Bill Hader, David Mandel and Ali Rushfield join Alan Yang (‘Forever’), Tanya Saracho ('Vida') and Jerrod Carmichael ('Ramy') to let loose on secrets of the writers room and the horrors of marketing posters.
It can be impossible to predict the direction of The Hollywood Reporter's annual Comedy Showrunner Roundtable when a group of deeply funny storytellers sits down. In fact, had someone suggested that Vida's Tanya Saracho, 43, would be giving her peers — including Barry's Bill Hader, 40; Ramy's Jerrod Carmichael, 32; and Shrill's Ali Rushfield, 47 — a highly entertaining if deadly serious lesson in taco protocol during this late April conversation, we never would have believed it. The same could be said about the proper way to load a dishwasher (thank you, Forever's Alan Yang, 37) or to slice butter (and you, Veep's David Mandel, 48), and yet those, too, were among the many unexpected topics as this savvy sextet let loose, sharing everything from the secrets of the writers room to the horrors of marketing posters.
There's that adage, "Write what you know." What are the most personal things you've put into these shows and characters?
ALI RUSHFIELD I named the dog in Shrill after my dog.
DAVID MANDEL I did a joke where Selina complains about why The New York Times covers modern dance so much that I am very proud of. Because they really, really do. They cover modern dance more than they cover the Yankees.
JERROD CARMICHAEL Nothing on Ramy because it's not about me, but I had a show [NBC's The Carmichael Show] and talked about my dad's illegitimate kids and stuff.
Were you nervous?
CARMICHAEL Nah, not really. It's your story as much as it's theirs. It's your experience and it was always through my perspective. But I feel like you should just be honest and put it out there — at least that's how my comedy is and who I am as a person.
TANYA SARACHO Did your dad react well?
CARMICHAEL He reacted like a dad. (Laughter.)
Which means what?
CARMICHAEL A dad who has illegitimate kids. The suppressed violence that, you know, manifests itself through Cowboys games. You know, dads. (Laughter.)
ALAN YANG My dad had a similar thing — on the topic of dads — on the last show I did, Master of None. He liked the first season. There was an episode about him, and it was pretty flattering. It was about his struggle as an immigrant in America. In the second season, we did an episode where he's dating two women at the same time as a 65-year-old Asian man in Southern California, which is a pretty rare story in television. [He and I] had lunch and he was like, "So, I watched the second season and I noticed you had an episode where I am dating two women at the same time." He's like, "I don't do that." I was like, "Yeah, it's fictionalized, it's a comedy." But, I don't know … (He cocks an eyebrow.) I don't want to imply he did do it.
RUSHFIELD Shouldn't he be complimented?
YANG He should. He should be super stoked. It should get him more dates. (Laughter.) For the show Forever, we mined a lot of my co-creator Matt Hubbard's life because he's been married for years and I'm a single person — or unmarried anyway. There's an argument between Maya Rudolph's character and Fred Armisen's character where for essentially 20 years she's been loading the dishwasher in a way that …
MANDEL Drives him crazy.
YANG Yeah, it was about the direction you put your forks in. And Matt's like, "That's a real argument that my wife and I had. It got ugly."
MANDEL When I saw that episode I went, "Yup." And then I turned to my wife and we had a discussion about how you cut a stick of butter. I cut a slice of butter. She scrapes the top of the butter like she's some kind of alien.
RUSHFIELD Oh, you're the one that's right. (Laughter.) And you put the fork up so that it gets cleaned better, but you put a knife down in case someone trips and falls on the knife.
YANG Yep. It seems like all of us could be married.
Bill, what about you? What have you mined?
BILL HADER Well, my show is about a murderer, so I don't know … (Laughter.) But you try to be as honest as you can. I don't know how you guys are in the writers room, but sometimes it feels like group therapy where those rooms get so personal. I'll share things in the room that I've never shared with my closest friends.
HADER Because you're trying to get to some truth about something. So, I start talking about, like, "Yeah, I remember in ninth grade just feeling like an utter failure and I'd cry a lot." And just start crying and not know why. My best friend, Duffy Boudreau, writes on the show, and he's been friends with me since we were 13. He's like, "I didn't know any of this stuff." But you try to find that Venn diagram of your main character and you in the room. There's a scene in the pilot where he's sitting there with all these actors and Barry's looking at them, and that's me my first season on Saturday Night Live. That's me being with Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph and Fred and everybody, going, "I so badly want to be accepted by these people, but I don't have the skills. They're speaking a totally different language."
When was the last time you were writing a scene that made you or your collaborators nervous?
SARACHO Well, Starz pitched me the show. They said, "We want a show about gente-fication — not gentrification — of a Latinx space by another upwardly mobile Latinx: East L.A., millennial, female."
CARMICHAEL It sounds like the trending page on Twitter. (Laughter.)
SARACHO Yeah, right? I put the queerness in there to have a bit of me. I was like, "How am I going to get in here?" And with the queerness, we wanted to do it right. So, there was this scene in the first season where a non-binary person and a fem top are having sex. And already, we haven't seen that, right? And I have a mostly queer, all Latinx writers room, and we were like, "We have to get this right." It was workshopped to death. The responsibility felt so hard-core. You'd see writers hanging onto the door frame being like, "See? She could get eaten this way." Sorry, am I allowed to say that? (Laughter.) And then who we cast was so important. But I think we got it right.
RUSHFIELD In the first episode, we had an abortion. And it was obviously purposeful to have it in the first episode, but I don't think anyone was nervous about it. When I wrote the draft, though, I kept making it a comedy scene. And then the people I wrote it with kept taking out the comedy stuff.
Why was it important for you to have it wrapped in comedy?
RUSHFIELD I just thought it would be funny if she was talking about it like it was removing a mole or killing a fly or asking the woman doing the procedure all these nervous questions. And they were like, "You are taking every bit of dignity out of this moment."
YANG Who won the battle?
RUSHFIELD They did. It was really silent. I kept being like, "We could do a take where she says my jokes." And they were just like, "No."
MANDEL I am not going to brag, but our abortion scene was pretty funny. (Laughter.)
Jerrod, a few years ago, you sat on this roundtable for The Carmichael Show and talked about how frustrated you were with networks wanting characters to be "likable." Has working at a streamer freed you from that?
CARMICHAEL What I realized is it's not necessarily just network notes. It's also writers rooms. I love a lot the writers I work with, but I don't like writers rooms at all. They're terrible for comedy. Like, the roundtable punch-ups and shit ruin movies. I've seen it happen dozens of times. And it's because everyone starts telling jokes to each other and it just swells. It should be small and personal.
MANDEL I actually don't mind a writers room for punch-ups and making something funnier when you are trying to make something funnier. The part that resonates is the notion of shows being written completely in a room.
YANG The thing that drives me crazy is when it feels like it's written by a committee, when it feels like it's cobbled together, when it feels like every line was written by a writer. It's like, "No one talks like that!"
MANDEL It's the non-jokes. The joke-like substances that make it in. The ones where you go, "I see how everyone thought that was very amusing at 11:30 p.m. But it's not."
What are the network versions of your shows?
RUSHFIELD No abortion. And we pitched it to a network and they were like, "We would put this abortion on TV." And we were like, "You might say that, but you wouldn't."
MANDEL No, they wouldn't.
CARMICHAEL Truthfully, it's not that a network can't. Because I look at my old show as an experiment. I smoked weed twice on that show. I said "n—a" six times in one episode. My grandmother killed herself on camera by taking pills, and we watched her die. And we did all of that on NBC on Wednesday nights. What happens is writers limit themselves, they inhibit themselves. You (turns to Hader) were talking about those deep conversations that happen in writers rooms; I've seen versions where it happens in the room and then none of it makes its way to the page.
HADER Yeah, people freak out.
CARMICHAEL Everyone censors themselves and freaks out because you have a mortgage and a private school tuition and …
MANDEL Well, it's not just that. I think people get raised in those systems, and that's how you learn to write, by listening and taking every note you have ever heard. It's like being a caged veal.
CARMICHAEL Writers are terrified. You can do anything on any platform you want. You absolutely can. And you can get away with it. We've regressed if you really look at comedy from the '90s. Look at things that In Living Color was doing or Roseanne was doing. Look at the boundaries they genuinely pushed, as opposed to now where we self-applaud when someone attacks Trump again as if, one, it's not an echo chamber and, two, that it matters. We pretend that it's edgy, but everyone just preaches to their respective choir.
MANDEL It feels like [networks] can be a little more adventurous when it comes to drama, but when it comes to comedy, they're looking for right down the middle.
CARMICHAEL And everyone sounds like a virgin. When you watch comedies, it only makes sense if these people are virgins. That's why Big Bang Theory worked. Because Chuck Lorre actually wrote virgins. (Laughter.)
YANG When you were developing The Carmichael Show, did you test it? Were there people turning dials or did you opt out of that?
CARMICHAEL Yeah, they all test terribly. It flunked. (Laughter.) You get a group of people in Vegas in a room and you give them the option to agree and disagree.
YANG My nightmare.
CARMICHAEL And they're not writers. You hire a writer, have some courage, take a chance. That's one benefit of streaming. Because on broadcast, truthfully, they pay you that amount to cut your genitals off. Whatever your genitals are, they cut them off. (Laughter.)
Tanya, what's the network version of Vida?
SARACHO It would have subtitles. And I don't know if the sex would be there, especially the way we do it. And it would be more "Latinx." I feel like mainstream Latinx shows have to be the most Latinx. Also, my show is not, I don't want to say it's not that funny because it's still a comedy. I guess? But it probably would be funnier with more jokes about our identity.
Of the "insert punch line here" variety?
SARACHO Yeah, insert punch line about identity. The show is very much steeped in identity, because right now that's what we've been allowed: identity-themed stuff. I can't wait to get past that, but we don't have enough Latinx-themed shows on TV for that yet.
YANG I feel like for our show it's not even an issue of subject matter, it's an issue of pacing. Our show is crazy, where every one of the first three episodes is basically a different kind of show because it changes premises three times in the first three episodes. That's one of the things I love about it, and Amazon gave us a chance to do something super unpredictable in a world where a lot of times [networks] want the audience to know what the show is in the first five minutes or even the first minute. It's like, "Someone comes up and it's, you know, 'Your father died, now we've got to move in together and get along.' "
HADER That sounds great.
MANDEL Who are you thinking for the father?
YANG Beau Bridges?
MANDEL I can see that. (Laughter.)
When was the last time you guys were completely wrong about the response to something in your show — a scene, a character?
SARACHO So, we made a character have a taco — just eat a taco. And she ate it like a white girl on purpose.
Wait, what does that mean?
SARACHO Like a sandwich. Not like you eat a taco when you go to the taco (tilts her head to the side). And oh my God, Twitter! (Laughter.) It became this whole thing that we couldn't shake. It was all like, "They don't even know how to eat tacos in this show? It's not a legit Latinx show." But it was a choice because this girl just got back and she got bougie in Chicago. And now we have to deal with it in season two, why she eats tacos like that.
RUSHFIELD Now, I feel like I am never going to eat a taco in public.
SARACHO Yeah, you do this. (She tilts her head to the side again.)
RUSHFIELD You come to it?
SARACHO You come to it. It's not a sandwich. It will fall out.
RUSHFIELD Even a soft shell one?
SARACHO Well, yeah, I've never had a hard shell. That's more …
MANDEL I'll say it: That's a very white girl thing to do. (Laughter.)
What about the rest of you?
MANDEL We have a funny thing on our show where the characters are so horrible — just despicable. But the actors are quite likable, so that line gets very blurred for the audience. Like, Selina is horrible, but Julia Louis-Dreyfus is Elaine [from Seinfeld], and so when she does the things that she's supposed to do, there's that initial, "Oh my God, no! Why?"
RUSHFIELD They don't want Elaine to do that.
MANDEL Right. Or they say, "Selina would make a great president." And it's like, "You've been watching for seven years. She wouldn't. But I understand you'd like Julia to be president, and that's cool."
HADER I had someone come up to me at a restaurant and say, “I can’t believe you made Henry Winkler a terrible person.” I thought it was a bit at first and then I had that awful sinking feeling of, like, “Oh, they are being serious.” Like, “Oh my gosh, you’re really mad at me.”
Bill, one of the things I found fascinating vis a vis Barry is that here your character is a murderer and yet the audience in many ways is rooting for him. Meanwhile, the response has been very different for Sally.
HADER It's funny, we had a screening of the first four episodes and someone said, "I find her very unlikable." And someone shouted, "Barry kills people!" (Laughter.)
A similar dynamic occurred on Breaking Bad, where Walter White was a hero to many viewers while his wife, Skyler, was vilified.
HADER People were like, "I can't stand Skyler." And you're like, "She's home alone with a special needs kid and a baby, and she's the bad guy?" I can't explain it, but I've seen it. And then I've also had people — and Alec [Berg, his co-creator] loves this — where it's a female reporter who will say, "I've never found you attractive. But you shooting people was very attractive." And Alec will always go, "I want to back up. You've never found him attractive?" (Laughter.)
How do you even respond to that?
HADER I don't know how to respond to that. I find it very strange.
RUSHFIELD That's a very weird thing to say.
HADER And it's happened three times.
CARMICHAEL I was just going to say it's dangerous listening to Twitter and writing. Everyone does but you shouldn't, because you can't make interesting representative characters. The reason a character is interesting is because they are fucked up and we're painting flaws and interesting stories and, like, good luck to anyone who wants to bear the cross of keeping Twitter happy.
MANDEL Twitter is 24-hour-a-day audience testing.
CARMICHAEL And when we talk about "people talking," we're talking specifically about Twitter. We make it seem like it's in the air but no, it's on Twitter. Everyone is terrified of trending negatively. Everyone is afraid of their "at" symbol. And everyone has notes. One time I sent my mom a pilot and I was like, "Tell me what you think." And she said, "Well, first, I thought the lighting …" And I was like, "I'm going to stop you right there. You don't make television. What are you doing? How did it make you feel? That's important. Did it give you the intended experience?"
MANDEL No, because of the lighting! You couldn't see anything. (Laughter.)
We've talked here about representation. When you see people in this business get it wrong, what does it typically look like?
CARMICHAEL I feel like misrepresentation is any time you do representation for the sake of representation. If you just start putting The United Colors of Benetton in your show, it doesn't reflect real life a lot of times. Like, we have this tendency to paint this utopia that just doesn't exist. In Los Angeles, if you drive by any high school being let out, you usually see the Asian kids with Asian kids, the Latino kids with Latino kids and the black kids with the black kids — everyone sticks in groups. And while I'd like there to be a meshing of all these cultures, that doesn't necessarily happen. It's not true to a lot of people's experiences. So, when I see it on TV, it just feels forced and contrived.
SARACHO Yeah, cosmetic.
CARMICHAEL Right. I did my show with an all-black family, and there were all black people in the pilot. I am doing a show with Nate Bargatze, and it will be a surprise to ABC, but there should be all white people in the show. It's in Tennessee and it makes sense to the show. Roseanne added in the black kid [when it was revived]. I'm like, "What are you doing?! Don't fall into that. Make another show about a black family. That's not the truth of her existence." Anytime people lie for the sake of the trend, it bothers me.
MANDEL We did a fake political commercial for Selina where you see her in an office working and we United States of Benetton-ed it up on purpose — because it's so wrong.
YANG People are looking for it, too. I did an interview once and they were like, "On Master of None, you talked about race a lot, and then in Forever, why didn't you talk about race more?" Does every show I do have to be about race? That’s insane. And by the way, the show stars Maya, who is biracial, and Fred, who is a million different races …
MANDEL The fact that they are just playing those parts …
YANG They are playing people.
MANDEL And no one is talking about [their race], yes.
YANG And there's an episode, episode six, which is about a black man and an Asian woman falling in love over the course of 30 years and they do talk about race. I was like, “Is that not enough? The whole show has to be about race?” It really opened my eyes to the expectations of, “Wow, you really think everything you ever work on has to be about that?" It really doesn’t. And I am happy to make more stuff. I’m making a movie that has an all Asian cast. But not everything I do is going to be that.
Tanya, do you feel a pressure or responsibility?
SARACHO I do. Like, hiring below-the-line brown fems is important. My cinematographer is a Latina, and this is the first time she's gotten a shot. All my directors last season were Latina females. It feels like, "OK, I got the door open and I don't know how long I'm going to have it open, so for now just go through it." And my people put that pressure [on me], too. They're like, "Come on. You're in, get me in."
Ali, when you were pitching Shrill, you made it clear that you didn't want it to be a show about a woman who gets on the scale and sighs. Why?
RUSHFIELD Yeah, because then it would become someone who wishes they were different than they were instead of realizing that they just want to be who they are. Anytime you are talking about having her on the scale or talking about losing weight, you are saying she is not happy with who she is.
SARACHO I have to say, as a fat girl — and a former fat actress — I [love that]. I was on Hung and my name was "Fat Woman Number One." All my characters were, like, "Big Lady." And I left [acting] because I was OK with who I was but the industry wasn't. I couldn't just play the lawyer. So, when I saw the pool party scene [on Shrill], I had to watch it twice. That imagery is so powerful.
RUSHFIELD Thank you. We went in thinking this is the episode people would talk about. Just seeing in bathing suits all these different size bodies that you don't usually see and also seeing [Aidy Bryant's character] have this whole awakening there. When we filmed it, people in the crew were very emotional.
Jerrod, with Ramy, you're working with someone who's telling his story through a personal comedy, much like The Carmichael Show. What kind of guidance and advice have you provided?
CARMICHAEL My role as a producer is to run block. That and be a dick on marketing calls. I get really upset. Marketing is very difficult for comedy. It's a difficult task to make your characters not look like fucking idiots.
What does that look like in Ramy's case?
CARMICHAEL A fight is what it looks like. A fight to the end. (Laughter.)
HADER Yeah, people don't realize the amount of calls and fights you have to get a poster for a comedy that's not like (his eyes bulge).
CARMICHAEL It's this unfair battle. When you are creating a show, you control what you write, what you direct, you control that. In marketing, it's a lot of the illusion of collaboration with 40 posters that they have ready to put up in Cincinnati of this key art you disagree with. So I am there for that. And to make sure he stays true to himself and doesn't hide any of that truth. Like, I remind him that his parents' judgment on the show shouldn't affect his writing. And a lot of times, we have a tendency to protect stories, and in that protection we lose a lot of the interesting elements.
RUSHFIELD Protective in what sense?
CARMICHAEL You know, "Oh, my mom did this to me, but that makes her look a little too rough, so we'll make it she hit me with a pillow instead of an ashtray." And it's like, “Well, now it’s not the moment. Because there was danger in that original moment. And danger in people being upset.”
HADER This season on Barry is kind of about that [in that] they have to do a truth exercise and being an artist is about being honest and truthful.
HADER And all the characters this season are trying to fight their nature and just be honest and truthful, but what some of the characters are realizing is that that’s not what this town wants. ‘Cause that doesn’t make a lot of money. You know what I mean? It makes people feel bad.
HADER The thing we keep seeing is people go, “That was a bummer.” That’s what everyone says when they see the honest thing. And and it’s funny because Stephen Root’s character, Fuches, is the one telling me, “People don’t want that. People just want that speech from Braveheart. Think that guy actually gave that speech in Braveheart? No. He just fucking died. But when you see it, it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever seen. So, don’t worry about being honest because being honest just makes you vulnerable and scared.” So, it’s funny, you [to Carmichael] saying that, it’s the very thing we were talking about in our writers’ room all season. Like, okay, “The pillowcase versus the ashtray?” And going, “Let’s do the ashtray.” And then the world going, “That’s a bummer.” And you have to be like, “Fuck off. That’s what happens.”
MANDEL One hundred percent, but I don’t even think it has to be about the bummer thing. Back in the Seinfeld days, the way we'd hire writers was just lists of ideas. Because we assumed you could write. And they'd give us a list of ideas and it was incredible; you'd look through it and you'd go, "No, no, no. These are all terrible." There was one idea that was pitched over and over, which was George dates a transvestite but doesn't know. That was every writer's terrible George idea. So you'd read through these lists and then you'd get to one about an argument in a stereo store and you'd go, "That happened, didn't it?" Because it was the only good idea. And they'd be like, "Yeah."
YANG Because it feels real.
MANDEL So mine your life. Just mine your life.
Let’s end on a lighter note. What’s your most bizarre writing ritual?
RUSHFIELD Oh, I don’t do something until I’m so scared that I do it.
MANDEL And I’ve learned no lessons in life. I was a college student who wrote my papers the night before, and, you know, 30 years later that’s [still how I do it.]
HADER I don’t know how you guys do that. I’d blow my brains out.
MANDEL I calculate it. It’s like, I have three scenes to write and I think to myself, “Well, if everything is working, I can write those in three hours. And if they are due at 10 a.m., then I will sit down and start writing at 7 a.m.”
HADER SNL people would do that. Seth Meyers wouldn’t start writing until 4 a.m.
RUSHFIELD Aidy does everything right away.
HADER Yeah, I'm that way.
RUSHFIELD I always thought it was the SNL thing.
HADER Oh no, I’d walk out at 11 p.m. on SNL and people were like, “Where are you going?” I’d be like, “I finished writing, I'm going home.” And people hadn’t even shown up yet. (Laughter.)
SARACHO The day before I start a room, I always bring my bruja to clean it and tell me what spirits are in there. And then we are going to be okay.
YANG There you go…
SARACHO Yeah, I do witchy things. (Laughter.)
MANDEL You win.
YANG Yeah, that’s a great answer to the question.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.