The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August, and this is Episode 551 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, we’re going to the writers room to discuss the making of two of my favorite comedies of the last year. To do so, we have two amazing guests. John Hoffman is a writer, producer, and actor whose credits include Grace and Frankie and Looking, but most recently was also the co-creator of Only Murders in the Building, starring Steve Martin, Selena Gomez, and Martin Short. Season 2 premiers in June, but we have him here right now. John Hoffman, welcome to Scriptnotes.
John Hoffman: Thank you, John August, very much. It’s so nice to be here. I’m a big fan.
John August: Thank you very much for coming on the show. I loved your show. I was excited to see it beforehand because of the cast. What you were able to build that we’re… I really want to dig into the strange, very specific tone you got to and where that all came from. I’m hoping we can explore all that.
John Hoffman: Thank you. It’s a favorite topic. I love it.
John August: We also have Brittani Nichols, who is a writer, actress, and organizer, known for Suicide Kale, A Black Lady Sketch Show, and the phenomenal Abbott Elementary. Welcome, Brittani.
Brittani Nichols: Hey. Thanks for having me.
John August: Now, I want to talk to both of you about going from the whiteboard to a finished episode, about alt lines, tone, table reads, what you learn as the season unfolds, so just a few things. In a Bonus Segment for Premium Members, if you’re up for it, I want to talk about the pressures and possibilities of being openly queer writers, because all three of us on this call are, and something we don’t get to talk about a lot. If you guys are game for that, we can do that as a Bonus Segment. Sound good?
John Hoffman: All in.
Brittani: Sounds great.
John August: Fantastic. Now first, you guys, we’re all working on acclaimed shows that got second seasons, so congratulations. This past week was a bloodbath for a few shows that didn’t make it to their second seasons or didn’t make the cut. Seventeen shows canceled in 48 hours, which is so brutal. Now, Brittani, you’re on a network show, so it’s a reminder that there still is a season to network shows. In the spring, a bunch of shows don’t make the cut. When you were working on Abbott, at what point in the process did you start thinking, worrying about a second season? Did you know early on, okay, our show is doing great, we’re going to be able to go back for a second year?
Brittani: I think we were all pretty confident from the first moment that we saw the cuts of the early episodes coming in, and so we were like, if we’re able to just get this out there, we feel pretty good about it, which was definitely a unique position to be in. I think that second-guessing varies a bit within a room, and the people at the top are a little more hesitant to be confident. Us lower-level, mid-level writers are very much like, “We think we’re going to be okay and feel pretty safe.” We’re not going to be out shucking samples, looking for something else to hop onto.
John August: Now, you got your renewal notice. Were you still working on the show when you got the call that you were going to have a second season?
Brittani: No, we were out of the room. We just were playing the waiting game and hearing about all of the backroom details that go into renewal, and based on if the studio has other shows that haven’t been renewed and if it’s a shared production and all the sort of stuff that I never really knew about, I learned about as we were waiting for something that we knew was going to happen and hadn’t happened yet and we were trying to figure out why.
John August: Now John, for your show, I went into watching the show thinking it was just going to be a limited series. I really thought there would just be one season. Did you know going in that you wanted a second season, that there was more to do? What was your process about thinking about a second season, and when did you know that it was a possibility?
John Hoffman: I actually did want and assume there would be a second season, I think because of the auspices around it and the desire to dive in and explore these characters and this world in the way that we were talking about in development. I think there was the sense like, okay, I think there’s a good shot. It’s how we went into a second season which was concerning to me. That was the big question mark of whether the show would be embraced, whether everyone involved with the show, who I loved and respected so much, would feel good about it. These are the questions that I obsessed on and just thought, oh god, what a nightmare if this doesn’t get received well or what a nightmare if Steve, Marty, Selena aren’t having fun or enjoying it or thinking it’s worth their time. That was where I was thinking more, and just entirely on story and entirely on fulfilling that crowd.
John August: Your shows are so different in a sense of Abbott Elementary is like a classic sitcom. It is an engine that can keep generating story. It can just keep going in a way that’s so nice and refreshing, we don’t see as much anymore, as opposed to Only Murders in the Building, which resolves. There’s a murder, and the murder is resolved. I guess it wasn’t until those last episodes I realized, oh, you were setting up hooks for a second season. That was always part of the plan.
John Hoffman: Yeah, it really was. It was the pitch from the beginning. When we sat down with Hulu, it was in the pitch, at the end of Season 1 we have three newbie true crime podcasters who find themselves suddenly the suspects in a new murder and the subjects of a new podcast that’s being done by their beloved mentor. That was really where we were aiming. I think when you’re making a murder mystery, you have to know where you’re aiming, to twist your way there. I felt, I know where we’re going and I know how to set it up so that it doesn’t belie the truth of what really happened in this mystery, but also it was just necessary in some way for the storytelling to have it be satisfying reveals and a leap forward into, oh god, now what, that takes you beyond how many people can die in one building.
John August: Now Brittani, you’re back in the room on the second season of Abbott Elementary, so obviously you can’t give us any spoilers, but as you were writing that first season, did you have a sense of like, okay, this is the territory we want to cover in this season, this is where we want to leave characters at the end of this season? Did that change at all during the time you were in that room?
Brittani: Quinta came in with a pretty good idea of where she wanted things to start and where she wanted things to end. It was really on us to fill in that middle and figure out how we got from point A to point B. It feels a bit like that this season as well, where she has what happened over the summer planned out and where we’re starting the characters and we’re figuring out where we want them to end up now, especially with… We’re hoping to have more than 13 episodes this season, so seeing what we can do with a little bit more time to play.
John August: You say you’re hoping for more than 13 episodes. That just gives me a panic attack. I can’t imagine doing 13 episodes, much less 18 or 22. It just seems like so much. Yet as we were talking before we got on the call, you were able to shoot your episodes in five days, which is just terrific. It’s so smart that you can do such a great show in such a limited period of time. John, I see you nodding here. Do you want 13 episodes? Do you want 20 episodes?
John Hoffman: No. I’m right with you in that. I admire so much. I talked to Quinta about this too. I’m like, “God, the idea of it seems so daunting.” To keep it alive and as fresh as you guys are doing on that show, and knowing the work that goes into the 10 that we have to do, and to feel like it’s fulfilling and deep and funny and all of those things it has to be, yeah, it makes me sweat.
John August: Brittani, you first came onto my radar because you had a tweet that showed some of the handwritten alternate jokes from one scene on Abbott Elementary. Can you describe what we saw in that tweet? Because it was just such a revelation to me, all the different ways you were trying to get out of that scene or what the anchor points were for that dialog. Talk to us about that tweet.
Brittani: We are lucky enough that we’re not under the gun constantly. We have a little bit of time to play with alts. We also are lucky enough that when you’re the writer of the episode, you get to be on set for your episode, which I think was really touch and go during COVID. We felt so lucky that we got to be there and also that we were given the opportunity to do that, because I know a lot of shows, if the showrunner’s there, if the upper-level producers are there, just because it’s your script doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be able to talk to the actors, look at the director, and figure out spots where you can play with things, play with lines. Actually, when I was on A Black Lady Sketch Show, we certainly did not have time to do that, but I would still prepare each day or have alts and just show up with alts.
With Abbott, I tried to do the same thing. I would have alts prepared, and I would also be writing while I was on set, depending on the blocking, depending on how things felt, on the tone, on what was hitting, what wasn’t. I tweeted a list of alts for a joke, because I thought I had some pretty good ones that didn’t make the cut and just really wanted to share them. I thought it was fun. That’s I think a practice a lot of the writers here do, just trying to make ourselves laugh, keep it fun on set, keep the actors surprised, guessing. Also, it encourages them I think to have some fun as well. We’ve definitely had a couple of lines from this past season that the actors came up with themselves. It’s been really fun, especially with some of the inspirations for me, like Parks and Rec and Community, where I know some of the famous lines from those shows were alts or were improvs.
John August: We had Mike Schur on the show recently talking about Parks and Rec. That mockumentary format is so handy for being able to just throw out ideas. The camera’s rolling, you pitch a thing, and they could say that thing, and you could see what actually lands, as opposed to I’m guessing Only Murders in the Building. It’s a really tightly shot, cinematic show. Are alts a thing that happen on your show, John?
John Hoffman: It’s so funny. Marty and I were just talking about this last week and dinner. He said, “I get asked all the time about improvving and alts and things like that.” He said, “Honestly, it’s so rare.” As you point out, it’s necessarily so in certain ways, because it is very densely plotted. Also, what I love is that I get the benefit of Marty Short’s phone calls after a script lands in his laptop, I want to say 45 minutes after we sent it. He’s already pitching on… “There’s just two lines, John.” I get one-sentence emails from Steve, always, three times a week, which I love. They’re either ideas for the show or there’s one line. Steve will walk onto set, ready to do a scene, and inevitably, “John, John, there’s just one line.” I’m like, “I know. I’m sure there is. Let’s make it better.” That will happen. In general, the other thing that happens is Selena, every now and then… They’re all just lovely, generous, open people. Selena, when she feels something is not right or false or this doesn’t feel… Nothing is better for me than hearing her say, “This is what I think I would do,” and we have a good phone call or two about it. It’s great. That’s really the limit. Sometimes for alts, I’m reaching or thinking or popping another line just to button a scene or something like that. Otherwise, it’s pretty straight to script.
John August: Let’s talk about the script and the actors encountering the script. Do you guys have table reads for Only Murders in the Building? Do you table read each script?
John Hoffman: We have blessing of table read over Zoom that’s only for cast and myself and for Dan and Jess, Dan Fogelman and Jess Rosenthal. We don’t have studio or network there for that. It’s very familial and very Zoom-like, Hollywood Squares with a ridiculous cast. It helps them tremendously on a Saturday afternoon to read through it and hear it. Then many times the actors will make appointments on Zoom with other actors to say let’s go over our scene. It’s great, and yet there is a freedom that doesn’t put the angst around a table read as much either. Everything’s been signed off by the time we have them.
John August: Now Brittani, for Abbott, do you guys table read?
Brittani: We do, yeah. We do Zoom table reads. The actors have their videos pulled up. When you are the writer of the episode, you’ll cast the day player parts with the other writers. That’s always fun. You might get your feelings hurt a little bit if you’re not cast. Then we’ll have network and studio folks on the call as well, but without their videos on.
John August: Let’s talk through the whole process for coming from the whiteboard, the start of the season, blue sky, we could do anything, to a finished episode. John, for yours, you started with, I assume, a pilot script and then went to a room to figure out the rest of it. What was the process for you?
John Hoffman: That’s exactly right. This one, I just felt the onus immediately of being as prepared as I possibly could. I did have a full three-act structure to the whole season. I had a real sense of how it would move. I had the main thematics of the character arcs across the season, and a pilot, a pilot I worked on with Steve and got great input from Dan Fogelman and Jess Rosenthal as well. All of that was in plan in a big pitch. Then got together with the writers and tried to make sense of the pilot, because I had certain specificities in the pilot which posed questions that I didn’t quite have the answer to yet, one of them being who is the ultimate killer. I knew I would need that pretty quickly. The writing team and everyone else got in there, and we sorted out how that would make the most sense and how that would make the most bang for our buck.
John August: It sounds like the pilot was asking provocative questions, and then it was the job in the writers room to find provocative answers.
John Hoffman: Yeah, I saddled them with that. I was definitely like, “Yeah, we got to figure that out.” I was happy to have a group to work some stuff out that way. It was all strangely though infused, I should say. Also, just on a personal level, I had been through this very profound year before this show landed in my lap, a personal experience around the murder of a friend of mine that I had been out of touch with for a while. I found myself investigating and getting involved in that in a way that was revelatory to me. I’ve had a very personal connection to the kind of story we’d be telling in this show. A lot of it was guided by the underlying truth that I had experienced in that journey. That helped guide us a bit into the-
John August: John, let’s dig deeper on that, because I think those writers, as they’re approaching a piece of material, the question you’re always asking them is what is your personal connection to this. It sounds like your personal connection to this was you had the experience of being a person investigating a murder or asking people questions about a murder. Your assumptions of what you did, what you didn’t know, and the ethics of what you’re doing in terms of this investigation, how much of that carries through into the script, and how much of your quest is really the quest we see the actors going on, the characters going on?
John Hoffman: I think the spirit of what I had experienced is in the show. It was something Dan… I don’t know why I told this story in the first meeting with Dan Fogelman, but I couldn’t not, because I was so deep in it. It made us connected. I think that was the core of the show. That became the core of the show. The funniest moments can come at the most traumatic. The best laugh is at a funeral. The best laugh is at the most inappropriate time. The most bonding moment can be in the most shocking moment that you share with people that you may not know that well, and therefore your vulnerabilities are stripped bare and you are investing with people and around people that you wouldn’t normally.
All of those things felt like a basis of where I wanted the funny to live in this show and where I wanted the poignant to live in this show. It’s very much what I was experiencing. I was taking big leaps in my own life to go and meet people I didn’t know around my friend’s death, his family, his children. I didn’t know they existed before I found myself in Wisconsin meeting them and being completely charmed and having huge laughs with them out of this huge traumatic moment that they had all experienced. There’s that that feels to me connective tissue that we could play with. It felt like a bit of a guiding force for how to best play the comedy and the drama in our show while trying to keep it all fairly buoyant.
John August: Brittani, Abbott Elementary exists in a world that has The Office and Modern Family, so this convention of characters acknowledging the camera’s established. For that aspect of tone, you had it. Yet Abbott is so specific and uncomfortable at moments. We’re seeing things we don’t normally see on screen. Can you talk to us about when you’re in the room pitching on an Abbott Elementary or pitching an idea for that, what does that feel like? Because it sounds like [inaudible 00:17:34] that you were probably describing some really uncomfortable things and trying to find a funny way into it. What is the process of… You are a story editor on the season. What are you doing in the room as you’re pitching an idea?
Brittani: Luckily, I’m a producer now.
John August: Fantastic. Congratulations.
Brittani: Congratulations to me.
John August: Second season, love it.
John Hoffman: Go get it, Brittani.
Brittani: One of the first things that we did the first season was talk about the characters’ relation to the camera. Obviously, Ava really loves it. She brought them there. She is living for them. The rest of them, it varies from tacit acknowledgement to trying to hide to being caught by it constantly. I think even as far as character development, their relationship to the camera I think tells that story as well, so seeing how people are going to be reacting to the camera in the second season. Is there a way to even use the camera against other people or for your own devices? Are there ways to manipulate the camera? That’s definitely something that we are talking about all the time, because we also want to be very careful in how we develop the camera’s relationship outside of the school.
I think with mockumentaries, as they go on, you tend to expand the world a bit. This being set at a school, that will be outside of the school, possibly at apartments. It’s going to be a decision from us about where is it realistic for this camera to follow people. How much are we going to hang on to this convention? Because shows like Parks and Rec, they at a certain point left that behind a little.
John August: They can go anywhere.
Brittani: I think we just want to be aware of it so that if that ever happened, it’s happening because we’ve made a collective decision to move away from that. Right now, we’re still pretty firmly planted in the boundaries of that reality.
John August: I’m thinking back to The Office. This may not be the first time we really left The Office, but I remember the Diwali episode was one of the first times where we seen people outside of their normal space and comfort zones and you get a sense like, oh people go home to a place after they leave work, and they have a whole other life. It hadn’t even occurred to me that we really have not seen outside of the walls of the elementary school in that whole first season, but we really have been locked in there. I guess we go to the zoo in the last episode, but it’s literally a field trip.
Brittani: Yeah, we go to the zoo and we go to the nail salon.
John August: That’s right.
Brittani: At the nail salon, it is very much a topic about the school. We still buy why we’re there. We still get why we’re there.
John August: Let’s talk about the topics you do get into in Abbott Elementary, because especially in those first couple episodes, the stakes feel a little bit higher than most of these mockumentaries in the sense of there are kids who you want to see getting a good education, yet the system seems stacked up against them. The first episode is about literally getting rugs for the classrooms and the shenanigans you have to go through to get them. As you’re discussing those, do you bring up the uncomfortable idea and everyone kicks around trying to find the funny? What is the pitching process in the room about it, that goes from here’s a general idea to this becomes a center of an episode?
Brittani: We don’t pitch lesson-first. It really is what do we think is funny, what is the situation, and then from there we will layer things on or we’ll find things. It’s just an inherently political show, I think just from the fact that it’s at a public school, and we do have a very contentious relationship with public schools in our country right now. All of those things I think are really naturally interwoven, and it’s really easy for us to organically find those tie-ins that I think a lot of the time just come from a moment of dialog, a scene here or there. It’s not what is driving the story. It’s the background. It’s something that is constantly present and that we acknowledge when we have to. There is no separating the show or the characters or the situation from reality.
I think that’s something that makes some people a little uneasy if that is something that they’re facing in their real lives. It could be a pretty hard show to watch because we are having people not laugh at the situation, but laughter and humor is a coping mechanism. I think that that’s one of the ways that we want to use the show overall is there’s so much that’s happening constantly. This can be a nice little reprieve from that, while not completely divorcing yourself from what’s happening.
John August: Great. I want to talk to both of you about the documents that come along the way. We’ll start with you, Brittani. You’re in the writers room for Abbott Elementary. You’re figuring out an episode. That’s literally done on a whiteboard. I guess probably it’s a virtual whiteboard for a lot of this, because of the pandemic. At what point does it come off that board into an outline form? Are you pitching story areas? What are the documents that happen before there’s a script?
Brittani: For us that is a sort of general brainstorm doc of one or two lines of I think this would be funny, what if this happened. We just blue sky that for a bit. Then we’ll identify from within those what seems like an A story, what seems like a B story, do any of these seem like thematically they resonate with each other and trying to pair those together. Then we will do a story area. We’ll do just a few paragraphs about the A and B story. Then after the story area we’ll go to a pre-outline. We’ll have all the scene slugs and just some sentences below that about what’s happening, a little bit of dialog, a little bit of jokes. Then that’s when we’ll go to the outline.
John August: The story area is the first document that you’re turning in to other people outside of the room, that’s going to a studio and a network, taking a look at what the general idea of the episode is?
John August: John, curious on your side, what does it look like for the documents along the way? You have such a puzzle piece of a show. A lot of stuff can happen in an episode that ties into things two episodes later. What do the documents look like along the way?
John Hoffman: It’s so much so early for ours, because in some ways we have to have the whole season mapped out in general terms in order to make sense of episodes. A lot of it is focused early on in the writers room to map out the full thing. Mystery-wise we have what I call clotheslines. We’ve been nothing but a Zoom room. We couldn’t deal with whiteboards on writers room. It’s terrible. I know I should be better about these things, but I was like, no, I can’t. We had no whiteboards. I would call them clotheslines, the mystery clothesline, the character arc clothesline, the bucket of things that we want to do that feel like comedic premises that feel fertile. There was all that. Really, I have to do a full season pitch over Zoom to Hulu and 20th. We work on that pretty quickly to get that together.
John August: How long is the full season pitch?
John Hoffman: Forty-five minutes to an hour. It’s very visual and slap-happy and gets you all of the things we’re exploring in the season, a general three-act beat of a three-act structure for the season, and then the character arcs for the season. Then we jump into Episode 1, Episode 2. Then we accelerate it through all the things we still don’t know yet to come, but we can give general blocks of areas. Since the show itself is set up so that each episode has its own way in, a perspective through the narration of the podcast that is being done, and the template we now have of walking in from a perspective of a kind of New Yorker that you might not expect to be telling the story, we’re making this little bit of a tapestry of characters of New York through episode per episode. The big arc is laid out, and then each one feels like its own little episode I can hold in my hand is what I keep on saying to the writers, and understand what we’re telling in that story. We actually do not go to outlying stage to present to anyone but ourselves. We only give full scripts into studio and network. It’s painstaking to get there, but they have understood the entire arc of where we’re going by the time they’re getting a first episode.
John August: This presentation which is taking the place of the outlines, how far are you into your writers room by the time you’re putting together this presentation?
John Hoffman: It’s been at least two months, two and a half. It’s the most painstaking part of it. You make commitments to it that you have to be able to toss away. You also have to be prepared to fulfill them in better ways than you pitched them in that 45 minutes to an hour, for sure.
John August: Is Only Murders in the Building block-shot or are you shooting it episode by episode?
John Hoffman: We shoot two episodes in a block. We have one director handling two episodes. They’re always back to back, or have been so far. We have it mapped out in twos.
John August: Brittani, you were saying earlier that your episodes shoot in a five-day week.
Brittani: Yep, Monday through Friday.
John August: Wow, such a dream. We were also saying that that set that we’re seeing in the school is truly a set, and so you guys can do whatever you need to do in that one standing set, which is just remarkable.
Brittani: Yeah, we’re on a four in, one out schedule, or we were the first season. I think we might get a few more days out this season.
John August: Four in, one out means that four days you have to be on your sets and one day you can be out in the fields with trucks and trailers and doing all that stuff. That’s to get your exteriors for places that couldn’t be on there or if you need to go inside some place. Before this, you were working on A Black Lady Sketch Show. Is that entirely out?
Brittani: The season I was on, which was the first season, we were completely on location for everything.
John August: With Abbott, John’s talking about one director’s doing two episodes back to back, you’re mixing in scenes. With you guys, how far ahead of the episodes shooting do scripts tend to be?
Brittani: I think we’re going to have turned in maybe 10 episodes I believe is the goal before we start shooting the first episode.
John August: That’s fantastic. That’s great. I want to talk a little about career trajectories. We got right into the shows you’re making and not where you came from. John, what’s your origin story? I know you’re an actor as well as being a writer. How did you come up the ranks to be doing what you’re doing?
John Hoffman: I know, I make no sense when I look at my own IMDB or whatever it is or any resume I look at. I started as an actor in New York after college and then found myself working really hard to get cast in plays that I was then embarrassed to have people come and see. I thought why not try and write something. I found myself writing for myself as an actor. When I wrote, I wasn’t just writing monologues or one-man shows. I was writing plays. I found myself learning structure in certain ways. I’ve always been a storyteller, I think when I was a young person. That segued into coming out here to Los Angeles and getting work as an actor in TV shows, many TV shows that weren’t very good in certain ways. Some were wonderful experiences. It was again that muscle in me that was saying I think I do better with the things I write than it was a crazy ride of screenwriting for me where my writing got picked up by certain producers, certain studios.
At the time when writers got deals at studios, I was getting deals at Disney and Warner Brothers and writing screenplays and learning how to do that while being able to make a living. I segued that way, mainly into growing into more deeper love with storytelling that way, but also finding myself picking the projects that were harder to get made and finding my way into getting very close to getting certain things produced that felt very close, and after years of work and things like that, challenges all around, and finally relented and joined a team at HBO where I’d been developing many shows for them.
They finally said, would you like to join this new show called Looking? I thought, I’m going to have trouble hitting someone else’s target for a show. They know what they want. Let them do it. I consulted on it, because I loved the people that were involved. I remained great friends with them to this day. It allowed me to feel myself as like, oh I could be valuable in a room. I learned a lot and very quickly moved through the television world to land in this crazy place.
John August: Now, Brittani, you are an actor as well. What was your journey coming up as a writer?
Brittani: I started as a PA, background actor, writer for a website called Autostraddle just to make a few pennies here and there as I was trying to become a writer, because I really was steadfast that I was not going to work in a service industry. I just was going to be broke until I wasn’t broke. I did a web series called Words with Girls. Then I wrote a pilot version of that. I was part of this Listserv for Black people in the industry. Denise Davis, who was one of Issa Rae’s producers at the time, and continues to be, sent out an email, and I cold responded with a pilot of mine. Issa ended up independently producing it alongside two other pilots. Right when we were going to try to take those out on the town, Insecure got picked up. That was enough to give me a little bit of credibility.
I ended up working on a BET variety show. I ended up doing Billy On the Street in one of the earlier seasons, and really just through luck and randomness and being prepared, just continued to I guess somersault from one thing to the next, until I made a feature called Suicide Kale that did the LGBTQ film circuit, won a bunch of awards there, audience awards, comedy awards, etc. That is ultimately what landed me my first scripted job, which was Take My Wife on Seeso, RIP.
John August: Oh, Seeso. It sounds like you say lucky, but also you were putting yourself in positions where luck could strike, having the courage to blind submit to Issa Rae’s producer. You’re making those choices. You had the material that you could send, and you weren’t afraid to share it with people. It sounds like you were happy to work for people who wanted to employ you. Didn’t matter whether Seeso was a real network or not, you were there and eager to do it, ready to step up and show that you could do these things. We have a couple questions from listeners. Most of our listeners are aspiring writers and writer-directors. Maybe you guys could weigh in on what you think they should do. Megana, do you want to start us off?
Megana: Great. We got a question from Tim from Washington, D.C. who asks, “I’m an East Coastie writer-director who moved to Los Angeles from 2016 to 2021 after having made an indie film that sold at Sundance. Though I improved as a writer and improved my network, I had so-so relationships with my reps and wasn’t really able to get anything going during my time in LA. My question is whether I’d be better served living in LA year-round versus instead living where I would like and visiting Los Angeles for a few weeks or months out of the year. I’m trying to cobble together one of those careers where I can write feature scripts for myself to direct, occasionally write features for hire, develop television, and occasionally direct for TV.”
John August: John, what’s your instinct? Do you think that Tim from DC should come to Los Angeles? Should he go to New York? Right now in 2022, what should Tim be doing?
John Hoffman: It’s hard to say for Tim personally. I don’t know what his life is like. It is hard for me to imagine a place, I hate to say this in this way because it sounds so corny, but more embracing of talent than Los Angeles. New York is tough. New York was tough for me. New York is theater-based. I love the theater. I found it hard to break into television and film through New York. People do. I know they do. I think in general the swath, the breadth of opportunity in Los Angeles is just greater for what it sounds like Tim wants to do. In the world of film, independent film, you can find your way easily. I was just talking about Looking and talking about my friend Andrew Haigh who broke in by making an independent film in England for $45,000.
John August: That’s Weekend.
John Hoffman: Exactly. That’s a great model. Not to say you can’t do it. It can happen anywhere if you’re working at your craft and making it in the way that you want, bring yourself to it. I do think there’s no way to get around the fact that there is more work, more opportunity, more people in the business, more conversations you can have with people that can lead to opportunities.
John August: Brittani, what’s your instinct for Tim?
Brittani: I can’t speak to the feature aspect of it, because that just might be something that’s completely different. As far as the jobs that I’ve gotten and the friends that I’ve made that have helped me make my feature, that was all a product of being in LA. Every job that I’ve had I can connect back to a chance meeting or a random text or some event rather than I can trace it back to me being incredibly talented, which I am.
That is an additional thing that never would’ve been any use to me if I hadn’t been out there making connections, making friends, and just being around. I tell people this all the time. I hear people when they’re hiring. I hear people when they’re casting. So much of it is, oh, I just saw so-and-so at this coffee shop. Oh, I just ran into so-and-so at the movie theater. There’s so much just recency bias of the last person I saw is the person that I’m thinking of and the person I’m going to hire. If you just do not show up and be in people’s faces, it’s just easy to forget you, no matter how talented you are, unfortunately.
John August: I’ve said this on the podcast several times. I bumped into Melissa McCarthy at Starbucks. She’d been in Go. She’d had a tiny part in Go. She was great in it, but the movie hadn’t come out yet. I bumped into her in Starbucks off of Melrose and said, “Oh, you’re amazing in the movie. I’m going to write something for you.” Then I did. Then we ended up writing a bunch of stuff together. She ended up being in my little short film, and our careers grew together. Being in the place where people are trying to make film and TV is really helpful just for the accidental overlaps of interest. I think, Tim, if you have the opportunity, if you didn’t like LA the first time, maybe give it another shot and maybe just find ways to put yourself out there more so you’re bumping into people the way that I bumped into people and Brittani bumped into people. Megana, do you have another question for us?
Megana: Yeah. Jason asks, “I understand that new writers are generally expected to specialize if they want to get anywhere with their career. How do you choose which path to take when, for example, your first love is feature comedy but your idea generator tends to produce six times as many pitches for TV dramas? Assuming the quality of my writing in both is comparable and at a professional level, and that I would enjoy drama television writing only slightly less than feature writing, would I be better off investing in writing this one comedy feature idea or pursuing several drama samples?”
John August: Brittani, what do you think, sample-wise? You were writing samples I’m guessing for years. Were you trying to specialize? Were you trying to just write a huge variety of things?
Brittani: I knew I wanted to work in comedy, but even comedy right now, there’s such a diverse set of what is considered a comedy. You got hard comedies, you got drama comedies, you got mixed genres. I think honestly, it being good matters more than it necessarily falling into any specific bucket. I’ve been writing off of the same sample for, I’m not kidding, probably four years at this point. It’s just because it’s really good. It’s just the one that people gravitate towards the most. Though I have a large selection, it’s really just getting it to the point where you feel like it really exhibits your voice and really is something that only you could write. That should come across no matter what genre it is.
John August: John, what’s your instinct? Do you think Jason should try to specialize or branch out?
John Hoffman: I agree with Brittani. I came at this, as I said, as an actor. My path to what scripts I wrote, the genres and all of it, was wildly an actor’s point of view, like I want to play every part and be comedic and be dramatic. I confused a lot of people, truthfully, in the screenwriting world when I was doing a World War II epic and then I was doing a really straight down the line comedy. Then I directed and wrote a family film for MGM. It’s all over the map. I agree with Brittani. You find the thing that is the great story and tell it the best way you can. That’s going to be the ticket I think more than anything, than genre or anything like that. I think the most personal and the most connective to what you do and what you love and what you respond to or what you recognize out in the world as a great story that no one’s told yet or a great story no one’s told in the way that you want to tell it, that’s the thing that ultimately will feel signature to you. That’s everything.
John August: I’ve said before on the podcast that I got pigeonholed really quickly as a guy who does kids movies. My first two paid jobs were A Wrinkle in Time and How to Eat Fried Worms. I was just getting sent material that was about gnomes, elves, dwarves, and Christmas. I was just very much pegged as a safe family guy. Writing Go was really helpful for me, because that became my sample for years. You could look at Go and see it as a comedy. You could look at it and see it as a drama, an action movie. Whatever you wanted to see in that movie, you could see. Writing something like that that can serve more than one purpose can be really helpful as well. It’s time for our One Cool Things, where we recommend things that people should check out. Brittani, do you have anything you want to recommend our listeners investigate?
Brittani: I want people to check out the Knock LA Voter Guide because we have an election coming up on June 7th.
John August: I had a hunch that you were going to talk politics. Tell us about this guide. Tell us what are some races that we really need to be keeping our eyes on.
Brittani: The races that I think people should really be paying attention to are the mayoral race. We have a billionaire who is running, Rick Caruso, not great. I don’t know if you’re a billionaire yourself.
John August: There are no billionaires on this Zoom.
Brittani: Then maybe that might be your guy. If you are not a billionaire, then I would caution against supporting his candidacy. The sheriff’s race, our sheriff currently, Alex Villanueva, is the laughingstock of the nation. Actually was just on John Oliver’s show. He has been putting out some really, I think, hilarious while also deeply disturbing ads, if you haven’t had a chance to check those out. They’re very cinematic. If you’re a filmmaker, they’re worth checking out. Paying attention to the sheriff’s race and seeing who else is out there that you might consider supporting, because those are the two really big ones. The Knock LA Voter Guide if you are progressive, which I think most people in LA consider themselves to be, even if that’s not necessarily the case. You should check it out.
John August: One thing I would stress is that this election could be a preliminary election. There could be runoffs for mayor and for sheriff, but not if either of these candidates get over 50%. You may have different opinions about who you want to be the mayor that’s not Rick Caruso, but if you really don’t want Rick Caruso to be the mayor, just don’t vote for Rick Caruso, but definitely vote, to keep him below that threshold, same for sheriff. We can have a whole other podcast about why we vote for sheriff, which just seems really crazy, something you’d want to appoint and then be able to fire when they are terrible. That’s a whole different podcast on law enforcement. John, do you have anything to share with us? Do you have a One Cool Thing?
John Hoffman: I love that we go political deep, because it’s all I can think about these days. I do think that we’re in a time, we’re heading to a time, it’s the most tumultuous time I’ve known in my life. I think any time you’re wondering what to do with yourself as a writer or a creator, if you’re not looking to tell the stories that are happening now in real ways, that I watch what’s happening in the Ukraine and recognizing that’s a camera sitting in someone’s house that’s changing the world right now. The personal stories are going to be the ones that make the most impact. To me, that’s everything right now is to look to ways to lean into making the world better. It’s our vote. It’s our activism for the things that matter most to us right now. Find the ones that feel straight to the heart for yourself, and don’t hesitate to get out.
John August: Sounds good. My One Cool Thing is an article by Ameena Walker, who’s writing for a newsletter called The Prepared, which is actually a really great newsletter you should also subscribe to. Basically, it talks through the logistics industry and how products go from place to place and how things get made. This article that she did was about… The headline is, “Each year, millions of barrels are shipped from New York City to the Caribbean. Here’s why, how, and the economics behind it.”
She’s talking about how people from the Caribbean Islands who live in New York City are always sending stuff back to home. They’re always sending stuff back to the islands. The way they do this is they buy these barrels that are about 40 bucks, and they pack it full of all the stuff that they can find to stick in there. It could be toasters. It could be rice. It could be whatever. They seal it up, and they take it to a specific delivery place that just ships stuff on boats to the Caribbean Islands. Then it carries from there to individual homes. It’s just such a specific thing that I’ve never seen before, because I always think about sending money home. I always think people who live here are sending money back to the countries they come from. In this case it literally is a barrel.
It just felt like such an amazing story opportunity for getting that barrel, what you’re putting in that barrel, that barrel gets lost. It just felt like a very cool story area that I’ve never seen before. It’s a good reminder to me about why it’s important to try to make sure we get writers on staffs who have a range of experiences, because I wouldn’t know this was a thing that existed. It just feels like such a great comedic or dramatic potential that I wouldn’t know about if I hadn’t found this article or if someone hadn’t pointed me to it. This is by Ameena Walker in The Prepared. We’ll have a link in the show notes to this.
That’s our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Daniel Mix. 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, Craig is @clmazin, I’m @johnaugust. Brittani, what are you on Twitter?
John August: It’s true, B is hilarious. John, are you on Twitter?
John Hoffman: I am, yes, @johnnyhoffman.
John August: Fantastic. We have T-shirts. They’re 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 the transcripts and sign up for our weeklyish 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 being queer in Hollywood and queer stuff, queer stuff in general. John, Brittani, an absolute pleasure having you on the podcast. Thank you so much for joining me.
John Hoffman: Thank you.
Brittani: Thank you so much for having me. Really would be wild to go back to 2010 me and say this is happening.
John August: Why so? You read my blog, didn’t you?
Brittani: I did, yes. I credit your blog for really teaching me a lot of the underpinnings of screenwriting.
John August: Fantastic. Makes me feel so happy and so old. [Bonus Segment]
John August: There are three queer writers on this Bonus Segment for the podcast. I guess I just want to start, I was out really from the very start of my career. Was that true for the two of you as well?
John Hoffman: Almost. I would say because I started as an actor, it was a tricky moment and a tricky time for me. I was very cautious about that, because clearly I’m leading man material. No. It was all that dance. It was just a different decade. I came out probably very shortly after I realized I don’t want to be an actor. I actually wondered if the last part I got on a television show is actually a replacement happening that never happened. It was a question as to whether I was going to get replaced, because I was supposed to be a character that was deeply invested in women. I don’t know that I was pulling it off as clearly as I could’ve been. That was a moment.
John August: You were Frasier Crane-ing it a bit there?
John Hoffman: Exactly.
John August: Or Niles maybe, a little too Niles?
John Hoffman: Yeah, a little bit of Niles. That was for a moment. Then it was just the greatest relief and creativity just opened me up completely to be able to just own everything and be honest about it.
John August: Brittani, how about you?
Brittani: Yes, my professional career, was out the whole time. I think when I first started writing plays in college, I was definitely still grappling with some things. I think the arts is how I figured some of that stuff out.
John August: John, I would say your show, there’s not a lot of directly queer content. I would say it has a queer sensibility. I’m not even sure why to say that. I guess there’s a New Yorker quality. The aesthetics of it feel kind of gay. To what degree do you think your show has queer elements to it?
John Hoffman: I hope it does. I think all the things you point out, like New York, the theatrical way we’re telling the stories.
John August: Splash the musical feels like a-
John Hoffman: Splash the musical.
John August: It’s a very queer idea.
John Hoffman: Not to mention the poster of the show I really want to see, which is in Marty’s, Oliver’s apartment, Newark, Newark. All of that sensibility, I can’t help it. It was crying out for everyone I knew in prewar apartment buildings in New York City when I was living there, when I was forming my creative identity there, all of the characters, all of the richness of New York. It’s representation within the fabric of the truth of New York. There are representations, Detective Williams, played by the amazing Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who narrates our Episode 6. She and her wife were struggling with naming their child.
John August: I forgot that, but yes, absolutely.
John Hoffman: That’s what I hope. It’s almost like you want to blend it all together as New York does. I think that’s part of it is the sensibility and the storytelling feels not afraid to be filled with pathos and filled with struggle and vulnerability and everything that makes people laugh in the deepest way in the queer community for me.
John August: Brittani, on the projects you’ve been working on, how often do you feel like you’re able to bring some aspect of queer culture into it, or to what degree do you feel like that’s helped you sell some jokes, make some things work? To what degree are you able to bring that into the room?
Brittani: The first couple of scripted series that I worked on both had queer main characters. With Black Lady Sketch Show, definitely was able to get some queer sketches in there. They’ve continued to do that even now that I’m gone, because there are plenty of queer women in that room. Then with Abbott, I think this is probably the first time where there hasn’t been a very obvious queer hook to the show, and so finding moments in Abbott I think has been interesting. I think the moments that we have found, people think they’re really fun. As we grow the world, I think we’ll be able to see more queer characters in ways that I would like to see them more, which is just existing and just living their lives and having normal jobs.
We did have a moment like that in the first season actually, where there’s a delivery woman who is just very clearly a stud lesbian, and it’s very quick, but so many people messaged me just being like, “That person was hot. Is there a way to bring them back? Also, it’s so fun that there’s just a queer person existing and there was no commentary on it.”
John August: A person existing on screen is such a signifier. I just remember growing up watching TV shows, and you just see like, oh, that’s an actual person who does that thing. I grew up with… We had Paul Lynde in the center square of Hollywood Squares, but we didn’t have a lot of actual… I think part of the reason why we love Bewitched so much is that, again, you have Paul Lynde, but you have that sense of it has a queer sensibility even if there are not openly queer characters. I feel like the one delivery person in that background shot isn’t a big thing and yet it is for that kid who’s watching that wants to say oh, I see myself in that character.
John Hoffman: In the storytelling, I feel that. That’s so right. I was recently talking to someone about What’s Up Doc and how that’s informed our show in a certain way. Again, not outwardly queer characters, but the sensibility in the storytelling, I remember that so clearly opening up my brain and like, why am I into this and why am I so deeply intrigued and all of that, poking around at that to give people the sense of possibility and wonder about a way to tell a story that’s a little bit heightened maybe and connective tissue to more characters than would typically be on your TV screens.
John August: One of the things I loved about Looking was that that show was full of gay men and other queer people who were not saints, and they were actually kind of obnoxious at times. They didn’t know what they wanted. There’s that thing, either the gay people have to be funny or they have to be heroic and saintly. In this case, they were neither. That was remarkable in its time.
John Hoffman: Not to mention Chris Perfetti from Abbott Elementary.
John August: Who is delightful. Let’s get back to Chris Perfetti because he’s great. He reads as gay to a gay person immediately, and yet the show holds off on the reveal until pretty late on that he has a boyfriend. Clearly, everyone else in the universe knows that he’s gay, even though it hasn’t been said. When his boyfriend is revealed, they first mention his boyfriend, that’s news to the characters in the show. Did you guys always know that the reveal was going to come about when it did?
Brittani: We did. We talked about it early on, because there are certain things that we as writers know about the characters that we’re just keeping close to our chest. I think for queer people, we definitely were like, oh, obviously this is family. Most of the world is not queer. People were genuinely surprised. We even tried to point to it a little earlier in the episode where he gets roasted. Someone calls him gay Pete Buttigieg, which he says is repetitive. A lot of people didn’t catch that. A few people on Twitter did. I think it’s looking back when you rewatch the season, a lot of people will be like, okay.
They were layering that in without explicitly saying it. We definitely didn’t want to make it a huge moment, because he’s existing in a world that knows that he’s gay and has accepted him. It’s more about what is it about his relationship that is revelatory to his relationship with Janine, rather than it just being a shock that he has a boyfriend, and then being sure to bring that boyfriend in later in the season and not just be something that we pay lip service to and then never really see that relationship.
John August: In some ways I think I blame Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory for people being confused about the Chris Perfetti character, because Sheldon Cooper, any queer person can see that’s a gay person, that’s a queer person, and yet the show makes them straight. It always feels off to me that it’s not acknowledging that this character is who we think he is.
John Hoffman: I agree.
John August: That’s my little rant about Big Bang Theory.
John Hoffman: I agree. I also just want to say what I love is the thing that we’re doing now. I don’t know, starting with Looking for me, just because that was something I worked on, but I loved that discussion. I loved so many of the discussions around the writers room on that show and how it always had to be about character. It wasn’t the fact that they were gay that you were talking about by the end of Looking. Maybe that was one of its problems with connecting to the gay community in some ways. I think it was about the character flaws and about other things. Of course they’re all in bed with each other. They’re all looking for people of the same sex and all that. It’s all there. It’s connecting through character and the moves of which, the way in which you approach love and romance and relationships and struggles with your own history that tie in, certainly, but make it more dimensional. That’s all I hope for, to continually make this all the more dimensional and just unafraid.
John August: I think what’s crucial about the Chris Perfetti character… I’m sorry, I’m forgetting the character’s name, so I’m just calling him Chris Perfetti.
John August: Jacob. What I love about Jacob is he’s sipping a character independent of his being gay. We can see all of the choices that he’s making and what he wants to do and how he keeps bringing up Africa. Those are all very specific things that have nothing to do with his sexuality, so that he doesn’t have to carry a lot of water for being gay. He doesn’t have to carry that into the storylines.
Brittani: Yet we really try to make him being queer inform that specificity. We talked so much about how does that white person become that sort of white person. We’ve talked really extensively about his upbringing and what it was like for him coming out and what are the situations that led to him being the way that he is. I think that it is deeply informed by the fact that he grew up a queer kid. Getting to explore that and finding ways to explore that as the show goes on is something I’m personally really excited about.
John August: Talk to us about those conversations. Are those being written down in some sort of bible form? They’re not canon yet, but they’re what you guys are thinking about for his history. You have some sense of who his parents are, what his family is, where he’s from, even though it’s not been established in the show yet?
Brittani: Yeah. We just have tons and tons of notes. What we’ll find I think a lot of the times right now in the second season is a lot of false starts where we think this is this story that’s going to bring this to the surface, and then we’ll get to writing it and we’ll go, “No, not yet.” It’s a little bit there, you’ll get a little bit here, but we’re not going full bore into that yet. It’s just I think a lot of excitement about really wanting to explore so much about so many of the characters, but still the confines of a half-hour sitcom. You really only have so much time. Wanting to give it the space that it needs to breathe and really hit I think is just something that we’re going to keep trying to do and keep finding exactly which stories are going to allow us to tell those stories the way that we want to. We’re just tracking all of it, talking about it all the time.
John August: Fantastic. John and Brittani, absolute wonderful time talking with you both about queer things. Congratulations to both of you on your second seasons. I cannot wait to see them.
John Hoffman: Thank you, John, so much. Great talking to you.
Brittani: Thank you.
John Hoffman: Great talking to you too, Brittani.
John August: Cool.
- Only Murders in the Building on Hulu
- Abbott Elementary on ABC/Hulu
- John Hoffman on Twitter
- Brittani Nichols on Twitter
- Remittance by the Barrel by Ameena Walker
- The Knock LA Voter Guide
- Get a Scriptnotes T-shirt!
- Gift a Scriptnotes Subscription or treat yourself to a premium subscription!
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Daniel Mintz (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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