Anything can happen during an improv show. Anything at all. The comedians onstage construct tiny worlds out of thin air, populate them with nuanced characters, and thrust these folks into bizarre scenarios. Conjuring up a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland is pretty much par for the course.
Until recently, Curtis Gwinn was one of the premier imaginary-world architects in New York City. As a founding member of the now-franchised improv group, Death By Roo Roo, he performed for sold-out crowds at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater every week–when he wasn’t carving out a name for himself with solo shows. After a writing stint on Paul Scheer’s cop show spoof NTSF:SD: SUV, Gwinn made a career pivot in 2013 when he came aboard AMC’s The Walking Dead as supervising producer and writer. Although performing long-form improv and creating hour-length zombie drama seem like polar opposites, apparently they two are within severed arm’s length from each other.
“There’s a schizophrenia you have to have as an improv comedian,” Gwinn says. “You not only have to understand your own character but how it relates to other people’s characters. Being so immersed in a comedy community and a comedy style like that got me to appreciate how to voice all kinds of people, and come up with dialogue on the spot, spontaneously, without thinking too hard about it. That ability definitely serves me in the writers room now.”
During the 13 years he was steadily performing comedy, Gwinn remained an avid consumer of TV dramas. As the great wave of morally ambiguous shows like The Sopranos, Deadwood, and Breaking Bad began rolling out during that time, he became more and more convinced that he could write for these kinds of shows, and that one day he would. Actually getting there turned out to be a challenge, but it was Gwinn’s status in the improv community that ultimately helped make it happen.
The comic had long been a fan of The Walking Dead graphic novels, and when he heard that Frank Darabont was adapting them into a show, his mouth began to water like a zombie sensing nearby brains. He had no experience with hour-long dramas, though, and no scripts to pass along, so his agent advised him to write an original drama spec to help get his foot in the door. Gwinn went off and wrote “The Last Stall,” a parole board show set in the gritty world of convicts and correctional facilities in New York State. If an opportunity ever arose, he would now have a calling card.
Gwinn’s eventual hiring came about through the convergence of two comedy-based acquaintances. First, there was an executive at AMC named Brian Bockrath, who was a fan of Gwinn’s work with the UCB Theatre in L.A., where he’d relocated by then. The two had been in talks about a potential comedy for AMC when they began discussing their mutual enthusiasm for The Walking Dead. Bockrath urged Gwinn to send over a script if he ever wrote one, not knowing he already had “The Last Stall” under his belt. Bockrath was impressed.
The second connection came in the form of Walking Dead third season showrunner Scott Gimple, who had come from a comedy background, and who was aware of Gwinn’s work through that community. When Bockrath suggested Gimple read the spec script from this newcomer to drama, he was up for it. The next thing Gwinn knew, he was meeting with executive producers whose names he’d memorized from seeing The Walking Dead’s opening credits so many times.
“Death By Roo Roo was definitely the impetus for my relationship with Bockrath and for Scott Gimple knowing who I was,” he says. “It was the springboard into this job that I’ve always wanted to have.”
Once he was hired, Gwinn threw himself into the task of preparing for his job. He attacked zombie movies and novels like an undead Rhodes scholar. He rewatched the whole series to reorient himself toward working on the show. Scott Gimple screened for him and the other writers a documentary about apocalyptic scenarios and what the world would be like if there were no people. He’d been more or less training for the job since he was 10 years old and watched anything he could find where maniacs tried to attack someone in a field.
He’d also been training himself by performing improv, though, where comedians are taught in every outing to find the game of the scene.
“All the writers do it whether they call it ‘game’ or not,” Gwinn says. “On a show like Walking Dead, all the characters’ idiosyncrasies are games. Whatever situation they’re in, if they’re going to be authentic, they’re going to have to play this game. No matter what situation they’re confronted with, they have to exude this character. I have to keep asking myself, “Is this true about Daryl?’ And if it is, I have to figure out what else is true. That’s how writing drama works.”
It also helps that Gwinn isn’t just writing any random hour-long drama, but one firmly entrenched in the horror milieu. Comedy and horror are distant cousins with a lot in common. They both thrive on tension and release. Both are predicated on the necessity for surprise. And when done well, both produce visceral reactions, like laughs and gasps. Long before this comedian eventually found his home in horror and drama, horror and drama had been making appearances in his comedy.
“I used to do a show called Vincent Smirnoff at UCB where you’d get suggestions from the audience and you’d have to make a movie. So you’d have to do genre and character beats,” Gwinn says. “One week you might do a Woody Allen movie, one week you might do vampires. But in doing that, you had to be steeped in genre and know what all the tropes and clichés were. That’s also true with Walking Dead. We’re playing with tropes and trying to make them new again and fresh again.”
Just like corpses reanimating.