Top TV bosses, including Rob McElhenney, Tony McNamara and Liz Feldman, go deep on misogyny, sex scenes and navigating the moment: "I don't want to f*** it up."
Six of comedy's most in-demand showrunners were asked if they read their own reviews, and only half copped to doing so.
"I wish I hadn't been one of the people who raised my hand," Dead to Me creator Liz Feldman acknowledged to the group gathered virtually on a mid-June afternoon for The Hollywood Reporter's Comedy Showrunner Roundtable, including #BlackAF's Kenya Barris, The Great's Tony McNamara, Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet's Rob McElhenney, Space Force's Greg Daniels and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's Amy Sherman-Palladino. But Barris and McElhenney were right there with her.
In fact, Barris is so irked by how personal the criticism of even his most celebrated shows can be, he jokes that he wants to start reviewing reviewers. "There's some shit where it's like, 'Dude, did I fuck your girl? Like, did something happen that I don't know about?' " But few things seem to have hit Barris harder than a recent roundtable discussion on IndieWire.com, in which four Black critics who'd already negatively reviewed #BlackAF convened to effectively rub salt in the wound. "It's like, 'We decided to all get together because we didn't like this show and then talk about it again,' " he recounts with exasperation. "And I was like, 'I will destroy them' … but I have to take the higher [road]."
Sherman-Palladino is firmly in the other camp. "It might have been Woody Allen — I know you're not supposed to mention his name — but he said something about if you believe them when they say you're great, you have to believe them when they say you're terrible," she says. "And I choose to not want to give them that power to make me feel bad about something that I have lost my youth and my ass and my health to."
Criticism was just one of many subjects that was explored with a healthy mix of passion and profanity over the course of 90 minutes.
As a storyteller in 2020, what do you see as your biggest challenge?
AMY SHERMAN-PALLADINO I'm lucky because my show's in 1960. So, take it away, the rest of you. (Laughter.) The idea of having to deal with what's going on in the world, that's a tall order — that's tricky. I mean, I'm dealing with Kennedy running for president.
TONY MCNAMARA And I'm in 1780, I'm out entirely. (Laughs.)
ROB MCELHENNEY One of the things that we're struggling with is we're scheduled to go back into production in August, at least that's the plan, and we're scrambling because we were in the middle of production [when the pandemic hit]. We basically had to throw all those scripts out for season two [and] adjust for the world being completely different as we return. It's a lot of trying to predict the future. It's an office comedy, so what does an office even look like?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO It's lots of swabs up people's noses. (Laughs.)
GREG DANIELS At least for me, everything that came out now was shot and written last year, before a lot of the things that have shaken our world here, so you hope the bones of the message were good enough to still apply. But these streaming programs are not very nimble — they're all shot and edited and then dumped a year or two later. It's hard to be like Saturday Night Live.
LIZ FELDMAN My challenge is to be emotionally relevant, and it's going to be [hard] in a time when things are so intense.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO But one thing comedy has going for it that straight dramas do not is that people are going to be so desperate to be entertained and to laugh and to have some sort of release. Like, if I'm running any sort of cop show right now, I'm like, "And … scene," you know? (Laughter.)
What about you, Kenya?
KENYA BARRIS It's interesting, on Grown-ish, for instance, that's a show that's supposed to be prescient and say something about what college life is like, and there are amazing obstacles in telling a college story about relationships and hookups right now. The season that we're writing won't air until next year, and it's like, "How will college parties be? What will social distancing look like?" And with #BlackAF on Netflix, to Greg's point, I'm going to bank a stack of shows that are talking about what's going on today, but we don't know when they're going to air, and so are those shows going to seem tone-deaf? So I love that comedy gives you a bit of sugar to take down the medicine, but it's hard when you don't know exactly what illness you're treating.
BARRIS Like Amy, I want to be funny, and I love being at Netflix, but [ABC] played an old episode of Black-ish [in the wake of George Floyd's killing]. The episode, "Hope," was about a family sitting down, proscenium-style, [talking about] police brutality. And we did an episode when Trump got elected, and we were able to rush it from script to air in 16 days. And I miss that — the notion of being able to be in people's living rooms every week to speak to them.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO The immediacy. I get that.
DANIELS I agree. It's a bit like giving a wedding toast. There's different ways you can give a wedding toast: Some of them are just sort of warm and about the personalities, but if you want to get close to the edge and tease the person that you're toasting, you've really got to read the room while you're doing it because those things can blow up in your face so bad, you know? (Laughter.)
Kenya, when you made that police brutality episode back in 2016, you said you didn't want to use the phrase or the hashtag Black Lives Matter because you didn't want to politicize the show. If you had to do it again, would you still make the same choice?
BARRIS I mean, obviously not. (Laughs.) My mom used to have this phrase, "Know how to exit a conversation differently than you enter it," and so I'm exiting the conversation differently than I entered it. I was a supporter, but I was like, "Are we going to ostracize [viewers]?" I understand now — and it took Darth Vader becoming president for me to see how important it was to actually be loud, because you're taught, especially when you come from a niche group, to keep [quiet].
I remember the [Barack]Obama-Mitt Romney debate when Romney had his swag and Obama could have lit him up. Like, I know he could have fucking lit him up, and I knew what was going on is that he was the Black guy and he had to make sure that in order to do what was important, which was win, you have to play the role and make sure you kept it quiet. It's something you learn, especially growing up as a Black man: how to play your role and get in and then make the changes.
But the disruption that we're seeing now is really important. It's so interesting to me to see so many white allies with signs that say Black Lives Matter and [saying], like, "We get it, saying Black Lives Matter is not saying we don't matter, it's actually saying we all matter." So it's a different time, and there's something beautiful about that — and it's like the plot of every supervillain movie, it's like, "We need to rise from the ashes." And I'm like, "Can you get a new plot?" But what's happened is that we hit such a nadir in this country that we all were like, "Fuck that, we need to start again."
Has this period made the rest of you rethink the stories you want to tell or how you want to tell them?
MCELHENNEY For me, I remember Danny DeVito came on in the second season of [It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia], which was 13 years ago, and he's a comedic icon and a hero of mine, and [he asked me] at one point on set, "How do you want me to say it?" And I said, "Well, just say it whatever way you think is funniest." And he said, "No, I want you to tell me what's funny." And I remember going, "You want me to tell you what's funny?" He's like, "Yeah, you're the young person, and the reason I signed on to this show was because I want to stay fresh and relevant, and if I don't, then I'm just going to become a dinosaur." That was a real learning experience for me. And as I continued to make that show and then others, I've surrounded myself with young people.
In my writers room right now on Sunny, I have people who were not allowed to watch the show when it first aired. That's the truth! I will go out and find 20-, 21-, 22-year-old people with all different backgrounds, and it's not from some altruistic or pandering point of view, it's that it's going to make the show better, and I don't want to be a dinosaur. I want them to help guide me and show me what's not only funny but what's relevant, what's changing, how is it changing, and how can we continue to be on the cutting edge because I'm now the Danny DeVito saying, "What's funny, kids? Because we've got an empty whiteboard, and I don't want to fuck it up."
Kenya, during the development of #BlackAF, you debated with Netflix over whether you'd star. Why did you ultimately decide you had to?
BARRIS We had a great actor who I love and who was sought-after, but I had a conversation with Larry David that was really informative. And then Rashida [Jones], my partner on this, was like, "Isn't there already a show about your life [Black-ish] with an actor on TV?" And as anybody who's done stuff on Netflix knows, you have to be loud and noisy. They're going to do fucking 400 series this year. Series, not episodes. And I'm a populist, I wanted people to watch my show, so I was like, "How do I do something that's going to be loud?" And at the same time, I knew I wanted to say some shit I wouldn't necessarily be comfortable asking an actor to say — because some of those things were such personal feelings, and I knew they'd cause a lot of disruption. So I suck as an actor, but I'm really happy I did it.
For the rest of you, what would your #BlackAF or Curb Your Enthusiasm look like?
MCELHENNEY It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Mythic Quest ARE my Curb Your Enthusiasms.
BARRIS Did you live Sunny? Was that really your life?
MCELHENNEY Insofar as at one point, I was a degenerate scumbag and worked in a bar. I wouldn't call myself the level of sociopath that those characters are, though. (Laughs.) But I don't understand why any of you guys like to write. Writing is the worst, and this is coming from a pretty hack-y actor. Writing is the hardest part by far. You're sitting in a room trying to create something from nothing and looking up at that empty whiteboard.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO I don't know why anyone would want to sit in a writers room. There's a smell to them — food, coffee, desperation and gas, and it's just terrible.
MCELHENNEY I know, but that description is making me want to go back. I'm like, "That's exciting."
FELDMAN I know. I really miss it.
Liz, you have a comic background. Does a #BlackAF hold any appeal?
FELDMAN If most comedians turned writers are being honest, that would be a dream. It's just that after working with actresses like Christina [Applegate] and Linda [Cardellini], I realize it's incredibly hard to be good at that.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO There's not enough money in the world to get me to do a show about me. First of all, I am not that interesting. My weekends are — or they used to be before the world started to end — get up, go to breakfast, see two movies, go home, watch television. I did not go to college, I can't spell, my punctuation is horrible. I can't have lovely discussions about Shakespeare and philosophy and Kierkegaard and what the fuck. The only good thing about acting to me is, when it's cold, and you yell "Cut," someone comes and puts a coat over you. And I'm constantly saying to [star] Rachel Brosnahan, "You're so beautiful, you're so tiny." And just to have people tell me I'm wonderful and I look beautiful and, "Are you cold? Can I get you a coat?" But that's it, that's the only good part.
MCELHENNEY Oh, it's so much better than that. (Laughter.) Actors are treated … I mean, I have people like [assistant directors] helping me walk over a curb. Like, they'll point out, "Hey, don't trip on the curb." And I'm [thinking], "I've been walking on streets my entire life, I know when a curb becomes a sidewalk and I'll step over it." But it's that level of coddling that happens all day long.
Tony, when it comes to Catherine the Great, the first thing many often say is, "Isn't she the one who had sex with a horse?" First, in what way did you see that as a metaphor for our society? And second, how did you go from that infamous tale to, "Hmm, there's a TV show in here"?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO And what was the horse's name?
MCNAMARA Exactly. And what was the date like? (Laughter.) That's all I knew about her, and then I think I saw something, and I was like, "Oh, the queen who fucked the horse. Oh, yeah, she kept the Enlightenment alive, brought women's education and brought science to Russia and also invented the roller coaster." And isn't that fucking society, that a life that's so rich and interesting could be brought down to a salacious headline, "Maybe she fucked a horse"? I thought she was this funny, interesting and complicated person, and it made me want to tell the story, but in a way where it was funny and not like a BBC thing.
How do you decide what to keep versus discard in terms of fact versus fiction? You obviously have experience, having done The Favourite before this.
MCNAMARA Well, it's not a history lesson. Go read a book if you want a history lesson. I knew a lot about her once, and then I deliberately forgot. So there are people in the room [who hear me ask things like], "What was contraception then?" And they'll come back and go, "Well, they cut the tops off lemons and shoved them up like a diaphragm." And I'm like, "Oh that's good."
SHERMAN-PALLADINO I've done that. (Laughter.)
MCNAMARA But it's just as dumb as that. It's like, "Oh, that's funny."
BARRIS Did that work?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO You're very fresh afterwards. It's like a douche. Do people douche anymore? I'm 100 years old.
DANIELS Rob? You take that one.
MCELHENNEY Yeah, I'll answer that … (Laughter.)
BARRIS So no one's going to answer me? Does the lemon thing work? I need to know. I have a lot of lemons. I have a lemon tree.
MCNAMARA In my highly historical researched writers room, apparently it was not consistent. I wouldn't recommend it. (Laughs.)
Greg, you're no longer on network TV, which means you can have nudity and sex, and you've said that it's as incredibly awkward as it can be. Did you anticipate that when you were writing the scenes? And how have you gotten comfortable?
DANIELS Yeah, it was pretty funny. I was excited to work that into something, just thinking like, "Oh, it's all adult now, I don't have to listen to any kind of broadcast standards." And then when I got on set, the actors started asking me questions, and, without giving too much away about my life, I've been married for a long time, and I was like, "I don't know what people are doing now. What do you think, guys?" (Laughter.) Then when they start saying, "Well, I think it would be that they'd turn around and come at it from this direction," I'm like, "All right." But that was in the pilot. Now, there's a role called an intimacy coordinator.
BARRIS Wait, what?
DANIELS Yeah, it's like a stunt coordinator. So they come in, and it's supposed to make it more comfortable for the director and the actors because there's a third party there who's going to mediate.
BARRIS How do you get that job?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO You get a lemon … (Laughter.)
DANIELS Well, she was suggesting the most outlandish things. I assumed she was going to put some maturity in there and ask everyone to tone it down, and she was just thumbing through the Kama Sutra, like, "How about this? What if we did that?" So it's a fun new world. (Laughter.)
Tony, I believe you also worked with an intimacy coordinator on The Great. How did that change the experience and, be honest, were you as awkward as Greg?
MCNAMARA I think the actors found it very difficult in a way. Because on the one hand, they're making them feel safe and giving them a place to go to. But, also, it's such a new role that they're sort of making it up, so there was this constant interruption that the actors would get annoyed by because they're always being asked, "Are you OK?" in the middle of things. Our actors would be like, "Can you just let us do it?" (Laughter.)
SHERMAN-PALLADINO Much like real sex.
MCNAMARA Also, sometimes they would want to choreograph. At one point, one of our intimacy coordinators said, "Oh, well, this, Nick Hoult, this is how gorillas do it," and got up on the bed and started, and we were like, "Whoa! Hey!" (Laughter.) And I was like, "If I did that, this show would be shut down." So we had to have conversations about where the boundaries for intimacy coordinating were and what the actors needed to actually do their jobs and feel safe.
Who else has worked with one?
FELDMAN I have.
MCELHENNEY We had a really positive experience because it forces conversation. Where shows have issues is often when there's not a lot of conversation, because people are afraid to talk about it. Then all of a sudden, you show up on set and nobody's really discussing what we're supposed to be doing, and you feel exposed and nervous, and nobody wants to speak up because the crew is waiting and time is money.
FELDMAN For us, it was a bit of a relief. We called ours in for a scene with two teenagers, we had them do a make-out scene in the back of a car and we knew it had to get pretty physical. The director would have risen to the occasion but given that they're both minors, it felt appropriate to bring in a professional to navigate that scene so that everybody felt comfortable, respected and safe.
An attempt to make what is uncomfortable a little more comfortable.
FELDMAN Yeah. I mean, it's uncomfortable when it's adults. I talk about this with my wife all of the time. You write something on the page, and you're like, "Oh, that's going to be great. It'll be really sexy." Like in season one, it was, "Christina Applegate is going to hook up with this really hot guy at this grief retreat." And then you're there on the day, and you realize, "I'm basically asking these people to become incredibly intimate with someone that they've just met and to do it over and over again in front of a crew. And as the showrunner, you do start to feel a bit like a pimp. So to have a person whose job it is to help you facilitate that takes a lot of that pimp pressure off.
BARRIS All kidding aside, where do these people come from? I have never had this before. How does one become an intimacy coordinator?
MCELHENNEY So I asked one of the women I worked with, and [she] was an animal wrangler before this. (Laughter.) And I thought, "Well, that's an interesting career path." She was very helpful, I can tell you that.
Greg, Upload is a few decades in the making. At one point, it was going to be a book; at another point, it was at HBO. The value of doing sci-fi set in the future is more about what you're saying about the present. So I'm curious if its message or comedy has changed in that time?
DANIELS Yeah, I was initially interested in the notion of, if we could upload into a virtual environment, we'd be able to, in effect, program our own heaven and it would be filled with greed and unfairness. As it got more real and [morphed into] the version that became the show, you got to see how the big tech companies that are now dominating our world were using all the technological advances in a very capitalistic way to increase the income inequality in our culture. That played in very, very well with the notion of a for-pay heaven that was better for wealthy people. So, as a theme, the income inequality in our culture has been going on for a long time. Then, when the show premiered in May, one of the questions I got was, "Is this show a little bit too angry for people now because of the pandemic?" I don't get that question anymore. (Laughter.)
Amy, the last season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel dealt with Midge's white privilege, even if that wasn't part of the lexicon at that time. Do you ever worry about how the audience is going to receive her?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO No, I never give a shit about that, especially when you're dealing with women characters. I started on Roseanne, I was in my 20s, and it was me [and] a [female writing] partner, and we were the only girls on staff, and you learn really quickly what the views on women were, what was likable and what was, "Oooh, don't yell too much because you're too strident." You learn very quickly that if you reminded one of the execs in the room at all of his wife, you're fucked. So I have never gone into anything worried about what people are going to think in those terms. The main negative thing that I've been getting about Midge is about [her being away from her] kids, and I have no patience for that shit whatsoever. I never saw one person say dick about Don Draper in Mad Men not hanging out with his kids. So fuck that shit. These kids have two sets of grandparents who dote on them, and they have a father that's there all the time. If this woman has to go out on the road to make a living, fuck you if you have an issue with that. And I mean that with all the love in my heart. (Laughter.)
Liz, you have had experience as the only woman in a room. Have you dealt with any of that same pushback about what a fully dimensional female could look like?
FELDMAN It's almost impossible to answer that because the first time I was the only woman in the room, I was 18 years old and had literally just graduated from high school. It was 25 years ago, and it was an entirely different world than the one we live in now. I was writing for a kids' show called All That, so some of the same applications to character don't apply, but what I will say is that I was quite overtly and really rampantly sexually harassed in that room. And I say that because I was the only woman, and being the token person is something that I can relate to, and I know it's something we're talking about now. There's value in knowing how uncomfortable that is and how vulnerable you can be as that person.
I hope it's OK to ask, what did the harassment entail?
FELDMAN Honestly, it was very strange, and I didn't even completely understand what was happening because I had never had a job before, let alone been in a writers room. I was a child, essentially, and my boss was telling me to take my bra off in the writers room or that he'd pay me $50 to take my bra off and run around, that kind of stuff. I was in the closet, and I was so desperate to fit in and make a good impression. I don't need to bring you through the after-school special that was my experience, but it got to the point where two older women who were production coordinator-type ladies had to pull me aside and tell me they were very concerned for me because they felt he was targeting me. I thought that's what being in a writers room was like, and it made me not really want to be a writer for a long time. So I'd say being the only woman in the writers room for me was less about defending female characters than it was about defending myself.
How do those types of experiences inform how you populate and run your writers room?
FELDMAN I populate my room for Dead to Me with majority women. In season one, I believe there were six women and two men; in season two, seven of my eight writers were women. Balance is really important, but having it be majority women for this particular show is really vital because the two leads are women, and I want to tell the stories from a female perspective, and who better to tell those stories than women who've been through infertility issues and who have experienced sexual harassment and emotional abuse — the bevy of things that nobody should but so many people have experienced. I do think it's important to have a man or two — obviously, we do have male characters, and you want them to feel authentic, although if I'm being honest, I think women write male characters better than men write women.
Looking ahead, how are you all writing your shows so that you can actually make them again?
MCNAMARA It's difficult. It's like, "Maybe everyone's in prison in season two, in their own cells." (Laughs.) It's hard with big background scenes and dancing. I don't know how we're going to do it. There's tiling [special effects for crowds], and sometimes it's OK, but it's not the same.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO We're breaking stories right now, and we're going to need a lot more space. Frankly, for us it's going to depend on how much Amazon is willing to open the checkbook because we can't change the style of what the show is. We can't change crowd scenes, so if it comes down to, you can only have 10 people as extras, then our special effects lead is going to come in and make 10 people look like 400, and that is just time and money. And they're really trying to get you to film anywhere but in Manhattan. They're trying to say, "Hey, Westchester is open." And it's like, "Great, she's not playing the Westchester Comedy Festival, so it's not really working for us." So it means we're going to need more stages, which means more money. And a lot of swabs up the nose. (Laughter.)
MCELHENNEY Has that been a problem for you in the past? Because that show does not look cheap.
MCELHENNEY And if you tell me that you make that show on a budget, then I fucking quit. (Laughter.)
SHERMAN-PALLADINO No, it is not a cheap show.
BARRIS Between that and Greg's casting budget? Whew. I'm just waiting for Marlon Brando to walk on Space Force. (Laughter.)
Interview edited for length and clarity. Editor's note: A follow-up interview with Feldman was included in this story.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.