Learning to share your vision with a team is only slightly harder than trying to do something original with a romantic sitcom on network TV. Both involve a lot of fear, trust, and, in this case, Elvis. Ben Blacker, No. 83 on our Most Creative People 2013 list and host of the Nerdist Writers Panel (and cocreator of The Thrilling Adventure Hour) sat down with New Girl creator Brett Baer and Executive Producers Liz Meriwether and Dave Finkel to talk not only about how they learned to work together and play off of each others' strengths but how to simultaneously make sure their show had a heart. The full interview comes out today. Download it for free here.
Ben Blacker: Tell me how the past year and a half has been. What have you learned?
Liz Meriwether: This job is really humbling. It's great, it's a great job but it definitely challenges you in a new way every day with things you didn't ever think you would have to be dealing with—like badger problems. Like, we have a badger in the finale and it's just like ... Why am I in this situation?
It's so many episodes, it's so much time and so much work, it really pushes you to the brink of what you can do. And it's good because you're forced to get better, you're forced to be a better person and be a better leader and be a better writer, but that's not easy.
Of course. Let's talk about that leadership for a second. What's the dynamic? Whose voices are heard, how are they heard? Just walk me through a typical season.
Dave Finkel: It's a shifting thing but I think what we've found that works in this last sort of, I don't know, four months, three months, is a very typical sitcom thing. We break a story with the room, we split into two rooms, and we break an outline.
There's usually some sort of a hook of an idea that we all sort of just start circling. And then we start talking around the room and extrapolating to the point where it feels like there's a kernel of an idea there, and we start breaking the story down.
Once we send the writer out—and I'm fast-forwarding—we send the writer out and almost immediately once the writer comes back with a script we put it on the screen in a very small room and start just going line by line and figuring out what's missing, what can we do to shore it up.
The story works best when there's like a really high comedy concept coupled with a really high emotional concept that feels like the marriage of those two things when they are crystal clear.
LM: Our show sort of doesn't work—our stories never work—unless there's something emotionally going on underneath the comedy.
BRETT BAER: But the thing we've found I think recently we've been talking about is that the scripts work best and the show works best when it's the cumulative input of a lot of different voices.
Sometimes the drafts feel like they're missing something and we realize, oh it's missing a little bit of this writer or that writer or a little bit of what Liz does or what Dave and I do.
What are those things? Can you get specific on that?
BB: Yeah. I mean we have writers who have a specific bent. We have one writer who clearly has Schmidt's voice better than anybody and we rely on him to be the arbiter of what might come out of his giant head.
I think that Liz has an incredible ability to blend really big, high comedy and broad comedy with real emotional stuff, I think. So I think when Liz reads a script and what she's weighing in on usually is saying this needs to be funnier, we need to find more of a game in this scene, which I think is something we talk about a lot—if a scene feels flat or straight, it's like what's the game of this scene?
How do we turn this into something that's special and unique unto itself? What is the unique thing in this version of this scene that we haven't seen yet and then also this sort of real truth and emotional truth?
And I think that our goal is to try and connect with the characters on a level that is more organic and real than you might see on our typical sitcom. That's what we try to do anyway.
We’ll try to dig a little deeper into the emotional core of stuff than the writer maybe went in the first draft.
LM: They have an amazing kind of ability to structure a script, clean it up and also they have this amazing comedic voice with a lot of this. They're adding a lot of physicality to the scenes that's so funny that I think just is so crucial for the show and for TV in general—giving the actors physical comedy to do and big, funny, visual jokes.
I'll read a script and I'll be like, "This is the outline," and then Bret and Dave really bring it alive.
We have found recently, though, this kind of a great thing. Cause I didn't trust it at first, coming from theater and writing a movie—this group writing. I was very afraid of it for most of the first season and then half of this year.
I did want to talk about that because you talked about sitting in a room alone and making this thing.
LM: And this year we would get the draft in and then we used to sort of sit on the draft for a long time because we just were so behind and then tried to catch up and do our passes on it. And now we're kind of doing group rewrites that feel really good.
DF: They're really good.
BB: They've been very successful, yeah.
LM: If it's not the whole room, if it’s a small group of writers. I think we can really get into a groove and get more things done and have it be funnier right off the bat, which has been really good.
BB: It makes some sense that it might have taken us a season and a half to get to that point because I think in a weird way we were indoctrinating everybody to the voice of the show or to Liz's voice.
I think one of the nice things about working on a show like this is when the creator's voice is so strong that everybody knows what is and what isn't and that's how you hopefully avoid that sort of middle, washed-out area that sitcoms tend to fall into.
I mean I think when we miss on this show at least we're swinging big. I think we know that we've taken a shot and taken a chance and sometimes we hit and sometimes we kinda feel like, oh, we could've done that differently or better, but at least we're not boring you, we're not flattening out in the middle.
And when you work on a lot of sitcoms, like Dave and I have done, if the creator's voice isn't strong and you get that groupthink going, then you end up with banal, middle of the road garbage. And it took us some time, I think, to go this is the show, not this, this is what we want to do, these are the rules of our show and how we're gonna try and go about being bold and brave and taking some risks.
And we've gotten to the point now where we can start to, like, group write together and it's not flattening out because we're challenging ourselves.
DF: We're still calibrating in a big way. I think we are always trying to push our own limitations. Okay, we've done this big of an episode emotionally or physically or comedically, what's the next iteration? How can we find a new wrinkle in this?
Because a standard sitcom … is a very standard idea, like these people falling in love and living with each other and all these people living with each other. It's like okay, we hooked them up in episode 15, how do we bust that, how do we find a new kernel in it? It's a really tough challenge because it's all been done so really trying to find what's the new nuance here. Okay, so we found this emotional kernel here, how do we push the boundaries of that? It's not a conscious thing. I think we're all perfectionists and are failing at our own perfection. So just constantly trying to … one-up ourselves, let's try. Let's throw shit against the wall.
LM: I think that idea of the creator's voice, like holding onto that really tightly can be really debilitating for the show.
When you feel like more people are kind of involved in the creation of the episodes, the writing of the episodes, I think it actually gets really exciting. And there's something about protecting your voice or whatever that can get really… It's anti-creative.
It would be fine for a play or a movie but it just doesn't work for TV. And I think that was a really exciting moment for me when I think we had our episode, "Parking Spot"—that was the first episode the group wrote, and I didn't have that much to do with it.
And I still think it's our funniest episode this year and it was, instead of me feeling like, "Oh, I wish I had had more of my hands on that," it was actually this amazing victory of I didn't have to really do anything with it. And it was a really great episode that was really funny.
DF: I think we all had the moment at that table read because Liz hadn't been there and had been busy with other stuff, at the table read going, like, is this going to work? I don't know if this is going to work. Cause we hadn't done a ton of room writing and it was an odd experiment.
BB: It's good for a show as it gets into the middle 50 episodes and then I can only assume, not having gone to 100 episodes of a show although I've worked on shows that have done 100 episodes, and you do get to those moments where it's like, where else do we go?
And the truth is you have 20 other voices working on the show or we have maybe 13 other writers and then you have the actors. Like, really investing in their voices and what they bring to the table can really open up. And I think that's what we had our first experience with on that episode.
Tell me about mining those other voices. What kind of stuff, when you're looking for either these big funny moments or these big emotional moments, is it people mining their lives?
DF: Yeah, a lot of that.
LM: Our writers are sort of like Virginia mountains that you blow the top off of. And then when we're done with them at the end of the season they're just like … what are those pools of muck?
BB: We abandon them.
LM: They're like guck pools with ... sludge pools and they don't have wildlife growing on them anymore. Yeah, we do put a lot of emphasis on real life stories, almost to a fault. We'll just fall in love with a real story and then try to make it work so hard cause we love it so much.
Give me an example.
LM: Uhh.. (Laughter)
DF: There's a bunch of 'em, let me just say that.
BB: Well, the episode that aired last night actually came from a real story.
LM: Yeah, the funeral episode.
BB: One of our writers ... his wife now. She was just a girlfriend then, and they had just been dating for a month and he ended up going to Florida and having to facilitate this entire funeral when he didn't know the family and they hated him and et cetera.
LM: And it was an Elvis funeral and he had to like defend against the family trying to steal the chain off the body. It was just this great stuff.
We definitely asked the writers to talk about their real lives because that’s an important part of our show, just feeling like the reality of it, I think. I think that we can, we then sometimes go to crazier places with stuff but I think the best episodes that we make are sort of like real stories, sample stories told in a true way.
And our writers are all kind of amazingly good at both comedy and emotion. I mean some of them very begrudgingly, but there is like a sense in the room that like we're not, we don't just do a joke for the joke's sake or we don't just do a joke story. There has to be some arc there that makes sense for the characters.
BB: Emotional underpinnings.
DF: The writerly jokes don't feel real.
LM: Yeah, and we love them. You always, like you're in the writer's room and you fall in love with that written joke that's perfect and then you take it to the stage and it just dies in your mouth, telling the actor to say it. So that's always a struggle is what's actually funny on stage versus crafting the perfect joke.
DF: There is this weird hand-off, this symbiotic ownership between the writer's room and the actors too. This show is never done being written all the way through the post experience. I think we constantly struggle to try and find truth and reality all the way through the post process, literally to the last seconds of post.
LM: And we have actors who, for better or worse, have really high bullshit detectors. And it's not that they're like saying that, it's just that they actually can't make the thing work unless it feels true to them.
BB: It has to be honest.
What I do notice is that a really highly crafted verbal joke that isn't gonna work for an actor, if we bring it to Jake Johnson and say, "Do you wanna try this line?" He'll look at it and go, "It's a lot of words," and then he'll say, "What if I just go, 'come on'?" He'll take the idea of the joke and be able to act it with one blurt of emotion that gets all the same comedy value out of the idea of what that joke was getting at, and he didn't have to do a …
LM: A Cornell West reference.
BB: Yeah, exactly, which we are wont to do.
DF: Or Bel Biv Devoe, depending.
To hear the rest of the conversation and more from Ben Blacker, listen at Nerdist Writers Panel or download the latest podcast for free here. Read a conversation between these three and a host of other popular showrunners from our Most Creative People 2013 issue here.