Ian Roberts ranked amongst Fast Company's 100 Most Creative People in Business 2013Mar 25, 2015
77-83. TV's Head of the Class
Once a wasteland, TV is now the most thoughtful, creative entertainment medium of them all. Here, the creators of six great shows talk about how the magic happens.
It's a golden age for TV, where on any given night, viewers can find multiple examples of American comedic and dramatic genius. We asked Ben Blacker, himself a TV writer, to interview the creators or showrunners of six stellar shows: Breaking Bad, Nashville, Key & Peele, Justified, Homeland, and New Girl. What follows are edited highlights of those conversations--a master class in creativity for anyone in any industry.
Ben Blacker: Ian Roberts and Jay Martel, why do you think you're on Fast Company's Most Creative People list?
Jay Martel: No idea.
Ian Roberts: Are we on the list . . .?
Martel: . . . because Ian's T-shirt matches the microphone perfectly?
Blacker: Liz, when last we met, four episodes of New Girl had aired.
Liz Meriwether: Yeah, I was a lot happier and skinnier.
Brett Baer: That was 45 episodes ago. That is not accurate.
Meriwether: I was full of energy.
Dave Finkel: You still had an ounce of wonder in you.
Meriwether: Yeah, I still had wonder.
Baer: There was also a lot of swearing.
Finkel: It's actually worse now.
Blacker: Howard, I know you're crazy busy so let's talk about why.
Howard Gordon: That's between me and my analyst.
Blacker: Vince, when we complete something, there is this avalanche of emotion. You've been living with for seven years, if not longer. How are you feeling now?
Vince Gilligan: We had our last day on the set a week and a day ago, and it still hasn't quite sunk in. The last day, I was able to just be a fly on the wall, and I kept thinking, I'm gonna start crying. After the last take, I said, "That's a cut!" and I thought I'd start tearing up. Then the Champagne bottles came out and we had a wonderful, heartfelt little moment with our crew. And still no tears. I'm thinking, What's wrong with me?
Blacker: The show turned you cold.
TV AS AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Blacker: How much of you is in this show, in these characters?
Callie Khouri: I used to live in Nashville in the late '70s and early '80s, and I waitressed at music clubs. So I had that point of view where I was kind of where Scarlett is. I don't sing or play anything. But plenty of the people who I worked with, you would ask, "Why are you working as a . . .?" So great. But it still would take years for somebody to get discovered. I saw so much incredible music when I lived here that I just felt like people have got to see this. You can come here and just walk down the street and hear fantastic music any night of the week. The bench here is 10 deep.
Blacker: Howard, looking at the shows you've developed and worked on for the past 10 to 15 years , it seems you clearly have topics you're interested in and ways you care to explore them. Have you been reflective in that way?
Gordon: My voice is not as overt or identifiable as, let's say, Aaron Sorkin's, but I suppose I do have one. It sounds pretentious to actually talk about these kinds of things, so I offer that caveat, but the truth is, I can trace what's interested me in every single show I've been part of. And they are basic questions of what it means to be alive, what it means to be a good person, or a person trying to do something that matters to you in this world. And I have obvious interests in foreign policy and a curiosity about the world and some of the challenges that we're all facing, whether it's issues of terrorism, security versus privacy, or the rights that we have as citizens in an open democracy. And trying to ask questions and have characters live through the complexities of those questions without offering too many answers. I've always been interested in how characters are put in a tough situation and have to navigate making the better of two bad choices.
Blacker: Vince, you've had this journey in mind for your protagonist , to turn him into this antagonist. As you lived in this world with the writers, did you ever think, I don't want to do this to this guy?
Gilligan: In the early going, thinking in Walter White terms was not so bad because he was basically me. On the Venn diagram of Walter White and Vince Gilligan, there was a fair bit of overlap. Frustrations, hopes and dreams, anxieties, free-form fears and middle-age crises. The darker he got, we still shared a lot. Because we all have darkness within us. When he got really, really dark, the more I felt like he was taking me along with him. So many, many months on end--years--of living with this mendacious son of a bitch in my head, what's the worst of it? Is it all the killing? The disregard for other people's feelings? The lying? Some combination of all of it? It's been hard, year after year, to live with this guy. There were times about a year ago where I was thinking, It's gonna be a relief when this ends because I can free myself of this guy. But these final eight episodes were different because, not to give away any plot details or anything, but as the writers and I were into a slightly different part of Walt's journey, I started to feel more sympathy for the devil, as it were.
THE COLLABORATIVE ART OF MAKING TELEVISION
Khouri: I had never worked with other writers . It's a lot less lonely. The luxury of having all those people there to help you, it's like the best deal ever. Really? Everybody's gonna help? Wow. Great.
Gilligan: I'm gonna miss the writers' room and I never thought I'd say that. Any of my writers who read this are gonna laugh their asses off. I'd be moping around every morning--Oh, God, another day of this shit. Their company made it more palatable, but another day of rolling the rock up the hill, you know? But what's the alternative? Writing movie scripts all by myself. A good day was maybe getting a paragraph written, and I hated myself.
Meriwether: Coming from theater and writing a movie, I was very afraid of group writing for most of the first season and then half of this year and then . . .
Finkel: Literally, January 3rd.
Meriwether: . . . I gave up.
Baer: When you work on a lot of sitcoms, like Dave and I have done, if the creator's voice isn't strong and you get that groupthink going, then you end up with banal, middle-of-the-road garbage.
Meriwether: But holding on tightly to the creator's voice can be really debilitating for a show. Our episode "Parking Spot" was the first one they group-wrote, and I didn't have that much to do with it. That's our funniest episode this year, and I didn't feel like, Oh, I wish I had had more of my hands on it. The real victory as a showrunner is when you've finally broken through with a group of people what you want the show to be and they're giving you that.
Graham Yost: We've got a big writers' room --nine people including me. When you get later into a series, you need more minds. I asked everyone if it would be okay to start really early. I wanted to get a jump on the season. Tim has a lot of input, and it's better to get that earlier rather than as we're scrambling and doing rewrites and while we're shooting. That's gonna happen anyway, but we're trying to reduce that. We did well. We had four scripts ready before we started shooting. Then we kind of hit the mud, and by our last episode, we were prepping off an outline.
Blacker: That's nuts.
Yost: My experience on Boomtown was much more, This is what we write, this is what you say. On Justified, it can get pretty wild sometimes: Even guest actors have ideas, notes. That can be very dangerous, though what we've found is, "Hey, bring it." If it's a good idea, we'll use it.
Blacker: Would the show be the same in a more controlled environment?
Yost: It wouldn't have the life. One of the things about Elmore Leonard is that he doesn't outline. He just starts writing. He doesn't always know where he's going and he will surprise himself. We do that as much as we can. We do need to kind of plan for the whole season; we don't wanna completely make it up on the fly. But within the box, we can play. We've just got to get here by the end of the scene. What's the most interesting and unexpected way we can get there? Sometimes that comes up on the set; sometimes it's in preproduction; sometimes it's the writer's first draft.
TRIUMPHS IN SHOWRUNNING
Roberts: My highest ideal in improv is when the enjoyment is "I know that! I had that idea!" But you didn't. It's just that it's so good. That's what a lot of our most humanly observed scenes are. I shouldn't give away scenes that are gonna be in next season , but anyway, some guy realized out there that his whole life he thought prog rock was rock that was from Prague, not progressive rock. Off that, we said, Everybody has those--those things you've been saying wrong your whole life and then you realize it.
Martel: "For all intensive purposes." "It's a doggy dog world."
Roberts: We have to challenge ourselves to say, "That seems old. I feel like that's been done." And sometimes, yes, it's been done. Other times it's that the scene is done in improv a lot, but that doesn't mean the average person knows it. The really interesting one is where it's so universal, it seems old.
Martel: That's what everyone is striving for.
Khouri: I have seen on television many, many times an older-man character with a younger woman, and I had to find a way to make the relationship between Deacon and Juliette not a stomach churner for me, you know? Because I wanted to have the Juliette character wanting to write with Deacon and aspiring to have somebody like that in her band; I had to find a way to take that relationship very quickly out of the fantasy part of "here's a guy who's gotten extremely lucky" into "guess what, her mom is a drug addict and you're gonna have to take her to rehab and this girl is gonna lean on you in a whole lot of ways that aren't gonna always be that much fun for you." All of that. All of a sudden, you're taking the polish off of that kind of relationship and putting it into the realm of reality that makes it something else entirely.
Yost: There were elements to this notion of crossing the line that Ava really personified in season 3. At the end of season 2, she said, "No whores," and by the end of season 3, she is running a whorehouse and she smacks around one of her prostitutes. It's that sense of, How did I get here? You've crossed that line and you don't realize you've crossed it. Raylan does some things in season 3 as well, which sort of cross the line, especially toward the end when he confronts Wynn Duffy in the trailer and you don't know if he's palmed the bullets or not. We don't tell the audience that, and we don't know for sure in a way, even in the writers' room. Was he gonna kill Wynn Duffy just to get this information? So that was sort of a thematic thing in season 3. In season 4, we wanted to explore the cliche "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." So Raylan has good intentions, which is making some extra money, maybe advancing his career for his child on the way. For Boyd and Ava, it's trying to build a future together. They end up doing all these things that they can excuse because they're for "the future," but they'll have harsh consequences.
TIME SHIFTERS AND CORD CUTTERS
Khouri: Broadcast television is in a very tough place these days because even I don't watch television at any appointed time.
Gordon: My viewing habits have changed since having an iPad. That kind of changed everything for me.
Khouri: Every single thing I watch is delayed to some degree. I don't know that networks have found a way to adapt to this new model. It's still really important to them that people are sitting there watching at the appointed time. The ratings are all based on that. Plus, the schedule is a little bit puzzling to an audience, because you're on for a week and then you're off for two weeks and then you're back for another week and then you're off for a month. It makes appointment television even more difficult than it is normally. There's only so much you can say about it. It's their schedule; you just want to keep being on it.
Martel: We hope people actually watch Key & Peele on TV. That's our hope. Please.
Blacker: Is that not what's happening?
Martel: Please, please watch it on TV. I think everyone knows about the show, but 80% of the people who know about the show just watch it online.
Roberts: I've had people self-identify as huge fans of the show, so I'll mention something that puts it on TV: "Did you see it last night?" They'll say, "Oh, no, no, I don't watch it on TV."
Martel: There is not going to be a fourth season unless people start watching it on TV.
Blacker: No kidding? Comedy Central's not cutting any slack, like "This is how people watch TV now"?
Martel: No. This show happens to be at this interesting intersection between these two eras.
Roberts: It's especially bad for a sketch show that's in pieces. You've only got so much time to watch anyway, so you catch half of it online; good enough. But not good enough. America, you're missing lots of good stuff.
Martel: You know they're gonna edit this.
Roberts: That's gonna go in.
Martel: That's good enough. Ian, what are you fucking doing? We'll get calls from the network.
LEARNING ON THE JOB
Khouri: This is my first television show. I know about writing, but the form and the storytelling is just a different pace and a different everything than feature films. I just kind of kept quiet as much as I possibly could and listened and asked questions and tried to learn. I wasn't gonna fool anybody. And hopefully if you're going into something like this, one of your strengths is that you have the good sense to know what you don't know.
Roberts: Although I've never had this kind of job before, my opinion about comedy is if you're not having fun while you're doing it, how is it gonna be funny at the end? On a dramatic show, if you could feel like you're kidnapped all day, it would help the drama.
Blacker: Vince, as you finish this experience of running and putting it together, what have you learned that you'll take with you?
Gilligan: The best, first answer is confidence. I've been confidence-deficient my whole life. It's like rickets or something. I'm going to state the screamingly obvious here, but I didn't know going into this job if I could run a show. I was scared shitless from day one. But if I had known how little I knew back then, I would have been scared to the point of petrification. I do not go forward brimming with confidence, because that's just not me, but I know I can run a show. And that's a wonderful, freeing thing.
Gordon: If this were a company, I'm a guy who started out on the assembly line. I've been doing this since 1984. I'm not a genius and not the best writer, but I probably have about as much experience as anyone doing it. And to the extent that I've kept my eyes open and learned a thing or two, I am able to leverage that and help other writers become better writers and other showrunners become better showrunners. Unlike other producers who don't write, I am able to take a pass on a script or speak a language that writers understand and that executives don't necessarily, because they haven't done it. There is a difference to managing talent. I have to persuade other people to see their own blind sides and hopefully also emphasize their strengths.
Blacker: Liz, when you were just starting, you told me that you had no idea what you were doing. Tell me how the last year and a half has been. What have you learned?
Meriwether: Shockingly little. This job is really humbling. It's great, but it definitely challenges you in a new way, every day, in things you didn't even think you would have to be dealing with. Like badger problems. We have a badger in the finale, and it's just like, Why am I in this situation? It's so many episodes, so much time, and so much work. It really pushes you to the brink of what you can do. And it's good because you're forced to get better, be a better person, a better leader, and a better writer. But it's not easy.
Baer: You're running an organization, ultimately, of about 200 people, if not more. Everybody's got personalities and needs and desires and wants. And you're talking about big money. Every episode is a multimillion-dollar endeavor, and people's jobs are always on the line.
Meriwether: For people like us who are perfectionists, there are moments where it's just not gonna be exactly what you wanted. Those are hard, but it also can be liberating. Okay, it's not exactly what I had in my mind, but then there is this other thing that might work.
Blacker: You can't be precious, right?
Meriwether: It ain't HBO. It's fucking TV.
Refinery 29 names UCB performers on list of unique "slashies"Mar 25, 2015
Of course, the nature of Lena Dunham is that she's a breath of fresh air, a unique presence in a predominantly male industry - an outlier. But in a recent R29 editorial meeting, our London editor referred to a group of "slashies," a term for those who professionally blur boundaries, like a model-slash-actress or a writer-slash-director. And, whether she isn't your cup of tea or if you are firmly in Camp Dunham (we happen to be the latter), Lena Dunham is the most recognizable example of a young, female actress-slash-writer-director working today. Her success, plus the immense critical conversation she has inspired, has led to script execs beginning to think of shows with pitches that include "women," "New York," "real," "sex," and "funny" in the description.
With that in mind, here are 10 other ladies (two of whom work together) who are just as unique as Dunham, but still have that "slashie" quality. They also aren't just actresses but comedians, writers, directors, and cinematographers, each one following (err, or not following) in the groundbreaking footsteps of a certain "voice of her generation."
So, these gals might not be the next Lena Dunham, so to speak, but perhaps the next gal we'll all be talking about, not only because she gets us, but because she can really, truly do it all.
Kate McKinnon, 29
Known talents: Sketch actress, writer, SNL cast member, killer Ellen impersonator
Known collaborators: The cast of SNL
If anyone has been catching the most recent season of SNL, they'd see the bright, slapstick-ready McKinnon, who has a Wiig-esque ability to fit into any role, at any age, and make it hilarious. Like many (literally, many) of her SNL compatriots, McKinnon came from the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre and spent four years writing and performing on Logo's The Big Gay Sketch Show. Oh, yeah, there's this, too: McKinnon is the first openly lesbian cast member of SNL.
Jenny Slate, 31
Known talents: Actress, improv pro, writer, published author
Known collaborators: Lena Dunham, Marcel The Shell
Okay, let's get this out of the way: Slate is Marcel The Shell. Yep, that's her amazing voice that made you fall in love with one of the best viral videos ever. In fact, it helped land her a single season role on Saturday Night Live, but her contract wasn't renewed (some may think it's because she dropped the F-bomb on live TV). But that didn't slow Slate, who has appeared on Bored To Death, Bob's Burgers, and Parks and Recreation, while lending her voice talents to The Lorax. Oh, and fittingly, Slate has played opposite Dunham in Girls - as Hannah Horvath's obnoxious, successful rival.
Ilana Glazer & Abbi Jacobson, 27 and unknown
Known talents: Sketch comedy, writers, directors, and actors in their own show, artist and author (Abbi)
Known collaborators: Amy Poehler
So, yes, we are putting these two together, but both Glazer and Jacobson are the brains behind Broad City, a web series that has not only been picked up by FX to make into a larger show in the style of Louie, but it's being produced by fellow awesome-lady Amy Poehler. The show is - surprise, surprise - about girls in New York, but the Glazer/Jacobson product is less frantic and a little more light-hearted than Dunham's take. Oh, and you've already seen their work: The super-duper viral "S*** New Yorkers Say" was all Glazer.
behind Kreayfish 'Fishy Fishy' Kreayshawn parody with Wendy McColmMar 25, 2015
Instead of ragging on high-end fashion labels, what if Kreayshawn's "Gucci Gucci" was about loving fish tacos?
Comedy students Jeremy Burke and Will Reese took that weird question and turned it into an exacting -- and funny -- video parody of the Oakland-via-L.A. rapper's breakout single. The "Fishy Fishy" clip, credited to a Natassia Zolot-lookalike named Kreayfish, went live on YouTube last Thursday and has since racked up more than a quarter-million views. It was featured on World Star Hip-Hop, Funny or Die, and of course, this blog.
Disguised as a parody, "Fishy Fishy" is also a comedic appreciation for the food of Best Fish Taco in Ensenada, a "low-key" favorite of Burke's in L.A.'s Los Feliz neighborhood. The idea for the clip was suggested by his friend, Will Reese, who helped with writing the lyrics and directing the video. From the beginning, their idea was to stick as close to the original "Gucci Gucci" as possible. It helped that Reese's roomate, Richard Figone -- the guy who plays Lil Debbie in the video -- made a beat that sounds remarkably similar to the song's quasi-dubstep backing track.
From there, Burke says, "I printed out her lyrics and pretty much dissected syllable for syllable. I wanted everything to be the same rhyme scheme, almost to the point where our lyrics could rhyme with her lyrics."
So "Fishy Fishy" starts with the memorable, "I put that on with salsa, I put that on with sour cream/ Ensenada representing, yes, these tacos are supreme."
But the funniest line in the video was the one that gave Burke the most trouble. He wasn't sure what to do with Kreayshawn's lyric about 'swag coming out my ovaries." But Reese suggested, "So many fishies I got caviar for ovaries."
"That put us over the top," Burke laughs.
Casting the video wasn't hard. Both Burke and Reese study at the improv comedy school Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in L.A. They found their Kreayshawn in UCB actress/comedian Wendy McColm. "It's funny, because she's a long-haired, redheaded girl," Burke says. "But with the wig and makeup, she's a dead-ringer for Kreayshawn."
They took McColm and the rest of the cast to virtually the same Los Angeles locations where "Gucci Gucci" was filmed -- but instead of shooting outside high-end fashion stores in Beverly Hills, they focused on Best Fish Taco in Ensenada.
The resulting clip resonates with both fans of "Gucci Gucci," and with those who say Kreayshawn is overhyped. But Burke says he likes the original and doesn't mean to criticize Kreayshawn. "I know that's one of the main reasons people hate on her, because anybody could do , but she's the one that did do it," Burke says. "I never wanted the song to be a knock on Kreayshawn -- it's a very light, playful parody. She's embodying a vibe right now that no one else is."
Since it was posted, the video has been shared thousands of times on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr (no doubt aided by interest stemming from Kreayshawn's appearance at the MTV Video Music Awards this past Sunday, and the leak, afterward, of nude photos of an underage Zolot, after her Twitter account was hacked.) The fake Twitter account they created @Kreayfish, is accumulating hundreds of followers, and Burke hopes to have more music video parodies out soon -- possibly future Kreayshawn send-ups.
Whatever happens, though, Burke says he already got a pretty sweet payoff for all the attention "Fishy Fishy" has received: Free fish tacos for life from his favorite shop.