The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. I am traveling this week, and Craig was on a deadline, so todayís episode is one from the archives. Now, this episode originally came out December 14, 2014. Itís a live show in Hollywood featuring Aline Brosh McKenna, B.J. Novak, Derek Haas, Jane Espenson, and Rachel Bloom. Itís actually where we first met Rachel and she sings a special song for us to the tune of Scriptnotes. Now, thereís quite a bit of strong language, so standard advice about whether you should listen to this in the car with your kids.
Now, finally, I want to thank everybody who bought a Scriptnotes t-shirt. We set a new record and we should be shipping them out before Thanksgiving. So, on with the show.
John: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is the Episode 175 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
We are here live at the LA Film School. There’s really an audience here. Applause so people can hear. We’re actually really, really glad that you’re here, because this has been a rough afternoon I’d say.
Craig: Yeah, it’s bad.
John: Yeah, it’s bad. Things happen, and everyone sort of knows what’s happened this last week. And so there were the hacks at Sony and so on the podcast I talked about, oh, I was worried that like, you know, I had written things for Sony, you hadn’t written anything for Sony.
Craig: No, I thought I had gotten away with it, but —
John: Sony obviously got hacked and the emails got out. And this last week you didn’t want to be some of the certain executives at Sony. And things got out that were embarrassing. Because when we think about it really, Craig, anyone’s personal emails would have some things in them that are kind of embarrassing.
Craig: Oh, everyone’s. Everyone’s.
John: That’s a crucial thing. Think about your own emails and there’s going to be some stuff you really wish wasn’t public.
Craig: Like really disgusting stuff.
John: So, we found out that the Scriptnotes email had gotten hacked into. And so —
Craig: Not good.
John: There’s a real danger that please don’t pull out your phone now. Don’t look on Deadline. But, there’s a real chance that some of the stuff about our podcast and about our show tonight has gotten out. So, we wanted to get ahead of the story a bit and really talk through and really provide context because so many things can seem so awful out of context, but with context I think we’ll get some sympathy, hopefully.
Craig: Well, yeah, we just want to own this and share what’s coming out with you guys.
John: So, there’s obviously going to be many apologies coming up the weeks ahead, but for tonight we just want to focus on a little section of that and really talk through what we said and own it.
Craig: It’s an email chain basically about tonight’s event.
John: All right. So, this chain started November 3, 2014 and I wrote to Craig, “If we’re done playing the blame game, we need to start thinking about guests for the live show on the 19th. How about Chris McQuarrie? Or do you have a beef with him, too? And I think we can get Aline back if you apologize.”
Craig: I wrote back on November 22, “Did I ever answer this? I’m not talking to McQuarrie. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m pretty sure his wife faked those texts from me. And either way, that’s what he gets for being out of town for six months making Mission Who-Gives-A-Shit 7. And fuck Aline. She says she’s French. She’s not. She’s from fucking New Jersey. Enough with her. I’m not having this conversation with you again.”
John: All right. November 22, the same day, “Derek Haas just Facebook messaged me that he wants to be on the next live show. It’s like, ‘Hey, about I come over and take a dump on your lawn and you clean it up.’ Jesus, at least it’s not Michael Brandt. Did you hear back from Edgar Wright? Maybe he could teach you how to do comedy. So, we got to get some guests or we’re going to be facing another Richard Kelly vortex.”
Craig: November 29th. “I would have written back sooner, but for the last week I completely failed to give a fuck. Jesus, Derek is desperate. Fine, let him be on the show. We’ll edit it out later to limit the boredom to the suckers who paid for tickets. So far nothing from Edgar. Why are we chasing him so hard? If we need someone to fill the geek cred director slot we can get Rian Johnson whenever we want, which turns out to be never. By the way, do not threaten me with a Richard Kelly vortex. You need to watch your tone. We’ve been friends for ten years and I’ve put up with this kind of thing because the plusses outweigh the minuses, but I will flush the whole down thing down the crapper you start pulling the Richard Kelly card. P.S. who’s Michael Brandt?”
John: Same day. You’ll notice I reply on the same day he sent emails. November 29th, “Michael Brandt is Derek’s writing partner. He’s the Adnan to Derek’s Jay. That’s a Serial reference if you listen to any other podcasts. Okay, updates. Jane Espenson is in. Try not to say anything controversial that will scare her off, like about women superheroes, especially green ones. Basically ask yourself what would Goyer do and don’t do that.
“How do you feel about B.J. Novak? One the plus side, he’s an actor, so he has a teeny, tiny bit of name value.” I am embarrassed about this, too, but like this is what comes out. “On the minus side, I hear he’s a diva. Apparently all the characters on Entourage were based on him.”
Craig: December 2nd. “What if Serial Logcast? Glad that Jane Expensive is on. I promise I want talk about She-Bulk. I love B.J. Nopack. He’s the guy who played the penis in Saving Masturbates, right?” Sent from my iPhone.
John: All right, so this week, December 14th, “Okay, we’re good to go. There’s a sound check at 6pm. Ha, ha, ha, like you’d come. But reminder that Matthew can’t cut in fake sirens to cover your vaping, so no E-cigarettes. Also, let’s talk more about Sony’s hacked emails because they’re such idiots for writing that shit down.”
Craig: I think now you get it. You get where we’re headed. Thank you.
John: You understand sort of the situation that we —
Craig: Tough week. Rough week. Very rough week.
John: But your applause really help us through these difficult times. So, thank you so much and several of these guests actually did choose to show up regardless, so that’s awesome.
Craig: And thank you guys for coming. It’s great to see you all here and as always this benefits the Writers Guild Foundation which is a terrific foundation. So, thank you all for coming.
John: When Craig goes off his scripted parts, then things just fall. But I think we should start this show by welcoming sort of our — the third leg on our stool. Aline Brosh McKenna.
Craig: Yes, Aline Brosh.
Aline Brosh McKenna: Stool. Gross. Yuck. That’s gross. Can we get like eight or ten more water bottles up here?
John: We have a lot of guests.
Craig: The criticism has started early. Usually she takes a 40 second warm-up.
Aline: I haven’t made fun of your clothes yet.
Craig: So I wore the clown outfit today. This is why I’m on radio. Yeah, I can wear what I want.
John: We didn’t even plan our Christmas colors, but I’m wearing green, Craig is wearing reddish. I’m not even sure there’s a color —
Craig: It’s a melon.
John: Somewhere in the Pantone color book there that color exists.
Craig: It’s a melon check.
John: And Aline is dressed in a sparkly sort of — is that a demi-jacket? What do you call that?
Aline: I believe it’s a cropped jacked.
John: Whenever Aline is on it becomes a fashion show.
John: We want to talk about things that you are actually also really well versed in, which is this last week Universal — well, Scott Mendelson at Forbes had an article about how Universal actually kicked ass this last year and made more profits than ever before and they had no big movies. They had no big tent pole movies and they still did really, really well. And you’re a person who writes those not giant franchise movies and, hooray?
Aline: Well, it seems, you know, the business seems to have ratcheted down into like big, big movies and then the smaller movies that we’re seeing now. It’s like it’s become sort of popcorn or Holocaust. It’s like those are the sizes that the movies come in now. And that kind of mid-range of like adult comedy/dramas that were really the ones that I was most excited to write that would be like the Sidney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Cameron Crowe, sort of mid-budgeted about how people live their lives have kind of moved into the indie space and I feel like now David O’Russell and Alexander Payne have sort of picked up the slack of that. And there isn’t really a lot in the studio space.
And it doesn’t sound like Universal was doing this intentionally really.
Craig: I think they were.
Aline: You do?
Craig: I do. I think they were. So, interestingly, the guy that wrote this article a few weeks prior had written an article that I think we were a little critical of on the podcast because it was another one of those “Hollywood is dying,” and I love that these guys who write a Hollywood is dying article then three weeks later write “look how great Hollywood is doing” and they never mention, “also I fucked up,” and they never say that.
But I think that after Battleship and 47 Ronin, Universal took a very careful look at how they were spending money. And, look, they love franchises as much as any studio, but they —
Aline: But they also don’t have the kind of built-in franchises that some of the other places have. And they have been trying with their monster movies. They’re trying to sort of make it that. I don’t think they’re trying to exempt themselves from that.
Aline: But it’s sort of worked out. What we’re all hoping, I think we’re all hoping is that this shows people that you can do well with those kinds of movies.
John: So let’s actually run through the list of the movies they had out this last year because it’s an interesting mix and you wouldn’t think like, oh, those were all the same year. So Lone Survivor, Ride Along, Endless Love, Nonstop, Neighbors, A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Purge — second one, Lucy, which was a huge hit, Get on Up, As Above, So Below, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Dracula Untold, Ouija, Dumb and Dumber II, and then Unbroken which is the last one.
So, in the article they stress that like Fast and the Furious 7 was supposed to come out this year. That was supposed to be their giant tent pole. But weirdly for having all of these quite a bit smaller budgeted moves they did great.
Craig: They had a record year. And interestingly the highest budget of all those was Dracula Untold and it was $70. That was the most money they spent on movies.
Aline: The Lucy profitability is insane.
Craig: Insane. By the way, maybe not as insane as Neighbors, because Neighbors was like $18 million.
John: It’s $18 million, $268 million, so that’s a great — you want to be in that business.
Aline: What was Lucy’s number?
John: Lucy’s $40 million budget and $458.
Aline: I mean, it’s insane.
Aline: And also, of course, the Lucy thing is always greeted by this wave of shock and amazement that people want to see women in movies. That’s the other article that’s coming next is like, “What?”
John: Before this article existed, it was more challenging to make the movies that you wanted to make, and so you did what we’re all told we should be doing is you actually went off and you made a TV show.
Aline: Yes. Well, that was not intentional at all. And I think we’ve maybe talked about this before. I had done TV at the beginning of my career and I was not looking to go back at all. And every once and awhile somebody would ask me, but this idea of just going in to TV to do TV, which a lot of features do, feature writers do. They just kind of wander over there because it’s there and people say it’s groovy, I wasn’t interested in.
And then in my procrastination I was on Jezebel and I saw a — yup, which I know you guys are all on.
Craig: Totally. Yeah.
Aline: And I clicked on the animated video of a satiric take on Disney princesses with this amazing singer. And I went to see who had done this thing and you obviously can’t see who — I didn’t realize that the person who wrote it was also singing. And then I got bumped to her other videos and it was written and sung by Rachel Bloom. So, I went to — she has a YouTube Channel.
Craig: If only she were here!
Aline: And I went to Rachel’s YouTube Channel and I watched all the videos and I got really excited. And I called my best friend, who is my actual best friend, not my showbiz best friend, but my actual best friend Kate who works in showbiz, who works for a television studio and I said you’re going to love this, I know you’re going to love these. This girl is amazing. You should meet with her. So, we had a meeting with her and she’s, in the videos Rachel is very like sexy and super hot.
Craig: But in reality —
John: Yeah, there was a conjunction coming that was not going to be your friend.
Aline: I was expecting, well, I was expecting like someone from the planet Glamazon, like I was expecting a very actressy thing to show up. And she showed up and in my mind she was wearing cargo pants, which she does not own, so she claims she wasn’t wearing them. But she was wearing sort of like jeans and a t-shirt.
Craig: Is that bad?
Aline: And she was wearing like what Craig wears.
Craig: Well, that sounds pretty great.
Aline: [laughs] So, she came in and I could see right away that she was like a writer girl, you know, and she’s also an amazing actor, and singer, and all of these things. But in her heart of hearts she’s really a writer girl.
John: So, we should bring her up.
Aline: So let’s bring her up.
Craig: Yeah, let’s bring her up.
John: Rachel Bloom, everybody. Rachel Bloom!
Rachel Bloom: I don’t know how you guys cannot curtsy for an audience this big. Like I usually perform in like 20-seat bar theaters. So, to perform — this is like five bars. I just kind of want to do an hour-long set and workshop new material. Anyway, it’s not my show.
Aline: So I found Rachel and we went to —
Craig: Aline just didn’t care what you said at all.
John: That’s what it’s like having Aline on the podcast.
Craig: That’s what I mean. I try and be entertaining —
Rachel: Sometimes, but that’s how I tell when a joke works, is like she doesn’t boo it. She just moves on like it never happened, which is much kinder.
Craig: Is that why you do that to me? [laughs]
Aline: No, John and I are just both really controlling and trying to keep the thing going.
Craig: I know. And the two of us are just Jewish clowns.
John: So, Rachel, your background, you truly are a writer. So, you’re an actress and a singer, but you really are a writer. And that’s what you’ve been doing for your living, correct?
Rachel: Yeah, yeah. So, I started out, I mean, in my heart of hearts I started out as a musical theater kid and I went to school for musical theater at NYU. And while I was at NYU I got into a sketch comedy group and it was a group where we wrote and performed a new show every month and I just fell in love with doing that and I became kind of like a sketch writing robot. I just really, really instantly fell in love with it.
And so when I graduated I knew I wanted to do kind of a mix of comedy writing and musical stuff, but I my career started, I started making money from TV writing. And so that’s where I first started.
Craig: And so now you guys have a pilot that you have done directed by —
Aline: It’s done. Directed by Mark Webb.
Craig: You guys know 500 Days of Summer.
John: He has a movie called Spider-Man.
Craig: One of the Spider-Mens.
Rachel: And he’s single, ladies.
Aline: And he, like Craig, is a guy who likes the musical theater.
Rachel: Yes, he does.
Craig: You left out the word straight, but fine.
Aline: Yes. He knows a ton about it. Yes, he was a great, I mean, when we finished the pilot Showtime said we want to send it to Mark Webb to see if he wants to direct it. And I said, “Mark Webb directs this pilot, I will pee my pants.” And every once and awhile while we were waiting to hear I would just send them an email that says, “Pee my pants.”
Rachel: And the whole time I just kind of had this thing of like, sure. Like you want to make a TV show with the woman who wrote The Devil Wears Prada? Sure! Yeah, let’s show it to the Queen of England. Like stop jerking me off. This isn’t going to happen. No one gives a shit about musical theater. [laughs] You know?
John: So, Rachel, talk to me about the first contact with you and Aline, because Aline can be overwhelming. Did she reach out to you directly? Did she go through your representative? How did that all work?
Craig: I feel like she could hold her own. I don’t know.
Rachel: She went through my rep. So, I got an email from my rep saying A-line Brosh McKenna wants to meet with you. And I was like who is this dress that wants to meet with me.
Craig: Even I understand that.
Rachel: Okay, good. I’m trying out material. It’s good. I’m doing a tight five at the improv after this on that. And we got a meeting. And she was great because she’s so enthusiastic and like the thing is I had just — I had literally in the past year pitched two musical shows that no one gave a shit about. And so when I got into this room with her and the heads of CBS being like let’s do a musical show, I was just like, okay. Like, yay, if you think it will work, I mean, let’s give it a whirl.
It was like really surreal. It was really crazy. And I don’t think I let myself be that nervous. I don’t think I let myself truly realize how awesome it was because I like didn’t want to get my hopes up.
Aline: One thing that might be interesting people is like there were a couple times, because it was such a blind date, where Rachel would sort of say to me something which resembled like, “But why?” You know, why?
Craig: And you just yelled at her.
Aline: And what said to her is like basically at the beginning of your career all you can do when you’re starting out and you don’t know as many people — she actually knows a ton of people — but when you’re first staring out, you just try and be awesome and hope somebody notices. And hope that the people who notice you like. And that’s all — everybody here, everybody who works in the business at all, you just go around trying to generate good work and be a good person and hope — see who notices.
And some people are really willing to get in on the ground floor, but it wasn’t like I did it out of any altruism. Rachel is like so talented. I feel so lucky. And at every step, it was funny, because we wrote the pilot and that was really fun. We had the best — I wasn’t going to write the pilot, but we were having such a good time, we wrote it together. And then when we were about to shoot it, somebody said to me at some point like she can act, right?
And I was like, yes, no idea! I had no idea. I mean, I knew from the videos I had like a sense, but I had never really seen her act without singing. And she just exceeded every expectation — everybody’s expectations. I mean, she was — people on the set were, now this is all compli-me indirectly, but people were sort of really blown away by how amazing she is and how multitalented she is.
Craig: You have to explain what a compli-me is, because I don’t think these people — that’s a term that Derek invented.
Aline: A compli-me is when you are complimenting yourself basically. It’s a humble-brag, but it’s a little bit more —
Craig: It’s when you’re complimenting somebody else so that you can compliment yourself.
Aline: Yes. Rachel was so amazing in our amazing show we created.
Aline: But it’s been really great for me to work with someone just a little younger. [laughs] It’s been really fun. It’s been really great. And you know when I was starting people did that for me. Somebody said, “Hey come here, write this movie. You should sit at this table. Come and sit at this table.”
Rachel: Yeah. And that’s what’s been amazing about working with you is I think for a long time I didn’t really think about like being a woman in Hollywood because coming from like, I don’t know, coming from like alt-comedy, especially in New York, it just feels like very on equal ground, like equal footing. And then you come out here and it’s just like different. Like suddenly you’re the only women in a room full of men and it just feels different. And I definitely did the thing, like I’m not a shy person, but I definitely did the thing where I — I’m always like afraid to make people made at me and I’m afraid to rock the boat. And that’s like a thing that women do a lot that I didn’t notice that I did.
And so it’s been great to hang out with Aline because she just doesn’t do —
Craig: She makes everybody miserable around her.
Rachel: She doesn’t do that. But not in like a, oh god, and this even feels like —
Craig: She gets it.
Rachel: I’m trying to find like a non-misogynist way. You’re not a bitch. You just act like, yes, this is how I should be treated. And I’m going to treat you with respect. You treat me with respect. Whereas like I feel like I go into rooms sometimes, especially like pitching a show and it’s like thank you so much for having me. I really don’t deserve to be here. Like I know you probably won’t buy my shitty stupid show. I’m a piece of shit, I know.
But it’s a thing that girls do because we’re taught to not make anyone mad at us, because god forbid we should make someone mad at us, so we’re supposed to be very accommodating. And I feel like I’ve gotten just a lot better as just like a woman conducting myself in show business from watching Aline. She’s amazing.
Aline: We’ve had a couple of things. This is for a different show, but there are a couple things that came up that were like amazing, well, because Rachel is also very young and was the executive producer of the show. And we had an instance where we interviewed someone for one of the jobs on the show and he decided to say sexually harassing things to her.
Rachel: Can we say — we can’t give specifics of what he said? Okay.
Craig: Sure you can.
Aline: He decided to say inappropriate things to her, and I said, and he then called her agent, you know, his agent, and I said, you know, make sure he knows that I don’t want him to work with us because he’s a misogynist. But also I don’t want to work with him because he’s stupid. Why did you insult this woman who is going to be your boss?
Rachel: And the interesting thing is I didn’t even notice that, which shows like my accommodating nature because he said this thing which we won’t say, but it’s not that bad, but it’s bad. And he said this thing insinuating that I was a slut, basically. I can say that.
Rachel: And instead of being — and what I did in the moment was I basically — the improviser in my like yes-and it where I was just like, oh yes, yes, blah. And I basically did an improv scene with him, but then he denied. It was a whole thing. He like didn’t even play the improv scene right. And that’s what tuned me off where I’m like, okay, well you’re also just like not funny and you don’t know the basic rules of improv.
But then after he left the room I was like that guy was like okay. And Aline was like you’re going to be his boss. And he calls you like a slut? And I was like, oh yeah, I guess. And that just shows how much probably that shit is being said to like not only me but like girls all the time.
I mean, I remember I was doing a standup show in New York and someone intro’d me and was like, “Yeah, Rachel Bloom. Usually women aren’t funny, but she is because she’s hot.” It was something like — but it’s shit like that where it’s not even like — it’s just someone trying to be funny and failing. And it’s stuff you don’t even notice until someone points it out.
Aline: Well, one thing I wanted to say because in terms of transitioning from film to TV is I think sometimes there’s this thing where people say, “Oh, writers are treated so much better in television,” as if the people in television are just nicer or cooler. And that’s not the reason. It happens that way because you need empowered, intelligent showrunners who know what they’re doing and are in charge. That’s what the job is.
Craig: And sometimes you get Derek.
Aline: And sometimes — and those shows that are run by people who know what they’re doing, and are talented, and have authority and whatever, those are the shows that have done well and have made these companies millions and millions of dollars. That’s why they treat you well.
Craig: I want to hear some of this.
John: I want to hear a song.
Craig: Yeah, I want to hear a song. I want these people to get a little glimpse.
John: Is there anything you can — I mean, can you sing us something about your journey, or at least what it feels like to be in your place?
Rachel: Sure. So, I brought something — first, I would like to invite my colleague Jack Dolgen on the stage.
John: Jack Dolgen, everyone.
Rachel: This is Jack Dolgen.
John: We’ll give you the stage.
Rachel: There we go. That’s a bow. Jack has been my collaborator for many years and he was actually the head of the music department on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the pilot we just did. So, basically I heard a couple months ago that every composition John Williams writes he adds lyrics. And I’ve been too lazy to actually research this fact to see if it’s true, but it makes a lot of sense because when you think about John Williams’ music and his themes, they all kind of have this really strong melody line that kind of works with the title, right? [Hums Star Wars theme] This is a Star War, this is Star War, it’s a Star War.
You know, or like the classic one, you know, [Hums Jurassic Park theme] it’s Jurassic Park, it’s Jurassic Park, there are dinosaurs. You know, I’ve heard that a lot. I don’t know if you guys have. So, I thought, you know, Scriptnotes has a theme, but you guys don’t have lyrics, so I thought I would add lyrics to the very short Scriptnotes theme about what I thought/think as a young writer listening to Scriptnotes and the questions that I hope Scriptnotes will answer. So, this is the lyrics to the Scriptnotes theme. Thanks.
[Sings] How’d you get your agent? How’d you get your start? How do I get famous, tell me I how do I get famous? Stop with all the bullshit about outlines and denouements. Tell me how do I get famous.
[Sings] What’s your advice for a young writer? What book should I read? How do I get on the Black List, not that show with James Spader, or the communist thing in the ’50s, although would that make me famous? Tell me, how do I get famous? Should I become a communist? Is that what the Black List is?
It’s a confusing name for a screenwriting competition. Right? It sends a lot of mixed messages. The Crucible was written about it. Any other name but the Black List. Third verse.
[Sings] Are people buying specs? Is that worth my time? In Final Draft or Fade In? Which software is better? Which software would get me famous? Which software has more connections? Which software might know Ron Howard.
[Sings] Interior. My head. Close up on my face saying how do I get famous. I want to get fucking famous. So I can start my own podcast. Called how do I get famous. Won’t talk outlines and denouements, just spend hours telling people how the fuck they should get famous. And rich.
John: Well. Thank you, Rachel. Thank you, Jack. Our second guest —
Craig: Is that really what people — I guess that’s what they want to know, right?
John: Yeah, they do.
Craig: Is that fair to say? That’s what you want to know?
John: Hollywood dreams.
Craig: They’re not saying they don’t want to know. Segue Man, I’ve just given you kind of a softball there. Something about famous.
John: You can pick up a softball once.
Craig: Oh, I’m going to do it? No, I’m not going to take away Segue Man’s job.
John: All right. Our next guest is famous. Hey! That’s the segue. I’ve felt it now. He was a writer-producer-actor on The Office. Since then he’s starred in everything from Inglourious Basterds —
Craig: One of my favorites.
John: To Saving Mr. Banks and The Newsroom. This year he came out with two books to make us all feel really lazy. He had two books. One More Thing: Stories and other Stories and The Book with No Pictures. Let us please welcome B.J. Novak.
B.J., thank you so much for being here.
B.J. Novak: My pleasure.
Craig: How do I get famous?
John: So, tell us, how do you become famous? Rachel wants to know, so, I mean.
B.J.: I think Rachel figured it out. Yeah, well done.
John: Yeah, be on a TV show. That’s a great thing to do.
B.J.: And here you go.
John: There you go.
Craig: Or, yeah, be on a podcast, which doesn’t get shit done, but a TV show is probably better. I wanted to ask you about this book. I don’t know if you guys have seen this video. So, B.J., we know B.J. from television and we know him from movies, but you started as a writer.
B.J.: Mainly television.
Craig: No, but you are Utivich. Inglourious Basterds. Thank you.
But you wrote this book, it’s a kids book called There are No Pictures.
John: No, no, it’s not that. That’s not the title, Craig.
Craig: What’s it called?
John: The Book with No Pictures.
B.J.: Thank you.
Craig: Right. The Book with No Pictures.
John: I’m just going to watch and wait for him to say something wrong. Have you read this book?
Craig: No! I didn’t have to read it because I watched him perform it. The title is irrelevant, let’s face it. So, go on YouTube and watch B.J. read this book to kids. It’s spectacular. And just tell us a little bit about why a kids book in particular because you’re not yet a dad. Why you wanted to do a kids book and why you approached it that way?
B.J.: Well, I felt empowered to write a kids book because I had just written this other book and it was not too different from what I had done in the past in terms of having an idea, really believing in it, and psyching yourself up not getting demoralized on the weeks when it’s going terribly. And thinking I’m just going to commit myself to this and not judge whether or not I should be doing this, which took me many years to get to that stage, especially in things that were outside my comfort zone.
But once I had done that, and then I had this idea, I was reading a book to my best friend’s son who is two years old, and as he handed me the book I thought what is his dream — he doesn’t know what’s in this book. What is he hoping will happen when I open this book? Probably that I have to say all these silly things that he knew I had to say. You know, so that was the premise of this book. So, I got sort of the bigger existential answer is that I felt empowered that if I had an idea I thought was good I could follow through and be a perfectionist about it and send it to someone and see.
Craig: I love that. I actually feel it’s a very good sign for any writer to have to get to that. The writers that are born with that I find are often just terrible. Do you know what I mean?
B.J.: Well, there’s a flip side to it which I guess balances what I was able to do well which is that I am a relentless inviter of criticism. And so I started as a standup and you learn from that that it’s really the toughest test of whatever you think is brilliant to stand in front of people and to know viscerally what you hate saying because it doesn’t work, as opposed to just presuming that what you wrote is great.
So, I from that became someone who wanted to test everything I did. I wrote the stories in the last book and read them to an audience in a theater about once a month and crossed out everything in front of them that wasn’t working. And then with the kids’ book I read it to lots and lots of kids. So, I think if you are ruthless with yourself, that is a good balance to the confidence.
John: So your voice is literally your voice because you’ve read all these things aloud, so they have to make sense within your internal presentation.
B.J.: Yeah. I guess I have written almost nothing in my life that I haven’t read out loud in a performance setting. A few things, but little.
John: So, your book of short stories and your kids’ book, those are small enough that you can actually perform them. But if you try to write something bigger, will it scale I guess is my question? Are you trying to writer longer pieces?
Craig: Because you are, right?
B.J.: Well, on The Office, obviously I had like two lines an episode. So, it’s hardly like I performed everything I wrote if I wrote an episode. But we would still in the writer’s room, it was sort of the dessert of the day was to get to read the script out loud for all the other writers whatever you had written on your own. And we would fight, even if it had already been approved and it was like, all right, no, it’s in the script. We’d be like, no, we want to perform it. It was fun.
John: So, on The Office, were there characters that you consistently performed who weren’t, you know, the Ryan character?
B.J.: Oh, great question. Yeah. I guess I did Dwight a lot. Yeah, I don’t know.
Craig: That must have been fun.
Craig: That must have been fun. But you’re heading into screenplay waters now, feature screenwriting, that’s something you’re getting into here.
B.J.: I want to, yeah.
Craig: You want to?
Craig: Because you and I were talking beforehand that the experience of writing a book, the scary part and the wonderful part is it’s you. But it’s never just you when you write a screenplay by design unless, by the way, you’re Quentin Tarantino. There is a group that starts to come in and do things. I know on The Office you had that experience, but those stories are generated as a group anyway.
B.J.: You know, if I’m lucky, or even if I’m not, I’d love to come back one year from tonight on the next podcast and tell you. Because I know whatever happens, good or bad, it will throw me for a big loop.
Craig: All right, done. Done. You can come back and cry.
B.J.: But here I am, on the verge of finishing some screenplays. Yeah, I listen to the podcast. So, I don’t know. I had to learn publishing. I had to learn television. And a lot of what you learn is frustratingly irrelevant to the creative aspect.
Craig: That is accurate.
John: Tell us your backstory. How did you get on to The Office and what was your writing before then? So, you were writing from college on? And what were you writing?
B.J.: I was, you know, I was the editor in chief of my high school newspaper, the Lion’s Roar, no big deal.
Craig: It’s a good paper. That’s a good paper.
B.J.: Thank you. Some Lion’s Roar fans in the front.
John: Royal Banner, editor in chief. High school paper.
Craig: I was the editor in chief as well of my high school paper.
John: Oh, success.
Craig: And I cannot remember the name of it.
Craig: It’s the Freehold High School…
John: Did you have a John August in that time to sort of help you get stuff done?
Craig: I probably did. I can’t remember him, either.
John: That’s going to be great.
B.J.: You should replace the Car Talk guys.
John: Aw. You had to bring death into it.
Craig: B.J. Novak everybody.
John: [laughs] So high school newspaper, then were you trying to do funny at that point? Or was it just journalism?
B.J.: Yeah, that’s what I would — I would always write funny things.
Craig: Did you ever get in trouble? I got in trouble.
B.J.: Yeah. I loved it.
John: I got in trouble.
Craig: Great. So, if you haven’t been the editor in chief of your high school newspaper, get out. Ain’t happening. You’re done.
John: The ship has sailed. Or somehow find some way to go back, like that can be the high concept comedy premise is that you decide you have to go back to edit the high school paper.
Craig: Worst movie ever. So —
John: Kevin James stars as.
Craig: Poor Kevin.
John: I think Kevin is lovely, but.
B.J.: That’s the yes and to how do I get famous.
Craig: Yes and.
B.J.: Oh, I was not expecting that.
Craig: The editor and chief of your nerdy high school newspaper.
John: So, from high school to college comedy as well? Were you doing standup? What happened?
B.J.: In college I wrote for the Harvard Lampoon.
John: I’ve heard of that.
Craig: But you did not attend Harvard? You just would wander in?
B.J.: As I tell people, I went to school in Harvard Square. That’s my way of getting around that.
Craig: What a douchebag.
B.J.: And I put on a show my junior and senior year called The B.J. Show which was a variety show. And my senior year we invited Bog Saget. Just called him cold through his manager and asked if he wanted to be honored by the Harvard Lampoon, which is confusing. It sounds like Harvard is giving a degree kind of, and he said yes, and he came and performed on the show.
And I wrote, I guess my first TV spec was an episode called the Lost Episode of Full House, which we had him perform. And it was really filthy. It was fantastic.
Craig: Oh, that sounds great.
B.J.: Danny Tanner teaches his daughters about sex. And Uncle Jessie overhears and realizes that he doesn’t know what sex is, and so he teaches Uncle Jessie who then becomes obsessed with sex. It was a lot of fun.
Craig: Too many cooks. Too many cooks.
B.J.: It’s funny to reminisce on that. Unbeknownst to me he was starting up a sitcom called Raising Dad on the WB and hired me to be the edgy young writer.
Craig: Wow. That’s great.
B.J.: Any Raising Dad fans here? Yup.
Craig: There he is. I’m so puzzled why it got canceled.
B.J.: Not as many as the Lion’s Roar.
Craig: Yeah. [laughs] It’s actually got fewer people than the Lion’s Roar.
B.J.: Yeah. Fewer people than my high school paper.
Craig: It lost in the ratings to the Lion’s Roar. Oh, man, that’s awesome. Now, you also — you had an experience that I am so envious of and that is that you got to perform in a Quentin Tarantino movie. And I am such a big, big fan of him. What was that like getting a screenplay from Quentin Tarantino?
B.J.: That was exciting just to read. I was going to San Diego, The Office cast was going to Comic Con early in The Office. And I got that script which if anyone ever got a hold of it, the cover page was red and handwritten. It was dramatic. He’s very dramatic. Even the cover page was dramatic. And it was very exciting to have this Quentin Tarantino script. And I’m reading it.
At this point I’m sure everyone knows what happens in Inglourious Basterds, but it’s this fantastic screenplay. The first 20 pages were the best 20 pages I had ever read. And it just went on from there. And there are three simultaneous plots to kill Hitler. And I’m getting towards the end of the movie wondering how these plots are going to fail.
And 15 pages away, ten pages away, and I’m thinking they seem pretty on track. I guess like poor guy, it’s like what’s going to happen. And then like five pages from the end I was like, holy shit, I think they’re just going to work. And they did and it just blew my mind that this movie had so much creative freedom. It assumed so much creative freedom that it could be relatively realistic, although in retrospect there were all kinds of things that were complete fantasy. But they seemed to be worthwhile artistic tangents to an actual historical setting. And then it ended up being as imaginative as anything you’d see in science fiction.
And at the end of a Tarantino movie, and yet it made perfect creative sense, but you never would have thought of it.
Craig: Right. You were saying that it just came to you as you finished it that, oh yeah, that’s right, this is fiction.
B.J.: This is fiction.
Craig: Yeah, you forget.
B.J.: A writer, and the movie thing. Come on.
Craig: There is a great lesson in that. Copying Tarantino is the worst thing you can do.
B.J.: The whole ’90s taught us that.
Craig: Yes. Precisely. But his fearlessness and you see it in other filmmakers and other writers, too, who write screenplays and they have no concern with you or anybody reading it and going what the fuck. In a way that reaction is a good one.
B.J.: Yeah. People copy the wrong things about Tarantino.
Craig: They do. Exactly. Like some of the wordiness.
B.J.: Yeah, like the surf music, or the leather jackets, or the few times that there’s a distracting camera move to show off. What should be imitated about a Tarantino movie is the sense of surprise, the sense of absolutely joy in storytelling which actually makes his movies much more accessible and even linear, even though they’re often told in non-linear forms. The scenes are actually usually shot very simply and very easy to understand. And if you compare it to the larger trend in filmmaking with complete chaos of movement and lack of static composition for any reason whatsoever, the movies are sort of old fashioned. And they’re actually so much more riveting and easy to follow.
And the way he works with actors is like the way a college drama teacher would take extra care in what your backstory is and what you’re feeling. I mean, he’s the most old fashioned director out there, even though what people often take from him are the few things that are so youthful and new, which are exciting, but you just take for granted the basic things that should be copied.
Craig: And you get to be in the last shot of a Quentin Tarantino film, which is amazing.
John: What you’re describing is the confidence. It’s the confidence you see in the directing style, but it’s the confidence you see in the writing, too. So, the decision to kill Hitler at the end — a spoiler — at the end of Inglourious Basterds, that’s a confidence. And you felt the confidence the whole way through.
John: I remember the first screenplay I ever read twice like back to back was his script for Natural Born Killers. And I was in college and I read it and got to the last page and was like well I have to read this again like right from the start. And you sense that he had — this whole world of the movie made sense and it all fit together in a way that I desperately wanted to see.
And that’s a case of copying the right things. Copying the spirit, the inventiveness.
B.J.: I wonder how much of that was his determination to direct them. And I know he didn’t direct Natural Born Kills, but I wonder if you approach it assuming that everything is going to be exactly as you wrote it, if you might approach it differently as opposed to trying to make sort of the perfect screenplay, you try to make the screenplay that’s most you. There might be a difference there.
Craig: We do say to people all the time that the only way they’re ultimately going to break through the clutter and the noise of all the people that are trying to write is to be somebody that is unique. And it’s hard, because frankly a lot of people just aren’t unique, but then I think a lot of people are and they take all the wrong lessons from the cottage industry of how do I get famous.
Well, you don’t want to do that, and you don’t want to do this, and you don’t want to do that. Well, why are you saying that? Because most other people aren’t doing it. That’s why you might want to do it, you know. That’s why you might want to write a kid’s book with no pictures in it. I mean, that would be a first, I think. No one else has done that, unless did you rip somebody off?
B.J.: I hope not.
John: All right.
John: So, you’re writing for features now and we’re going to see an awesome movie out of you I think. I think you’re going to make a really kick ass movie.
B.J.: Thank you.
John: Is this a movie you would want to direct yourself, or something you would want someone else to come onboard to do?
B.J.: We will check in a year from now.
John: One year from now.
B.J.: I want to, yes, I want to direct what I do.
John: All right. We want you to direct what you’re going to do.
Craig: We do.
John: I’d like some applause for B.J. Novak directing his movie.
B.J.: Hey, thanks guys.
John: B.J., thank you so much for being on the show.
B.J.: I love the show. I listen all the time.
Craig: Thank you. Look at that.
B.J.: This show is my One Cool Thing.
Craig: Aw. Thank you, B.J. B.J. Novak.
John: Thank you so much.
Craig: Segue — Segue Man.
John: Segue Man. So, we’re going to do this sort of like the Academy Awards where we have to read off the same thing.
Craig: Oh, we are?
John: Next up we have two guests joining us. She is a writer-producer on shows including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, Tru Calling, Andy Barker, P.I., Battlestar Galactica, Torchwood, and Once Upon a Time. She is also the co-creator of the web series Husbands which is also available as a graphic novel and is great.
Craig: He, Adele Nazeem, has written features including Too Fast, Too Furious, Wanted, and 3:10 to Yuma, and co-created NBC TV shows Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. He’s also a novelist with many series, multiple series, including the honored Silver Bear trilogy. Please welcome…
John: Jane Espenson.
Craig: And Derek Haas.
Derek Haas: Good to see you.
John: Oh, Derek.
Derek: I feel like I was the butt of all the jokes earlier.
Craig: Not yet.
John: Extra material saved.
Craig: Oh yeah.
Derek: Oh god.
John: We’ve been talking a lot about TV and that’s partly why I wanted Jane Espenson here, because no one has taught me more about TV honestly than Jane. So, people who have been around for awhile, have you read Jane’s blog? JaneEspenson.com?
So, she created this amazing blog which is sort of in archive now. You’re not updating anymore.
Jane Espenson: I haven’t updated in many years. But, you can’t tell that because the entries aren’t dated. They just have the month. So, everybody thinks it’s still new and fresh.
John: And it’s still new and fresh because there are things on there that are just great and there are terms that I did not know existed until you had blogged about them. So, I want to go through some terms and just get the live version answer of what some of these things are.
John: Hang a lantern. What does hang a lantern mean?
Jane: All right. So, these are terms that are used in writer’s rooms, and some are specific to one room, and some are sort of universal. And hang a lantern is universal where if you want to let the viewer’s know, and yeah, let the viewers know that something isn’t a mistake, that it’s something you’re doing intentionally, you just hang a little lantern on it. So, you put a little thing in the script that says something like, “You don’t know yet that this character has a secret, but keep on them because you’ll know in the next act,” or something like that where you just indicate in the script a little something that’s just you sort of whispering in the ear of the reader or viewer.
That’s also something that you can do — and maybe the more typical use of it is if you have a character say out loud something like, “Well, that seemed like an odd coincidence.”
Craig: It’s like covering a mistake kind of thing.
Jane: Yeah. I think that’s the more common usage of it. It’s halfway between covering the mistake and letting the audience know it’s not a mistake. You’re pointing out something before the viewer can criticize it. You’re pointing right at it.
John: Yeah. Look at this thing I just did right there.
Jane. Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s sort of the equivalent of like saying, “I know I’ve got a big zit on my nose, but what are you going to do?” You say it before someone else can say it.
John: Yes. Sort of like our emails. I was owning the story before it happened.
Jane: Right. Exactly.
Craig: I forgot about that. You reminded me.
John: I’m sorry. We’re having a good time and I bring up bad things. A joke on a joke? You also are hat on a hat, banana on a banana.
Jane: Yeah, bananas and bananas. Yes, this is — it’s really hard to think of examples of it. You know it when you hear it. But so I was sitting there trying to think of one and I thought there is a joke in an episode of husbands that Brad Bell and I wrote where they’re talking about one of the guys really likes cleaning out the pool and he says, “Because I feel like a teeny man with a giant spoon,” and it always gets a big laugh, I mean, not here.
Craig: Hanging a lantern.
Jane: Yes! But when a professional actor performs it, it’s hilarious. And I was thinking like we could have ruined that joke by going like you know what, like we’re working with this image that it’s like the swimming pool is a big thing of soup, and what are the floaty things called in pools? They’re called noodles. Well, that’s got to fit in that joke somehow. “It’s like I’m a teeny man with a giant spoon and giant noodles.” And then you’re like the audience doesn’t know which bit of the joke to laugh at. There’s two jokes that are fighting each other there.
John: Great. House number. I don’t even know what this is and you suggested house number.
Jane: House number. That’s when you know, it’s a sort of this but not this kind of pitch, when you’re saying like this isn’t the joke but this is the house number of the joke.
Craig: Like you’re on the street. Or this is the key of the song. It’s not the melody, or that kind of thing?
Jane: Yes. I have never heard a definitive explanation from where it comes from. The best explanation I heard is just like in sort of a jazz club, the jazz band may have just sort of the house number, the thing that they play when they’re just sort of noodling around without playing a specific song. So, it’s like you say, well, I don’t know what the joke is, but I’m pretty sure it’s a joke about Liza Minnelli-ish, you know, it’s something.
Craig: Ooh, I like that.
John: [Crosstalk] for Liza Minnelli. Leads very well into clam. Tell us about clams.
Jane: A clam is any old familiar joke, pretty much any joke you’ve heard before.
Craig: There’s no way I’m going to go to that party.
Jane: Yeah. I mean, that’s a flip joke, a specific type of joke.
Derek: He’s coming back in three, two…
Craig: Hey guys.
Derek: Is he right there?
John: Oh yeah, is he right there. Yes.
Craig: He’s right behind me, isn’t he?
Jane: All of those. And you’ve heard them a million times and you can say them along with the TV. And you’re obviously in your own writing — you avoid those. Don’t — sometimes very young writers usually, none of you people, but very young writers will often feel like they’re on the right crack because the words are really flowing, and they know it’s funny because they’ve heard it before. And it’s like that’s the trap of the clam.
Craig: Derek, do you have those, I mean, do you have any special terms? Because you have an empire of television. You’ve got two primetime hit shows running simultaneously that are both in their same universe. Do your writing rooms have like terms that are specific to you guys?
Derek: The only one, see, I had never done television until two years ago, so all of this was pretty new to me. But the only one that we have is when there’s an absolutely home run out of the park idea then you get the double overhead shaka which is this, but with — but you can fake them out. You can be like, [yawns].
Craig: That was pretty boring and you’re fired. Yeah.
Derek: But we, I mean, all of these terms are just pretty common screenwriting terms, but I hear it different ways. Like you’ll say it will be something like — not this, but something like this.
Jane: Which helps you, because I mean, yes, in comedy rooms and drama rooms, part of the trick of pitching is that you have to be able to pivot away from your own pitch so that you can quickly get on board with whatever sells. So, you often don’t want to go in with too much, “I’ve got it,” because if you don’t got it, how do you then commit to thing over here. So, you often downplay your own pitch.
Craig: That’s crafty.
Derek: We’ll say building on that. Okay, building on that, blah, blah, blah.
Craig: I wouldn’t last a minute because I’d be like, “I’ve got it. Everyone, I’ve got it. And if you disagree you’re dumb.” And then that would be it.
John: So, Craig and I have never been —
Craig: Right? I’d be fired.
Jane: Well. Maybe.
Craig: If I get fired, I want to be fired by you. You’re nice. You’d be like, “Well, maybe you’re fired.”
“Yeah. You are.”
John: So, Craig and I have never done a real writer’s room for TV. Are you allowed to say things, well, bad version but. Is that an okay?
Jane: Oh bad version, that’s the quintessential version of that.
Craig: Do you guys do that over in Chicago Fire, too?
Derek: Yeah, we do the exact same thing.
John: And do you ever film a good version?
John: Sorry. [laughs] I’m sorry. I don’t know why, that was me. I apologize. I’m so sorry.
Craig: Do you know how — he’s going to have $40 million in like a year.
John: Oh, no, he already —
Derek: Oh please.
Craig: It’s going to be amazing.
Derek: That’s all brand.
John: It’s all brand.
Craig: [laughs] It’s all brand. Whose brand?
John: So, you’re allowed to pitch, okay, this is the terrible version, but this is going to get us to where we need to go? So you’re trying to fill the big white board of like how we’re going to do this moment?
Jane: Yeah, but you’re taking it too literal. You actually say this is the bad version even when it’s the good version.
John: Oh, okay, that’s the trick.
Jane: It’s the trick. And it sounds —
Derek: That happens a lot where somebody will say, okay not this, but something like this. And they say it and you’re like, no, no, that.
Jane: That’s it. Yeah.
Derek: Yeah, that’s what we’re doing.
Jane: Exactly. And it sounds bad, because it sounds like the exact thing that any like management book will say don’t do this is like, you know, have confidence in your idea. But because TV is so committee driven and you have to be ready to get behind whatever horse is leading the horse race of whatever the showrunner is liking, you have to under pitch.
Derek: That reminds me of the bad thing you get in the writer’s room is the repeater. So, somebody will say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if Mouch had a dog?” And you’re like, “Oh, you know what I like about that is if he had a dog, Mouch would, he’s have that dog.” You just took up ten seconds of my life.
Craig: And kind of indicated that your brain is empty.
Derek: Yeah. That happens a lot.
John: All right, so since we have two people who have experience with writer’s rooms, a thing came up this last week and you guys could actually help us figure this out. This was on The Newsroom, and people have actually probably read stories about this. So, this last week there was a controversy, it’s the Aaron Sorkin show The Newsroom and there’s sort of two controversies.
The first was about a plot line on a recent episode which was a campus rape and the whole story with the characters in there and sort of what they do. And people were not delighted about sort of the things that happen in the show. The controversy that matters to us is a staff writer on the show, Alena Smith, she tweeted about the show and this is what she tweeted. So, I’m running all of these tweets together.
“As Emily Nussbaum points out in her review of tonight’s episode, you can’t criticize Sorkin without turning in to one of his characters. So, when I tried to argue in the writer’s room that maybe we skip the storyline where a rape victim gets interrogated by a random man, I ended up getting kicked out of the room and screamed at just like Hallie would have been for a bad tweet. I found the experience quite boring. I wanted to fight with Aaron about the NSA, not gender. I didn’t like getting cast in this outdated role.”
So, these are tweets that happened from a staff writer after the show aired. Sorkin came back with a longer statement, but the gist of it was —
Craig: Surprisingly, it was a very long statement.
John: A long statement.
Craig: But to be read very quickly and it was very articulate.
John: It really was.
Jane: While walking into [crosstalk].
John: It’s more of a walk and talk. It really was great.
Craig: Really good statement.
John: In part, I’m just going to read part of it, “I was even more surprised when she had so casually violated the most important rule of working in a writer’s room which is confidentiality. It was a room in which people felt safe enough to discuss private intimate details of their lives in hope of bringing dimension to stories that were being pitched. I’m saddened that she’s broken that trust.”
So, this was a situation on The Newsroom, and obviously we don’t know everything about this situation, but I want to ask you guys about that sense of the confidentiality in the room and how important is it that the stuff that happens in the room stay in the room in general?
Jane: I mean, I’m torn about it because I think we are maybe a little precious with writer’s rooms. Particularly I wish that people whose job is to review TV had the experience of coming in and sitting in a writer’s room and seeing how it works. I think there’s a lot of misconception among writers and fans about how a writer’s room works.
On the other hand it’s true, you need the freedom to express your opinion in a writer’s room and bring up personal things. And it’s very much like a family. You’ve got stuff that happens in your family. If you go to school the next day and say what you saw — what you heard mother saying about the neighbors, you know, it’s not cool. The family has its own privacy unless there’s something that you think that’s so harmful that’s going on in your family that rises to the level where you feel that you have to — that there’s something that goes beyond privacy.
And clearly she, I have no idea if it was justified or not, but she felt that it was worthwhile to break that privacy.
Craig: Derek, what do you?
Derek: Oh, I don’t know. I’m not torn about it. I hope that the room is confidential. I mean, the shit we say in that room that generates the good ideas or the bad ideas, but gets us somewhere. I mean, we’re constantly thinking of the worst thing that a character could say, or the worst thing that we would say about a situation and, I mean, if the transcripts got out, we’d all be fired. The whole point is to generate discussions that make things interesting and surprise people and surprise the viewer.
And if you don’t feel like the stuff I say in here is now going to be broadcast out to the world, which sounds more and more like that’s the reality, it’s going to be a disservice to the creativity of the show.
John: Well, it strikes me that coming from a features side, I’m used to like the whole writing is happening in my brain. And so my brain can do everything it needs to do and think these terrible thoughts. But that thinking happens out loud in a writer’s room. And that thinking, it’s a group brain doing this, and so all that terrible stuff will come out sometimes.
Craig: This had come up before. I think it was a lawsuit by a writer’s assistant from Friends.
John: You’re right.
Craig: And in the depositions she was reporting on some of the things they had said. And part of the deal with writing rooms, and B.J., maybe you’ve experienced this on The Office is you kind of have to go too far in order to go far enough. Like, okay, that’s too far. One back, we’re good, because otherwise everything will be mild.
But this is a slightly different situation because this is really one about, I mean, this is I think perhaps unique to a Sorkin show. His show is about controversial political issues. And it sounds like they had a pretty passionate impassioned debate about the specific issue. And the writer felt that the show was taking a point of view that was hostile to what she thought was right.
I don’t know the timeline of whether or not she was there to write that episode, or if she was there all season.
John: I checked and the credit on the episode is Aaron Sorkin, but apparently —
Craig: Again, no surprise.
John: Yes, but from what it says, and from people who have worked on shows with him, there’s a writer’s room that generates sort of the story and then he writes the script. And I don’t know what the situation was on this.
What I worry about though is, Derek, in sort of having that absolute sense of like everything has to stay in the room, a lot of terrible behavior could happen in that room. And if you are a writer who is suffering some mistreatment in that room, it’s going to be challenging. Or it could be a challenging for a woman or a minority or someone else to —
Derek: I just think we’re going to go — we’re in a culture now, I mean, not to get too much into it, but we’re in a culture now that everybody is waiting to be offended and also everybody is waiting to broadcast to it the masses and to catch people and embarrass them. And it’s happening on a gigantic scale right now. I don’t know, if I had to — if you have to worry about it, what you’re doing, and then you’re trying to make a creative endeavor, I just think of all the people in history if they thought that their innermost thoughts or even group thoughts were then going to be broadcast, what ideas wouldn’t have been generated?
Craig: Like Hitler?
John: Yeah. What is the rule whenever like Hitler gets brought up the discussion is over?
Craig: I Godwin’d it.
John: Yeah, Godwin’s Law. Yes. We’re in a strange time now, because the fact that she could tweet this and she had a broadcasting mechanism in Twitter, even five years ago she wouldn’t have had the ability to sort of publicly state these things and get the attention of national press. So, it’s a really unique situation.
Derek: Well, it also becomes a he said/she said in a lot of ways, too. Because what somebody else perceives may not be, you know, it takes intention out of it. There’s all sorts of, like somebody who is aggrieved, not to blame the victim, all of that kind of stuff, but there are two sides to some of these stories and it’s like, you know, maybe if you had a writer who you thought wasn’t doing as well and then you went into their office and said, “Look, you’re going to have to up your game and blah, blah, blah.”
And then they tweet something about somebody yelled at me in my office, well that’s not what happened. But now I feel — not that that’s happened — but I can just see where an aggrieved party now has a voice to make it, I don’t know.
John: Well, let’s talk about the writer’s voice, though, because you guys both have shows on the air. And do you have to tweet, do you live tweet your episodes, Jane?
Jane: I do sometimes, yes.
John: Sometimes, yeah. So, is that a thing that is expected of you now, or is it something you do just because you’re awesome?
Jane: I think it varies from show to show. Some shows, yes, you are expected to live tweet your episode. I have not been asked to, but I like interacting with people on Twitter.
John: And Derek?
Derek: John, you live it when I love tweet my shows.
John: I love it when you live tweet your shows.
Craig: You do the best thing where you do the ten questions. I got to wake up early and do that again with you.
Derek: I do ten questions on Wednesdays and Sundays only because then I don’t have to answer questions the rest of the week. But we do live tweet the shows and NBC is gigantic on social media, wanting everybody, cast and crew and producers, to tweet it.
John: So, but my question is how much do you really engage with the fan base because particularly on a show like Once Upon a Time, there’s got to be people that are so invested in sort of these two characters, how personal do you get with them, or do you engage them on their — ?
Jane: Yeah, I try to be considerate of everyone. My catchphrase is I love all the ships, because I think there’s a feeling right now that you’re not being a good fan if you’re not advocating for something, or you’re not agitating for one particular aspect of the show. So, the people who ship Hook and Emma versus the people who ship Regina and Robin Hood and sort of see themselves in competition, and so I try to just like — I think there’s a perception that what we do in the writer’s room is like, oh, and I’m a fan of this ship, and I’m a fan that ship. And it’s not what the show is about.
Craig: Did that start whole Team Edward/Team the other guy? What do you want a team of a guy who’s not real?
Jane: No, because this goes farther back. There were Buffy people versus Spike people. That’s one reason that I kind of wish people knew more of what was going on in the room and what the process of writing is like and why I am glad there are things like this podcast that you get sort of an inside view of what the room is like, because we love all the ships. We are invested in every single relationship on the show.
And so I think — I enjoy interacting with the fans and hearing what they think and what they want to see, but I hope they don’t feel too much like they are letting down any particular storyline that they want on the show if they aren’t out there lobbying for it because that can be a bit —
Craig: I have a question for you two on behalf of what I presume are a number of people here who would like to be where you guys are, in the writing rooms, working on television. When we started in the business, and probably when you guys started in the business, the deal was if you wanted to get on a show you would write a spec of that show. So, you’d write a sample episode of Once Upon a Time or Chicago P.D. and they would read it and go, yup, this is seems like the sort of thing.
Jane: So you wouldn’t be writing it for the show that you were trying to get on.
Craig: You’d be writing for some other show.
Jane: Right. Exactly.
Craig: So like if you wanted to get on Chicago Fire you’d write one for Chicago P.D., no, I’m just kidding. But that’s gone. It seems like the trend now is you guys want to see people’s original work. You want to see essentially either a feature film or a feature screenplay rather or a script for their own pilot.
Jane: A spec pilot. Well, everybody seems to read except me. If I were staffing a show, I like the old fashioned system because you have to see if someone can write for voices they didn’t create. But —
Craig: What do you think, Derek?
Derek: I think the best way into a writer’s room if you can get a job working as an assistant or a PA in the office around the production and you’re around the writers and you get into that writer’s room and we hired two of our assistants for PAs last year on the staff. And they wrote specs of the show. I bet a majority of the staff t was original pilots because to me it’s not that hard to imitate a show that has 60 episodes, but I really want to see you surprise me with those first ten pages, or those first 20 pages.
And we’ve hired a couple of playwrights. It doesn’t matter the format. I feel like you can figure out if people can write.
Jane: So, the assistants who get bumped up to staff, you’re saying you asked them to write a spec of the exact show?
Derek: Well, they all did. They could do whatever they wanted, but that’s the choice that they made.
Jane: Oh, I love that. That’s very cool. Because then you can really see if they can write, not just write, but write your show. That’s what I really love.
Craig: That seems like a good blend, because I see both of your points. I mean, you don’t want somebody that wows you with their script and simply cannot write for anything that you’re doing. On the other hand, if all you want are mimics, then you already have a room full of people doing the show, so I can see the balance of it.
Derek: But I want original voice and original, you know, I mean B.J. mentioned surprise — to me that’s the best, like if you want to be screenwriter that’s what you’ve got to do on almost every page is surprise me with dialogue or surprise me with a plot twist or surprise everybody. The viewers are going to be surprised when they see it. And I feel like you can do that easier with an original spec than you can with writing one of our shows.
John: That’s great. It’s time for plugs. So, you are Once Upon a Time right now.
Jane: Once Upon a Time, yeah.
Craig: My daughter loves that show, by the way.
Jane: Oh, yay.
Derek: Once Upon a Time is Frozen [crosstalk].
Jane: This half-season. But the Frozen arc is concluding this Sunday and then new stuff starts happening.
Craig: She’s been just binge-watching those. She loves them. Loves them.
John: So, you have this and that’s taking you through the end of —
Jane: This season.
John: Through the spring, yeah.
Jane: And also Husbands, the online show that I created with Brad Bell, which we are hoping to make an announcement soon about more of that.
John: Congratulations. And, Derek, what should we look for? Another book?
Derek: I’m hopefully going to have another book out next December, so I’m supposed to — it’s due in February, but I don’t know how I’m going to do it.
John: The laziness of not writing a novel while writing two shows.
Craig: Yeah, because you’ve written 12 novels and you have two television shows. So, come on, man.
Derek: I got to step it up.
John: And has this taken over all your future? I don’t honestly know.
Derek: No, I mean, we’re fully on, I mean, we have 46 episodes to put out this year.
Craig: It’s amazing. Just amazing.
John: I want you to give Derek Haas from two years ago some piece of advice about TV. Like something you didn’t know going in that you now understand so much better.
Derek: Wow. Derek, I think —
John: If you had a full head of hair.
Derek: Yeah. The hardest thing for me was a writing staff. I had never done, like you guys, I had never done it before. I’d never been in that room before. I didn’t know how to tell someone that I didn’t like their idea. I feel bad. Or, letting the best idea win. All of those kinds of things.
So, I think the me now if I could go in and tell him like listen and the good ideas are going to emerge. Don’t be frustrated in the first five minutes. All of those kinds of things.
John: Awesome. Jane and Derek, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, guys.
John: All right, so in lieu of One Cool Things, we’re going to — my One Cool Thing is going to be Craig Mazin, I think.
Craig: Oh, I’ve got a little treat for you guys.
John: Craig is going to treat us to a musical performance. And that’s pretty great. So while he’s getting setup, I want to give some thank yous.
So, I want to thank all of our amazing guests. Thank you very, very much for being here. You are terrific.
We need to thank the Writers Guild Foundation. So Chris Kartje and sort of this whole Writers Guild Foundation, this is a fundraiser for them, but they’re awesome and they do great work with veterans groups and kids groups, young storytellers. They’re awesome, so thank you very much for hosting us.
Thank you to LA Film School for literally letting us use their theater. That’s really great. There will be links to the things we talked about at show notes, johnaugust.com, standard routine.
Scriptnotes is produced by Stuart Friedel. This is the actual Stuart Friedel. He’s right here. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Matthew, please stand up. Matthew is the one — Matthew also does our amazing outros, so he did the Peanuts intro tonight. He’s just the best. So, thank you very much.
Craig: That was Peanuts.
John: Peanuts. With a T there. It’s crucial. And, Craig, would you play us out?
Craig: Play us out, play us off, Keyboard Kat. Well, it’s Christmastime and I thought you guys would like a little Christmas song. This is by a couple of my favorite show tune composer-lyricists and it’s, I mean, it’s a standard tune. Everybody sings it all the time, but it’s how I feel the most at Christmastime. So, I thought I would share it with you. It’s nice and brief.
[Craig sings The Lonely Jew on Christmas from South Park].
Craig: Merry Christmas Scriptnotes listeners. Thank you. Thank you.
- The Writers Guild Foundation
- Aline Brosh McKenna on episodes 60, 76, 100, 101, 119, 123, 124 152, and 161
- For Universal Pictures, Zero Blockbusters Equals Record Profits on Forbes
- Showtime Nabs Comedy With Musical Elements From Aline Brosh McKenna on Deadline
- Rachel Bloom and on IMDb and YouTube
- B.J. Novak and on IMDb
- The Book With No Pictures and One More Thing, both by B.J. Novak
- Jane Espenson and on IMDb
- Derek Haas and on IMDb and episode 83
- Aaron Sorkin sad that Newsroom writer’s objection to rape plot violated his privacy on A.V. Club
- Intro by Scriptnotes editor Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)