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With television hitting new creative heights and redefining what can be done on the small screen, the time is ripe for a show that dives deep into the creative minds behind the hottest comedies and dramas. Presented by the Sundance Channel and Entertainment Weekly, The Writers’ Room allows the writers and casts of six popular series to talk at length about their process. The first season, which premieres Monday, features six half-hour episodes, focusing on American Horror Story, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Game of Thrones, New Girl and Parks and Recreation.
Spinoff Online caught up with series host Jim Rash at Comic-Con International in San Diego, where the Community actor and Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Descendents revealed how the initial lineup was chosen, the differences between comedic and dramatic writing staffs, and which classic shows he hopes to tackle next.
Spinoff Online: The first batch of episodes really focuses on shows with incredibly rabid fan bases, like Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation and Game of Thrones. How were these six shows picked?
Jim Rash: These are all hot shows. It was sort of one of those difficult challenges. I think there were other shows that wanted to do it. In fact, I think we talked about The Walking Dead, but because we were doing Breaking Bad, AMC was like, “Well, let’s split them up.” I think they realized the excitement behind this whole thing.
I can’t say I had any hand in picking the shows, but they talked about [doing] all dramas, and I remember just sort of expressing that I felt like we should mix it up with some comedies. It’s such a different dynamic and a different process, yet there are similarities. Luckily we did, because all the dramas and the comedies all have different tones. Not the shows [specifically] but The Writers’ Room episode of their show is different in tone.
I know that with comedy writers’ rooms, writers often pitch jokes to punch up the script. Does something similar happen with dramas?
They definitely pitch choices when they’re breaking a story, and a lot of the discussions they [admitted to having] in the Breaking Bad episode and Dexter episode was, “How are we killing this person?” I remember one of the most interesting discussions, and it’s in an episode of Breaking Bad, is the episode where Walt [played by Bryan Cranston] lets Aaron Paul’s girlfriend die. They talk so in-depth about that, about the choices of how it should happen, and it’s so interesting. I feel like you can listen to wonderful DVD extras and stuff about shows, but that’s usually going to be about plots and fans, and actors talking about being on the show. This is really about the choices that were made to make these shows. I come from a sketch background as well, and I learned to write with the Groundlings, and so I understand that whole thing about ensemble, and I understand that this is more than just one creator. It’s this bevy of talent really helping you fulfill this vision. That’s what’s so interesting about the show, they’re like a family. And they argue.
Most episodes have an actor on the panel, too, like Amy Poehler from Parks and Recreation and Jake Johnson from New Girl. What type of insight do the actors bring to the discussion?
It was nice to have an actor in each one, because I wanted to be able to ask them the choices their character had to make, and how they reacted to pages coming in. Especially with Bryan Cranston, and Michael C. Hall is in the Dexter one. They’re playing the protagonist who’s being told, “This is what you’re doing. You’re doing something fucked up. So do it.” And Bryan is already very entertaining. It’s interesting to get their point of view, and plus he’s also directed an episode so I asked him about that as well. And Amy Poehler’s done the same.
The only episode without actors present is the Game of Thrones one.
The only time it was a different discussion was having David Benioff and D.B. Weiss from Game of Thrones. It was just the three of us, because they don’t really have a staff. They have a sort-of staff, they have a few extra writers, including the author of the book [George R. R. Martin], but they primarily do everything. That was intimidating because the scope of the show is intimidating. But they’re very engaging and very interesting and very up front about the Herculean task that they take on.
What shows, past and present, do you hope to have on the show in the future?
I have to do M.A.S.H., because I love the comedy and drama balance. I love it. I’m just so curious about tackling that and how the network was and any of those things. And then I want to talk about Lost, because I was a fan and I have to ask questions.
You’ll step out of host mode for that one, and into fan mode.
“I’m in fan mode now, we’re going to take this shit apart.” I’d like to do things like Cheers because it, for me, was such an iconic show when I was growing up. There’s many more. Any writers from The Mary Tyler Moore Show days, any writers I can find from those [classic] shows would be great. From current stuff, I would really love to sit down with Mad Men. I’d really love to sit down with Walking Dead. I’d love to do Community. Why not?
You could just spring that on them one day, in secret.
Yeah, ask weird questions, have secret cameras. Those shows would be fun to me. There’s an endless library of shows.
The Writers’ Room premieres Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Sundance. Watch the first episode in full now on the show’s website.