Breaking Into Comedy Writing with ‘Key & Peele’, ‘Community’, and ‘Rick and Morty’ Writer Alex Rubens
Not many writers can break into Hollywood and land work on quality shows like Key and Peele, Rick and Morty, and Community all in one break-neck streak, but Alex Rubens is batting a thousand. Rubens admits a perfect mixture of lucky and good has produced a lot of laughs for the New York native, and with season 5 (or 4b) of Key & Peele starting July 8th and season 2 of Rick and Morty coming July 26th, now seemed like an appropriate time to talk to Alex about how he broke into his comedy career and what he has in store for the future.
How was the transition of moving a network show like Community to Yahoo?
Contrary to what I gather was the popular understanding, the budget of Community was not reduced from NBC. So that’s one thing that’s exciting to me about moving to these online places. It was an amazing crew this year; the new DP Buzz Feitshans was really fantastic and just made the show look great and professional. I remember a year or two ago I was talking to a friend of mine that, on the business side of things, I was a little worried as things move to these online companies and away from the networks that suddenly maybe I’m not going to be able to get paid anymore. He said it’s the opposite because NBC is owned by like, what, GE?
There’s like four or five companies that own everything. When I worked on Key & Peele, it was Viacom, who owns Comedy Central. But when we were working on season six of Community, we were working directly for the company that has the money, and Yahoo’s got a lot of money. So we really were not operating under a reduced budget. Nobody was feeling tight in the purse strings or anything like that. There’s the potential for it to be funny money. And of course money is all I care about. I don’t care about the audience, or the art, or the comedy. You know? It’s all about money for me.
Oh, of course. Exactly. The only writing you want to do is signing the back of your check.
Yeah, ideally it would be signing the back of a check. Maybe make an intern sign it but then I’d have to pay them.
I want to dive into your personal process. I know you’re going to be writing the Substitute Teacher feature for Key & Peele.
And we’re actually just starting to get started on that. It’s been a very long process of waiting for them to pull the trigger and give us the go ahead to get started. It’s just starting to happen. I also wrote with Jordan the Keanu movie, which just started yesterday.
Oh cool, so are you also on the staff for the next Key & Peele season? I’m confused as to how this is all shaking out.
Well it is confusing. The reason you’re confused is because it’s confusing. We finished Key & Peele season 5, I believe they’re calling it season 5. It was technically season 4b. It’s one of those things that Mad Men has done and Battlestar Galactica. You know, shows like Key & Peele. They way they did it was we wrote seasons 4a and 4b all in one big blob and I think we were done in May of 2014, so this season that’s starting July 9th, I think. I get confused because Rick and Morty starts July 26th. But the Key & Peele season that’s about to start we actually wrote at the same time as we were writing the last season, which was more than a year ago.
Was your goal in the room was to be writing things that weren’t going to be seen for a year, thus it’s less topical?
See, that was a concern for us in season 1, because we were writing at least six months before it was going to be on the air. For the most part we weren’t really doing political topical stuff. The main stuff we were working on was the anger translator. What was particularly interesting about that was that the first anger translator sketch which, in my opinion, may be the best, was actually written and filmed for the pilot which happened months before we even started writing season one. That sketch, which was released in like December of 2011 or January of 2012, had been filmed like a year earlier. So even more of a gap than we usually have because it was before the show got picked up. I was very worried about how that was going to play out, but it worked out great.
Actually, there’s one incredibly fortunate thing, he made a reference to Kim Jong Il, Keegan said something about Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Il had died. It was just a stroke of luck for us that Kim Jong Il’s son and replacement was Kim Jong Un, and Keegan just says in the sketch is Kim Jong. He just abbreviates it. Fortunately, that meant that that joke didn’t have the stink of an outdated, untopical kind of thing.
For the most part after that I think most of us kind of learned that it seems to work out OK. There’s a couple different philosophies in the writer’s room at Key & Peele, but I always subscribe to the philosophy that we’re trying to make relatively timeless comedy, if possible. So for the most part we’re not trying to make references to things that would be dated. Not because we’re worried about them becoming dated, but because that’s not really what we’re in the business of doing.
Right, and this is conjecture for me, but it seems like you guys have more time to come up with those ideas than instead of being on like a sketch show like SNL where you have like five days.
Oh yeah. I’ve never worked on a show like that where you’re writing stuff that’s going to be on the air in less than a week. One of my good friends was working on Colbert and I got a little bit of a sense from him of how high pressure that was. But also extremely rewarding, obviously. The way we write Key & Peele is based on a model that, as I understand it, was some sort of Jordan’s idea, and I think it works really well. It’s part of what makes the show successful. We would write literally hundreds and hundreds of sketches. When we get enough sketches to fill the season, we’re just getting started. I remember Jordan talking about this right in the beginning of the show, before it was even picked up, I remember him saying why not have no filler? That’s the goal. And you would think that everybody has that goal, but I’m not sure everybody does think that way. But one way or the other, he very specifically wanted there to be as little filler as possible and he wanted every sketch to be one of the good ones, instead of just some of them be good. The way we try to achieve that is just by writing many, many, many times more sketches than we need and then picking the best. It’s almost like we try to make these seasons be best-ofs.
Are these hundreds of sketches to you completely finished, polished, the buttons are perfect, or are they more so premises that have been fleshed out and they’ve kind of gone through a second or third draft?
It depends, some sketches only go through a couple drafts, some go through many, many, many drafts. Also, one great luxury that we have is that Jordan and Keegan are two of the most amazing comedic performers and improvisers around. So there are some sketches that become quite different in production. One thing I love working with those guys is that I feel like if you gave them a pretty bad script, they could make it good. For the most part, and I’m not just bragging on my part, I’m talking about the other writers — I think we did a good job of writing some good comedy. So we give some good scripts to some brilliant comedic performers. I think that’s how you get a hit. But I may have just talked myself in a circle away from what your question was.
I read you did some improv.
Yes, I did improv before it was cool, back when it was specifically uncool. In college I was in an improv group, I was the director of my college improv group for a year. It was more short-form stuff. I think, and this is probably historically inaccurate and just shows my own ignorance, but I feel like UCB as it grew helped move the improv world into more long form. We did Harolds, which at the time was unusual, our improv group would do the Harold, but mostly it was short form. It was great, it was really fun, I think the group was founded by Phil LaMarr, who’s an amazing comedian and actor. He does a huge amount of brilliant voice over work. If you look at his IMDb page it’ll break your computer.
Do you think improv is a helpful thing to do to become a better writer?
It can be. It’s definitely the only reason I had any confidence that I was at all funny. I had some successes with that group and that was the only sense I had that I could be funny, other than just joking around with friends.
So you weren’t a writer before the improv group, as far as comedic writing?
I was a writer. Probably my first love, as far as books went, was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I think I probably read it when I was a little too young, it probably warped my brain a little bit. To me the ideal was funny writing even before I thought of myself as a comedy writer. I think improv is a very worthwhile thing for anybody who wants to do comedy writing. Interestingly, the staff of Key & Peele, the writing staff, I was the only writer there who was not a brilliant, successful, extremely experienced improv comedian. Everybody there is a kind of an amazing comedic performer. I was the only guy there who was just a writer, but I had done improv in college.
Does that shape the way content is created in the room?
I think yes and no. I think we’re talking literally thousands of sketches over the course of four seasons. Per season, I think we would write at least 200 to 300 sketches.
I guess I’m just trying to formulate your process.
Because there’s so many different sketches, there are a number of different processes. There’s a couple sketches where I’d be at home and I’d think of something and I’d write it down and bring it in. There’s one sketch that I just thought of that just was pretty much word for word what I thought of in my head at my desk that is now on TV. For the most part it was a range of collaboration. Sometimes it would be an idea you had, then the game got changed in the room or notes from the executive producers. There’s a lot of sitting in a room with the other writers shooting the shit and, in some cases, basically creating sketches out of nothing as a group. Or out of almost nothing. Some cases you might say “I feel like I want to do a sketch about a guy who trims hedge animals.” Then the writing staff and the executive producers and Jordan and Keegan, who would be in the room as well, see where our collective minds went.
In a way it sort of is like improv. Sometimes at the end of it we’d go “Eh, let’s not do a sketch about hedge animals.” Other times at the end of it we would have this sketch that we were all excited about that had been written by a group mind. I think that’s the essence of that improv work. One of our show runners, one of our executive producers, Ian Roberts, is one of the founding members of the Upright Citizens Brigade. He’s an incredible genius of comedy game. He’s an incredible super weapon of being able to take a funny thought or idea and turn it into a great thing. That Upright Citizens Brigade philosophy of comedic game was one of the shaping principles of the room.
Could you explain your writing process? I know that, to me, everyone says it’s the worst thing to do to explain comedy, but it’s also something really hard to find information on.
Sure. It’s very different from show to show and process to process. Writing a screenplay is different from writing a show and writing Key & Peele is different from writing Community is different from writing Rick and Morty. The one thing I can say broadly about comedy writing, about all of those things, I really feel like I learned from Jordan. I mean, I owe him my career, he’s the one who thought that I might be good at it and gave me a chance. Because of that, you could say he had a mentorship role for me, especially in the first season of Key & Peele. I didn’t really feel like I knew what I was doing until season 2. I had never written for television before, I had never written sketches before, and I had a lot of self-doubt about being a comedy writer. So the simplest, shortest version of the story of how he helped me become a better comedy writer is that he urged me to find and follow the funny as opposed to trying to think it out.
I think for the first season, the way I would write comedy is I would sit down and think, “What should I write? What would be a good comedy sketch? What should comedy be?” It was like sitting outside of myself watching myself and telling myself what to do. And it’s almost exactly the opposite of that that he was encouraging me to do. He was saying find the feeling inside you that makes you giggle and explore that. Follow that. By the time I felt kind of good at writing sketches at Key & Peele, it felt like it was less about process. I mean process is key. Process is how you realize the idea, but the way that I would sit down and write something that tickled me and playing with it and fleshing it out. Does that make sense?
I’m right outside of Chicago and I have to say that everyone roots so hard for Key & Peele because Key’s from Second City.
Yeah, and Jordan and Becky Drysdale, who he kind of got started with and she’s one of the writers for the show and co-produces. They both were working the house at Second City.
UCB seems to have the west while Second City is the number one dog in Chicago.
Yeah, for sure. UCB kind of rules out here for sure. I don’t know why or how. I think partly because it’s great, but I also think that you’ll get some momentum going. You can’t stop it. This is probably unfair because I haven’t read an issue of the Harvard Lampoon in the last thirty years, but the Harvard Lampoon is like a feeder for comedy writers because right now the Harvard Lampoon’s producing fantastic comedy. The reputation itself begins to have its own weight.
Right. I want to say that Simon Rich is the last person to come out of there off the top of my head.
And look, I know some people who have come out of there and are fantastic. I hope I’m not…
No, I totally get what you’re saying.
Yeah, I’m not saying anything negative. All I know about them is that they’re a feeder. I don’t even know how to read the Harvard Lampoon.
It’s so true. If I could figure out how to read it, I probably would.
Right, I might get a very rude awakening. Or it might be a very polite awakening.
I know you said you wrote the last season of Key & Peele a year ago, but then you went through Community and now you have Rick and Morty coming out…
I have been extremely fortunate. I’ve been stupid lucky.
Yeah, maybe we can go back to that. How did you even break in? I’d love to know that.
Sure. I always stumble around trying to figure out what the process was. I was writing for my whole life. I wrote for about ten or eleven years before I got anywhere. Got my ten thousand hours, or whatever. The way I broke in, and I think I wrote this down at some point, which is why I remember it, but pretty soon before I got my big break I remember sort of looking forward into the future at my theoretical future self who was a professional writer and saying to that person, “You’re not better than me, you’re just lucky.” And it’s true. I am a better writer now, but I’m a better writer because I’ve spent years writing more. The more you write, the better you get. I got to work with fantastic people, but the core of what and who I am was the same before I made it anywhere.
I’ve worked with a lot of comedy writers and literally no two of them have the same story. Everybody comes in a different way, which is encouraging and discouraging depending on how you look at it. I think breaking in is a very apt metaphor because Hollywood in particular doesn’t really have a port. It doesn’t have an airlock. The way you get in is by breaking in. Once you’re in, it’s great. When the executive producers of Key & Peele, including Jordan and Keegan and Ian, said to Comedy Central here’s who we want to hire, Comedy Central at first said no because I had never written for TV before. So it’s a Catch 22. My lucky break is that I met Jordan Peele. The part that’s half luck and half something else is that we really hit it off creatively in what is still probably the best collaborative experience of my life. We wrote a fun 1980s-style horror movie together just out of pure excitement and we collaborated really, really well together. The first great collaboration of my writing career for me and a good one for him I guess. So then when he got his show a year later, he brought up me and said “Hey, why don’t you submit a sketch packet?” There’s no way anyone would have ever considered reading my sketch packet for that show except that Jordan, whose show it was, thought I would be good to work with. So that’s my lucky break. My advice to young writers is have your best friend from kindergarten become friends later with someone who’s going to get his own TV show and have him think you’re a good writer.
Ah, so in other words you’re saying get started early.
Yeah, I mean the non-joking version of it is that I did give my whole life to it. Especially about six or seven years ago. In some ways I’ve been doing this for decades, but six or seven years ago I made the conscious and explicit decision that I would rather die a failure than never really try. I’d rather be lying on my death bed saying “I wish I hadn’t tried to be a writer,” than be lying on my death bed in relative comfort thinking “I wonder what could’ve happened. I wonder if I could’ve done it.” I made that choice and I wagered it all. The very cynical part of me is thinking I could’ve just as easily come up snake eyes. Is that the right metaphor?
Yeah, it is, but at the same time I feel like that’s a common thing for anyone who’s had success in that business. That you have to go all in, otherwise you don’t really win anything to continue the metaphor.
Yeah. I am proud of the work I do. I think I’m a good writer. I’m passionate about it. There are things about me that have helped me. And, slash but I don’t think I can ever be unaware that I could have so easily just not have gotten lucky. I know too many great writers who still are struggling and writers who are not struggling who clearly lucked into it because they’re not that great. It’s not a fair business. I go back and forth between this touchy-feely LA hokey, quasi-pseudo spiritual way of looking at it, which is what you hear out here. And it starts to feel true. If you believe, and you really give yourself to it, and you put positive energy into the universe you’ll get somewhere. I go back and forth between some version of that and then the more cynical New York version of myself which is just it’s dumb fucking luck. Obviously, when opportunity comes around you want to be ready for it, but you don’t have control over it. In all lack of humility, I think I’m good. But in all humility, I met the right guy.
So you left New York and went to LA to pursue comedy writing?
Did you do any standup or did you just go “I am going to write down as much as possible and create an awesome packet.”
I did one open mic where, in retrospect, I did get some chuckles, where that’s not terrible — but it was terrible. I took improv classes at UCB, that was actually Jordan’s recommendation. He said “If you want to make it as a writer in LA, take improv classes at UCB.” First improv class I met somebody who I’m still, to this day, I actually have a meeting with her tomorrow to discuss possible development stuff, because she’s a fantastic comedian. We met and hit it off and saw something in each other that we thought was good and have been in touch since and now are talking about developing television together. Networking-wise, I think it’s been a good thing, but also just creatively a good thing. I also took a UCLA extension class about sitcom writing, which did wind up with me having a couple of spec scripts, although that’s not how I got any of the jobs I’ve got.
At least you finished it. I talk to so many people who don’t finish stuff.
When I came out here, I heard two pieces of advice. Sometimes in the same breath from the same person. One of them was you cannot make it as a writer. Not me personally, just one cannot make it as a writer. You come out to LA and you say “I’m a writer.” Statistically speaking, you’re rounding it to the nearest zero percent. But I also heard the advice that if you stick with it you will definitely succeed. Again, that wasn’t personal to me, it wasn’t specifically about my writing.
I think the reason that that complete contradiction is out there has something to do with what you were just saying. If you look at a pie chart of people who say “I’m a writer” in LA, a huge chunk of those people are not writing anything. Of the people who are writing, some of them are people who really, really, really can’t write. Like, at all. And I don’t mean in the way that they’re not good enough or we all think we’re frauds. Some people I just think, “why do you think you’re a writer? Just out of curiosity.” When you look at the pie chart, the slice of people who can write at all and actually are doing it and really commit to it and really stick with it, suddenly you’re looking for a much, much tinier sliver of that pie. I think that’s the issue.
It’s easy to be out here in Hollywood saying I am this, I am that, and just not really do it. That’s one thing that both nice and not nice about Hollywood. Coming from New York, it’s a very easy lifestyle. Compared to most of the United States, that’s probably not true. Coming from New York, you can sort of kick back and “writer” not write anything ever and be in between jobs for your whole life. To be totally clear, I don’t mean that’s why people don’t make it as writers. There are some of the most hardest working, brilliant geniuses writing don’t necessarily get anywhere because the business is not fair. It’s not a meritocracy. There is value in certain circumstances, but that’s not how you get somewhere.
Your pie chart analogy to me is perfect because you have to think there’s this small sliver who are kicking ass and working really hard, but that whole pie chart is still submitting spec scripts. So even if you only have competition among five percent of the hundred percent, if ninety five percent are turning in scripts, there’s so much noise out there and it’s hard to get noticed.
And one of the biggest challenges and one of the unfair things about this business is that nobody is really inclined to to do anybody any favors. No one really wants to read your stuff. I almost got stopped at the gate because I hadn’t been in yet. And I don’t blame them for that. If I were hiring for a new show and somebody had never written for TV before, I’d want to be really sure that… you know, someone who has written for TV before, has written for TV before. It’s job experience. When you’re hiring, you’re not thinking that you want to help give someone a break, you want to get someone into the industry. You’re thinking who are the best people for this job. Someone who has logged many hours in a writer’s room has a leg up. It’s not fair in terms of breaking in, but it’s fair in terms of hiring practices. I think about it a lot. I hope that when I’m in a position to hire people I like helping people, but I understand how quickly people end up putting walls down around themselves. There’s just too much of an ocean washing around them.
You’re the most gentle New Yorker I think I’ve ever met.
I think my broiling darkness has found a place inside of me where it doesn’t, for the most part, harm others. But it’s there.