Open Mic

Writers Share Insights, Laughs About Working in TV ... and the Allure of a Certain Miss Emmy

Hillary Atkin Posted September 16, 2011 at 8:39 AM

In film, writers often don’t get much glory, as we’ve all heard many times in the silly but somewhat truthful joke about the naive starlet who slept with the screenwriter in order to get cast in the film, to no avail.

But in television, writers are all that -- and even more so if they are up for a golden statuette named Emmy.

And so it was that a group of writers, most of them also showrunners of some of the top comedy and drama series on the tube -- along with an acclaimed made-for-television movie -- took the stage Tuesday at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills to discuss their lauded scripts before a packed house.

Steve Levitan and Jeffrey Richman (“Modern Family”), Veena Sud (“The Killing”), Jason Katims (“Friday Night Lights”), Greg Daniels (“The Office”) and Peter Gould (“Too Big to Fail”), along with moderator Mike Scully (“The Simpsons,” “Parks & Recreation”) made the WGA West’s annual “Sublime Primetime” a bit of a laughfest from the get-go.

Scully asked Gould whether he got pressure from HBO to add a vampire or have Turtle from “Entourage” stop by in the course of the drama about the financial meltdown of 2007-08, centering on William Hurt as Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and his tense machinations and negotiations with other government leaders and the often arrogant heads of the investment banks to prevent the entire U.S. economy, along with global economies, from running aground. (James Woods as Dick Fuld, ex-CEO of the failed Lehman Brothers, was especially delicious in the role.)

Daniels discussed the challenges of writing Steve Carell’s exit from “The Office” and the impact of his departure on the staff. “I was stressed out about Steve leaving, and wondered how he would say goodbye,” Daniels remarked, noting that they got an extra six minutes for the finale.

“That seems like cheating for the Emmys,” Levitan interjected, and then went on with Richman to break down the story of their nominated script for “Modern Family.” One thread features kids walking in on their parents having sex -- a subject of endless horror, and humorous possibilities, which Levitan shared he has experienced on both sides of the door. Another plotline focused on guests spilling something on an expensive rug and trying to cover it up by moving furniture around, which Richman admitted he did in real life. So now we know not to invite him over.

Sud, whose background includes writing and executive producing the CBS procedural “Cold Case,” talked about her instincts for “The Killing” coming from a dark place, honoring that, and knowing her show was cable-only. She also got some good-natured guff about being the only woman in a group of white guys.

Looking over the entire list of Primetime Emmy Award nominees, she doesn’t have much female company, except for Heidi Thomas for “Upstairs Downstairs” as an individual nominee, Maria Jacquemetton for co-writing the “Blowing Smoke” episode of “Mad Men” and a few women in nominated staffs of shows including “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “Saturday Night Live.”

Sure enough, that follows a trend documented by an annual study of women in television and film conducted by San Diego State University. It found that women made up just 15% of writers on prime-time network television in the 2010-11 season, down nearly half from the 29% in the previous year.

Even the most talented, award-winning comedy writers in the business would have a hard time making that funny.