TVWriter interviews Curtis Gwinn
TVWriter May 13, 2013
TVWriter™ Talks to WALKING DEAD Writer-Producer Curtis Gwinn
30-something “child” that he is, Curtis Gwinn has an IMDB page that many of us would, um, kill for. He writes and produces both comedy and drama and has extensive experience with broadcast, cable, and interweb TV. He even acts too, but we forgive him.
Oh, right, he’s also an alumnus of TVWriter's Online Workshop and a former People’s Pilot Contest competitor. We forgive him for that as well. (But will he forgive us?)
Curtis’s biggies include THE WALKING DEAD, where he is Supervising Producer, NTSF:SD:SUV, ANIMAL PRACTICE (aka “The Monkey Show”), THE ONION NEWS NETWORK, and THE MAN SHOW.
Last week, TVWriter Reporter-At-Large Justin Cloyd talked to Curtis about his life, career, and, yes, relationship with this very site.
I have a warm up question: Every entertainer has influences that inspire them and help guide their creative pursuits. What are yours?
This is always a tough one because, and I’m not trying to sound snooty or pretentious, I’m influenced in some way by everything I come in contact with. And what I mean by that is, I take lessons and inspiration as much from the things that repulse me as I do from the things that I love. Often times, for me, learning what I’m NOT is tremendously elevating and exhilarating.
But to answer your question more in the spirit in which I think it was asked, when it comes to TV I would say that I was most influenced by British comedy as a youngster. The Young Ones, Monty Python, Red Dwarf, Black Adder and Fawlty Towers being the most impactful on me. Though, the rash of early 2000′s alternative Brit comedy was also a massive revelation for me… Spaced, The Mighty Boosh, Look Around You, Jam, and Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. All of it genius.
On the drama side, I grew up loving the more fantastical and/or seedy, so Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The Twilight Zone, Dr. Who (primarily the Tom Baker years), Tales From the Darkside, Friday the 13th: The Series, Quantum Leap, Amazing Stories, The X Files… Anything supernatural or mysterious, I was in.
Don’t get me started on movies and comic books. I won’t stop.As an adult, I still love horror, fantasy and sci-fi (Game of Thrones! The Walking Dead!), but I think I’m most influenced by the more gritty, human stuff… The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire (though I know for some of my friends, it’s “bored-walk”, but whatever, it’s great), and my two most favorite dramas of the modern era – Deadwood and The Sopranos. The latter of which I think is the best TV show of all time.
You’re an…uhm, older adult now, and are an entertainment industry success story. There were a few years in the middle when you were an adult before you were a professional entertainer. During those years, did you have the constant drive compelling you to be in entertainment? Or did you just stumble upon the path?
Older adult?! What the fuck?! “Older adults” are in their 70′s. How old are you, you little punk?
To answer your question, yes, from an early age I knew I wanted to be in entertainment. It was a constant drive. There was a running joke in my family because when I was 3 years old, my mother asked me what I thought I’d be when I grew up and I told her, “a writer.” I even told her I had a typewriter with me in her belly. They all thought that was hilarious, but obviously it was formative in some way, right?
Between then and now, I also pursued a career in rock music and acting. Both of which were clearly towering successes…
Now get off my god damned lawn!
You’ve had a long career filled with many splendors. It’s had ups and downs, trials and tribulations, successes and failures and all the rest. At what point on this long, winding road did you feel legitimized in your choice of career?
I still don’t feel legitimized. I’m not sure I ever will. I think for my sick, neurotic mind it’s important to feel the need to SOMEDAY be legit. I feel like I have to constantly earn my place…otherwise I might get complacent. I never want to be the bloated writer/producer, living off of royalties, sitting on a golden toilet, firing one assistant for buying my 3rd wife the wrong anniversary gift while simultaneously screaming at another assistant to, “Tell Michael Bay I’m in for Cabo!”
Notice I have two assistants in that scenario. Pretty cool.
As far as feeling, “a part of something,” or that I was making headway… There were three times; 1) When I got my first series as a creator with, “Fat Guy Stuck in Internet,” on Adult Swim, 2) Being asked by Paul Scheer and Jon Stern to executive produce, write and direct for, “NTSF:SD:SUV:: (also on Adult Swim) and most recently 3) When I was hired to write and produce for one of my favorite programs (and comic books), “The Walking Dead.”
All three of those experiences were accompanied by giddy, “am I dreaming?” moments of surreal joy.
You started out as a comedian, and up until just recently, most of your employment has been in comedy shows. A lot of comedians get their funny through coping with their past. There’s a show that you’re in at the UCB Theatre called Death By Roo Roo: Your F’ed Up Family. In Roo-Roo’s description it invites for people to come and let “Roo-Roo West take what caused your family pain and turn it into a night of hilarious improv comedy.” With this in mind, on a scale of one-to-Batman, how traumatic was your life?
Hmm… It definitely wasn’t Batman traumatic… Maybe more like one of the lesser X-Men, or if I’m being honest, one of the New Mutants (post Fall of the Mutants, just getting into Inferno). But if I’m being HONEST-honest… More like one of the Morlocks – just sort of a homeless, jackass teen in bad clothes and a shitty haircut living under the city, pretending he was totally cool with being a B-class mutant, but secretly really wishing he could be an X-man… If only to sneak a peek of Kitty Pryde in the Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters’ locker room.
I didn’t have the best childhood, but it was a lot easier/luckier than 99% of the human race. Not to mention, all of the bumps in my personal road have completely informed who I am… My worldview, my personality and my most prized possession, my imagination. Wouldn’t change a thing.
As anyone who reads TV Writer regularly knows, Larry advocates that to be a TV writer you have to live in LA. During the course of your career you made the move from New York to LA. Was this hard for you? Was this the only time you had to make a move like that? Any advice for those planning on a similar relocation?
I think Larry is right… for now. Things are changing so rapidly that really, if you have the skills, the drive and the access to quality cameras and editing, you can make your TV or Internet based show anywhere. However, if you want to work for the networks, or break into traditional cable narratives, with staffs and free lunch on the lot… Well, then yeah. You have to be in Los Angeles. Stop pretending you don’t. It hurts me to listen to it (because I was that guy in NYC for 12 years without a consistent job who, since moving to LA, has done nothing but work).
Obviously, that’s not everyone’s experience. I was lucky in the sense that I’ve been a part of the UCB Theater in NYC since 1999. So, by the time I moved to LA in 2010, there were already a ton of friends out here and a huge network of people to vouch for me, and plug me right into the scene.
To put it simply, if you’re an auteur and have the resources, you can make it from almost anywhere…. But you’re still severely handicapping your chances.
In a note to TV Writer you expressed the difficulty of breaking into drama when your last credit was “’the monkey show’ on NBC”. Even though you’ve worked on several shows that have found an audience, was it difficult for you to be taken seriously in the business as a writer when you only wrote comedy?
It wasn’t hard to be taken seriously in the “business,” it was just hard to convince drama folks that I was serious about working for THEM. I think for a lot of showrunners and producers, it may have seemed like I was trying to get a job, any job, rather than being truly passionate about drama writing. I mean, I just didn’t have the track record. Where was the proof that I was a “drama guy?”
I had to do a lot of selling in person to assure people that I was determined to make the switch from comedy to drama. I also had to prove it to myself. I turned down several very lucrative comedy offers because I felt that I had to walk the walk, draw the line in the sand and say, “no. I do drama now.”
That’s not to say I would never do comedy again. Of course I would. I mean, a lot of great writing blurs the lines between comedy and drama anyway… Is Louis not dramatic? Is The Sopranos not hilarious? When I saw August: Osage County on Broadway, it had me crying and laughing at the same lines. That’s good shit!
On a side note, “the monkey show” was an amazing experience. It got knocked very hard, but for me personally, it was one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had in TV. I’m thankful to the creators and producers for hiring me.
In the 2012 People’s Pilot you entered a script called The Last Stone, categorized as an Action/Dramedy. Around that same time you were working on NTSF:SD:SUV::. Was it difficult transitioning from working on something as unhinged and non-dramatic as NTSF to something, if only a tiny bit, more somber?
Well, I’m not sure why “The Last Stone” was listed as dramedy… If you read it, it’s pretty fucking dark. A major departure from what I’d ever done before. I mean, the teaser features a naked man in a rubber chicken mask (a little shout out to the classic rubber chicken of comedy- my roots!) almost choking a prostitute to death.
The Mentalist it was not.
But hey, if it makes you laugh, I’m OK with it. I once read that The Zodiac Killer would occasionally send movie reviews to the San Francisco Chronicle. My favorite was his write-up of, “The Exorcist.” He called it, “the laugh out loud, feel good hit of the summer!”, or something like that. I’m paraphrasing The Zodiac Killer.
Whatever works, I guess.
You were a semi-finalist in the contest. Did this help your confidence when showing your original drama spec around? What kind of feedback did you receive back from the contest?
Yes, it helped me a lot. But you know, it wasn’t the allure of winning that drew me in the most (though it would have been nice… WTF, Larry??). It was the process of having a goal and hitting deadlines. When you write in an open-ended vacuum, it can be very hard to stay motivated. TV Writer’s The People’s Pilot focused me up and got me motivated to write, polish and get excited about my script. It was the simple joy of doing something creative and being proactive about it. A great experience.
But still… I didn’t win. I demand a recount.
Just recently you accepted a position as producer/writer for AMC’s The Walking Dead. How unbelievably cool is your life right now?
Haven’t you been reading? I’m a neurotic who had a lousy childhood. The only person benefitting from my success is my shrink, who can now charge me the full rate instead of the sliding scale she had me on before.
But, yeah, yeah… I’m thrilled. Really. This is a dream job. I’m eternally thankful to Gale Anne Hurd, Dave Alpert, Greg Nicotero, Robert Kirkman and especially showrunner, Scott Gimple… Who took a risk on a goofball who’s spent most of his professional life doing ha-ha, funny make-em-ups. I am a fan of them all.
A special shout out also goes to Larry Brody, who has been so generous with his time. I once sent him a Silver Surfer comic as thanks for all his sage advice. Hope that tides him over for a while… these shrink bills really are killing me.
You completed the Advanced Writers Workshop. He-Who-Runs-The-Site informed me that you took the workshop with the intent of polishing your dramatic writing skills. Since you snagged the gig as staff writer for The Walking Dead, I think it’s safe to consider your skills polished. What about the Advanced Writers Workshop helped you the most in developing your drama talents?
Other than the technical, “how-to,” aspect, which was invaluable, it was the encouragement I received from Larry and the group. I had written most of my script before enrolling, but getting feedback from a living, breathing group of aspiring drama writers on the work was really terrific. You can only ask your friends so many times to read and note your work. It helps to get impartial, critical eyes on your pages.
Again, it’s about getting proactive with your desires. This class facilitated that in the best way.
Not to mention listening to Larry’s, Bob-Evans-meets-Hunter-Thompson-esque stories about living and breathing the TV business in the 70′s and 80′s. That was worth the cost of tuition in and of itself.
So what’s next? You’ve been a stand-up comedian, a TV comedian, a comedy writer, an actor, an executive producer, a drama writer, a director, and you even have an IMDB puppeteer credit. Do you have some super mind-blowing, revolutionary form of entertainment planned which makes use of all these skills?
I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.
Thanks, Curtis. Especially for sparing me!