Someone who I really admire in the world of comedy (you’d probably know his name if I said it, but I don’t know if he’d want me saying it and I’m generally a nervous kind of person about those sorts of things) told me during a brief meet and greet about two years ago that he was glad I was interested in comedy and not drama. His exact words were something like: “If you told me you wanted to be a dramatic screenwriter, I’d tell you go find a real job because, unless JJ Abrams is your uncle or something, you’re not getting in the door. But with comedy, you’ve got a shot. Anyone does, and you can get your break at any time. You just have to be funny.” These were, and still are, the most hopeful words anyone’s ever uttered in my direction and they heartened me to embark on a career in this industry. More, my unnamed laugh oracle was totally right. In the world of comedy, talent and perseverance can make you, no matter what your resume or family tree looks like.
The one thing he didn’t impart is something Ground Game creator Aaron Hilliard can speak a lot about and that’s: Even after you’ve got your foot in the door, whether that be as a staff writer, producer, creator or, in Hilliard’s case, all three, you can’t take a second to breathe. Ours is a fickle industry and even the most talented artists usually take a long time to get chugging along in a visible way. The upshot? Always be thinking about new ideas and writing them down and don’t concentrate so much on the end goal. It sounds trite but enjoying every small and medium-sized triumph on the way to what may turn into something bigger is the only way to stay even partially sane.
I’ll let Aaron elaborate.
What did you did before this?
I’m a television writer, that’s sort of my day job and I’ve written on a lot of television shows that no one has ever heard of because they get picked up and then get cancelled after a few episodes so I don’t have a particularly name-drop-worthy career. Really the only thing that people tend to be aware of is The Life and Times of Tim on HBO, I wrote and produced the first season of that show. But basically my background is writing TV scripts and I’ve always wanted to get to the point where instead of writing on someone else’s creation I create my own shows. I’m sort of trying to become a show runner. So, as a sort of back-end way of doing things, I started making very low-budget web series that were kind of an attempt to show on a very shoe-string level that I know how to write and direct and do all of the things outside of just writing a script, but actually putting them up on their feet. I shot a couple of web series a couple of years ago, one called Grass Roots, which was where Ground Game started to emerge. I ended up partnering up with the Russo Brothers, who are kind of prolific comedy producers who did Community and Arrested Development back in the day, so these are guys that I was very excited to work with and they really liked my web series and they really liked the spec script that I had written. So we started a relationship. And they’re actually friends with Justin Lin, the guy who directs the Fast and Furious movies, but he also runs the YOMYOMF YouTube channel that ended up putting Ground Game on. One thing lead to another and they took a script that I had written for a TV show and they said, “Hey, let’s see if there’s a version of this that would work better on the web” and we changed a few things and ground game was born.
Wow, that’s great. Everything kind of clicked, it sounds like.
Yeah, I’ve started to learn, especially in the last 2 years, that with development in Hollywood, the period from the inception of an idea to it getting on screen is often way longer than anyone out there that’s not in Hollywood would ever imagine. I started writing a TV version of the Ground Game script 4 years ago, it was around the time that Obama was first elected and now he’s just won his second election. It’s a strange process.
You have the Russo Brothers; you have a great kind of pilot package of six episodes, what’s the next step for you guys?
I’m taking the web series, which, all told, is probably about 40 minutes worth of material, and instead of just presenting the whole web series to TV networks, I’m taking that footage and I’m cutting it in a new way into a 22-minute TV pilot. That’s losing about half the material, but in the end I think it’s better to just give the executives a finished package of something that shows how this thing would really work on television.
Absolutely. It gives an idea of tone and of character and it really provides much more than just the spec script.
And that’s pretty huge. That was why I jumped into this stuff in the first place, four or five years ago shooting web series. I feel, as a comedy writer, my strongest material doesn’t get a laugh on the page and I think that part of it is that I have a very heavy improv background and some of the stuff that ends up being funniest isn’t on paper. If you can find a way to bring those little intangibles to the screen on a reasonable budget, then you’re that much farther ahead when you’re discussing it with someone who could give you more of a budget.
A lot of comedy writers who are big on what’s on the page, myself included, try to make almost every other line have a joke in it. Not necessarily a multi-cam zinger, but some kind of funny thing that happens every other line or so. I noticed in your writing that that’s not really always there, but a lot of it is in between the lines, which I really think works but it’s a different kind of writing for sure.
That’s an interesting point and I think that one thing that allowed me to go in that direction with this project is that I was working with mainly folks who are friends of mine as performers, who I’ve worked with many times in the past, and I really know how to use them behaviorally. Both Josh Dean, who plays the campaign manager, and Kit Ponjetti, who plays Macie, the chief of staff. Those guys are very good friends of mine and we have performed both improv and written material for like a decade now. Both of these roles were written for them so I can say, “In this scene it’s just going to be two people sitting across a desk, the thing that will be funny is watching how desperate Kit’s character will be to gain the respect of her boss.” That doesn’t have to come across in dialogue; the reaction shots are as funny as any punchline.
I appreciate that. I’m a big fan of subtlety.
One of my biggest inspirations lately, in the last five years or so, has been Armando Ianucci. The show that preceded In The Loop in England, The Thick of It, that is basically my favorite television show of all time and kind of the inspiration for Ground Game. I didn’t want to just do another version of Armando’s show, but I used him as a sort of directorial model. That fly on the wall camera style and very naturalistic, fast-paced tone. And not fast paced in terms of jokes per minute, but a lot of moving around quickly between shots and letting the audience pick things up a little late. I love that it’s subtle enough that it’s not hammering you over the head. You might be half way into an episode and then suddenly piece together a joke from before.
Three reasons to watch Ground Game:
One of the scariest things to do if you’re a comedy writer is ease off on-the-page jokes in favor of building a comedic world where you’re relying on your actors’ improv abilities. Hilliard took a big risk with Ground Game, and it paid off.
From pacing to camera work, Ground Game just feels funny. Even during the moments when what’s being said isn’t uproarious, Hilliard makes the audience chuckle because of the visual context his crew creates. That’s a strong showrunner move.
3. Performance Intangibles
If you happen to know talented improv actors and you happen to be shooting a script you wrote that you’re hoping to show to a network exec…cast the people you know and feel comfortable working with. Always. Big name actors are nice to have, but they’re useless if they don’t get your style. Bottom line: there’s no substitute for chemistry.