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From their obsessive rituals (Peppermint Patties! Oatmeal! Bruce Springsteen!) to the parts of their jobs they hate most (killing characters off, dealing with agents), TV’s most influential writer-producers featured on The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual list of the Top 50 Showrunners come clean about the people, things and quirky habits that keep them — and their shows — alive.
Liz Meriwether, Brett Baer and David Finkel, New Girl (Fox)
The show that inspired me to write:
Meriwether: I love Cheers. I didn’t watch it growing up, but I watched it getting ready to do the first season of New Girl. It bowls me over every time I see it. The romance, the comedy, the performances — every bit of it is just so compelling.
Baer: In Chicago, I watched SCTV (Second City Television), to which I became dangerously addicted. I used to get stomach pains when I knew it was on and I couldn’t watch it.
Finkel: The ones that left a lasting impression (and that I still go back to) are definitely All in the Family and The Larry Sanders Show. The idea that a sitcom can at turns make you piss yourself, then cry for Beverly LaSalle was revelatory. I liked Norman Lear‘s ideology that you could trust an audience to stay with you. You could have a scene that was really a straight scene with not a ton of jokes, and then blow the scene with a tight single of Carrol O’Connor‘s face that would lay your ass out. That’s why I wanted to be a writer. To do that sort of thing. I still haven’t done it. And I probably won’t. Because I can’t spell or read.
My big break:
Baer: Dave and I got our first paying gig writing cartoons. It was major just to get paid. Our first job was an Animaniacs cartoon about Hemingway for Steven Spielberg. It’s been downhill ever since.
Finkel: Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain. It was a great place to cut our teeth because there were virtually no rules. I speak to groups about writing now and then … it’s still the single credit that gets the most excitement.
My TV mentor:
Baer: I have no personal relationship with Garry Shandling, but his work on both his shows serves as the gold standard we live by. Larry Sanders is perfect.
Finkel: Peter Hastings (Pinky and the Brain) for giving us a shot when no one else had any reason to. Bruce Rassmussen, Rob Ulin and Bruce Helford for giving us a shot when no one else had any reason to. Rob Carlock and Tina Fey for showing us how to keep doing it until it’s right, and forcing us to do it until it’s right (usually with brute force and verbal threats). And Liz Meriwether for bringing a fresh angle and a die-hard belief that everything is important. But then there’s the people I like to pretend are my father figures: Norman Lear, the Charles Brothers, Larry Gelbart, the staff of Your Show of Shows, Ernie Kovacs, Garry Shandling, Greg Daniels, Louie CK, David Chase, Larry David, Alan Ball. I’m gonna start weeping. Does that answer anything? Leave me alone.
My proudest accomplishment this year:
Finkel: Getting through season one and staying married. I had my third child last year (I did it! All by myself! My wife did nothing!). I have three kids now, and they all know me as “Mr. Finkel.” I make them bow when they greet me. It’s hilariously demeaning.
My toughest scene to write this year:
Baer: We had to re-write “The Landlord” episode overnight, which is an unfortunately common occurrence on our show. I remember doing a punch and cut pass on the big menage a trois scene with a couple of the writers at about 6:20 a.m. and I was so tired I started hallucinating. It was near Halloween and there were a bunch of little pumpkins on the writers’ room table that suddenly seemed to be very fond of me. In my mind anyway. In a moment of lonely desperation, I collected all the little gourds in a warm embrace and declared “I’ll always have my pumpkin patch.” Needless to say, writing that scene in that condition was treacherous.
Finkel: Last season, we did a Thanksgiving episode, and for whatever reason we just couldn’t get it to work. At that time, we were shooting episode four, the wedding episode, and Brett and I spent two solid days in the conference room of the Intercontinental Hotel. Literally awake for 48 hours straight trying to crack this bastard. And it just kept not working. I remember at about 5 or 6 in the morning, Brett and I decided to take a quick catnap. We set out alarms for about 10 minutes later. I believe I slept on the table with my computer bag as a pillow. So pathetic. Oh, by the way, 10 minute catnaps are bulls—. Eventually the script got done. It was pretty good. But I think I have PTSD from the experience.
The most absurd note I’ve ever gotten:
Baer: This was for a children’s show we worked on: “Please delete the shot of the Fancy Lassy in the high-kicking boots exposing her nipple.” To this day, we have no idea what the exec was talking about.
Finkel: Last year I had a long conversation with our (awesome) Broadcast Standards and Practices person. The conversation went thusly:
BS&P: I’m not sure what this is, but I’m pretty sure you can’t say “B-Hole.” What does it stand for?
BS&P: That’s what I thought. You can’t say that. We’re not comfortable with that.
Me: What can we say? Can we say A-hole?
BS&P: No. No. How about “butthole?” I’d be comfortable with that.
Me: (giggling) So we’re good with “butthole” but not “b-hole”?
BS&P: (giggling) Yes.
Sometimes I love this job.
The aspect of my job as showrunner that I’d rather delegate:
Meriwether: The stuff I really wasn’t prepared for was the production design and the ways that things look. As a writer, you’re removed from that aspect of production so often. I am not a very visual person, so it can be hard for me to make those decisions, but I’m learning.
Baer: Organizing the writer’s assistants’ schedules so they don’t go past 14-hour days. I feel like I’m the manager of a Denny’s in West Covina.
Finkel: The writing. Also, the thinking. And the giving of notes. Plus the re-writing. If I can just do the snacking and the collecting of the money, I think that’s my sweet spot.
My preferred method for breaking through writer’s block:
Baer: Walking. We troll the backlot looking for jokes. We used to find a lot of them in Western Town on the Warner Brothers lot. Now that’s gone. So are the jokes.
Finkel: Writer’s block? There’s no such thing as writer’s block. I’m brilliant all the time every day. It never stops.
If I could add any one writer to your staff, it would it be:
Meriwether: Larry Charles. Or Eugene O’Neill. We could put O’Neill in the joke room. We need more alcoholics.
Baer: Wow. Tough one. I’ll take Larry Gelbart.
Finkel: Pretty much every writer mentioned above. (This is theoretical, right? We don’t have to take Gary Shandling … I mean, I’d love to … I’m just scared of him.)
The show I’m embarrassed to admit I watch:
Baer: Shark Tank. Dave says my adoration for it is unnerving.
Finkel: I mean this sincerely … and I don’t know why, but there was a period of time that for some reason, whenever Charles in Charge was on, I couldn’t not watch it. I didn’t like it and I didn’t hate it. I just couldn’t not watch.
The three things I need in order to write:
Baer: A baseball. A purpose. A Finkel.
Finkel: Brett Baer, sleep and liquor. (We’re adorable!)
If I could scrub one credit from your resume, it would be:
Baer: The easy answer would be Joey. But I’m gonna go with Joey.
Finkel: I’m insanely proud of every single one of my credits until the people who created the shows are dead.
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