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Jeremy Bronson got his start in TV working as a producer for longtime MSNBC host Chris Matthews. So, it’s only fitting that his new series The Mayor is about – you guessed it – politics. The half-hour comedy centers on a struggling young rapper named Courtney Rose who runs for mayor of his small town to increase his celebrity and ends up winning. That being said, the transition from Hardball producer to comedy series creator (with a few stops at Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, The Mindy Project and Speechless along the way) wasn’t quite so easy. Ahead of Tuesday’s series premiere, Bronson reflects on how he made it.
I was always very interested in writing and also very interested in politics. I wrote for the Harvard Lampoon and had assumed I was going to try and write for a TV show. And then decided that I really wanted to start out in politics and specifically in political television. When I was a senior in college, I started reading a lot of White House memoirs and really got hooked and throughout the year, just found myself really gravitating towards that. I had taken two classes, one about political speech-writing and another class about how to run for president, and they both made a big impact on me. They made me want to give it a go for real.
The day I graduated college, I drove down to Tennessee and worked for a Senate campaign doing communications. And then I left Tennessee and went to D.C. to work on The Chris Matthews Show, which had not been launched yet. I thought Chris Matthews was interested in potentially working with someone who had a humorous take on certain stories, but really, I think he was just casting a wide net. I ended up coming in for an interview and we really hit it off. Then I moved over to Hardball. We were covering all the big stories that I cared a lot about, and we got to do a lot of travel as well. Chris Matthews loved to take the show on the road whenever there was an excuse to and that meant that we were doing shows in primary states, doing shows from debates, and even prepping the NBC debates themselves. I loved it, but then I started to miss comedy writing. After we finished the show every day, I would go home and I would write while I was living in D.C.
I was writing half-hour spec scripts, pages of jokes for any show that might need to hire a joke writer, I was writing some sketches in case something popped up. I just wanted to be positioned in case the right opportunity came along that I would have the material to show that I could do it. Anyone who’s trying to break into a business while they currently have a job knows it can be challenging and taxing and sleepless, but I was having fun with it. I was really, really starting to feel that this is what I’m meant to do. I was enjoying writing tryout material, which is something that is inherently not enjoyable, so if you’re actually enjoying writing your packets, it’s a good sign that you’re doing what you should be doing.
When I was at that crossroads of figuring out whether or not to continue in TV news or move out to Los Angeles and really devote myself to comedy, I was fortunate enough that I had a manager to help me. My manager then took my material out to agents and once I had an agent, he started submitting my material to different shows.
Chocolate News was a Comedy Central show that was hiring and I wrote some stuff for it. They liked it and the next thing I knew, I was flying out to Los Angeles on a Friday and starting work on Monday. I was doing well in TV news and felt like I was ready to run a news show at that point or close to it, and to walk away was a very tough decision. But I made the decision I made and I felt great about it as soon as I flew out to Los Angeles. It was all very fast, but it was exciting.
There was a lot that I took with me from TV news that I applied to comedy writing that was really helpful. The collaborative element of both of those shows felt similar in a good way. I also was very used to deadlines, which is a key part of producing any television show, so I was very accustomed to having to write quickly. I also felt that I had learned in news the value of going with your instincts. That was always my guiding force. I would ask myself what my gut reaction to something was and try to trust it, and I used the same philosophy when I was doing comedy writing.
I went directly from Chocolate News to Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Jimmy [Fallon] had gotten the show but it was still several months before it was actually going to air. We didn’t have many guidelines, we just wrote what we enjoyed writing because there wasn’t a target to hit yet. That was both very freeing in general but it’s also a challenge. It’s one skill to write in someone’s voice, which very much became the job at Fallon, and it’s another to generate material from your own voice, which is what you’re doing when you’re creating a show. I tend to not write cynically and by luck that was in sync with the show that Jimmy was hoping to make. It’s a little bit of a leap of faith when a show is hiring writers and the show doesn’t exist yet. You get the job and hopefully you do well enough that you get to stick around for a while, and it felt like a good fit when I got there.
My TV news background was invaluable because to write a monologue joke, you need a take on the story and that was literally that way we would approach producing segments on Hardball. It’s here’s what happened today, but what’s the angle? And that is how you approach writing a monologue joke: What’s the point that the joke is trying to make? Also, having a working knowledge of government and politics and news, it helps you get a sense of what monologue joke topics an audience will be interested in talking about.
“Thank You Notes” came about because Jimmy challenged everybody to come up with a segment that could potentially be a franchise for the show. We tried it out. It played well so we did it again and it grew in popularity. I grew up obsessed with The Late Show With David Letterman and I had all those books of Top 10 lists when I was a kid so it felt special when the first “Thank You Notes” book came out.
I never want to get complacent, so I like to look for the next challenge and to push myself to go to more unfamiliar territory. When I was in college, I remember Conan O’Brien gave a speech where he talked about how at every point in his career, he would leave something that was comfortable in favor of some unknown that offered a potential challenge and success. But he always did it and it paid off and that really stuck with me. I often think about that speech that Conan gave. Whenever something feels a little bit scary, it’s often a good sign that it might be worth doing. I had been writing monologue jokes for a while and it was time to challenge myself to do something else.
Mindy Kaling was a friend of mine, is now a very close friend of mine, and I had helped her with some jokes for her book. When she got The Mindy Project, she asked if I would be interested in coming out and writing for it. After I watched the pilot, it was clear to me that it was going to be a special show. It’s always a little crazy launching a show, but being part of anything from the ground up is, I think, the best way to be involved. And I was just lucky enough that that’s been the case for all of my comedy writing jobs.
I had wanted to write a political comedy series for a while, a half-hour scripted comedy that involved a lot of the observations and experiences I had picked up covering the subject matter. In particular, after Hurricane Katrina, Hardball went down to New Orleans because Chris Matthews was moderating the mayoral debate there. That was obviously a very tragic situation in New Orleans at the time but it was an example of a city that was going through a really, really trying period and here was an election where somebody was going to have to step up and try to build it back. I did have that in the back of my mind a little bit when thinking about the show. What would it mean for a city that’s going through tough times to have a transformational figure appear? Someone who, perhaps, didn’t expect to find himself in that position. He has a lot of heart, he has a lot of intelligence and great instincts and he’s a deeply good person. In his rap career, he’s spent a lot of time thinking about social issues and writing about them and commenting on them and observing them, he just hasn’t thought about how you actually go about solving these problems. A lot of those themes were sort of swirling in my head.
When I first pitched the show, Trump was starting to get a little heat in the primaries. As I was writing it, cable news was often on in the background in my office. I, like everybody else, was only talking about politics and talking about the election. It became clear that this was becoming increasingly relevant. It definitely energized me to dig into this world.
The shows on ABC have a lot of heart, which I always wanted this show to have and I thought was inherent to a show like this. Courtney Rose takes this job because he’s made to see his community is in need of a leader. In addition, I think the team at ABC really saw from the get-go [that there was] potential in this story. They took to it early and were such champions of it.
I still consume news constantly like everybody and I myself end up watching a lot of all the cable networks, a lot of the Sunday shows, and a lot of our writers do too. There’s a lot of discussing politics as it’s happening among the writers on this show. There are times when I miss being in the debate hall or helping to produce a debate or saying to Chris Matthews, “Hey, maybe ask this guy this question.” I miss it sometimes, but not enough that I ever question that this is exactly where I want to be right now.
Personal: Lives in Los Angeles.
Reps: Scott Sims, Ziffren Brittenham
Hot Project: Creator, The Mayor (ABC), debuts Oct. 3
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