Talking to Jim Rash About ‘The Writers’ Room,’ ‘The Way, Way Back,’ and Why We All Love Dean Pelton
It’s rare for a sitcom role as a pansexual Dalmatian fetishist to launch an actor to stardom, but ever since taking on the mantle and accompanying Tina Turner wig of Community’s fashionable and frantic Dean Pelton, comedian Jim Rash has won an Oscar for co-writing The Descendants, debuted as a director with the charming The Way, Way Back, scored a pilot for Fox, and generally worked his way deeper into America’s heart with every new dean-based pun and mocking Angelina Jolie pose. Rash can currently be seen hosting the Sundance Channel’s The Writers’ Room, an insightful look into the writing staffs of some of television’s most popular shows, from the evil geniuses behind Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones to the comedy dream teams who bring us Parks & Recreation and New Girl. I recently had a chance to talk with Rash about his personal writing experiences, his projects with longtime collaborator Nat Faxon, and what he thinks is behind Dean Pelton’s almost Magnitude-levels of popularity.
So you’re hosting The Writers’ Room and you’re also known for your work with writing partner Nat Faxon. Has writing always appealed to you as more of a collaborative process than an independent one?
Not necessarily because both Nat and I came through the Groundlings program, and we were in the company together. And that really, actually, was sort of like my grad school for writing in a sense that it was probably the most prolific I had to be because we were writing new material and constantly doing shows. And, in that process, you would write sketches on your own, but you also wrote sketches with each of the Groundlings. Nat and I just found that we had an easy time writing together, so we sort of latched onto each other for bigger things. But, y’know, I always have this solo writer in me for other things, so I like to nurture both. I love having a collaboration; it certainly can be helpful in stressful situations. But I also like the pride of, every now and then, of writing something on my own, like doing Community last year.
Did you work in the writers’ room for the Community episode?
I spent two weeks with a group of writers in the room while we were shooting season four. So that really was my first taste of the process of pitching out a few stories, and then when we’d latch onto one, breaking the story together, and then sending me off to write the script. So that was my first taste of it all.
Having you learned anything from hosting The Writers’ Room that you hope to incorporate into your own writing process?
Well, I think it’s not whether I learn, but I’ve certainly been inspired. I’m inspired always when you get around people and talk about their process, but also more about what they were going for. In talking about Breaking Bad and Walt and the complexity of that character and the fact that he was changing and evolving and that was very different, a little bit, for the time for TV. That’s inspiring when thinking of your own characters, and how far have you gone with them and how adept are they? But it also reminded me that there’s nothing better than a support group when you’re writing, as far as people to reach out to and figure out the problems, rather than getting stuck in your own head. So, if anything, it’s just a reminder and an inspiration for me to continue to want to keep writing.
You interviewed Vince Gilligan for Breaking Bad and you come from Community, which is very much a show that was filtered through the vision of Dan Harmon. So, doing all of these Writers’ Room interviews, did you find that it’s imperative to have a showrunner who can unify everyone’s voices?
Well, I certainly think it comes when they were also the creator. When Vince and Dan, as examples, and then whoever else, y’know, Michael Schur with Parks and Rec, and the people that wrote the pilot or conceived of this idea, I certainly think that they’re instrumental in putting together their writing team and finding the people that understand the vision and write to it and can help add to it and help it flourish. I know there’s obviously showrunners who come on to a show after its incarnation and, whether they’re a writing showrunner or not, guide the day-to-day business. So, I think organization is key and creative vision is key, and consistency. So I can only assume that this is what their main function is, is to make sure that the ship is running and it’s going in a direction that is good for the show.
Has there been any discussion of a second season of The Writers’ Room or other shows that you’d like to explore on the show?
Nothing yet as far as, y’know, we’re two episodes in, as far as airing. So no official word or anything whether we’ll do more. If that day were to come, there’re plenty of shows that would be fun to do. I know that Walking Dead was mentioned at some point. I also would love to maybe do some shows that have left the air not too long ago, or just down the road, that were instrumental in TV history. Whether they were very classic, like The Wire or The Sopranos, or even going further back at some point and talking to Cheers writers about the differences of what it was like then for them and what television was like. So, I feel like there’s plenty of places to go, but nothing’s official.
The fifth season of Community is coming up. Do you still feel any trepidation going into a new season as to whether or not it’ll be the show’s last year? Or, at this point, do you just assume the show will survive anything that’s thrown its way?
Well, I certainly think that we can survive anything. [Laughs.] The history of Community has always been, I’m sure, a very interesting one to write about someday. The ups and downs, the always living on the bubble, and having such a rabid fan base that really sustains the show. But I don’t have any trepidation this year only because of Dan and Chris [McKenna] being back. I feel very comfortable, very excited. I know they are. I know there’s a wonderful, renewed energy when you talk to them, and what is pretty much a new writing staff save for one or two other writers who were around last year and the year before. I think it’ll be very exciting, to be honest.
Dean Pelton is probably one of the most popular Community characters, perhaps behind only Magnitude in terms of sheer likability. What do you think endears fans to Dean Pelton so much?
[Laughs.] I don’t know. I mean, I can only see what I’m endeared by is, just the fact that, at the end of the day, despite making horrible decisions, he has the best of intentions. I think that’s a nice thing to have someone who loves his job and his school and just wants it to be better. And I think that’s admirable. And yet, obviously, usually he’s making really horrible mistakes in the process. But there’s something, obviously. I get to be a little bigger-than-life. I’m outside the core study group, so it’s fun to play him heightened, but find what makes him very real at the same time. So, I just enjoy playing him.
Would you be open to writing another episode this season?
If asked, of course I’m never going to say no to something like that, but I don’t have any plans to write this year. I think they’re more than organized and ready to go and I trust them explicitly and they don’t need me, honestly. [Laughs.] They can do something so much better than my brain when it comes to Community. I mean, Dan, it came from his brain, and Chris knows Dan so well, and I’m sure the writers are raring to go. So I feel like they certainly don’t need me.
But last season you did give us an amazing Jeff Winger impression, I would say.
Well thank you, thank you. [Laughs.] I pride myself on knowing Joel [McHale] and Jeff Winger very well.
Your second movie, The Way, Way Back, came out earlier this summer. What made you want to do a coming-of-age film?
Well, we wrote that eight years ago, long before we were even involved with The Descendants. When it started out we were going to write a comedy within the water park, pulling from our training in the Groundlings and the eclectic characters, and we thought that was an interesting world at the time. Then I shared this personal story with Nat because we were talking about our protagonist, and I said, “Well, there’s this story of me as a kid, when I was fourteen.” So pretty much that scene is the first scene of the movie, which is where Steve Carell’s character is asking him, “What do you think you are on a scale of one to ten?” That scene actually happened to me when I was a kid. The exact same situation, being in a station wagon on the way to summer vacation with my stepfather at the time. And that just seemed to drive us even more. So the water park became more our B-story and the family stuff became the drive of the very beginning and the journey of Duncan. So, in a way, it became a coming-of-age because of that first scene.
Both The Way, Way Back and The Descendants deal with communities that spring up in these vacation spots. What interests you about that setting and about the characters that inhabit them?
Obviously that wasn’t my plan because we had written that thing and then it just so happened that The Descendants took place in paradise, but specifically in talking about both of them, I’d say that vacation time is a very vulnerable area for people because we’re off on the road, yet generally we’re away from our comfort of our home where we’re in control. Our safety net is gone, and we expose ourselves, and I think that’s why a lot of people have amazing summer times that can easily link to a coming-of-age or a pivotal moment in their life because you really are at your most raw. You’re exposed and feelings are at the forefront, and I think often travel can be stressful, so real things come out with family during those times that maybe they have pushed down when they’re at home. So I think it just puts it in a weird state sometimes, where we’re relaxed and sort of vulnerable.
The sitcom Fatrick, which you’re producing with Nahnatchka Khan and Nat Faxon, was recently ordered to pilot by Fox. How did you get involved with that project?
Well, we know Corey Nickerson, who was writing it with Nahnatchka. We have been friends with her for many years, and they reached out to us because they had this idea and they were looking for us to come along and potentially direct it. And we weren’t really thinking about getting into TV in this way right now. We certainly developed for TV a long time ago and certainly want to do it again, but we thought that might be down the road. But then we really enjoyed this idea, and there’s a visual element to it that seemed very interesting and fun, that would be a little bit different from TV tonally, So we just jumped on and hopefully we’ll direct the pilot if all the schedules work out.
Jeremy Popkin is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. His work has been featured on Ology, Nerve, and Destructoid.