Funny Man: An Interview with TV Writer Joshua Corey
By Jeff Bernstein
Comedy is tough and writing it is brutal. Just ask scribe Joshua Corey. He’s written on shows like ABC’s Speechless and Alex, Inc., sold a pilot to Sony, and won the 2013 Humanitas Prize for New Voices. We caught up with Joshua to discuss his creative process, hard fought lessons and what makes a great pilot. He’s teaching a TV Comedy Pilot Class starting Sunday 9/23 in LA.
1. How did you get your start in TV?
I began as a writers’ PA (the kid who gets the lunch) for Men of A Certain Age. They hired me because the creator and I went to the same college and probably because they felt bad for me (I pathetically wore a suit to the interview). Just by chance, I grew up on a car lot, and the show dealt with that world, so I was able to contribute stories right away. I made friends with the writing staff and they kindly recommended me for other assistant jobs. I worked my way up the assistant ladder from there, and five years later, I got staffed with my partner on a Disney show.
2. How do you and your writing partner work together?
We’ve been together for six or seven years. When you’re partners, you literally split one writer’s salary. That’s the major, major con. The pros are: you have a buddy with which to endure the brutal parts of the business; you have someone to bounce ideas and jokes off of – getting instant feedback on your jokes makes the writing process fun; you are twice as hirable, since you’re basically giving the studio a “two for one” deal.
My partner and I happen to have exactly the same sensibility, but slightly different work processes. I much prefer that to the other way around. Don’t work with a partner whose taste is way, way different than yours. And, if you’re mind-blowingly brilliant all by yourself, don’t work with a partner – did I mention it’s HALF the money? To end on a “pro” – speaking from my experience watching this process, not living it – when you get to the level of running a show, partners split the many, many duties outside the writers’ room, which is huge.
3. What’s your approach to writing a script and how do you keep those skills sharp?
We don’t write pilots before we’ve outlined them in great detail. Once there’s an outline, we split up scenes and take a crack at them individually, stopping constantly to eat muffins. Then we switch and I rewrite my partner as he rewrites me. We usually punch up jokes together and that is a long but fun process. Once we have a draft we like, we table read it, out loud, with friends who are also actors and some friends who are definitely not actors. Then we rewrite it again. And again. We keep sharp by constantly writing.
4. What’s something you wish someone had told you when you started in the biz?
You’re not writing your first pilot (or your first few) to actually sell it; you’re trying to showcase your ability and your voice to get your foot in the door so that you can then write something that will sell.
5. What’s the #1 rookie writer mistake?
Probably being so hard on yourself that you never finish something, or even get started; you can’t learn to write without writing. New writers often spend too much time and energy (sometimes years) on a single project before anyone else even sees it. You have to write something as best you can, get feedback, revise, then move on to something new. The runner-up would be showing your script to a professional when it’s not formatted correctly and/or contains typos.
6. Is there an aspect of writing that you still struggle with?
Many aspects. And I’m sure there are things I haven’t yet discovered I suck at. Right now, I’m trying to get better at being clear with my writing without hitting the audience over the head. In network TV, you often have to spoon-feed the audience the “lesson” of the episode, or spell out the plot twists. I’ve gotten good at that, but I’d like my own writing to be more subtle, which requires unlearning some of those habits. In short, I’m trying to learn to give the audience more credit, and trust that my viewer is smart.
7. What is the most valuable piece of advice that a writing mentor has given you?
Advice for first drafts: “Don’t get it right, get it written.” I think a prose writing professor gave me that advice in college, and I still regularly repeat it to myself.
8. What can students expect to learn in your class?
How to come up with a solid story for your pilot that can be broken down into simple, one-line beats, and how to use your pilot to showcase your own voice and worldview.
9. You produce a podcast as well, Just Kicking It with Josh & Kratz? How does this project inform your TV work?
The podcast is just for fun. When you work in a writers’ room, your job is to pitch ideas the showrunner will like. On our podcast, we do whatever we think is funny and no one questions it; no one gives us notes and there’s no network or boss to please. If you like stupid jokes and genre bending weirdness, Just Kicking It may be for you. But, really, I must warn you, it’s very stupid.
10. What do you think are the elements of a great comedy pilot?
A great comedy pilot features a world/perspective/character that we haven’t seen on TV before, tells a complete story, has comedy inherent in the concept, and has hysterical jokes told by actors who are funny.
If you have dreams of seeing your own show on HBO, check out Josh’s TV Comedy 1 Class starting Sunday 9/23 in LA.