Welcome to CHAT & CHOW: a Q&A series. My one request for a writer who agrees to participate — the person has to either a) meet me at a food truck or b) have boba with me, or in this case c) send me a selfie while I go and indulge in boba from a food truck.
Sivert and Michael have always had a way of making me laugh. A lot. So it makes sense this little skill of theirs has kept them busy over the years writing/developing/running shows. In fact, you should check out their IMDB pages here and here.
While you’re at it, head over to Jamin’s wife’s children’s clothing company: TwirlyGirl, where Jamin writes the creative content for the site. As for TwirlyGirl Theatre’s original children’s short stories — which you can play directly from the site here or download as a FREE PODCAST from iTunes — yep, he wrote those, too.
THE Q & A
1. When do you like to write?
MJ: When there’s a check attached.
SG: Morning is always the most productive. if we can start by ten, that’s great. After around two pm, we start feeling talked out and our brains start feeling fried.
2. When do you actually GET to write?
MJ: Sivert and I are both pretty disciplined. It’s been that way ever since we started working together 17 years ago — even when we weren’t getting paid. None of this burning the midnight oil crap for us. When you’re doing something creative, it’s important to be awake for at least some of it.
SG: When we are working on Maron, it can be pretty tight. Depending on the kids’ school schedules, hopefully we can grab and hour or so before the room starts. Then maybe some time at lunch, and some time after. If there are enough stories broken, we can shut the room down for a couple of days and everyone can take the entire day to write. That’s always the best scenario. When the show is down and Michael and I are working on other things, it all revolves around our kids’ schedules. Usually, we can do 10 - 2:30, then somebody needs to get picked up.
3. Not including the show/project you’re working on now, name a series you would love to write for:
MJ: I think 30 Rock is pretty brilliant. It’s so funny that I have to keep myself from laughing out loud, just so that I don’t miss the next joke. I imagine their table reads run very long, just because of the laugh spread. Of course, that show isn’t on the air anymore. But for the sake of this answer, I’m going to pretend like this interview was conducted last year.
SG: Futurama, Doctor Who. 30 Rock would have been amazing. Being on a good multi-cam show is the most fun on a day-to-day basis. The next fun would be a bad multi-cam.
4. One of the benefits of having a writing partner is having someone to bounce ideas off of — what’s an unexpected benefit of having one?
MJ: As a showrunner, there are plenty of times when you have to say no. That can make you pretty unpopular. So it’s nice to have someone you can look to and say, “Can you please just take care of this so people will like me again?” I also like taking credit for my partner’s ideas.
SG: Michael gets free rides to the car mechanic. I get a lot of unsolicited nutrition advice.
5. Every person has a unique “breaking in” story. Can you single out a sliding doors moment you feel would’ve taken your career in a different direction had it happened the other way?
MJ: When we were first trying to break in, we got selected for the Warner Bros. writing program. At the time, Warner Bros. dominated the sitcom landscape and even though we didn’t see ourselves as 8 pm family show writers, they had a lot of them and we just wanted to get staffed. The writing program met every Wednesday night. As you know, it never rains in Los Angeles. But every Wednesday night, it rained. That was an omen.
Early in the course, it became very clear who the executives saw as their “star” writers and it wasn’t us. Even though we kissed a lot of butts, no one at Warner Bros was buying it. Around the same time, we got an offer to write on Just Shoot Me. When Warner Bros. heard about that, they were suddenly interested in sticking us on one of their family shows. I’m not knocking those shows. People love them, and they should. It’s just not what I always dreamed of doing. Anyway, we had to beg and plead with Warner Bros to let us out of our contract so that we could go on Just Shoot Me. I remember that as being a very tense couple of weeks. In actuality, it was probably just two days. But two weeks sounds more dramatic.
SG: Michael’s and my path was one of dogged persistence. Of course, everyone needs a “break,” but for us that break was created by years of knocking on thousands of doors. Eventually, one of our scripts landed in a very large pile of scripts Steve Levitan’s assistant was reading for Just Shoot Me. We were at a nondescript agency and had an agent with no juice. It’s a miracle he even read it. When we got the meeting for the show, we crammed for it like it was the Bar Exam. We read the pilot script a dozen times, memorized jokes, knew the characters inside and out. Michael had an interesting anecdote about the Menendez Brothers, the rich kids who murdered their parents. We were determined to wedge those into the conversation. We wanted to do anything we could to stand out. We were determined to go into that room and TAKE that job. And even then, I’m sure it was a toss up for Levitan. There are just so many people out there.
6. When reading someone’s script, what’s the main thing that turns you off or keeps you from finishing it?
MJ: If I’m not completely hooked into the story by page 5, there’s no chance I’ll finish it. That might sound cruel, but I think it’s fair. We live in the age of the remote control. If the viewer isn’t engaged, they’ll change the channel. I think the same standard needs to hold on a spec script. I need to know who the hero is, what the obstacle is, and what his goal is. All three things. And if you don’t get me hooked by page 5, some other writer will.
SG: “Clams,” or over done joke areas like viagra, etc. If its a script for a broadcast/basic cable network — swearing. I guess some people find it edgy, but it definitely can’t air that way, so don’t waste people’s time. I’m not a fan of bleeping out words — it just reminds viewers of the limitations of the specific medium.
7. What’s the biggest rookie mistake you see writers in the room make?
MJ: I see this all the time: Young writers in their 20s, thinking they’re going to impress an older writer by shitting on his idea as if to say, “Look how smart I am? I just poked a hole in your pitch!” They think their actions are acceptable because they’re just mirroring the behavior of the showrunner. But the showrunner is the boss! It’s his or her job to steer the conversation in the room. We recently wrote a freelance episode for a new show on TVLand, so we sat in the room for a few days. There wasn’t anyone on that staff with less than 15 years of experience. And I have to say, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my professional career. All the writers were very funny, very smart, and above all, very respectful to each other.
SG: Now matter how nice people on the staff are, a new writer will find the room intimidating. Take your time, and don’t feel you need to contribute immediately. Young writers are often too scared to pitch jokes, but feel they need to say something. As a result they sometimes become the self-appointed “logic guy,” and feel their job is to point out holes in the story. Or they might point out that they saw a similar story on another program, and suggest the show steer clear of it. This is not the way to make a good impression. All this will do is build an association with your face and the death of fun. Or worse, longer hours. Don’t worry — if there are holes in the story, the higher up writers will eventually find them! Or sometimes the entire story area will disappear for other reasons entirely. When someone DOES find that hole you spotted, pitch a solution. There’s an expression in a room — “pitch, don’t bitch.” It’s always a good thing to keep in mind. When you’ve built up a reputation of being a solid contributor, then you can afford your self more freedom in tearing ideas down.
8. Your advice to writers in 3 words.
MJ: “The secret is”
SG: “Hang in there.” OR BETTER YET “Do something else.”
9. Multiple choice: What would creep out your writing partner more:
c) anatomically correct gelatin molds
MJ: None of those things would creep my partner out. In fact, I’m fairly certain he’s made love to all of them.
SG: Spiders, for sure. Especially black widows. I’m not sure if that’s evidence of wussitude or common sense.