Inside the Job of a Showrunner with ‘The Comedians’ Ben Wexler

For the past decade television audiences have become increasingly aware of the showrunner, the individual responsible for the day-to-day operations of a television show. Ben Wexler has built his career working on shows like Community and Arrested Development, where the showrunners can stand out as much as the stars. Wexler is now the executive producer and co-creator of FX’s The Comedians. The show stars Billy Crystal and Josh Gad as slightly heightened versions of themselves, teamed up to create a new FX sketch show. I spoke with Wexler about creative freedoms, the many talents of his stars, and the importance of being a decisive showrunner.

How did the concept for The Comedians come about? How did you wind up getting Billy Crystal and Josh Gad together? 

It was originally based on a Swedish show that had a very similar concept. I think the execution is a little different than what we do, but it’s the basic outline of an older comic and a younger comic making a sketch comedy show together. Billy had seen the Swedish show by the time I saw it and so he was already interested. Then we all officially came on board along with Larry Charles, who directs the pilot and eight additional episodes. We all talked about who would be the other guy, but really quickly called up Josh. He came in to meet with us and we just loved him. He was the first and last person we met with.

In the show you include an FX head as a character. How did that happen and how has FX been regarding creative freedoms? 

They’ve honestly been the most amazing network I’ve ever worked for. The ethos at FX is “we hire creators and showrunners and performers to do their job and by and large we like to to hear what your thinking is.” The decision to cast Josh was a perfect example. The conversation was “we just want to hear your thinking on it.” And we told them our thinking and they were in support. We turned in 13 episodes to them. I would say the sum total of the notes we got from the network for all 13 episodes was probably the number of notes you would get on an average episode at many other networks. They really don’t meddle much at all. And when they have an opinion on things we are very open because they tend to be smart. It’s just been really fantastic. I think there was a little bit of initial resistance at first about depicting the network in the show within the show as FX and not just a nameless generic network, which is how another show might do it. I think we pushed back a little bit. It’s just funnier if we say the show is on FX. They quickly agreed to let us do that, which shows a sense of humor on their part. I think it helps our show.

By having that “show within a show” format it seems you can play around a lot with what you have Billy and Josh do.

I’m now spoiled for any other way of doing sketch comedy because you could have an idea for a sketch that really supports one funny line, but that’s actually enough in our show because you can suggest that there’s more to this sketch that we never see and we don’t have to actually do the sometimes hard and sometimes boring work of paying off a concept. We can dive right in. There’s one episode where [Billy and Josh] are dressed up in antebellum attire. We never even see any of that sketch, we just allude to the fact that it’s being shot. To me it’s really fun to give a hint as to what that sketch might be without having to see the whole thing.

In some episodes you have one sketch going throughout the entire show. The sketches have a lot of effort put into them.

It was really important to all of us that the sketch show within the show actually be a good show. A show like 30 Rock, which we all admire hugely, is great, but the show within the show is meant to be stupid or silly. Part of the joke of 30 Rock is that The Girly Show is not a great show. We felt like they had done that so well that there wasn’t any more comedy to mine in the making of a dumb sketch show. We wanted to suggest that The Billy and Josh Show is actually a good show. I think beyond that, it serves a story value. When there is tension between Billy and Josh, we want to couple that with the notion of: it may be tough on an interpersonal level, but we’re actually making a good show together, there is something that’s worth pursuing in this relationship because we’re actually doing good work.

Is this your first experience as a showrunner? 

I ran a show called Secret Girlfriend on Comedy Central. I was sole showrunner for that show. In an unofficial capacity I kind of wound up running a lot of day-to-day operations on The Good Guys for Fox, which was my friend Matt Nix’s show. I have a little experience running shows. This is definitely the highest profile thing that I’ve been in charge of.

You’ve written for Arrested Development, Community, and The Michael J. Fox Show. Did you pick anything up from your experience on these shows?

Working for Mitch [Hurwitz] was an absolute delight and a pleasure for me. I had been a fan of that show since it began. He wanted to hire me in the first season, but I was under contract elsewhere so I couldn’t take the job. So it was this long deferred dream that I thought I would never get to realize which was to work on Arrested Development. But when it came back for Netflix I was both excited as a fan and really excited when Mitch called and wanted me to come work on it. I picked up a ton from Mitch. He’s a genius and he knows that show better than anybody else on the planet. I remember thinking this is a show that would be instantly dead if Mitch died, if Mitch was struck by lightning or something. This show comes directly from this guy’s brain and it can’t be replicated. And there are other people who contribute a lot to it, but this is a singular vision. Frankly it was just fun to just sit next to him in a room for a couple of months. He’s a really funny guy. I’ve been doing this for a long time so I’ve picked up tons and tons of things from other showrunners I’ve worked for, too many to name probably.

What qualities do you think are important for a showrunner to have?

I think it’s important to realize that each show is different and there’s probably not a perfect way of running a show that applies across every show you work on. And that goes for writing too. Each script has its own needs and you assess what the needs are and you go from there. To me, the most important thing that I have found in being a showrunner is just being decisive. You don’t necessarily have to have a quick answer, but you do have to have an answer. I think people want to feel like there’s somebody who has a vision for what the show ought to be. Have confidence. There comes a point in your career where you have to take this leap of faith and be the person in charge instead of the number two or the number three. It’s all so subjective that you have to have the confidence that your version of “I think this is the best way to go” is actually good. It’s really important to not be afraid of being the person who makes a decision. I actually love it. It’s the only job I ever want to do. It’s so much more fun and engaging and creatively fulfilling to actually be on the hook for whether something works or not. It’s more pressure, but it’s a lot more fun.

Indecision tends to be more frustrating. Whether right or wrong, to be able to make the decision seems to be key. 

You also have to have respect for people. I’ve been on the other side of it. I know how frustrating it can be when somebody is hemming and hawing or going back and forth and being indecisive and you kind of just want to say “try something” because in my experience there’s almost never only one right way to do something. Whether it’s a show or a line or a story or the way a character develops it’s all completely made up, so try something. The way the process is set up is that you usually have a chance to revisit that decision and improve upon it later in the process if something’s not working. That’s why we do rewrites.

A lot of the lines come off as if they are improvised, but how much of the show is actually improvised? 

I feel like many of our best moments, and it’s a tribute to how good Billy and Josh are, are scripted and come off as improvised. It’s because they’re such great performers that they can really take a line on the page and sell it as though it just occurred to them in the moment. I’d characterize a lot of our best moments that way, but to answer the question, it’s all scripted and there is a lot of improv. One of the great sources of improv is Larry Charles, who has directed a lot of the episodes. Larry just doesn’t call cut. When the scripted part of the scene is over, the actors are left to their own devices as to what happens next. And since we have incredibly agile performers, sometimes great comical moments come out of that. One example is when Stephnie Weir who plays Kristen the producer, her stomach rumbles. That actually happened. That just happened. In no way was that scripted. Her stomach literally just growled and her mic was sitting on her chest and it just picked it up and this crazy loud way and Josh stayed in character, stayed in the scene, reacted the way he would in that situation. She reacted the way she would in that situation and it turned into an incredibly funny moment that I couldn’t, in a million years, have come up with as a writer.

I remember watching Stephnie Weir on MadTV. There have been a few MadTV alum on the show including Stephnie Weir, Bobby Lee, and Will Sasso. I was wondering if there was any association.

I haven’t heard that before. We don’t have an association with it. Bobby was an inspiration of Larry [Charles]. Larry had worked with Bobby before. His part was written for an older woman who barely spoke English and I think Larry added the notion of “what if she has a nephew who’s translating for her?” That turned into Bobby’s character.  We just think Will’s really funny. The thing that I saw of Will’s that made me realize how hilarious he is, is his Vines with the lemons. They’re unbelievable. Billy and Larry hadn’t seen them before and I showed them and they just lost it and said we got to get this guy on the show.

He was so good on MadTV. He’s a great performer.

When our show sings it’s usually just because you put some really funny people together in a room and give them the opportunity to be funny. He’s an example. He is just a funny guy and has a hilarious energy. Stephnie Weir is a genius, plain and simple. She came out of nowhere in our casting process. We were very far down the line in the casting process for that character. She put herself on tape, I think the night before we had to make the decision, and we saw her and there was just something special there. I love writing for her so much. It gives me tremendous pleasure. She’s honestly one of the most skilled improvisational actors I’ve ever seen in my life.

She’s able to give the character a certain amount of heart as well as a certain amount of desperation. Within the show there are a lot of backstories that come from Billy Crystal and Josh Gad. How much of those are factual? 

With Billy, a huge amount of it is factual. I wouldn’t say all of it, but I actually think it’s to the great benefit of the show that he brings so much of himself to the role of Billy Crystal. I don’t think we could get away with taking too many liberties with the persona of Billy Crystal because he’s just such a known commodity. He’s been around for such a long time in the public eye. He’s so famous that if we tried to overly fictionalize who is on the show it wouldn’t ring true. If we had him have a secret two extra wives in Utah people would know we’re not dealing in reality anymore. Early in the process we made a creative decision to portray his life as true as it is.

There’s the episode where it’s Billy’s birthday and he tells this heartfelt story about how his family would celebrate his birthday when he was younger.

That was something he came to me with. As the guy who’s primarily responsible for the scripts, I often find myself in a position where I have to write backstory for Billy. It’s always a little tricky because you don’t want to go too far in inventing a fake backstory for him, but you also want it to be interesting. The thing that I wrote had something to do with that, but he came to me that morning in my trailer and he said “I think I want to try something with what I talk about in that scene.” He literally just told me that story about the way his parents would put frosting on his nose. It was so completely touching and real and incredibly heartfelt. It was just a genuine childhood memory. He obviously has huge affection for the memory of his parents. I was able to put something down on paper that turned into this beautiful scene, much better than it would have been had he just done what I had scripted for him. I think it’s because it came from such an intensely personal and real place. It’s really thrilling when you get to see him bring an aspect of his own life to the show. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it on television, somebody of that profile playing a version of himself.

The Comedians premieres on FX on April 9th at 10 pm.

Inside the Job of a Showrunner with ‘The Comedians’ […]