I had a chance to attend a panel discussion on “Showrunners” at July’s Just for Laughs Conference with TWO AND A HALF MEN co-creator Lee Aronsohn and BIG BANG THEORY showrunner Bill Prady, moderated by Variety's Steven Gaydos. A few takeaways:
Lee likes to cast “people I can’t stop looking at.” Talent and charisma are two different things. You can’t teach charisma. But it’s not enough. You need talent and professionalism. Charlie Sheen might have been the star, but “the engine that is Jon Cryer” powered the show.
Some standups are terrible sitcom actors. On BIG BANG, there’s only a single standu, Melissa Rauch. Everyone else are professional actors, many with theater degrees, or who were child actors – all serious veterans. A day player can get by on charisma, but a recurring role needs chops.
(I cast a standup once. He could not memorize his lines for the life of him. And he wouldn’t rehearse, either. We had to make cue cards.)
Bill Prady says he lets his casting director filter actors, but he hires writers without a filter. “Sitcoms are made by writers,” he said, and agents are terrible filters. He told a story about an agent who insisted he put a script on the top of the heap. It was terrible. He called back and asked what the agent liked about the script. The agent couldn't answer. Because, you see, he hadn’t read it.
Bill read 400 scripts to make the BIG BANG THEORY room. He didn’t read them all the way through, of course. But he read each one enough to know whether he wanted to work with the writer or not. “Only I know what I’m looking for, and I generally find it in the first five pages.”
Lee Aronsohn said he’s also hired people into the room based on their standup act, or their plays. He hired a woman based on her blog once. 2 ½ MEN does “gang writing” – 9 people in a room at once – so not everyone has to be a structure person.
Bill Prady mentioned that he had been able to rescue a bunch of Chuck Lorre vets who had gone to “kidcoms” (e.g. iCarly) – which are functioning as a sort of farm team for sitcoms now.
The key to survival in a room, therefore, is to know “when to speak and when not to speak.” Don’t be the guy who alwayshas something funny to say, but only 5% of it is relevant to the part of the script you’re working on.
So standup is an easier route to staff writer than it is to performer.
Bill talked about the two pilots he shot for BIG BANG. He considered that a stroke of luck – almost no pilots get reshot, and even fewer get picked up after the first pilot fails. The network thought the pilot was bad because the actress cast to play Penny, Amanda Walsh, came off as too crass and “hookery. Only one scene worked.”
The writers realized the problem was actually that the role was written
too crass. They rewrote Penny, and recast her, and this time the pilot worked.
Bill talked about the habit among successful show creators of getting a bunch of friends to punch up the pilot over a week, and “everyone gets an iPod.” This reminds me of the work that the Seth Rogen / Judd Apatow / Owen Wilson / Steve Carell mafia do on each other’s scripts. I think all our scripts would be better if we’d take the time to work on each other’s material. Wouldn’t they?
An audience member asked about submitting spec pilots versus spec episodes. Bill Prady wants to see both. A spec pilot takes him into your world. A spec episode proves you can work in his; but “it better be better than anything I see on the show.” Because the show episodes are written in two weeks, with production concerns, and he assumes that you’ve spent six months on your spec episode.
Another question was about demographics of the writing room. Bill Prady remarked that the BIG BANG writing room was the first one he’d ever worked in that was majority gentile. It is, of course, mostly men. He insists that he never looks at the title page until he’s evaluated the writing sample, so his room is “a true meritocracy.”
To some extent he blames agents, who send him many more scripts by young white guys than by women, minorities or 60-year-old writers. “Agents are not looking to represent 60 year old writers.” To get an older room, you may have to look outside agents.
Of course, he may just like what men do on the page better than what women do. Certainly BIG BANG is bound to skew male, since it’s about very smart nerdy guys and a relatively dim pretty girl.
“I will say,” he added, “that it is a rare member of a writing staff who is a Protestant who came from money.”
Photos by Dan Dion, courtesy JFL.
Is that Protestant from money line a joke, or was that in all seriousness? Just curious if I'm maybe "diverse" :)
I'm pretty sure he meant it. I don't think there's a lot of prejudice against WASPs, but a lot of comedy comes out of discomfort, something that growing up in Greenwich may not provide a lot of.
It is telling that I've been assumed to either be Jewish or gay on the shows I've worked. But given the emphasis on "branding" and "voice" I had thought "white male" wasn't something to play... but there are different shades of white. Thanks for the great insight!
I think the agent thing is true and has been largely overlooked. Women can't be hired more if they're not represented, and I think more men are represented than women. Why? I don't have the numbers on this but from just observation I think there are more male agents. More guys are friends with guys, and more likely to represent their friends. This is my theory, over overt sexism. I might be insane, but it makes me feel a bit better about the whole mess.
Isn't anyone who ever worked at the Harvard Lampoon a rich white guy?
Possibly, Sean, but maybe they're all Jews and Catholics, like the Supreme Court.
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