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: 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.