The Writers’ Room: A Documentary, by Matt Corluka
Imagine a place with the musical genius of Jared Leto and the geological wonder of the La Brea Tar Pits. Two conflicting entities: One sucks any and all into its depths, robbing those that come close of their vitality and preserving them in a sort of perma-death, and the other is the La Brea Tar Pits.
That place is Los Angeles, a land of danger, celebrity, and multiple “La”s. We depend on it for our film and TV.
And where does our TV come from? It comes from writers’ rooms.
Writers’ rooms are sacred and difficult to access, like the celebrity entrance of a Scientology center. But we’ve gained entry to one.
The writers’ room of Don’t Touch My Stuff.
It’s 10:30 a.m. PST. As our cameras enter the room, the alpha greets us. It’s the silver-haired showrunner. Having piggy-backed on the success of shows he was peripherally involved in, he makes up for it in his white-maleness.
Around him, staff writers discuss where they had dinner last night. A consulting producer reheated In-n-Out. The writers’ assistant had salad and a La Croix (lemon). “Lampoon” (so-named because of his rare and subtle references of his time at The Harvard Lampoon) went to Providence with his old crew from The Harvard Lampoon.
“Who are they? What makes the ideal ‘crew’? Do you have any Lampoon stories?” For 15 minutes he will answer these questions earnestly, and all will wonder how good his sample could have been.
A fire in his eyes, our showrunner approaches his whiteboard. It’s time to break story.
“Break story.” A term apt in its description of the exertion required. Indeed, the profession of “writer” can make one as stressed as a nurse or a soldier or a cop who now has to wear a bodycam (maybe even more).
Black felt-tip marker in hand, the showrunner listens to his staff. He’s not the only creator trying to make an impression. Nine of them are new to this studio, each with their own bizarre world, none of them a woman or person of color.
And what a world Don’t Touch My Stuff inhabits. It’s a single-camera comedy about two rival wizards whose lives are upended when a video they post goes viral.
Four networks passed on it, citing reasons like “budget” and “what is this?”, but it did find a champion: Netflix. Netflix committed to two seasons in the elevator, then bought the elevator, and then called the elevator “A Netflix Original.”
Back in the musty room, the showrunner stresses the need for original stories. “People can predict narrative,” he says. “So for episode eight, let’s have the lead commit to two things on the same night.”
Even if the writers disagree with the idea, it’s reflexively met with their typical eager nods and undiagnosed mental health issues.
As an aside, the showrunner adds that one of the actors will be coming in shortly.
A hush falls over the room.
Like the Brown Anole Lizard, writers are a territorial bunch. If we were to visit again, they’d be in the same seats they claimed on the first day. If another writer sits in their spot, they will rebuff using passive-aggression (their primary defense mechanism) and tiny nails (from a lack of vitamin D).
But a castmember yields a different response. Oftentimes they will enter the room and, again like the Brown Anole Lizard, the writers will unite in a dear enemy effect, greeting the castmember with silence.
Just as the showrunner steps out to vape, she enters.
Now, watch. Nobody responds to her greeting, or when she asks a question.
Ah, the hush overwhelms her.
Finally, it’s too much. The 11-year-old exits and returns to set, but not before tearfully leaving her birthday cake on the table.
The room relaxes. Back to the script for episode eight.
In between slices of cake, two staff writers add tags to a joke. The first is a former financial analyst-turned MFA grad, and the latter a graduate of the same daycare program the showrunner’s son went to years ago. One of these two will go on to sell a seven-film franchise based on the shared universe of hopscotch; the other will still have an MFA.
More jokes are pitched. They’re quite good, and while one sounds like it was lifted from a Canadian comedy show with fewer viewers but tighter execution, it makes the cut.
All that is said is recorded on an open document, which the assistant will email out tonight.
This assistant is committed. The previous one was a surly boy who refused to work evenings or let writers join in his “Guess The Groin” email chain; the current will skip her parents’ 30th wedding anniversary party for a set visit.
The showrunner returns and looks around. They’re stuck on episode eight.
Still, the snacks dwindle. Outside of staffing season, most writers are antisocial but, like locusts, their swarm can eradicate any manner of nourishment in minutes. The catered bowls of candy and more candy go quickly, especially when the consulting producer — sorry, a quick explanation is needed.
“Guess The Groin” is an email game where one person screencaps the groin area of an actor (male, clothed or nude) from a publicly available photo, crops it, and sends it to the participants.
Those receiving the photo then attempt to guess who it belongs to. If nobody can answer successfully, the one who sent it will get notes on their Westworld spec. With everyone desperate to avoid 60 pages of ostentatious gratuity, competition is fierce. It’s a wonderful but difficult game started by assistants, fresh out of school and unaware of the concept of monitoring software.
More jokes are pitched. Someone asks about lunch. It’s that consulting producer; a writer at the end of his journey, he offers up a bit that bashes a successful multi-hyphenate. The rest of the staff moves past it quickly, as celebrity-bashing is low-hanging fruit and an indicator of laziness.
If only someone would — what’s this?
Can it be?
There! Episode eight—broken! A writer on his second diversity hire has THE ending!
It’s a daring piece that will eventually get the showrunner an incredible “A-” from The A.V. Club and praise from his peers, and for the talented writer who pitched it? A third diversity hire. Yes! This incentivized program is progressive!
After a solid thumbs-up from the showrunner, it’s time for lunch. The writers’ assistant gets out her phone and taps in the orders. Most of the requests are straightforward, but Lampoon orders something that will delay the group’s delivery by 40 minutes, and that causes someone to snap and demand his sample.
They’ve worked hard this morning, but the dance will continue this afternoon and tomorrow, right up until they go into production. With more than 450 scripted shows across all platforms, this is only a glimpse into one writers’ room. It won’t always be like this, especially when Netflix decides to renew the elevator instead of Don’t Touch My Stuff. But for now, they can enjoy the exhilarating process of creating stories.
Next time, we descend into the fringes of comedy to discover a spectacular but more desperate world, where only the most resilient can endure. This is life on the edge of mania. This… is Comedy Websites.
Matt and his dad wore matching outfits every day of a recent family vacation. He’s a fan of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and “The Chaperone 3D .”