By Chelsea Fernando
Sean Russell is a staff writer on IFC’s “Maron,” one of the smartest and edgiest cable comedies to date. He also was a writer on “Scrubs” and cut his teeth in the writer’s rooms of some of television’s best comedies, including “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” “How I Met Your Mother,” and “Gilmore Girls.”
This October, we’re lucky enough to have Sean teaching our Live Online TV Comedy Pilot Workshop. We sat down with him to learn more about his extensive comedy experience and to hear his advice on how to go from assistant to staff writer.
1. What separates a good script from a great script?
A good script makes you interested to see how it ends. A great script is one where you can’t wait to see how it ends. Good scripts tell solid stories and don’t feel “by the numbers,” but the great scripts I’ve read have been ones that are surprising and have a unique point of view.
2. What’s more important in a writing sample, originality or demonstrating knowledge of the TV writing form?
Knowing how to write in TV script format is important. It shows that you’re serious and professional. Thankfully, learning how to write in script format is fairly easy, thanks to the availability of screenwriting software. But what’s more important is having an original voice and knowing how to get your point of view across in a script. That part is harder to learn.
3. How did you land your first assistant gig? What carries over from being a good assistant to being a solid staff writer?
I started out as a production assistant, getting lunches for the writing staff of “Gilmore Girls.” If fifty percent of television writing is hard work and talent, the other fifty percent is making sure writers get their lunches. I did a good enough job at getting lunches and keeping the writers’ kitchen stocked, and developed a good relationship with the writers. After a season of doing that, a writers’ assistant spot became vacant, and they promoted me
I learned a lot as a writers’ assistant that prepared me for being a staff writer. Primarily, I stepped into the staff writer role being comfortable in a writers’ room. I was prepared to not be precious of my ideas, to not dismiss others’ ideas without having a better pitch, to know how to read to the energy of the writers’ room, to be ready to brainstorm when everybody is stuck, and sometimes to know when to shut up.
4. You’ve worked in the writer’s room of some of the top shows of the last decade (the Office, Scrubs, Arrested Development). Could you talk about some of the differences you’ve encountered in the various writers’ rooms you’ve worked in?
Every room I’ve worked in has been different (except for the constant importance of lunch). The superficial differences have been in how technology helped the writing process. “Arrested Development” was a technologically-advanced room, with a bank of monitors for each writer and a couple of wireless keyboards. “Scrubs” was more casual and relied on whiteboards, and “The Office” was a combination of computers and corkboards with index cards.
The biggest differences come from who the showrunner is. Each showrunner I’ve worked for had different things that made them laugh, different points of view, and were able to assemble writing staffs that could help them achieve their vision. The greatest thing that I learned from working on these different shows was that I know all these different methods for breaking story. If I get stuck working on something one way, I can try a different approach that I’ve learned on one of the other shows I worked on.
5. How much of your writing is drawn from real-life experience and can you give an example of an important lived-moment that made it on a show?
All writing comes from real life, there’s no way around that. But the key is to write about your real life in a way that your friends and family don’t think you’re writing about them. If my wife and I get into an argument and I want to write about it, I’m going to have to figure out a way to do it so that it’s different enough that we don’t have another argument. That’s where creativity comes in.
One thing you should also know is that people talking loudly on their cellphones in restaurants and airports are giving you permission to write down dumb things they say and use them in your scripts. They’re making it public domain, so use it. I’m pretty sure that’s in the Writers Guild bylaws, and I would hazard a guess that it’s okay with the lawyers too.
6. What is a source of story or joke ideas that people would be surprised by in scripts you have written?
This didn’t end up in a script that I wrote, but I had a real life observation that became a pitch that was given life years later. When I was in college I would see this car with a crazy, seemingly vulgar, personalized license plate driving around town. One day I gave a buddy a ride back to his apartment, and that car was parked there. I asked him what the deal was with that car, and he said it belonged to a lady who got divorced, and to celebrate “a new start” she got a license plate that said “anustart.”
I made note to use that later, and when I worked at “Arrested Development” I pitched that to Mitch Hurwitz. He liked it, put it in a file with other story pitches, and years later when “Arrested Development” returned for a new season on Netflix, that pitch was resurrected and became a runner for Tobias Fünke.
7. How did you learn to write for TV? Classes? Books? Mentors?
I started out reading classic screenwriting books by folks like Syd Field and William Goldman. I took a couple of screenwriting classes when I was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that I found helpful. I believe my real education came from all of the great writers I was lucky enough to get to work with.
Getting a job in a writers’ room is a very difficult prospect, so I would say the next best thing to do is to track down scripts of shows you like and compare them to the finished product. Don’t be afraid to reverse-engineer the things you like. Find out what you can about the influences of people whose work you admire. Try and find out the source of their ideas, figure out how they make the things you like, and see if that kind of thinking helps your own work.
8. Can you walk us through a typical day in the Maron writers’ room? What type of research did you do about Marc and his comedy to prepare yourself for writing on his show? What is the most surprising thing about working on this show?
“Maron” was a different experience than most shows I’ve worked on. Because Marc was the star, and on camera for every scene, we had to write everything before shooting began. So (with breaks for lunch) we’d work in the room all day to break stories. Then when enough stories were broken, we’d all go off to outline and write, then return to the office to give notes and punch up each others’ scripts. Once shooting began we would cover set.
I had been a fan of Marc’s for a while before coming to the show. I watched him back when he hosted “Short Attention Span Theater” on Comedy Central, then followed him to his Air America radio show, on to his WTF podcast. Because his comedy is so honest and raw I felt like I was going into a situation where I immediately knew the boss better than anybody I’d worked for before.
What was surprising was the free reign we had on that show. Coming from network television, where everything had to be shiny, it was refreshing to be able to lean into a more emotionally messy kind of comedy. Both the network and studio encouraged us to make the show Marc wanted to make and not hold anything back.
9. What is some advice that you wish you had gotten when you were trying to break into the industry?
I wish somebody told me that you’re not going to write the perfect thing right out of the gate. You’re going to have to rewrite and rewrite, and it’s probably still going to stink, but you’ll learn lessons in failure.
Also, regarding writers’ room lunches, I wish somebody had told me to order healthier food. Mix things up, get a salad a couple of days a week.
10. What should students expect to get out of your class?
I’m looking forward to sharing some of the things I’ve learned with my students. My hope is that a student leaving my class walks away with the tools to turn their ideas into the pilot they want to write for the television show they want to see.
Thanks for that awesome interview, Sean! You can catch his Live Online TV Comedy Pilot Writing Workshop from anywhere in the country (or from your couch in Los Angeles) starting 10/5.