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

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.

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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.

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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.

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