The title, Workaholics, is meant to be ironic. The three leads on the Comedy Central series are only occasionally shown doing their dreaded jobs–and are always terrible at them. One of the show’s stars, however, has been so busy lately, both in front of the camera and behind it, that it’s hard to imagine him spending any time not busting his ass.
When Anders Holm clocks into the fifth season of Workaholics, which premieres tonight, it will be fresh off of appearances in three of last December’s most talked-about movies. Although his part in Inherent Vice is small, Holm plays a foil to Seth Rogen in The Interview and Chris Rock in Top Five. (He also has a role in Nancy Meyer’s latest, due later this year). Aside from acting, he’s also logged a lot of time this past year writing the first movie for the Workaholics crew–with Rogen co-producing–and developing his own TV series, currently being shopped around networks. Not bad for a guy who’s most known for playing a chronic underachiever.
All three of the show’s leads may take turns writing episodes, and co-star Adam Devine may have broken out in feature films first, but Holm is quickly emerging as someone whose creative abilities are matched by his ambition. As his current show begins its latest season, and the fate of his next show is being determined, Holm talked with Co.Create about what he learned from being a writer’s assistant, how he promoted himself from sketches to screenplays, and why having more options is worth working overtime.
When he was a college student, Holm wrote screenplays, hoping one of them would be the next Rushmore. After moving to L.A. to pursue a writing career, though, these scripts were met with the stony silence of Mount Rushmore itself. So Holm instead secured an internship at the production company that was then launching the TV series Bones, and ended up as a writer’s assistant–learning some important lessons in the process.
“I realized that TV was more of the writers’ world than movies,” Holm says. “So I started writing TV specs, which is a lot easier because it’s only twenty-five, thirty pages per script. As an assistant, you just sit in a room, you don’t talk, and you type down everything that everybody says. Then you organize all that at the end of the day and you email it out. You take mental note of a couple things too. That was where I learned how to break a story, but also just how to behave as a writer that works in television. It’s way less formal, at least at Bones, than I’d assumed. Being in the room just kind of felt like meeting the Wizard of Oz. You get to see behind the curtain and you realize, like, ‘Oh it’s just some guys making television, it’s not gods.'”
A couple years later, Holm got an assistant job at HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, which was a little more in line with the comedy he hoped to pursue than the forensic procedural Bones. However, the tone of humor at Real Time was different enough that Holm could devote his free time to what became Mail Order Comedy–the sketch video collective Workaholics sprung out of.
“There was a very cool open door policy from the head writer,” he says. “It was kind of a test because a lot of writers would get frustrated from rejection and give up, but I just I kept writing and kept writing and eventually got a couple jokes on the air, which only fanned the flames. And all that time I was in a sketch group with Adam [Devine] and Blake [Anderson] and Kyle [Newacheck] from Workaholics and that was what we would do at night and during the day I’d be trying to write political jokes. I think going back and forth between the two helped me get better at both.”
After some Mail Order Comedy videos caught the attention of a Comedy Central executive, the group was asked to make a pilot. 53 episodes of Workaholics later, Holm now knows his way around writing for the show–and internalizing the process was simpler than he once thought it might be.
“A TV show or movie is kind of a series of sketches,” Holm says. “Each scene should have a point or a game to it that carries you through if you do it well. So if you can come up with nine good sketches in a row, all of a sudden you’ve got an episode of television and you just need to find, like, a throughline for these sketches. After that, you just lean on your characters and think, ‘Okay, so since this guy is this person, he’s definitely gonna act this way in this situation, which will cause that to happen. And since he’s that guy, he’ll now do this in that new situation, and then… whatever the ending is.’ Writing a movie is the same sort of process, but on a larger scale.”
Although the forthcoming movie the Workaholics gang is developing–with Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Scott Rudin producing–is a group effort, Holm will be credited as sole screenwriter. Over the years, he has learned how collaborative it can be to write for a group.
“You’re dealing with a group, and you’re also dealing with creative people who want to give input on these characters, so you have to be very considerate and open minded,” Holm says. “You try and basically shake out all these ingredients and ask, ‘Does the first act make everybody happy on all the levels they want to be on? And if you get all those boxes checked off, you kinda move on and you go, ‘Okay, I think this could be funny as we go into the second act and do you guys agree? Do you have any ideas? Okay, I’ll try and implement those or those won’t work because we’re trying to do this, or I never thought of that, thank you, I’ll throw that in there.'”
He adds, “When there are so many funny people involved, you want options. I will write the funniest script I can and then on the day I’m sure I’ll think of like five alternate lines for whatever character, and I’m sure that actor has some too, and then you kinda just wanna say yes to everything. Then when you get into the editing bay, you’ll have options and you’ll thank god this person said that on the day because that’s so much funnier than what you had. Maybe you’ll find a prop on set or you’ll realize something about somebody’s costume or whatever. The guest actor could look a certain way and you’re like, ‘We have to play on that,’ which you couldn’t have really known back when you were just sitting in your office typing on a laptop.”
As the show has become a cultural institution, Holm has had almost as many opportunities to be in front of a camera as he has behind the scenes. He’s also found reason to embrace and fear the twin career paths while juggling both.
“Although the odds are you’re not gonna get the acting job you go out for, it’s easier to successfully audition than it is to sit down for a few months and write a movie that’s going to actually sell,” Holm says. “When you just sit in a dark corner typing away, talking out loud, being a weirdo, standing up on a white board, outlining, doing all that stuff, acting seems way more attractive. But I do love the process of creating stories and characters and scenes and I don’t love watching myself act. I’m way more in my head acting than I am when I’m writing. So there’s a weird love/hate on both ends. But writing, as tough as it is, I get so much more out of it. It’s like climbing Mt. Everest. When you’re finished you can look back and go, ‘Holy shit, that was crazy.'”
Recently, Holm decided to take a look at the movie scripts he wrote as a college student, before years of formal practice lead to high-level deals. Of all the differences between his writing then and now, one stood out the most.
“I’ve learned to write with a lot more brevity than 20-year-old me did,” he says. “Like, the action I would write back then would just go on and on and on in the details, which I see now as unnecessary. Now I try and be as quick and to the point as possible. I only include the details that are the most necessary and most funny and just kind of trim the fat. And then there was also some bad dialogue back then, but that’s still par for the course. It’s still bad here and there now. But less so!”