Mike Scully – Writer/ Producer: The Simpsons, Parks and Recreation, Everybody Loves Raymond, The Carmichael Show
When did you realize you wanted to work in television?
When I turned 25, I was working as a driving instructor (yes, the guy who sat next to you in high school drivers ed with his own brake) with no real goals in life. I had worked various jobs since I was 16 and hadn’t gone to college. (Well, I “attended” community college for half a day, but decided I’d rather spend my money on Springsteen tickets, so I applied for a refund of my hundred and fifty dollars tuition). I was celebrating my birthday, by drinking with some friends in a Burger King parking lot in West Springfield, Massachusetts and decided I was too old to be living like this and swore I wouldn’t be there when I turned 26. I made a mental list of the things I enjoyed doing and writing kept popping up. I had written funny short stories for my high school newspaper and sketches for the school talent show. My brothers and I were huge TV fans. I thought about The Dick Van Dyke show and how that show it made comedy writing look like such a great job. My brother Brian had moved out to LA before me and was trying his hand at stand-up, so I decided to make the move. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to leave Massachusetts if it wasn’t for Brian doing it first.
What advice do you have for college students who are looking to pursue the television industry?
Things have changed so much since I broke in. People have stuff available to them like YouTube, Twitter, Funny or Die and various outlets to write and film content and to try to get it seen. The one thing that hasn’t changed is you have to do the work. The competition is fierce and you have to really want it. I know some very funny people who gave up after a couple of years of trying and took jobs in whatever fields they had college degrees. Because I didn’t have a degree to fall back on, I felt I had to succeed or it would be a life of factory work for me, which I knew I would be terrible at. Not that America makes a lot of products anymore, but I could have single-handedly sped up the demise of our factories. I got a day job to pay the bills and spent nights writing spec scripts and performing at open mic nights and occasionally selling jokes for 25 dollars a pop. While you’re in college, you should be writing as much as possible. Learn how to write jokes by using Twitter. It will teach you how to streamline a joke to its shortest possible form. Read scripts of existing TV shows. Study them like text books. Start to notice how they’re structured in terms of story-telling. I used to buy used TV scripts from an old bookstore in Hollywood and just read them over and over to help demystify the process. If you can find some scripts of shows you enjoy, then find that episode online and watch it with the script in front of you and see how the story lays out and what was changed or cut in the process. Soak up all the knowledge you can.
Write as much as possible: jokes, stories, maybe a one-act play, a pilot, a screenplay, an episode you’d like to see of an existing show. It all helps to build your confidence as a writer. Twitter is a great joke-writing teacher because of the 140-character limit. It forces you to streamline your jokes to the fewest words possible. Nothing kills a joke more than too many syllables. A lot of aspiring comedy writers are now being judged partially on their Twitter feeds (in addition to their written samples). I know one writer who was hired solely on the strength of the jokes in her Twitter feed. Story can be taught and learned, the ability to write a joke cannot. You can learn how to write a joke better, but your mind has to be able to come up with the joke first.
What was your first job in the industry? What did you learn from it?
I never worked any job on a TV show until I was hired as a writer. If you can move out here and get a job as a production assistant or writers’ assistant, that experience can be invaluable in terms of being around production and seeing how it all works. The most important thing to learn, however, is DO THE JOB YOU’RE HIRED TO DO WELL BEFORE YOU TRY TO GET ANYONE TO HELP YOU AS A WRITER. Be the best PA any show has ever seen. Be the best writers’ assistant. Show initiative, be ambitious. Don’t wait to be told everything. Anticipate the needs of the show. My biggest rule is, if you want the writers to like you, don’t screw up the lunch order, and put the cold drinks in the refrigerator the night before, so they’re cold when we come in. If a PA puts the drinks in the fridge in the morning, they won’t be cold until late in the afternoon. That doesn’t help anyone. That PA will never move up on a show I’m working on. I know it sounds nuts, but if you work your ass off at whatever menial task you’re given to do, the writers will love having you around and eventually be open to helping you achieve your goals. If you do a half-assed job and give off a vibe of thinking the job is beneath you, nobody will want to help you. When somebody finally offers to read your material, be sure it’s ready. Don’t hand somebody half a script or something you’re not comfortable being judged on. You might only get one shot, so don’t take advantage of it until you’re ready.
What is your writing process like?
If I’m on staff, you’re working on the schedule of the show, which usually starts about 10AM and end anywhere from 6PM to 2 or 3AM the next day. If I’m working on a script at home, I tend to write in streaks. I find my writing flows better if I write for 12 or 14 hours straight, rather than writing a few hours each day. That’s just me. Everybody has a different process. Some people like to write in coffee shops or other public places. I tend to chain myself to a desk (although it’s not as necessary with laptops) and stare at the screen a lot. Some people like to do what’s called a “vomit draft” of a script, which is writing a fast, sloppy draft, then going back and rewriting and rewriting. A vomit draft can give you something work from. I tend to linger over every line. I don’t like to write Joke To Come because, even when I move forward, I know it’s still back there waiting for me. There’s no right or wrong process. It’s whatever works for you. Try to minimize your distractions. The internet is the best thing to happen to writers for research purposes and the worst thing for writes in terms of allowing you to focus on the writing. It’s shockingly easy to waste two or three hours at the computer doing things other than writing.
What is something you wish someone had told you about the industry?
When you’re working on the staff of a show, it’s a very collaborative process, which can be a lot of fun. It also means you will see your own work get rewritten right before your eyes. Jokes or scenes you worked on for hours or days disappear with the click of a computer key. Sometimes they’re replaced with something better, sometimes they’re replaced with something that’s not any better or worse than what you wrote, sometimes they’re replaced with something you hate. You have to be prepared for it all and handle it in a professional manner. If you want to question why something changed, do it in a respectful way. Have alternate solutions ready so you’re not just complaining, but you’re also trying to solve the problem. Many times your material is replaced by something that’s better, but you have to put your ego aside to realize it. Nobody is deliberately trying to ruin your script, but it can happen and you have to learn to be a professional and get people to listen to your point of view without sounding petulant.
What is something you took away from your time working on The Simpsons?
I’m actually still working on the show one day a week. You can find me there every Tuesday helping out on whatever script they’re working on that day. It’s the greatest gig in television. I learned so much about writing comedy from The Simpsons. I learned to open my mind up to other ways of storytelling or how to execute a joke, to try to think of new ways to tell a story that’s been told a million times. The Simpsons also opened my mind structurally because of the way the show frequently tells stories by starting with an opening set piece (like the family at a carnival or somewhere) so you don’t really know what the story is in the first few pages, but we eventually get there. It’s a very fun structure to write because for the first few pages, you have freedom to just write jokes within the set piece that aren’t advancing a story. Most shows start with the story on Page One or as close to it as possible. The Simpsons also taught me how to write physical and visual comedy in a way you don’t get to really do in live action shows. In animation, you can defy the laws of gravity. You can take a quick trip to India or Australia. You can go to outer space. But the biggest thing I learned from The Simpsons is that all the crazy jokes don’t add up to much if you don’t have a strong story in which to hang those jokes. A solid emotion, a character that wants to achieve something, or wants to change something, or a relatable conflict between two characters that’s being played out though the story. The story can be the boring and tedious part to work on, but it’s ultimately what gives the jokes a reason to exist and makes them more fulfilling. Not that we haven’t done episodes with weak stories that just had a bunch of jokes, but none of them started that way. That’s never the goal. If an episode turns out like that, it’s because we failed to tell a good story and tried to cover that fact by slapping a lot of joke band-aids on it. If you think of whatever your favorite Simpsons episodes are, it will almost always have a very solid emotional story behind it.
What was the most memorable part about working on Parks and Rec?
I loved Parks and Rec. It was a rare show in which you were having a great time whether you were in the writer’s room or on the set. They were both happy places because of the tone set by Mike Schur (the show’s co-creator) and Amy Poehler. The mood of a show is set by the people at the top and Mike and Amy were always upbeat, calm and cool, no matter how hard or frustrating the work was, and they had the two toughest jobs on the show. The most fun for me was being on set with that incredible cast and trying to fix a problem on the fly while you were shooting. You’d see a scene that just wasn’t working the way we thought it would and you’d discuss it with the actors and the director and try to come up with an alternate way to do it. Sometimes it was just a slight attitude shift for a character, or simply changing a joke, and suddenly the scene was working. Sometimes it required bigger adjustments, but I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of coming up with something under a deadline. Also, the stuff the cast would come up with after we had shot the scripted version because they’re all naturally funny people. Parks was great because the comedy didn’t come from a mean-spirited place. I always felt good after watching it, even if an episode wasn’t as funny as it could have been. It was a very unique, rare show. I miss it and I think TV misses it. Same for Everybody Loves Raymond. I think one of the things missing from TV comedy right now is the experience of an audience pointing and laughing and saying, “That’s us.” or “We’ve had that fight.” Or “That sounds like your dad.” Modern Family and The Middle have it, but I think Raymond was the show that really nailed it. I was a fan of the show for six years before I started working on it, so that was an extra thrill for me.
What’s your favorite thing that you’ve written that’s made it onto an episode? Whether it be from Parks, Simpsons, Carmichael Show, etc.
Oh, wow, that’s tough. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. The Simpsons episode where Homer goes to the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp was a fun one for me. I’m a huge music fan and it was a blast to have all those guest stars, and they were all funny, too. The episode where Bart gets caught shoplifting and worries that his mother has stopped loving him is a favorite because it’s based on something that really happened to me and the emotional part of the show is so strong. Jerrod wanted to do the Bill Cosby episode on Carmichael and asked me to write it with him. The night we shot it was so exciting. It was way before any other show had tackled the subject and the audience couldn’t believe we were doing it. It’s easy to do a heavy-handed episode about a topic like that and use the subject matter as an excuse not to be funny, but that episode is loaded with great jokes, valid character attitudes, plus the serious discussion. The first Ron & Tammy episode was a lot of fun to write on Parks to hear Nick Offerman deliver all those horrible lines about his marriage and then immediately turn around and say “Would I marry again? Oh yes, absolutely.” It was also a thrill to be in a few episodes as an idiot townsperson named Pearl who asked dumb questions at town meetings. My wife and I created a couple of shows together: Complete Savages for ABC and The Pitts for Fox. Although neither made it to a second season, it was a tremendous experience to build a show from the ground up and see it come to life. And I love working In the Simpsons Movie, I was very proud to have pitched that at the end of Bart’s nude skateboarding scene where we had various clever ways of covering his penis, that the very last shot should be every part of him covered except his penis. I’m a huge sucker for a joke that sets up a very predictable punchline and then goes the other way. Another example of that in the movie is the opening where Homer is about to hammer a nail that his thumb is very clearly on top of, but instead of doing the old joke where the hammer hits his thumb, I thought it would be funny if the claw of the hammer got caught in his eye. Putting a fresh twist on an old joke is always fun.
What shows made you fall in love with television? What shows are you currently loving?
The Dick Van Dyke Show, because it was smart and funny and it made comedy writing look like a fun job. Green Acres and F Troop because of the inspired silliness. Monty Python’s Flying Circus because it was genius. All in The Family, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart Show, Carol Burnett, Johnny Carson, The Smothers Brothers, Get Smart, Taxi, the list goes on and on. Currently, I’m enjoying all the Fox animated shows, Last Man on Earth, Master of None, Brooklyn 99, Kimmy Schmidt, I enjoyed The Grinder a lot, I just started watching Vice Principals, and I’m looking forward to the return of Curb Your Enthusiasm. I watch a lot of TV.
I grew up on single cams, multi cams, and animation and I’ve been lucky enough to work in all three genres. They’re all fun to write for different reasons: the immediate feedback of a live audience in multi cam, the ability to go out on locations and shoot a movie-like scene that single camera shows provide, or, in the case of animation, the fun of being able to write a joke that defies logic and gravity. They all have different rhythms and rules and the more you can adapt as a writer to different styles of shows, the more employable you are. The goal is always the same: keep working.