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Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

More of the Greatest TV Writers Rooms Ever

This past summer, we ran a piece on the greatest writers’ rooms ever, taking a look at some of the most influential groups of comedy writers in TV history. The staffs of classics like Your Show of Shows, Mary Tyler Moore, and SCTV, as well as the writers responsible for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live’s golden eras, made our original list. In putting the piece together, though, we were reminded of the sheer number of amazing TV comedies that have made it to air since the medium’s inception, each one boasting its own eclectic roster of comedic geniuses. TV history is littered with enough murderers’ rows of comedy writers to fill 10 lists, so why not make just one more?

Take the original writing staff behind Late Night with David Letterman, for example. On Late Night, they reinvented the comedy talk show by creating a program that still has many imitators today; but once these writers went off in separate directions, they created TV shows as different as Get a Life and Monk, took Broadway by storm, and played major parts in three of the most admired TV comedies of the decade that followed: The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and Seinfeld. That’s just one of the extraordinary gangs of humorists on this list. Here are some other incredible comedy writing staffs:

The Frost Report (BBC, 1966-1967)
Staff: Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie (The Goodies); Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin (Monty Python); Barry Cryer (The Two Ronnies), Marty Feldman (Young Frankenstein), James Gilbert (The Two Ronnies), Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse (Billy Liar); Antony Jay (Yes Minister), John Law (Marty), Frank Muir and Denis Norden (Take it From Here), David Nobbs (Reggie Perrin), Peter Tinniswood (TW3), and Dick Vosburgh (The Two Ronnies)

Following in the footsteps of David Frost’s previous series That Was the Week that Was, The Frost Report was an equally-influential satirical show that saw Frost rehiring a lot of the talent from TW3 and bringing in some new blood, as well. Most notable is the presence of a pre-Monty Python John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, and Graham Chapman (a.k.a. Python-sans-Gilliam), who learned to write together here. Also amongst the Pythons were columnist/playwright/novelist Keith Waterhouse, Mel Brooks regular Marty Feldman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie of The Goodies fame, longtime comedy partners Frank Muir and Denis Norden, Antony Jay, co-creator of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, and a lot of guys who went on to work on The Two Ronnies (Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett first appeared together in the cast of The Frost Report).

Late Night with David Letterman (NBC, Original Staff, 1982-1984)
Staff: Andy Breckman (Monk), James Downey (SNL), Chris Elliott (Get a Life), Sandy Frank (In Living Color), Tom Gammill & Max Pross (Seinfeld), Ted Greenberg, Rich Hall (SNL), David Letterman, Merrill Markoe (Newhart), Jeff Martin (The Simpsons), George Meyer (The Simpsons), Gerard Mulligan (Late Show with Letterman), Steve O’Donnell (Jimmy Kimmel Live), Joe Toplyn (Monk), Matt Wickline (In Living Color), and David Yazbek (Tony-nominated Broadway composer/lyricist)

Letterman’s Late Night forever changed the talk show and influenced every late night host who followed, from Stewart to Kimmel to Conan; and that’s no small part due to the diverse collection of comedic minds assembled here. Bringing Chris Elliott, Rich Hall, Merrill Markoe, and Gerald Mulligan from his short-lived NBC morning show, David Letterman turned the stuffy talk format on its head—both figuratively and literally (the show once did an “Upside Down Episode”). Letterman’s original staff of writers would come to shape the most influential humor of the 90’s, including Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and cult hit Get a Life. Worth singling out are Andy Breckman, creator of Monk; James Downey, a writer for SNL since the show’s 70’s glory era who still handles much of SNL’s political content today; Steve O’Donnell, who served as Late Night with Letterman’s head writer for most of its run; George Meyer, an early Simpsons writer and publisher of the underground comedy zine Army Man; Gerard Mulligan, Letterman’s longest-serving writer who stayed with him from 1980 to 2005, across three timeslots, two networks and three shows; and Merrill Markoe, Letterman’s first head writer who created many of the shows regular segments that are still with it today (Stupid Pet Tricks, Viewer Mail). The presence of a female head writer was a rarity in late night during this era, and sadly, still is today.

Not Necessarily the News (HBO, Season One, 1983)
Staff: Larry Arnstein (Saturday Night Live), Rich Hall (Late Night with David Letterman), Sam Haam (Not Necessarily the News), David Hurwitz (Head of the Class), Al Jean (The Simpsons) Tom Kramer (Penn & Teller: Bullshit!), Mike Lupper (Not Necessarily the News), Ian Maxtone-Graham (Saturday Night Live), George Meyer (The Simpsons), John Moffitt (Mr. Show), Matt Neuman (Hollywood Squares), Conan O’Brien (Conan), Elaine Pope (Seinfeld), Mike Reiss (The Simpsons), Ron Richards (The Tonight Show with Jay Leno), and Jame Wendell (Not Necessarily the News)

Not Necessarily the News is a little known, largely forgotten, highly influential sketch show that aired on HBO from 1983-1990. Its season one roster of writers helped shape comedy over the 20 years, including Elaine Pope wrote three episodes of Seinfeld, including “The Cheever Letters,” as well as the screenplay for 2004 remake of Alfie, starring Jude Law; Carson, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Simpsons, and The Critic writers, Al Jean and Mike Reiss; and Ian Maxtone-Graham, who wrote for SNL from 1992-1995. Everything came full circle, too, in the Simpsons episode “Homer Goes to College,” when Homer fills out an application essay and has to list his three favorite books. He answers, “Son of Sniglet,” referring to the Rich Hall-created, NNTN-founded term that means “any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but should.” Who wrote that episode? Conan O’Brien, whose first professional writing job was for NNTN. Two years later, in 1985, Greg Daniels, who co-created King of the Hill, NBC’s The Office, and Parks and Recreation (and worked with Conan on The Simpsons, too), joined the staff, as well.

Cheers (NBC, Season Three, 1984-1985)
Staff: David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee (Frasier), Glen and Les Charles (Taxi), Ken Estin (The Tortellis), David Isaacs and Ken Levine (Becker), David Lloyd (The Mary Tyler Moore), Jim Parker (Charles in Charge), Heide Perlman (The Bill Engvall Show), Tom Reeder (Night Court), Elliot Shoenman (Home Improvement), and Sam Simon (The Simpsons)

Season three of Cheers is right when people other than critics began talking about the show (largely because of the casting addition of Kelsey Grammer as Dr. Frasier Crane), but right before it became one of the most popular sitcoms on TV. It finished #13 in the Nielsen ratings; a year later, Cheers would hit #5 and never drop out of the top-ten for the rest of its 11-season run. The writing staff was relatively small, at least compared to other shows on this list, but what it lacked in size, it made up for in performance. Power trio David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee would later create Wings and, more importantly, Frasier, together, assisting Grammer with his eventual record of playing the longest-running sitcom character of all-time. Elliot Shoenman wrote and produced many episodes of Home Improvement, while David Isaacs and Ken Levine created Almost Perfect and penned installments of The Simpsons, M*A*S*H, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Becker. After developing The Simpsons with Matt Groening and James L. Brooks, Sam Simon left the show after its fourth season, but continues to receive an executive producer credit; he has also written for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The George Carlin Show (which he co-created), and The Drew Carey Show. David Lloyd was one of the most celebrated comedy writers of all-time. He was Johnny Carson’s favorite monologue writer for The Tonight Show, and would later pen episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (including “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” the best or third best episode of any show ever, according to whichever TV Guide list you believe to be more sacred and less full of shit), Lou Grant, Taxi, Wings, and Frasier, among many, many others. He passed away too soon in 2009, but his son, Modern Family co-creator Christopher Lloyd, dedicated an episode of his hit ABC sitcom to his dad, which ended with a phrase David wrote for "Chuckles": “A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”

In Living Color (FOX, Season Three, 1991-1992)
Staff: Franklyn Ajaye (Politically Incorrect), Fax Bahr (MADtv), Kim Bass (Kenan & Kel), John Bowman (Martin), Jim Carrey (Ace Ventura), Jeanette Collins (Suddenly Susan), Barry Douglas (City Guys), Harry Dunn (The Pretender), Greg Fields (The Parent ‘Hood), Les Firestein (Wanda at Large), Sandy Frank (The Jamie Foxx Show), Mimi Friedman (Suddenly Susan), Fred Graver (Best Week Ever), Becky Hartman Edwards (The Larry Sanders Show), Ron Hauge (The Simpsons), Michelle Jones (Out All Night), Paul Mooney (Chappelle’s Show), J.J. Paulsen (Cosby), Charlie Rubin (The Jon Stewart Show), Buddy Sheffield (Roundhouse), Adam Small (MADtv), Michael Anthony Snowden (South Park), Warren Thomas (Premium Blend), Steve Tompkins (The PJs), Joe Toplyn (Monk), Pam Veasey (CSI: NY), Damon Wayans (My Wife and Kids), Keenen Ivory Wayans (The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show), Matt Wickline (The Hughleys), Larry Wilmore (The Bernie Mac Show), and Marc Wilmore (The Simpsons)

Jim Carrey is obviously the big name here, but Fire Marshall Bill really only contributed “special material’ to In Living Color’s underrated, excellent third season. It’s the rest of the huge writing staff, including creator Keenen Ivory Wayans, who did much of the behind-the-scenes grunt work, and their efforts would be rewarded in the following years, because many of the names listed above went on to create shows of their own. Just Fax Bahr and Adam Small, John Bowman and Matt Wickline, Damon Wayans, and Larry Wilmore alone created Gary & Mike, The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, Blue Collar TV, MADtv, The Show, Martin, Cedric the Entertainer Presents, Frank TV, The Hughleys, 413 Hope St., Damon, My Wife and Kids, The Underground, Rodney, The PJs, and The Bernie Mac Show; while Kim Bass gave us Sister, Sister and Kenan & Kel; Fred Graver, Best Week Ever (he also wrote for Cheers); and Buddy Sheffield, Roundhouse. Elsewhere, Les Firestein, one of In Living Color’s head writers, co-created Wanda at Large; Paul Mooney wrote and starred in one of the Chappelle's Show greatest skits, “Negrodamus”; and Ron Hague penned episodes of The Simpsons, Rocko’s Modern Life, and Seinfeld, including “The Marine Biologist.” And we've only just scratched the surface. If you laughed at a show in the past decade, it's likely someone from In Living Color wrote or produced it at some point.

Late Night with Conan O’Brien (NBC, Original Staff, 1993-1994)
Staff: Tom Agna (The Chris Rock Show), Tommy Blacha (Metalocalypse), Louis C.K. (Louie), Michael Gordon (Conan), Marsh McCall (Just Shoot Me!), Conan O’Brien (Conan), Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show), David Reynolds (Finding Nemo), Andy Richter (Andy Richter Controls the Universe), Robert Smigel (SNL), and Dino Stamatopoulos (Community)

Let’s say you could draft writers rooms the same you do individual players for fantasy football. If I had the number one pick and could choose any single room in the history of televised comedy, well: with the first selection of the Comedy Draft, the Masturbating Bears take the Staff of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, circa 1993-1994. Because, with the benefit of 1993-1994 being in the past, we know now: Tom Agna would win an Emmy for his work on The Chris Rock Show; Tommy Blacha, Louis C.K., Bob Odenkirk, Andy Richter, and Dino Stamatopoulos would create Metalocalypse, Louie, Mr. Show, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and Moral Orel, among other shows; Rogert Smigel’s TV Funhouse shorts would become a highlight of SNL for years to come; and David Reynolds would co-write the screenplay for Finding Nemo. Not too shabby.

The Critic (FOX, Season One, 1994)
Staff: Judd Apatow (Freaks and Geeks), Tom Brady (Good Vibes), Tom Gammill (Seinfeld), Al Jean (The Simpsons), Ken Keeler (Futurama), Steven Levitan (Modern Family), Max Pross (Seinfeld), Mike Reiss (The Simpsons), Nell Scovell (Sabrina, the Teenage Witch), Steve Tompkins (The PJs), Patric M. Verrone (Muppets Tonight), and Jon Vitti (King of the Hill)

Mike Reiss and Al Jean, the creators of The Critic, met while students at Harvard University, and worked together on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. They became the first members of the original Simpsons writing staff, and eventually became dual show runners for the show's third and fourth seasons, cementing their spot in the Comedy Hall of Fame. They left The Simpsons in 1993 to work on The Critic, and tapped Tom Gammill and Max Pross (both of whom would later become executive producers of The Simpsons), Steven Levitan (creator of Just Shoot Me! and Modern Family), Nell Scovell (creator of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch), Tom Brady (writer and director of The Hot Chick), Steve Tompkins (creator of The PJs), Judd Apatow (like you don’t know), Jon Vitti (the second most prolific writer in Simpsons history, penning such classics as “Cape Feare”), Ken Keeler (who wrote the best episode of Futurama, “The Devil’s Hands are Idle Playthings”) and Patric M. Verrone (former-Johnny Carson writer) to write episodes for the show’s great first season.

The Larry Sanders Show (HBO, Season Three, 1994)
Staff: Judd Apatow (Knocked Up), Maya Forbes (Monsters vs Aliens), Mike Martineau (Rescue Me), John Riggi (30 Rock), Drake Sather (Zoolander), Garry Shandling (It’s Garry Shandling’s Show), Paul Simms (NewsRadio), and Peter Tolan (Rescue Me)

After presiding over an excellent writers’ room for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in the late 80’s, Garry Shandling assembled another comedic dream team for his second series. Shandling served as showrunner with Peter Tolan throughout all six years of the show, but the Season 3 staff is one of the best groups of scribes they ever had. Shandling mentored writers like Tolan, best known outside Sanders for his collaborations with Denis Leary (Rescue Me, The Job) and Harold Ramis (Analyze This, Bedazzled); Judd Apatow, who was coming off of the implosion of The Ben Stiller Show at the time but is now arguably the most powerful figure in the comedy world as of this writing; Paul Simms, who was one of the most prominent writers on Sanders’s first three seasons before departing to create NewsRadio; longtime 30 Rock producer/writer John Riggi; and Drake Sather, who tragically passed away in 2004 but was responsible for a lot of great comedy while he was here, including serving as a writer/producer on NewsRadio and creating the character Derek Zoolander with Ben Stiller in the 90’s and co-scripting the movie with him years later. The Larry Sanders Show’s third season is one of the best seasons of one of the best comedies ever, with the highlight being the episode “Hank’s Night in the Sun,” in which Hank Kingsley finally gets to guest host the show. Written by Peter Tolan, this Emmy-nominated episode has been cited as a favorite by Garry Shandling, noted LSS enthusiast Ricky Gervais, and many fans.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast (Cartoon Network, Season Four, 1997-1998)
Staff: Mark Banker (Adventure Time), Michael Cahill (Space Ghost Coast to Coast), Rich Dahm (The Colbert Report), Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer (Milk and Cheese comic series), Chip Duffey (Space Ghost Coast to Coast), Matt Harrigan (Celebrity Deathmatch), Randolph Heard (The Tick), Ben Karlin (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), Michael Lazzo (Robot Chicken), Sean LeFleur (TV Funhouse), Matt Maiellaro (Aqua Teen Hunger Force), Andy Merrill (The Brak Show), Michael Ouwellen (Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law), Adam Reed (Archer), Erik Richter (Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law), Pete Smith (The Brak Show), Matt Thompson (Frisky Dingo), Dan Vebber (Futurama), and Dave Willis (Aqua Teen Hunger Force)

In what should come as a surprise to no one, many members of the Space Ghost writing staff have behind the minds behind some of the most offbeat, hilarious comedy series in recent memory. Williams Street Studio-founder Michael Lazzo created Space Ghost, and has since produced The Powerpuff Girls, Harvey Birdman, The Venture Bros., Robot Chicken, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and Squidbillies, while Matt Harrigan and Adam Reed have gone to create Celebrity Deathmatch and Sealab 2021/Frisky Dingo/Archer.

The Chris Rock Show (HBO, Season Two, 1998-1999)
Staff: Tom Agna (Late Night with Conan O’Brien), Louis C.K. (Louie), Vernon Chatman (Wonder Showzen), Lance Crouther (Real Time with Bill Maher), Gregory Greenberg (Dennis Miller Live), Ali LeRoi (Everybody Hates Chris), Steve O’Donnell (Jimmy Kimmel Live), Chris Rock (Everybody Hates Chris), Frank Sebastiano (SNL), Chuck Sklar (The Man Show), Jeff Stilson (The Daily Show), Wanda Sykes (The Wanda Sykes Show), and Mike Upchurch (Mr. Show)

Chris Rock’s Emmy-winning late night comedy show boasts a writing staff made up of some of the biggest names in comedy today, including Rock himself, Louis C.K., and Wanda Sykes. It’s not just those three big-name comics who are responsible for this show making the list; The Chris Rock Show’s talent pool goes pretty deep. Ali LeRoi co-created Everybody Hates Chris with Rock, in addition to scripting Rock's movies, Down to Earth and Head of State. Steve O’Donnell was an original writer for David Letterman, later serving as a head writer to Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel. Jeff Stilson has worked for Letterman, The Daily Show, Da Ali G Show, and Politically Incorrect. Frank Sebastiano wrote for SNL during the show’s Will Ferrell-led creative renaissance. Last but not least, Vernon Chatman created the production company/art collective PFFR with John Lee, his comedy partner with whom he also created Wonder Showzen, Xavier: Renegade Angel, and The Heart, She Holler. Chatman and Lee also produce and direct Delocated, and Chatman is the voice of Towelie, the pot-smoking talking towel, on South Park.

Crossballs: The Debate Show (Comedy Central, 2004)
Staff: Matt Besser (Upright Citizens Brigade), Mary Birdsong (Reno 911!), Aaron Blitzstein (Family Guy), Chad Carter (Human Giant), Andrew Daly (Eastbound & Down), Dannah Feinglass (MADtv), Chris Gethard (The Chris Gethard Show), Brian Huskey (Childrens Hospital), Laura Krafft (Colbert Report), Dylan Morgan & Josh Siegal (30 Rock), Seth Morris (Affirmation Nation with Bob Ducca), Jerry Minor (Mr. Show), Joe O’Brien (Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson), Paul Scheer (Human Giant), and Charlie Siskel (Tosh.0)

A parody of basic cable political debate shows like CNN’s Crossfire and MSNBC’s Hardball, Crossballs, created by Matt Besser and Charlie Siskel, satirized these shouting matches well by bringing in comedians playing characters to argue with real experts who aren’t in on the joke. The series was quickly canceled after eight weeks, but Besser and Siskel put together a writing staff composed of comedians that would come to dominate the humor field in the years that followed, many of them coming from Besser's own UCB Theatre. Paul Scheer went on to create Human Giant and NTSF:SD:SUV:: (not to mention starring on The League), Seth Morris’s sad sack character Bob Ducca has swept the podcast world, Chris Gethard created and stars in his own off-the-wall public access talk show, and Andrew Daly has become a dependable and frequently-used character actor, popping up in wildly-divergent projects like Eastbound & Down, The Paul Reiser Show, and Yogi Bear. It’s a shame that Crossballs was axed given all of the mayhem and lunacy this group was responsible for, but its “gotcha!” premise meant that potential guests would have caught on to the joke sooner or later.

Human Giant (MTV, Season Two, 2008)
Staff: Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation), Tom Gianas (SNL), Rob Huebel (Childrens Hospital), Paul Scheer (NTSF:SD:SUV::), and Jason Woliner (Eagleheart)

Consultant Writers: Leo Allen (SNL), Eric Appel (NTSF:SD:SUV::), Jon Benjamin (Jon Benjamin Has a Van), Andy Blitz (Late Night with Conan O’Brien), Chad Carter (Crossballs), Jon Glaser (Delocated), Jay Johnston (Mr. Show), Dan Mintz (Important Things with Demetri Martin), Morgan Murphy (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), Patton Oswalt (The Comedians of Comedy), Brian Posehn (Mr. Show), Ian Roberts (Upright Citizens Brigade), and Meredith Scardino (The Colbert Report)

The sketch group Human Giant didn’t have a full writing staff during its run, with its members Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel, Jason Woliner (the often-overlooked non-acting member), and Paul Scheer being the show's only full-time writers, along with TV veteran Tom Gianas, who served as showrunner. What’s unique about the way Human Giant was written, though, is that these guys hired some of the most respected names in comedy, many of them from Conan and Mr. Show, as consultants. These comedy giants came in to kick around ideas and to punch sketches up, their assistance being part of the reason Human Giant is such an outstanding sketch show.

Bradford Evans and Josh Kurp want to start a fantasy comedy league.

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  • http://twitter.com/JesseDavidFox @JesseDavidFox

    Jim Carrey worked on In Living Color? Did he write a lot of stuff for that guy James Carrey who looked JUST like him: http://youtu.be/b4YGjzoK8mo

    In all seriousness, great work sirs. These are some real deep cuts.

  • Louis Sullivan@facebook

    How about the Ben Stiller Show?

  • Megh Wright

    What can I say? This is awesome.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ben-Worcester/818292220 Ben Worcester

      @Megh Wright Seconded.

    • http://www.twitter.com/mattvisconage Matt Visconage

      @Megh Wright Third-ed

  • cdthomas

    No mention of Comic Strip, from whom spawned French & Saunders, AbFab, The Young Ones? For shame.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Comic_Strip

    … which dovetails into Fry & Laurie, which admittedly is a tangent:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fry_and_Laurie

    and, for the now generation, the League of Gentlemen:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_League_of_Gentlemen

  • holgate

    'Not The Nine O'Clock News' is an interesting edge case — not exactly a huge writers' room, but a very good core writing team (including RIchard Curtis, David Renwick, Andy Hamilton, Clive Anderson and the cast) combined with an open door policy for contributors, and the writing credits include a lot of familiar names. That's the approach used by the BBC for its topical radio comedy, starting in the 1970s: the weekly 'non-com[missioned]' writers' meetings were famous for attracting random people off the streets who mainly wanted the tea and biscuits, but launched a lot of careers.

  • MyFavoriteWasteofTime
  • tadaforever

    "while Matt Harrigan and Adam Reed have gone to create Celebrity Deathmatch and Sealab 2021/Frisky Dingo/Archer."

    i think you mean matt thompson. I'm sorry I just got poindexter all over your lovely article that educated me for free.

  • Torres Dale@facebook

    Just love them Writers. I remember when their was a Writers Strike and everyone had to Watch Re-Runs after a while the Writers were back were they belong. Writing. Never underestimate a Writer I know I am one. A Writer that is. ~2011

  • Par Mahn@facebook

    I was watching Inside the actors studio with Conan and saved this great pic of the 1993 writing staff. http://i302.photobucket.com/albums/nn109/controldenied0/conan.jpg

  • animalvegtablemineralman

    verrrrrrry glad to see SGC2C on there. That list is like a who's who of comedy idols to me. Dave Willis, in particular, is my hero.