Make With The Funny: An Interview With Robia Rashid

rashid__130321134432-275x371By Theresa Miller
A seasoned TV writer, Robia Rashid has written for “Will and Grace,” and was a writer/producer on the hit CBS comedy “How I Met Your Mother” for four years. I know. Wow.
If you think you have a great idea for a half hour comedy and are looking to create a killer writing sample, Robia is definitely someone who can help. Lucky for us, she’s teaching our TV Comedy Pilot course! She’ll show you how to craft compelling characters, find the funny, and give you everything else you need to write an amazing half-hour pilot! Class starts March 17.
Robia took time out to talk with us about how she got started, her writing process, and how to write characters people will remember.
1. How did you get your first big break on “Will & Grace”?
Actually, it came out of taking a writing class! I was at NYU in the graduate dramatic writing program and I took a TV writing class with former “Sex and the City” writer Cindy Chupack. She liked a spec I wrote and gave it to her agent. I didn’t hear anything for months – I forgot all about it – and then out of nowhere, on a Wednesday, I got a phone call. The agent said: “You have an interview on ‘Will and Grace’ this Friday.” So I took a red-eye to LA and a red-eye home that same night (that was my first trip to LA – I saw CBS Radford studios and the parking lot at DuPars). And a few days later, I found out I got the job. It was nuts. Cindy later told me that she didn’t just hand on my script because she liked it, it was also that she thought I was great in the room working on other people’s stuff. She knew how big of a deal that was in TV writing and she was right.
2. CBS recently bought your comedy “All In,” about a couple who move across the country together after only knowing each other a few months, which is semi autobiographical. How do you both write about your experience and make sure that it is relatable to a wide audience?
I think it’s about creating characters who feel real and who talk like people actually talk. For me, the best comedy comes out of character. The better you know your characters, the funnier something can be. Also, I think it’s important to create a story that comes out of a real, relatable place. Even if it goes to a crazy place, the kernel, what it’s about, should feel relatable. In this case, it was about two people who found “the one” but were afraid maybe it was all going too fast.
Also, even if the idea of something comes from my life, I usually veer away from the actual characters and events pretty early on. I just find it easier to write it that way. So for example, the main character wasn’t a writer living in New York who got a job on Will and Grace, she was an entomologist in Michigan who got a research grant to study cockroaches. The details are obviously different but the emotional truth — taking a huge risk both personally and professionally — is very real.
3. You were a producer on “How I Met Your Mother.” How did you work your way up to that position?
The great thing about TV writing is that the writers are also the producers. So as you get further along, you have more and more producing responsibilities. You’re on set, you’re involved in editing, sound mixing, really all parts of what makes a show happen. Which, for me, has been hugely helpful in my writing. I can see what goes into making a show at every step of the way. Now, when I write: “She stomps in and throws a can of red paint on him,” I know it’s going to take at least half a day and there are going to be several wardrobe changes!
4. You spent three years working for a non-profit organization that gets underserved children access to college scholarships. Why did you decide to suddenly take a writing class at NYU? Did your non-profit work inform your writing at all?
Yup, after college I went and worked at the Posse Foundation in Boston (well, first I worked at a Caribbean restaurant called Rhythm and Spice but all the late nights were starting to make me weird, so I finally found Posse…). It was an amazing job and actually now I realize it really helped with TV writing. I spent almost the entire time there facilitating groups. And in TV, especially comedy, you spend almost all your time in the writers room. So I think I picked up a lot of skills about how to be in and run groups from that job.
But I’d been writing since I was a little kid and it was always my first love. In second grade, I wrote a play (scrawled in a notebook that my mom then typed on her typewriter) that we performed for the kindergarteners. There was a witch (played by me – possibly my last acting role), there were songs, it was a whole thing. And I’d been writing ever since then. Mostly plays. I think my job at Posse and all that time trying to help college kids find their passion gave me the confidence to pursue what I really loved. Eventually, I realized that if I wanted to be a professional writer I needed to prioritize it.
5. It can be difficult to write comedic characters that are also three-dimensional. How do you give your characters depth while keeping the funny?
This is a tricky question because the two things – writing a character with depth and writing something funny – really go hand in hand. I think sometimes people feel that comedy makes it more difficult to write in-depth characters when the truth is the exact opposite. Writing someone honestly will often be funny. It’s our quirks and humanity that make us funny. Comedy that is born out of character can be the most revealing, hilarious kind of writing.
6. What was the process for creating scripts on “How I Met Your Mother?” Did everyone get their own episode to write?
First, we all gather in a big room with a big table and white boards on the walls. We kick around story ideas and when we land on an area we like (for example, we might decide to tell a story about the gang in a hurricane), we start to break the story. Once we have the beats of the story written on the white board, one writer is assigned the episode (it usually just goes in order, so it’s a little random that way – if it’s your turn, you write it). That person goes away for a couple days and then comes back with a more fleshed-out outline. We all read it and give notes, pitch jokes, etc. Then the writer of the episode leaves again and comes back several days later with a script. We bring the script into the writers room and go through it, rewriting, page by page. We punch jokes, make cuts, change stories. Anything the script needs. And yes, usually everyone gets their own episode (or two or three or more, depending on how many writers are on staff and how many episodes are ordered). This process has been pretty much the same for every show I’ve worked on.
7. What will students learn in your TV Writing class?
Well, I hope they’ll learn how to break a good story and write a compelling, funny pilot. And just as importantly, they’ll get a sense of what a comedy room is like — how to work in the room, pitch a joke, help make a script better, etc.
Thank you so much, Robia. That was very informative!
If you’re interested in learning Robia’s tips on how to survive in the real world of TV comedy writing, check out her class, coming up March 17th!