Power Showrunners: Comedy

David Strick

THR's fourth annual list shines a spotlight on the 50 most influential -- and valuable -- creative chiefs writing, producing and redefining television.

For better or worse, 2011 will go down as the Year of the Showrunner. It all began with Chuck Lorre becoming a household name for all the wrong reasons. Then there was Mad Men's Matthew Weiner making waves during the showrunner's painful, prolonged negotiations with the network he put on the map. The summer saw film auteur Frank Darabont make a stormy exit from his AMC smash hit The Walking Dead and then be replaced by The Shield veteran Glen Mazzara. But the news wasn't all negative. Emmy night awarded comedy kings Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd more gold for Modern Family, and that Mad Men guy earned a redemptive trophy for his collection. Plus, the fall saw the return of such established veterans as Howard Gordon (Homeland), Michael Patrick King (2 Broke Girls) and Neal Baer (A Gifted Man), proving that reinvention is a showrunner's most powerful tool. Here, THR profiles the men and women who make TV's toughest gig look damn good.


Salim and Mara Brock Akil
The Game (BET)

In May, the married couple signed a long-term overall deal with BET Networks to develop scripted projects through their Akil Productions shingle. The pact, the first of its kind at the Viacom-owned network family, came on the heels of a record-breaking season for half-hour comedy The Game -- the premiere pulled in nearly 8 million viewers -- which the Akils resurrected for BET more than a year after it was canceled by the CW. The couple is also readying a remake of the 1976 musical Sparkle starring Jordin Sparks, Cee Lo Green and Whitney Houston. Mara, 41, wrote the screenplay, and Salim, 47, is directing the Sony film in Detroit. Meanwhile, she's holding down the fort in Atlanta on production of the new season of Game, set to bow in January. The couple -- who have two sons, ages 7 and 2 -- have clearly figured out how to work together while maintaining harmony at home. "We have complementary strengths. I think we're magic together," says Mara. Of his wife, Salim says, "She has the ability to be detailed in a creative way, and I can see the big picture in a detailed way." Mara's first job was as a production assistant on The Sinbad Show, where she met producer Ralph Farquhar, who hired her as a writer's trainee on the short-lived Fox comedy South Central. She went on to write for The Jamie Foxx Show and Moesha before teaming with her husband on UPN's Girlfriends. Salim's big break came when he was hired to write on Showtime's Soul Food; he eventually worked his way up to showrunner. He credits his wife for inspiring him to leave his job at an outpatient clinic for schizophrenics and manic-depressives (he also worked at a mortuary) and focus on his writing. "She'd never read anything I'd written," he says. "When I finally showed her, she loved it and told me to quit my day job."

Jenny Bicks
The Big C (Showtime)

"I shouldn't be the girl people call to write an espionage thriller," jokes Bicks. And why would they? The New York native, who grew up seeing Woody Allen stroll the streets of Manhattan ("I felt surrounded by playwrights and filmmakers," she says), has carved a comfortable niche as the go-to writer for female-centered comedies with tinges of sadness. Her Emmy-winning stint on Sex and the City and her run as creator of ABC's Men in Trees poised Bicks for her biggest project -- showrunning and writing Showtime's cancer comedy (created by Darlene Hunt) The Big C, which earned star Laura Linney a lead comedy actress Emmy nomination. A cancer survivor herself, Bicks, 48, says she realized she had a knack for writing as early as elementary school, but it wasn't until after college that she got paid for it: She was working in advertising in Manhattan in the 1990s when a friend pointed Bicks to an ad for a syndicated radio network looking for comedy writers. Big C recently wrapped a critically acclaimed second season, and she will spend the hiatus before season three mining more personal territory in her newest project -- exploring New York relationships in the Lifetime dramedy pilot Modern Love.

MY FAVORITE SHOW: "I'm obsessed with The Amazing Race. It's a great travelogue and has the greatest parts of reality TV: rooting for someone to achieve their dreams and very little vomit." -- Jenny Bicks

Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem
Nurse Jackie (Showtime)

The saying goes, "Write what you know." For Brixius and Wallem, that meant channeling shared experience with drug addiction and recovery into their dramedy starring Emmy winner Edie Falco as a philandering, pill-popping nurse. Says Minnesota native Brixius, 48: "We went through years of addiction and recovery. We have enough distance and perspective that a lot of it is pretty funny to me." The former romantic partners have overseen the only current comedy on cable to score a lead actress Emmy nomination two years in a row, and the exposure has helped Jackie remain a critical hit, earning a total of 10 Emmy noms since its June 2009 debut. Wallem, 50, who grew up in Rockford, Ill., had bit parts as an actress in Sleepless in Seattle and Seinfeld (in a memorable 1994 episode, she played the waitress who refused to serve Elaine the "big salad") before landing as a writer on the CBS comedy Cybill from 1995 to 1998. She says her approach to showrunning is to "have fun, praise the people you work with and don't be an asshole. You set the tone. Get rid of toxic energy the moment it appears."

Louis C.K.
Louie (FX)

He writes. He directs. He edits. He produces. And he plays himself (well, a version of himself) on FX's groundbreaking original comedy. So it's no wonder that come Emmy night, Louis C.K. was exhausted. "I really enjoyed being a nominee," he said at the Governors Ball. "But I'm really glad it's over." You can't blame him. His one-man-band comedy event made history this year by earning FX's first lead comedy actor nomination (and a writing nom, too) and making Louis C.K. the only showrunner on this list to personally assume all major facets of the production cycle. Success for Louis C.K. has come after hard-fought rounds in the comedy ring, beginning as a staff writer for David Letterman in the early 1990s and including a failed sitcom on HBO (unfortunately titled Lucky Louie) and so-so success as a screenwriter for such films as his friend Chris Rock's I Think I Love My Wife. But he balks at inevitable comparisons to his HBO counterpart-in-angst, Larry David. "It may seem that way, but I don't ad-lib like Larry does," says the D.C. native, 44 -- his real surname is Szekely, of Hungarian origin -- of Louie's so-real-it-hurts verite style. "I actually shoot the show very cinematically and precisely."

Tina Fey and Robert Carlock
30 Rock (NBC)

When Fey left NBC's Saturday Night Live in 2006 to launch her own comedy, she reconnected with Carlock, who had been writing for Friends and its short-lived spinoff, Joey. Since then, the duo has created an indelible collection of madcap characters who have wormed their way into the zeitgeist by being petty, insecure and clueless. Both say the characters sprung from their experiences in writers rooms: Carlock's first gig was on The Dana Carvey Show, where he shared an office with Charlie Kaufman, Robert Smigel, Louis C.K., Jon Glaser, Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. "It was the best writing staff in the history of sketch comedy," says Carlock, 39. "It was insane. I thought, 'Is it always like this?' It turns out it's not. [Carvey lasted six episodes.] Sometimes you can put it together again if you're as lucky as we are at 30 Rock." The NBC show has won a raft of Emmys, including three statuettes for outstanding comedy series from 2007 to 2009, and endeared itself to critics, if not the masses. It's something Fey jokes about derisively. "Some may argue that exploiting Gov. [Sarah] Palin and her family helped bring attention to my low-rated TV show," she wrote in her autobiography, Bossypants. "I am proud to say ... my TV show still enjoys very low ratings." Fey, 41, gave birth to her second child in August, and 30 Rock went into production Oct. 5 on its sixth season, which bows in January. "We had a good phone call with [NBC Entertainment chairman] Bob Greenblatt a couple months ago where he spoke very intelligently about wanting to grow 30 Rock," says Carlock.  "Everyone wants as many people to watch as possible. We write characters we really love a great deal."  

MY WORST WRITING JOB: "Joey was a terrible experience. It was like shoveling coal into a hot furnace. There was just so much pressure coming off Friends, we all wanted to make Matt [LeBlanc] look good and make it work. And it then became a punch line." -- Robert Carlock

Greg Garcia
Raising Hope (Fox)

"It's madcap, it's weird and kind of 'off,' but it comes from a very sort of decent, guileless place," says Martha Plimpton. The Emmy-nominated lead actress is talking about Garcia's latest offering, Raising Hope, which centers on a young, put-upon dad coping with early fatherhood and a whacked-out family that includes another Emmy nominee in Cloris Leachman. Hope made headlines last winter when it was the first rookie series of the 2010-11 season to get a full 22-episode pickup. Thus far in its second season, viewers have stuck around, with the first two episodes averaging more than 6 million viewers. But Garcia, an alumnus of Maryland's Frostburg State University, didn't begin in television; he started his career in media as a board operator and on-air personality at Washington radio's The Tony Kornheiser Show. The 41-year-old says the full-season renewal offered needed recognition that Hope was clicking. "I'm happy that the show is getting another year," says the Arlington, Va., native, who also created and ran NBC's long-running comedy My Name Is Earl (he won an Emmy for writing the pilot) and co-created Yes, Dear, which aired for six seasons on CBS. "I've been trying to think of a funny quote for the last two hours for this interview, which makes me a little nervous about season two." He needn't be: Pop-culture action icons like Richard Dean Anderson and Lee Majors are lining up for guest appearances.

Dan Harmon
Community (NBC)

With a Twitter feed infested with nonstop pop-culture rants and cranky musings about the business, Harmon has cemented his name as one of Hollywood's most outspoken showrunners. And really, he can't help it. His passion for the medium was born in a lower-middle-class suburb of Milwaukee, where Harmon says TV was his "father, mother, older brother, pet and soul mate." Actually, it was Jack Klugman's sportswriter character on The Odd Couple that got Harmon obsessed with the idea of writing. "But I never thought about television as being something you 'wrote,' " he says. He credits his mother for giving him his first big break when she gave a young Harmon a refurbished electric typewriter for his birthday. His first foray was a short-lived stint as a Marquette University journalism major, though he dropped out after realizing he'd "never make it" and turned his focus to stand-up comedy. Harmon moved to Los Angeles in the late 1990s and met Ben Stiller through his writing partner, Rob Schrab, at ImageMovers. Together, Stiller, Schrab and Harmon penned 1999's Heat Vision and Jack, a failed pilot for Fox starring Jack Black and Owen Wilson. Now in his third season on Community, Harmon continues to work despite the fear of people "watching what I type" while mingling with like-minded people in the writers room and on Twitter. "Anywhere from here is undiscovered territory because I never imagined I'd have access to this many people," he says. "If I met them in a bar, they'd throw a drink in my face or tell me to take a shower."

Al Jean
The Simpsons (Fox)

Jean got into comedy as a "nerdy math major" at Harvard. Some Lampoon friends who turned down Hollywood writing jobs recommended Jean in their place, first on the feature Airplane 2 and then on The Simpsons, whose first half-hour episode broke all Fox ratings records in 1989 and which has since won 27 Emmys. Simpsons will reach another milestone Feb. 19 when its 500th episode is set to air, and though the show was recently renewed for two more seasons, Jean, 50, says all he can do is live in the present. "Simpsons is the most scrutinized script of any show in town," he says. "I've helped the show stay on the air by constantly acting like it was the first season, never taking success for granted." His other weapon: the management skills he learned from ALF showrunner Bob Bendetson in the 1980s. Jean also thanks two "crummy" showrunners -- he won't name them -- for showing him what not to do. "You can't sit there and agonize," he says. "A bad decision is better than no decision."

Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd
Modern Family (ABC)

Levitan grew up in Chicago on a steady diet of The Dick Van Dyke Show, M*A*S*H and Taxi. But it wasn't until he was working late one night at a Madison, Wis., news station that he realized he wanted to write comedy. "We had the three monitors playing three shows, and I remember thinking, 'Boy, I wonder if I could write one of those?' " says Levitan, 49. Looking to find out, he started penning spec scripts, first for Moonlighting and then for Sledge Hammer!, The Wonder Years and Cheers. He passed muster and landed a writing gig on Wings, where he met his future Modern Family writing partner, Lloyd, with whom Levitan also has collaborated on Frasier and Back to You. Originally from Connecticut, Lloyd got his big break years earlier when he met producers Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas on a pilot to which an inexperienced Lloyd contributed a single joke. Some six months later, Lloyd wrote a letter reminding them that it was he who had pitched that gag. "They did what I was hoping they'd do: realize it was a joke," says Lloyd. Two days later, Lloyd, 51, was invited to work on Witt and Thomas' new show, The Golden Girls, where he remained for several years. Decades later, Levitan and Lloyd are responsible for one of TV's most giant hits: In addition to the 14 million-plus tuning in to Family's third season, the series snapped up five more Emmys in September, including a repeat win for outstanding comedy series. Says Levitan of the duo's embarrassment of riches: "It's exhilarating. I wish it on everyone."

Paul Lieberstein
The Office (NBC)

Since taking over showrunning duties from series creator Greg Daniels during The Office's sixth season, two-time Emmy winner Lieberstein has had his share of sleepless nights. "There's always something keeping me up," he admits. "That quality doesn't dip, that we're viable. Steve Carell leaving created a whole new set of challenges." As the series chugs along in season eight with new blood in James Spader, Jenna Fischer's real-life pregnancy and Ed Helms sitting in Carell's manager seat, Lieberstein, 44, has dealt with these curveballs while also acting on The Office -- he was hired first as a writer and producer on Office but was also cast as despised HR rep Toby -- but considers himself a writer first, having also worked on The Bernie Mac Show and The Drew Carey Show.

Team Lorre: Chuck Lorre and Lee Aronsohn, Two and a Half Men; Bill Prady, The Big Bang Theory; Mark Roberts, Mike & Molly (CBS)

Between Charlie Sheen's firing, Ashton Kutcher's hiring and Melissa McCarthy's Emmy win, Team Lorre hasn't been short on headlines. What's more, all three of its CBS comedies boast sky-high ratings, including a 29 million-viewer opening for revamped stalwart Two and a Half Men. But the men behind these shows have more to offer than punch lines and Nielsen points. Roberts, 50, who began his career in front of the camera (including three seasons on the 1990s comedy The Naked Truth), is still a working playwright. Prady, 51, who recalls setting his alarm to watch Johnny Carson as a child in Detroit before spending the bulk of his early career working on various Muppets projects, admits he would like to work on dramatic fare with shades of gray, like The Shield. Aronsohn, 58, who got his start writing for The Love Boat, Charles in Charge and Who's the Boss? before co-creating Men with Lorre, says he has "always had a yen to make nature documentaries. No jokes, no divas." Tying those three men together is Lorre, 58, who dropped out of college to be a songwriter before segueing to TV with writing gigs on Roseanne and his creations Grace Under Fire and Dharma & Greg. How has his showrunner style changed? "I've evolved from sporadic full-blown panic attacks to a constant hum of low-level anxiety," says Lorre.

MY FAVORITE SHOW MOMENT: "In Two and Half Men 2.0, when Walden [Ashton Kutcher] is introduced through the ashes of his predecessor." -- Chuck Lorre

Seth MacFarlane
Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, American Dad! (Fox)
See feature story in this issue

Suzanne Martin
Hot in Cleveland (TV Land)

The showrunner of TV Land's first ever scripted series grew up in Boston and wanted to be a journalist because of what she'd seen on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. "All of those really well-written shows in the late 1970s were really formative," says Martin, who credits her second-grade teacher for pushing her to be a writer. "I wrote a story and she asked me to stay after class. She said, 'I never tell people what to do with their lives, but you should be a writer,' " says Martin, 49. "I was 7, so naturally I took it as a fact." In 1994, Martin's husband, Jeff, then a writer for David Letterman and The Simpsons, hooked her up with a writing gig on a comedy pilot called The Good Life. "I asked him to let me try it. I said, 'If I'm terrible, I'll know it and walk away, and it won't be an issue for our marriage,' " says Martin. "It turns out I wasn't terrible!" From there, she went on to work as a writer on ABC's Ellen and won a pair of Emmys as part of the writing staff on NBC's Frasier. These days, Martin admits to still "being in awe" walking around the Cleveland set, where she rubs elbows with star and Emmy nominee Betty White. Says Martin: "To be working with Betty, who was on Mary Tyler Moore, and then to have Mary guest-star last season … it's amazing to see life come full-circle."

Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX)

How many actor-showrunners are willing to gain 50 pounds, "just to be funny"? Well, at least one, as Sunny creator McElhenney showed Sept. 15 in the seventh-season premiere of FX's flagship comedy. The stunt paid off: It was Sunny's highest-rated season premiere to date. Although as "out there" as the series has been (sample scene: sewing an oiled-up, nude Danny DeVito into a sofa), the actor-writer-producer trio have a rather serious approach to bringing to life the adventures of their depraved characters. "We always strive to air out any problems before things escalate," says Howerton, 35, who appeared on ER and in films like Must Love Dogs before landing Sunny. (His wife, Jill, gave birth to their first child in September.) Day, who recently appeared in the bawdy summer comedy feature Horrible Bosses, says wearing the actor hat actually helps. "Things don't translate off the page the way you want them to," says Day, 35, who's expecting his first child with wife Mary Elizabeth in December. "So it's nice to be able to change things as you go." Philly native McElhenney, 34, who's married to co-star Kaitlin Olson (they kick-started the Sunny baby boom in fall 2010 with the birth of son Axel), agrees that a showrunner should be willing to break the mold. "I would love to live in a country where showrunners took big risks and broadened viewers' horizons," he says. "And America had a balanced budget."

Trey Parker and Matt Stone
South Park (Comedy Central)

University of Colorado pals Parker and Stone celebrated the Oct. 5 fall premiere of the second half of their 15th season by revealing the method of their madness in Arthur Bradford's doc about them, 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park, which aired on Comedy Central Oct. 9. They tell how they spun their multimillion-dollar empire out of a single 1995 animated short, The Spirit of Christmas, that went viral, making them the first internet-spawned TV success. (Fred Armisen's new hit, Portlandia, took a similar internet-to-hip-network route.) Besides making Comedy Central viable in much the way Quentin Tarantino made the Weinsteins' studio viable, Parker, 42, and Stone, 40, also went on to make more than $134 million worth of movies, break Broadway records with their musical The Book of Mormon and sign a contract to keep South Park on the air through 2013, for a sum said to be greater than their previous $75 million deal.

Tyler Perry
House of Payne, Meet the Browns (TBS)

Forbes recently named Perry, 42, the highest-paid man in entertainment, with $130 million earned from May 2010 to May 2011. House of Payne and Meet the Browns -- both of which received rare 90-episode commitments upon their respective launches in 2006 and 2009 -- soon will be joined by a third Perry comedy, For Better or Worse, based on his Why Did I Get Married? films. Despite his busy film career -- he has raked in more than $207 million just from the three-film Madea franchise alone -- Perry still makes time to be in showrunner mode in Atlanta, the headquarters for his operations, attending morning table reads, writing in the afternoon and dropping by the sets. Michael Wright, head of TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies programming, says Perry has helped "establish the network as a prime destination for African-American viewers" as Payne and Browns ranked among the top sitcoms with black adults in key demos in the first quarter of 2011.

David Zuckerman
Wilfred (FX)

"I loved watching Dick Van Dyke play a TV writer who was so funny and charming -- and he got to go home to Mary Tyler Moore," Zuckerman recalls of his fictional inspiration for his real-life comedy-writer aspirations. The showrunner was brought in to help "nurture and develop" Seth MacFarlane's ideas, characters and voice for Family Guy. Years later, he was asked to repeat the magic with Jason Gann's short film-turned-Australian TV series for its stateside remake about an uneven fellow (Elijah Wood) who sees his neighbor's canine as a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking guy in a furry dog costume. "Both have really unique comedic voices," says Zuckerman of MacFarlane and Gann. With credits including The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and American Dad!, the onetime Lorimar and NBC exec still credits The Dick Van Dyke Show creator Carl Reiner for teaching him that comedy could be funny and entertaining while still being "about something." The same could be said for Wilfred, which was renewed after it became the network's highest-rated rookie comedy series.


BEHIND THE SCENES WITH … Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, How I Met Your Mother (CBS)

Their series recently scored its sixth Emmy (for editing), had a fall premiere that was up 32 percent compared to last year's -- a feat rarely enjoyed by a show in its seventh season -- and they just inked a deal for another single-camera comedy project, The Goodwin Games, with 20th Century Fox.

But two other milestones have Carter Bays and Craig Thomas giddy. "How I Met Your Mother just hit 16 million Facebook followers," says Thomas. "That's literally living proof of how invested fans are." Bays goes one further. "We're also the No. 1 most-pirated sitcom in the world," he says, laughing. "We're very proud of that!"

It's just after 10:30 a.m., and the writer-producers are enjoying a rare private moment away from the rest of the staff inside the smaller of their offices on the Fox lot. "We often wish we could just come in here and lock the doors," says Thomas. "But as showrunners, we're at the head of this table, all eyeballs on us, so we have to pretend to have all the answers. Then we walk down the hall, begin sobbing and open the scotch. I don't know how sole showrunners do it."

The friends, both 36, reflect on how far they've come since meeting at Wesleyan University: their junior-year internships at MTV that led to impossibly cool first jobs writing for David Letterman; the apartment -- and cat -- they shared in Manhattan; their move west in 2002 to sell a script about a group of young friends living in New York. "It wasn't a conscious choice, structuring the show with this dad telling his kids about his life in New York," says Bays. "But it's become a time capsule of our youth." Adds Thomas: "We've both become fathers while doing the show. Boring, old, married people."

This moment of reflection is broken when Bays is summoned next door to Writers Room B. This morning's task is to comb through "Field Trip," an episode set to air later in the fall in which Ted (Josh Radnor) takes his architecture class on a field trip through Manhattan. Bays mulls over one joke for 15 minutes that centers on Robin (Cobie Smulders) being in therapy. "I just feel like I've seen that kind of gag in sitcoms a million times," says Bays. "Let's think of something else."

Meanwhile, Thomas is making a rare visit to the set of HIMYM; so rare that his appearance elicits snarky fake surprise from the cast and crew. "Wow, you're here. It's like the fancy exec coming down from his shiny office," jokes Smulders, poring over her iPhone. Alyson Hannigan plays along. "When you're here, we start to panic: 'Oh no, what did I do wrong!' " she says, laughing. Emmy-nominated director Pam Fryman gives Thomas a squeeze: "We missed you!"

Moments later, the cast is in place inside the oft-used bar set. Rounded out by Radnor, Jason Segel (Marshall), Neil Patrick Harris (Barney) and Harris' Harold & Kumar buddy Kal Penn (on hand for an arc as Robin's boyfriend, Kevin), they rehearse a scene from "Mystery vs. History," an episode set to air after "Field Trip," even though the latter is still being written. "We adjusted the schedule so we could get Martin Short to play Marshall's boss. A crazy flip-flop but totally worth it," whispers Thomas, headphoned and watching a monitor. Bays then appears for a quick powwow with Thomas. He receives the same nice-of-you-to-grace-us-with-your-presence jabs. "Yes, it's almost like science fiction, having us here at the same time," says Bays. "Who knew we were both real?"


BEHIND THE SCENES WITH … Bill Lawrence, Cougartown (ABC)

Bill Lawrence stands in front of a large dry-erase board inside Cougar Town headquarters -- situated in Bungalow S at Culver Studios -- on which a future episode of season three is charted out like an oversize spreadsheet.

Knowing their leader is being observed this morning, the writers are in top form."Hey, thanks for not yelling at us today, Bill," one shouts from the back of the room. MADtv alum Michael McDonald chimes in."Usually we break into groups based on race, but we won't do that today," he says, cracking up Lawrence as we walk outside to the set. "If a comedy writer ever complains about his lot in life," he says. "You have my permission to smash in his face."

It's easy to envy Lawrence. The William & Mary graduate was co-running a hit series in New York -- ABC's Spin City -- at 26, under the tutelage of one of the genre's masters, Gary David Goldberg. "I had peroxide hair back then -- such an idiot -- but Gary literally sent me to showrunning camp," says Lawrence, 42. " 'This is how you block shows. This is how you talk to actors.' " Six years later, Lawrence had another hit in NBC's goofy single-camera comedy Scrubs, a transition the Connecticut native says was tough because "I didn't delegate very well. But by the end I'd realized, just hire talented people and let them do their jobs -- what a concept."

A decade later, Lawrence has settled into his most recent stint as the mayor of Cougar Town (which may or may not be getting a new name, depending on the mood of Lawrence's Twitter feed). Today, the set is just outside the writers room, with the Culver lot transformed into a suburban Florida mall replete with realistically tacky peach-accented architecture. Star and producer Courteney Cox sits at a makeshift cafe table with co-stars Josh Hopkins and Christa Miller -- who happens to be the boss' wife -- and their 5-year-old son, Henry, who's home sick from school and sitting on his mom's lap. The actors rehearse a scene while Lawrence stands and watches quietly from the wings. Ten minutes later, he offers a casual appraisal -- "Hey, that's funny, nice work" -- and then returns to the writers room to hash out some logistics with producer Randall Winston."I think we can shoot six pages at the beach, two in the parking lot," says Lawrence. "It won't be as expensive, which I like."

By 11:40 a.m., Lawrence is inside his quiet private office reflecting on his workplace philosophy: "It's a strict no-asshole policy. The only way to lose your job is to be a jerk." His own shortcomings: "I take everything too personally and stick my nose in people's business." And, his favorite topic, the Emmys: "They are 99 percent a sham now that Steve Carell never won," he says. "I really don't care, though, which makes it definitive that I'll never win anything."


BEHIND THE SCENES WITH … Mike Schur, Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Mike Schur is having a revelation. "How have I never heard of this? A snow globe that goes on your lawn that you plug in and has snow blowing around?" He scours his iPad web browser for a visual.

"Hey, maybe Andy can put one in his living room?" offers one art department guru for the dim-bulb character played by Chris Pratt. Schur, whose boyish face belies his graying temples, says: "Seriously, the game on Christmas has really changed. Where have I been?"

And so goes a meeting in Pawnee headquarters as the crewmembers of NBC's Emmy-nominated comedy find themselves in a schedule as thick as Ron Swanson's mustache. Led by Schur, alumnus of The Office and Saturday Night Live, they are shooting episode nine, locking episode five, preparing for a table read for episode 10 (the Christmas-themed "Citizen Knope") and breaking story -- or hammering out the plot -- for episode 12. It's a workload that Schur, 35, manages with an eerie calm. He says it's a trick he picked up as a staff writer at SNL, where one "routinely has your ass handed to you."

"My one rule is: don't panic," says Schur an hour later, now tucked inside a dark edit bay as a poster of basketball coach Bobby Knight oversees the room. He and his editor John Valerio have to shave nine seconds off the forthcoming Halloween episode. "I saw people panic at SNL, and it looked like a bad idea," says the Harvard grad, who points to his Office mentor, Greg Daniels, as his showrunner model. "He never raises his voice -- ever," he says, checking his e-mail. He laughs. "My wife and I share an Amazon.com account," says Schur, whose son is 3 and daughter is 15 months. "And last night, during a very high-stress work moment, I got this e-mail that said, 'Your order of six pairs of Green Lantern underwear has been shipped.'" He says the strain of late nights is "awful," but he's been bridging that gap a little better. "I drive my son to school and he's been requesting The Beatles," says Schur, beaming.

At 2 p.m., the Parks cast is assembled for a table read of the Christmas episode. "I just edited the Halloween episode," Schur tells Rob Lowe. The actor asks, "Ooooh! How is it?" Schur replies: "Your costume is amazing." At 2:05, Schur leaves the room briefly and returns. "Would you find it off-putting if I always left and came back just to make another entrance?" Schur asks the room. The crowd erupts into a swell of chants: "Mike! Mike! Mike!"

"OK, OK," Schur says, grinning. "Let's get to reading our second-ever Christmas episode, shall we?"


METHODOLOGY: Selections for The Hollywood Reporter's fourth annual list of the top showrunners are based on the following criteria: 1. Direct responsibility for the day-to-day creative output of a scripted TV show that has aired for at least one full season (unless he or she also had another show on the air). 2. How prolific the showrunner is: Those with more shows on the air were more likely to be included. 3. Nielsen ratings, especially relative to other shows on the same network. 4. Emmy attention and critical praise. 5. Professionalism and reputation among studio and network executives.