The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. So today’s episode of Scriptnotes has a few bad words. So if you’re driving in the car with your kids this is the warning.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 405 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
We are recording this live at the beautiful Ace Hotel Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. We have a huge crowd that I cannot see at all because there are bright lights shining at us. But I hear them.
Craig: And I love this theater. I was here – the last time I was here they were showing The Battle of the Bastards, the big Game of Thrones episode. It was a great place to watch it. Not as much excitement tonight, I don’t think, but we’ll do our best. We’ve got some pretty great guests first of all.
John: So I think hopefully a funnier night than the Battle of the Bastards. We have amazing guests. So I just want to give you a teaser of who is on our show tonight. We have Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone. Rob McElhenney. Kourtney Kang and Alec Berg. Craig, we have titans of comedy.
Craig: Yeah. I’m out of comedy. I don’t do it anymore. So it’s good that we’re bringing these people on.
John: Now, we have our Los Angeles listeners, of course, because this is an industry town so it’s natural that you guys are here. But I’ve really been impressed over the years at our international fan base. And they reach out to us. And so we read questions from people in, you know, different countries in Africa, all throughout Europe. A lot of email recently from Russia coming in to the ask@johnaugust account. And it feels like they’re phishing for some answer Craig.
John: I just want to thank you for that.
Craig: Sure. I assume many of their names are a name and then six or seven random digits after that?
John: Funny how that works.
Craig: That’s my fan base.
John: So, Craig, I just want to congratulate you on Chernobyl.
Craig: Thank you.
John: Just to keep things interesting can you please next write about North Korea? Because I feel like we could get more North Korean interest in the show. It would really help.
Craig: We have evidence that writing about North Korea is perfectly easy to do. Nothing will go wrong.
John: Nothing bad will ever happen. Seth Rogan loves to talk about that.
John: We are here as a benefit for an amazing charity called Hollywood Heart. I want to bring John Gatins back out for a second to ask him some question about this amazing charity. John Gatins, could you please step back out on stage so we can ask you a few little questions here?
So, we have done – this is the fourth or fifth – we have done a bunch of shows for Hollywood Heart. It’s an amazing charity that supports kids living with HIV and AIDS. They provide summer camp experiences which is amazing. The camp that you guys have been using is–
John Gatins: Oh, I left this out. Thank you John.
John August: Yes, it’s pretty amazing.
John Gatins: Thank you, John.
John August: Tell us about what happened this past year.
John Gatins: Well, the Hill fire and the Woolsey fire burned the camp that we’ve been using for 24 years. So, we’ve had to rent a camp in San Juan Capistrano. So it added further financial stress on our small charity.
John August: Yes. So, part of the reason we’re here tonight is to raise additional funds because an organization that needs support all the time but especially now with the fires that devastated your camp.
John Gatins: Absolutely.
John August: So this is the 25th anniversary of this camp.
John Gatins: Correct.
John August: It’s amazing. John Gatins, thank you for doing this.
Craig: Thanks John.
John Gatins: Buy t-shirts. Did anybody buy t-shirts? Buy t-shirts.
John August: By the way, buy some awesome t-shirts. In the lobby we have amazing t-shirts. They are genuinely limited edition. If we don’t sell out of them tonight we’ll have them at the store at johnaugust.com. They are great. And you will love them.
Craig: You know, for once I’m OK with not getting any of the money from those.
John August: Fantastic, Craig.
Craig: This one time.
John August: This one time.
Craig: I’m OK with it.
John August: It only took a fire and kids who needed help.
Craig: And I got to say, it was close. It was sort of marginal for me. But this one time. And thank all of you honestly for coming out tonight. I know that these – we’ve done these events before. We do live podcasts, live shows. And the ticket prices here were a little bit higher because, you know, obviously we’re raising money or this great charity, which is a legal charity. I want to be really clear about this. It’s not like John Gatins just says it and we do it. We’re not dumb. We looked into it. They have a website. But we really appreciate you guys coming out and filling this enormous theater. It means a lot to us and it will definitely mean a lot to those kids.
John August: Hooray. We have so many people we should actually get started with our guests.
John: Our first guests are writers, actors, directors, and producers who have been nominated for nearly every award that exists. As a team they have made four movies and two children. Please welcome our friends Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone.
Craig: Yay. Thank you fine people. Have a seat.
Melissa McCarthy: Oh, hi. Hello everyone.
Craig: As part of getting them to come tonight they did ask that they not speak and we not ask them questions. So we’re going to bring out–
John: Yeah. It’s going to be a mime performance which works really well—
Melissa I’ll just mouth breathe into the mic.
Craig: I’ve done it. I’ve done it.
John: Melissa, I was saying backstage that of all the people who we have wanted to have on Scriptnotes you’re actually the person who we’ve mentioned the most on Scriptnotes. We went back and counted today. You’ve been mentioned 61 times in 400 episodes. Because Craig and I have both made movies with you.
Melissa: In a negative way? In a negative way, probably.
Craig: Usually I just yell the word out. Melissa McCarthy. No reason whatsoever.
Melissa: That’s so weird.
Craig: Yeah, we’re weird.
John: But understandable because you are a person who we have both made movies with you, you’re doing a ton, you’re writing a ton.
Melissa: My first movie, Go.
John: First movie, Go. First time on screen.
Craig: How about that? How about that?
John: But what I was so curious to have both of you guys out here to talk about is I first knew you from Groundlings. So the first time I experienced you was from working in the sketch comedy group Groundlings and we talk so much about writing but we don’t talk about writing and performance and how they inform each other. It’s how you’re building a character from the ground up.
So, how did you first get started with the Groundlings?
Melissa: For I was moving out from New York and I was really just doing theater and plays, mostly dramatic stuff. And my sister sent me a little thing ripped out of a magazine. And I also had said, oh, there’s going to be tons of theater in LA.
Melissa: Because I didn’t know. I’d never been here. And I went to see a Groundlings show and I couldn’t get my head around how it wasn’t scripted. And it was like Mike McDonald, Kathy Griffin, Patrick Bristow. It was like really incredible people doing it. And everything made sense. The lines were incredible. It wrapped up at the end. And I kept thinking but it’s written, what part is improvised. And, I don’t know, I was so taken with it that I started taking classes there.
John: Ben, what was your experience with the Groundlings? How did you get started?
Ben Falcone: I looked in LA Weekly. I don’t know if that’s still a thing, but it was a thing then.
Craig: It is not.
Ben: It is not. Great.
Craig: You killed it.
Ben: I killed it.
Craig: Yep. Just by looking at it.
Ben: And so it said it was a place to go and see a show. So I went and saw one and a guy named Jim Wise, I’m musical, I’m throwing that out there. I can be musical from time to time. And a guy named Jim Wise sang a song improv in the style of like a Led Zeppelin song. And it just blew my mind because I couldn’t believe that it wasn’t all rigged and staged.
And I thought I have to learn how to do it and maybe I could do it like Jim Wise, which was never the case. I never could do it.
Craig: Never got there.
Ben: Never got there.
Craig: Never got there.
Ben: But that’s how I started there. And then we met there.
Craig: It’s interesting that you both were drawn to this notion that there was writing going on but it was through performance. It seemed like a magic trick to you both. And then you start doing it. Talk a little bit – I’m kind of fascinated by the fact that improv is this strange intersection between acting and writing. It’s like you’re doing both at the same time, kind of. How does it impact the way you write when you’re say not improv but you’re just writing-writing?
Melissa: I think, at least for me, when I first – we were in a class together. When we first had to like start writing, Ben was the first one that called me out and he’s like – because we’d get ten minutes, go out, write a character, come back, and do the monologue. And I thought, well, I can’t write. I’m not a writer. So I would really lock up and I would just go up with an empty piece of paper. And he was the only one that was like I know your paper is empty.
Ben: I wasn’t being creepy about it though. Let me just throw that out there.
Melissa: A little creepy. A little creepy. But I could say it all, but I was like well that’s not writing. You have to write it first. So I would say it all and then I would go back and try to remember it and write it down. And it wasn’t until I kept doing that to be like it is still the ideas of how does this character feel, how does she think about things, and how do you make a story out of that. And then finally I was like, oh wait, but it took me a long time to be like oh that is writing and then structure and all the bones of it came later. But it really did start with what would she say and why is it worth anyone’s time to watch this moment in her life.
Craig: Which is basically what we’re doing when we’re writing things. Was it a similar thing for you? You’re writing a scene. You just happen to be doing it in front of people staring at you which is terrifying.
Ben: I mean, it is. I remember I took more of a – when I was learning to do it I thought well I had better write. And you get these assignments, like what does the color blue mean to you. And I’m like, I don’t know, holy shit. Someone else has got a good color blue thing. And then it wasn’t until I started working with people like Melissa or like Dax Shepard and just these different people who were in the Groundlings at that time and they were just like, no, I just start doing a thing that seems funny to me and it’s based from the character perspective. Which I think so much good writing is. It’s based on what characters are doing and why they’re doing it and what circumstance they’re in. So, it took me a hot second to figure that out. And I’m still probably trying to.
John: So it sounds like you’re approaching these things not from thinking like, oh, this is the thing that’s going to be funny, but basically this is the character that’s going to be funny. This is a character that’s going to continue to let this happen for five minutes and actually be an enjoyable thing.
Melissa: To this day I still don’t think I could ever write a joke. Like I don’t understand how to do it. And people do it so incredibly well.
Craig: When you say joke you mean like three guys walk into a bar? Or a standup routine?
Melissa: I couldn’t write a scene based on something funny. But something like she’s ordering a sandwich, well she loves ham. She loves ham too much. Then you’re probably going to talk about I had ham for breakfast and then I have ham for dinner. And I can do it that way because I think well Carol loves ham.
Craig: Ham Lady 2022, from Universal Studios.
Melissa: I’m going to put that one in my back pocket. I’m not saying no.
Craig: Where did you get the idea for Ham Lady? Well…
John: Well you just said I’m not saying no. And the cliché we always hear about improv is that you’re just supposed to say yes. You’re supposed to be alive in the moment and saying yes and playing together. And that’s a very different thing than what writers are usually doing. Because usually we’re by ourselves and we’re just these little islands. And you have to actually hit the ball back over the net doing improv.
Melissa: Yeah. Or else the game is over. You’re late for work.
Ben: No you’re not.
Melissa: Good night! It does, and it makes you – you just have to play along. I mean, it’s kind of the fun of it, even if like it’s not where you want to go. You can’t control every moment of it when you’re improvising. You just have to go with it. And usually it’s kind of a gift because you end up out of your heard and just actually responding to people, as opposed to trying to come up with something funny.
Craig: I have a question for you guys. There is a very different kind of comedy for a movie, a comedy feature film, and then there’s the kind of ongoing comedy like Mike & Molly where it’s ongoing. You guys – and I think a lot of comedy has been moving towards the ongoing space, mostly because they make more shows than they do movies.
But you guys are making movies all the time. Is it just that you kind of have that vibe like the stories that you want to tell and the kind of comedy you do fits better in that closed narrative built around one character in kind of a short cycle? Or is it just kind of the way it’s worked out?
Ben: I mean, I can just say for me I love TV. I grew up watching Seinfeld, not to date myself, but Cheers and all these shows. And I had VHS tapes and I watched them all. But I just love movies. I just love them. I adore them. I don’t want them to go away. I don’t think they will, but it’s a narrative form that I find so interesting. Because you can make sequels if you ever wanted to. I just love the idea of digging into a story just a little bit longer, which I guess really now some of these shows are doing anyway, you know, the longer form ten-episode thing, 30 minutes a thing.
Craig: Right. Just a long movie. Yeah.
Melissa: Sometimes I kind of enjoy the heartbreak of a movie ending. It’s like if I love a book so much and when it ends you’re like, no, like I have a whole thing when a book ends if I love it that it’s this weird torture, but I love it. Then I read slower. Then I’m down to like a paragraph a day. I mean, it’s really weird. Something about a movie, because you do have to wrap it up and then you’re left to wonder what’s the next day. I think it kind of lets your imagination roll. I don’t know, there’s just something about that format of like it’s a story. I grew up with a dad that told really great stories around the table. And he’s so funny but he really could tell a story. And I think there’s something about – it’s a story. It’s a segment of someone’s life.
I mean, I love both. But there’s a magic to having to wrap it up.
Craig: You know, I never thought of it that way because we talk about this all the time, the difference between ongoing narrative, like an open-ended narrative like the kind our other guests write, and then there’s that closed-end narrative. And I never really thought of it this way, but for me – you know, you’re right. The part of me that loves it is the part that loves an ending. Like you start with an ending almost, right? And then you kind of craft to it.
Ben: Yeah. And so many reshoots in movies, you know, all throughout whether it’s a superhero movie or a comedy, so many times people are like did we get the ending right. And I think it’s such a tricky game to play and it’s really satisfying if you can execute it.
John: When you guys are making one of your movies how do you know something is funny? And at different stages? As you’re writing it obviously you’re both actors so you can probably play some stuff out and really get a sense like, OK, are you inhabiting this thing. But then as you shoot it and then as you’re going into the editing room how do you know that something is working or not working? And as you’ve done four of these, five of these now, has that evolved?
Ben: Melissa is just a really funny person. And so when we’re writing it probably makes me laugh. And then when we’re shooting it it probably makes me laugh. And then in the cutting room it makes me and the editors laugh. So it’s a pretty simple – I mean, the one thing I really like about comedy, and I’m concerned that there’s less comedies out there doing well right now and I certainly hope that they come back in a big way soon, comedy is really truthful.
You know, if you get a roomful of people and you test your movie and nobody laughs then guess what? It’s not funny. Even if you think it’s funny. So, there’s something about the democracy of comedy that I find really interesting and I believe in it. So even if it’s funny to me and I laugh like hell and then I show it to Craig who is really a funny person and he laughs and then we show it to a whole audience and it bombs we don’t go, “Well, that’s funny.”
Melissa: I stand behind it.
Craig: Yeah. I laughed, right? So we’re good. I don’t really care.
Ben: Yeah. We’re done. I don’t care what those 400 people think.
Craig: Look, I’ve been there. God, those test screenings are terrifying in that regard, but it is kind of a science experiment at some point. And it is why comedy is so difficult but so rewarding, right? I mean, even the best drama in the world it’s not like people are rolling in the aisles sobbing and puking up their guts. They’re crying silently in their seat. But when you’ve got them going in a movie theater in a comedy they’re rolling. It’s amazing.
But, I’m just kind of curious, both of you have – well, we know from a lot of the roles you play, but even through the writing that you guys do there are these moments. You know, Tammy really sticks out to me as the one where there’s drama that’s coming through that’s drama-drama. And I’m kind of curious do you guys ever see yourselves, I mean, definitely comedy is going to keep coming from you guys, no question. But do you ever see yourselves ever kind of going you know what let’s scoot over and try a drama. It’s going to be way easier. Way easier.
Ben: I mean, you know, because in a comedy when we’re shooting, like the thing that Melissa and her acting partners do, let’s say Maya Rudolph who is one of the funniest people in the universe. And they do something and it’s so funny. Well, now I’ve got it. But I have to get another one because it might not work. And I just think that’s insane. And sometimes I’m like Christ if this was a drama I could move the camera around and mess around and we’d all be like what technical things should we do.
Melissa: He always comes in and says now do the version that hurts my heart. Don’t do the whole thing that made us laugh. I’m like, what? And he’s like just come in and ask her this and say this. Sometimes we improvise and sometimes we go really like clean with it. But I mean I think there’s just such a weird thing that if you stay truthful in it, sometimes even when the whole audience, not when it’s out in the world, but those test audiences I do sometimes worry about are you in there to critique or are you in there to enjoy? And sometimes, I mean, I get really defensive for me characters. Not for me. I don’t care about me. But I’m like she does like ham! And I end up defending.
And what’s weird is I really do love ham. And I might be a little hungry so I keep bringing it up. But I don’t know, I don’t let it go until we’re still in ADR and I’m like if I turn my head away I’m going to throw in a ham joke. I just keep pushing it.
Craig: I like that.
Ben: But for sure I would consider doing drama.
Craig: I mean, take it from me – seriously – way easier.
John: Absolutely. People praise you for it.
Craig: They praise me for it. I’ve worked so hard in comedy for so long just being kicked in the fucking balls over and over and over. I mean, done really good work. I mean, work I’m really proud of. Not the one with you. But other ones that I thought were really good. And then you do one drama and everyone is like…
Melissa: What I think is weird is I think a comedy always needs drama. I think you have to let your characters fall down hard, because then you get to watch them get back up. And I think it’s necessary.
Craig: And the ending is never about the jokes in these comedies. When you get to the ending at some point you’re like the jokes are over. And that’s what I think is amazing about guys like – because you’re both writers and you’re both performers. And you two have this thing, and Maya Rudolph can do this too, where you’re funny, you’re funny, you’re funny, and then – and Kristen Wiig can do this – and then suddenly you’re breaking my heart. Find me the drama-drama people that can flip around and make me crack up. It’s not so common. It’s really not.
I mean, this is why again all the awards should go to comedies. All of them. All Oscars. All of them.
Melissa: But I do feel like there’s a strange shift where like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles to me is a perfect movie. I laugh so hard. I cry every single time I see it. It breaks my heart. Tootsie even, there’s moments where you’re just like, oh stop, like you’re killing people but it’s so funny. And breaking someone’s heart, not like killing people.
And I feel like in the last maybe ten years, and we got this a lot when we made Tammy is from so many of the people reviewing it they were like well you’ve done it wrong because of the odd dramatic scenes within a comedy.
Craig: [laughs] I know. I know.
Melissa: And I was like since when is that a new thing? This isn’t like Ben and I came up with a crazy style.
Craig: Blows my mind.
Melissa: So it is really odd that it seems to – and I’m like did anyone in the ‘80s and ‘90s ever get lectured about that?
John: Well, James L. Brooks was able to make a few movies that had dramatic moments but were genuinely funny.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t know how he got away with it. I just feel like – here’s the thing, when you make a comedy, right, you show it to an audience, they laugh. It’s what you said. You can’t fake it, right? You know it’s working or it’s not. They tell you. They even write little numbers down and you know. And then you put it out in the world and people go to see it and you know.
So you have this strange thing where you show it to people and they love it, and you show it to audiences and they love it, but then a bunch of other people are like, nah, it’s not the way comedy should be done, Ham Lady.
Ben: Yeah, I mean, it’s tricky. That stuff is tricky. But we just make the movies and just hope that the people like them. Because you can’t worry about that other stuff.
Craig: So far so good.
John: Let’s come to see the movies. Before we move on and talk to our TV folks who have done a lot of comedy/dramas and sort of that intersection, in a normal podcast this would be the place where we would pause and insert an ad. We would insert an ad for some product.
Craig: Not one of our normal podcasts.
John: No, but a normal podcast in any other podcast.
Craig: Like a regular one. Where people make money and then share it with their cohost.
John: Yes. Like one of those kind of podcasts.
John: Craig and I don’t do this for the money but we’re actually kind of doing it for the money tonight because we’re trying to raise money for Hollywood Heart. So I thought maybe we’d break tradition and do a podcast ad right here live on stage. And since it’s a podcast ad it needs to be for Squarespace. So Squarespace doesn’t know that we’re going to do an ad for them.
Craig: Don’t worry.
John: The goal is we’re going to guilt them into paying some money to the charity. So we’re going to do the best ever Squarespace ad. Here are some facts about Squarespace. So if you actually go online and see what the template is for a Squarespace ad they’ll include things like beautiful templates created by world class designers. Free and secure hosting. Nothing to patch or upgrade ever.
Craig: What if you had a space that was triangular? It’s wrong. Where do you go?
Melissa: I just like squares. Hi, I’m Melissa McCarthy for Squarespace. And I’d love if you sent in gobs of money and checks or—
Ben: I don’t think people use checks very often anymore.
Melissa: I’m 110. Send in checks or rubles or whatever you have. Because if you think about it a dream is just an idea that doesn’t have a website yet. Make it reality with Squarespace. SquarePace.
Ben: Are you calling it SquareFace?
Melissa: SquareFace. That’s my second movie coming out, SquareFace. Just send money.
John: Ben, can you think of any reasons why an upcoming writer might want to build a website to showcase their work?
Ben: I certainly can. Well, I’d love to just have the ability to customized look and feel settings, products, and more with just a few clicks. And also I know that the future is coming, so I’d like to make it brighter with Squarespace.
Craig: But can I ask you a question? I mean, when you do this you’re going to want to patch or upgrade stuff all the time, right?
Melissa: Well, yeah.
Craig: No. No.
Ben: Of course we won’t. No.
Craig: No, that’s bad.
Ben: That would be bad. So we don’t want to do that.
John: Now, Melissa, when you’re building your ham-based website.
Craig: Oh yeah. Ham.com.org.
John: So do you already have your URL reserved? Do you have any thoughts for what you might want to–?
Melissa: Oh, I would definitely reserve my Hamspace.
Melissa: Hamspace. And I do it through Squarespace. It was just a square made of ham because the ability to customize the look and feel, settings, products, and more with just a few clicks? Come on.
John: So everyone should go to Squarespace.com for a free trial when you’re ready to launch. Use the offer code – what’s the offer code?
Craig: It just says name.
John: We need to pick what it is.
John: Hamspace. Use the offer code Hamspace and they will know who many people came here from this ad for your first purchase on a website or domain. Thank you very much for playing along. Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone, thank you. Slide on down.
Craig: Slide on down, just like a talk show. Do you think that’s going to work? I mean, do you think Squarespace is going to–?
John: Is Squarespace going to pay some money? [Audience claps] Yeah.
Craig: Squarespace doesn’t care what they think.
John: Squarespace really cares what they think.
Craig: Oh, I guess that’s true. They love podcasts.
John: They love podcasts.
Craig: Love them.
John: Our next guests are amazing. Kourtney Kang is best known for her work on Fresh Off the Boat where she was a writer/co-executive producer for the first three seasons, and How I Meet Your Mother, where she was an executive producer and worked as a writer on all nine seasons. She has written and executive produced multiple pilots and worked on many features. Kourtney Kang, please come on out.
Craig: Thank you so much for being here. I was going to wear that tonight.
Oh and next up, one of the finest men I know, and certainly the finest Irishman second to John Gatins. Rob McElhenney is an actor, director, producer, and screenwriter. He is known for playing Mac on the comedy series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a show he co-created and executive produces. And he is currently on a show for Apple. And number 16 on the call sheet is me.
Craig: That is a very small part.
John: Finally, Alec Berg has written for Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but is best known for the two incredible HBO series he runs, Silicon Valley and Barry. Welcome back to the show Alec Berg.
Craig: Alec Berg, here he is. It’s Alec Berg. Alec Berg.
John: We were just talking about putting dramatic things into comedies is a challenge in movies. And yet I think I see it all the time in the comedies that you guys are making. But there’s dramatic moments that are happening throughout. Alec Berg, I want to start with you because Barry especially has so much drama at its core and yet it’s so funny. And as you’re working through the plans for the seasons, plans for this episode, what is your barometer for like this is funny enough, this is going to work?
Alec Berg: We don’t ever really write jokes. There’s no jokes in the show. It’s all just what would happen. What’s real? What’s true? And it all comes from that. There’s no plan. We never sat down and said this is the tone, this is how we’re doing it. We literally just started writing a show and we’re like what if it were this. OK. And what would go with that.
We had this idea for – we had worked on another idea, Bill and I, for a couple months. And we were going to go in and pitch at HBO and we thought, all right, well we’re pitching a TV series. You were talking about closed-ended versus open-ended. We’re like we should probably go in with a few episode ideas so they know what the show would be. And we literally couldn’t think of one episode idea past the pilot.
And we were like this might be a problem. This might not be a TV show. So we threw that away and we decided that the problem with the show idea we had is there’s no stakes. It just was a guy. So Bill said, OK, there should be stakes, like life and death. That’s stakes. What if I was a hitman? And then we just started from there and it was like, OK, well what’s funny or interesting about a hitman? There’s more hitmen in TV and movies than there probably are in real life. It’s like dog catcher or one of these jobs that only exists in Dennis the Menace cartoons.
So then we just started from there. And it was, oh, what would be interesting is if he was a hitman who wanted to be something else. What would he want to be? Oh, what if he wanted to be an actor? And we started finding all of these interesting parallels between light and dark and being anonymous versus being known and having to use your feelings versus having to shut them down.
But never at any point did we think, oh, that would be funny or that’s hilarious. It all just came from truth. Who is this guy? What does he want? Who could he be around and what could they want? And how would that be in conflict? And still we don’t ever really write jokes. We just keep saying this could happen and then, oh, that’s funny if that happened. But it never comes from like what would be a funny thing to happen. It would always come from when we’re writing it what would actually happen or what would this person really want.
Craig: But that’s a change. I mean, it wasn’t like that’s how you guys did Seinfeld. I mean, Seinfeld was jokes. I know it’s a show about nothing and all the rest, but there were lines, there were jokes.
Alec: Yes. Seinfeld was always about story ideas. What’s the funny story idea? Like somebody dates somebody who is something, or somebody runs into somebody and here’s a funny thing. Or George eats out of the trash.
Craig: And Silicon Valley also has that kind of Alec Berg looping thing that happens. It feels closer to that tradition. And Barry feels a little bit more like further down the line.
Alec: It’s definitely more of a just follow the story where it goes. Yeah, for sure.
John: Kourtney, now you’ve been on writing on more traditional broadcast sitcoms or comedies. So, in those cases there is that expectation that this has to be funny. So How I Met Your Mother is in front of a live studio audience. Fresh Off the Boat you don’t have those same pressures but you still have that sense of like this has to be funny. So at what point in the process are you evaluating like is this actually going to be a funny enough idea? Are these scenes going to work? As a room how do you figure that out?
Kourtney Kang: Yeah, I think you sort of have to balance it a little bit more and sort of have your eye on both prizes so to speak. But I will say the most important thing is the story. And all of the best stories that we did at How I Met Your Mother started from someone saying, “Oh, one time this happened, or one time me and my friends, we did this thing.” And those always tend to be the best stories. And once the fun of writing a show like that for so long is you know those characters so well that you just go, oh, we’ll put this guy here and this is going to be great. You know what those jokes are.
Yeah, we did nine seasons. I started as like a baby writer and by the end I was an executive producer. And for me it was such a great boot camp because I was very fortunate. It’s a great staff. There were great guys, Carter and Craig that ran it. And so you just sort of churn it out. Some seasons we did 25 episodes a season.
Craig: God, that’s amazing.
Kourtney: Yeah. And you’re just constantly balancing keeping it real, keeping it grounded. Yeah, it’s a multi-camera sitcom. If it’s not funny like it’s rough.
Craig: And Rob you guys do about 40 episodes a season for 90 seasons now. What are you up to? 14,000 episodes of Sunny?
Rob McElhenney: We only do ten episodes a season now.
John: You’re so lazy. Kourtney was doing like 24.
Craig: But you—
Kourtney: Minorities always work harder.
Craig: Again, he is Irish. At one time that was a real problem in this country. If this were 1850 Rob would really be aggrieved.
Rob: This is the part of the conversation I just keep my mouth shut and I’m good.
Craig: So, like Kourtney you’re on a show – I mean, really on a show. Not only do you know those characters because it’s going so long, you are one of the characters. But what’s really interesting to me–
Rob: I play one of the characters. OK. I play one of those characters.
Craig: Eh, I mean, I know you pretty well. So that show has evolved, too. I’m just fascinated by what’s going on in TV in general with comedy. Because it does seem like there’s this strange evolution and your show, you know, was a way and now suddenly we’ve got this incredible – I mean, it was the season finale last season, correct, with the dance?
Rob: Oh yeah.
Craig: I mean, [Audience claps] and that was him. They didn’t put his head on someone else. That was actually you.
Craig: Is that right?
Rob: Yes. That’s correct. That was me. There’s a lot of people who have no idea what you’re talking about because the show has been on for 14 years. Even people who have seen it, they haven’t seen 14 years of it.
Craig: Got it. So in this last season Rob’s character Mac comes out of the closet and you’re trying to connect with your father and you attempt to do so, because your father is not approving, and you attempt to do so through an interpretive dance. But, no—
Rob: A four-minute long contemporary dance. I expressed myself.
Craig: You would think it would be like waka-waka-waka, and it’s actually heartbreakingly gorgeous. This freak who works out 29 hours a day comes out there with 15 abs. You don’t even get 15. He has extra abs. And does this beautiful dance. And then Danny DeVito has this moment at the end which is one of the most incredible things I’ve seen in any half hour sitcom ever where he’s crying and he says, “I get it.” It was an amazing thing.
How active are you in pushing the evolution of that show now that it has gone on all this time?
Rob: Very active. I mean, we always try to just do things that we haven’t done before, which gets tricky after 14 years. And one of the things that we very rarely do is delve into the more dramatic. It’s just not the tone of the show. And it’s a very difficult thing to shift tone in comedy. You know, in a show like Barry when you’ve established that in the first episode then obviously it’s easier in the second, third, and fourth and you can get away with a lot more. And we’ve just established 14 years where we’re not doing anything like that.
But we also recognize that we have a tremendous responsibility. If people are going to continue to watch us then we have to take it seriously and we can’t phone it in. And so we work as hard now as we ever have to make the show different and unique and fun and still funny. And one of the ways we do that is to challenge ourselves and say, well, I’ve always wanted to do something. I’ve always wanted to do X, so I’m going to go do that this season. I can’t dance at all. And I’m like, ah, it might be fun to learn how to dance. Maybe I can put that in an episode and I can use that as a tax write-off, get FX to pay for it.
Craig: Weird motivation, but OK.
Rob: That coupled with, I don’t know, we just wanted to do something a little bit different. So I worked for five months to learn how to dance.
Craig: See this reminds me of something. Sometimes Alec will complain – all the time – I’m working so hard. I’m working so hard.
Craig: And our friend, Derek Haas, who has Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, Chicago PD, Chicago Library, he’s like, “I have to do 70 episodes a season every season. You guys are doing eight.” And I’m kind of wondering for you, Kourtney, because you’ve got to make a lot of television. Do you ever sit there and go, “God damn, those guys over there in cable, they’re just getting away with murder right.” Is there any kind of envy? Do you feel like you’re being unfairly restricted by the format? Or, are you kind of enjoying the fact that that space is actually becoming special in its own way?
Kourtney: Well, I was on How I Met Your Mother for nine years and then I went to Fresh Off the Boat for three years. And then I was like I’ve got to get out of here. So I have since left. And now I’m doing more feature stuff and developing and things like that. It’s a great system and when you’re on a show there’s something nice about – it’s like a home. You know, and I sort of came up doing theater and it’s like your own little traveling band of folks that you’re putting on a show each week. And there’s something really fun and special about it.
But ultimately the sort of formula of it and, you know, you can do 25 episodes because you know this is going to happen. This thing is going to come in. There’s a form that you’re sort of filling in. Which allows you to do that many episodes. And at a certain point there is, at least for me, I hit a point of it just sort of felt constraining and you want to do more. You know, you sort of want to stretch your legs. There’s a limit to the stories you can tell.
I mean, on the shows that you guys are doing there’s so many exciting things. There’s different points of view. And TV has just sort of expanded in such a wonderful way and definitely you know sitting on a network sitcom and, you know, it used to be like when I worked on – even on How I Met Your Mother in a short period of time we had so many viewers.
The first show I worked on was this show called Coupling and it aired after Friends. And we were considered dead on arrival because we got a 27 in the 18-49 demo.
Craig: To put that in perspective, if you got that now all of the sphincter tone would relax in a network. People would be just, I don’t know, you’d be celebrated. It’s an impossibly high number now.
Alec: You would be the Super Bowl I think if you got that rating.
Craig: You would be the Super Bowl.
Kourtney: You would be the Super Bowl. And so it was tough. It’s sort of the audience is shrinking and you’re sort of – for me I was feeling sort of like we’re doing the same formula and it was sort of time to break out.
Craig: That makes sense. I get it. Look, I do love the traditional sitcom. I do. I love the traditional sitcom format. But it does seem like with every new kind of thing coming in, and so Rob’s show has the ability to kind of morph and change. I’m kind of curious, all of you have television experience in episodic. All of you guys. And now with the movies that you guys – you also have people that you write with. I think Steve Mallory is here.
John: Yeah! Steve Mallory.
Ben: That’s him.
Craig: When you are in that boat with another person and you guys are sailing through the choppy waters of trying to make comedy, who are you looking for to be your partners when you’re writing a movie together? When you’re running a show who do you want kind of working for you? When you’re working on a show who do you want to be working or? Talk a little about what makes a good partner in a room, because a lot of these folks I think would love to be one of the people in those rooms.
John: Yeah, so who are you looking to hire and who are you looking to team up with? What is the quality that you’re looking? Is it somebody who matches your comedy or someone who is a contrast to what you can bring?
Rob: If someone is funny is almost, it’s not irrelevant but it’s secondary. I want someone who, A, is passionate. Someone who I can spend a lot of time with. Someone who understands story and understands story structure. Understands character/character motivations. I mean, the funny will come. Especially if you have funny actors. You know, so for me that’s of paramount importance.
Alec: Yeah, I completely agree. To me it’s just structure and tone. It’s funny, I remember when I was working at Seinfeld the first script I wrote I vividly remember handing it into Larry David. And he put it in his pocket and he walked over to a rehearsal. And I followed him, because I wanted to watch him read it. Because I had slaved over every word and my gems, my jewels.
And he read the script, he took it out of his pocket, and he flipped through it in it must have taken him 90 seconds to read the whole script. And I’m like well he’s not savoring any of that. He’s not savoring my words. How could he – there’s morsels. All the morsels. He’s not…
And I realize now when somebody hands me a script it’s the same thing. I just go, uh-huh, what happens? OK, they do this. Right. I don’t care about jokes. Jokes, those will all happen. But it is so important just structure, structure, structure. So working to me with somebody who understands that and understands like what if this happens, or why this should happen and why that shouldn’t happen.
Alec: You know? That’s all of it to me.
Craig: Is that the way it is with network stuff, too? Because my impression is that it’s a little bit more joke heavy and that you would want people that are kind of one-line-y kind of folks.
Kourtney: It’s like a football team, right? I don’t know anything about football.
Craig: Run with this. I want to see where this goes.
John: That’s usually me on this podcast.
Kourtney: I don’t know where I’m going, but you have a roster, right?
Craig: You pick up a bat.
Kourtney: Yeah. Like you kick your field goal and you have an act break.
Craig: Act breaks in football, there is. There’s one right in the middle of the game.
Kourtney: You know, the thing that I think is really tricky in sitcoms and writing for TV is it all comes down to motivation. Like why are people doing what they’re doing. And I think all you guys have spoken to this. What’s the truth? What’s the situation?
And then after that to me to do a show what you really need on your staff is your need foot soldiers. Like you need people who are in the trenches, who can listen and go, OK, this is the show we are doing. Because with any given show, any given premise, there’s many, many ways you could do it. And all of them could be great. And all of them could be valid. But we need to all run the same way.
And it’s funny because sometimes there’s very talented writers who they want to go this way. And you’re like, OK great, but we’re going to go this way. And it’s difficult to shift. And so you need someone who is sort of flexible and can hear where you want to go and kind of help you get there and like stay in it.
Like there’s nothing worse than when you get to the bottom of act two and you’re like, OK, so like why are they going to this swimming pool at night? So we can have this big funny set piece. And so you need people who have the sort of stamina to help you figure that out who you want to be in the room with till all hours of the night.
Ben: They were going there because they were just really tired and one of them just needed to go swimming. I just really want a gig. I want a gig.
Craig: This is apparently what Steve Mallory does.
Alec: Where have you been all my life?
Craig: Because they wanted to.
Ben: Because they wanted to. Can we go home?
Craig: Let’s get some ham.
John: Now Kourtney, you bring up motivation. And we have three actors on stage. So I want to talk about motivation because we talk a lot about it in writing in terms of why is this character doing it. But as actors you guys have to approach how am I actually going to perform this moment. What is getting me to say this line, getting me through this scene? What is a good way for a writer and actor to talk with each other about motivation, motivation in a moment, motivation in a scene?
Melissa, do you have any thoughts for like what works well for you?
Melissa: I would have to say, I mean, being on both sides of it, when we write something if an actor comes in and is like I just don’t know why I would say it that way. Then you shouldn’t. The first rule is unless it’s really key to the entire story it’s like you should say it in the way that feels right to your character. If you’re lucky enough to have someone that you’re like they’re going to do it justice, but it has to come out of their mouth.
I mean, I did something once where three – I think we were all in our early 30s – and all of us were saying, um, we’re trying to be nice and said, and I finally said, “Just no woman would say this. I can get the same point across. Can I say this?” And there may have been a 50+ year old white guy that said, “I think I know what a woman in her 30s would say.” And there were three women in their 30s just standing there like, oh my god.
But, I mean, for us – I think part of my job when I’m on the acting side is to figure out how to do it. And also part of my job on that side is when it really feels wrong to go up and talk to the writer. Like Ben, and god, Steve, you’re getting a lot of shout-outs tonight. We meet every morning in the trailer and we go over the scenes. And there’s always things that come up and we’re like it just feels odd. And I always think it’s a chance to improve something. So I think as long as no one is being defensive. We thought it was softer, or we thought it was this. I always want to try something a different way. And I think the writers always have to be open to that as well.
It doesn’t mean you have to – it doesn’t have to make the cut. But sometimes as the actor you have to at least get that out.
John: Alec Berg, a question I’ve been meaning to ask you for a long time because you’re a show that is about – Barry is a show that has actors in it. And I watch the show and marvel at it, but I also wonder is it unfair that you have incredibly talented actors sometimes playing really bad actors and who sometimes have moments of breakthrough where they’re really good? And how are you finding that balance of like he’s really good in this moment but is he actually a good actor?
Alec: Yeah, it’s really a testament to their skill. I mean, Bill and Sarah Goldberg both are just – it’s really like maybe the hardest thing to do as an actor is to be a bad actor. Like I remember I did a thing years ago where somebody was supposed to sing off key and the person we cast was a really good singer. And she couldn’t do it. We kept saying, no, no, you’ve got to be off key. And she’s like I can’t. I can’t sing off key. It’s really hard.
And so Bill’s ability to play things wooden or left-footed, it’s awesome to watch. Right? And he does it in a way that just feels super real. It’s a really hard thing to do.
Craig: You’re like slicing it even more and more narrow now because in the second season it wasn’t like, OK, Bill Hader can’t act. But now he’s talking about something real and he is – but now Sarah is doing things where she’s actually acting pretty well. And then she’s acting really well. She’s now doing what’s even harder than acting bad is mediocre. Like that’s crazy to me that she can do that.
Ben: Not for me. Not hard for me at all.
Craig: [laughs] That is classic Falcone. Right there. Just straight down that middle.
Alec: But, yeah, it’s just a testament. I mean, again, it’s just, you know, and it’s funny you’re talking about seeing it from the actor’s point of view. Like I as a writer I am always, always interested in what the actor has to say about stuff. And I try as hard as I can to never be defensive about any of it because I have to worry about everything. I have to worry about every character. I have to worry about the story. I have to worry about what happens next week. All that actor is charged with is being the curator of that character. And they have so much more insight into that character than I do that to tell them how to do it seems insane to me. You know?
Like if they have a concern or something doesn’t feel right coming out of their mouth, like I always want to hear that. And the worst note, and you have to give it sometimes, is I know – I know you probably wouldn’t, but we need it for the story and just do your best.
Alec: It’s a crappy note to give, but every once and a while you’re stuck and you have to.
Craig: Rob, do you find yourself – at any point–
Rob: I’m an excellent actor.
Craig: Yeah. I know.
Rob: They write words and I just do it.
Craig: You just do it.
Rob: I’ll do whatever.
Craig: You write your own stuff. Has anybody ever said to you you’re not doing you right?
Rob: Yeah. Today. I mean, Charlie was like, no. I’m like motherfucker I wrote this yesterday. And he’s like, nah, it’s not good. Let’s do it again.
But we have a very simple, like our show is so stupid. At times. So ridiculous, right? And so it would be very easy to look at it and say like, oh well, it’s just ridiculous and you can do whatever you want. I don’t think we would have lasted for 14 years if that was the case. We have a very simple maxim when it comes to any scene. Any one of the characters can say or do anything under the sun. It can be as ridiculous as we want it to be. However, we have to believe that that character believes that what he or she is doing will get them what they want.
Rob: It’s as simple as that.
Craig: That’s the classic acting and writing cue. What do you want?
Rob: Yeah. What do you want? And really if you don’t have a scene where somebody wants something very clearly then you don’t really have a scene.
Craig: That’s right.
Rob: And then if you don’t believe that that actor, that character, is saying or doing something that will get them that thing then you don’t have a show.
John: Then it’s not real. It’s actually a very natural segue to our big game tonight. So, I’m going to pass these out to our gang here. So, we have been—
Rob: I’m sorry. Have we not talked about Chernobyl? Have we been up here this entire time and not talked about Chernobyl?
John: For you, Craig. Take this stack and pass it down.
Rob: I guess we’re moving along, but all right. I thought that’s why we were here. I thought this was Craig’s coming out party.
Craig: All he does all day long is make fun of me. I just want you to know all day long he makes fun about me.
Rob: I’m happy not to talk about it.
Craig: He sometimes just texts me and says, “Are you looking at Twitter? Are you looking at people praising you on Twitter?”
Rob: I’ve never seen somebody so close to their phone. Like someone will tweet something, five seconds later, he will be responding to it. About how great he is.
Craig: I have 25 years of starving for praise. Just give me my week. That’s all I ask. Just give me my week. I’ll be back to self-loathing before you know it.
John: All right, so as we’re starting this game segment earlier on we picked Brad, or Brad won this thing. Brad, can you stand up and move over to the aisle. And we’re going to have Katherine who is a wonderful person right there, she is going to be bringing over a microphone so you can play along with us here. Brad, tell us about yourself. Where are you from?
Brad: Rochester, New York.
John: Rochester, New York. And you must have listened to a few episodes of Scriptnotes because you correctly guessed that the person who had written the second largest number of outros was Rajesh Naroth.
John: So how many episodes do you think you’ve listened to? There’s 405.
Brad: I contributed to the Listener Guide for sure.
John: Ooh, so this is a person who wrote in for the Listener Guide, so the people who told us what the best episodes are.
Craig: He’s definitely heard more than I have.
John: Yeah. You’ve heard so many more episodes than Craig.
Brad: That’s for sure, yeah.
Craig: I’m on like six right now or seven.
John: So, Brad, you probably know me and Craig pretty well, right? You know sort of the things we talk about and you could probably identify us just by the words we have spoken, right?
Brad: Maybe, yeah.
John: Let’s see how well you can do this.
Craig: Confidence, Brad. Confidence.
John: So Craig, we have transcripts for all 404 episodes of the show, dating way back to the very beginning. And a couple of years ago we talked about maybe doing a book, a book of all the transcripts.
Craig: So that you could make more money?
John: Yes. Turned out to be impossible because as of now it would 17,000 pages long. There’s a lot of us talking.
Craig: A 40-set volume.
John: 40-set volume of Scriptnotes. But with this giant corpus of text we were able to do some cool things in the office and feed it into a computer. You generate what’s called a Markov chain where it predicts what the next thing a person would say. It generates random seeds. And it’s how you train computers to do new things. How you train computer cars to go around little imaginary tracks.
So we fed in everything I said and everything you said into this. And Brad’s challenge–
Craig: Now, for the stuff that you said, did the computer notice that it was from a person, or did it think it was just another Markov generator talking to it?
John: Aww. We’ll see. We’ll see what Brad says. Maybe Brad can tell a difference. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go down the row and we’re going to start with things that Craig is saying. And so some of these are true, things that Craig actually said, so you would say Not Bot. Or if it is something that was generated by a robot you’d say Bot. So Bot or Not Bot after each one.
So, we’ll start with you, Kourtney. So first round, these are all Craig. So keep in mind this is Craig saying this.
Kourtney: There are scenes where they are going to have an ism, like nerdism, and they shove the little small art boards.
John: Brad, is that Bot or Not Bot.
John: That is a Bot. Well done.
Craig: That’s a bot. Clearly.
Rob: Two last bits of select umbrage.
Brad: Not Bot.
John: That was a bot. The bot learned about umbrage.
Rob: Two last bits of select umbrage? You thought a human being said that?
Craig: You don’t listen to the show. That’s all I say. That’s literally all I say. That was a tough one.
Rob: Rochester, New York?
Alec: I don’t watch the Oscars.
Brad: Not a bot.
Craig: Not a bot.
Melissa: There will be post-Chernobyl.
John: What’s your answer?
John: That is a bot. The bot knows about Chernobyl.
Alec: There will never be post-Chernobyl.
Craig: Because it even sounded like Ivan Drago was saying it. There will be post-Chernobyl.
Ben: It’s amazing how nature creates them to be so lovable and sweet so you almost don’t even mind it as they dig your soul out and your energy with a spoon and just eat it in front of you and slowly choke your life out.
Brad: Not a bot.
Craig: Not a bot.
John: Not a bot.
Ben: That was so easy. That one was too easy.
Craig: But do you know what I was talking about there? My own children.
John: Yes. Craig, you get to take the next round here.
Craig: Great. And we’re sticking with Brad. Brad is doing a pretty good job here.
John: Brad is doing a pretty good job. I think he’s going to win.
Craig: OK, so this next round is all John. This is going to be hard because almost all of this is zeros and ones. So get ready buddy. Next round is all John. Bot or not bot. Kourtney take it away, number one.
Kourtney: And I think we actually intercut.
Craig: I know, it’s hard, right? It’s hard.
Brad: A bot.
Craig: It is a bot. But it could also be not bot. I mean, all right, here we go. Rob, number two.
Rob: What’s interesting is that you’re trying to break through, because that’s why they’re doing a seminar on structure, on theme, our circle theme, for this person.
Craig: I know.
Brad: A bot.
Craig: You said it’s a bot? It is a bot. That’s right. But, again, really close. OK, Alec Berg, number three.
Alec: So, in a recent episode we talk about an Uber kind of, or a self-driving car company comes to town.
Craig: I know!
Brad: That’s not a bot.
Craig: It’s not a bot. You’re right. That one sounded way more like a bot.
John: It really did.
Craig: You’re the only person when you run that shit through this thing and it sounds more human. OK, Melissa, number four.
Melissa: I was like, well, that gun has to sell three million to shoot something new in 2015 or 2014.
Brad: That’s got to be a bot.
Craig: It’s a bot. It is. Brad is good at this. Maybe Brad’s a bot.
John: Maybe he’s too good at this, like a Westworld situation here.
Craig: Yeah. I see a turtle flipped over on its back.
Ben: And then the Chinese government decides it’s a semi-creative job and they choose, you know, over five years from now.
Craig: It is a bot. Five for five.
Ben: I really tried to personalize that one, too.
Craig: I know. That was really good.
John: All right. Now we’re in round three. We’re back to Craig. So tell us, this is Craig or a bot. So, Kourtney, start us off.
Kourtney: The presence of the tank will definitely be problematic.
John: Bot or not bot.
Brad: Not bot.
Craig: I mean, honestly, you’re freaking me out, dude.
Rob: They don’t need to know what I was like. I mean, Alex understands inherently that the woman he loves who he’s put in for real like Eleven. Then it starts with a prop guy about the force in Hollywood.
Brad: A bot.
Craig: That was easy.
Alec: I have just been really just brain-bleaching. You wouldn’t say that.
John: Not bot. Craig said that.
Craig: I say that all the time.
John: Broke the streak.
Melissa: And that ability is in the shower. I’m bummed out.
Brad: Not a bot.
John: That was a bot.
Craig: Tripping up Brad. He gets you. I’m tripping him up. I love it.
Ben: We love you Melissa McCarthy.
Brad: Not a bot.
Craig: Not a bot.
John: Not a bot. We love Melissa McCarthy.
Melissa: I thought that was a bot for sure.
John: No, he says that.
Craig: But we also said some other pretty fucked up shit about you, but we cherry picked there.
John: All right. OK. Speed round. So these are all things I would have said. Or maybe said.
Craig: OK, these are all things that John would have said, Bot or Not Bot. Here we go.
John: We’re going around twice now.
Craig: Go around twice. And Kourtney.
Kourtney: I like to watch the sporting games.
Brad: Not a bot.
Craig: Not a bot. Number two.
Rob: Daddy does bark. Yeah.
Craig: Not a bot.
John: Not a bot. I said that.
Craig: He said that.
Alec: I think it adds to the joking.
Melissa: Arnold Schwarzenegger is his own refrigerator.
John: Not a bot.
Craig: Not a bot.
Ben: I just see these things together and I’m like I have no idea what this is.
Brad: Not a bot.
Craig: Not a bot. He did say that.
John: All right. Back to you, Kourtney.
Kourtney: And it’s because my brain could follow people talking.
Craig: Not a bot.
John: I said that.
Rob: This was a useful thing about the psychology of the Black List.
Brad: A bot.
Craig: Yes, that was a bot.
Alec: But, so I would say William Goldman, Shane Black, I guess what I’m saying.
Brad: A bot.
Craig: Yeah. That’s a bot.
John: I’m not that bad.
Melissa: I hop on my little two-wheeled scooter and I just go.
Brad: Please be not a bot.
Craig: Not a bot.
John: Not a bot. I said that.
Ben: Weather happens in parks.
Brad: A bot?
Craig: It is not a bot.
John: I said it, too.
Melissa: That’s my favorite.
Craig: Thank you, Brad.
John: Brad, you have won the game. Congratulations. You are phenomenal at this. If you have a script that you would like us to read, Craig and I will read your script.
Brad: Thank you.
Craig: Bad news, Brad. Bad news.
John: Thank you very much for playing our game. So we have again Katherine there with a microphone and we will be able to answer maybe four or five questions.
Male Audience Member: Hello, my name is Adam. Thank you all so much for doing this. This was absolutely phenomenal. I have a question I guess pretty much for everyone about long term planning in your scripts and leaving little Easter eggs as writers. Something that was awesome in Barry that you had, not to give too many spoilers away, but there’s a character, a detective, who we find out in the first season that’s he going through a breakup, his wife has left him. And at first it’s this cool little character piece. And then this turns into a very critical plot point in season two.
And so I was just wondering if you could all just talk about the long term planning of scripts and just adding fun little things either there for you later or just kind of how to expand those big ideas into really critical parts of the story.
Craig: You didn’t know what you were doing there, did you Alec?
Alec: Well I can speak to that one specifically which is, no, we did not really know what we were doing. We sort of did. I mean, you kind of go forward and then as you go along you get to certain places and you go, oh wait, maybe there’s something that happened before that we can kind of grab a tentacle of and pull forward so that it seems like we knew what we were doing before. Right?
And that’s a lot of kind of as you lay track from season to season, like you know who the characters are and you embrace what they’ve been through. But, no, sometimes you know going ahead like, oh, maybe at some point this will happen. But a lot of times you’re just kind of going, wait, we said this. What if that’s the thing that connects here. And those are always the most satisfying things to me when you’re writing where you’re like, oh my god, we just made it look like we had an idea a while ago that we never had. And now we look like – to someone like you – that we had a clue about what was happening when really we didn’t.
Craig: Most of the plot of Hangover 3 is literally pulled from one of those. Because John Goodman’s character plays this uber crime lord and his name is Marshall. And in the first Hangover the character of Black Doug says, “Oh, Marshall is going to be pissed at me on that one.” And it was just some random throwaway thing. Like the joke was who the hell is Marshall. That was enough. And I think, I don’t know, fooled a lot of people into thinking that there was a master plan. No, there’s no master. It’s cheating. It’s cheating.
Alec: You cheat.
John: It’s all cheating. Katherine, can you find us another question? A person with a question.
Female Audience Member: OK, so you guys all pretty much mentioned structure when you were talking about writing. And so I was wondering if you could speak more to what that means for you when you’re putting a script together, especially network versus cable, or feature. Like I know in network you can kind of write to act breaks. Do you use that kind of thinking when you’re conceiving of a script? Or is that more organic? What’s your approach?
John: Great. So a question about structure. And I want to get to the bigger longer things, but when we were talking about improv at the start and working at Groundlings, the things you’re doing do have a structure. It seemed like magic but there is a real plan for how you’re going to get through those. Can you quickly talk through what the structure is of an improv moment and sort of what you teach people about how to start and how to reach an ending?
Because it’s not a formula but there’s a way you do it.
Melissa: Yeah. It can’t just fade off. And then the other… I mean, that would be incredibly unsatisfying if everybody just walked off the stage. So, I still, I think it’s the same kind of concept even when you’re improvising that there’s still why, what is the big moment, what is the relationship. And there has to be a beginning, middle, and end. Even if it’s in a movie, if it’s on stage and you know you only have three minutes, you still have to work towards why. And kind of what you were talking to before, if you can ever wrap it to the beginning, especially when you’re truly just pulling it out of nowhere, it is really satisfying if you can somehow be like, oh, the first line he said I’m going to come in and that’s the end, or at least it’s related to.
So I think you’re always kind of scanning to have your scales kind of even out. The story, the character, and the humor, none of them are really winning.
Ben: And sort of bringing it back to your question, I think in an improv the first thing you have to know really quickly, and it’s the same thing when you’re writing a script, is you really as efficiently, and you guys all do it so well in different ways, but you want to know who the people are, like get a taste of who they are, what they’re up to, and where they are. Like in a film it’s easier because on a stage you’re like, I mean it’s crazy, you’re like doing something, you’re like, “I’ve got some cake batter.” And you’re like, oh Jesus, I hope somebody helps me out with this.
Whereas there’s a production design and you know where you are. Speaking towards structure, in features anyway, I try and get as quickly to the why as I can. And you can’t really do that until you get a sense of who the characters are.
John: Craig has an episode just two weeks ago which is basically his plan for how to write a movie and he really is talking about structure but he’s talking about it from a sense of what do characters want, and what is a character’s journey, and what is a character going after. And that’s how you get from this is the idea at the beginning to this is the idea at the end and the journey that goes through it.
He’s a long about a lot of stuff in his episode, so we will have a follow up episode where we talk about that.
Craig: Am I? Am I?
John: But there’s fascinating stuff in there.
Craig: And for you guys at different times I would imagine your structure was dictated by commercials.
Kourtney: Yeah, there’s a little bit of a recipe. It’s part of the formula of network TV of you sort of have your setup and then you want to have that uh-oh moment before people sell you vacuum cleaners and chips and juice boxes. And then you’re sort of back in.
There’s been a weird thing that happened. Way back in the day there used to be two acts. So you could sort of go through your story uh-oh moment and then you sort of wrap up. But then networks sort of got greedier and sort of inserted more act breaks. And I think based on nothing it has helped lead to the demise of network TV.
Craig: Strange that they would be self-defeating that way when they’ve always been so prudent.
Kourtney: Yes. I mean, it’s a 22-minute episode. And so now you have to come up with three moments where something terrible happens, oh no, what are they going to do. But then in another four minutes you’re going to hit another one of those. And so you start to have this feeling of like well that doesn’t feel real.
And then the audience starts to disconnect. And so it’s tricky. It’s a tricky balance of keeping it interesting and keeping with the formula.
John: Great. Let’s take one last question. Katherine, can you find us another question out there somewhere?
Female Audience Member: Hi guys. Thank you so much for doing this. I have a question for somebody who is more of a newer writer. I’ve always been writing, but I’m taking it more seriously now. One thing that I noticed about my writing is I tend to do a lot of like talking heads and when I’m trying to get my plot put together the stakes are high enough and then I end up going so far the other way it just becomes more characters talking at each other.
What advice do you have for somebody who is kind of experiencing that and is noticing a pattern of that?
John: A couple thoughts off the top of my head is that you may need to challenge yourself to create scenes where no one can talk. And how you would tell the story visually if no one was allowed to talk in your story. And sort of what would it look like. If you had silent characters how would you tell the story of what this character is going through, what they want, how we reveal what they want. How they reveal what their challenges are, who their opponents are. How you would do that without any characters talking. So then when you do start reintroducing dialogue it’s not the only tool that you’re using.
Kourtney: I think a nice trick if it’s sort of feeling stagnant is to sort of go through your script and say what’s the purpose of this scene. Like what is the state of things at the start and how is it different at the end and who won, who lost, in this scene?
At least for me I’ll find a lot of times it’s just like oh there’s just people being sassy. And you’re like, all right, well that’s great but nothing has happened. And so that sort of forces you to make each scene earn its keep. Like, yeah, there might be really funny jokes there, but if nothing happens or nothing costs someone something, you know, you need to keep that sort of eye on that prize.
Craig: Another possible trick is to think of your characters as liars. So sometimes we get caught in that trap of rolling strips of dialogue because people are saying what they think. But people rarely do. So, just say, OK, this is what they think. Write that scene. Write a long stripy dialogue scene. Four pages of yammering. And then go, great, now neither one of them wants to actually say any of this to the other person, so how are they going to get this across and get what they want without saying any of that? They’re just going to think it. And have them lie to each other.
And then you may find in that that all this stuff is going away and you don’t even need it. And it’s just in the eyes or in the spaces in between.
Melissa: And those are much better ideas. I want to send you out on a terrible idea. I also sometimes really love the reality of stuff does not come at a convenient time. I love, you know, this is, again, would be a terrible example. But it’s like Christmas morning. Everything is wonderful. And that’s when it’s like just a shit storm. Or you’re making a sandwich, or your teeth is knocked out, and that’s when you’re like, “Hey, I think he’s looking at me.” Things are so not convenient in life and I always think if it’s always like a very convenient place to have this conversation I do like to think like where would it really happen.
Is it like somebody talking over the stall and you’re like not now, not now? I’m going to the bathroom. I need two minutes. Making it less easy sometimes for the actor and for the scene I think that can help.
Craig: That’s going to be in the Ham Lady movie. That’s in the Ham Lady movie right there. That’s the trailer. Not now. I need two minutes.
Melissa: Not now. I’m eating ham in my stall.
John: It has come time for the end of our show.
John: I feel a little sad.
Craig: You mean like the whole thing? Like this is it?
John: We can wrap up some stuff. Any last things you want to talk about?
Craig: No, I mean, like are we doing 406?
John: Oh, no, 406 will still happen. We already recorded. We banked an episode. So 406 is there.
Craig: Got it. Cool. This would be a weird number to end on.
John: It would be a weird number.
Craig: Sad way to end.
Rob: He didn’t get what you were joking about. How has this show survived 405 episodes?
Craig: Bot. Not Bot.
Rob: OK, now we’re getting it.
John: We have a lot of people to thank.
John: Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Thank you. We need to thank John Gatins, Lindsay Cavanaugh, and everyone at Hollywood Heart for putting tonight together. This is an amazing event you threw together.
Craig: Incredible guys.
John: Thank you very much. Thank you to the Ace Hotel. Thank you to our amazing guests.
Craig: Ben Falcone. Melissa McCarthy. Alec Berg. Rob McElhenney. Kourtney Kang. And the great John August.
John: Thank you.
Craig: And thank all of you. Thank you guys. Have a great night.