Talking Weed and Weeds with Writer/Producers Stephen Falk and Victoria Morrow
Stoner comedy on television is a different breed than stoner films. Sure, there are the occasional five minutes of screen time on a comedy series where one or more characters get stoned, get the munchies and then freak out. But usually the mixture of television and marijuana is limited to various cop shows and episodes of Intervention. But in 2005, Showtime premiered a show entirely about weed: dealing, growing, baking, consuming, everything. And the biggest shocker is that the main characters were not your typical gangbangers or drug dealers. Instead, the dealer in question is a suburban mother and widow, trying to keep her family afloat. Weeds remains one of the most honest and funny shows about pot. In honor of stoner comedy week, I sat with Stephen Falk and Victoria Morrow, writers and Supervising Producers of the show, to talk about what it’s like to write about weed.
So as you know, it’s “Stoner Comedy” week at Splitsider, and I couldn’t think of a more appropriate show than Weeds. But it seems like a lot of your comedy doesn’t come from typical stoner humor.
Stephen: The way Jenji [Kohan, the shows’ creator and showrunner] conceived of these characters lends itself to a lot of comedy in general. But unlike most comedy shows, our jokes tend to be more character based than joke based. The comedy has to be more. Also, it is a stoner comedy at its heart, so we are always contingent on that. We’re aware that we have a really big stoner fan base, which we love.
Victoria: Weed didn’t play a huge part in the past few seasons that we’ve done. BUT we never want to stray too far away from it. Because that’s what the whole show is about. And we are going to go back into it.
It seems like a lot of the typical comedy writers rooms tend to be really fraternal — a bunch of people sitting in a room and working on jokes together. I know a lot of dramas don’t do that. Since your show is part comedy and part drama, how does your writers’ room work?
Victoria: Well, before the show even gets started, we get together beforehand and spend two to three months to break story. We talk about where we want the show and the characters to go. Then when we’re done, we split the scripts up, and everyone goes to write their own episode. Then we come back and look at everyone’s scripts and review them as a group.
Stephen: I also think we’re a lot nicer. Comedy rooms tend to have a lot of one-ups-manship. We really only have one joke guy in our room, who adds a lot of comedy you see on the show. But that’s really it. We don’t do a lot of punch ups. It definitely works like a drama in that way, which I think is a good thing. It really helps to retain the writers’ original voice. It doesn’t sound like it was written by a group.
Victoria: Everybody in that room is as talented a drama writer as well as a comedy writer. As a result, I think we get a very good mixture of both. Also, it shakes things up on the show. Plus we each have our own distinct voices. A David Holstein script is very different than a Victoria Morrow script, which I think helps.
So when you’re going over the arc of the story, how do you pitch a particular storyline or character? Is that something that’s up to individual writers, or is that all decided before anyone writes a script?
Stephen: Honestly, the room does generate the outline and generally when then you get assigned a particular episode, you’re not going to invent a character, particularly one that arcs over a bunch of episodes. Speaking about Richard Dreyfus (from last season) specifically, that’s something that we would have generated in the room. He would have come up through what the season arc is. We would have built his character up and everyone would have contributed to who he is. And then the individual writer would have gone off and done the episode. Occasionally you will invent characters, but when you go off to write you pretty much already have a strong outline for the episode. And if you’re gonna change something radical, our show runner likes to know about it before hand and okay it.
So how much influence does your Showrunner have over each story within an episode? How much freedom does the writer have when they’re writing an episode?
Stephen: Jenji pretty much has ultimate control, but she’s very generous as a showrunner. A lot of showrunners will take every script and completely rewrite them. Also, some showrunners will put their name on (each script) as well.
Someone like Matt Weiner
Stephen: Yeah. So pretty much every script is written by him. But on a lot of other shows, even if the showrunner writes a lot of it, the writer that was assigned the episode remains the name on it. And that’s just sort of what most showrunners feel is right. It’s their job to make sure you got their tone correctly. Cause that’s what we’re all trying to do, is try to in a way, not mimic, but be able to fit within the voice of the creator of the show.
So that’s what brings consistency to shows.
Stephen: On our show in particular, Jenji really lets the writer, from other executive producers to staff writers, retain a lot of their work on the episode. It’s rarely 100%, but generally speaking, she’s really good at having the writer take their episode and make it their own. But again, it always goes through her computer last, so she will make tweaks, or word things differently, but we don’t have license to really change giant story points without consulting her.
I know there has been some discussion of the upcoming seventh season being the last. I think Jenji said that in an interview, but Showtime said that wasn’t the case. Do you guys know when you’ll end and do you have any idea where you want to take these characters?
Victoria: Going into our seventh season, it’s not something you can really do. You don’t want to write that way. We don’t have an endgame. We’re kind of flying by the seat of our pants right now. We don’t know when or how it will end.
Stephen: That being said, Jenji definitely has an idea of how she wants the show to end. But it’s not like we know when it will happen. With television, you can go off the air at any time, so it’s a good thing to know how you want it to end. But you can’t just write every episode as a finaly. Lost could do it, because they said they only wanted a certain number of seasons. We didn’t, so we don’t know when it will end.
Now, to take Stoner Comedy one step further, last season, you turned Weeds into a road comedy as well. Was that to shake it up after five seasons or was that always the plan; that Nancy would eventually have to run?
Stephen: We’re always looking to keep ourselves challenged. We don’t want to get bored. We want to keep moving, thematically. Also it gave us a chance to show America, not just Southern California. We wanted to visit other places, what this country is.
Victoria: It also forces you to displace your characters. You can’t focus on the town they live in, their neighbors, or whatever. You have to shift focus exclusively to your characters when you take them out of their normal lives.
Stephen: I mean, burning down that house [Nancy’s house is Agrestic, at the end of Season Three’s finale] I think was fucking brave and really revolutionary in a way. And it’s not like we’re trying to recapture that, but that fire set in motion something. It broke their chains and you just naturally have to keep going when necessary.
Speaking of the fire, it seems like all of the season finales of more dramatic comedies like Weeds, have that big “Oh Shit” moment at the end of the season. How much pressure does that put on the writers to top previous season finales?
Stephen: There is certainly an expectation that we’ve established where we want to end with, not necessarily cliffhangers, but definitely something that’s gonna make you go “Oh Shit, when’s the next season.” And we try to do that with every episode. We talk about it in the room, with television viewing going more towards DVDs, with people watching the whole season at a time. We never want the 2am viewer who has to be at work in the morning to be able to stop. We always want them to think, “Ah, fuck. OK, just one more episode.” And so we constantly have to keep in mind hooking the viewer into watching the next episode. And certainly the next season is very important, we want people to come back. We definitely have a philosophy at Weeds where we do what we think is right for the season. We come to the end point pretty early in our outlining sessions and work backwards from there. And we then worry about the next season when we all gather back in January. In other words, we write ourselves into a corner every year, just knowing that we will be able to find an artful way to get out of it.
Who do you think the target audience for Weeds is? It seems like most stoner comedies seem to play for college kids, or high school crowd. This is a very adult show, do you find a lot of adults embracing the humor? Or is it a younger stoner crowd?
Stephen: I think it’s pretty wide ranging. I think we definitely have a stoner contingent that we love and embrace and we hope that they stay with us. But we also have, like last year we had a very well known dramatic author that I won’t name and he was such a fan of the show that he just came in one day and had lunch with us. And he was making all these giant statements, like saying, Weeds stands for America! And it’s the only show to capture what’s really happening in America. Things that we weren’t even aware of. So I think intellectuals and drug people.
Well I think that’s true. You have a lot of real people on your show, you don’t really have any one dimensional characters, like you don’t have many stereotypical drug dealer characters. Nobody’s really one dimensional on the show, which I think is different from a lot of stoner comedies. So how do you come up with three dimensional drug dealers?
Victoria: I think it’s that the entire show is prefaced on drug dealing, so you really have no choice but to approach those characters from the inside out. Who they are as characters, who just happen to also be drug dealers, because that’s just the basic premise of the whole show.
Stephen: I think also we as a room, we’re a really smart, bright…
Victoria: Good looking.
Stephen: (laughs) Yes, good looking, staff in that we have a high bullshit-ometer. And we don’t really allow ourselves to get away with a lot surface shit. So if we introduce a character, say a Mexican drug dealer, we’re going to try to find and explore the different dimensions and twist them away from the norm. Hopefully while also retaining whatever he needs to accomplish plot-wise, fear or retaliation or whatever. But yeah, I think probably around eight times every day, some variation of “No, that’s incredibly cliché”
Victoria: Or that’s a clam…
Stephen: Yeah, or that’s a clam – which is sort of a comedy writer’s room term for a very familiar character, like a troupe, a cliché. Or “let’s go deeper with that.” “What’s a different color for that?” I think that’s what we aspire to.
Well when you talk about avoiding stereotypical characters, I would imagine children are very hard to write. It seems like a lot of kids on television are very one dimensional, or just there for plot points. But the way you guys have taken Shane’s character is very dark. Murdering someone, losing his virginity in a threesome. When writing kids, do you find it’s harder to write things that the audience will believe or do you think it’s easier cause that’s what’s happening in real life?
Victoria: Well, I think in an era of blow job parties… I don’t think I even need to complete that sentence. But I think it’s also just that Shane and Silas are so the product of how they’ve been raised. And to see these boys over the past six years, and everything they’ve had to deal with, it would be equally bullshit to say that they’ve somehow managed to escape unscathed. Or managed to retain any kind of innocence when all they’ve been exposed is adult misbehavior.
Who’s your favorite character to write for?
Stephen: Yeah, I mean of our main cast, Andy is particularly fun to write, cause he can kind of do anything. Justin Kirk is a magic man, as far as I’m concerned. One of the best actors working today, and completely underappreciated. Justin can cover up for the sins of bad writing like no one else. I’ve written some very very sloppy transitions for him, and just emotional swings that don’t make a lot of sense, and he’s been able to pull them off brilliantly. He can also do the most heartbreaking drama and the most hysterical pratfalls and anything in between. His range and skill just make him amazingly fun to write for. But all of our main cast has very specific voices and are very fun to write on their own terms. And a lot of our guest cast is great. Guillermo has been astoundingly fun to write for, some of my favorite scenes are with him and Nancy.
So how did you get into writing?
Stephen: I actually got into writing as a failed actor. I went to college for acting in New York, came out to LA to be an actor, quickly realized no one would hire me. (Laughs) I was running a theater company at the time, and we could no longer afford the rights to the plays we were putting on. So we started writing our own plays. And they were pretty well received, and I thought fuck it, I’ll try writing a screenplay. And it got some attention, won some awards, and a sort of well known director found it through an agency and attached herself as a director. It didn’t go anywhere, but that gave me the encouragement to write another, and then another and it sort of built from there. I didn’t actually land an agent until I went to an alumni mixer for my college. I just wanted to go for free booze and maybe to hook up with an ex-girlfriend, and it happened to also be kind of a job fair. And I got signed at one of the agencies through that.
So how did you make the jump from features to TV?
Stephen: I did movies for a while, I sold a lot of scripts, but none of them got made. And I started really wanting to see things I wrote get made, and TV afforded me that chance. I wrote six or seven pilots for various networks, and I was lucky enough to sell them. But then none of those got made. And finally I thought I have to see something I’ve written filmed. So I begged my agent to get me staffed on a tv show, which I had never done before. Weeds happened to have gotten picked up for seasons 5 and 6, and I somehow got my script to Jenji and we had a meeting and somehow I got hired. And I’ve been there for three years now, and I love it.
I just re-watched the Season Six finale, my final question is this: How do you arrest Richard Dreyfus? He seems like the nicest man ever.
Victoria: My question is, how do you not arrest Richard Dreyfus?
Stephen: That’s true. But it was a move of self sacrifice – he did it out of love. He can still be the nicest man ever.
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