it to stay funny."
JUDGE: I remember when MTV was starting a new show -- we were in the second or third season of Beavis and Butt-head -- called The Brothers Grunt. The producer also worked on Beavis. He played like a 10-minute video of the show for us at lunch. Everyone was like, "Oh." Then someone goes, "Put in the Robert Tilton fart tape!" And it was through-the-roof [funny]. They were like, "How much did we just spend on The Brothers Grunt?"
How do you deal with actors who want to move on?
LORRE F--- [The Good Wife's] Josh Charles. I'm so upset about that. Goddammit, I love that character.
KONNER: I have a call in to his agent. I'm going to keep him alive somehow. Seriously, how did they get away with it?
They kept it a secret for an entire year.
KONNER: How? I'm so traumatized.
LORRE: I emailed [Christine] Baranski the next day and said, "You can't go Game of Thrones on The Good Wife!"
KONNER: Everyone's so into killing people. I hate it.
SCHUR: When there are a million choices, surprise is the only weapon we have.
LORRE: But The Good Wife has such substance. People didn't have to get shot!
SCHUR: But in order to keep people coming back, you have to give them a sense that crazy things can happen.
IANNUCCI: But killing people is getting more predictable.
MARON: I can't kill anybody.
SCHUR: You can't afford the fake blood, is what you're saying.
You must have stars who come to you and say, "I want to move on." How do you handle that?
KOHAN: I take it personally. I feel sad. On Orange, we actually have a hard time holding on to our cast because not everyone can be a series regular. They're all going out for other jobs.
SCHUR: At least on your show, there could be an explanation for why they might not be there. If it's an office comedy, you're screwed!
LORRE: How many regulars are there?
KOHAN: Eight or nine, but the [full] cast is huge. We constructed the show to enforce a no-asshole policy. Anyone who displeases the powers that be gets out of prison or goes to solitary.
LORRE: Or gets shanked.
IANNUCCI: The idea of being exclusive to one show doesn't exist in England. Our shows have a max of six seasons. Isn't there a Simpsons episode where Bart is raising money for a seventh episode of his favorite British sitcom?
KONNER: We don't shoot for that long …
LORRE: … so people can do other things.
KONNER: We schedule around them.
What about salary negotiations? How does that impact the set, and what do you do as the leader to keep morale high?
LORRE: Duck. Let the business affairs people do that. I think actors should make as much money as possible. When those German cars start pulling up, I'm thrilled. I know I've done my job. "Oh, you bought a house? Great! I hope it has a steam room."
SCHUR: Flexibility with schedule is a way to [keep morale up]. By three or four years in, they're famous. So figure out a way to say, "There's a movie opportunity or stand-up tour? We can help you." The happier the cast, the better off the show.
KONNER: If you can do it in a way where you're not compromising the show.
What is the most personal thing you've ever written into one of your shows?
KONNER: I'm not telling you in a million years!
Aside from the money-shot scene you described earlier, of course.
KONNER: Yes, exactly!
JUDGE: I've done a lot of autobiographical stuff. Office Space was based on my experiences working as an engineer in different cubicle jobs. There was actually a scene in Silicon Valley where the lead character is meeting this tech billionaire that was exactly like a meeting I had before the first dotcom bubble burst. "Bill is running about a half-hour late, but he's real excited to meet you. Have you met Bill before? Oh my God, he's so amazing. Oh, sorry, he's going to be another 10 minutes." Then this other guy says, "I'm the vp of whatever, and I only get to see Bill once every two weeks. But that 10 minutes is incredible."
KONNER: That's how he keeps his great reputation.
JUDGE: It really was like a cult. Word for word, that's what ended up in the show.
MARON: My show is so autobiographical that it's strained my relationship with my father, like, irreparably. Was it worth it? Part of me thinks, "Well, he had it coming," but …
LORRE: Television is vengeance.
MARON: Yeah. He watched as much as he could. I was like, well, "Judd Hirsch played you, and he's arguably a better father!" … I also had an episode about this guy I went to college with played by Eric Stoltz. He became this big director. He emailed me and was like, "What the f--- is wrong with you? Why now, after 20 years? And I'm like, "You're the only guy who knows about this." It was a fictionalization, but he was upset.
KONNER: Almost everything we write is personal, but I have had no one recognize it, including the people very, very close to me whom I've had the exact dialogue with! It's pretty incredible.
JUDGE: Tons of people I grew up with thought they were Butt-head, and a lot of my teachers thought they were the hippie teacher on the show, and they weren't. The guy I used [for inspiration] when I was trying to draw Beavis is actually a nuclear engineer now. He has no idea.
SCHUR: He does now!
JUDGE: Well, there were at least three guys from my high school who became nuclear engineers.
KOHAN: That's amazing.
SCHUR: Where did you grow up?
JUDGE: Same shithole where Marc grew up -- Albuquerque. It's funny, none of the people whom I ever actually based something on have said, "Hey, that's me!"
KONNER: We got a legal lecture from HBO our first season because we were naming characters after the people they were based on. Marnie was originally named Audrey. The were like, "Please change the names, we're begging you!"
MARON: The fear of lawsuits ruins so much.
LORRE: We get calls from legal, "There's actually a Steve in Napa Valley, can you change the name of the character?"
JUDGE: I still don't understand. They look for names that there are a lot of?
KONNER: It either has to be one or a million, right?
SCHUR: It has to be none or more than three.
KOHAN: Celia on Weeds said things that came out of my mother's mouth, and [my mom] had no recognition. I'd get calls from her saying, "Why are you so mean to this character? She's just trying to do the right thing." Total disconnect.
Armando, your writing team is based in London. How have you been able to tap in to American politics so convincingly?
IANNUCCI: We've done a lot of research in Washington, D.C. They are all star-f---ers -- they really are! Reggie Love, Obama's [former] assistant, gave us a tour of the West Wing, and he said, "This is the Roosevelt Room, where [West Wing characters] Josh and C.J. would be …" Um, shouldn't you say, "This is where Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin would meet?" If you ring them and say, "We're making a TV show for HBO," they're going to be, "Yeah, come in!" They literally let us measure the drapes.
What's the worst writing gig you've ever had?
KONNER Any paid writing gig is pretty good. I sold cigars in college, so most writing jobs are pretty great after that.
SCHUR: I wrote the surgeon general's warnings for the cigars that Jenni sold. No, I've gotten super lucky.
Joking aside, you've been very spoiled in your career, Mike.
SCHUR: I have. I've slalomed through a lot of Hollywood obstacles.
KONNER: Even the worst jobs in writing are still the best jobs.
SCHUR: If you can't be at home, then being in a room full of funny people is not bad!
People, though, say that drama writing rooms are happier places than comedy rooms.
KOHAN: There is serious dysfunction that can destroy your soul. No question. You try not to re-create them.
LORRE: I can't answer the question till I retire, and that's coming soon, anyway.
What's the last thing that made you laugh out loud and jealous that you didn't write it?
KOHAN: A web series called High Maintenance about this pot-delivery guy in New York, and it's these little episodes about the customers; beautiful glimpses into people's lives. I had insomnia and watched the entire season.
KONNER: I love basically anything with Chelsea Peretti, so Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
SCHUR: She's a weirdo, in the best way.
KONNER: I get jealous of Jenji's casting. We actually have the same casting person.
KOHAN: You take some of my people, too.
SCHUR: I mostly get jealous of dramas. I don't know if anybody else has that?
LORRE: That's all I watch.
SCHUR: Every time Raylan Givens says anything on Justified, I'm like, "Damn it, that's a great line." He's the coolest ever.
LORRE: The bad guys are hilarious, too.
IANNUCCI: I'm jealous of dramas, too, because you'll see a car pull up and feet getting out on the ground, going up some steps, 30 seconds' worth of time, and I think, "I'd cut that, because …"
SCHUR: We don't have time.
IANNUCCI: We have to make every moment count in a humorous way.
LORRE: We don't go outside. There's weather out there!
SCHUR: I remember David Chase's big thing on Sopranos was showing cars pulling into driveways; for him, a key element of storytelling was showing how people got from one place to another.
MARON: Breaking Bad was the most satisfying thing I'd watched in a long time. I was so happy it ended with …
IANNUCCI: Still on season three!
LORRE: You can't see features that good.
KONNER: I actually never get jealous of dramas because with a gun to my head, I could not write a drama. I am so unfamiliar with the structure and admire so much the people who craft those stories. "How long have they been plotting that!" I could never do it, so jealousy seems ridiculous.
LORRE: It is fun to go home and watch something that has nothing to do with what you do all day. The only time I watch something to laugh is Jon Stewart. I know that every night he's going to make me laugh. He's my Johnny Carson.
If you could do a crossover episode with another show, what would it be?
LORRE: (To Konner) CBS would have a problem with the cum shot, so we can't.
IANNUCCI: We did an episode this season when they go to Silicon Valley. (To Judge) So you should have gone to Washington.
JUDGE: Don't tell me [Mark] Zuckerberg did your show!
MARON: Louis C.K. had me on his show last season playing myself. He basically called me out for being a shitty friend.
KOHAN: How therapeutic.
KONNER: Louis also did Mike's show.
SCHUR: He was on Parks when he was in the middle of selling Louie. I was like, "So, what's this new show?" FX chased him, and then he was like, "Here are the terms." To their credit, FX said, "OK."
KONNER: You'd think someone would go, "Let's do that for other people."
SCHUR: No, because no one else is him. It has to be a guy that good. That's why we gathered here today: to celebrate Louis C.K.