Six top TV bosses — also including Kenya Barris, Gloria Calderon Kellett, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Scott Silveri — open up about the horrors of network casting, the pressure to get political and the pitfalls of borrowing from one's own life.
Every writer in Hollywood has a worst pitch story to regale you with — gladly — and the six producers that The Hollywood Reporter gathered for its annual Comedy Showrunner Roundtable discussion on May 5 are no exception. Take Black-ish's Kenya Barris, who recounts to the group how an executive at BET once took a phone call in the middle of one of his pitches. Or Judd Apatow, who shares his memory of going out with Crashing, only to have creator-star Pete Holmes nearly blow it. "He didn't make any jokes the whole pitch," recalls Apatow. "He talked about it philosophically, and he intellectualized the idea of this religious man who wanted to be a comedian, and he went on and on and on. We walked out, and I'm like, 'Pete, that was the worst pitch ever.' " The swapping of stories, each more colorful than the next, could continue for the entire hour, but Apatow, 49, and Barris, 42 — along with One Day at a Time co-showrunner Gloria Calderon Kellett, 42; Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, 31; Veep's David Mandel, 46; and Speechless' Scott Silveri, 44 — have plenty to say on other subjects, too, including the horrors of network casting, the pressure to get political and the pitfalls of borrowing from one's own life.
Many of you have multiple projects right now. How much industry pressure is there to build an empire?
KENYA BARRIS (Black-ish, ABC) As a writer, there's always that feeling of fraud — that you're going to be found out, so get it out before you are. I wanted to be the black Judd Apatow because I wanted to be able to jump around, but this year [I found out that] it was unbelievably hard to multitask in that way. Because as a writer, you get passionate and you know that your best work comes from something that you're really focused on, and whether you like it or not, when you start taking on more things, it becomes a bit of a filtered-down process.
JUDD APATOW (Crashing and Girls, HBO; Love, Netflix) Only if you're better than your writers, but everyone that I work with is better than me. So when I'm not around, things improve. (Laughs.)
Do the rest of you have the confidence to say no to projects?
BARRIS I have the confidence and a little bit more money. (Laughs.)
APATOW I never think things will go, that's my problem. Paul Rust and I were working on the Pee-wee Herman movie for Netflix, and I would kick around this TV show [Love] with him and his wife, Lesley Arfin. But I thought, "This is a great idea, no one is ever going to do this!" (Laughter.) And then when we got a two-season order from Netflix, I was like, "Wait a second — why? I've got another show; this seems complicated."
Phoebe, you have a full plate right now, both with projects you're writing and those you're acting in. How do you assess what makes sense for you to take on?
PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE (Fleabag, Amazon) Most of the time it is just a "yes" situation and especially when my show Crashing first came out [her 2016 U.K. comedy that shares a title with Apatow's]. (Laughter.) So Crashing first came out, and then I was writing Crashing when Fleabag got commissioned and that was very exciting, but I knew I was going to have two shows in one year, and I was going to be in both of them at the same time.
BARRIS Oh, my God.
WALLER-BRIDGE And that problem of feeling like I was writing Crashing but going, "Who should have that joke?" That kind of thing is really painful because then I was like, "Am I giving it to that show 'cause I love that show more?" So that was kind of a nightmare problem to have. (Laughs.) But there was a period of time when I was just saying, "Yes, yes, yes," when you didn't know what was going to go and so you had to say yes to everything, and then everyone wants your time all the time and you just end up hating everyone, but really it's because you hate yourself. (Laughter.)
A few of you have written shows that are based on your own lives. Where do you draw the line?
SCOTT SILVERI (Speechless, ABC) They tell you to write what you know — they don't say it will kill you when you try to do it. The first draft of the script for Speechless was very close to my actual experience growing up [Silveri's brother has cerebral palsy], and it was just suffocating. It's hard enough to make one of these things entertaining, but when you're walking that line between therapy and comedy writing … and there's also the added burden of, "What in this script is going to piss off my uncle at Thanksgiving?" (Laughter.) So being able to take a little bit of license just takes a lot of pressure off.
WALLER-BRIDGE People approach me thinking that I've been through all of [my character's experiences on Fleabag]. They're always really disappointed that I'm married. Like, "What? We thought you were f—ing everyone!" That humor and a lot of the anecdotal stuff I amplified from my own life, and then I weaved a dramatic story out of it.
Judd, you've said, "For a long time, TV was just the land of the handsome, beautiful people, and now it's the opposite." Is that true everywhere on the television dial?
ALL No. (Laughter.)
APATOW It seemed really weird when we did Freaks and Geeks [in 1999] that we said, "Let's do a high school show with these kids." NBC went for it but ultimately didn't seem that happy about it. It was the era of Dawson's Creek and a lot of fantasy-fulfillment TV. Now there are a ton of shows that are about the freaks and geeks of every age. When we did it, people looked at us like we were nuts.
DAVID MANDEL (Veep, HBO) We [Silveri and Mandel] had a pilot on one of the mainstream networks about two years ago, and there was definitely pressure when we were casting a mom. I can simply tell you there were the funny people we wanted and then the people who I can only assume they thought had a nice rack.
SILVERI Well, they did, objectively. (Laughter.)
WALLER-BRIDGE There's never a funny rack, is there?
Phoebe, you recently told a reporter, "Since you [write] those things about women, therefore you are a role model and an icon and you can't f— up now because you have to be sensitive to something political. And everything a comedian wants to be is funny." Can you expand on that?
WALLER-BRIDGE I said that after a few glasses of wine. (Laughs.) A lot of the time when I was being asked about [Fleabag], it was through the prism of feminism, which was one very important part of that show for me, but there were so many other themes I was grappling with and so many ways I was trying to f— with the genre. I started feeling like I was suddenly being moved into a different [category]: It wasn't so much that I was a writer, it was that I was a feminist writer. Which I am, of course, and I'm proud of the fact that that's how my work is being received, but I do think, especially with female writers who write honestly about women and their experiences, it's, "Oh, that's a feminist show."
Hollywood tends to put creators in boxes. What are the types of projects that you're consistently approached for?
BARRIS I did Girlfriends, and then all the offers would come up and I was like, "I just have to get off a black show." I shouldn't have to think that way, but I remember The Game had literally broken every cable record on TV when it debuted, and I walked into a staffing meeting [at another network], and they were like, "What show is that?" and I'm like, "F— you!" Then one of my best friends, a white guy, was like, "Yeah, but those are all black people watching." And I was like, "F— you! You like me and you're saying this?" (Laughs.)
GLORIA CALDERON KELLETT (ONE DAY AT A TIME, NETFLIX) My first writing job was on the short-lived Quintuplets, and after that, I got offered a huuuge bump to go on the George Lopez show. Or I could repeat and be a staff writer again on How I Met Your Mother. Granted, I was just newly married and had a lot of fun stories about being in my 30s, so there was a gut thing that told me How I Met Your Mother was the right fit. But there was also a huge part of me that was like, if I go down the George Lopez path, I'm going to be "Latina writer" forever. So I went to How I Met Your Mother and had a glorious time.
MANDEL I've never been shocked by Hollywood's inability to think beyond where you are or who you are. And believe me, I'm not likening this to being considered the Latina writer or the black writer. I'm just saying I can remember steps in my career where it was like, "Well, you can write a five-minute sketch, but how in the world will you write a sitcom?" Or, "Oh, my God, you wrote a sitcom — how in the world will you deal with the three-act structure of a movie?" They just like to put you in a box. The good news is they're also very cheap, so when I did want to write a drama and I said, "Just pay me the minimum," and they went, "We believe in you!"
How are Trump-era politics being infused into your shows?
CALDERON KELLETT We're doing a Norman Lear show, and it's about a Hispanic family living in Los Angeles; we have to talk about it. And I'm the only [Latina showrunner] in TV right now. No Latino shows got picked up. None. I don't want to be the only Latino show on TV; I would love to just be known as a good family comedy. But I can't not have that on me because there's obviously such a misperception about who Latinos are in America, and constantly I feel a [responsibility].
MANDEL It's a very specific process, which was that we used to sit around and think to ourselves, "What is the stupidest, worst thing the president of the United States could do? And what is the worst thing the staffer could do? What would be the dumbest, silliest thing a press secretary could do?" And then they sort of stole from us. (Laughter.)
SILVERI [Trump] should get "story by" credit.
At least a few of you are vocal about your personal politics on social media. Do you have concerns about alienating a portion of your audience that way?
APATOW I don't really think about it. I don't think like, "Well, that guy hates me, but I'd like to tickle his funny bone a little bit." (Laughter.) Because you'll say something on Twitter and then people are like, "Go jump in an oven, Jew!" And it's always something that sounds very sane and then it becomes that. It's always like, "You need to give him a chance; he was elected in a lawful way. Jump in the oven, Jew."
MANDEL We do this thing where they wanted us to ask the fans questions about Veep. So, it was a mix of some very real questions about plot stuff and then we just mixed in a couple others like, "In the age of Trump, does it bother you that you're enjoying a show written by a mostly Jewish writing staff?" (Laughter.) But I very much try and separate [me and the show], which is to say that David Mandel voted for Hillary Clinton, donated money to her campaign, is outraged on an hourly basis by what is going on — but the show Veep isn't. The show prides itself on being equal opportunity, attacking both sides and the hypocrisy of power, which right now might be a little more hypocritical than perhaps other times.
There is a tendency to want to prolong success by crafting spinoffs. When does it make sense?
SILVERI I was told there would be no Joey questions. (Laughter.) The story has to dictate it, not the market. For those of you who have forgiven me or even forgotten, I co-created the Joey spinoff of Friends, and my initial reaction when approached to do it was, "Oh, God, no." And then after a couple of days, I thought, "Well, [Matt] LeBlanc is a special guy, and I get to continue working with him, and it scares the hell out of me." Sometimes the things that scare you most are the exact things that you're supposed to do or the thing you're definitely not supposed to do, and it's very hard in the moment to choose which one. We went in with open hearts and open minds and tried damn hard. And the funny thing is, the only problem with that show is that it had to succeed. We had a lot of talented people involved, too. We had so many of the [Joey] writers who went on to 30 Rock. So basically Joey minus me is 30 Rock. (Laughter.)
MANDEL It's always funny what the network or the studio thinks is the spinoff, which isn't. The perfect example, back in the Seinfeld days, was the Michael Richards Show. It was basically the Kramer spinoff, which, of course, was not a good idea. If I remember correctly, the show that Larry [David] was vaguely interested in, that the network had no interest in, of course, was a Jackie Chiles spinoff — the lawyer character that was based on Johnnie Cochran.
BARRIS Our idea [for a Black-ish spinoff, College-ish] was completely copying the notion of A Different World for me. That show made me want to go to college. We're at this place right now where college is not as big a deal to kids as it was for us because there's this big notion of overnight success. So the idea of rebooting the notion of college for kids was a big thing for me. We'll see what happens.
APATOW Maybe you can call my daughter? Every week she's like, "Dad, I think I got enough out of it. I think I'm about done." (Laughter.)
A reboot comes with a similar set of pressures. Gloria, was there any hesitation on your part?
CALDERON KELLETT Oh, I told Norman not to do it. I really did. And honestly, full disclosure, I just wanted to have lunch with Norman Lear. And he is just so disarming and lovely and curious that all of a sudden you're spilling secrets out to him. I was drunk on the Norman of it all.
One of the big storylines on your show is about a 15-year-old Latina girl coming out, which is not something we have seen on TV before. What did you hope the intended impact would be, and did you have any concerns about the audience response?
CALDERON KELLETT I was really surprised that there hadn't been. And we have two lesbian writers in the writers room, and they were speaking so much about their lack of representation and the fact that there's a gay episode and then everyone sort of moves on. And my co-creator, Mike Royce, [his] daughter was coming out, and he would come to work and he was the guy that wanted to do it right and be the perfect dad for the coming out, and I was so moved by that. I was like, "We need to put all of this in there." Unfortunately, there's still a lot of Latinos who are really steeped in old-school thoughts about all of this and so it's unfortunately still sort of a hot-button issue with a lot of our community. But we got to explore all of it and we used a lot of our lesbian writers and we really leaned on them to tell us about the experience.
Judd, your TV credits currently include Love, Girls and Crashing, which are all shows that are basically about messy people trying to figure their shit out. What draws you to that type of story?
APATOW I don't think there is any story but that. I can't imagine what else it would be. I never think that anybody has their shit together — or maybe that's why people like superhero movies — but I just think everyone's a disaster and it's nice to see people try to figure it out and try to find love or happiness or peace. But I think I lean sad. (Laughter.) I like seeing people miserable; I root for miserable people. If someone's a handsome, happy guy with a lot of money and a happy family, I don't know where that goes. But I probably make that mistake more than most other mistakes with things that are a little darker, which is that I don't notice they are so dark. I remember when we watched The Cable Guy with an audience for the first time, we all went, "Oh, we didn't think this was this dark and scary!" (Laughter.) We were laughing the whole time that we were doing it.
We're going to take a lighter turn here. What's your most embarrassing story of a pitch or audition?
WALLER-BRIDGE I auditioned for Downton Abbey.
MANDEL May we ask which part?
WALLER-BRIDGE No! Subtlety, subtlety. (Laughs.) But I went in, and I remember it was quite a serious part and I had really been auditioning for comedy for a couple of years and I was really thrilled to come in for this part, so I put my heart and soul into it. I went in thinking, "I'm going to give my best, sincere, heartbreaking performance." It was a really beautiful scene in a church; there's a little clue. And I went in and I gave this really heartfelt audition, and when I finished, they were like, "We had no idea she was so f—ing hilarious!" (Laughter.) I had really given myself, and they're like, "Oh, yeah, you're not right."
CALDERON KELLETT I have the craziest thing I've done in a writers room.
We'll take that.
CALDERON KELLETT I overheard somebody saying that when I would leave the room to [pump breast milk] that I was taking a 30-minute break. So, I was like, "Fine, I'll do it in the room." And I pumped in the room.
CALDERON KELLETT Every day. And it was my big zomp, zomp, zomp, while I was pitching jokes. Yeah.
WALLER-BRIDGE And did it take 30 minutes on the dot every time?
CALDERON KELLETT Thirty minutes on the dot, yeah. And full, delicious milk, by the way.
WALLER-BRIDGE You're doling it out to everyone.
APATOW Did it change the types of jokes that were pitched?
CALDERON KELLETT I think they came from more of a tit place. (Laughter.)
Looking back at your childhood, what TV family did you most identify with when you were young?
SILVERI Oh, I was with the Keatons. I was Family Ties all the way. I was just a hyper, little, driven weirdo, who understood that sort of dynamic with Mom and Dad and thinking you know better. And often being proven wrong at the kitchen counter at the end of my half-hours with my parents, too. Yeah, that was us.
WALLER-BRIDGE I mean, the first one that came into my head was Absolutely Fabulous. (Laughter.)
CALDERON KELLETT Cosby.
BARRIS I wish the Cosbys felt like [my family]. I was Good Times. I wanted to be a Cosby. (Laughs.)
APATOW But who on Good Times?
BARRIS I was probably Michael.
APATOW I was Booker. I still feel like a Booker. For me, I would've done that show as The Booker Show. (Laughter.) I was obsessed with Taxi and not just because the lead's name was Judd. I loved that group of people and that family.
MANDEL It's not really a family, but I was going to go early M.A.S.H., like Wayne Rogers, Trapper John, early M.A.S.H.
And if you weren't working in Hollywood, what would you be doing?
MANDEL NFL quarterback.
CALDERON KELLETT Teacher.
APATOW I've been making documentaries lately, and it has been as creatively gratifying as anything I've ever done. I'm doing a documentary about Garry Shandling for HBO.
BARRIS Oh wow.
APATOW I haven't enjoyed anything as much. And you get a lot of the same fulfillment from solving problems when you do documentaries.
SILVERI A front-of-house restaurant guy. Just like schmoozing, kind of drunk …
WALLER-BRIDGE Looking for work.
This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.