The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. Today on the show we have some clips with some bad words in them, so if you don’t want your kids to hear those words maybe listen to this one on headphones.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Episode 508 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Craig and I could not get our schedules to sync up this week, but lucky for all of us we have a remarkable replacement in the form of Jen Statsky. She’s a writer-producer whose credits include Broad City, Parks and Rec, The Good Place, and my previous One Cool Thing Hacks, a series which she co-created. Welcome Jen.
Jen Statsky: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.
John: I’m so excited to have you here. So we’ve not really met in person I don’t think, maybe at a WGA thing?
Jen: Maybe at a WGA thing. But I think this might be our first in-person meeting.
John: It very well could be. So on Twitter I congratulated you on your show, but I think we probably retweeted the same things in the past, but that’s about as much as we’ve done together.
John: Well today on the show I want to talk about how you got started and particularly how you got started in comedy because that’s a thing I know nothing about. And then I really want to dig into the form of single camera comedy, because Hacks is just great and Hacks and Broad City are both single camera comedies, but they’re very different. And I want to talk about writing those, writing towards act breaks, writing without act breaks.
John: And we have the pages in front of us, so we have some scenes. So I really want to get very specific if we can.
Jen: I love it. Let’s get into it.
John: And you know who else has questions? Our listeners. I put out a call to the premium subscribers and they sent in 130 questions about comedy that Megana has sorted through. So, we will not 130.
Jen: Let’s do them. Let’s hit them all.
John: All of them. We’re going to knock them all out.
Jen: 130 questions.
John: And in our bonus segment for premium members I want to talk through the cat person discourse, so cat person which is that short story that everyone is talking about years ago, well now there’s an update to that, so I want to get your take on that.
Jen: It’s so funny that we are once again reliving cat person on Twitter. It’s all come full circle from 2017.
John: Yeah. I feel like there’s people who were in a coma all this time and they wake up and we’re still talking about cat person.
Jen: On one end of a global pandemic there’s cat person discourse, and on the other end of the global pandemic there’s cat person discourse.
John: It gets into those questions about like who owns a story. And we’re all sort of drawing from real life, especially writers. And I’ve run into situations where an event will happen and it’s like, oh, do I get that event, or do you get that event?
Jen: Exactly. I know. It’s a super nuanced conversation about art and who owns certain life things that have happened to people. So it is a really interesting conversation.
John: Cool. Two little bits of news and follow up to start with. First off, the WGA put out this pilot deal guide, which was kind of cool. So coming out of the agency agreement we now get all the contracts, and so we can see everybody’s contract and we can see how much people are getting paid for their deals, not just as writers but also as producers, and how much they’re getting paid to write pilots. And so they have all this information. The guild looked through 700 pilot deals from 2020 and 2021 to see what the averages were.
Jen, were there any surprises in here for you?
Jen: No, no real surprises. I mean, I think it’s so helpful to have this information out there. I’m just so delighted that the guild did this because you know so much of what happens is people get kept in the dark about what other people are getting paid. And in doing that it allows studios and networks to have all the power, because we’re not talking. We don’t know what our counterparts are making. And so just to have this information out there is I think wonderful.
I remember when the guild was asking for people’s contracts I had a couple of friends reach out and be like, hey, is it OK to send them this. And it’s like yeah it’s to help us, it’s not for nefarious purposes that the Writers Guild wants to look at your contracts. It’s all in the name of the information being out there and just being super helpful and give writers a stronger place to be in for negotiations.
John: Yeah. So if you have an agent or manager or lawyer getting your deal, great, they should have some of this information. They should have a sense of what this is. But this is a chance for a writer to say like, OK, this is above the median, this is below the median. If it’s below the median, why is it below the median? There could be a good reason. I mean, half of writers are going to get paid more. So, there could be a reason why you’re below median. But it’s helpful to understand. And if there’s a reason that you can solve about this, great.
Jen: Totally. Were there any surprises to you in looking at it?
John: I was happy to see that there were changes from 2019. So that a pilot script went up $17,500. That’s great.
Jen: That’s great.
John: And so that’s progress people are making. And the split between one hours and half hours is also good. So you deal for Hacks, was it a streamer at that point? Was it clear that it was always going to be something that was made without commercials and made for not a cable?
Jen: Yeah. It was always – the idea was always to go to the cable streaming places. Like we didn’t really ever entertain pitching this to networks. I and Mike Schur under overall deals at Universal Television, so it started out – we pitched to Universal and then kind of going from there we plotted out where we were going to take the show. But, yeah, in the very early iterations as Paul – my co-creators Paul Downs and Lucia Aniello and I were talking about this idea. We just always knew it had to be for streaming or cable. It’s just baked into the idea.
John: Great. So we’ll put a link in the show notes to this, but it talks through sort of what broadcast network and streamer deals are like and you can see where things are at right now. And the good news is that it’ll keep going forward. So each year they’ll be able to put up an update to see what progress is being made, or if stuff is retrenching at all.
A bit of follow up here. Two episodes ago we talked about getting fired. Phil in LA wrote in. Megana could you tell us what Phil said?
Megana Rao: Yeah. So Phil wrote in and said, “I listened to Episode 506 where you discussed how to handle being fired. While bad communication isn’t limited to screenwriting, it doesn’t need to be the practice. In Episode 399, Notes on Notes, instead of accepting the status quo on notes you and Craig created a program to help producers learn to give better notes and fix communication issues. The same could be done on this issue as well. And industry build on relationships and communication needs a bedrock of respect. And important moments like firing need to have established norms.”
John: Yeah. My daughter just applied for her first job. She’s a high schooler. And so she applied for her first job and she keeps asking like when do you think they’re going to tell me if I got the job or didn’t get the job. And I’m like they’re never going to tell you.
Jen: Oh, you’ll never know. I’m still waiting to find out if I got a job at Jimmy Kimmel from a packet I submitted in 2008. So, you just never know.
John: Well you’re in a position now to hire people, or to fire people if you need to. So, what are some things that you’re thinking about in terms of communication outward with people that are either under your employ or want to be under your employ?
Jen: It’s a good question. I mean, I think when it comes to hiring, and especially firing, there are just difficult conversations that you have to have. And with the privilege of getting to be a showrunner, getting to be a show creator, getting to be the boss you are also taking on the responsibility of having difficult conversations. And so I think you can’t shy away from that. I think you have to say, OK, if this person is being let go we’re not just going to do it in an unethical way where we don’t treat them like a human being. We’re going to have a conversation.
And so it’s about being a human being and just treating that person like a human being and saying, OK, this is going to be a difficult conversation and it’s probably not what I want to do with my day to day, but I at least owe this to someone to talk to them about it.
John: Well from a writer perspective the golden rule really applies. You know what it would feel like to be ghosted or to be fired in a bad way. We can understand what that’s like. And so even though we may not be trained as managers, which is a whole separate issue, we do have a sense of what it feels like to be the writer who is not getting the full information. And so just being honest with the person and just being thoughtful and human with the person seems to be great progress.
Jen: I listened to you guys talk about it and as someone who works primarily in TV, not in features, I knew this as a fact but it is so fascinating that in features it does seem like you have to get so much more used to being fired than in television. Like in television, you know, maybe you work on a show for a season and they don’t ask you back, but even that doesn’t totally feel like firing. It feels like in features it’s a much more common occurrence that people have not figured out how to handle well still.
John: Talk to me about not being asked back. Because that is a different thing than being fired. And it doesn’t have the same negative connotation as being dropped off of something.
Jen: No, not at all. You know, I have friends who have run rooms and they’ve not asked people back the next season and it’s never necessarily because, oh, that person was bad and didn’t work. Sometimes you’re just like oh you know what going forward we found that the tone of the show is way more dramatic than we thought and so we’re going to try to hire some people with more experience in drama for example. And so that really just becomes looking at every single, the makeup of your writer’s room, who do you need, what are you feeling you need more of, what direction is the story headed, and who can help you serve that?
So a lot of times I think if someone doesn’t get asked back, like yeah sure there are situations where it was just a bad fit and that person didn’t gel with the room, but it doesn’t – like you said, it doesn’t have the same stigma. It’s not quite the same as being fired and told like, OK, you’re not doing this job again on Monday basically.
John: It also strikes me that with so many shows being done in mini rooms are being entirely written before anything is being shot, there’s not that same expectation that you’re going to be coming back season after season on a show. Because those people will not be available necessarily. So you’re just kind of assembling a team for one heist.
John: And then you go off again.
Jen: Exactly. Like there’s so many shows now, so many opportunities. So you can’t really expect – like we have some wonderful writers who wrote on season one of Hacks, but they might get their own. They’re doing their own stuff. They might get a pilot. They might not be available for that reason. Yeah, it’s very much so one heist at a time, one season at a time.
John: Let’s talk about the staffing up on a show. So, this is a good transition between your role as a showrunner now versus when you were first starting up. You mentioned that you had submitted a packet to Jimmy Kimmel. What were your first jobs in the industry? What were your first attempts at writing in the industry? Because you were an intern also, correct?
Jen: Yeah. So long before I worked I was a kid who just was like obsessed with television. Reruns of the Mary Tyler Moore Show on Nick at Nite was like that’s what raised me. Because my parents kind of kicked the can down the road on that one. And so I was obsessed with television from a very young age. I didn’t really know that it was a job someone could do until maybe towards the end of high school. And then I realized like, OK, it seems like NYU has a very good film and TV program. I’m going to apply there. And I got in. And I studied film and TV there.
I went through the film and TV program which is actually more for directors, but pretty quickly learned that I did not like directing and only wanted to be a writer. And so at NYU the thing that was an incredible privilege of being at NYU was that you’re in the city during the school year so you can apply for these internships that people at other colleges can really only do during their summer breaks. So my senior year I interned at Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Saturday Night Live. Kind of found myself in this insane situation where I was going to 30 Rock six out of seven days a week as a 21-year-old because I was able to do, yeah, three days at Conan, three days at SNL, which was an incredible learning experience.
It was actually 2007, so it was an incredible learning experience which was then cut short because of the writers’ strike. So I got to also see how all of that stuff was going down.
John: Tell me like it was an incredible learning experience because they had set it up to be, or because you were doing something that you actually – were you being entrepreneurial about your learning there?
Jen: Kind of a combination. They definitely were very kind people who I think wanted interns to learn from being there. But I lucked into a very specific role at Saturday Night Live which was I was a photography intern, which made no sense because I have absolutely no photography skills whatsoever. But that’s just the department I ended up in. And in being a photography intern you are tasked with going down – at least this was how it was in 2007, I don’t know if it still is now – but we were tasked with going down on the floor and taking photographs of the dress rehearsal, like on the Friday, the day before the show on Saturday. And so I had like this firsthand front row view of the sketches being worked out, the actors running through them, the writers whose sketches it were being on the floor, figuring stuff out, what works, what didn’t.
And that was just so incredibly fascinating. So it was kind of a combo. Any time you’re in an environment like that hopefully your eyes are wide open. You’re listening and you’re just trying to take in as much as you can to learn. And then I also kind of lucked out with the position I got.
John: That’s great. So you were there to see the tension of sort of like these are the sketches we think are going to work. These are the tweaks we’re making. Just all of the stuff that gets cut.
John: And you’re seeing the writers trying to save their things along the way.
Jen: Exactly. And just seeing firsthand what a high pressure environment it is. I mean, it’s been well documented, but that show it’s like really crazy that you are under that kind of time limit. And there’s a gun to your head and it’s like, OK, the show happens Saturday, figure it out. You’ve got to write 12 sketches or whatever it is. And they need to be done by Saturday by 11:30 and it’s Tuesday or whatever. And so that was also just kind of a good intro into realizing like, oh yeah, a lot of these TV writing jobs are super high pressure and can be really intense.
John: Were those writers on the show talking with you? I mean, I guess you were the photography intern at SNL, so you weren’t probably interfacing so directly with them. But something like Conan O’Brien did you have a role of actually working with them?
Jen: Yeah. SNL was like you said I was more in the photo department for that. But I remember at Conan there’s a long term Conan writer, I think he might be at Colbert now, this guy Brian Stack who is just the funniest, loveliest man and he would always come into the bullpen where the interns were and talk to us and say like how are you guys doing, and any questions we had we were able to ask. So like, yeah, you did mingle with the writers there a lot, which was amazing, because you’re getting to see the people doing what you hopefully – what you want to be doing. And so that was a great experience, too.
John: So you come out of these internships and NYU with a degree, but also hopefully some writing samples? What were you trying to do next after this experience?
Jen: I knew that I wanted to work in comedy. But I wasn’t quite sure what lane I wanted to pursue. And by that I mean I was taking classes at UCB. I was taking improv classes. I was taking sketch writing classes. I had some half-hour samples that I had written at NYU. But I was also doing standup. And that’s kind of an interesting thing about comedy is that there’s so many – if you are like I want to write movies, you’re like I’m writing movies. But if you’re more broadly like I know I’m interested in comedy and I want to work in comedy there are a bunch of different kind of paths you can dabble with.
And so I was doing a bunch of that and pretty quickly like the things that I was having no fun doing I realized like, OK, that’s not for me. I’m not meant to be a standup. That’s not going to happen. And so the way it happened that I got my first actual job in the industry is that when the writers’ strike happened and so SNL and Conan kind of shut down and didn’t really need interns for a bit there was a satirical newspaper called The Onion which I’m sure people are super familiar with.
John: Oh yeah.
Jen: Which was like a huge touchpoint for me comedically. Like one of my first big comedic influence was The Onion. I just loved it. And I spent my last semester at NYU interning there because they at the time were doing web videos based on Onion headlines and articles. And so I worked there at The Onion and then as I graduated I just got a job in a coffee shop because had rent to pay and wasn’t sure the exact path I was going to take to make it in comedy.
But my two bosses there at the time, Will Graham and Julie Smith, they were tasked with running shows – The Onion did a show for Comedy Central and then they did a show for IFC. And these shows were happening at the exact same time, which was pretty crazy. And so they offered me a job of being their assistant and I took it. And so that was my first kind of real TV production experience.
John: These internships were clearly so important for you because you met the people who both inspired you but also gave you a job. So what advice do you have in sort of pursuing one of those internships and how do you land one and how do you make the most of it if you’re in one of those spots?
Jen: I think that’s a great question. You really just can’t underestimate what it means to be a kind, good person who seems happy to be there, which sounds like the most simple advice in the world, but I think sometimes people forget it. I think like treat those opportunities like they’re really great opportunities and work hard. And I think you will reap the benefits of it. It’s also a tricky thing because even in the ten or so, 13 years since I was doing that we’re having more conversations about what is free labor, are these internships totally ethical? So I also understand that you might find yourself in a situation where you’re like am I being taken advantage of.
But hopefully in a situation like mine was where I was being compensated in the form of school credit and I was treated with respect. I was able to I think work really hard and be available and engaged with the people I was working for and serve their needs and learn from them. And I think it led them to be like, OK, maybe she’s someone we should bring on in a more fulltime capacity.
John: What was the first thing you were hired to write, that you were paid to write for film or TV?
Jen: So the first thing I was paid to write freelance was actually Onion headlines. While being an assistant there I wanted to also be writing and so I asked if I could submit headline. And Megan Ganz actually who is a very talented writer who co-created Mythic Quest on Apple, she was an editor at The Onion at the time. And so I submitted to her and she gave me such helpful notes on why this headline works, why that one didn’t, and all this. And she kind of guided me through that.
John: Talk to me about an Onion headline. Because I have a sense of what it is, but it’s hard to break down specifically what it is. But is it really the order of words?
Jen: That can be one part of it, right? Like, oh, this needs to be more succinct. There’s too many words here. You can cut these ones out. Other times it would be like just the general premise of the idea. It’s like I kind of get the observation you’re going for here but it’s not clicking for me. Things like that. And then I eventually got hired as a freelance Onion headline writer. And so that was every week you submit Onion headlines and they send back, OK, here’s the 40 we picked and your initial would be next to yours if yours made it in. And then you don’t even know if they’re going to use them, but those are at least these the ones they’ve culled down they’ve picked that they’ve liked.
And then if they did eventually use them I think you got a $25 check in the mail. So that was my first freelance job, which again I loved because I just loved The Onion so much and I felt so grateful to be getting to write for it.
And then my first fulltime staff job was writing monologue jokes at Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
John: So that was a job you probably went through a packet process?
Jen: Yes. That was a packet process. I was lucky enough to get a manager through a UCB class I took. The teacher very nicely said, “Oh I think my friend who is a manager would like your stuff, can I pass it along to her?” And he did. And to this day she’s still my manager. So through that I started submitting packets to late night shows. And, yeah, did a bunch of those that I am pretty sure I didn’t get the job for because I never worked at those shows.
John: In all those cases you’re submitting – you or your manager are putting this in and you just never hear back? For all you know they’re just going into a void?
Jen: Oh, you never, ever hear. Basically like, OK, SNL is looking for sketch packets. Conan is looking for monologue joke packets. And so you just do it and you send it out into the world and, yeah, you typically don’t hear.
I remember the monologue one for Fallon, it was like a weeklong, almost challenge or something. You would every night get sent premises and then you would have to send in your jokes either later that night or by the next morning. And you did that for like four days.
John: And you’re not getting paid for that.
Jen: No, you’re getting absolutely no money for that.
John: That’s why the WGA sort of stepped in there and said like, OK, you have to limit that.
Jen: Exactly. Yeah. I mean, it’s a good question. I’ve been out of the late night game for so long now. What is the situation with packets now?
John: So, here’s what happened. Both on the east, but also some on the west, we were getting these complaints about, OK, this has just become abusive. They’re asking for just tremendous amounts of just free labor to do these things. And even if that stuff is not making it into show, it’s just abusive.
Jen: It’s not cool.
John: It’s not cool at all. And so there are limits to sort of how much they can ask. And trying to get some standardization of like what packets really mean, so that you can theoretically submit a packet to more than one place, so it’s not all specific work to this. And if there’s real research involved at some point they have to pay you for like those later rounds, because some of these shows were having round after round after round you have to go through.
Jen: So crazy. Yeah. So unnecessary to make people jump through those hoops.
John: And it was clear when you talked to some of the people who were hiring it’s like they were just doing it because they were doing it. And it wasn’t actually helpful in their process.
Jen: Yes. That’s one of those things. And I do feel like in the late night world this happens even more than in half hour of like ways of doing things just get calcified and people go, “But it’s just because it’s the way it’s done. That’s how we do it.” Even on SNL they still stay up all night writing when I don’t know that that necessarily needs to be the process. It’s so good that the guild got involved to challenge these ideas of like, yeah, just because it’s the way it’s always been done doesn’t mean it’s actually cool to be doing to people.
John: Yeah. So it sounds like you knew in the general sense you wanted to write comedy, but you decided I’m going to try all the things and then decide from those things which things are not my things. So standup was not your thing.
Jen: Standup was not my thing. I am really not a performer. It is not where I shine.
John: So UCB was learning sketch writing.
Jen: Yes, UCB was sketch writing, which I liked OK, but I still wasn’t great at. And so what happened actually was around this time, I guess this was probably now 2010, before Twitter became a hell scape it was a place where people were just writing stupid jokes. And in a really cool way it kind of democratized comedy writing a little bit because anyone could just write a funny joke. And if it was funny enough a ton of people would see it and get retweeted. And a lot of people made their careers by doing that, which was cool.
And so I joined Twitter in like 2010 and started just kind of writing little one-liner jokes, which like I said there were things I wasn’t great at. I wasn’t great at standup. I wasn’t great at sketch. But I found that one-liner jokes I had a lot of fun writing those. And so I always tell people when they’re starting out in comedy like kind of follow the fun. The thing you’re having the most fun doing is probably the thing you’re best at.
So I just was doing that on Twitter and what’s funny is I had submitted – like I said I had submitted to Fallon many times. I had done that week-long challenge of sending jokes in every night, not getting any sleep, and never hearing back. But what happened was is A.D. Miles, the head writer at that time, learned of me through Twitter and then just sent me a direct message being like, “Hey, do you want to submit a packet for Fallon?” Which I was like, yes, of course, even though what I could have said is, “Yeah, I’ve done it hundreds of times. Just hire me off one of those.”
But they were actually looking for sketch writers at the time, so I had to a sketch packet. Got hired off of that. And then though quickly again since sketch is not really my strong suit I started also – even though it’s divided into up into sketch and monologue writers at that show, or at least it was when I was there, anyone is allowed to submit monologue jokes. You can just send them in.
So I started doing that and getting a decent amount on. And then it kind of became apparent, oh, this is more your skill set. We’re going to move you over to here. And then I became a permanent monologue joke writer for the rest of my time there.
John: What I hear you saying is that you didn’t go in saying this is exactly the kind of writer I am. You actually sort of discovered and you just tried a bunch of things. And then winnowed out the things that didn’t work. And so if people are listening to this at home who say, oh, I want to write comedy, maybe take a broad approach to what kind of comedy you’re writing and see where your natural strengths are.
John: Rather than assuming I’m the person who is going to write this exact show.
Jen: Exactly. I think that when I started, you know, growing up, even though I loved – like Mary Tyler Moore was, again, a huge influence, I also loved SNL. And I think a big part of me was like oh I’m going to be a sketch writer for Saturday Night Live. That’s what I want to do. And I think if I had just tried to like force myself into that it would have been a much tougher path because, again, I don’t think my natural skill set, I don’t think sketch writing is something that I’m great at. And so by trying a bunch of different things and allowing myself to go, right, I’m having the most fun doing this thing, let me follow that, I think that’s the thing I’m best at, it allowed me to find what my path was.
And so, yeah, I think anyone starting out, especially in comedy when there are so many different ways to approach it, I think give yourself the freedom to try a bunch of stuff, and be bad at some of it. And just because you’re bad at one part of comedy writing doesn’t mean you’re bad at the other parts. You know?
John: Now, what’s the segue from Fallon to writing for shows, writing for Broad City, writing for Parks and Rec? What was the step in there?
Jen: So I was at Fallon for about 2.5 years, which I always say felt like 20.5. Not because of the people there. They’re lovely. But because monologue joke writing is so grueling. You basically – I think every morning by 11:30 in the morning I would have to have like five pages of monologue jokes written, something like that. And let me be clear. Most of them bad. They’re not good. It’s not a good five pages. But still you’re expected to produce this volume of stuff. And it’s all based on the news. And it really – I think the people who can do it forever, like I truly tip my cap to them, because it’s really challenging and it’s really hard. And especially as the world seems to be getting darker and darker it’s hard to write topical jokes based on the news. That really, really weighed on me after a while and I was gone in 2013.
So I really appreciated the job there because – I say it was comedy writing boot camp because I just had to produce so much material every single day. But pretty like towards the end of my time there, like the last year, I realized I think I want to tell longer stories. I want to explore writing for characters and characters that have arcs and just get into that. So I knew that half hour was the place I wanted to be.
And so I made the decision to just leave. I didn’t have my next job lined up, which I remember at the time people were like why are you doing this. But sometimes I think you just have to force yourself to make the move. So I left Fallon. My then boyfriend at the time, now husband, we moved across the country. Came to LA. I wrote a spec of, wow, this is going to date me. I wrote a spec Happy Endings. Do you remember that how?
John: It’s a good show.
Jen: Yeah, I loved Happy Endings. Very funny show. So I wrote a spec for that and that was my sample, because I think even back then half hour people were looking more for specs than original pilots. And, yeah, I got hired. My first half hour job was actually the show Hello Ladies, on HBO, which was co-created by Stephen Merchant and Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky. So that was my first half hour experience.
But that was a pretty short – it was like an eight-episode HBO show. One of those shows where you kind of are going to write everything in preproduction and then they’re going to go off and make it. And so towards the end of my time in that writer’s room I also came to know Mike Schur via Twitter. And he I guess, yeah, liked jokes I had written there. And then I think he read my spec, but I honestly think he also hired me based off of Twitter and just meeting me and being like, all right, she’s not a total crazy person.
John: So that was for Parks and Rec?
Jen: That was for Parks and Rec.
John: And again these are very joke dense shows. These are things where there’s expectation that there’s going to be a joke every 10, 15 seconds.
Jen: Yes. Totally. Yes.
John: So from there then back to New York for Broad City?
Jen: Yes. I did my first season of Broad City in between the last two seasons of Parks and Rec. It kind of worked out beautifully where I think the day we ended season six of Parks I got on a plane and went to New York and started the Broad City season two writer’s room. And I did that for a couple months. And then came back.
And then going forward Parks and Rec ended. I went on to a show, Lady Dynamite on Netflix. I did that in the interim. And then once The Good Place started I was always kind of – I was never again fulltime in the room in Broad City. I was always just writing a script from LA while they were in New York and giving notes on episodes and punch ups and stuff like that.
So I was very lucky in that I was able to be on The Good Place fulltime, but also be working on Broad City as well.
John: Great. So you’ve mentioned all the people who seemed to be involved with Hacks. So talk to me about where did the idea for Hacks come about and how did the three of you, but also Mike Schur and everyone else come together on this property?
Jen: So Paul W. Downs, and Lucia Aniello, and I, we met doing comedy in New York. Lucia and I were the only two women in this sketch group that was kind of like an offshoot. It was all people who had met at UCB. And then slowly but surely the sketch group stopped emailing us to come to the meetings and we both realized, OK, I think we’ve been let go from this sketch group. Cool.
But, we instantly connected and shared a sense of humor. And I loved her and I was desperate to make her my friend. And then she was dating Paul and was also comedic partners doing sketches with Paul. And same thing. We hit it off. And I was lucky to just kind of be in their orbit for a while. If they had sketches and stuff I would pitch jokes and they went and they made their movie Rough Night. And I was on set as a punch up writer for that.
And so we just always loved writing together and knew that we wanted to make something together one day. So what happened was Paul was doing a Netflix Characters special, which I don’t know if you guys have seen, but it was basically just a bunch of sketches he was shooting. I came along just to pitch jokes for them. And we went to Maine. We were going to a monster truck rally. So the idea for Hacks was born out of a monster truck rally.
Paul has a character called Jasper Cooch, whose catchphrase is Big Trucks. And he was being allowed to just host the monster truck rally in Portland, Maine. They gave him the mic even though – like he could have absolutely said there’s a bomb in here and caused and incredible panic. But they trusted him. And so on this road trip we met up in Boston and then we drove to Portland, Maine for this monster truck rally.
And I don’t know how we got on the topic, but we started talking about comedians, particularly female comedians, and women in the arts in general and how maybe they hadn’t gotten their due the way their male counterparts had. And how it’s just such a harder path for women, like how they had to keep their heads down and pound the pavement and put up with so much bullshit frankly while, yeah, for other comedians who were maybe straight white men, they didn’t have as hard of a path.
And so we just kind of started talking about characters like that. And wanting to tell a woman like that story. And that was sort of the birthplace of Hacks.
John: All right. So for listeners who haven’t seen the show yet, let me give you the briefest logline so you get some sense of what we’re going to be talking about today. Hacks is a limited series, well now it’s going into its second season, so it’s a series about a legendary Vegas comedienne who hires on a disgraced, young Hollywood writer to freshen up her act. And their relationship is alternately contentious, very contentious, and maternal. And it feels like it’s mostly a two-hander.
John: And yet other characters have some storytelling power. So Paul W. Downs plays an agent who can drive scenes by himself. Marcus who is her COO can also drive scenes by himself. How early in the process did you know who the characters were and sort of what the shape of the show was going to be?
Jen: Well, I think you’re right that it is a two-hander. That’s very much so like in the DNA of the show. That’s kind of what it was born out of. It was this idea of, OK, what if it’s this woman who has been through so much and has so much trauma from what she’s done, but also amassed this empire, making so much money doing it. And then what if there was a younger woman who didn’t fully appreciate what this woman has been through and has also maybe like so many women like this, the younger writer has the story about her wrong. Because so often we get women like this, we get their story wrong. And something gets pushed in the media and people just blindly go along with it. And only in the last few years when we look at when like Britney Spears or Paris Hilton have we started to reevaluate these stories we’ve believed about women in the public eye.
And so that was kind of the genesis of, OK, they’ll be forced to work together and they will butt heads, but actually they both really need each other. And at the heart of it it’ll be a love story. It’ll be about these two women falling in love with each other through their friendship, through their working relationship, and how does that change them and what new places does it bring them to.
But then you also are correct to bring up Marcus and Paul’s character and Kaitlin Olson who plays Jean Smart’s daughter so wonderfully. We knew we wanted to fill out Deborah’s ecosystem, right? We’re very interested in the idea of people like Deborah who are empires. Like I said they have a very carefully curated ecosystem around them. They have enough money and enough power that they get to choose all the people in their world, and there’s a lot of people in their world whose job it is to only fulfill their needs and think about them. And so someone like Marcus, played by the wonderful Carl Clemons-Hopkins, we wanted to explore the idea of well what does it mean that Marcus has devoted his entire adult life to working for Deborah and building something up for her. And also taking from her this kind of workaholic attitude and how does he reckon with but is that fulfilling him, is that fulfilling his soul.
John: And it’s not into late in the series that we learn that he’s actually a fan. That he got the job because he was a super fan.
Jen: Exactly. And we just I think never wanted any one character to feel purely like an accessory, which is a challenge to do that because even though it’s streaming you only have so much time. You only can afford to shoot so many pages in a day. So it’s definitely a balancing act of trying to give – when it’s a two-hander but also kind of also an ensemble, giving the other players in the ensemble rich storylines that feel and grounded and interesting.
So, I hope that we achieved that because that definitely was our goal going into it.
John: Let’s take a listen to a scene. This is a scene from the pilot in which Deborah Vance is meeting with the owner of the casino who is trying to tell her that basically she’s going to lose her theater and this job that she has is going to be ending. Let’s take a listen to it, then I want to get to what’s actually on the page.
Marty: You know how I’m redoing the casino’s east tower?
Deborah: Oh yeah.
Marty: So the contractor double orders everything. And what the hell am I supposed to do with two tons of fertilizer?
Deborah: Dumb it on Steve Wynn’s doorstep.
Deborah: Marty, you set me up.
Marty: Deb, 2,500 shows. Now, I think it’s a Vegas record.
Deborah: It is.
Marty: Well cheers.
Marty: And they’re naming a street after you.
Deborah: I know. Deborah Vance Drive. It’ll probably be a dead end with an abortion clinic on it.
Marty: [laughs] Now that the big show is all planned, maybe it’s a good time to talk about the future. You know you’ll always be a part of the Palmetto’s history. But maybe it would be good if you did a few less shows a year.
Deborah: Good for who?
Marty: Yeah. I need some marquee dates for new acts. Like Pentatonix.
Deborah: What the hell is that?
Marty: They’re a beatbox forward acapella group. They do medleys. They won the Sing Off.
Deborah: Who gives a shit?
Marty: I have two buckets to fill. Families and idiots in their 20s. The families want to see singing and dancing and the college kids want to spend a grand to watch a guy in a helmet hit play on an iPod.
Deborah: You’re forgetting about your third bucket. People from Florida. They love me. And my numbers are strong.
Marty: You’ll still be doing shows, just not Friday and Saturday.
Deborah: Oh, just the most important nights. Un-fucking-believable.
Marty: Deb. Why do you even want to do 100+ shows a year? It’s not like you’re having fun. I mean, you’re on cruise control up there.
Deborah: I fucking wish – wish I was on cruise control. I’ve been defense my entire career thanks to assholes like you.
Marty: Deborah, calm down. Please.
Deborah: Oh, what do you care, you own the place. The service sucks. Where’s my fucking doggie bag? I’ll take his, too. And the fork! There was a cockroach in my salad.
Marty: Shit. Comp everybody.
John: Great. Let’s take a look at the words that are actually on the page. So this is starting on page 5. This is scene 114 of the script. There’s a lot of changes at the head of the scene. So the script starts with another conversation about being wealthy. It’s about a yacht and an infrared sauna. At what point did that change?
Jen: So what you see here on the page we did shoot. We came into it writing the scene like first thinking OK we need to set up what is the dynamic between Marty and Deborah. And the idea being, OK, well one they connect over rich people shit. So they’re talking about their yacht and infrared sauna and that. And then also as – spoiler – but I don’t think we have to worry about that, as the series progresses you see that they have romantic history these two characters. And so there’s also a line here where Deborah says, “Oh yeah.” He says, “Remember my first 70-footer,” talking about his yacht, “Remember that one?” She says, “Oh yeah, we had some fun on that.” And it’s kind of a coy moment where they’re alluding to their sexual history.
But as we got into the edit room it just felt like this is such a lesson in storytelling you learn time and time and time again. Get to the action, get to the crisis. Also, I think once we saw obviously Jean Smart phenomenal. Chris McDonald is incredible, too. Their characters feel so lived in from the moment they appear on screen. We realized like, oh, we overwrote. We didn’t need to write stuff to establish their dynamic.
John: You gave them a big onramp that they did not need.
Jen: Exactly. Exactly. Trust your actors. Capable actors can communicate that even without words. It’s how they’re interacting with each other. It’s how they’re laughing at each other. It’s how they’re truly sitting across the table from each other. So what happened was is that in the edit we just realized oh their dynamic is clear. This is overwritten probably. Let’s just get right to the heart of the scene which is Deborah finding out your dates are getting taken away from you.
John: Great. So the lines we hear in the show, are those just looped lines that you threw in? Did you shoot alternates on the day?
Jen: We shot alts on the day. Because it comes in about the Steve Wynn stuff. One of the benefits to having Paul, Lucia, and I are always on set. I mean, Lucia and Paul direct, so they’re of course there. But the three of us are able to pretty easily rewrite on the fly. If we feel something isn’t working there’s three brains. We can huddle up, come up with something. And so that Steve Wynn kind of leading into it that just came from us at village being like all right let’s try this. And credit to Jean and Chris, too, because they’re so nimble and quick that they can have something thrown at them like that and knock it out of the park.
John: Great. On page 7 I want to call out some things you do here. So there’s a great moment early on page 7. So she tells a joke, Deborah Vance Drive, and then she writes it down in her notebook, which is just such a great little detail. Is that something you’ve actually seen in real life, or just something you created for this character?
Jen: Yeah. It’s something that I think comes from all of our lives. Like I have on my phone Notes app of just like if a joke or if I see something going into it and writing it. And I know on Broad City they had – I think it was a doc of convos we could have. Things we could just talk about. Things that would be funny to see Abby and Ilana talk about and we’d just go into the Google Doc. So that’s something that feels very true to – I mean, I don’t know if it’s all writers. Maybe it’s more specific to comedians, but just constantly observing things and not wanting to forget them so you write them down in your notebook or on your phone.
John: So this lunch is set up on the pretense of just like oh let’s get together, but of course he actually has news to deliver and it’s going to lead up to this argument here. A thing you do on page 7 which works really well is Marty’s dialogue is interrupted by a scene description line that is just actually Deborah’s action here. So Mary says, “Now that the big show is all planned maybe it’s a good time to talk about the future.” Deborah puts down on her drink. “What’s this?” in quotes. He presses on.
And so the “what’s this?” is a reaction that she can give. It’s a line that she can say just with her face.
John: It’s such a great use of breaking up the dialogue here so that we can actually see what the shift is that happened here.
Jen: Yeah. It’s a great way I think to show that Deborah is incredibly perceptive and very smart when it comes to business. And so when someone is gently trying to guide the conversation and maybe sneak something by her it’s like, no, no, no, you’re not getting anything by Deborah Vance. Just come out with it, man. And I think Chris does a great job then of like shifting uncomfortably in the seat because he’s a little bit scared of Deborah Vance. So yeah.
John: Without that line in there the delivery of his whole thing wouldn’t work. You’re going to need to have some kind of break in there so to call it out in the text is great. You also on page 7 have “Beat” just as its own line as a sentence. And listening back to it she doesn’t actually take that beat, but it’s a nice – Beat is just used as a placeholder like there’s a shift, there’s a moment, there’s a little air here.
Jen: A little air to show that Deborah – and again it’s not really in the version that ended up in the final cut, but yeah to show that Deborah is trying to process this tornado that’s been thrown at her of like what are you talking about, I’m losing these dates. These are the most important thing in the world to me.
John: Moving on to the next page, here’s an example of I bet you shot all this and people don’t realize that in the edit you have magic scissors and you can cut anything out. So what was actually probably shot was she says, “My numbers are solid and presales from the holiday are on par with last year.” That shows that she’s savvy and that she’s on it. But you probably recognized you did not need the line, so you just cut back to him and her line disappears.
Jen: Exactly. Exactly. It was really like – and I had been in the edit a lot on Parks and Rec and The Good Place, always for our episodes. Mike was super like, yeah, get in the edit and do stuff. But this was, running my own show, I was the most in the edit I’d ever been before. And I was just like oh yeah you can truly do anything in the edit room. So, yeah, we shot those lines and then, again, at this point the conversation is getting heated and they’re kind of speaking on top of each other. And so we just wanted to amp up the pace and the frantic energy of it, so it just made sense to lose those lines.
John: Now, the decision of when she actually loses her cool, and even when she loses her cool it’s kind of a performative losing her cool. She recognizes she’s doing this in front of a crowd and that she has power because she’s doing this in the crowd. You’re going, “This hits Deborah, then she explodes.” That’s done as scene description but then there’s a parenthetical, hitting the table, getting loud, really emphasizing that this is going to color her vocal performance in this next piece.
Jen: Yeah. We knew that this was the moment where we wanted her to lose it because someone like Deborah Vance being told you’re on cruise control, even though it is somewhat maybe true with regard to the quality of her material or how much she’s updated it, she is a woman who like we talked about has had to fight and claw for her position. And so the idea of someone telling her, especially a man telling her, you’re on cruise control is so opposite to what she believes about herself to be true, which is that she is a shark. She just keeps moving. She’s never on cruise control. She’s always fighting, and fighting, and fighting. And so hearing this makes her really lose her top. And yeah.
John: So this is a dramatic moment but you’re still in a comedy, and so that’s why you have the runner of the doggie bag coming back. And so can you talk about the shape of this scene and sort of how much did this change in the writing from its initial conception. Was this the scene you kind of always envisioned it to be, or how much did it change as you approached it?
Jen: This one I would say of all the scenes in the pilot this one changed quite a bit. We definitely reworked this one more than we reworked some others because it’s such a pivotal scene. It’s the inciting incident for this change Deborah is going through.
John: The series would not happen if this scene didn’t happen.
Jen: Exactly. Exactly. So, yeah, it was a lot of rewriting in terms of like we talked about at the beginning, OK, how much of their dynamic do you need to set up, do you understand who Marty is. I think we got a note at one point that like someone didn’t understand his role, that he owned the casino. So I think that’s where some of the Steve Wynn stuff came in from.
So we rewrote it a decent amount. And I think the beat where she grabs the fork and stabs his steak and throws it, like that came later. She always was going to freak out, but I don’t remember that – that was a later pitch. And, again, you’re also rewriting on the day. And I got to give a shout out to Jean Smart. That “I found a cockroach in my salad” line, that was improvised. She just yelled that as she walked out and we thought it was hilarious and we kept it in.
So this scene went through a lot of rewriting. It was always, OK, he’s telling her he’s cutting back her dates. That was always what was happening. So that never changed. But a lot of the pieces around that inciting incident did change.
John: Now the pilot is working on basically parallel tracks. So we’re seeing what’s happening in Deborah’s life, and what’s happening in Ava’s life. And as she’s going to Las Vegas to meet with Deborah about potentially writing for her. They finally meet at the end of the show at it does not go well. It’s a long scene, so we’re going to play just a smaller clip from it, but let’s take a listen to the actual interaction between Ava and Deborah.
Deborah: So why are you here?
Ava: Oh, well, obviously it would be a huge honor to work with someone like you, who has been working so successfully for so long. I mean, you’re a legend.
Deborah: Wow. A legend. So you’re a fan?
Ava: I mean, of course. Would I be here if I wasn’t?
Deborah: What’s your favorite joke of mine?
Ava: Man. You know. That’s so hard.
Deborah: Well it shouldn’t be. I’ve written over 30,000. Just pick one.
Ava: Uh…you know what? I would have to say that your TV show is my personal favorite thing that you’ve ever done.
Deborah: You mean my sitcom from 1973? You’ve seen it?
Ava: Oh yeah. I mean, yeah, I’ve seen clips.
Deborah: Clips? Wonderful.
Ava: Um, yeah. Well, you know, a lot of the actors on the show that I most recently worked on were standups.
Deborah: You know, I’m going to stop you right there. I don’t work with writers.
Ava: You don’t?
Deborah: No. Jimmy sent you against my wishes.
Ava: I’m going to kill him.
Deborah: No, I’m going to kill him.
Ava: Great. Well, this sucks.
Deborah: Yeah. Sucks. Well at least you didn’t waste too much time researching me.
Ava: I’m sorry. Did I do something to offend you?
Deborah: Other than walk those chimney sweep boots on my silk rug? Um, no.
Ava: Sorry, I didn’t realize it was a shoes off situation.
Deborah: Well it’s shoe-dependent. Thank you for your time.
John: Great. So they’re finally meeting. In the actual episode they start to meet and then of course DJ the daughter interrupts and so you see all of that drama happen and then they finally get to their discussion. This scene was clearly always going to be part of this first episode, because we have to get these two women together in the room. How early on did you know who Ava was in the show? Like who her character was?
Jen: I think pretty early on we knew, too. But that one was certainly more – we learned it more and more as we cast. You know, we had this incredible thing where Jean signed on to do the show and you’re like holy shit we’ve got Jean Smart, and then you’re like holy shit we’ve got Jean Smart. Who is going to be play opposite her that’s like 25 and can go toe-to-toe? Oh no.
So the casting process for Ava was really, really long and intense. We saw I think maybe over 400 women for it. Watched that many tapes. And it was always this thing of what Jean has, what Jean is so incredible at is she can in equal parts do comedy and drama. She’s so skilled in both. And so we knew we were looking for someone who also could do that. Someone who could tell jokes and realistically seem like a comedy writer, so someone who is in their bones funny and you believe that, but also can play the more dramatic parts of this show. And so they had to have some real acting ability.
John: So what were you looking at for this? Did you write up sample scenes? Or were they scenes from this pilot?
Jen: They were scenes from the pilot. So everyone auditioned with the initial Ava and Jimmy scene in his office where he’s telling her he can’t help her get her job and she’s kind of laying out her situation. So they auditioned with that and then they also auditioned with the Deborah/Ava meeting scene.
John: OK. So a version of what we just heard?
Jen: A version of what we just heard, yeah.
John: And that didn’t burn a hole in your brains? Because I’ve always been reluctant to do that because I don’t want to hear that same scene a thousand times and then actually have to deal with it on the day.
Jen: Totally. Mike Schur is a big fan of doing fake audition sides because that’s I think part of it. He does not want to hear the same scene over and over and over. And it definitely at a certain point did burn a hole in our brains. I remember just being like I can’t hear this Ava/Jimmy scene one more time. It’s not working.
So, but what was interesting is that there were a lot of really wonderful, talented women who read the part, but for whatever reason a lot of the times we heard the scene Ava just came off as pretty whiny and it was not what we wanted it to be. And then when Hannah Einbinder, who plays Ava, auditioned it just felt different with her reading it. She was like projecting the strength and confidence of a 25-year-old who thinks they know everything, but also there was some very obvious vulnerability right below the surface that felt like she was also accessing, which made Ava not feel whiny and made her just feel like a very interesting character to us.
And so I think what was helpful was even though we had to hear these scenes over and over and over and go through the process of like oh no this isn’t working, junk all the thing in our darkest moments, once we heard it with Hannah and certainly when we heard it in the screen test with Jean and Hannah reading it it was like oh this works. This absolutely works. Which I don’t think I would have felt that if they were dummy sides that weren’t actually from the pilot.
John: We had that experience on Go. As we were seeing a zillion actors for Go, and I started to question like did I even write something that is even castable. And then suddenly you get the actors like, oh, that’s Sarah Polley. I get it. It all works.
John: And I wasn’t imagining that there was a person who could fill that.
Jen: There’s a certain chemistry that happens between the writing and the actor. And when it’s the right actor you’re going to feel it in your gut in ways that you’re not if it’s maybe not the right person reading it.
John: So Hannah Einbinder has the vocal fry of a 25-year-old. Did you hear that voice as you were writing this? And also her tendency to kind of stop in the middle of thought. You write with a lot of ellipses in her dialogue. Was that always part of the voice for it?
Jen: Yeah, I think we knew that Ava felt more like kind of a drier sensibility, so that was very baked into the character. I think there are a lot of ellipses, but then I also think that Hannah’s natural – she’s also a very talented standup and if you see her perform she has a very interesting, unique cadence, which is much slower than probably your average 25-year-old up on stage. And so it kind of like naturally lined up that way. But, yeah, that was always kind of – she was written on the page the way we imagined it.
John: Looking at the words on the page, on page 29 there’s some cuts here and I’m just curious when the cuts came or if they all came in the editing room. So Jimmy actually sent you against my wishes/I’m going to kill him/no, I’m going to kill him, but feel free to kick the corpse. It’s a joke. Did you try it and it didn’t stick?
Jen: So this scene, it’s I think a 7.5 page scene or something. It’s incredibly long. And so we always knew – we knew two things. We knew, well, this show lives or dies by the chemistry between these two characters. So, hopefully the chemistry you’re interested in watching them for 7.5 pages. And if you’re not we’re in trouble anyway. But then we also knew when we get in the edit we’re going to need to trim this down, but let’s just shoot it as is and then see where we’re at.
And so, yeah, that was this “I’m going to kill him but feel free to kick the corpse” line, it totally worked. Jean delivered it perfectly. It just felt like the scene was running a little long.
John: It’s a little bit of a detour also. It’s pulling attention to somebody–
John: Off the focus here. What happens in the rest of the scene is like we finally get to see Ava kind of monologue and actually have her voice and express her power which is ultimately what impresses Deborah. It’s so fun to actually see somebody sort of cut loose eventually, because we’ve seen Deborah be able to go off, but to actually see – it’s a strange place for an audience to be kind of rooting for both sides of the equation. Because it’s really a true two-hander we’re sort of seeing both sides of the story. And to see them go after each other was just sort of delicious. Just a nice job here at the end of this.
Jen: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I mean that was always by design that that was how the scene was going to end. That Ava would let loose and in letting loose and kind of they would start roasting each other the way comedians do and that is their love language. Jokes are their love language. And Deborah would be impressed by Ava’s ability that way. And, yeah, I think it’s written that way and then Jean and Hannah just perform it so wonderfully together. They have such amazing chemistry that we were very happy with how it turned out.
John: We have a ton of listener questions, so maybe we can do some speed rounding through some listener questions.
Jen: Love it.
John: Megana Rao, if you could get us started.
Megana: Awesome. Joel asks, “Standup comics seem to get far more freedom to go more controversial while TV writers have to be far more careful with jokes and topics. First, do you think that perception is accurate? And if so how do you find that balance?”
John: So standup versus sitcom writers.
Jen: I think that, sure, there’s probably a little more leeway given to standups because you are just one person getting on stage one night. You might say something controversial but on the flip side when it’s in a TV show it has to go through so many layers of approval before it actually makes it to air. So I think in the case of jokes that are seen as offensive sometimes I certainly think this when I see it, I’m like how did the – so the initial writer, then the showrunner, then the entire writer’s room, then the studio, then the network, like no one gave a note on this? There are lots of rounds that that could have happened.
I think if it is true that standups are allowed more leeway that way it’s probably because it’s just one person getting up on stage saying something one random night and it’s not going through so many levels of approval. But I have to say as a TV writer it’s not something I think about. I never think like, oh, I wish I could say this controversial thing but I got to get up at the Improv to do it. I don’t really think about, oh, can I get away with saying this or not.
John: The incentives are also different for the standup comic. And one of the episodes sort of goes into her trying new material and the standup guy who she confronts. And the incentives are trying to get the laugh, to keep the audience laughing is so different than in a sitcom situation. When it’s just you up on that stage you’re going to say whatever you can do. You just keep saying–
Jen: That’s a good point. It’s almost like it’s survival. You just need them to laugh, so you’re probably – who knows what you might say to get that to happen. Whereas, yeah, TV you’re crafting characters and you need to make sure that if someone is saying something controversial it better not be punching down or something that makes this person seem like a horrible person if that’s not the intention.
John: Because you don’t have to go home with that standup at the end of the night, but with a sitcom character you want to come back the next week and see that character again.
Jen: Exactly. Totally.
Megana: Awesome. Nora asks, “So many of my favorite comedies get better the longer they go on. And audiences tend to say stick with it, it gets really good. Why do you think many comedies are growers and not showers?”
Jen: I think that is really true. I think it’s – well I think it’s for two reasons. One is, and Mike Schur, again, my mentor and the man I credit with teaching me how to make television, is fond of saying I wish I could just throw out the first episodes of a show when you make it. Because the first eight episodes is kind of this sludge pile of figuring out–
John: Parks and Rec, those first episodes are rough.
Jen: Yeah. And I think Mike – he would be happy to admit that they were figuring it out. Especially in an ensemble comedy. You are figuring out how are all these characters funny. How are they funny with each other? How does that actor mesh with that actor? And so you are really figuring it out. And so I think when comedies start out maybe not as strong as they get as they progress, it is because the writers, the actors, the crew, everyone is figuring it out a little bit. Comedy, I think there’s chemistry to it. It’s intangible. And you’re trying to capture lightning in a bottle in a lot of ways. And so it takes a little bit of trial and error until you really get there.
And then I think the other reason that comedies feel they get better as they go on is like great jokes come from character. You know, yes, there are some lines on sitcoms where if you just saw them written on someone’s Instagram page you’d be like that’s a funny one-liner. But for the most part jokes are funny because they’re specific to character. Like a Ron Swanson joke can’t be put in the mouth of Leslie Knope or Andy Dwyer because they all have very different character games and world views. And it’s why you love them, because they’re specifically drawn characters.
And so I think when you watch a pilot you don’t know these characters. You don’t know their game. You’re learning them. And it’s the writer’s job to introduce you to them and that takes some time. And so I think as a show goes on you learn these characters, you love these characters, you know their games, so you say like, oh yeah, of course Monica has 11 categories for towels. That’s so her. But you don’t know these characters as well when you’re first watching a show. So I think the longer you spend with them the more you understand them and the more the things they say and do are funny to you.
John: You just used a term which I don’t use at all in features. Character game. So what is game?
Jen: So character game in comedy is basically like – and this is something that I don’t know in the streaming world if it’s as relevant, but character game is like what is their specific trait that they exhibit over and over again in behavior that is how they are funny. So for example Leslie Knope’s game, and you could say she has multiple games, but one game is she is type A crazy optimistic to a fault. She is like the craziest, hardest worker you’ve ever met in your life. And she does everything in her life 150%. And that is both endearing but also sometimes exhausting to her friends and coworkers. And so that’s the character game.
In the most simplest of terms, like sometimes the character’s game is they’re the dumb one. And that is what gets hit over and over again in their jokes and dialogue and what they do. And so it’s a term that gets used a lot in comedy and I think maybe as comedies become a little more – or at least some of them become a little more grounded, a little more real, maybe we say that less and less because the characters – at least when we were making Hacks like we want the characters to feel like real people, real grounded people.
We don’t all have character games in life. Some of us do. But it’s something that maybe we talk about a little bit less. But certainly in a more traditional comedy network sense you do talk about character game a lot.
John: So on the Scriptnotes podcast Craig’s umbrage is his character game?
Jen: Exactly. Exactly.
John: He goes off and my desire to keep things moving along to segue, like this next question.
Megana: Leah asks, “In a previous episode Jac Schaeffer mentioned that she received good advice about staffing people in the room. Pick writers who offer something different from what she already had. Is there a type of comedy that is your strongest? And if so, what types of writers do you look for? For example, physical humor? Adept one lines? Etc.”
Jen: That’s a good question. That is really good advice for staffing a room. I think to look for people who fill in the gaps for you, who are stronger in things that you are maybe weaker in. Listen, I’m really good at formatting a script. I’m really good on the keyboard. That’s definitely number one maybe. I guess, let’s see, comedy wise probably I feel stronger in terms of jokes and one liners, like just sort of naturally where I come from from the monologue writing world. I think that maybe in jokes more than I think in story.
Story is something that, you know, I think the longer you work in narrative TV you get better at it, but that certainly wasn’t my strong suit when I started out. And so for example I think I’m always, like when staffing Hacks, looking for people who are really great with story. Really great with coming up with story. Coming up with twists and stuff like that. So, yeah, that certainly is good advice. That if you are staffing you want to find people who do things that you don’t maybe do as well.
John: This is an obvious point, but something just occurring to me now. A difference with Hacks is you have two central characters, two women who are telling jokes and are aware that they’re telling jokes because it is their business to tell jokes all the time. So there’s two characters who are aware that they’re funny, which is really unusual actually.
Jen: Yeah. Exactly. Most times in comedy people are funny but they don’t know they’re making jokes. And in this show, yeah, they know they’re funny. Making jokes is their business. It’s also been an interesting thing because I think when you write about comedians or comedy writers the bar gets set pretty high I think about how funny they need to be in their every interaction. And it’s funny because as a comedy writer, like I personally – the comedy writers who are constantly making jokes in every day conversation are the worst ones to be around. They’re pretty rough.
I, you know, I’m like – I am a comedy writer, but I’ve had so many people, like my hairdresser one time who shares some clients, some friends with me, and he said, “You know, everyone says Jen is so funny, but I don’t see that side of you.” And I was like, OK, cool. I think comedy writers, you think oh this person is playing a comedy writer they better be cracking wise every line. And that’s just truthfully not – it doesn’t feel like a realistic portrayal of a comedy writer to me anyway.
John: Yeah. Our next question was from Jay who asks…?
Megana: “What’s the correlation between being funny in person and being funny on the page? How does one get better at one or the other?”
Jen: Well, I mean, my hairdresser would like me more if I could learn.
John: It’s been my experience, too, is that like there’s people who are really, really funny, but they cannot write it down. They don’t have the ability to write in anyone else’s voice. Actually just something falls apart when they actually try to put it down on paper.
Jen: it’s really two different skills. And I think there are some people who are so wildly funny in person and also incredibly funny writers. That certainly exists. Someone like my co-creator Paul Downs is an incredible performer, so he’s so funny in that way, but then also a very talented writer. So it’s not like it doesn’t exist. But I think it’s hard. I think there’s no way to learn to be funny. You know, you either have it or you don’t.
So, what was the second part of the question?
John: How does one get better at one or the other? So like obviously people can – you went through UCB and so you learned how sketches works and you also learned some performance stuff, but it wasn’t your natural thing. And there’s going to be an upper ceiling to how good you are going to be as a performer, right?
Jen: Yeah. I think so. I think I could have taken a million more classes and they happily would have cashed my checks to do it, but I don’t think I ever – it is not in my wheelhouse to be a dynamic, incredible performer. It just isn’t. And that’s OK.
John: And we all know some really tremendous comedic actors who could not be any funnier, but they just cannot write. It’s just not natural to them.
Jen: Exactly. It is two very different skill sets. And sometimes you’ll find someone who has both, but it doesn’t always line up. And comedy writing is an interesting, especially TV comedy writing, is an interesting hybrid. Because when you are writing on a TV comedy you’re spending all your time in the writer’s room. And the writer’s room is just sitting around a table, breaking story together, pitching ideas, and then going through a script and pitching jokes for that script. I was shocked to find out my first narrative half hour job how little time you spend in front of a computer. When it’s your draft, you’re out on script, you’re writing the episode, but that’s pretty much it.
And so writer’s rooms are a very social place. You have to be comfortable sitting with five, six, seven, eight – back in Parks I think we had like 16 writers. A room of 15 other people and you have to get comfortable pitching your jokes out loud in front of all of them. And that was a real – again, for someone who isn’t a natural performer, and I’m not like an extrovert, that was a real challenge is to get comfortable learning like, OK, I need to just kind of be performing to pitch this joke for this character. So it is two different skill sets. But when you do work in TV comedy in writer’s rooms both come into play.
John: Yeah. On the feature side, if you’re pitching a comedy there’s not an expectation that you yourself are going to be hilariously funny in that pitch, but they need to believe that you actually know what funny is. And so if you’re a humorless person going into that you’re not going to get the job. That’s just how it works.
John: It’s tough. What else we got?
Megana: OK, a different Jay asks, “How many story arcs ahead do you and the staff have a feel for from the start?”
Jen: 1,012. No. There’s no set number to be honest. I think basically from the start what you’re more looking at is kind of, especially in a serialized streaming comedy, you’re looking at your tent poles for the season. You’re saying, OK, tent pole one, they meet, they clash. Then mid-season she’s going to quit, but she’s going to go on this bonding trip and learn more about her, which opens her eyes to new experiences and brings them closer. OK, another tent pole, her old LA life calls her back and she gets an opportunity that way.
You’re laying out the very big story points that you want to hit over the course of the season. And then you’re kind of filling in in between that all the little stories. And that is how it works like on our show, Hacks, which is a little more serialized. On more network TV shows, or even Broad City, those shows they were able to withstand a little more one-off episodes I think. So, I remember Parks and Rec like the beginning of every season we would have a writer’s retreat and part of your assignment for your writer’s retreat was to come up with ten episodes and you would just go to the retreat and then you pitch your ten episode ideas to Mike and we would write them all down on index cards and by the end of this retreat we would have this huge board of all the index cards of just crazy one-off episode ideas. Because a 22-episode network sitcom you have a little more leeway.
One that I pitched I remember was like Donna sends a tweet that she thinks is from her personal account but is actually the Parks Department account and it spirals. And that was just a one-off episode that we did that wasn’t tied to a larger arc. But because there are 22 episodes you had the time and space to do that.
And same on Broad City. Broad City we had much more ability to do kind of like one-off episodes that weren’t tied to a larger arc, even though we did on both Parks and Broad City you’re still telling longer arcs, but for something now like Hacks which is only 10 episodes, there’s less of a need to go, OK, we need to generate 500 episode ideas. It’s much more about these tent poles like I said of knowing where you want your character’s story to start, what’s happening in the middle, what’s happening in the end. And then filling in in between.
John: Well in the case Hacks in this first season you established stakes for both of the characters right at the very start. And so we know as an audience that by the end of this series we should have an answer to these fundamental questions about what’s going to happen to these two women.
John: Which would not really make sense for something like Parks and Rec. That really wouldn’t make sense because the idea of characters leaving, it just wouldn’t track.
Jen: Yeah. And we did some stuff, like Leslie is getting recalled at the beginning of the season, what’s going to happen with that? So we certainly did that. But it was less central to the way the show was built.
John: Let’s try one more question from a listener.
Megana: Jerry asks, “I’ve heard Breaking Bad and Succession both described as comedies. Atlanta has had at least two horror episodes. And Insecure has had episodes that have brought me to the edge of tears. What are the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the form as of late and what do you see coming over the horizon?”
Jen: That’s a great question. And I agree with all those assessments of those shows. Those shows have made me laugh and cry similarly, too. I think it’s really honestly exciting to me. It feels like there’s no longer these strict parameters of like it’s a comedy so it needs to sound and look like this, and it needs to be this one way, and the tone always has to be comedic.
Something with Hacks we talked about all the time is like we wanted it to feel really grounded and we wanted it to feel like real life. And real life is equal parts drama and comedy and you’re switching in between the two tones in a matter of instance sometimes. And so what I think is so exciting about all those shows, you know, the question mentioned is like those shows all play with tone in such a cool way. They can be like, yeah, Insecure can be so funny, but then it also has these real grounded heartfelt moments that do make you cry.
And to me that’s so exciting. Like I want my art that I consume to reflect the real world I live in. And it feels like these half hour shows, or all these shows, not just half hour, are getting closer to reflecting the way the real world is in that it plays with tone and it isn’t just one thing.
So I love that shows are now able to do all these different things and it doesn’t feel like there’s hard and fast rules about what they can do. And as far as what’s on the horizon, I hope that trend just continues because I think it’s really exciting. And I think what’s in, I mean, maybe I don’t know if this is on the horizon, because I don’t know what the future of network comedy is, but maybe because these shows are so successful and people love them like maybe network comedies will also get to be a little more fluid with tone and a network comedy doesn’t have to like you know be just one thing. I think that was something Mike did with The Good Place in such a great way. That is not your typical network sitcom and he was given the chance to make it. And I think people were really excited by that.
So hopefully just kind of playing with tone and the rules and letting things be more fluid is something that will spread to not just streaming or cable but also network.
John: A thing I noticed about Hacks and Succession both is that they’re not very classically comedies, and yet the dialogue and how the characters are sort of presented are presented with a sort of comedic voice to them. Comedic things can happen in their universe and it makes sense for them do it. And characters talk in a way that I don’t want to say they feel like they’re written by comedy writers, but it feels like they’re writing at a pitch that can feel funny.
As opposed to something that’s done as a straight drama which just would never happen. And so you can basically take the same outline for a Succession episode and write it as just a true drama and write it as this. And the same things could happen in the scenes but it’s really just how characters are expressing themselves mostly that makes it feel like kind of a comedy.
Jen: Which is what I love about that show so much. It’s not just a straight drama. I love the comedic moments. And the specific character, again character games, that they kind of play with. I think that’s what makes that show so rich and run to watch.
John: All right. It’s come time for our One Cool Things. I have two short One Cool Things there this week. First is an essay by Zachary Zane that ran in the New York Times a couple weeks ago called You Are Bi Enough. And it’s just a nice way of looking, as we head out of Pride month, bisexuals always kind of feel like should I even be at this party. There’s that sense of like do I even belong here. Am I sort of stealing someone else’s valor for being in the room for this conversation?
And he does a really good job sort of laying out what to do if you’re a bi person who is in a mixed gender relationship and stuff like that. It’s just a really smart essay on approaching that.
Second is much more important for me personally which is that one of the things that has been hardest about the pandemic is it’s been impossible for me to get Caffeine Free Coke Zero, which is my go-to drink.
Jen: That is a tough one to find. I’m a Coke Zero drinker too and I never see Caffeine Free Coke Zero.
John: It’s really tough. So all the canned beverages took a real hit during the pandemic because there was not enough aluminum to sort of make all of our favorite sodas. But the niche drinks, like the Caffeine Free Coke Zero just became impossible to fill. So my two placeholders have been the Caffeine Free Diet Coke, which is OK. If you can find it, that’s great. And so Megana was able to find it this week. God bless you, Megana. But the other go-to for me has been I have a SodaStream and we always just use it for fizzy water. But they actually sell the syrups to put into it.
And so I was able to track down Caffeine Free Diet Cola syrup for the SodaStream. And if you use just under one ounce in a bottle it is a pretty good approximation of what Coke Zero should be like, what Caffeine Free Coke Zero should be like. So if you’re really jonesing for it – it’s not even really economically advantageous, because I worked it out and it’s $1.50 per liter which is not great.
Jen: Not great, no.
John: It’s not great. But I mean when you absolutely need it it’s there.
Jen: I love that you’re over here doing chemistry, too. You’re in your lab mixing.
John: One after another, I’m tweaking the formula to get it just right. And so I would say just under one ounce is what you need to make a perfect caffeine free diet cola.
Jen, what do you have for a One Cool Thing?
Jen: My One Cool Thing is my favorite show that I watched over the pandemic, and honestly one of my favorite shows I’ve watched, which is a British show called I Hate Suzie. I don’t know if you guys have seen it.
John: I have not. Megana is nodding that she has.
Megana: Yeah, I love it.
Jen: It is co-created by Billie Piper who stars in it as well. And Lucy Prebble who is a phenomenal writer/playwright. She also writes on Succession actually. But this show is just so, so good. Billie Piper plays this actress who is like somewhat famous. She was like a pop star and now is on a zombie sci-fi show which is like seen OK. And then she’s up for this big career opportunity which is Disney is maybe going to hire her to play an “aging princess.” And so she’s very excited about that.
And right as this opportunity is about to happen her phone gets hacked and compromising photos of her leak. Her with someone who is not her husband. And it is just an eight-episode series. They’re all available on HBO Max. And it’s kind of this exploration of what it means to be a woman in the public eye. What it means to be – just modern womanhood in general. And the performances are just so wonderful. Billie Piper is amazing. It’s one of my favorite performances in a comedy of all time I think.
The woman who plays her manager and best friend, Leila Farzad, I hope I’m pronouncing that right, she’s wonderful. It’s a wonderful show that I feel like not enough people I’ve seen talking about. So, I’m doing the work.
John: We’ll start talking about it more.
Jen: I love it. Great.
John: Great. We’ll do it. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Peter Hoopes. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter I am @johnaugust. You’re on Twitter?
Jen: Yes, I am on Twitter. I’m @jenstatsky.
John: And we have t-shirts. They are great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts and sign up for our weekly-ish newsletter called Inneresting which has lots of links to things about writing.
You can sign up to become a premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments like the one we’re about to record on Cat Person and the discourse around Cat Person.
Jen Statsky, this was amazing. Thank you so much for coming in.
Jen: Thank you so much for having me. This was a real career highlight as a longtime listener.
John: Aw, thanks.
John: All right, Jen Statsky. What was your experience with Cat Person before this? So you were aware of the original short story?
Jen: Yes, I was aware. I remember reading it back in 2017 and I remember being very struck by it because it came out during the #MeToo movement when I certainly as a woman and I think a lot of women I knew and globally were like reevaluating their relationships with men and interactions with men and just what kind of it meant to be a woman out in the world. And certainly a woman with a sexual life. And so I was very – I thought the story was – I remember reading it and liking it. And then was also was so – I was like, wow, this is like the first viral short story. I couldn’t believe how much Twitter was discussing it and talking about it. So, yes, I was very aware of Cat Person.
John: I remember when it broke as well. It was a New Yorker short story by Kristen Roupenian and it just spread everywhere. I think because it was a short story it wasn’t a huge commitment. It wasn’t like a book where you had to read the whole thing. You could sit down and read the thing and like, oh, that was really good. And what struck me as I first read it and it was a lot of part of the discourse originally was it felt like it maybe kind of wasn’t fiction. It felt like it was actually just an essay. It felt like it was a first person thing that she was writing about her own experience. And she said like, no, I’m not, it’s fiction.
The term auto-fiction came up there. The sense of like it felt like autobiography but it was actually fully fiction.
Jen: Yeah. And I mean I think partly is because it’s so well-written, or so confidently written that people found it hard to believe it wasn’t someone’s actual experience.
John: Yes. And that’s where we get to this week. So, this past week Alexis Nowicki, another author, wrote in Slate saying like, OK, well this is actually based on my own experience, even though she’d never actually met Kristen, the original author. And so we’ll put a link to both things in the show notes. This summary of what Alexis is writing is that she read this short story and everyone was texting her saying like, “This is about you, right? This is about you and that guy?”
And she’s like, yeah, but I never met this woman. I don’t understand how this could be the situation. And she eventually reached out to Kristen Roupenian who said like, yes, I knew that same guy. And while I’m not the person, you sort of are the person who is the other character in the story.
Jen: Yes. That must have been such a crazy – I found the essay by, it’s Alexis–
Jen: Nowicki. I loved the essay. I thought it was really, really well-written and interesting. And she describes coming out of a movie and having like dozens of texts being like, “Is this about you?” People sending her the story. And that must have been such a bizarre, strange experience for a person to go through. And yet it goes into a really nuanced, interesting conversation about art and who owns the details of one’s life. Is it ever OK to just point blank take facts from someone else’s life and use them as fiction? It’s really interesting.
John: Well so often on the podcast we do a segment for How Would This Be a Movie and Craig is always arguing you don’t need people’s life rights because facts are facts. And the facts that Roupenian was using here are kind of facts. It was basically she didn’t know this person. She looked up and she had heard about this earlier relationship this guy had had and sort of imagined what this woman was like. And Googled and found real information about where she went to school and where she used to work and was just imagining what this life was. And imagined pretty correctly sort of how a lot of this stuff worked.
But it’s the issue of like nothing was illegal here, but where the ethical boundary is between sort of pulling that stuff in.
Jen: Yeah. I mean, I guess what was interesting to me and this Kristen when she did, if you read the essay, you’ll see she apologizes for this eventually. She says I’m sorry I should have taken some of the details and changed them so that it wouldn’t be so directly linked to you, which I do – as a writer myself I can’t picture, yes, it’s of course you don’t need someone’s life rights necessarily. You’re always pulling from different people’s lives and experiences. But I can’t really picture writing something and using such specific details that could easily be traced to a person and not just taking the extra step of changing them slightly so that person wouldn’t think it’s about them.
John: Yeah. People were pointing out that it’s always dangerous to be around writers because you never know if you’re going to be sucked into this, but in this case it’s dangerous to be around people who could be around writers.
Jen: Yeah. Right. There’s always a writer within a few degrees of connection to you and that’s really dangerous.
John: So a thing that I’ve always been aware of as I’ve been around writers is like events will happen, or somebody will say something or things come up. You were saying this before about Deborah writing a joke down in her book. Like as a funny thing happens, who owns that funny thing that happens? Who owns that moment?
Jen: I have friends who are standups who talk about this specific issue because they’ll go on tour together. And then when you’re on tour you’re living together. You’re going out to eat. You’re on the bus. And something crazy will happen and then it’s a race to who can craft the joke about it first. Who gets to tell it on stage first? It is a really interesting thing when creative people are together. Who has ownership over it? There’s not really a hard and fast rule about it.
John: I also – Dana Schwartz makes this point on Twitter that whenever there’s two people it always feels like you have to declare two sides. And it’s this or it’s that. And you can’t actually say that’s an interesting conversation about this thing. She was in the right, she was in the wrong. She’s trying to claim credit for something that she didn’t actually write. And it makes it more complicated than that. I’m not on either team here. I don’t think they should have teams. I don’t think we’re playing a game.
Jen: Right. Twitter always rushes to be judge, jury, and executioner, right? So someone always, yes, exactly, like Dana is saying has to be in the right and someone has to be in the wrong. And what I thought was so interesting about Alexis’s essay is that she wasn’t casting herself as the victim and Kristen as the villain primarily. I thought the essay was so well done because it’s a really nuanced, holistic look of like this very strange thing happened to me. I feel angry about it in this way, but I also see that this person has a particular experience of their own.
So I found it interesting that people didn’t take the hint from the essay which is like I’m not trying to cast, oh, this action was evil and this person should be condemned. I’m just working my way through this specific personal experience that happened and kind of exploring this conversation about art and the ethics of art.
So, yeah, that was interesting. Twitter is not great for nuance.
John: What’s also strange about this situation is that the third person in this relationship, so Charles who is the basis of the character, is apparently dead, which is dismissed in a single line and not explained.
Jen: I know. My jaw dropped when I got to that part of the essay. And then I don’t know if you saw this, but a lot of people – and again we have no idea – but a lot of people on Twitter took the extra step to say, oh, he killed himself. He must have killed himself because of the negative portrayal in this work of “fiction.”
John: I don’t think we know that.
Jen: We don’t know that at all. That’s just complete conjecture from people on Twitter, which again like rushing to try to put everyone into the category of villain and good person. It’s just so fascinating. But we have no idea how this man passed away. It’s very sad. It’s a very sad part of the essay and that both of these woman are left I think grieving this person is just like a sad bookend to it.
John: And there is theoretically a movie version of this, so the tie in to this is so Nicholas Braun of Succession is apparently supposed to be playing this character.
John: And so it just becomes complicated as reality and fiction and meta fiction overlap.
Jen: I don’t know what stage – do you know if they’re–
John: I don’t know where they are.
Jen: I wonder if the current writer is scrambling now to include this newest twist into the Cat Person saga.
John: The next Zola saga.
John: Thanks Jen.
- WGA Pilot Guide
- Hacks on HBO check out the pilot script here.
- Jen Statsky on Twitter
- You Are Bi Enough by Zachary Zane for NYT
- Caffeine Free Diet Cola syrup by SodaStream
- I Hate Suzie on HBO Max
- Get a Scriptnotes T-shirt!
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- John August on Twitter
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- Outro by Peter Hoopes (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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