Showrunning isn’t for the faint of heart. And yet, for three of the six gathered for The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Comedy Showrunner Emmy Roundtable — PEN15‘s Anna Konkle, Chad‘s Nasim Pedrad and The Upshaws‘ Wanda Sykes — it’s only half the job.
“I think I’ve tried to hire all three of you individually to [star in] shows at some point, and the fact that you’re all now writing as well is a little annoying,” jokes Ted Lasso‘s Bill Lawrence. But versatility is only a part of what makes the showrunner/star trio so impressive to the veterans — Lawrence, The Kominsky Method‘s Chuck Lorre, and Younger and Emily in Paris‘ Darren Star — at the virtual table. Adds Lorre, “Part of the fun of hanging in there in this business is finding out that there are different paths, and so I’m in awe of the people here because who knew these paths existed? I mean, I’ve been watching PEN15 and Chad, and you go, ‘Oh, wow.’ ”
Over the course of an hour in late May, the sextet opened up about the fears that drive them — and the battles that have aged them.
There’s an old adage that you’ve all heard that goes, “Write what you know.” What are the most personal things, the things that you’ve mined from your lives and put into these shows?
BILL LAWRENCE Well, I will take it, but I’m going to answer for PEN15, is that weird?
ANNA KONKLE Please, and thank you. I’m so curious. (Laughter.)
NASIM PEDRAD Can you do mine, too?
KONKLE Really, every piece of trauma is in PEN15 — or a lot of trauma is in PEN15. A lot of parents arguing. My parents loved that I put that in there. And, yeah, masturbation, you know, the normal stuff. (Laughter.)
LAWRENCE On Ted Lasso, every writer who came in had only seen the [old videos] and stuff that Jason Sudeikis had done. And I think everybody was surprised when we told them the show was actually about empathy, forgiveness and mentorship, and everybody had to say who their mentor was that got them into Hollywood or told them they could actually do this type of stuff. And everybody had such interesting stories that all found their way into that show — it’s all straight from them. It’s what we do, steal from the writers’ lives and then don’t give them any credit for it. (Laughs.)
CHUCK LORRE Well, Kominsky is about your body going to shit, your mind going to shit, loved ones dying and feeling estranged and alienated from the entire Western civilization. So, it was pretty simple, write what you know.
LAWRENCE Chuck, are you doing this interview from a hospital room, man?
LORRE I’m in a hotel room. I’m actually hiding because apparently the people from Discovery want me to develop a show about mold and remodeling your kitchen. You know, AOL first, then AT&T and now Discovery. So, I’m hiding in an undisclosed location.
Amazing. How about the rest of you?
WANDA SYKES Well, for me, it was pretty easy, because it’s about a working-class family trying to stretch a dollar. My parents were pretty cheap, so it was fun doing all those bits, just add water and you get a new gallon of shampoo. And I’ve missed those type of shows where it’s a working-class African American family and that’s what I know, so …
DARREN STAR And for me, Younger was about finding myself on the other side of the generation gap — suddenly, the older guy in the room — wanting to know what that millennial generation was all about. And Emily in Paris is really my fantasy of wanting to work and live in Paris, where I am right now.
PEDRAD And I love writing about adolescence — mine happened to be very awkward, so Chad is about a very awkward 14-year-old Persian boy trying to navigate his freshman year of high school. But really, I just wanted to write something that felt honest to my experience growing up as an immigrant kid here in America.
This is my first Roundtable where I have two adults who are mining their adolescence for comedy and are also stars of these shows. Has the process proved therapeutic, even cathartic, and how often are you revisiting things that had happened to you through an adult lens — and feeling horrified?
LAWRENCE I watch both of your shows like this. (Peeking through his largely covered eyes.)
PEDRAD I do find it really cathartic to be able to revisit those horrifying moments now that I am on the other side and have some distance from that time — and getting to explore it through the lens of comedy is a lot more fun than having endured it at the time.
KONKLE You’re amazing in it, too. I can’t imagine playing — on top of going back to 13 — a boy.
PEDRAD I feel that way about you — the vulnerability you guys have. I’m hiding behind a full exterior shell that isn’t me.
KONKLE There’s a part of me that’s like, “OK, I’m very masochistic. Why am I doing this to myself?” Then there are times where it’s really so refreshing to be naive and innocent and optimistic. But the more traumatic bits are our word-for-word memories of what happened, and you’re replaying them. … Like, I’m OK, but my dad passed away during filming, and right after I’m doing scenes with my TV dad — that I, as a showrunner, was like, “He must wear the same corduroys, he must drive the same car” — then all the sudden, I’m like, “This is too weird.” So, I feel like in 10 years I’m going to look back and be like, “Oh, that’s why I was so messed up.” Or I’m going to be like, “It’s better, I’m better, I need less therapy.” (Laughter.)
For all of you, when was the last time you were writing a scene that made you or your collaborators genuinely nervous?
PEDRAD I wasn’t as nervous as everyone around me was, but we had an episode where Chad basically fetishizes Black culture. And it was like, “Can we get away with this?” But he doesn’t know any different. He just has the limited scope of understanding that he has. And I felt like it was OK, because he fully gets called out for it. We don’t just let it lie in that. And we ended up having these really interesting conversations about race and the way kids talk about race at school, and that ended up being one of the [best] days on set, to be honest.
How about the rest of you?
LAWRENCE I got nervous when Nasim started that conversation. (Laughs.) No, I’m joking. The only fearful or weird part of Ted Lasso was that it’s a show with IP and, if anyone watches those old videos, they’re very bombastic and sketch-y. But when Jason and I started talking about doing it as a show, he was like, “I want it to be about empathy and forgiveness and about mental health issues. And the seventh episode, the only one I’m going to write, is going to be a realistic and long portrayal of what it means to have a panic attack.” I just remember submitting that [to our execs at Apple TV+], and I think all of us as writers have had the experience where you know the people who are paying the bills have completely different expectations of what your show is. So that was nerve-wracking, because we knew from the start we were delivering something different than what they initially expected. But in an age that writers often crap on the powers that be, they leaned into it and got it and went with it. But it was weird doing it, because I also thought I was going to be doing a comedy, and we’re now dealing with trauma and panic and anxiety.
STAR I think you’re nervous every episode, because you’re wondering if it’s going to work. With Emily in Paris, we’re writing a character that’s a bit of an ugly American, and so you wonder, are people going to get the joke? Not everybody did. (Laughs.) Somehow, some don’t understand that you’re joking and making fun of two cultures. So, if you’re presenting anybody in, like, a not 100 percent flattering light, people get upset. They don’t realize that the character’s not supposed to be perfect and that the journey of the character is [in the] learning — but not everybody wants to go on that journey or accept the fact that somebody’s starting from point A and then they’re going to go to point B and that’s part of the series, and you’ve got to hang in there for the ride. That’s also the risk you take doing any serialized TV, because not everything is told in the first episode.
Chuck, you’ve had to deal with star departures on The Kominsky Method and Mom this year. I’m curious what those conversations are like, and then how you decide whether you continue and how you continue?
LORRE Anna Faris informed us last summer while we were well into writing the season that she wasn’t going to return. So, the conversation on Zoom — because we were all afraid of each other then — was how do we proceed? And it was two words: Allison Janney. We were blessed to have Allison Janney as the co-star of the show, and this extraordinary ensemble around her, and that was the reason to continue. The show morphed over several seasons into this show about this group of women who were helping one another recover from alcohol and drugs and just carrying each other through the day. [And on Kominsky,] when Alan Arkin said, “I’m done,” believe me, I tried to talk him out of it.
STAR I thought you just fired him … (Laughter.)
LORRE Yeah. (Laughs.) He’s an 86-, 87-year-old and we were in the middle of a pandemic. It was a very risky process to ask anybody to come to work last winter. But writing the loss of his character threw a spotlight on this man named Sandy Kominsky [played by Michael Douglas] and how does he grapple with it. And the smallness of that story appealed to me — about someone coming to grips or not coming to grips with how they feel when they have lost a loved one. I’ve lived through that and I’ve seen it happen to loved ones in my family, and then the challenge is, of course, can this be funny? And when the grandchild of Alan Arkin’s character is a Scientologist, sure, it can be funny. (Laughs.)
LORRE And like Bill, I’m a product of many, many years of working in front of a live studio audience. Wanda’s always worked in front of an audience, too. And laughter is critical, either it’s in front of the audience or it’s implied in a film presentation where there is an audience response. But finding a way to make this funny is the only reason I can call it a comedy, otherwise, it’s something else. It might be something wonderful, but it’s not a comedy in my ridiculously unhumble opinion.
Wanda, you started filming The Upshaws with a live studio audience, then the pandemic hit. When you finally returned, it was a combination of a crew audience and a laugh track. How does that impact you as a performer and ultimately the story you’re telling?
SYKES We were very grateful that we did get to do three shows in front of a live audience because [that’s how] we knew it was working. The laughs were real. I was like, “OK, we have a show here.” So when we went back and did the last five episodes without an audience, it did give us confidence, because we knew that what we were doing was working and knew what that felt like.
Anna and Nasim, you’re both filming with actual kids and, presumably, their actual parents are there, too. How much explaining do you find yourself doing before a scene starts, and when have you chosen to use an adult stand-in?
KONKLE I feel like every day I’m having some awkward conversation with a [child]. And we’ve been so lucky with the kids and the parents, but there have been times when I wish the set-up of the scene was being filmed. Like in the first season, my character has her first kiss, and it was about my real first kiss, which was horrific. We used body doubles when it came to the actual thing. But we used a wide shot and had Brady [a child actor] and I very far away, which worked for being 13, because 6 feet with some kid that you like is really hot. (Laughter.) And then we cut and we’re in extreme close-ups on two mouths, and that was gross, and that I used my real boyfriend for, which ruined things for a long time for us, actually. (Laughter.)
KONKLE No, I’m just kidding. The more emotional things where you’re going back to [the year] 2000 — and social dynamics that you hope are different now — those are the trickier conversations, where in the moment we’re doing one scene with a kid addressing homophobia or [whatever it is], but in that scene there’s just one flippant reference to it. And then Maya [Erskine, her co-creator and co-star] and I’ll be in later scenes where we address the issue, but that kid might not be back for that part. So, we try to be cognizant of that and discuss, like, “This is where the arc is going, this isn’t a joke for us, this is how it was in the year 2000, we hope it’s not like that now.” It’s a lot of that.
Do you ever worry that a parent is just going to yank their kid in horror mid-taping?
KONKLE Yes. I am very nice to the parents, let’s just say that. “Do you need water, tea, anything …?” (Laughter.)
How about you, Nasim?
PEDRAD I found it so helpful for my performance to be surrounded by actual kids, and they engage with me as Chad so earnestly. And when you have a conceit at the center of a show like this, with an adult playing a 14-year-old boy, you want everything around that to feel as honest and as grounded as possible. And I found I was just really lucky to get kids that I got — and I did wonder going into it how dialed in they would be to the comedic sensibility of the show. Because teenagers don’t always know what’s so funny about being a teenager. They’re just living — they are in that trauma, present day, so they don’t have that distance and that perspective yet, so I wondered if they’d understand why certain moments are funny for the reasons that they are funny. And I was surprised, because they definitely got it more than I expected, which was also wild because I’m like, “You’re still at that age. Like, this is you today.”
LAWRENCE I’m curious, do you two stay in character in between takes when you’re shooting scenes with the kids? Or do you go in and out of being the grown-up producer?
PEDRAD I go in and out. So, when the director yells cut, conversations get real weird because in the Venn diagram of me and the kids, there’s just our little TV show in the middle. They’re talking about things I have no reference point of, and I’m spinning out about my landscape architect. (Laughter.)
KONKLE And Maya and I, even when we were making the web series, we’re just weird and can get a little Method-y with it. So sometimes we’re like, “Are you talking to me as the showrunner? Are you OK?” (Laughter.) Or other people are like, “Are you OK?” And to be honest, there haven’t been that many times where I’ve been on set dressed as an adult. I’m usually bound and wearing ill-fitting clothes and am definitely treated differently. It’s interesting. I’ll be at monitor and have a note or something, and — even though I love everybody very much — half the time people are like, “Oh, the 13-year-old has another note. OK, I’ll let her say something.” (Laughter.) And the days where I’m dressed as an adult, they’re like, “The showrunner has a note.” So it’s weird.
Many of you worked on big shows in the ’90s and early aughts. What could you get away with then that you wouldn’t be able to do now? And vice versa?
LAWRENCE On Scrubs, we did an episode in which Judy Reyes and Sarah Chalke were trying to get medical marijuana to relieve a chemotherapy patient. Scrubs was, like, 15 to 20 years ago, but we were told we can’t do that story even with doctors doing it for a cancer patient. And I was annoyed by it because I thought it was stupid. So I literally said, “All right, how about their patient is a virgin and dying, and they want to get a prostitute of some kind to get that person laid?” And they were like, “Yeah, sure you can do that,” which was what was on TV, which we shouldn’t have put on TV, but we did because I was annoyed and petulant and a kid. (Laughs.)
STAR On Sex and the City, we had no boundaries, basically, so the boundaries were only our own good or bad taste. But on network TV? On Melrose Place, we couldn’t have an onscreen kiss [between two men]. It was important for me to shoot it and let the network cut it. There were so many battles.
LAWRENCE When Spin City happened, you were only allowed to say the word “ass” three times in an episode of TV, and they would have people that would police it. And I handed in a script of Spin City that had four, and the Standards & Practices person sent me a note that said, “You are only allowed to use the word ‘ass’ three times, and you have it four times on these pages.” And then it says, “Please pick your ass.” (Laughter.) You don’t realize it, but you just gave me a piece of wall art. It’s still in my office.
STAR It was also very exciting to see an ass crack back then.
LAWRENCE Oh yes.
LAWRENCE Darren, the young writers on the Ted Lasso staff are still referencing Sex and the City in scripts in ways that’s not usually the shelf life of TV shows. It’s really cool.
STAR I’ll tell you what’s really annoying is my writing staff is always referencing Sex and the City and telling me, “Oh, we can’t do that, it was done on Sex and the City.” I’m like, “Don’t throw Sex and the City in my face.” They do it all the time, as if I had nothing to do with it. I’m like, wait a second, I can repeat myself. …
LAWRENCE Yeah, you’re allowed to steal from yourself, come on.
Wanda, what are the things you can’t believe were in question when you were starting out?
SYKES I started with The Chris Rock Show on HBO, so it was do whatever you want to do. And now, I’m torn about that question, because with stand-up, I know a lot of comics are saying, “Oh, you get canceled, you can’t say this, you can’t do that,” but I’m of the mindset of, “If it’s funny, you can do it.” It’s just how you execute it. And now, [with TV shows,] you can find a place that will let you do what you want to do. Like, with The Upshaws, I couldn’t do that show on a network.
SYKES On a network, they’d make me have white neighbors. I mean seriously, it’d be like, “You need some white people in here, come on. You mean everybody’s going to be Black? This is crazy.” (Laughter.)
How about you, Chuck?
LORRE My frame of reference for pushback was Two and a Half Men, which was an endless battle because the show was purposely risque. We discovered very early on that it was just a filthy fuckin’ show, and that was what it was. That was the voice of the show. And our goal was to make the audience laugh. There really wasn’t a lot of deep cultural issues we were wrestling with. We just wanted to be funny. And so the battles with CBS, which were endless, were us trying to defend what we thought was really good stuff comedically — “This is going to get a big honest belly laugh!” — and I don’t want to cut it. And we did get to a place where we’d put in horrific jokes knowing [that we could say,] “All right, we’ll take the bestiality joke out, but we want the two oral sex jokes.” We were horse-trading terrible material that was placed in the script so it would get flagged, so we could have a conversation and say, “Ugh, we’ll cut that, OK, fine, you win.” And part of the process with broadcast standards was the game of giving them a victory. It was, “Oh good, we’ve saved CBS, we’ve saved Western civilization, we took out a joke that would offend someone.” And as we all know, there is no joke that won’t offend someone.
And finally, what do you wish you knew when you started as a showrunner that you know now?
LAWRENCE I made constant mistakes. One was this ethos, when I was younger, of: Every script has to pass through your computer, so it sounds the same. But if you have a really good writing staff, sometimes you find yourself doing what I like to call the “lateral punch down,” which is when you change stuff just for the sake of changing it. And I’ve reached a point in my life now where I allow writers to go, “Hey man, I think you took this scene home and just did a lateral punch down on it, because it’s the exact same only, like, longer and a little less funny.” And so when you take the ego out of it, it frees up your life a bit. That was a big lesson.
STAR I wish I got used to the sense of panic earlier — that “Where’s my next script going to come from?” panic — and just accepted it as part of the deal.
LORRE Coming to having some peace with panic is a big one for me, too. The whole, “We’re doomed, we are screwed, we are never going to make this table, this script …” It’s constant, and it always somehow manages to work itself out. But the thing that came to mind for me was, when bombarded with people telling me how to do my job, it took me 15 years to learn how to say, “That’s interesting, let me think about that.”
As opposed to what?
LORRE “Are you fuckin’ out of your mind?” (Laughter.) Which was unnecessary. Looking back, I was so defensive, I was so frightened of these things failing. What really generated the anger and the defensiveness was a fear of failure. I was afraid to fail. I was afraid this was going to all blow up, the show’s going to get canceled, we’re all going to go home, and it’s just going to be horrible. And that fear drove a lot of anger and wasn’t necessary. The easier response would have been, and is now, “That’s an interesting thought, we’ll take a look at that,” and then walk away. And sometimes it is a good note. And if it’s not, just focus on the fact that there’s an element there that they are not getting and ignore their solution, because the solutions can generally be somewhat dreadful. (Laughs.) But, yeah, I’d like to go back and be kinder. But to be kinder, I would’ve had to have been less afraid, and fear and desperation are the two horses that drive a lot of comedy.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.