Showrunners form 'Veep,' 'Saul' and other series give the inside scoop
They’ve given us a female president, shown us the ramifications of a brutal theocracy, let us tag along as a good guy turns into a bent lawyer, laid out the travails of dating in the 21st century and demonstrated that a classic ‘70s sitcom could find new life.
The Los Angeles Times gathered some of the most distinctive and fresh voices in television — David Mandel (“Veep”), Bruce Miller (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), Peter Gould (“Better Call Saul”), Aziz Ansari (“Master of None”) and Gloria Calderon Kellett (“One Day at a Time”) — to talk about their craft. The conversation touched on their writing processes, the way storytelling has evolved in a streaming world and feeling like an outsider.
Q: What do you remember about your first time being in a writers room?
Gloria Calderon Kellett: I was terrified.
Bruce Miller: Yeah, I was terrified. I talked way too much.
Aziz Ansari: What was the favorite writers room you were in?
Miller: The ones I’ve run.
Ansari: What did you change that —
Miller: Couches, not tables.
Ansari: Couches, not tables?
Miller: Yeah, a table kills you. Once you go couches, you can never go back.
Ansari: We just kind of rent a house or something, so it feels, like, a little more homey.
The second season we wrote in New York and we would often, like, just go on walks and stuff, and people would go get ice cream and come back with a scene. My brother came back once and he had all this ice cream on his face. I was like, “You guys didn’t go on a walk. You went and got ice cream.” He was like, “Well, we wrote the scene. It’s funny.”
Q: Gloria, what were you saying about being terrified?
Calderon Kellett: Oh, well, it’s just, you know, the only woman and a bunch of very smart Harvard guys — because they’ll tell you.
Miller: Which room is that?
Calderon Kellett: “Quintuplets,” which actually did end up having another woman come aboard, but we weren’t allowed to sit together. We were told we weren’t allowed to sit together.
Ansari: Wait, what?
Gould: What? What?
Miller: Who told you that?
Calderon Kellett: The showrunner.
Calderon Kellett: Yes, and it happens — you know, listen, it happens that the women tend to sit next to each — so we would just text each other all the time.
Q: What surprised you about being the boss and the types of tasks that are now your responsibility as a showrunner?
Calderon Kellett: This is my first time running a show and I’m co-running it with Mike Royce, who is wonderful and listed in “Everybody Loves Raymond.” And so he’s been a real guide to me, and Norman Lear, obviously — (they) have been real guides to me in showing me the ropes. And our room is half Latino, which is also like, “What? How are we here?” It just blows our minds, because there’s such a Latin component to the show, and I didn’t want to be the only one in the room for this specific one.
So, just getting to make those sorts of hiring decisions and what things look like on our sets — it’s everything.
Miller: It’s interesting … you’re a writer, you’re a writer, you’re a writer, you’re a writer, and the skills that you need to be a showrunner aren’t at all the skills that you need to become a showrunner. So it’s like when you’re a computer programmer, and you’re a computer programmer, and then they say, “OK, now you’re managing a bunch of computer programmers.”
Mandel: That’s very L.A.-based, though. My real first full-time job was “Saturday Night Live,” and the one advantage of “Saturday Night Live” that I look back on — you’re kind of very much, from Day 1, you are the mini-producer and almost director of your sketches.
I did three years of, like, Friday night, 4 a.m. — when they were still doing tape-to-tape editing — calling edits and learning how to edit. And (if) your sketch was picked, your first job was to go talk to the set decorators, and the second job was go talk to costume, and then go talk to music, and all these things where you didn’t necessarily think you were — I wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m learning to be a showrunner,” per se.
Ansari: I want to know: What have you done that you found to be effective? For example, in the “Master of None” room, I try to ban people using phones … We try to take walks and keep everybody’s energy up. (Are) there things you do to kind of foster a better writers room?
Mandel: I love punching up in a room, obviously. But I despise and refuse to write scenes in a room. There is no writing of scenes in my rooms. We do not group write. We do not — and this is stuff that I guess was sort of imparted on me by Larry David — that’s where I basically learned to write sitcoms, both in terms of the importance of the outline and structure and what you’re trying to do, but more important than that, that the writer pitches the stories for his episode and then goes off and writes his episode.
A lot of comedy shows — and this is what I have my issue with — we’re all sitting in the room and you pitch out all these wonderful stories, but it’s your turn to write the episode. So the writers assistant sort of types all this stuff up and you go off and don’t really have any responsibility — ethically or even just comedy-wise responsibility, but it’s your turn to write it up and now you’re writing it up.
Ansari: I’m like, “We go get ice cream.” (laughter)
Miller: I do think it’s a real cultural difference between comedy and drama… In our room, we never write in our room, we don’t punch up in our room, we don’t touch stuff in our room.
Ansari: What do you guys do in the room then? (laughter)
Mandel: Do you have ice cream? Is there ice cream at least in the room?
Gould: You know, in our case, the way (Vince Gilligan) ran “Breaking Bad” is very much the way we run “Better Call Saul,” and it’s the individual, it’s a little like “SNL.” Once we talk through the story — that’s what we do in the writers room, we talk through the story in as much detail as we possibly can. Because the idea is that everyone in the room participates in the breaking of each episode. But then the individual writer goes off and writes it.
Miller: That’s exactly what we do.
Gould: And we don’t punch up. It’s I or Vince or a couple of people will work on the script individually with the writer, but it is that writer’s episode.
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