TelevisionWhat it's like to write for Girls, Hannibal and Bob's Burgers
We talked to several staff writers on some of TV's most popular shows to find out what goes on inside the writers' rooms, from brainstorming to the aired final product.
It’s fall, which means your favorite network television shows are back, new shows will premiere and swiftly be canceled, and as the weather gets colder, you have an excuse to stay inside and binge on all the stuff Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu have to offer.
Television is a writer’s medium that gets conceived in the writers’ room. But what is it really like to be a staff writer on a show that millions watch? Is it a job with endless perks and snacks? Or one with endless pressure and sleepless 14-hour days?
We talked to several staff writers on some of TV's most popular shows to find out how a writers’ room works, from brainstorming to the aired final product.
The animated show
Steven Davis, Holly Schlesinger, and Kelvin Yu have all been writers on Bob’s Burgers since the first season. When I ask them what the first day of the latest season was like, they can’t remember. It all blurs together because they have been working non-stop since they started writing for the series in February 2010.
“It’s kind of like a running lazy river here. We don’t have a first day of school and last day of school,” says Yu.
Since Bob’s Burgers is an animated show, each episode spends a longer time in production, meaning that unlike most live-action shows, they have never had a hiatus. Work from one season to the next blends into each other. The upside to this schedule is that most nights the writers can be home by 7 or 8 pm. Writers on a live-action network show with an order of around 24 episodes a season (such as Modern Family or New Girl) can expect to be ordering late night dinners at the office almost every night. The trade-off is they have 25 or 26 intense weeks of that schedule and then they’re done, with a couple months of a hiatus before things start up again.
The Belcher family’s adventures are self-contained to a single episode and don’t have over-arching season storylines, so the staff does not need to outline an entire season in advance. They’re more likely to have story days (“Mostly an excuse to get breakfast delivered,” Davis jokes), where each writer comes in with ten ideas and a bunch of one-liners. Even outside of story days, the work is idea-driven before anything ever gets written. Schlesinger runs me through her process.
“I usually bounce my ideas off of other writers first, to see what they think. It’s basically been the same staff since the beginning with very little change, so we all know the show pretty well. I’ll say ‘I’m thinking of doing an episode about __. If people don’t react to the idea very well, you know it’s not a good one. But if people spark to it then you can think, okay, maybe I’ve got something here. Somebody might help you brainstorm your idea more, so that when you go to present it to Loren [Bouchard, Bob’s Burgers’ creator and executive producer] and Jim [Dauterive, Bob’s Burgers’ executive producer], it’s formed enough so that they can see where it’s going to go, that it has some legs.”
Schlesinger says that usually the entire writing team does not outline each episode together. They break into smaller groups of three or four writers to figure out the beats of the story. When the writer feels confident she has the beats of her story, she goes off to write the outline on her own. The outline will then be presented to Bouchard, Dauterive, and maybe a few other writers who will weigh in and make sure the outline is super solid before the writer goes off to write the script.
The writer takes about a week to write the first draft of the script and then it goes through the process of having the entire writing staff read it to make it stronger, both story-wise and joke-wise. The writer then has at least a week to re-write the script before a table read happens with the cast and the network.
“The night before the table read, we call it the close out. Everybody on staff gets together in the writers’ room, and we go as late as we need to make the script great. Usually, the episode’s writer is the person who is typing on a laptop and the script is projected on a wall so everyone can see. We go from the very first line all the way to the end to make sure it’s reading okay and it’s as funny as it can be,” says Schlesinger.
After the close out, there’s a table read in front of the network, then the episode is recorded with the actors. The writer is there for that along with Bouchard, helping to pick the best takes. Then the takes go into the various stages of production and animation. Throughout any part of this process, lines of dialogue can be subject to re-writes.
“Yesterday we had a thematic screening, which is the roughest initial animation,” says Davis. “It’s a lot of circles with crosses on their faces. One of the writers went and screened that with a director and our showrunner. Just based on that, we needed to punch some areas. The story was working, but some of the stuff wasn’t that funny and so we came up with ten areas that need to be punched. You get five writers pulled into the writers’ room and you pitch jokes. And you give alts. The funniest will get selected by Loren.”
It’s much easier to have H. Jon Benjamin or Kristen Schaal re-record a line at their convenience than to reshoot an entire live-action scene, which means that the writers at Bob’s Burgers get more involved in the entire production process. They are involved in composing and performing the music, as well as the editing to see if certain jokes work better with a longer hold or pause.
“With animation you have a piece of dough that you can futz with for a year,” explains Yu. “From conception to the airing of the episode, you have 14 to 17 months. So the day-to-day is figuring out where your resources are best used.”
The live-action cable show
Cable can operate on an entirely different schedule. Sarah Heyward, a co-producer on Girls, who has been writing for the show since the first season, explains that they start meeting in January or February in Los Angeles.
“HBO will leave us alone in the best, most respectful way,” says Heyward. “They let Lena [Dunham, Girls’ creator, and executive producer] and Jenni [Konner, Girls’ executive producer] run the room however they want. We do what works for us. As long as we’re producing good work, no one cares if we’re there 12 hours a day, or if one day we don’t meet cause we’re all off writing.”
Before the writing staff even meets up, Heyward says that Dunham and Konner will usually send a document of ideas they’ve had over the hiatus. Whether it’s the first draft of an episode or just broad strokes, there’s usually something to read before they’re all in the physical writers’ room.
Once they’re together, the group first talks in very broad strokes about the season. These ideas tend to be driven by character, such as where they see Hannah Horvath and her friends starting and ending, or any surprise relationships they’re interested in exploring that season. Once they have those ideas down on a white board, or even just rolling around in their heads, the writers start shaping the season.
As an example, Heyward cites Marnie getting engaged at the end of season four. Once the room has made that decision for a character, they work to figure out how to get there. What are the steps for Marnie along the way? While they work on those season-long arcs, little mini-arcs also get developed, and the season starts to take shape. Then they talk about what’s going to happen specifically in episode 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.
“The whole time we’re writing on a million white boards,” says Heyward. “We have a white board for each episode, a white board for each season, a white board for characters, so we can see everything visually as we talk about it.”
Once the writers have a general idea of what happens in every episode of the season, they go episode by episode and outline together scene by scene. Only after each episode is tightly outlined will the episodes get divided up among the writers. The writer goes home and writes a first draft, then brings it back for the group to discuss. This might lead to doing another draft, or two more drafts until the script is in a good place.
After a few months of writing, everyone moves to NYC where the show is filmed. In New York, the writers continue to write as shooting begins. Girls is another show where the writer is heavily involved. Every writer is on set every day, which is certainly not the case for all shows.
“You’re really getting to see the entire show be filmed,” Heyward says. “Especially when it’s your own episode, it’s amazing to be there and watch it take shape.”
Heyward does not spend much time in the editing room, that’s left in the hands of Dunham, Konner, and the series directors. After shooting wraps, she has the autumn off, with the job running from approximately January to August.
She says, “We’re like a weird little family, and because of the content of the show, it’s definitely a room where you’re talking about very private things very openly all the time. So we’ve gotten really comfortable with each other. Much of the joy of the writers’ room is telling stories that make the other writers laugh.”
Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Wayward Pines, Daredevil, Sherlock - more and more of today’s television shows are adapted from already existing source material. Writing for these types of shows presents its own challenge. How do you re-envision an existing story in a fresh way while still honoring the original material? How do you introduce an iconic character to new viewers without insulting the fandom?
When Nick Antosca joined the Hannibal writing staff for season 3, it was a season where the series took on one of the most famous stories in the Hannibal Lector canon, the plot of the novel Red Dragon. In addition to Thomas Harris’ original novel, Red Dragon has been made into a feature film twice. When I ask Antosca whether the writers on staff avoided or embraced the source material to write their own version, he made it clear they weren’t afraid to do the latter.
“We re-read Red Dragon over and over,” he says. “Everybody in the room was a huge fan of the books. A lot of Harris' prose became actual (on-screen) dialogue because it's vivid writing and the tone of the show supports it. You couldn't get away with some of that dialogue in a more ‘realistic’ show. The challenge obviously is to honor the material while departing from it to support the themes and ideas that the show has evolved to emphasize.”
At the first meeting for season 3, Antosca says that showrunner Bryan Fuller got the writing staff together, along with executive producers Steve Lightfoot and Martha De Laurentiis, and laid out the structure of the season. Fuller had a strong vision for the season’s structure and themes already, so the group spent the first-day brainstorming and roughly outlining the first episode of the season. The staff even got assigned homework, which was to watch the film The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Hannibal was another show where writers didn’t get assigned specific episodes until they were fully outlined, with everyone contributing to every episode.
In addition to Hannibal, Antosca has been on the staff of other series (Last Resort, Believe, and Teen Wolf) and they’ve all been different experiences. The amount of time spent on set or involved with the rest of the production process varies based on the showrunner’s style and the production schedule.
He says, “On Teen Wolf, with Jeff Davis running the room, it was like a college seminar in how to do serialized storytelling. I really learned a lot from him about TV writing. They didn't even start production until we were done in the writers’ room, so I was never on set. On Last Resort, with Shawn Ryan running it (Shawn did The Shield, the show that made me want to write TV), he keeps you involved through the whole process. You go to set (Hawaii in that case), produce your episode, work with the directors and all the crew, then you're sitting in the editing room. It's like a showrunner's training program.”
For Hannibal, Antosca was on set in Toronto for the prep and early production of his last two episodes, due to the fact that time gets tight when a show is that far into the production schedule.
“I remember being on set and watching Chilton get his lips ripped off in the penultimate episode. That was a fun day,” he says.
Writers Guild of America Guidelines
The WGA has very specific formatting restrictions for the ways that writers are credited.
If the writers names are joined by an "&" such as "John Smith & Jane Smythe," that means they worked together on the final draft.
If the writers names are joined by an "and" such as "John Smith and Jane Smythe," that means they worked seperately on the final draft.
Rise in Ranks
The WGA rules also mean that you can rise up in rank every additional year that you write on a television show:
Year 1: Staff Writer
Year 2: Story Editor
Year 3: Executive Story Editor
Year 4: Co-Producer, and so forth
All the writers, regardless of what type of show they worked on, praised their showrunners’ guiding visions and stressed that television is a collaborative medium. Basically, unless your name is Louis C.K., or you’re Nic Pizzolatto helming True Detective, television is not the medium where you’ll start off as a total auteur. On the plus side, if you’re already on the writing staff of a television series and assigned to an outlined episode, what you write will be getting made, and possibly seen by millions. There are no such guarantees for the feature film script you’ve been toiling away at for three years.
“I would say that you can close yourself off in a room and try to figure out a good story. That’s one way to write and I know many successful people have done that. But how Loren and Jim work, and how we work here is more like a jam session. People tend to make each other giggle,” says Yu.
Davis, his writing partner agrees, “I think being a television writer, you learn not to be precious. You’re working with other people. So you always have to accept, and it’s a good thing, that there are other people who are going to have other ideas and it can always get better. We start the process knowing that what we’re writing is going to change.”