What 4 Showrunners Look for When Staffing a Writers Room

Mike Schur, Liz Flahive, Carly Mensch, and Nahnatchka Khan. Photo: Getty Images

As a former comedy agent at UTA and WME, Priyanka Mattoo represented numerous big-name writers and performers before leaving to start a TV production company with Jack Black. Now she writes and directs, but she still encounters a tidal wave of comedy hopefuls looking for the advice, information, and pep talks that only a former agent can provide. In show business, they say that it’s all about who you know. Well, you’re in luck because now you know Priyanka!

I’d like to write for TV someday (soon). I have a couple of samples I’m pretty happy with, and I’m sharing them with everyone I know, hoping to land representation and meet on shows. But what are showrunners looking for (specs? Originals?), and how are they getting submissions right now? Is the diversity push real? What do I do if I’m lucky enough to meet on a show? I realize that’s way more than one question, but basically: How does staffing work? —Andrea B., L.A.

Hi! Excellent timing! I’m getting this question every which way, especially given the current ATA-WGA situation and some bubbling anxiety among lower-level and unrepped writers. While traditionally, every staffing season the agencies have submitted their available writers for every show that’s hiring, that process is obviously on hold at the moment.

The showrunners I’ve spoken to are still getting submissions for staffing through a combination of manager relationships, online grids, the WGA submission grid, WGA-WOC mixers, Twitter exposure, and just plain old word of mouth. Organizations such as the Sundance Institute have fellows from their writers workshop programs that they are submitting and helping to get staffed. Managers are still meeting unrepped writers, as far as I can tell, so that avenue is also open.

Considering the many avenues these scripts are taking, please make sure your contact info is right on your title page, okay? And update your personal website! Make it easy for people to find and recommend you. Anyway, as for putting a room together, I spoke to my showrunner friends Nahnatchka Khan (Fresh Off the Boat), Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch (GLOW), and Mike Schur (The Good Place) about how they hire and compose their rooms.

For an aspiring new writer putting a portfolio together, what would you recommend? How many samples? Pilots or specs? Which would you rather read, and which tells you more about a writer’s ability to carry her weight in the room?
Nahnatchka Khan: I’m honestly open to either, a spec or a pilot. If it’s a spec, though, it’s a little trickier because no one wants to read a spec of a show they don’t watch. But whatever the writer feels showcases their ability best.

Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch: We only read original samples — pilots, plays, even screenplays. Won’t even read specs. Ideally it’s one sample, but if someone’s range can’t be communicated in a single script then we’ll look at two. Neither really tells you about whether a writer can handle herself in a room. It’s more about the writer’s voice and POV.

Mike Schur: I prefer original work — pilot, short stories, whatever. (Sometimes a spec of an existing show only tells you whether the writer is a good mimic.) I don’t think there’s a number of pieces of writing one should have, per se, but when I was starting, someone advised me to have variety — half-hour spec, hour spec, late-night packet, and so on. The idea was [that] if someone reads your work but is looking for something with a different tone, you can just say, “Here — have that too!”

What do you look for when you read a new writer? Jokes, structure, character development of course, but to what degree? What’s the most important, and are there any intangible (or I guess other tangible) qualities that you read for?
N.K.: I mean, yeah, those are really the primary things I’m looking for. I guess an offshoot of structure would also be story flow? Sometimes you can feel the gears shifting in scripts, like really trying to make something work that feels sweaty for whatever reason. I really enjoy reading material that just flows — it’s definitely a skill to make something feel effortless.

M.S.: I am won over by individual flashes of inspiration — single jokes, or scenes, that surprise me or demonstrate a brain that is different from mine. You can learn story structure and plot mechanics and stuff like that, but you can’t learn uniqueness.

L.F. and C.M.: We look for character development, emotional tracking, and our kind of humor above other skills. But yes, for sure, there’s an intangible magic quality you’re looking for when you read someone, like meeting someone at a party who you want to talk to all night. They just have a special something and you want more.

We’re also aware that not everybody has the full package. There are many great writers out there who are, say, amazing at writing specific characters and killer dialogue but who are shaky at building plot. And that’s okay. We need the writers room as a whole to be able to do everything, but not every writer. So if you’re really good at one particular aspect of storytelling, that sample script should really showcase that.

Have there ever been times when great writing didn’t translate to great in the room, and why did you think that was?
N.K.: I think they’re two different skill sets. That applies to pitching as well. Someone can be great at pitching but then not able to deliver a draft and vice versa. A lot of writers are good at all the elements, but yeah, they’re all definitely different. Plus, I think working in a writers room is like a muscle: The more you do it, the stronger you become at it.

L.F. and C.M.: All the time. It’s a weird thing to ask a writer — to not just be good on the page but also be able to sit at a table for six months and be social and vulnerable and nimble and constructive. It’s why not all novelists or screenwriters make good TV writers and why playwrights, who spend months in rehearsal rooms, maybe tend to do better. Breaking story as a room is a specific skill. And the room is not for everybody. And that’s okay.

M.S.: Of course. There’s no one reason why, I don’t think — writers rooms are weird little ecosystems, and not everyone feels comfortable enough to do her best work within them. But not being a dynamo in the room doesn’t mean a writer isn’t meaningfully contributing to the show. Some of the best writers I’ve worked with rarely pitched ideas, and some people who talk all the time aren’t really adding much of anything.

When you meet a new young writer for staffing, what are the qualities you’re looking for?
M.S.: Kindness, talent, empathy, and curiosity, in that order.

N.K.: By the time I sit down with a writer, I’ve already read and liked their material, so now I’m looking for who they are as a person, what kind of vibe they’re giving off. Is this someone I would want to spend hours and months in a room with, stuff like that.

L.F. and C.M.: Enthusiasm. Hunger. Stamina. Someone who wants to push the show in new directions, not just geek out over the show like a fan. Someone who has something new to add to the room that we don’t already have.

What are a couple of the best samples you’ve ever read, and did you hire them? Is there anyone you haven’t gotten to hire that you wish you did?
N.K.: I’ve read many great samples, both of existing shows I liked and original pilots, and definitely hired the writers or at least tried to! And there are a lot of talented writers out there who I admire and would love the opportunity to work with — you know who you are! Or if you don’t, then I know who you are!

M.S.: Katie Dippold wrote a comedy-horror pilot that was so special, I wrote “hire her” on page two. Emily Kapnek wrote a pilot called Ernesto that made me laugh on every page. Jen Statsky wrote a tweet about Ann Romney that was so perfectly composed, I offered her a job essentially based on just that one sentence. And there are many writers I wish I could’ve hired, but I don’t want to say who because I still hope I can work with them (or for them?) someday.

With the industry’s newfound commitment to diversity onscreen and off, young writers keep hearing that now is the time to tell their stories, but diverse voices are still a small (albeit growing) percentage of agency and manager lists. What should we all (showrunners, producers, execs, reps) be doing to make sure that diverse voices are given the same access to representation and jobs as, well, the usual suspects? 
L.F. and C.M.: We call up the agents and managers whose tastes we trust and explicitly ask them to send us diverse writers. Agents are the gatekeepers, and it’s important for showrunners to be explicit about who they want. We also reach out to theaters we’ve worked with and ask them for up-and-coming playwrights they love. The more showrunners demand to read diverse writers, the more agents will feel the pressure to represent more diverse writers.

N.K.: Make it a priority to value those stories. Seek them out. Don’t do it because you “have to” or “someone told you to” but because you understand how important those stories are and you want to help elevate them. Plus, you must be bored of just hearing from the usual suspects by now, aren’t you?

M.S.: All members of a dominant, entrenched majority have a moral responsibility to transfer some of their power to members of minority groups. That means casting, hiring writers, hiring directors, choosing which stories to tell, choosing whom to support and back as new showrunners. I personally have been, I’d say, “decent” at this, and am trying to be better every year.

As for the question “Is the diversity push real?” a producer friend with many network TV credits had this to say:
We are in the beginning of an era counteracting systemic gender and race imbalance. I think all showrunners now feel they would have to defend themselves if they are not in good faith aiming 50/50 on gender when building a staff. The aspiring women were out there, but networks, studios, showrunners, producers, and reps didn’t recognize their own bias. It’s often conscious and unconscious sexism mixed with laziness. Now more demand is established, and the networks, studios, agents, and managers have been balancing out their executive ranks and client lists, at least on gender. Racial imbalance offscreen remains pervasive in Hollywood, and the pace of change is glacial.

Fortunately, the explosion of number of platforms and shows has helped increase demand for stories from different perspectives. So it has become good business to break bad habits. That combined with network and studio-sponsored initiatives to diversify writing ranks with the hope of training future showrunners, [and now] we are seeing change. It took a decade from Donald Glover getting hired on 30 Rock until Atlanta. Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang had seven seasons at Parks and Recreation before Master of None. If they hadn’t gotten their first jobs, how could they be bosses? Writing staffs need real balance, and articles like this one lead to transparency and accountability, which helps accelerate change.

The message for talent is [to] be ready. The industry is changing so fast and will come knocking if you’re the funniest, regardless of race or gender. MTV gave Aziz a show just out of college. Donald was still at NYU when hired by Tina Fey. Now Aziz and Donald do the hiring. Have the material on the page or on the stage ready to go. The financial incentives are there for buyers and reps to break the chain of laziness and look harder.

What 4 Showrunners Look for When Staffing a Writers Room