Mike Scully is living proof that if you just spend your childhood watching TV and have no college degree or any other marketable skills, you can always fall back on show business.
[Full disclosure: the preceding line was Scully’s invention. Hey, sometimes you take an assist from a professional comedy writer, especially one as accomplished as he is.]
Scully is a television writer and producer perhaps best known as the showrunner for The Simpsons Seasons 9 through 12. Since then he’s had stints producing and writing for shows including Everybody Loves Raymond, Parks and Recreation, and The New Normal, where he’s currently a co-executive producer.
Scully’s won 6 Emmys, was a recipient of WGA’s Lifetime Achievement in Animation Writing Award, and was one of the 11 writers who worked on all 166 drafts of The Simpsons Movie. Not bad for a guy who started out writing jokes for Yakov Smirnoff at 25 bucks a pop.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Scully about writing jokes for Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, his time at The Simpsons, and advice he has for aspiring television writers.
We wrote about your show The Pitts a few weeks ago, but you weren’t given an opportunity to share your side. Here’s your chance. What’s the story there?
Fox said they wanted a live-action cartoon to put after The Simpsons. My wife, Julie Thacker, and I pitched The Pitts to them, and the president of Fox at the time, Sandy Grushow, loved it because it was “wild and crazy.” We had the table reads, which were hilarious, and he loved it because it was “wild and crazy.” Then we shot the episodes and he looked at them and panicked, “This is wild and crazy!!!” Despite promising us the Sunday 8:30 slot, he buried it at 9:30 and it was canceled after four weeks. It was one of those rare instances when a network president lies to a writer. [Laughs.] The comedy execs at Fox were fans of the show, as were their kids, but if the person at the top hates it, it’s not going to happen.
We had an amazing cast, including Dylan Baker and Lizzy Caplan, and an incredible writing staff on The Pitts including Tom Gammill & Max Pross, Brian Scully, Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild, and Seth MacFarlane was a consultant because Fox had just canceled Family Guy for the first or second time.
I think if The Pitts had gone at a more kid-friendly hour, it might have caught on because it was so much fun and family-friendly. But we had a great time doing the show, and we’d love to do it as a family movie.
Your most recent gig was writing jokes for Amy Poehler and Tina Fey when they hosted the Golden Globes. How did that come about?
I had worked on Parks and Rec for several years, and when I heard Amy was going to be one of the hosts, I just told her to let me know if she needed any jokes. She very kindly got me in touch with one of the writers for it.
You had a real murderers’ row of comedy writers writing for that show: yourself, [Weekend Update head writer] Alex Baze, [30 Rock showrunner] Robert Carlock, Seth Meyers. Were you guys ever in the same room together pitching?
95% of it was done by email. I was out here in LA and I think everybody else was in New York. We were just submitting things to Tina and Amy because they had the unenviable job of having to sift through a hundred Argo jokes. But it was a lot of fun. The weekend of the show a couple of the New York people flew out here. Seth Meyers was here and Robert Carlock, and it was a kick for me because I’ve never met them before and I’m a big fan of theirs. And I’ve never met Tina Fey. They have such a great shorthand from all of their years of SNL together, and there were times where I found myself just kind of in awe of how quickly they bounce stuff off of each other and then I would have to remind myself, “Oh wait, I’m being paid to work.” But it was hard not to just be a fan.
Any weird moments at the Golden Globes? Any stories?
I’ve never worked at an award show like that before, but the thing that happens is as soon as the very first acceptance speech occurs there’s somebody telling you that the show’s running long, and we’ve gotta start cutting stuff. That goes on all night long. We gotta go faster, we gotta go faster. And it only takes a few of those speeches to put you behind. The big deal at the awards show is the monologue and 80% of the pressure is in that first 8-10 minutes, and I thought Amy and Tina just killed it.
They were really good.
They had a great time and made it fun for everybody. It was really a great show and fun to watch.
Were there any jokes of yours that made it in that you were proud of particularly?
It’s weird because when you work in a team, I’ve always felt like it’s a team effort, but I will say what I felt were the two biggest jokes in the monologue were not mine but I wish I had written them. [Laughs]
Well at least you’re honest. So currently you’re still on The Simpsons as a part-time deal?
Yeah, I work on The Simpsons one day a week.
But you’re not working on Parks anymore?
No. I’m on an overall deal now with 20th Century Fox, so I’m exclusive to them. I had to leave Parks because that’s an NBC Universal show.
You were a consulting producer for Parks. What does that title mean? Are you brought in to serve as a consultant to the other writers on the show?
It basically just means that you’re not coming in 5 days a week like the other writers. You’re coming in anywhere from 1-4 days a week, and you just dive into whatever they’re working on that day. I loved working on Parks; I’ve been very lucky. I’ve landed on great shows with great writers and cast, but Parks was kind of amplified because when you’re working on stage with the actors and you’re on set for 12 hours a day sometimes you really get to know them. That cast, as far as I’m concerned, is the funniest cast on television. Amy Poehler is the funniest person on TV, period. The fact that she’s the nicest is a bonus. Amy sets a very positive tone every day and she works the most hours of all.
I really think it is the happiest set in television right now. It’s fun to be there. The cast will come up with things on the fly and you can do a quick rewrite of a scene or an alternative of a scene, and they pick it up so quickly sometimes you wind up getting better stuff than you had in the script. They’ve even been foolish enough to let me “act” on the show twice, playing an idiotic town meeting complainer named Pearl. The part was written for a woman, but then Mike Schur got the idea to cast me, but thought it was funny to leave the character name Pearl. So when I had to check in for make-up and wardrobe, they’d ask, “Who are you playing?” and I’d have to say “Pearl.”
What specifically do you, as someone who’s got a lot of television experience, bring to a show like that? Are you helping them break stories? Character development? I’m just kind of curious what are some pitfalls that young shows fall into that you can help them with?
Every show is different in terms of what they need. If it’s a first-year show, you’re helping them find what the show is. You’re still figuring out what the strengths and weaknesses of the show are, who the characters are. Like with any great show if you go back to the first season, inevitably you’ll see the characters are quite different than how you remember them. They do evolve over the first couple of seasons. The writers and the cast get in sync, but that comes from working together. You find some things like the dynamic and character relationships that you didn’t expect or a particular character that you didn’t have big plans for suddenly becomes a breakout character. I try to bring in my years of experience and a low-cost lunch order. [Laughs.]
I know how tough it is getting a show off the ground and there’s a lot of pressure because the networks don’t have the patience that they used to have where it might take a show a couple seasons before an audience found it. Now you have to be a hit almost straight out of the gate, which is really unfair and a lot of shows that could’ve developed into great shows don’t get the chance because the temptation is to quickly pull it off the air and replace it with something they’ll also wind up cancelling instead of just sticking with a show, which has paid off many, many times. Whether it’s Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, or even Parks, it takes a while to find a show as writers and performers; it also takes a while for the audience to find the show.
Considering the state of television today and how have to be a hit out of the gate, has that changed your approach as a writer and a producer now as opposed to when you started?
It’s in the back of your head all the time that you don’t have the time to play with something and sort of see what develops. There’s more of a feeling like we’ve got to nail this right away. The fear is if you don’t nail it quickly, you’re gonna get replaced by an amateur singing contest or fat people tying to lose weight or something like that. [Laughs.] You do feel like you’ve got to make something pop to keep it on the air while we figure something out.
How did you get started writing for sitcoms? I saw that you did a little bit of stand-up back in the day but for the most part you wrote spec scripts and were self-taught.
I did some open mic nights. I moved out to Los Angeles from Massachusetts in 1982 and I did some stand-up for a couple years and then I quit by popular demand. [Laughs.] What I found was I didn’t have a real stand-up character, but I did learn a lot about the art of writing jokes and how to streamline them and what seems short on a piece of paper can seem interminable on stage. I learned that stuff very quickly and then started writing jokes for other comics. But all the while I knew the goal was writing television so I was buying old scripts from Larry’s Bookshop in Hollywood. I don’t know if it’s even still open. You could go in and just buy old scripts for like $3 and I just went in and bought as many as I could and studied them like textbooks. I learned the format and just started cranking out spec scripts and 11 short spec scripts and four years later, and I finally got my first job.
What changed about your writing from when you were getting rejected all the time to when you started getting hired?
I was recently cleaning out a garage in my house and found some of my first spec scripts that I remember thinking were quite brilliant at the time, and they were just horrendous. They were all basically a bunch of jokes thrown together with little story. So what I learned over time was how important it is to have a good story and conflict between your characters and that the jokes have to come out of that. My initial go was to let the story be driven by the jokes, which is not a good way to go. You’re entertaining yourself a lot when you write it, but when you read it, it’s really awful. If you’re gonna write comedy, it’s easier to learn story than jokes.
Eventually you got hired to write for The Simpsons. Can you talk about that day when you found out you were going to be hired? Was it a dream come true?
It was the first time in my life I had two job offers at the same time: The Simpsons and Coach. I don’t tell a lot of people this, but I was actually leaning toward Coach because I’ve always wanted to meet Jerry Van Dyke. [Laughs.] Fortunately, my wife shook some sense into me and said, “Are you crazy? It’s the fucking Simpsons!”
I was hired by David Mirkin, and I was so intimidated by the writers in that room that for the first three days I didn’t say a word. I just drove home every night telling myself, “Tomorrow’s the day. I’m going to pitch something great tomorrow.” The longer you don’t speak in a writers room, the more pressure you put on yourself because you know when you finally open your mouth, everyone is going to turn and say, “Who the fuck is that?” So whatever you pitch, it better be amazing. David Mirkin was very patient with me and I’ll always be grateful.
My first day on the show turned out to be Conan O’Brien’s last. We were literally introduced to each other at a table read. We shook hands and then somebody told him he had an urgent phone call. He left to take it, and it was the call from NBC saying they were going to give him the late night spot vacated by David Letterman. I feel like I missed something not getting to work with Conan. He was a legend in the writers’ room, even though he was only on the show about a year and a half. The first script I wrote for the show was called “Lisa’s Rival,” and it was a story left behind by Conan. I probably should have given him some of the money now that I think of it.
So you got that job, and then within like five years you were the showrunner?
Yeah, I started on the show in ‘93 and it’ll be 20 years in April. After the first season, I told my wife we can’t buy anything, we’re not moving, we’re not making any major purchases, because I was so convinced I was going to be out of a job when the season ended. Fortunately, the showrunner who hired me, David Mirkin, picked up my option and they kept me on and then a few years later there was a change. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, who ran the show for Season 7 and 8, left, and I was offered the showrunner spot.
It just seems incredible that in ten years you went from a guy that was self-taught writing spec scripts to running one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. How does that happen?
I have no idea. I never went to college, by the way. I went to community college for half a day and then dropped out because if you quit in the first 48 hours you got your money back.
Springsteen was coming to town in ‘76 and I wanted tickets so that’s why I gave up.
And you’re working with all these Harvard guys, so I can see why you would be intimidated.
18 Harvard guys and me, the village idiot in charge. Very intimidated and scary as hell and at that time we were closing in on 200 episodes. Pretty much any show that reaches that point, you’re close to the end. Seinfeld did I think 170 or 175 and we were already past that. When you take it over your goal at that point is to not fuck it up, and you have to keep coming up with new stories and keeping it fresh. So it was still a challenge, but the show always has a tremendous staff of writers. Al Jean has been running it for the last 10 years and the show still makes me laugh. When I arrived in Season 5, I thought, like any normal show, it was going to end soon, so I thought I was getting in under the wire and would be working there till the end. Now we’re working on Season 25.
Unbelievable. How steep was that learning curve for you, going from writer to showrunner? What sort of things were you picking up along the way to help you figure out how to do that job?
A lot of it is just having the authority to make decisions, right or wrong. The worst thing you can do in a writers room is have them sitting there for two hours on one note. It just becomes very demoralizing. Learning to make decisions, keep things moving forward and listen to your staff. Don’t be a dictator. You hired these people because you think they’re good writers and you value their opinion and you’re crazy if you don’t listen to them. If you have the kind of writers that this show has in the room, you don’t want to just dictate to them. You need to know when they’ve got a better idea than you do.
And how many writers did you oversee? 20 or something?
We probably had like 18 or 20 at the time. We frequently would split into two rooms because having 20 people in one room is very unwieldy and I think the work is a lot more productive with a smaller group. It’s funny going back and doing these DVD commentaries 10 years later. You get a chance to relive every bad decision you made. There are times when you wish you could fast-forward the DVD and just say, “Sorry folks, I don’t know what I was thinking on that one.” [Laughs.] Seemed funny at the time. It’s fun if it’s one you forgot that came out really well because some episodes are bigger challenges than others. It’s a lot of work to get to the finish line, and if it turns out really well, then it’s very satisfying.
Any good stories from the early Simpsons days?
We were writing a Super Bowl episode and wanted to write one of those Super Bowl commercials that’s so crazy, you don’t really know what the product is, so we wrote a parody of a ZZ Top video. A nerdy guy driving through the desert pulls his car into a little gas station and three sexy girls come out and suggestively pop his hood, shove the nozzle in the gas tank, etc. When we finally finished the commercial, we needed a tagline for whatever the product was supposed to be and Tom Martin pitched in a somber voice: “The Catholic Church” and somebody else added “We’ve made a few changes.” When the episode went to Fox, the standards department called and said, “You can’t say this on TV! It’s mocking people’s religious beliefs!” I insisted we weren’t — that we were making fun of crazy Super Bowl commercials. We fought about it for days, then finally they said, “All right, but instead of Catholics, can you make it Methodists?” I asked, “Why is it okay to offend Methodists and not Catholics?!” And the answer was that Methodists don’t complain as much. The show aired with the Catholic line intact the first time, then after a few form letter complaints, the network edited it for the repeat, so it just said, “The Church. We’ve made a few changes.” I think it’s back to the original on the DVD. I’m not sure. In Fox’s defense, they let us bite the hand that feeds us a lot. This was a rare, but very funny, instance.
In your opinion, what makes an ideal writers room? Do you want a mix of the guys who are good in the room, some of the more outgoing types, and then some of the quieter people?
First off all, no Jews. [Laughs.] I think having a real mix of voices and backgrounds makes for a better writer’s room. If everyone’s had the same experiences growing up you’re not getting the value of people being able to reach into their past for story ideas or joke ideas or characters. I think when you have a mix in the room you get a lot of variety, particularly when it comes to stories. It’s always fun to hear family stories and trying to incorporate them into an episode.
There was a lot of that done on The Simpsons, right?
Oh yeah. Some of the best episodes are the ones that are based on some real life story that we take and then put our own spin on. I wrote one years ago about shoplifting based on me shoplifting in eighth grade. My parents never found out about it, so I got to do the episode and play out the scenario of what would happen if they did. It can pay to relive your childhood trauma.
Any other advice for aspiring television writers?
My biggest piece of advice for writers if they want a long career working on staff is pretty simple: “Don’t be an asshole.” If you’re reasonably good at what you do and you’re not a dick, there’s a good chance people will want to work with you. It’s not that complicated. If you pitch a joke and nobody laughs, don’t keep pitching the same joke until everyone wants to kill you. Pitch a different joke. If some line of yours that you liked gets cut during a rewrite of your script, don’t pout or storm out of the room. Pitch a different line. If it gets in, it’s still your line. It’s a small town and reputations get around. You don’t want to be on that list of writers that people refer to as, “They’re funny, but life is short.”
Phil Davidson writes about, performs and produces comedy.