Mindy Kaling, Dan Harmon, Other Top Writers Reveal Lies They've Told Execs, Worst Advice They've Received
The brains behind "The Mindy Project," "Parenthood," "Bones," "The Vampire Diaries" and "Modern Family" (among others) also weigh in on which TV show they really want to write for, the secrets to a successful pitch and what they tell young writers who ask for advice.
This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If my writers room were asked to describe me as a showrunner, they'd probably say ...
Dan Harmon (Community): He's like if you removed all the atheism, charm and current events from Bill Maher, then beamed that into Randy Quaid's body and hit it with a belt in a basement for 10 years.
Jason Katims (Parenthood): Here comes Mr. What Would Really Happen?
Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project): Demanding. Decisive. Grouchy when hungry.
Adam F. Goldberg (The Goldbergs): Any pitch about a robot, a lightsaber or Sloth from Goonies will get into the script. No matter how lame it is. That's right, writers. I'm on to you.
Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries): Not a morning person.
Hart Hanson (Bones): Hart is lucky to have us here doing all the heavy lifting while he gets the credit. Also, he eats too much meat at lunch.
Stephen Nathan (Bones): The guy with the gray hair.
Robert King (The Good Wife): I just went into the room and asked them. They said I was one of the nicest people they've ever met, a lot of fun at parties and handsome, too.
If I could write for another series currently on television for a season, it would be …
Goldberg: The Walking Dead. This way, I wouldn't have to obsessively wait until the next episode. I'd just lurk in the corner like a fanboy and say "sweeeeeet" all day long.
Kaling: Mad Men.
Greg Berlanti (Arrow): I would love all two weeks I would be employed on Silicon Valley before they fired me for not being funny enough.
Katims: I'd love to go to Saturday Night Live for a week to see how the show gets made. I literally stalked The Daily Show. I went to a taping in New York City, and Jon [Stewart] and his staff were nice enough to tour me around their offices afterward and show me how they did it. And I'd love to be a fly on the wall at Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Plec: Scandal, obvi.
Robert King (The Good Wife): It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Bob's Burgers.
Hanson: Veep or Top Gear or Community or Shameless or Justified. No, it would be Top Gear. Yes, Top Gear.
Michael Patrick King (2 Broke Girls): A show where the season is six episodes.
When young writers approach me for advice, I say …
Harmon: Entertain yourself. Luck comes just as often (and just as rarely) to every writer. Don't be the writer that got lucky doing something they hate.
Chris Lloyd (Modern Family): Write from the heart. You can always make a real story funny; you can't always make a funny story real.
Kaling: Read everything, watch everything, listen carefully, take notes.
Plec: TV writing, when you're starting out, is all about being a mimic. Take your favorite writer and try to write an episode in their voice.
Robert King: Have someone give you a deadline: a seriously harsh deadline. Embrace panic. Use it to stop yourself from impressing people with your writing and just tell a story.
Hanson: Write a LOT. And not just one thing. Write a lot of things. And be interested in what you're writing. If you're bored and jaded by it, then everyone else will be, too.
Dan Goor (Brooklyn Nine-Nine): It's good to be critical and analytical in the planning stage of any script, but once you start writing, you need to take the critic hat off and just write.
Bruno Heller (The Mentalist): Write on a screen that has no Internet access.
If I were running a broadcast network today, the first move I'd make is ...
Katims: Make an overall deal with Vince Gilligan. If that didn't work, I'd scramble.
Goldberg: Bring back Firefly. And Fringe. And Undeclared. Clearly, I'm running Fox in this scenario. Maybe I should've listed my own canceled Fox show [Breaking In] in this list, but to be honest, I'd rather see more Firefly.
Nathan: Do away with testing. After looking at the failure rate of new shows, the only valid conclusion is that testing is an absurd waste of time. A novel move would be to trust ourselves.
Kaling: Take [Fox's] Kevin Reilly for a four-hour lunch and ask him exactly what to do.
Beyond a great idea, the secret to a successful pitch is ...
Matt Olmstead (Chicago P.D.): Don't be a smug know-it-all. I'd rather work with an insufferable bore than a smug know-it-all.
Kaling: Pretending you are telling your favorite idea to your smartest friend.
Goldberg: Walk in with a home video of your family screaming at each other and say, "It's basically this with Jeff Garlin."
Hanson: You have to really want to write and produce what you're pitching. They can tell if you don't. They can always tell.
Nathan: Bring pastries.
Michael Patrick King: Acknowledging how it's going over -- and if not well, change it.
Michelle King: Pitching it before lunch.
Harmon: Pretending that what you're selling is already on the air and explaining what you love about it. Ideas are worthless -- networks want to see enthusiasm and creative accountability.
Lloyd: Leave them wanting more.
The worst piece of advice I've been given is …
Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest): "Write what you know." Turns out nobody wanted the movie about changing diapers, chili recipes and DIY espresso machine repair. Dream big and write whatever the f--- you want.
Lloyd: "To become a good television writer, watch television." No. Live your life, read a book, go to Morocco, get your heart broken … do practically anything but watch TV.
Michael Patrick King: "Just sit your ass on any show and collect a paycheck."
Olmstead: "To get into cable because it's more hands-off than network television." It's not.
Hanson: "Write what you know." Better advice, I'd say, is to write toward what you wish to know.
The biggest lie I've ever told an executive is ...
Hanson: "That's a great idea."
Kaling: "Let me think about that."
Lloyd: "Thanks, Kevin, I think that's really going to make the show better."
Katims: Lie to an executive? Are you serious?
Goldberg: The only lie you should ever tell is that you know exactly how to fix something. Then, in the car ride home, nervously drink your free bottle of water and desperately try to figure it out.
Harmon: I said "maybe" after one of the studio heads suggested we cast Martin Short and Steve Martin so they could reenact Three Amigos with Chevy on Community. I said "maybe," but what I was thinking was "this relationship isn't going to go well for anyone."
Goor: "I would love to turn this single-camera pilot into a multicam. That was always my plan."
The thing that frustrates me most about TV today is …
Hanson: The notes process. There are too many voices hollering at you at one time -- even when the voices are very smart. On the other hand, it means that you have to have a pretty good idea of what you want to accomplish so that the notes process doesn’t derail you. Ah, crap, I guess the thing that frustrates me the most is that in the end the notes process might have a beneficial effect.
Michael Patrick King: The size of the pop-up promos for other shows that upstage the jokes in your show.
Heller: Spotty coverage of the English Premier League.
Kaling: Telling a story in 21½ minutes.
Katims: The long waits between seasons of my favorite shows.
Berlanti: Whenever we can't run episodes straight in a row. The audience has so many options these days, it's hard to win them back -- even after a small break.
Nolan: There's too much good stuff. Everyone start writing bullshit for a couple of years so I can catch up.
My dream guest star would be …
Goldberg: Mel Brooks to play Murray's father. It would be a dream to watch Brooks, Jeff Garlin and George Segal riff on set. The trifecta of amazing Jewish comedic actors!
Kaling: Tom Hanks.
Plec: Josh Jackson and Scott Foley, bromance-style.
Harmon: Norm MacDonald
Michael Patrick King: I'd love to write jokes for Jesus on 2 Broke Girls.
Michelle King: Groucho Marx -- because then he'd still be alive.
Nathan: Cary Grant. He could totally have his own show.
The show's ending that I wish I could have rewritten is …
Olmstead: The Office [U.K.]. I would have kept it going another season.
Greg Plageman (Person of Interest): The Sopranos. Underwhelming Anthony Jr. takes over after his father is murdered and has to overcome his mother, just like anxiety-ridden Tony had to do. History repeating, Don't Stop Believin' …
Goldberg: Freaks & Geeks. In my finale, the cast would storm the NBC offices and demand another 10 years on the air.
Harmon: I really wanted ABC's Cavemen to answer about 6,450 more questions than it did before it vanished.
Hanson: I don’t want to write a show’s ending. That’s a nightmare. So how about “Revelations” in the Bible? It was kind of a downer -- esoteric and hard to understand.
Stephen Nathan: I'm not touching that one.
The culture of binge-watching has impacted the way I craft storylines in this way …
Katims: I feel more free to lean into serialized storylines. Serialization used to be a barrier for viewers because if they missed a few episodes they might feel like they missed the boat on the show. But now people can watch a series in order with no concern about missing episodes.
Hanson: I worry that I should be taking binge-watching into account instead of mostly ignoring it.
Berlanti: I'm not sure it totally correlates, but we burn through story at a much faster rate than even just a few years ago.
Nathan: People binge-watch good shows. I'll try to make my shows good.
Harmon: When I used to make 13 of something, it had to be 13 variations of one thing, but now it can be one thing in 13 installments!
Michael Patrick King: I assume people are watching the episode in the year 2040.