Last week I went to the Sublime Primetime TV writers talk at the Writer’s Guild Foundation.
Attendees included Alec Berg (Silicon Valley), Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge – won an Emmy today!), Joshua Brand (The Americans), Christine Nangle (Inside Amy Schumer), Semi Chellas (Mad Men), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Stephanie Gillis (The Simpsons) and Elliott Kalan (Head writer, The Daily Show with John Stewart).
They all left a lot of room for improvisation, and improving the writing during filming. But when you try to improve a B- gag, you can end up with 12 B- jokes instead of one. But what’s the point when you can only have one? Weiner got his start doing this for sitcoms.
Jane Anderson writes on her own. This apparently has made her skin rather thin as she has not been inured by the merciless bantz of writers rooms.When asked if she considered anyone while writing she said she really gives a shit about what the New York Times TV reviewer might think. Matthew Weiner said he didn’t care about that reviewer because his writing was such a mess that he could never tell if the review was good or bad – it seemed like six different reviewers’ paragraphs sewn together. He went on to say that the Mad Men writers only ever tried to impress the actors, because that’s where they’d get the first external feedback.
Jane Anderson said that it was great working with Frances McDormand because she bought the rights to the book long before it became famous, then they developed the script together. It meant she had two important things: free rein and confidence. They all talked about how great those two things were.
Matthew Weiner said they wrote everything they thought up for Mad Men. It all went up on the screen and there were no no other plots. He also mentioned that the writers wrote the end of Season Five into a corner by having Don Draper fired from his own agency. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but he had no idea how they were going to clear up that plot line. Then those writers left and Matthew had to do it all on his own.
Elliot Kalan said he loved it when big things happened when The Daily Show was on hiatus. “His attitude was ‘Ha ha! Fuck you, we don’t have to cover this’. This helped him to enjoy disasters.
Christine Nangle said she often wrote things that she thought were funny then, weirdly, newspapers started reading way more depth into her sketches than she had intended. For example, the following was called ‘The most cogent expression of how man never listen to women’:
So there became an odd expectation that they should catch the zeitgeist, but Amy said they should just continue writing whatever the fuck they wanted.
Matthew Weiner took seven years to sell Mad Men. He said this proves he has no instinct for what people will like. Then again, he had the luxury of knowing that everything they wrote would get filmed. He thought this was a rare and wonderful position to be in. Elliot Kalan agreed, mentioning a time when he came up with an idea that involved having Neil DeGrasse Tyson talking about the moon. Later that day Neil was in the studio, filming the gag for the evening’s show.
The last and most significant word goes to Matthew Weiner, when discussing negotiations: “You cannot let them use the love of your work against you, because all of us would do it for free.”
Amen to that.
More on the evening here.