20 Years in Comedy’s Best Writers’ Rooms: A Conversation with John Riggi

John Riggi may well be the most successful sitcom writer you’ve never heard of. Well, you’re hearing about him now, gang, so we suggest you do what we did – read and learn. Read and learn:

by Matt Siegal

John Riggi has written for, among many other shows, The Larry Sanders Show, 30 Rock,and the first and second seasons—nine years separated—of HBO’s The Comeback. He spoke with us about his two decades in the industry: about how TV writing has changed; about how TV writers have changed; about working in the industry while gay, then and now; and about coming back, again, to HBO.

john riggiMy way into television writing was so atypical, because I started out as a standup and that’s what took me out of Ohio to Chicago. I started working a lot at the Improv in Chicago, and I met a lot of L.A.-based comedians there and one of the main ones, strangely—I say because of our different political leanings—is Dennis Miller. We worked together for a week and really kind of keyed into each other, and he was very interested in me and he just kept saying you’ve got to move to L.A., you’ve got to move to L.A., and so I did. He had said he was potentially going to get this talk show, and would I be interested in writing on it, and I said sure.

I wasn’t really interested in political humor, so I kind of pushed through the idea of doing these desk pieces that became longer and longer and more complicated and became little narrative pieces. And then that show got canceled after eight months. I had read for a part on a show that Garry Shandling was doing called The Larry Sanders Show, and I got the part, and then through a very long story that isn’t important, I ultimately didn’t get the part. The Larry Sanders Show was just about to start up at the same time that The Dennis Miller Show was canceled, so I wrote a script, and I didn’t know what I was doing; I had never written a script before in my life. My script got to Garry and I went in and had a meeting, and then heard nothing, and was kind of giving it up. And then I met him at Campanile [a Los Angeles restaurant] where HBO was having a party for the Cable Ace Awards. My One Night Stand for HBO (a now-defunct stand-up comedy series) was nominated for an award, and my husband David said, “Put your tux on and go down to Campanile and find Garry and talk to him about this job.” So I did, and I finally got to Garry, and he said, “I’m just really worried; I’m not sure you’ll be happy being a writer on The Larry Sanders Showbecause you wanted to be an actor,” and I said, “I just want to work on it—I don’t care.” And that was on a Sunday and then that following Wednesday I got hired.

What was your brand of humor?

It was very long form, like I didn’t really have jokes. One time I got this gig where I got to open up for two weeks for Diana Ross in Las Vegas and I was so excited. The first night I did it I bombed terribly, and I realized that the Las Vegas audience didn’t want to get to know me, they just wanted me to do some jokes and get off, and so I went back to my room that night and thought, “What setup punchline jokes do I have?” So I just extracted everything else that wasn’t a joke and just went out and told jokes for ten minutes and it went much better.

Your first writers’ room was Dennis Miller. Was that a boys’ club?

Yes, the only woman was Leah Krinsky, but it was an amazing writing staff. It was Max Mutchnick and David Kohan (creators and Executive Producers of Will & Grace), it was Eddie Feldman, it was Kevin Rooney, it was Drake Sather, it was Ed Driscoll, Steve Rudnick and Leo Benvenuti—people who went on to do a bunch of different things.

Was gay okay in that writers’ room?

It was okay—I don’t think it was necessarily prized in any way. I don’t think it was like, “What’s the gay perspective on this joke?” I don’t think that ever happened. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me quite frankly…maybe on The Comeback.

Writers’ rooms, to me, don’t necessarily seem like a “safe space,” so where was your comfort level during Dennis Miller?

Oh my god, I’m just realizing that I don’t think I was out yet. I wasn’t out. So my comfort level was really bad. Like I remember one time—I don’t know why he did this, I can’t remember the circumstance—but we were looking to move to this guesthouse in Silver Lake—me and my boyfriend at the time. And for some reason Dennis [Miller] came with me to look at this place, and I remember that I went to work wearing black bicycle pants and Doc Martens and some kind of weird t-shirt, and I remember we were walking up the steps to look at this place, and I remember Dennis going, “Reej, what’s going on with the outfit? What, are you going gay on me?” I remember him saying that and I was like “No, no, what are you talking about?” So my comfort level was not great as far as that goes. Like I was very much a part of that [writers’] room and I was appreciated for what I was bringing to the table comedically, but I was not at all talking about my personal life.

So you flew under the radar in terms of passing as straight.

Yes, surprisingly.

But, could one be a big ol’ queen in a writers’ room in 1991?

I don’t think—not on that show. I don’t think so. I think it was too—I don’t think it would be overt, but I just don’t think it would work. I don’t think it would work.

So, you went from Dennis Miller directly into writing for The Larry Sanders Show. Did you feel more secure as a writer at that point?

No, I felt like I jumped in the deep end of a swimming pool—I knew what that show was. I mean, almost immediately I realized that I was working in an environment where the bar, writing-wise, was so high that it was a little bit intimidating. Garry taught me the kind of writing that I like the best, which is writing about human behavior that’s funny as opposed to writing jokes. I can write jokes, and I do it for a living, but, like, Garry used to say to us all the time, “Write the behavior and then figure out what’s funny about the behavior.” I’ve never forgotten that and I think it’s really good advice, but it’s also really hard—that’s why people write jokes.

Even then, as green as I was, I remember watching us shoot stuff, and I remember thinking, “Oh my god, I’m seeing something that is above the level of what most shows are.” Just the level of those guys like Rip [Torn] and Jeffrey [Tambor]. They were such good actors.

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Cargo 3120: The Making of a Sci-Fi Franchise #10

CARGO3120Entry 10 – From Cargo to Cargo 3120: The Rise of the Webcomic
by Aaron Walker Sr.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The Story So Far starts HERE)

After three years of writing classes, universe building and rewrites both minor and major, we were making good progress. We worked on everything from character profiles, to an ongoing series bible. We were going all in on this one, because we felt that Cargo was a story worth telling.

We knew going in that getting a pilot picked up by a major network was a longshot, so we had to find another way to build an audience. So the decision was made to tell our TV series as a webcomic called Cargo 3120 (the number representing the year in which the story takes place).  We planned to continue writing our episodes in the TV Script format, then convert those scripts in to comics. Simple, right? There was just one problem: none of us could draw!

So the first order of business was to find an artist.

On my day job as an IT analyst for the State of California, I had a co-worker named Lemelle Wherry. He was a great artist with a passion for scify and comics. Most importantly, Lemelle had a desire to be part of a project where he can make his mark in the industry. He was all over it after reading the script. While we had our team, you can’t have a webcomic without a website. But web design was never my thing. Because we had no budget, we couldn’t pay for a web designer, so it was all on me.

Next Week: Taking on the World Wide Web

Peer Production: ONE TEN

One-Ten

Somebody’s watched a lot of THE SOPRANOS. But this L.A. gang-style variation of the show is beautifully shot. There aren’t many live-action web series that play like lessons in the art of directing. Well, there probably aren’t any.

Except ONE TEN.

TVWriter™ congrats Braxton Smith, who proves here that he’s more than ready for the Big Time. (Whatever the Big Time is these days.)

Deston Bennett (Exec. Producer/Writer/Music supervisor/ Director)

Tyra Colar (Exec. producer/Writer)

Braxten Smith (Exec. producer/Writer/Director)

RJ Farrington (Exec. Producer)

Stephen Vanderpool (Director of Photography)

Tony Garcia (Editor)

Check out the Colar Film Group

JOHN OSTRANDER: TV MIDTERM REPORT CARD

Blacklist

by John Ostrander

Well, we’re now in the Christmas doldrums for TV. The regular series are on hiatus until January or later. A couple of columns ago I discussed which shows I was anticipating or not (So How Was It For You?) and this seems a good time to revisit them and give my evaluations.

Warning: there may be spoilers sprinkled here and there. You have been warned.

The Flash – my favorite in this group. Grant Gustin is doing good work as Barry Allen/The Flash and the supporting cast is good. The writing is also first rate and they keep adding little nods to DC continuity that pleases the Old Fan in me.

Grade: A

The Blacklist – The show has kept my attention and James Spader as main character/anti-hero Red Reddington is worth watching all by himself. I thought the premise would get old fast but I find it holding up.

Grade: A-

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – The show has gotten a lot more complicated and more imbedded in Marvel continuity. Is that a good thing? Depends on your own taste. More characters have been added but a few were killed off in the finale. They’re taking a hiatus until March and, in its place they’re bringing in Agent Carter. It’ll pick up Captain America’s “best girl,” Peggy Carter, played by Hayley Atwell in a series about the founding of S.H.I.E.L.D. It takes place after the events of the first Captain America film. The two series appear to have ties to one another and I think it’s an interesting experiment.

Grade: B+

Arrow – There’s some interesting stuff going on here and they’re capable of taking twists and turns and surprising me. They also take a lot of characters and ideas from DC continuity. My problem with it is that it wants to be Batman and I don’t think that’s who Green Arrow ever was. Still, it’s worth watching and, every so often, Amanda Waller shows up. A skinny Waller, true, but she still puts change in my pocket.

Grade: B

Gotham – This may be my most controversial judgment. Lots of people love the show but I’m not one of them. I don’t hate it but it’s not must see for me. I’m not really interested in any of the characters. Frankly, it needs Batman but Bruce Wayne is a kid at this point and Bats won’t show up for ten years and I doubt the show will go that long.

Grade: C

Constantine – The show is creepy enough at times but it isn’t really setting me afire. I like it okay (although some folks – and critics – hate it) but it, too, is not must see viewing for me. The title character just isn’t snarky enough to suit me. He needs to borrow some of James Spader’s attitude from The Blacklist. Matt Ryan is okay as Constantine but they’ve made the character a little more haunted by his past. They want us to like him. Spader doesn’t give a damn if you like Red Reddington or not and thus is a more compelling character. Charles Halford is good as Chas and I’d like to see more of him but Angélica Celaya is vapid as Zed.

There’s a lot pf questions as to whether or not the series will be back for a second season. NBC isn’t commissioning anything beyond the first 13 episodes so it’s doesn’t look great although everyone connected with the show keep making positive noises. I guess we’ll find out in January.

Grade: C-

Castle – sadly, once my favorite show is now running on fumes. The characters don’t have the same life and sparkle that they once did and some of the plots have just stunk. If ABC announced the show’s cancellation, I wouldn’t be too sad. Or surprised.

Grade: D

So that’s my scorecard at half time for the season. Your mileage may vary.

Narrative Points of View (for prose fiction writers especially…)

…But the rest of us can profit as well.

Cuz who knows? We all may become novelists after getting that one ridiculous network note too many.  Beats suicide, doesn’t it?

Anyway:

point-of-view

by Rita Karnopp

Every writer must face the question of which point of view they want to use in their novel.  First person?  Second person?  Third person?

Let’s be honest, there are several advantages and disadvantages to each.  Let’s take a look at all three and see what you think.

First Person ~ Many writers believe this is the most difficult point-of-view to write.  The reader only gets to see what’s happening through the eyes, mind, and feelings of a single character.  It’s the; I, me, my, mine, we, and us speaker.

“I confess I should have kissed him when he leaned into me.”

So what are the advantages of First Person point-of-view?

  • It draws the reader in – at a more personal level.  They relate to ‘I.’
  • They aren’t worried about what anyone else is thinking – a single point-of-view is easier to deal with.
  • It’s an easy avenue for internal voice.
  • The sneaky part is – you could surprise your reader – who’s to say the POV character is reliable?

So what are the disadvantages of First Person point-of-view?

  • It’s limited to what the first person character can see, hear, feel, touch, smell, and think.
  • You don’t get that character break because you can’t get into the minds of other characters.
  • The narrator must limit observations only from the first person POV.

Second Person ~ This is the most difficult to write because it’s the story from the narrator’s point-of-view.  It’s even the least favorite of POVs for both the reader and writer.

You wanted to make your move, but she froze when you moved in close.  You jumped back as though you’d been burned.

So the advantages of Second Person point-of-view?

  • It’s difficult to find any advantages- maybe the chance to be quirky or a stab at being different.

So the disdvantages of Second Person point-of-view?

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Top UK Showrunner on How to Create TV Gold

After reading this article, this particular TVWriter™ minion has a new ambition: To get my butt in gear and move my life and career over to where excellence matters. Yep, I’m talking about the UK.

Here’s why:

Sally_Wainwright1

by Gerard Gilbert

Sally Wainwright must be doing something right.

And I don’t mean because of the swish-looking Jaguar parked in the television script writer’s driveway when I pay her a visit at her Cotswolds home. I mean because of the viewing figures she’s able to generate for prime-time show after prime-time show.

Her self-described “feminist” buddy cop drama Scott & Bailey, starring Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp, was the most successful drama launch of 2011 and has now gone to four series. The following year, BBC1 began broadcasting Wainwright’s Bafta-winning inter-generational drama Last Tango in Halifaxabout former childhood sweethearts Alan and Celia (Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid) reunited via Facebook; returning for a third series in a couple of weeks, it has been a ratings winner on both sides of the Atlantic.

And earlier this year, her BBC1 thriller Happy Valley attracted viewers, controversy and some of the year’s best reviews with its graphic depiction of kidnap, rape and murder in Hebden Bridge; Wainwright is now busy working on the scripts for the second series.

Given her outstanding run of form, what exactly goes into creating a sure-fire television hit? Below are some guidelines from Wainwright herself:

Begin with an emotion

“My story ideas start out tiny and then I build up layers …Unforgiven [her 2009 drama with Suranne Jones as a young woman released from prison 15 years after being convicted of killing two policemen] came from somebody trying to sue me for plagiarism at the time. She thought I’d copied a play that she’d written and it was a completely ridiculous claim but at the same time it was scary and stressful and it made me think ‘how awful it must be to be on the wrong side of the law’. That was the starting point.”

Stay true to your roots

“Happy Valley was successful because it made Yorkshire sexy… it gets mentioned now in the same columns as Breaking Bad, and part of the success of Breaking Bad is that it’s absolutely true to itself. I think Happy Valley has done something similar… people were absolutely buying into Yorkshire. I was talking to a couple of American journalists and both of them said ‘I’m sorry to admit it but I watched it with the subtitles on’, and I thought that was fantastic… that they took the trouble.

“I [also] don’t like setting my dramas in fictional places… someone complained about Happy Valley that I made Hebden Bridge out to be a drugs den and my response to that is that most of rural England is a drugs den these days – I wasn’t singling out Hebden Bridge. Their point was that if you’re going to make somewhere out to be terrible you ought to fictionalise it, but for me it’s about being authentic.”

Don’t go transatlantic

“Most British [shows] base their research on watching American cop dramas – even Broadchurch, where David Tennant is supposed to be a detective superintendent and he goes out on to the street interviewing people, which really wouldn’t happen [in the UK]. [Before Scott & Bailey] I was lucky because I met Diane Taylor, a detective inspector with Greater Manchester police, socially, and she made sure the procedure in the series was absolutely correct.”

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