emmys 2020

What We Do in the Shadows Writer Stefani Robinson Talks Jackie Daytona, Ghost Sperm

“‘Jackie Daytona’ just had a ring to it, it was one of those moments where it was probably divine inspiration.” Photo: FX

What We Do in the Shadows, which has been among the best shows on TV since it premiered last year, was one of the happy surprises of the 2020 Emmy nominations, earning recognition in Outstanding Comedy, Outstanding Comedy Writing (for three episodes), and several editing and cinematography categories. One of the episodes nominated for writing was “On the Run,” a glorious stand-alone episode in which one of the show’s daffy vampires goes into hiding as a small-town bartender in rural Pennsylvania.

Shadows executive producer Stefani Robinson, who wrote “On the Run,” spoke with Vulture not long after the nominations were announced about the pleasure of writing a purely silly show, the origins of Jackie Daytona, and what other mythical creatures might be featured on upcoming seasons of the series. (Please let it be the Jersey devil!)

What We Do in the Shadows was nominated for a lot of Emmys! I’m delighted, of course, but I have to say, I wasn’t expecting it! Did you have any idea this was coming? 
Obviously, this is our second season, and our first season we didn’t get any nominations. Which is totally fine; we’re never creating the show for awards or anything like that. I won’t speak for anyone else, but for me at least, going into this season, it wasn’t on my mind that we were potentially going to get nominated for one, let alone the many nominations we’ve received. Which is great! It’s been such a delightful surprise. Really awesome.

Before we go any farther, I do just want to thank you — you wrote “On the Run,” one of the episodes that was nominated for Outstanding Writing, and that was one of my very favorite things I saw on TV this year. 
That’s really sweet! It’s very silly. It’s so nice to hear that. It’s one of those things where, I’ve worked on other shows that are a bit more serious, a bit heavier while at the same time being funny. [Robinson has written for FX’s Atlanta, among other series.] But I think that it’s liberating but also a little terrifying to write this television episode that’s stupid and funny for the sake of being stupid and funny.

Where did the idea for that episode come from? 
The germ of it came from Jemaine [Clement]. He came into this season knowing he wanted a “Laszlo on the run” episode, but we didn’t have any specifics about where we wanted that to go or what we wanted it to look like. In the writers’ room, I and the other writers had this idea that we expounded on, that maybe while Laszlo’s on the run, it’s less about this cat-and-mouse chase between him and whoever’s pursuing him and it’s more about, okay, what if we just pivot? Change gears, change the language of the show. Hopefully it’s subverting expectations and doubling down on this new identity and this new life. That seemed so silly and so funny but also a little unexpected.

That’s where it came from, and then we were leaning into the small-town tropes of it all. The made-for-TV movie in the ’80s about a guy living in a small town, a Bruce Springsteen–type steel town. That’s how it happened, and it was just so silly to us. It’s so different from Matt Berry, so antithetical to everything that actor and that character represents. So we were really excited to try something like that.

Once you had the concept for the episode, were there parts that still felt tricky to get right? 
Something we were really aware of was how we could tie in the rest of the cast, how we could check in with everybody else as it was going. The temptation was to throw ourselves completely into this world without any back-and-forth between Jackie Daytona living this new life and the characters back in the house. I think one of the harder things was, you know, this is an ensemble show and we’re so, so lucky that we have such a great cast. Finding ways to involve them a little bit more — in the cold open, but then we could keep cutting back to Colin and Nadja — were top of our list of things we needed to make sure still felt alive.

How early in the process did you know you were going to get Mark Hamill to play Jim the Vampire? 
Not early at all! We had the part written, and it was a part we thought could be great for a lot of people, but Mark Hamill had been on the top of our list, asking him to guest on any episode. We knew he was a fan, and we’re obviously massive fans of his. But it didn’t happen until pretty close to shooting that we felt like this was a role built for him. He’s really going to bring it home, and he’s so supremely talented but also knows how to be campy and silly in the way that we thought the character needed to be. It’s just one of those things that really came together.

Do you remember how you came up with the name Jackie Daytona? 
[Laughs]. Vaguely! There’s something that just really tickled me about an “ie” at the end of the name for a guy. Both of my grandmother’s names are Jacqueline, called Jackie, so there was something about that in my mind. But then I was also thinking, what is the most obnoxious specifically American-sounding word I can think of? Which was Daytona. You know, you can’t really top that.

“Jackie Daytona” just had a ring to it, it was one of those moments where it was probably divine inspiration. I didn’t think about it for that long; it sounded like he was cool, and probably God was just speaking to me. I went with it and never looked back.

Are there any mythical creatures that haven’t been on the show yet that you really want to get in for future seasons? 
Yeah, there are a ton! It’s crazy. There are just so many, and we have to balance the show the right way so that it’s not like every episode has a supernatural creature. But I think mummies, for sure. Love mummies. Sirens, we talk about a lot, sirens of the sea. There’s been some debate in the writers room about leprechauns. Jemaine is very adamant that they don’t exist in our world, but they have come up a couple times. I don’t know in what way they would make sense, but leprechauns have definitely been discussed. As has the Jersey devil.

The Jersey devil!
The Jersey devil would be cool, right?! I think that one probably has a better shot than the leprechauns.

Do you have any favorite small jokes from season two? I’m very fond of Colin Robinson talking about motion-smoothing. 
Ugh, that one’s so good. I love all the Colin Robinson updog jokes in the “Ghosts” episode. I’m a huge fan of Anthony [Atamanuik], who plays Shawn the Neighbor, and during the Superb Owl episode [“Brain Scramblies”], I’m a huge fan of all the Oceans 12 merch and jokes that he does a run on. Very random, very specific joke. One of my favorites.

Do you have a favorite character to write? Are there any characters who are more of a challenge for you? 
I don’t, actually. The cast is so involved, and they’re so smart and specific with their performances that it’s actually easier for me, and I think most of the writers, to write for them. They’re so specific in their voices and in the types of jokes they like to run with. I’m also friends with all of them, so knowing them on a personal level is very, very helpful. I don’t want to say it’s easy to write for all of them, but I think I’ve got a good idea of what makes them laugh. They’re so collaborative and so ready to try new things, to improvise, to change things on the fly. You get a good sense of their instincts.

It seems like it must be so satisfying to write something that really cracks them up. 
It’s the best. It’s the best! It’s the best when they laugh, but it’s also the best when they’re doing a scene or an episode or a joke, and they make it that much better, take it that much farther than what you had on the page. They’re saying the joke, they’re doing the scene, but then they’re “yes and-ing” it into fucking oblivion. It’s so funny, and you feel so satisfied that you’ve given them a platform for them to really jump off and go crazy with. That’s one of the best feelings.

Are there any moments like that in “On the Run” that you were really happy with? 
I think it was a lot of Matt Berry interacting with the everyday people in the bar when he was Jackie Daytona the bartender. The ad libs he was doing with everyone at the bar, the weird dancing he was doing with the jukebox, all that stuff was just … he really breathed a lot of life into that character with that performance. He really committed to being this bartender, going out of his way to talk to patrons … really into the culture of this town. He was so great.

I talked briefly with Mark Hamill about his role in this episode, and he said Matt Berry tends to improvise lines that could never actually run on TV. 
Correct. There was a lot of that, there were a few takes where Matt went very hard into toilet potty world, and watching Mark Hamill try to keep up with that was so satisfying and so funny. But not aired.

There was an interview after season one where you mentioned you were shocked that you were able to get the vulva topiaries on TV. Was there any equivalent thing in season two, something you were really surprised you were allowed to put on TV? 
I’m even blushing saying it, but in the “Ghosts” episode, just … all that semen. Laszlo having to jerk off his ghost character, ugh, I’m just cringing because I know my parents watch this. Scenes like that, where I’m just like, wow, we’re really gonna show that. I’m always surprised.

What do your parents think of the show? 
They love it. They really love it.

My dad is also a fan. 
I have a lot of older family members who are surprisingly into it, very excited about it. When I do rewatch it, I am shocked every episode that they enjoyed one more than the last, knowing how inappropriate it can get.

Do you have any dreams for the future of the show? Things you’re excited about being able to tackle in season three
I don’t know! I’m honestly so contented with how the show is being received and how it’s going. It really is a comedy, and it’s silly, and we’re not trying to make commentary about the world. It really is just pure escapism, hopefully. There’s something very liberating about that. I’ve said before in other interviews, it feels like theater camp in a giant sleepover with your friends for three months while we’re shooting. I just hope that energy continues as long as the show does.

Before I let you go, the art design of What We Do in the Shadows tickles me so much — I am so in love with all the historical photos and old paintings the show uses to illustrate the long history of each character. Do you have any favorites?
All of them are so great. The time and the care that goes into each of those pieces is really insane, whether it’s getting an original piece of art cleared or hiring artists to develop those for us. Kate Bunch, our production designer, is so great at making sure all the stuff looks good, and when we do our own photo shoots for those, our costume designer, Amanda Neal, is great at sourcing the costumes and materials to make it really feel like it’s of the time.

Behold, the lost Nandor throuple portrait from season one’s “Citizenship.” Photo: Courtesy of Stefani Robinson

But I can’t pick a favorite! There’s a portrait of Nandor in the opening credits, where it’s him in this really long gown-looking thing, that I actually have in my house. It was a mock-up we didn’t actually end up using, but I have it in my home. There’s also a piece I have that didn’t make it in for season one. It would’ve been for the “Citizenship” episode of season one, and it’s a portrait of Nandor, George Washington, and Ben Franklin, and I think it was for a joke that was cut. But the implication was that they were having a polyamorous relationship. And there’s a portrait of them, just their faces, with Kayvan [who plays Nandor], he’s got the old colonial-looking facial hair. It’s so stupid, but that’s also in my home.

WWDITS Writer Stefani Robinson Talks Jackie Daytona