What role does that play in your writing? You always hear about artists pushing back against taboos. Do your attitudes about the culture of taking offense shape the projects that you want to write?
Oh yeah, for me definitely. I always feel like the struggle with radio commentary is just being so truthful every week. Truthful enough that your audience says, 'Oh, I get it. That's exactly right.' You want them to say, 'Oh, that's exactly true. That happens all the time.' And reality isn't always politically correct.
I did a script last year which I really liked. It's all set in an office, where a bunch of people are getting laid off, some are getting promoted, and there's a scene where these two women who are vice presidents are having lunch. One of them is obsessing over the fact that another women who hates her - all the women in the office hate one another, but his one hates her especially - is her new boss. And so her job is over. She's going to be fired and she's upset by that because she loves her job. She loves her routine, she loves getting dressed in the morning, she loves her outfits, she loves her briefcase, she loves the laptop, she loves when they have conference calls, she loves going on business, she loves all the things, she just loves it.
But now that it might end? She admits she doesn't always know what's going on. She loves her job, but she has insecurities about it too.
So I turn this in, it goes to the studio, and I get this note back from a female vice president who said, 'I love it, especially when she says all women hate each other in the workplace, because they do.'
She said, 'Oh, I think that's going to be great. People love that because it's true. But what about the part where she says she's not good at her job?'
'I don't know, what do you mean?' I reply. 'She didn't say that.'
'She says that she doesn't always know what's going on.'
'Yeah, but isn't that true of everybody? Does everybody feel like they don't always know what's going on?' This female vice president in a big studio says to me, 'The character is a female vice president in a big company. I just think that if you're a vice president at a big company, you're obviously good at what you do. Is there some way we can make it clear to everyone in the audience that she's really good at her job?'
Luckily, this was on a big conference call. There was a pause. If we'd all been in one room, it would have been insane. Everybody would go like, 'Are you kidding me? How much could you project?' Luckily, we weren't looking at each other, so I said, 'We can take a look at that, absolutely.' Then of course, the minute the call was over we called each other and said, 'Can you believe that?'
If you just try to write what you think is true people don't always like that.
Is it fair to say that all good screenwriting rings true? I think about The Wire. I've never been to Baltimore, or spent time in a police department, or hung out with guys in a drug gang, but the scenes, the characters, the dialogue - it's evident that the writers know what the hell they're doing.
As you're working on a script, how do you know you have that verisimilitude?
I don't know. I was just helping out in a rewrite for a pilot. And it's a really standard, straight down the middle family comedy. The story revolves around a father and mother who are a little bit competitive about child-rearing. It revolves around the daughter leaving the house, and she texts her mom to say she's going to the library. But she doesn't say anything to her dad. And it just seemed like it lacked something in the ending. Well, one guy pitched a small bit of dialogue at the end. The father says to the daughter, "Hey, you leave the house, you've got to text both of us."
Small little thing. And it just sounded right to me.
I'm not married. I don't have kids. But it sounded like this very believable, legitimate demand, and it gets across that he felt left out, and what he wants to change. You have him say something really specific, because you can believe anything from a character if it's specific enough.
But how do you know that you've succeeded given that TV is a medium where the ultimate audience is watching at home?
For most of the kind of television comedy I write, I am with the audience. The audience is there during tapings. There are 300 of them. They've been corralled from malls and Universal Studios and all over town, they come in and they're usually hot and they've been staying out in the sun for a while and they come to this cold sound stage and they start grumbling really within 45 minutes.
Your goal is to make them laugh, not just once but several times at the same joke because you're going to shoot two or three takes. To me, the studio audience is really important. In sort of the same way that maybe a chef peeks into the dining room and watches as people sit there eating.
You went to cooking school, right?
Yes. I went in Paris and I went up in northern California.
Compare the creative process you use in cooking to what you do in your day job. Is it the same? Is it different?
It's not completely different - you're working on deadlines. You can cook a great dinner, but if it isn't done until the next day at 10AM it's not a great dinner. I work backwards too. For me, in a restaurant you just want the plate to look good. You want people to have a good looking plate of food, so you've got to move backwards from that vision, making sure that it's going to have all the colors that you want, something crunchy and something that's acidic and something that's fatty and all that stuff. So maybe in that sense it is the same. You're composing something backwards. You don't quite know what all those things are going to be. But you know you need the protein and you know you need the starch and you know you need some kind of green.
So you pull it all together.
It's my intention to conclude these interviews with hard won advice. What would your answer be if someone came to you and said, 'I'm a young aspiring screenwriter. What pitfalls are to be avoided? What should I do to succeed?'
First I'd say that the job of your boss or your colleagues is not to make you happy or to teach you anything. I think it takes young people a long time to realize that. They still see their career as a kind of long graduate course in life, which it isn't. I'd advice them to take risks too. A lot of times people are totally risk averse when they're young, which is bizarre. It used to be that you had to do 10 or 15 things, or one very big thing, before you'd get your own show. Now they'll give it to you, but they'll take it away from you. They'll do your pilot and then they'll fire you, which is unfair in many ways because running a TV show is really a hard thing. It's not intuitive, you have to learn it.
I'd also say that I never think about the commercial possibilities of a script before I write it. I'd rather write it and like it, and then figure out what happens later, because the thing is, there are two ways to sell something. One is to pitch it, and then they pay you to write it. And the other is to just write it and they pay you if they like it.
The latter is the spec version. Financially speaking, it is high risk. Maybe you spend a lot of time writing something that you can't sell. But if you write it well it has no real downside, because having a good piece of material out there with your name on it is a great thing. There are a lot of people who would read the script and say, "We'll never make this, but I want to meet you." And that often means they want something else from you later, or maybe they want to meet you and say, 'Is there any way you could do this, but not have the old man who runs the barbecue place be a racist?'
And you can tell them, 'No, obviously that's the whole story,' but it starts things going. Kicks off a working relationship. And it saves you from having to say in the middle of the writing process, "I will execute this in a way that won't make people crazy." You've done it, that's how you're executing it. So, I would say, I would never think a lot about commercial viability. Obviously, it has to be television show or a film so certain things are just naturally ingrained in the medium, but don't obsess about it.
Just produce good work.