THR Emmy Roundtable: 'New Girl,' 'Big Bang' Showrunners on Dropping F-Bombs and Comedy's Tough Year
Matthew Carnahan, Greg Daniels, Bruce Helford, Liz Meriwether, Steve Molaro and Mike Schur also talk to THR about turning down product placement, their most absurd network notes and whether "Anger Management" is the model of the future.
When you get some of the top comedy showunners in a room together, it's only fitting that discussion would devolve rather quickly into a candid dissertation about F-bombs, condoms, what censors won't let you say in a scene inside a gynecologist's office and why NBC's 1980s sitcom Empty Nest might just be one of the medium's great underrated classics. Such was the case on an April afternoon in Hollywood when six Emmy contenders -- Matthew Carnahan, 52 (Showtime's House of Lies); Greg Daniels, 49 (NBC's The Office); Bruce Helford, 61 (FX's Anger Management); Liz Meriwether, 31 (Fox's New Girl); Steve Molaro, 45 (CBS' The Big Bang Theory); and Mike Schur, 37 (NBC's Parks and Recreation) -- gathered to talk about their craft. Although their series vary wildly in format and ratio of laughs per episode, the writer-producers agreed on plenty, including the urgent need to repair a broken ratings system and why it's more than OK to make a show not everyone will love.
The Hollywood Reporter: The Big Bang Theory notwithstanding, it's been a very tough year for network comedies. Why do you think this is the case?
Liz Meriwether: Oh my God.
Mike Schur: Well …
Greg Daniels: Steve, you answer so it feels real combative and judgmental about the rest of us.
Steve Molaro: I'm not saying anything. I'm doing as I'm told!
Schur: He should just take a nap on the table as we're talking about this. My wife [J.J. Philbin] writes for New Girl, the show Liz created and runs, and every week there's a story: "New Girl got like a 2.7 this week." What does that mean? And then three weeks later, "Well, when you factor in the people who watch it on DVRs, it gets a 41.6 or something." So, people are not watching less television; they're watching more television. They're just not watching it at the exact time that counts for that stupid number that comes out at 8 a.m. And until the entire town agrees, which we need to do, to ignore that number, it's going to seem like people are suddenly walking outside and enjoying the fresh air. This is America. They're inside watching television!
Matthew Carnahan: There's a binge factor, too, that's changed the way people consume television. This is a relatively new thing, but you have to factor it in. The old system of counting is broken.
Schur: Binging also gives people the option of waiting to see if shows stick around, right? You don't want to invest time in something if it is going to disappear, so you wait until season three or four and then watch 80 episodes of a show in a week.
Bruce Helford: But why would they have a fourth season when everybody waited till season four to watch? (Laughter.)
THR: Do the broadcast networks have the patience to wait and see today? Big Bang Theory didn't come out of the gate superstrong. Parks also needed time to grow, and you got it.
Schur: Yes, we did. They've been incredibly patient with us, which is great. But I don't think they have a choice. I don't think anyone has a choice. You can't force people to watch TV at exactly the moment that you want them to, and so the question isn't whether they should be patient. It's whether we can figure out how to make the current reality of the landscape work.
Helford Anger Management isn't on Netflix, so you catch it in reruns, and FX will re-air it, but a lot of cable shows you can catch later on. I go to my kid's college campus, and there's no TV set to be found. It's all laptops. It's all going to Netflix, it's all going to iTunes. When I get our overnights, I know they're absolutely meaningless. Anyone who's actually reporting the next day is doing a disservice to the shows, and to themselves. You see jumps on average I was told was something like a 20 [via DVR]. I know New Girl gets a huge jump. We ended up like an 80 percent or 90 percent jump in DVR-plus-7. No one can really gauge anything until those numbers are in. But the broadcast guys seem to still function on, "Who's watching live?" But you don't get all the advertising dollars when you had the DVR numbers. People who watch the DVR and watch the commercials is a surprisingly high number.
Meriwether: That blew my mind. I found out that they don't count DVR if you [don't watch the commercials]. It's like, who's actually doing that?
Helford: A shocking number of people actually are sitting there watching commercials. They don't have to. I don't know if they know they don't have to.
Daniels: Don't tell them. (Laughter.)
Meriwether: I know, I know. I heard that in some parts of the country, Nielsen ratings are still pencil and paper, people are still having to write down what [they're watching]. It feels so foreign to the actual reality of how people watch television. And we're totally kicking ass on DVR. I just want to make that clear, we're doing, like, Dallas numbers.
Daniels: But Hulu, you have to watch the commercials, right?
Meriwether: Yeah, and Hulu isn't counted, or iTunes.
Daniels: Right, but I assume that at some point, you'll be getting your NBC in a way that's similar to how people get Hulu, and you won't be able to zip through the commercials. At least I would hope that they will do that eventually.
Schur: I think you could make an argument that scanning through commercials is a more effective way to advertise. In the old system, when you were watching a show live, and a commercial came on, you would just get up and get a sandwich, and listen for the show to come back on. If I were Coca-Cola, I would make a 30-second ad that just said "Coca-Cola," and add a can. So even if you're scanning through it, you get like, eight seconds of a can.
Meriwether: We had to do product placement this year, and that was like a whole, I mean …
Schur: That's a whole other thing.
Meriwether: Kind of painful.
Molaro: We actually haven't had too much of it, at least that I'm aware of.
Daniels: Nice to have you with us, Steve!
Carnahan: I was just going to say that we haven't had to do that much of it.
Helford: We will whore ourselves out to anyone who wants to, I mean, we've got everybody. What's really going on is everybody's just putting their product in the thing. Somebody walks in a room with a bucket of KFC chicken or whatever, it's paid for, it's acknowledged, it's nothing under the table. When I was doing George Lopez, we were really insulted that they only wanted to put in Taco Bell, stuff like that.
Carnahan: We've rejected some, and we made some big deals to get a decent, sizable amount of money to show a phone through the whole course of the season. But yeah, we turned down some cheesy [products]. Our show in particular is about upscale people, and so there were certain …
Meriwether: Del Taco?
Carnahan: Del Taco we didn't reject. I'd be willing to talk to Del Taco! No, there were some products that would have been cheesy.
Meriwether: Well, we just made a mistake because we were like, "You know, if we're going to do product placement, we're really going to lean into it and put it front and center," which is not the way to do it. The way to do it is like, have somebody walk in with a bucket of KFC, and we were like, "No, we're going to, like, have her say Ford." We wanted to do it in a cool way, like 30 Rock sort of did it, but that's not our show, and so we tried and then everybody was just mad at us.
Helford: At least you can control it. For a while there, there was a digitally inserted thing, so you'd watch your show and all of a sudden there was a huge, huge box of Ritz Crackers double the size of a normal box sitting right in the middle of the table.
THR: On the creative side, Liz, how did you know it was the right time for your lead characters, Nick and Jess, to start a sexual relationship?
Meriwether: We got a product placement deal for condoms, so we were just building up to that big product placement. (Laughs.) No, it felt like holding it off any longer was going to feel like we were playing with the audience. I don't really believe in, "If they kiss, then the spark of the show is gone." I think that when people come together, it actually creates so many more opportunities for story, conflict, things to go wrong. We found that it really helped our show, kind of gave it focus. They were really good at kissing, too; it's fun to watch them make out.