The Top 50 Showrunners
Lena Dunham, the creative voice behind HBO's critical hit "Girls," sees herself as a writer who uses directing as a tool to tell stories.
Hey Lena?" "Yes, baby." "Am I wandering, or should I make a beeline?" Allison Williams, who plays anal-retentive pretty girl Marnie on Lena Dunham's black comedy Girls, is filming a scene with Christopher Abbott (he plays Marnie's on-again/off-again underappreciated beau Charlie, whom last season Marnie accused of actually having a vagina). Dunham, who is directing this episode -- the penultimate in the show's 10-episode second season set to bow in January -- sits behind a monitor with co-showrunner/executive producer Jenni Konner and script supervisor Kim DeLise.
"I think a sort of slow beeline," answers Dunham.
It's a sweltering mid-August afternoon in New York, and today's shoot is, mercifully, indoors, with the airy eighth-floor digs of media arts company thelab standing in for the offices of Charlie's startup. In a converted warehouse on West 27th on the far west side of Manhattan, the space is industrial cool and dot-com chic: brick walls, midcentury modern furniture, appropriately trendy and/or esoteric coffee-table books (Edward Weston's Book of Nudes, Morten Andersen's Color F.).
"Here we go," says Dunham. "The first-ever slow beeline. And …ACTION!"
In this scene, Marnie -- wearing a cobalt blue sleeveless dress, her hair styled perfectly in loose waves -- comes to the office to confront Charlie for standing her up for a lunch date. Spotting him on the terrace with a co-worker (a willowy blonde with an impossibly neat ponytail), she raps loudly on the glass door until he sheepishly comes inside.
"What are you doing here?" asks Charlie.
"Are you kidding!? We had concrete lunch plans. I waited for you for like 45 minutes!" wails Marnie.
As the scene unfolds, Dunham and Konner smile. At one point, Konner lifts one side of Dunham's headset to whisper in her ear. Dunham lets a giggle escape. "Cut!" she yells. "That was awesome!"
At 26, Dunham -- whose indie cult hit Tiny Furniture got the attention of Hollywood comedy kingmaker Judd Apatow, an executive producer on Girls -- has emerged as the voice of young Hollywood while living and working (for the most part) in Brooklyn. "Her voice is so clear, yet she is able to be collaborative," says Konner, 41. "She knows what she likes, and she knows what she doesn't like. She doesn't get threatened by other people's ideas."
Adds Williams: "She's great at giving direction. Usually she'll describe a vibe. The way we were doing that scene, the first two takes were pouty, and then we did a little more petulant and incredulous, like in disbelief that this could happen."
Together with their cast, Dunham and Konner (a huge fan of Tiny Furniture who got her big break as a writer on Apatow's 2002 Fox series Undeclared) have crafted a unique take on post-recession angst that earned Girls a raft of Emmy noms for its freshman season, a second-season pickup and the ongoing fawning of the media literati.
On this day (the shoot began at 4 p.m. and will continue until about 4 a.m.), Dunham is cool, relaxed and happy, dressed in a black-and-tan silk Opening Ceremony dress, which she bought during an "insane shopping bender" on a recent visit to Los Angeles. "You've got to make people think you're taking your job seriously," she says dryly.
But her reserved tone belies a magnetic love for her job. "There isn't one second when she's not thrilled and excited about being here," says Konner. "I've worked on sets that were unhappy. And we've worked very, very hard to make this a happy place to be."
Dunham thinks of herself as a writer-actor, and directing is an extension of her writing. "I love acting," she explains. "But I consider myself a writer who uses directing as one of her tools for telling a story."
The story can be as ribald and raw as HBO's 1998 breakthrough Sex and the City, also a comedy about four friends suffering romantic and professional slings and arrows in New York City. But interestingly, while Dunham fearlessly bares the most flesh in Girls, what makes her uncomfortable is being emotionally naked.
"The things that make me self-conscious are weird," she admits. "Like if I have to act like I'm in love with someone. But whipping off my shirt? That I can totally get behind. It's like, 'Woo hoo!' "
"I love acting. But I consider myself a writer who uses directing as one of her tools for telling a story." -- Lena Dunham
THE TOP 50 SHOWRUNNERS: THE LIST
Murphy Brown's Diane English. M*A*S*H's Larry Gelbart. The Dick Van Dyke Show's Carl Reiner. Cheers' Glen and Les Charles. All in the Family's Norman Lear. Had THR's annual celebration of television's most powerful creative minds been around during their heyday, these classic giants of the business would no doubt have topped the list. Like the 50 groups featured on the following 10 pages, their mentors and icons challenged the norms and mores of their time while perpetuating the unwavering belief that TV is more than an American pastime -- it's the lens through which we interpret our culture and ourselves.
Writing and producing comedies and dramas also happens to be one of the nuttiest professions in showbiz, as evidenced by the very honest and often hilarious responses THR's editors and reporters gathered from the men and women who most impacted the medium this year.
From their obsessive rituals (Peppermint Patties! Oatmeal! Bruce Springsteen!) to the parts of their jobs they hate most (picking where to eat lunch, answering e-mail) to the industry figures they most idolize (see the list above, and then some), these showrunners share and embody the quirky candor and humility necessary to churn out the most entertaining, groundbreaking and so-good-we-actually-watch-it-live television.
SALIM & MARA BROCK AKIL
The Game BET
AGES 48, 42 TWITTER HANDLE @AkilProductions
The Show That Inspired Me to Write:: Salim: The Honeymooners. Mara: A Different World. My Big Break Salim: Writing for Showtime's Soul Food. Mara: Writer's trainee on the Fox series South Central. My Proudest Accomplishment This Year: Salim: Our overall deal with BET. Mara: My first writing credit for a film, Sparkle, which was directed by Salim and produced by Akil Productions. I'd Rather DelegateSalim: Making the coffee. Mara: Firing, until I realized that people fire themselves. How I Break Through Writer's Block Salim: I drive back to Oakland. Mara: Sex with Salim. If I Could Add Any Writer To Our Staff, It Would Be Salim: NYU professor Donald Bogle. Mara: Ebony magazine editor-in-chief Amy Barnett. The Show I'm Embarrassed to Admit I Watch Salim: Flipping Out on Bravo. Mara: SpongeBob SquarePants. The Three Things I Need in Order to Write Salim: San Pellegrino, a full tank of gas and Miles Davis. Mara: A Paper Mate Sharpwriter mechanical pencil, an empty e-mail inbox and Fat Uncle Farms coconut almonds. If I Could Scrub One Job From My Resume, It Would Be:Salim: Mortuary attendant. Mara: Temp worker.
BLAKE ANDERSON, ADAM DEVINE, ANDERS HOLM, KYLE NEWACHECK AND KEVIN ETTEN
Workaholics COMEDY CENTRAL
AGES 28, 28, 31, 28, 34 TWITTER HANDLES @UncleBlazer, @AdamDeVine, @ders808
The Show That Inspired Me to Write:: Holm: Actually, it was the movie Rushmore that first made me realize I could try writing. My Big Break Anderson: I'd say writing down pizza orders, but I'm gonna go with Workaholics. It's my only writing job ever. My Proudest Accomplishment This Year: Holm: I got married to an amazing woman, but you don't care about that. So I'm pleased with the last season of Workaholics. The Most Absurd Note I've Ever Gotten Anderson: "I don't know; seems kinda gay." If I Could Add Any Writer To Our Staff, It Would Be Holm: Arrested Development's Mitch Hurwitz. Funniest human alive.
CARTER BAYS & CRAIG THOMAS
How I Met Your Mother CBS
AGES Both 37 TWITTER HANDLES @CarterBays; @HimymCraig
The Show That Inspired Me to Write:: Bays: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The State. Both were written by guys who'd gone to my high school. Thomas: Cheers and Late Night With David Letterman on NBC. But my father was an advertising writer (Tom Thomas, responsible for Foster's "Australian for Beer" campaign). That was equally huge. My Proudest Accomplishment This Year: Bays: When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, I went with her to every single one of her OB-GYN appointments. Thomas: I also went to every one of Carter's wife's OB-GYN appointments. The Most Absurd Note We've Eger Gotten Thomas: For a comedy screenplay, a features agent said we shouldn't set a part of the story in Mexico but instead in Cuba because "Cuba is hot right now" after the Elian Gonzalez controversy in 2000. I'd Rather DelegateBays: Consuming 4,000 calories of craft service every day. Thomas: Lying awake at 3 a.m. thinking, "Did we word that penis joke properly?" If I Could Add Any Writer To Our Staff, It Would Be Bays: Tina Fey. Thomas: Nora Ephron. The Three Things I Need in Order to Write Bays: Coffee, a computer and no Internet. Thomas: A desk, a door that locks and a deadline.
DAVID CASPE, JOSH BYCEL AND JONATHAN GROFF
Happy Endings ABC
AGES 33, 40, 50 MY TV MENTOR
Groff: The culture at Late Night With Conan O'Brien mentored me. Bycel: Bill Lawrence. He's the best I've ever seen. The Show That Inspired Me to Write:: Bycel: Cheers and M*A*S*H were seminal. My Big Break Groff: The Jon Stewart Show. We went out to dinner to celebrate the wrap of the first cycle, and I was fired the next day. The Toughest Scene I Had to Write This YearCaspe: All of the love-triangle stuff is very tricky. The Most Absurd Note We've Eger Gotten Caspe: For a feature I won't name: "Is there any way there could be more kicks in the balls?" Groff: I had a pitch with the working title American Feud. It was a modern-day take on the Hatfields and McCoys' 100-year-long feud. The executive said, "OK, but where's the conflict?"
The Show That Inspired Me to Write: The Avengers. When it went off the air, I was really angry. That was the first letter I wrote to the local affiliate. My Big Break In Country, a movie I wrote a long time ago for Warner Bros. Then I got a call from my agent saying Sylvester Stallone wanted to meet me because he had a pilot idea about a priest that CBS wants you to write. That was my first pilot, Father Lefty; but it was when the priest scandals broke, and it was dead before it could hit the air. My TV Mentor CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler. A Killing in a Small Town was one of CBS' highest-rated TV movies. Without me knowing it, I was on the network's shortlist for writers. I'd Rather DelegateWriting is hard for me. I think more in patterns. Dallas is perfect for the way I'm wired because it's serialized; in the first season, I saw it as a 10-hour movie. It looks like a giant Sudoku board to me. The Show I'm Embarrassed to Admit I Watch Until recently, I worked at home. I'd have my lunch at 1 p.m. and watch The People's Court. It's the best way to get to know human nature. If I Could Scrub One Credit From My Resume, It Would BeThe Lifetime movie And Baby Will Fall. There's no reason for you to watch that. Ever.
EDITOR'S NOTE: C.K. was unavailable to participate in THR's showrunners survey. Normally we'd be annoyed by this, but it's Louis, and he just won two Emmys, so we're going to let it slide. This time.
DAVID CRANE & JEFFREY KLARIK
AGES "120" (combined) The Show That Inspired Me to Write: Crane: The Dick Van Dyke Show. Being a TV writer looked like the best job ever. Turns out it is. Klarik: That Girl. I even wrote a spec script for it and sent it to creator Sam Denoff. This was before I knew what a "spec script" was. Amazingly, he wrote back with encouragement. It changed my life. My Big Break Both: Dream On, HBO. My TV Mentor: Crane: The voice in my head. Klarik: I'm more concerned about Jeffrey's answer. My Proudest Achievement This Year: Crane: Changing people's perception of Matt LeBlanc. Klarik: Our Writers Guild Award nomination for Episodes. In 25 years, I'd never gotten one. Meant a lot. My Toughest Scene to Write: Klarik: The giant fight scene in the second-season finale. There were 13 speaking characters and multiple storylines to tie up. It was like trying to pack for an around-the-world trip in an overnight bag. Crane: All of the Pucks! scenes [Episodes' show-within-a-show]. I don't know how to be funny when I don't care about the characters. The Most Absurd Note I've Ever Gotten Crane: Years ago, Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman and I pitched a show about a hotel in outer space. The note said: "Does it have to be in outer space?" Klarik: I did a pilot about a girls boarding school called BS. The network bought the pitch, saw multiple drafts of the script, watched several cuts of the pilot, approved the credits, and the night we were locking it, they called to say: "BS? You can't call a show BS!" I'd Rather Delegate: Crane: Wardrobe, hair, makeup, all the financial stuff. … Do I have to pick just one? Klarik: I'd rather not delegate any of it. I don't play well with others. How I Break Through Writer's Block Klarik: Walk away. Crane: Go on a hike. It's like walking away, with sweating. If I Could Add Any Writer to My Staff, It Would Be: Crane: Buddy Sorrell. Klarik: Louis C.K. I'd just go away and let him do it all a lot better. If I Could Scrub One Credit From My Resume, It Would Be: Klarik: None of them. I have no shame. Crane: Everything's Relative, the first freelance script Marta and I sold. They rewrote every word except "decaf."
TEAM CSI: CAROL MENDELSOHN & PAM VEASEY
Ages: Mendelsohn, 61, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation; Veasey, 50, CSI: NY. The Show That Inspired Me to Write:: Mendelsohn: When I was growing up, it was everything Western: The Rifleman, The Virginian, The Big Valley. Then it was Hill Street Blues. Veasey: The Carol Burnett Show. My Big Break Mendelsohn: Writing for Fame. I freelanced three episodes and was content to stay there for the rest of my career. The producers encouraged me to get an agent and see what else was out there. My TV Mentors: Mendelsohn: It's split between Stephen J. Cannell and Aaron Spelling. Veasey: Hal Cooper, Arthur Julian and Rod Parker -- all comic geniuses and producers from the Norman Lear School of Comedy. My Proudest Accomplishment This Year: Veasey: Getting to my sons' football games while running two shows [CSI: NY and the canceled CW drama Ringer]. The Most Absurd Note I've Ever Gotten Mendelsohn: "Lose the nipples and the butt cracks on the sexually suggestive mannequins." Veasey: "Can you not do in this episode the thing you did in the other episode that we told you not to do?" I'd Rather Delegate Veasey: Picking where we eat lunch! How I Break Through Writer's Block Mendelsohn: Go to the gym, walk the dog, take a swim. Veasey: Haagen-Dazs. If I Could Add Any Writer to My Staff, It Would Be: Veasey: Jimmy Fallon. The Show I'm Embarrassed to Admit I Watch Mendelsohn: The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, but I'm not that embarrassed. I just shot an episode of CSI guest-starring Kyle Richards. She was fabulous. Veasey: MTV's Guy Code. The Three Things I Need in Order to Write Mendelsohn: Peppermint Patties. I'll take three. Veasey: Twizzlers, spicy nacho Doritos and 5-hour Energy shots. If I Could Scrub One Credit From My Resume, It Would Be: Mendelsohn: A Love Boat episode called "Love Ain't Illegal" because it's not really my credit, but I cannot get IMDb to remove it!
Downton Abbey PBS
AGE 63 The Show That Inspired Me to Write:: The one that entirely enthralled me was The Forsyte Saga, a series that, in those pre-television-recorder days, literally emptied the streets of London on the night it was transmitted. It was based on a series of novels by John Galsworthy about the trials of an affluent family before and after World War I, rather like Downton Abbey. My Big Break Gosford Park, a commission that came out of the blue in January 2000. I picked up the telephone, and actor-producer Bob Balaban asked me, "Would you like to write a screenplay for Robert Altman?" After a stunned pause, I said, "Y-y-y-y-yes." And I won the Oscar for best original screenplay in 2002. My Toughest Scene to Write This Year: Toughest Scene to Write This Year: It was quite difficult to write the proposal scene between Matthew and Mary, as we had delayed it for so long. But there comes a moment when you have to put up or shut up, and I think we had reached it. The Most Absurd Note I've Ever Gotten For the BBC drama The Prince and the Pauper, I had a character denouncing Mary Tudor, saying she would want to "marry with the Prince of Spain and rule us from Madrid." One of the producers circled the word "Madrid" and wrote: "What about the viewers who have never heard of Madrid?" I said, "What about viewers who have never heard of chairs or tables or summer or winter?" He didn't pursue it. If I Could Add Any Writer To My Staff, It Would Be: I wouldn't mind adding any writer. There's only me.
See cover story.
Raising Hope FOX
EDITOR'S NOTE: Garcia declined to participate in the showrunners survey on the grounds that it was "silly," unlike his show, Raising Hope, which definitely is not silly.
Breaking Bad AMC
Age: 45 The Show That Inspired Me to Write: The Twilight Zone. It was so marvelously constructed. My TV Mentor: The X-Files creator Chris Carter. He gave me my first job in television and taught me everything I know. My Proudest Accomplishment This Year: Directing two episodes of Breaking Bad back to back. I was worried about whether I was going to get through it, physically speaking. I don't have a lot of energy left these days. My Toughest Scene to Write: It would be a toss-up between the deaths of Gustavo Fring [Giancarlo Esposito] and Mike Ehrmantraut [Jonathan Banks]. Telling both of those actors, "Guess what? The end is nigh," was uncomfortable. Both of them were gentlemen, although Jonathan did threaten to punch me in the heart. I Wish I Could Delegate: Dealing with money and budget issues. It's absolutely crucial to the job, and having a willful ignorance concerning money is not a wise thing. The Three Things I Need in Order to Write A phone with a ringer turned off, no distractions (so it's probably best not to sit over a picture window that looks out over a nude beach) and gallons and gallons of iced tea. If I Could Add Any Writer to My Staff, It Would Be:Rod Serling. I'd put him on staff just to hang out with him. The Show I'm Embarrassed to Admit I Watch The RFD network. They have all of these shows about tractor pulls. There's one called Classic Tractor Fever, which I rather enjoy. It's basically farmers in Saskatchewan showing off their old tractors from the 1930s or '40s. I find it oddly relaxing.
OLIVER GOLDSTICK & MARLENE KING
Pretty Little Liars ABC FAMILY
Ages: 51, 45 The Show That Inspired Me to Write:: King: The West Wing. I was devastated when it went off the air. I still think they should recast that show and start all over again with a new administration. Goldstick: It was St. Elsewhere. I loved that show. There were shows I liked as a child -- like Mary Tyler Moore, all of Norman Lear's projects -- but I can pinpoint as an adult that St. Elsewhere was smart, moving, complex and funny. My Big Break King: I wrote a spec called Now and Then that got sold and made. Goldstick: I worked on Coach and Caroline in the City. My TV Mentors: King: I'm a fan of Josh Schwartz and Kevin Williamson. If I could even come close to the paths they've carved out for themselves, I'd be thrilled. Goldstick: I learned a lot from Greer Shephard and Michael Robin. They took me out of the half-hour world and gave me the courage and the license to do one-hours. My Proudest Accomplishment This Year: King: Directing in the middle of the season while keeping the show on track was a huge accomplishment. Goldstick: Getting eight hours of sleep after the summer finale aired, uninterrupted. We did 25 one-hour episodes in seven months. We were never not on time, we never shut down, we never had a script that was thrown out. It's a sense of pride that the show stays on track. The Most Absurd Note I Have Ever Gotten: Goldstick: I was working on a project about the Pilgrims and the Mayflower for NBC. At outline stage, I was asked why the Pilgrims were in their 30s. I said, "Well, that was their ages." "They can't be. These people have to look hot when they're wet." The Three Things I Need in Order to Write King: Diet Mountain Dew, a bathtub and my laptop. Goldstick: I have to have quiet, my glasses and a deadline. If We Could Add Any Writer to Our Staff, It Would Be:King: If we could get Stephen King to sit in for a week, we would have so much fun. If we could have him for one of our Halloween episodes, it'd be killer. Goldstick: David Sedaris, just to be entertained every day. The Show I'm Embarrassed to Admit I Watch King: I'm not embarrassed to watch it, but people tell me I should be. I'm excited for the last season of Gossip Girl. Chuck and Blair forever! Goldstick: One of the writers got me hooked on Hoarders. After watching four episodes, we had to clean the house and get rid of so many things.
HART HANSON & STEPHEN NATHAN
Ages: 55, 64 The Show That Inspired Me to Write:: Hanson: I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but I knew I wanted to work in television when I saw a British miniseries called A Very British Coup and the Lonesome Dove miniseries. My Big Break Hanson: I was in Canada, so my earliest credit was on an iconic Canadian series -- and I say that without irony -- called The Beachcombers. Nathan: My first writing job was Laverne & Shirley, which you can see leads perfectly into doing a crime show. The Funniest Note I've Ever Gotten:Hanson: "We don't mind you shooting everything in one-ers, but you've got to get coverage." So we could do everything in one shot, but they wanted them to include close-ups? That's impossible. Nathan: It was for a pilot to an unnamed network about a black family in New York -- a doctor and a lawyer -- but before The Cosby Show. The note was, "How do we know they're black?" That one made me mad. If Wish I Could Delegate: Hanson: If you're doing showrunning right, absolutely everyone is annoyed with you, which I wish I could push onto someone else. Nathan: I need a nap now and then and never get a chance to take one, so I'd have someone do that for me.
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