'Veep,' 'Girls,' 'Atlanta' Scribes Reveal Secrets of Their Writers Rooms: "Required" Arguments, "Group Therapy"

9:30 AM 6/16/2017

by Craig Tomashoff

The writers on 18 comedies and dramas spill on what really happens behind the scenes: La Croix addictions, Ping-Pong and a game called Tippy Catchy.

Atlanta_Girls_Veep_Split - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of FX; Courtesy of HBO

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • The Americans

    SHARING IS CARING There aren't any Soviet sleeper agents in the New York writers room of this Cold War drama, but everybody on this staff of seven has their secrets. That episode when Philip [Matthew Rhys] gets involved with EST, for instance, was inspired by one writer's experiences with a friend. "Somebody in the room knew somebody who was going to EST and thought that'd be perfect [for a storyline]," says executive producer Joe Weisberg. "That blossomed into Philip going to EST. Which became something immeasurably bigger and more important to the story. That wouldn't have happened if someone in the room hadn't had that life experience."

    GETTING UNSTUCK When the team is having trouble with breaking a story, according to Weisberg, he and co-executive producer Joel Fields "take a couple of big walks a day. We take a voice recorder with us and talk into it. We're pretty spoiled because sometimes we'll send what we recorded back to the office to transcribe, and it's waiting for us when we get back." Adds Fields, who proudly notes that his Fitbit has been known to hit 12,500 steps on some days, "We're in New York, so we've wandered all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge and into Chinatown, and then we wonder how we're going to get back."

  • Atlanta

    WHO’S IN THE ROOM Four or five people, all of whom have a personal connection to Donald Glover, the onetime Community actor who created the show and stars as a Princeton dropout coming home to Atlanta. None had written specifically for TV before the show's first season.

    HOW IT ALL HAPPENS The staffing isn’t the only thing that’s different about Atlanta’s writers room. The room itself is, too. Writer Stefani Robinson says the team gathers at Glover's Hollywood Hills home, so it feels like "we're all just going over to hang out at a friend's house." Sometimes they’ll sit at the dining room table. Other times they sit on the living room floor or out by the pool.

    GETTING UNSTUCK It’s all about the Ping-Pong. “Two people will play, and the rest of us will watch, sometimes switching out,” says Robinson. “The game has been a real lifesaver in many circumstances. We’ll play, and every hit of the paddle might bring a new starting point for the conversation.”

    GO-TO FOOD AND DRINK A lot of Pop-Tarts and Capri Suns. Admits Robinson, “We’re like third graders.”

  • Black-ish

    WHO’S IN THE ROOM With a sitcom about an African-American man raising a family in a white neighborhood, you’d expect a diverse writers room. Out of the 14 scribes, six are women and eight are men. Seven are black, six are white and one is Indian.

    HOW IT ALL HAPPENS While some rooms may have a certain hierarchy based on experience, the Black-ish writers are all created equal. “Arguing with me or the other EPs doesn’t get you fired in this room,” says executive producer Kenya Barris. “It’s required.”

    SHARING IS CARING Because the majority of the Black-ish storylines begin with the writers’ personal lives and have touched upon everything from police brutality to Donald Trump’s election, the room doesn’t “believe in a person coming in with a beginning, middle and end. We believe in seeds of stories from real things growing into interesting conversations, which often become debates, which make for the best episodes.”

    GETTING UNSTUCK There’s a Nerf basketball hoop in the room to take writers’ minds off whatever is giving them fits, and Barris figures “literally thousands of dollars have been won and lost on that thing.”

  • Catastrophe

    WHO’S IN THE ROOM Two people — Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney — who also happen to executive produce and star in this comedy about an American and a Brit who accidentally get pregnant and get married. “Writers rooms are not something we do often in the U.K.,” says Horgan. “On my last series, we had an assistant, and even that was a pretty big deal.”

    HOW IT ALL HAPPENS Horgan and Delaney don’t have a particularly formal process. “At this point it’s pretty smooth,” says Delaney. “We’re passionate about what we’re passionate about, but we both recognize that flexibility and listening are invaluable, so it’s a pretty easygoing dynamic.”

    GETTING UNSTUCK It’s all about posturing. The ideas start to flow for Horgan when she’s got her feet up on her desk and a laptop balanced on her knees. “I’m a bit of a lounger. I have to spread out a bit. And I have been known to get on the floor and do press-ups.” For Delaney, it’s about assuming “lots of positions because I could fall asleep at any moment. I have to keep my blood moving.”

    GO-TO FOOD Meals are less adventurous than the pair’s writing. Says Delaney: “For season two, we ate every day at Itsu. For season three, it was Pret-a-Manger. That we ate the same thing from the same place is pretty indicative of psychosis.”

  • The Crown

    WHO’S IN THE ROOM One guy, executive producer Peter Morgan, although he does have about 80 people who help do the research for his show about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. If The Crown adds Morgan more seasons, though, he plans to ask other writers to join him. “With the first season, I got started, and by the time we even contemplated trying out a writers room, I’d gotten way into the show and we all decided it’d be too hard to create one. It’s also easier to add writers once the show exists so people who come in already get what it is.”

    HOW IT ALL HAPPENS Morgan says he loves the process of writing by himself. “I’m used to that. That’s how it’s always been for me,” he notes. “That said, I long to find a partner or a couple of allies who could make the job easier. It’s not the loneliness of writing that’s an issue for me. It’s just the sheer ordeal of turning episodes around quickly, rushing into post, rewriting. ... There’s so much I would love to have help with.”

    GO-TO FOOD Some writers use lunch as a motivation, a treat for a good morning’s work. Morgan has a different approach. “I don’t tend to have any sensible ideas after lunchtime, so it isn’t a motivation for me. It’s an indication that my writing day is done.”

  • Girls

    HOW IT ALL HAPPENS The writing staff on Lena Dunham’s semi-autobiographical series, which ended in April after six seasons, would convene to talk storylines in a room in Los Angeles for a month or two, according to executive producer Jenni Konner. Then they’d go off to write scripts and get back together later in a New York room to punch up one another’s scripts. It wasn’t a typical approach because “we didn’t break stories in a really detailed way.”

    SHARING IS CARING Konner considered the Girls room a “pretty emotional place” courtesy of the way Dunham would talk openly about her life. “She was honest emotionally with us, so that made us feel comfortable doing the same. You could tell stories in the room that might have made you uncomfortable telling elsewhere. Some said it felt like group therapy.” Fellow EP Judd Apatow also did his part, sending all the writers a questionnaire about their lives, which everyone eventually read out loud in the room.

    GO-TO FOOD “We’re a very, very healthy kind of room ... lots of macrobiotic restaurants,” says Konner. “That ruins the stereotype of writers rooms, but I’ve been on a lot of shows and didn’t need to add the 10 pounds you usually get from the food in the rooms.

  • The Leftovers

    WHO'S IN THE ROOM The writers of this trippy drama, set in a world where 2 percent of the world's population has mysteriously disappeared, range in age from 25 to their mid-50s, equally split between men and women. "It's a good map of the U.S. in terms of where people come from," says executive producer Damon Lindelof. Because of the show's religious themes, Lindelof quizzed people about their beliefs before hiring them. "I'd ask how they were raised, what religious beliefs their parents had, where they were on the spectrum of faith. … I was looking for some kind of strong point of view rather than a specific denomination."

    GETTING UNSTUCK When the writers hit a wall, Lindelof gives them homework. That's how they came up with last season's episode "It's a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World," which involved a lion sex cult. He told the writers to spend the evening coming up with creative ways to kill God. "As we went around the table the next day, someone suggested God should be eaten by a lion. We all burst into laughter but then thought, 'Wait a minute! That's kind of great! Now how do we get a lion on the ferryboat where it happens?' So that became the next night's homework."

    GO-TO FOOD Says Lindelof, "Everyone secretly looks forward to ordering pizzas, especially if we know we're going to be working into the night."

  • Legion

    WHO'S IN THE ROOM All eight episodes of the first season of this new X-Men offshoot, about a schizophrenic who realizes he's a powerful mutant, were scripted by six writers (including executive producer Noah Hawley). The smaller number helped Hawley avoid creating a writers room "where eight or 10 people talk about what they're eating now, or eating next, or just ate. The group brain can be helpful when it comes to thinking through a moment, but ultimately, this is not a show that wants to be outlined." Next season, the room is going to shrink even more. Says Hawley, "Going into our second season, there's just one writer I'm working with to help me move things along."

    GETTING UNSTUCK For Hawley, the key is getting off his butt. "I have a standing desk, so I'm never really sitting. I'll sometimes take a long walk. I also have a ball on my desk, and sometimes I'll start throwing it against the wall. Going to bookstores is always good for me, too — just looking at books or taking a book to a coffee shop or restaurant for a while."

  • Master of None

    WHO'S IN THE ROOM A half-dozen writers of various backgrounds and faiths put together Aziz Ansari's comedy-drama about the life of a commercial actor in Manhattan. Since the staff is "all about learning," executive producer Alan Yang says outside experts are sometimes brought into the room — doormen, cab drivers, others in the service industry — and interviewed for research.

    GETTING UNSTUCK Yang believes it's not so much what the writers do — mostly taking a lot of walks — but more what they don't do that helps. "The biggest thing is trying to get everyone to stay off the internet while we're working," says Yang. "We've had to say, 'Let's put our phones in a box and agree to not look at them for 90 minutes!' "

    GO-TO FOOD "We do our best not to go super-heavy with what we order," says Yang. "I know it's boring, but we do salads and fish. That's not to say we wouldn't do tasty meals, but when you try to work after eating those, you feel really weighed down. Plus, if we're healthy during the day, we can go crazy with good food at night."

  • One Day at a Time

    WHO'S IN THE ROOM Because this is a show about a Latino family — one of the biggest changes from Norman Lear's original 1975 sitcom — executive producer Gloria Calderon Kellett didn't want to be the only Latino in the room, which "has been the case more often than not in my career." That's why she and fellow showrunner Mike Royce sought out people from different Latino backgrounds, different age ranges and different genders. "We've got a 50-50 split between men and women, and half of our writers are Hispanic," she says of the dozen writers on the show. "There are also different religions represented, from Catholic to Jewish to agnostic, which makes for great conversation when you're a Norman Lear show."

    SHARING IS CARING As a lifelong Catholic, Calderon Kellett wanted to do an episode called "No Mass," exploring her religion and its pluses and minuses. As the team discussed how to go about that, she realized even some of her writers had misimpressions of what Catholicism was about. "Getting the ruler out and smacking kids is not a thing. Maybe that does exist in some schools, but never in mine."

    GO-TO DRINK La Croix. "It's definitely the official drink of One Day at a Time," she says. "We're particularly fond of lime, lemon and passion fruit. Although there are a few writers who are trying to break their Diet Coke habit."

  • Preacher

    WHO'S IN THE ROOM Executive producer Sam Catlin is a graduate of Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad writers room, so he followed a similar approach for the staff of this comic book-inspired drama about a Texas preacher with supernatural abilities. He keeps the number relatively small — eight people, including himself — and they are in the room six to eight hours a day for a couple of months.

    GETTING UNSTUCK Because he's a big believer that "procrastination is a big part of being creative," Catlin encourages his writers to talk about politics, movies, other shows — anything that gets them thinking. There also are plenty of walks, but they don't always work. "There's no escaping the sort of hopelessness of coming back and having to come up with something," says Catlin. "But that's what makes writers writers. We're people who can endure hopelessness and despair."

    GO-TO FOOD Catlin lets others choose the meal. "I don't like to pick what we're eating because I've already got to make too many decisions."

  • Rectify

    WHO'S IN THE ROOM Throughout its four seasons, executive producer Ray McKinnon usually had about four writers helping to script his series about an exonerated convict returning home after nearly two decades in prison. Working with others was a new experience. "I'd never worked in a writers room and didn't think about their existence until Sundance decided we should have one," he says. "I thought of it as a group of people who shouldn't be in a room together in a room. It turned out to be a sociological experience, a petri dish for testing our maturity levels. But I did learn I could show up to the same place with the same people every day and not go mad."

    HOW IT ALL HAPPENS McKinnon realized the Rectify writers room was like therapy, "only others pay me for it." On the other hand, "the worst part was having to show up every day at an office. I'm used to working on something for three or four months and moving on. With this, I had to go to work like real people!"

    GO-TO FOOD Barbecue Friday was very popular, but there's also a lot of sushi or ramen from a nearby noodle place. "For some reason, we order a lot of food."

  • Speechless

    WHO'S IN THE ROOM Executive producer Scott Silveri says his room is pretty traditional, and between 10 and 12 writers have worked on the first season of this sitcom about a family with a wheelchair-bound teenager with cerebral palsy. There's what he considers "a nice mix of gender and race. … We're all set with boring, old white guys." Also, given the show's subject matter, he made an effort to hire writers "with disabilities or who have siblings with disabilities or are raising kids with disabilities. It's important to represent the subject matter with our choice of staff."

    GETTING UNSTUCK "Tippy Catchy" is played often. It's a game that dates back to Silveri's days working on Friends and involves a Nerf ball with a fin on it. The writers sit on opposite sides of the table and, like kids batting around birthday party balloons, they bounce the ball back and forth to see how long they can keep it going without hitting the floor. "It's just the right sort of physical activity for comedy writers with decrepit middle-aged bodies, and it helps us get our juices flowing," says Silveri.

    GO-TO FOOD For the other writers, it's lots of chips and peanut M&Ms. For Silveri, it's a treat he fondly recalls from his days on the East Coast — Andy Capp's hot fries. He orders them online, by the case.

  • Stranger Things

    WHO'S IN THE ROOM Brothers Matt and Ross Duffer — who created this buzzed-about 1980s-era sci-fi throwback about small-town kids searching for a missing friend — work with two or three other writers, mainly friends from their film school days.

    HOW IT'S DONE Because the Duffers were still relatively new to television, they'd never been in a writers room — but they'd heard about them. Says Matt, "At first, we had a writers room because that's just how things are done in television. But now, we wouldn't work without one. There's too much work, and you need a lot of brainpower to turn stuff over quickly. So if it was just Ross and me, we would be stuck in a loop because we're identical twins and think so much alike."

    GETTING UNSTUCK "We have these stress balls that are very helpful," explains Matt. "And this year, Netflix had us working out of a house they'd rented, so we had a Ping-Pong table and a bunch of old-school Nintendo video games. Ross says he also likes to "listen to music on my headphones and just start typing ideas. You can sometimes get stuck in loops when you're talking, so it helps to take that step back."

    GO-TO DRINK Lots of La Croix. There is much debate about the best flavor (Ross says it's coconut).

  • This Is Us

    WHO'S IN THE ROOM Roughly 10 people work on this family saga that jumps back and forth in time. "We've got more women than men, and the ages range from 27 to 50s and above," says executive producer Dan Fogelman. "Age is an important thing in our show because

    it's about family and time. So we have people who are raising 8-year-old kids and those who still remember what it's like to be an 8-year-old kid."

    HOW IT ALL HAPPENS Fogelman wrote a series bible and timeline, which became a jumping-off point. "We spent that first week or two telling the deepest, darkest secrets of our childhood and families," he says. "There was crying, but it became the basis for our entire season."

    GETTING UNSTUCK A lot of restless energy gets expended by throwing "some sort of ball across the table, inevitably knocking over a phone or a drink," says Fogelman.

    GO-TO FOOD The lunch menus get passed around at 10 a.m., usually while Fogelman is in the middle of piecing together a crucial plot point. "Nobody's paying attention because they're deciding what to order." The rest of the day, the emphasis is on healthy options such as SkinnyPop popcorn and the occasional helping of kale chips.

  • Transparent

    WHO'S IN THE ROOM The structure of the room is pretty traditional, with between eight and 10 writers pitching storylines and then passing around each other's scripts in order to punch them up, but there are some modern touches. "As the only trans woman in the room, I'll usually take a pass on all the scenes with trans content," says Our Lady J, one of the first trans writers hired for this groundbreaking dramedy about a transgender father. "But at the same time, I wouldn't do that on scenes involving Jewish culture because it's not my life experience."

    SHARING IS CARING As a trans woman, Our Lady J has "swallowed a lot of trauma" in her life. So, having the chance to walk into a room and speak openly to others "who haven't been through these experiences, and have them be empathetic toward my struggle and then put those feelings into words that an actor then speaks so the world can hear … it left me feeling like a new woman."

    GETTING UNSTUCK There's no Ping-Pong or ball bouncing. Instead, everyone improvises a musical number. "We love musicals, and that pretty much sums up the room."

    GO-TO FOOD During the first season, the writers gained 20 pounds because of the unlimited snacks, so things were deliberately healthy for seasons two and three. For season four, though, it's back to gaining weight with the help of Pringles. Says Our Lady J: "If the can comes out before 3 p.m., we're in trouble."

  • Veep

    WHO'S IN THE ROOM "Nobody, because there is no room. I was taught to write sitcoms by people like Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, and they didn't believe in a traditional writers room," says executive producer David Mandel, who took over as exec producer during Veep's fifth season and guided the political satire to an Emmy for best comedy. "I'm a big believer in individual writers working on individual episodes from outline to script."

    THE UPSIDE Mandel thinks going without a room helps the show's 10 writers develop responsibility. "There's nothing better than pitching something, investing in your own story and seeing it all come to fruition, as opposed to the more traditional situation, where you do a lot of work on something but then it's somebody else's turn to work on it," he says. "When you have too big a crowd in a room, the room begins to drink its own Kool-Aid and the writing becomes a lot of jokes on a joke of a joke that wasn't a joke to begin with."

    GO-TO CHAIR Whenever the writers do gather, there's a lot of attention paid to seating. "I'll just hear someone saying, 'Oh, God! Now I've got the bad chair!' "

  • You're the Worst

    WHO'S IN THE ROOM Because You're the Worst is the evil twin of a rom-com — a single-camera comedy about the tortured romance between two incredibly self-absorbed narcissists — executive producer Stephen Falk strives to have an equal balance of male and female writers. "Four or five humans" is how he describes the team.

    HOW IT ALL HAPPENS The room is very structured and the writing process is long, with the team working for about 20 weeks before production starts. Falk is in the room nearly all of the time in order to lead the discussion, starting most days by "going around the room getting everyone to say what they did last night, which leads to very involved critiques of each other's lives and romantic partners."

    GETTING UNSTUCK There's the usual collection of balls to throw around, but Falk also has noticed "there's a lot of sketching and drawing going on in the room. A couple of times we've had drawing contests. I'd say, 'Everybody has three minutes to draw a Smurf from memory, and then we're going to put everything on the internet to let people judge your work.' "

    GO-TO FOOD Falk has absolute authority over the ordering. "[I'm] a food dictator," he says. "It's to avoid the drama when the menus are passed out. Someone will pick something that gets someone else mad at them."