Emmys 2012: TV's Funniest Showrunners Talk Difficult Actors, Dreaming Up Plots and Rollerskating on the Lot

Carter Bays "How I Met Your Mother," Bill Prady "The Big Bang Theory,"Liz Meriwether "New Girl," Paul Lieberstein "The Office," Steve Levitan "Modern Family," and Emily Spivey "Up All Night" gather for a hilarious and insightful discussion on the business of making TV comedy.

THR: What were some of the scenarios in play?

Lieberstein: Dwight [Rainn Wilson] as the manager? Outside characters as the manager? Every scenario you can think of. I’m working on the Dwight spinoff now. It’s about the farm and his bed and breakfast— a mockumentary of a modern family farm.

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THR: What is the most interesting feedback you’ve ever received on your show?

Meriwether: My mom likes my show!

Spivey: Yeah, for the first time ever, my parents were on board with my career.

THR: Didn’t they watch SNL?

Spivey: They looked at it with their eyeballs, but I don’t think they really got it. I think with Up All Night, they could wrap their heads around it. I also get a lot of comments about Will Arnett. I think people are psyched to see him play a character closer to who he really is. I am happy for him. He is a great dad and just a real sweetheart. Bless Will Arnett’s heart.

Meriwether: I get a lot of guys coming up to me like, “I bet you never hear this, but I love the show.” I am like, “Yeah, I hear that. It’s fine, it’s fine. It has the word ‘girl’ in the title, but it doesn’t mean you can’t like it.”

Bays: My grandparents always give me notes — they always ask politely — if I could ask the actors to speak louder and more slowly.

Prady: You know the rule: Never watch something that you have written with relatives in the room. I was working on Caroline in the City, and I am sitting with my aunt and uncle. My uncle Elliott turns to me and says, “Is that the guy that usually plays Del?” I said, “Yes.” He says, “It’s not the understudy?” “No, we don’t have understudies.” He asks, “What if a fellow is sick?” And I said we just don’t shoot. And he says, “No, that doesn’t sound right.”

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THR: Liz, around midseason, there were reports that Zooey Deschanel’s character wasn’t getting the best material, and then the tone shifted to slightly more serious storylines. How intentional was that on your part?

Meriwether: Did you guys get them to tell me that? That you’re disappointed in me? (Laughter.) Yes, it was all intentional. It’s definitely a process of settling into what the show is. There weren’t a lot of internal conversations about what to change. You are forced to rely more and more on your instincts and what the actors are bringing. I think that you are also learning about the characters, and Zooey’s kind of got deeper because we found you have to grow the characters because you run out of stories. We are still trying to figure that out going into next season.

Bays: I remember the first season of our show, telling people, “Ted [Josh Radnor] is based on me.” And then Ted is like this gushy romantic, and there were a lot of those moments where I go, “Who is this loser?” He is an amalgamation of a bunch of different people, but he was me.

Meriwether: But when people say things about Zooey’s character, it’s hard to not take it personally.

Prady: And people are judging you all the time.

Levitan: At first I thought, “OK, I am Phil [Ty Burrell].” We did a couple of episodes in the beginning that were very specific to me, and then as time has gone on, I have realized that I am really Claire [Julie Bowen]. I am the uptight neurotic woman overthinking everything, and my wife lives in the moment and is happy and doing fun, goofy things with the kids. I am the one saying, “We have to get her ready for bed.” It’s not a realization that I am particularly happy with.

THR: How do you manage disputes when you work with a co-showrunner?

Prady: We do it like The Hunger Games. (Laughter.) To a certain extent, I think these shows are the results of arguments, especially comedies. You want characters to do funny things, but real people don’t want to do funny things. Real people accomplish goals by the simplest and most reasonable way that they can. So you can say, “This character does that,” and the strong voice in the argument is someone saying, “Why? Who would do that? That makes no sense.” You wind up with something stronger. You can’t get away with something. Because, as great as your staff is, fundamentally their goal is to go home, and one way they accomplish that is by agreeing with you. It puts them in their cars faster. (Laughter.) At Big Bang, I share that responsibility with Steve Molaro and Chuck Lorre. In a dispute, you can back off and get something better. The two things that happen in the writers room are laughter and passionate arguing.

Levitan: For Chris Lloyd and me, it has evolved into a system that is ridiculously efficient and makes for a much better life than if I were trying to do it on my own. We trade off. When there are three people, it’s two against one. But, when there are two people arguing, it’s, “How do we resolve this?” We came up early with a system that every other week, it is your show. You are in charge of story breaking. You are in charge of everything on the rewrite of that show. You are on set. You are doing casting, and you get final say and final cut.

THR: What happens when you think that something Chris has done isn’t good?

Levitan: I voice it. This goes both ways. He will pick what he likes about my argument, and it might be 10 percent of it. “Yes, I agree with you on that point, but overall, I see it this way.” Then he does the rest of it the way he thinks is best. I think it would be hard for people outside of our show to say, “OK, that is a Steve episode, that was a Chris episode” because the characters and tone make it feel cohesive. But I am not having to do everything every week. I am on set one week, which is great, and I am in the writers room the following week. And that is a great lifestyle.

Bays: We have the same thing, Craig and I. The way it works is, you have a partner, and I gather that you and Chris, 99 percent of the time, you do agree with each other.

Levitan: No, we don’t. (Laughter.) But it’s funny because it’s made me realize that it doesn’t matter. I am not always right. There are 10 ways to tell this story. And the story to me may not be what is interesting to Chris about that particular story. We have been through this a number of times, where the idea for the story came organically from the writers room, and I would have taken it one way and he took it another way. I think they both would have worked, but it opens your mind to the idea that there are other possibilities besides the one in your head, and I think it is good for control freaks like me.

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THR: What would the Modern Family cast say is the biggest difference between a Chris and a Steve episode?

Levitan: I hate to generalize, because this could be flipped on its head a number of times, but generally, Chris likes more plot, more twists and turns, and I like more organic behavior; letting things breathe a bit more. Some of our most successful episodes have been his, some have been mine. There is room for both.

Lieberstein: There aren’t lots of similarities between our shows. On ours, superb work doesn’t come from that kind of collaboration; it’s one person having an idea they love, whether it comes from a pitch from the writers room or their ownlife, and builds toward that. When there are two points of view, it ruins the story.

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