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.
Creating comedy for TV is a subject best tackled in a setting befitting of the pratfalls — and pain — of the genre. Fittingly, the showrunners of this season’s top Emmy comedy series contenders — Carter Bays (How I Met Your Mother), 36, Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory), 52, Liz Meriwether (New Girl), 30, Paul Lieberstein (The Office), 45, Steve Levitan (Modern Family), 50, and Emily Spivey (Up All Night), 40, gathered this spring at Laugh Factory in Los Angeles to share stories from the trenches. THR moderates as these writer-producers talk about it all, from stress drinking to scripts created while sleeping to what to do when castmembers declare war.
The Hollywood Reporter: Liz and Emily, you’ve each completed your first season running your own show. What’s been the most surprising thing that you didn’t anticipate?
Emily Spivey: My show is about a couple having a baby. Before you have one, nobody can prepare you for what it is really like. Having your own show is the same thing. It is a freight train you can’t get off of, and you just try to put your head down and put out fires and try to have fun.
Steve Levitan: It is the same lack of sleep!
Liz Meriwether: I was unprepared for the leadership; people are looking to you for everything, and you’re pretending to be an expert on, say, props. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I haven’t had a baby.
Carter Bays: Having to have an opinion on everything is just staggeringly difficult. “Is it the red pen or the blue pen?”
Paul Lieberstein: Then you try to delegate and make someone else the pen approver.
Spivey: In improv, we call it “expert talking” — it’s a game where you get a topic and pretend you are an expert. That is showrunning.
THR: Emily, how much of what you experienced as a new mom did you incorporate into Up All Night?
Spivey: The pilot was straight out of my journal … having a baby thinking that it would be awesome and easy to go back to Saturday Night Live with a newborn. A lot of it came straight out of that, much to my husband’s chagrin. But he needs to suck it up. He always says, “I hope people don’t think Chris [Will Arnett] is me. Because Chris is pretty pathetic.”
THR: Levitan I am curious about the others. How much of the shows are your personal stuff?
Bays: The year Craig Thomas and I wrote the How I Met Your Mother pilot, we wrote another pilot about an Enron accountant who gets sentenced to teach math in an inner-city high school, things we know nothing about. How I Met was definitely more, “Let’s write the stuff we’re feeling now.” When you’re writing a movie, you can write about space or time travel. You only have two hours to fill. When you’re filling 22 episodes a year, it helps if the foundation is your life.
Bill Prady: Our show is about geeky, nerdy guys who love Star Trek, and for me that’s a stretch. (Laughter.) I think all of us have shows that are our own lives. That’s where you know you will continue to have stories. If you pick something you can’t connect to, where will you get stories?
Levitan: From our imagination.
Prady: Try it!
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THR: Paul, can you point to things that are different about The Office since you took over from Greg Daniels?
Lieberstein: It’s way better. (Laughter.) It is hard to say because the showkeeps morphing. We were so focused on Jim [John Krasinski] and Pam [Jenna Fischer] in the early years, and that’s disappeared. So it had to become a little sillier. Our show also works when there is something serious underneath — company troubles and hirings, things like that. We dealt with less of that when Greg was on the show.
THR: Can The Office go on for 20 years with a revolving cast?
Lieberstein: The show has to have a magic marriage of cast and show. Greg got it right the first time. If the characters relate to people, then yeah, it could survive another decade.
Levitan: I read once that the Charles showrunner brothers on Cheers said that because Shelley Long left after the fifth season, it forced the change that reinvigorated the show and allowed it to go 11 years. We are having a lot of that kind of change now on Modern Family — but are going to have to do more than just replace Shelley.
Bays: Is Shelley available?
Spivey: Bring in Kirstie Alley!
THR: Steve, at the WGA Awards last fall, you said while accepting an award, “We’re worried you guys might be getting sick of us at this point.” How much do you worry about show fatigue?
Levitan: Very little joking there. When you are new, it’s exciting, and people are rooting for you. Then, after you hit a point, especially in this town, people are ready for you to stumble and someone else to come along. It gets a little boring when a show wins multiple awards. I remember when Frasier won its fifth straight Emmy, I swear I heard hisses in the audience. That is burned into my brain. How do we keep people not hating the fact that we are up there? All I can say is that it drives us to work harder. How do we come upwith something new so that people can’t say, “They’re repeating themselves.” It absolutely keeps us awake at night.
Bays: It’s funny, our ratings have been better this year than ever, which is not what you expect this late into the show. It’s nice, but our primary focus now is sticking the landing on the show. So much of it is built around this one question, the journey this one character is taking and this ending that we promised in the show’s title. Seven years in, we haven’t paid off on that.
Meriwether: Am I the mother?
Bays: We will see! We have the pressure to keep doing the funniest show we can. Ihave been watching a lot of finales lately and seeing what to do and what not to do. We are contracted through next season, the eighth, and the end date is being discussed now.
THR: Do you have a bulletin board with possible endings mapped out?
Bays: Yeah. We know how we want to end it. Midway through the first season, we had an idea of, “OK, this will be a cool ending for the story,” thinking it will be a good ending for season four when the show gets canceled. We didn’t expect it to go this long.
Meriwether: You could be telling the kids that the parents are going to get a divorce. (Laughter.)
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THR: How much feedback are the actors giving you?
Bays: My hat is off to all five of them because they give input about what they feel comfortable doing and what they don’t. But they’re also the five biggest fans of the story, so last season we huddled them together and told them what this season would be and what the following season would be. It was stuff we hadn’t told anyone, so it was cool seeing them react as fans of the show.
THR: Do the rest of you tell your casts what’s happening two or three seasons down the road?
Prady: We don’t. We just had our season finale, and we finished the table draft, I think, 12 hours before it was read. So, no. They find out when they get the script.
THR: Ed Helms said at the THR comedy actor roundtable that he didn’t know he was going to be the branch manager until the middle of last summer. Correct?
Lieberstein: Yeah. That was an interesting story. A lot happened that year. NBC was sold and Comcast took over. Management took over at NBC at the same time that Steve Carell left. So, we were still discussing with them how to transition the show.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
THR: Emily, how much did your training as a writer on SNL inform how you script your show?
Spivey: It teaches you to get to the heart of a scene or joke quickly in a lot of the same way that improv does. I can write really fast now, and I can work really late. (Laughter.)
Spivey: That is a good question. I think I have always thought the same things werefunny. Liz?
Meriwether: I totally agree.
Spivey: Thank you, Liz.
THR: What is your most interesting fan interaction?
Prady: I had the experience at Comic-Con last year where I did this panel and had to get from one part of the convention center to another. I start to leave the little group I’m in, and the Warner Bros. security guard starts to walk with me. I turn to him and I look and I say, “You have got to be kidding!” I start to walk across the floor, and what happens is one person recognizes you and somebody says, “Who is that?” A blood clot has formed and I cannot move.
Bays: Your legs are kind of tied up in a web.
Prady: Yes. Force fields and energy rings. They are waiting for the actors, and if the actors aren’t out there signing autographs, someone will go, “Um, Bill, will you sign this?” It’s like you are below the warm-up comedian; they have this mercy autograph thing going. “I know I am not who you want!”
Levitan: It is very strange. After a panel, people will ask for my signature, and my reaction is always, “Are you sure? Aren’t I just kind of screwing up your nice page?” It boggles my mind that anybody would ever want my signature.
Meriwether: I like to sign my name really big.
Bays: “Keep on dreaming!”
Spivey: “Reach for the stars!”
Lieberstein: The first several years, people didn’t recognize me, really. They just thought I worked in their office. (Laughter.) They were just trying to place me. But it happens if I’m in a very touristy place, and airports.
Levitan: I have a question. When you are in a situation, like, let’s say your flight just got canceled and you are trying to get on that next flight and it is overbooked. How do you guys work in the show? How do you do it?
Prady: You wear your little show gear.
Prady: Every now and then, you’ll find the super fan. And, “I’ll hook you up, man. I’ll hook you up.” But I know. How do you bring it up?
THR: Well, none of you can do it now.
Levitan: Forget I asked.
Lieberstein: I once sat with Steve Carell in the car right outside Universal, and one of the giant posters of his movie was there, but he forgot his driver’s license. They wouldn’t let him on the lot. We were there for like 20 minutes before someone could come down.
THR: Did he say, “That’s me”?
Lieberstein: He never did it. I was really hoping he would.
Prady: I was at a hotel and I lost my room key and they said, “Show me your driver’s license,” which I think is a good system, but I was in a bathing suit. And I started to walk away to go find my wife, and I stopped and I jerked back, and I said, “Do you have the Internet?” And she said, “Yes.” And I said, “Google me.” And there’s a picture and there’s my name. So that worked.
Meriwether: You showed them your Big Bang Theory tattoo.
THR: How do you all deal with stress?
Spivey: For 30 minutes a day or more, I will drink white wine and have front-porch cigarettes.
THR: Is this wine drinking during the day or at night?
Spivey: Depends. No. I’m kidding. I do always try to exercise and sleep.
Levitan: I bought myself a studio-lot bike this year. And I’m like a child, so happy on it. I want to put baseball cards in the spokes. I ride it around the lot and look like an idiot. And people are like, “There’s our boss looking like a 12-year-old.” But I always come back feeling better.
Bays: I had a lot bike our first season when our first office was all the way across the lot, so there was actually a reason for it. Now we’re like right next to it, so there’s no reason. But it’s the most fun and the best five minutes of your day. When you were 8, riding your bike up and down your street, it’s so perfect. There’s no traffic.
Spivey: And it’s flat.
Meriwether: I’m going to do lot roller skates.
Lieberstein: I have got a little kid’s motorcycle called the Daisy. It’s pink. It’s about a foot and a half wide.
Meriwether: Did you take it from a kid?
Prady: The hardest thing about this is to let it go and to come home, especially if you’re breaking a story, you hit a wall, it’s 6 p.m. and you say, “All right, guys, let’s call it. Lets find some path through this or abandon this thing.” And you go home — you’re still in work mode — and you walk into a family household that has no patience for that.
Meriwether: Or, you walk into an empty house and it’s totally fine. (Laughter.)
Prady: Are there cats?
Meriwether: There’s a blanket. (Laughter.)
Lieberstein: The worst is when I’ve worked all day and we’re really late. “Let’s get some sleep and go home.” And then I dream about the same argument all night. I wake up and I’m like, “God dammit!”
Prady: That dream is the worst. It happens with amazing realism. You’re in the writers room. You’re discussing the story you were discussing, and you were hoping for some variation. It’s my old high school, but it’s the writers room. I’m naked, but it’s the writers room.
Lieberstein: It’s not fair to have to work that long.
Prady: That’s right. And then you hope, “Did I at least figure something out? No. I’m stuck in the same damn place.”
Meriwether: I had this writing teacher who talked about the “washing the dishes” moment. You’re struggling and struggling with something and you take one step away to try to get your head into something else, and it kind of occurs to you. When I’m really stressed out about something, I just walk into a different room. I walk into the editing room. I walk back into the writers room. I try to just laugh at something. You’re around the funniest people you know, and sometimes you’re not enjoying them at all. (Laughter.) Just let somebody make you laugh, and sometimes that’s when it clicks.
Levitan: I’m a big believer in that. I walk out often. And then I’ll have a revelation. I’m big on shower revelations, too.
Meriwether: We actually walk by your offices and hope some of it rubs off on us.
Prady: I did have a productive dream once when I was running Dharma & Greg. I woke up in the middle of the night and realized I dreamed a great story. It’s a perfect story, and I did the thing I’ve never done in my life: I find paper, write it down and go back to bed. And I wake up and I look at the piece of paper and it’s a terrific story. It’s a perfect story. It has drive. It has characters. And it’s interesting. And it’s a story for an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. (Laughter.) Which is why I have a “story by” credit on Star Trek: Voyager.
THR: Bays Is that true?
Prady: It’s true. I told my agent, and he made a connection with Brannon Braga, who was running Star Trek: Voyager at the time and gets on the phone. I said, “Look, I’m not a crazy person. Here’s the story.” There’s this silence at the other end of the phone, and then I hear, “Thank you.” And their writing staff stayed late so I could come over and outline the story with them. To this day, every time I see Brannon, I say, “You continue to owe me a story.”
Spivey: That’s hilarious.
THR: I don’t know if you’ve been following what’s happened on Community with Chevy Chase and Dan Harmon …
Levitan: I noticed Dan isn’t here this year. (Laughter.)
THR: When you guys see a story like that, where a castmember is in a war against the showrunner, what goes through your minds?
Prady: I’m just glad it’s not me. This is a job with people like any other job and any other place you work, with especially strong creative personalities, and conflict arises. You hope you can solve all conflicts quietly.
Meriwether: That conflict, passion and anger sometimes results in the best stuff. It’s like figuring out at what moment it goes too far and somebody’s hurt.
Lieberstein: I don’t know Dan, but I know actors. And at some point, they’re going to hate the showrunner.
THR: But if somebody left you those kinds of voice mails — calling the show a second-rate sitcom, swearing at you, that kind of stuff — would they be off the show?
Meriwether: But it’s Fletch! (Laughter.)
Levitan: I really don’t know what happened. But in general, I don’t do well with conflict. I like to keep a very happy set. I had the good fortune of being on a couple of dysfunctional sets early in my career. That’s not what I want to do. And I saw what people weren’t doing that could have fixed it. We have the most delightful cast on Modern Family, and I thank God for them everyday, so this does not apply to them. But it’s been my experience that one of your jobs as showrunner is to set a tone that everybody has to live by. Andit’s not always easy, but there will be times when you need to pull somebody aside and say, “This is not tolerated. We don’t speak to the second AD, who doesn’t have your power, like that.”
Bays: I remember the biggest realization the first year, the reason why our pilot script was as good as it was, was because Craig and I went into a room, wrote it and shut out the rest of the world. It’s such an internal process. All the skills that make that possible have nothing to do with running a show. The idea of managing people doesn’t come up! It’s not like there’s a job interview when they decide to pick up your show and say, “How are you with managing people?” There’s a huge disconnect. You’ve trained yourself to not worry about what other people are doing, focus on your own work, And all of a sudden you’re a CEO …
Prady: … of 350 people and an enterprise that is spending millions of dollars a week.
Meriwether: On the positive side, you actually learn more about people, and then you become a better writer.
THR: Another thing that has to be distracting are contract negotiations. Steve, on Modern Family, you’re going from a third to a fourth season, so it’s renegotiation time for the cast. How does that impact the set?
Levitan: It’s an inevitable part of the process; a ridiculous dance that happens between actors and studios and actors’ reps. “We’re going to scream and yell!” but it always ends up here. So why can’t we just get everybody in a room and resolve this in a rational way? But you have people in the business whose job it is to stir it up so they can go around claiming to other clients, “Look what I did for this person on that show.”
Spivey: Create some drama.
Levitan: Yeah. But we try our hardest. We’re good friends with our actors. I just talked to Ty this morning. I just want to keep that pure. We’re a creative team trying to do the best show and put the business off to the side and let other people deal with it.