A-List Writers From 'Silicon Valley,' 'Transparent' on Embarrassing Scenes Stolen From Real Life, "Crushing Blow" of a Writers-Room Firing
In THR's comedy showrunners roundtable, Kenya Barris ('Black-ish'), Alec Berg ('Silicon Valley'), Robert Carlock ('Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt'), Jay Duplass ('Togetherness'), Jill Soloway ('Transparent'), Steve Levitan ('Modern Family') reveal their most panicked moments on set, why making a movie can help you sell a TV show and why they no longer loathe network notes.
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
You really can't blame a comedy showrunner — on whose shoulders a show's successes and failures squarely sit — for being totally exhausted. And on a recent spring afternoon, six such weary souls converged inside a Hollywood studio to talk about TV's toughest gig and its biggest occupational hazards. (No. 1 on the list: loss of sleep.) But it's not all grousing for these writer-producers, who oversee some of the most impactful comedies of the year: HBO's Silicon Valley (Alec Berg, 45), Amazon's Transparent (Jill Soloway, 49), ABC's Modern Family (Steve Levitan, 53), ABC's Black-ish (Kenya Barris, 40), Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Robert Carlock, 43) and HBO's Togetherness (Jay Duplass, 42). Listen in as this sextet of Emmy-contending showrunnners reveal their most panicked moments on set, why making a movie can help you sell a TV show, why they no longer loathe network notes and what they'll do the day their hit shows are done for good. Says one (obviously): "Sleep!"
When was the last time you felt totally in over your head?
STEVE LEVITAN When do we not feel that way? (Laughter.)
ALEC BERG I don't recall a day ever when I wasn't desperately terrified somebody was going to take away my job and the fraud would be revealed.
How heightened were those feelings when you took over Seinfeld?
BERG The first two years, Larry David was there. He was the hub of the wheel. Everything went through him, writing-wise. And Jerry did an amazing job. If he wasn't on the stage, he was out promoting. But Larry was really the head writer and then left and we had no plan. "OK, we will just keep doing what we were doing." The wheels were turning, but there was no hub. We had to kind of figure it out.
ROBERT CARLOCK Isn't that how it always happens? It's not like you passed the showrunner bar and suddenly you're a showrunner. You get thrown in with it. I don't know how I got to run 30 Rock. I think Tina [Fey] insisted. (Laughs.) But I didn't have the experience. The next day, you're in charge of a room and a budget.
BERG There's a giant monster chasing you, and you have to run as fast as you can and try not to die.
JAY DUPLASS Also, nobody really knows what showrunning is. When my brother [Mark Duplass] and I started our show, there was a point where someone asked us, "Who's the showrunner?" I was like, "I don't know." And someone next to me said, "You are!" (Laughter.)
artnered with a guy for my show — Larry Wilmore — and I told him, "Well, it's my show, they're not going to …" and [he] was like, "No, no, trust me, they will fire you." [Editor's note: Wilmore was famously fired from The Bernie Mac Show, which he created.]
CARLOCK It's now their show, by the way. (Laughter.)
JILL SOLOWAY At some point on the first show I ran, [Showtime's] United States of Tara, I was like, "I got my patch, I got my cap!" But it's so different running your own show versus somebody else's. One thing I noticed is that people get thrown under the bus. The bus won't go unless there are people under it, screaming. And you're always trying to make sure that you're not the person who is under the bus. But if you're not throwing somebody under the bus, you probably are under the bus. But Craig Zisk, our producer-director, said to me early on, "People just want to feel like they're being heard." So even though I had no idea what was going on, I would practice listening, smiling and acting like I heard people. If you have conflict, if you think they're dead wrong, do that in private. It's a political job. It's like captaining a ship.
How long does it take before you feel confident and in charge?
LEVITAN In the beginning, you just have to fake it. I've talked to other writers who have dealt with what they consider to be frustrating showrunners, and the No. 1 complaint is that they're indecisive. "It's 11 at night, and he can't decide between 'a' and 'the.' " And I took that to heart, and I just try to say, "This may not be right, but this one feels better to me, so let's go down this road, and if I'm wrong, I'm wrong."
BARRIS I learned more from all the showrunners who did bad things than from the good ones. When the writers room sucks, half the time it's because of the showrunner. He or she sets the tone. People have personal things going on; you want to go in there and make sure everyone feels comfortable, especially when you're doing comedy. Especially on my show. Everybody is in a family situation. They have to feel comfortable to say whatever they feel and not feel like you're going to be a dick because you're having a bad day.
Looking back, when were the real low points in your careers, and how did you turn them around?
DUPLASS We feel we're like right on the edge where you almost want them to cancel the show because it's so hard and you're barely surviving and you're barely getting through it and you're using every fiber of your being just to be there. So, I don't know about for you guys, but I'm in trauma at all times.
BERG When I worked with Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, he wouldn't call HBO and say he was willing to do a season until he had most of it written already. Functionally, we were writing a hit show on spec. He had such searing memories of those days back at Seinfeld where they would call and say, "Congratulations, you're doing it again!" and he'd look at an empty board with 22 empty slots on it and just break down. He never wanted to be in that situation where he owed this mass of information that he didn't have.
LEVITAN After pilot season, the winners — those who got picked up — get to embark on the toughest journey of their lives, not sleep or eat well, age too quickly. And the losers get to go to Hawaii. (Laughter.)
BARRIS I had a crazy moment at upfronts last year. Steve was part of it, actually. Black-ish had gotten picked up, and I'd never had a show picked up before. I was unbelievably inebriated, in the weirdest club ever, trap-rap music playing, with all these white agents. And Steve is there. I'm super drunk, and he was so gracious. He's like, "Dude, it's going to happen, so just go with it. You're going to do what you're going to do." It was such a gracious moment, it stuck with me, even after I woke up with a hangover.
LEVITAN I was completely drunk and remembered none of that. (Laughter.)
SOLOWAY For that first showrunner job, I just kept sort of hitting my head against the ceiling. So, you sort of rub the genie and say, "If I can have anything, what would it be? To be a showrunner. Oh, sorry, can I have you back, genie? Actually, to be a showrunner of a show that I created." I really wanted my own show but felt I couldn't get one made. I had pilots passed on, I was out of money. I was eating what was in the cabinets basically, which I know a lot of regular Americans do. (Laughter.) Then Girls gets picked up, and I saw Tiny Furniture and just thought, "What the f—? Who the heck is Lena Dunham?" Everybody was saying to me, "Have you seen this girl? She's just like you … except more successful and she's living her vision and you're not."
LEVITAN Awesome cabinets everywhere full of food.
SOLOWAY I decided to make a film [Afternoon Delight] so I'd be able to have that calling card for my voice. I made the movie, then felt I was ready to walk into a network and say, "I know what the tone should be. I know how to edit now. I know what cinematographer I want, I know how to cast." At the same time, my parent came out as transgender and pretty shortly after that phone call, I was like, "I think I have a show."
What were the craziest ways you got your work noticed?
BERG When I moved to L.A., I was working with my then-writing partner Jeff Schaffer. We called everyone we could call. We were sensitive not to put too many scripts in too many people's hands and say, "Can I have seven hours of your time?" It was, "Do you have 10 minutes?" We spoke to anyone who would spend any amount of time with us. Eventually that led from one person to another person, and we were lucky enough to get to pitch ideas to somebody who had a show on the air. That show went under, and they ended up working on Seinfeld and we submitted ideas to them. Then we were sitting at home and our friends called and asked, "Hey, how long would it take you to get over to CBS Radford? Larry and Jerry want to meet you." I'm standing there in my underwear, and 45 minutes later we're sitting with Larry and Jerry, and 20 minutes later we have a job. There was no time to get nervous. There was no time to like, "OK, you say this and then I'll say this and we'll do this clever thing." We just went in and that was it.
BARRIS That first job is so important. You realize it's all about relationships. You're in that room and you're like, "This dude's never going to work again. He does not understand."
Does someone ever pull that person aside?
LEVITAN Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't.
SOLOWAY But the bus needs people under it!
LEVITAN It's a strange thing. It's easy to say to somebody, "Hey, we need you to talk a little bit more in the room." That's something that somebody can work on. It's [hard] when you're talking about something they can't work on.
BARRIS "Dude, don't be an asshole."
BERG "It's really the essence of who you are."
CARLOCK As managers, we're paid to be empathetic, and we put ourselves in people's shoes. They have the same dream we have. If I pull someone aside and ask, "Hey, do you feel like you're being heard?" or say, "We'd love to hear from you more, you were so funny in the interview," you're kind of talking in a code because you're afraid to ask: "Do you think your voice is fitting the show?"
BARRIS How many times have you taken someone aside and said, "I need you to be better," and they actually got better?
CARLOCK I can think of people I've had that conversation with and thought, "Boy, I'm going to have to fire this person." And by the end of the season, they were valuable. But I don't think the conversation had anything to with it. It's more that they found their rhythm.
LEVITAN I've seen this a lot where people will say, "Don't say that to them, you're just going to freak them out." But then you think, "I don't want to be sitting here in March and saying we're not bringing you back because you didn't talk more." And they're like, "I was trying to be respectful!" So now I will err on the side of, "It's not happening yet, but I believe in you, I know it's there, I've read it, I've seen glimpses of it, we just need to see more of it."
BERG There are also very basic points of etiquette in a room. Like people saying, "I don't like that joke." That's pointless. A lot of people think they're helping by pointing out the bad things.
SOLOWAY There's also always the "my only thing" guy in the room. "My only thing is …" You don't want to be that guy.
LEVITAN Or the person who just repeats what has been said. Louder.
SOLOWAY The re-pitcher.
CARLOCK And there are the people who don't laugh at everything I say.
DUPLASS The culture of a writing room is different from anything else. When you describe the firing of a person, it's a breakup. We're talking about the inner being of people, welcoming them in, enjoying their humanity, coaxing it, "Be open, be free, this is a safe place … actually, never mind, we don't like what you have." It's a crushing blow.
BARRIS It's almost like fantasy basketball: You're given a certain amount of money, and you have to hire a rebounder, you have to hire someone who hits threes, and you have to do this with a certain budget.
SOLOWAY I like to hire at least one person who has just gotten to town. It keeps everybody young to hear their stories about parking. They get a ticket, they get a boot on the car, they don't know where to live. The chaos of just having moved to L.A. — it's fun to watch.
Jill, your show has struck a cultural chord. Why do you think it has resonated so profoundly?
SOLOWAY The transgender thing in an hour show could easily get so heavy. [Transparent star] Jeffrey Tambor is brilliant, but mostly I think we need to let the trans-ness be over here and the comedy be at the center. The trans-ness is part of the background. The whole idea that a half-hour is a comedy and an hour is a drama … in the next few years, people are going to have to split those up with new names.
CARLOCK The Emmys tried to figure it out this year. (Laughter.)
LEVITAN It's unfortunate that we're put in a position to compete.
CARLOCK As long as we all got rich, who would care?
LEVITAN When we start writing, we'll go, "How is that funny?" At the same time, we're asking, "What's real about this?" If it doesn't feel like we can get some comedy out of it, we think, "This is just getting dark and serious, let's let it go until we come up with a funny take on it." And it's tricky because we're put into these competitions, but we each approach [storytelling] very differently. It doesn't make one show better or worse than the other.
BERG (To Levitan) Statistically, yours always seem to be better. (Laughter.)
DUPLASS Another thing with the 30-minute form — Jill and I talk about this a lot — it's just a giant, longform story broken up. I don't know what it is about the nice little hill of the 30-minute show … it weirdly falls off the truck well. But there is something amazing about this new form of storytelling where we're not doing "episodic" TV, we're not doing "movie" stuff — we're just going forward. The collective consciousness of the show is being shared by all these people. My brother and I have always tried to get to a truthfulness and a simplicity with our storytelling. How things happen in real life. Like, when you have a breakup, it's usually not down by the river and well lit. It happens when you're picking out dental floss at Rite Aid and you realize it's the beginning of the end of your relationship. It's very unceremonious. To have an audience key into that and know this is all happening on shitty aisle 12 of Rite Aid is very exciting to us.
Network notes can be their own form of comedy. What was the last one you received that made your eyes roll?
BERG I'm in a situation at HBO … I've never had anything like it. They've done such a ninjutsu thing on me because, in my bones, I [used to] cringe whenever notes come up. Now, I want to know what they think. They're the partners that every other network and studio have always claimed to be. "We're your partners! So, we're going to muck that up and you're going to fix it. That's how partnerships work!"
DUPLASS Their notes are presented as opinions, like "I'm feeling this."
SOLOWAY I hired somebody to be a consulting producer, and I treat them like the studio. They get to see stuff before the network does. We can take their notes or not, but we definitely want that process of vetting stuff. I've done something on Transparent that's been totally revelatory for me: We turn things in to our producing department as well as the network earlier than I would have in the past, then we continue working. So it's like 75 percent ready.
LEVITAN Scripts and outlines?
SOLOWAY Everything. Then over the next few days while they're waiting to read and you're waiting for your call, we as a room are fixing it and it's getting better. Then you get the call and you've already done it and then you pretend like you haven't. You say, "Amazing!" If the note is good, you probably already thought of it. It's a way of keeping everybody feeling included and vetting everybody's notes against each other.
BERG I've definitely gotten into arguments with people who have enjoyed certain episodes of our show, and I've tried to explain why they shouldn't. "Structurally, the whole backend just didn't work and your enjoyment is not correct."
BARRIS The hardest thing for us is being a family show that comes on after a show that's been on for so long [Modern Family] and being so successful, because our biggest note that we'll get is, "That's already been done." But one of the tricks I use is, "Well, culturally speaking …" They really don't argue. Being a 6-foot-3 black guy with a neck tattoo, they stop wanting to do notes in the room. Someone took a picture of us getting notes … I had to learn to change my demeanor! It wasn't like I was purposely doing it, but you're listening to someone who you think is going to tear your story apart.
LEVITAN I think friends in the features world are dealing with much, much worse in terms of studio interventions.
DUPLASS We've had an interesting experience. Togetherness was our first show. We came from feature filmmaking, and HBO had to break us in a little bit to the TV world because we kept closing storylines. We were in feature mode, where you set stuff up and you're already thinking, "This is how I'm going to end all this stuff." And they were like, "Guys, don't end this. Open it." They were very gentle about it and ultimately, it was really freeing. Now I think back on feature filmmaking, and I still love the form. It's like how I came up in the business. I still want to be the Coen brothers.
LEVITAN I just want a brother. (Laughter.)
What was the most personal moment you've infused into your show, and how did you feel watching it?
DUPLASS I think they're all cringeworthy. I see myself weirdly, probably mostly in Michelle [Melanie Lynskey], the wife character. Everyone in our lives is fair game. They know their stories will come up in our shows. Everything is something from our lives. But it's interesting to see something that you've done [on the show] and the talk about it on Twitter. To see people arguing about how you operate in your life is a really interesting thing. You've released these things that are very scary and embarrassing, and if you're doing your job well, it's resonating with people. The best compliment is, "I felt like you had a tape recorder in my bedroom."
SOLOWAY Transparent is slightly based on my family, and my sister and I are both writers on the show, and people are constantly saying that the children are horrible human beings. It's hard to ignore that stuff.
BARRIS Black-ish is based on my family, too. And my wife pooped herself when she was having our first daughter. That was my first time having a kid, and I started apologizing to the doctors. And my wife was like, "Are you apologizing?" And I put that on the show. Then we watched it as a family and I didn't tell her. She goes, "Are you f—ing kidding me? Did you really do this?" (Laughter.)
Do you have to vet storylines through her now?
BARRIS I'm a little bit more careful!
LEVITAN I'm thinking of all the times I'll pitch something that I think one of the characters will do, thinking that's what I would do, and then half the people in the room are horrified. "He is such a jerk! I'd hate him if he did that." (Laughter.)
DUPLASS We have people in the writers room who get very proprietary about characters, too. They're pulling the character their way. "Michelle would do this, she wouldn't do that."
BARRIS (To Soloway) How did your family react to your show?
SOLOWAY It's weird. You know when you write stuff and you think it's never going to get made, then you almost dare the universe to make it before you tell the person it's about them. "I've written a character and it's based on you." Then it never airs on TV and you've wasted a conversation.
LEVITAN You look delusional. (Laughter.)
SOLOWAY I did call my parent and say, "I've written something, it's probably never going to happen. I just wanted to let you to know it's happening, but I doubt anything will come of it." Also, when I called my parent who transitioned, I said, "There's going to be somebody based on you in it." I didn't say, "The show is called Transparent. It's about a parent who transitions."
BARRIS I never got that title till just now. (Laughter.)
LEVITAN I just got Black-ish. (Laughter.)
SOLOWAY At first, my parent was really nervous about what it would mean to have that kind of publicity. But the way the trans community has been evolving has made it feel like the time and place for this show, and our family happens to have found itself at this moment, as part of this movement, early days in this movement and it's good for the world, it's good for the movement. My parent has gone from, "I really can't imagine that the whole world would know my story" to being at events in Chicago and taking pictures with fans.
BERG I have the opposite experience. A lot of the stuff I've worked on, Seinfeld and Curb, is very observational and everybody seems to have their Curb story. I don't get a lot of the "You shouldn't have put that in the show," I get a lot of, "That's not a Curb story!"
If your show ended tomorrow, what would the next phase of your career look like?
BERG Maybe when my daughter's grown and out of the house, I'll go do features. But for now, I get to live at home, work with really interesting people and do a show I'm proud of.
CARLOCK If there were a next phase, I only wish I could figure out how to make it easier. Part of it is the depth of caring about what you're doing and trying to make it as good as possible. The other part of it is: Why does lighting take so long? Can they come out of their trailers faster? Between 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt, Tina and I very much concentrated on, "Maybe these documentary-style shows wrap earlier?" We've completely failed at making things easier for ourselves.
SOLOWAY I'd like to be a women's studies professor, without any underwear, and pontificate in front of young people.
BARRIS This is the corniest thing, but I love being a parent.
SOLOWAY Wait, I feel horrible now. I also love being a mom!
BARRIS (Laughs.) I say that because I'm so not. Because of my job, I don't get to be a dad. I think that's one thing you can't replace. Now that my kids are almost leaving the house, I would try a new life of being more in their life because I've been so out of it and writing for so long.
LEVITAN The ultimate goal is balance. Chances are if you're at this table, you're working ridiculous hours, you take it home, you're thinking about it lying in bed, you wake up in the middle of the night. Then suddenly you're sitting at your computer at 3 a.m. trying to figure it out.
SOLOWAY You can text me because I'm doing the same thing.
LEVITAN That's the goal. How can I do this job going forward and maybe be involved in a more big-picture way? Also, I enjoy directing a lot. That seems like a very nice amount of hours as opposed to what we're doing now. I think that's it. It's such a feast-and-famine business that you're so grateful to be able to do it, you don't want to complain. It's the greatest job in the world, but while you're doing it, it's really hard.
BERG Do you think balance is possible? I've made peace with all of the terror, stress and fear. I just rationalize that it's good for the work, and the day that I'm not terrified about it, not up at three in the morning wondering "How do we fix it?" the show goes to crap.
CARLOCK Steve's trying to make it someone else's problem. (Laughter.)
BERG The answer is getting fired from your own show.
CARLOCK That's the dream!
BERG To become so unbearable that your methods become unsound and you get pushed out.
LEVITAN When the show becomes your train set. You can come in, play with it for a few hours in the middle of the day and then go home.
The full Comedy Showrunner Roundtable can be seen on Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter when it premieres Sunday, Sept. 6, at 11 a.m. ET/PT on Sundance TV and HollywoodReporter.com.
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