Donald Todd – Showrunner: This is Us / Creator: Samantha Who?
When did you realize, you wanted to work in television?
I was a senior in college — a Theatre Major — and thought about trying playwriting. But New York seemed scary, and playwriting seemed like a path to poverty, so I was planning a career in lighting design when I read an article in TV Guide about the Family Ties writers’ room. (As with all these answers, you have to keep reminding yourself that there was no internet then; I know, right?) I had no idea there was this place where writers sat around and made each other laugh and got paid a lot to write TV comedy. The staff writer was a kid named Marc Lawrence (who has since written and directed many films, including one of my favorites, Music and Lyrics) and he was only a year older than I was and he was loving it, and so that was that. I graduated and immediately drove out from Atlanta to LA.
What advice do you have for college students who are looking to pursue the television industry?
First, you should totally get the internet. It really is quite the tool, plus there’s shopping. And as long as you have that, familiarize yourself with IMDB, because you’ll need to know everything about everyone you meet. Also, read Deadline every day. Oh, and plan to move to LA. Gotta do that, sorry. Unless you have a hook-up for a job in NYC or elsewhere, LA is still where jobs are, or come from. It helps to know what you want to do — “work in the industry” isn’t much info — and then exploit any contact you have and reach out, both from college and then when you’re living in a crappy place in Hollywood. When you get to LA, get a job, any job, and keep telling people what you want to do and asking them if they know anyone who works in the business who can meet with you. And remember this at all times: no one asked you to come to LA. No one cares if you make it. They’d prefer you go home. They are all busy trying not to lose their jobs. That last bit is important: the main thing people do is try to keep their jobs. ANY job you have, your job is to help them with that. My job — showrunner, seemingly a high-up position — is largely about helping the people at the studios and networks who hire me keep their jobs. It’s also making a good show, but those things are connected. If you want to be a writer, read and then ignore this: http://www.villagevoice.com/arts/i-will-not-read-your-fucking-script-6704899. And write ALWAYS. (I don’t mean write the film Always — no one should have done that — I mean always be writing, teaching yourself how to do it.
Also, drink plenty of fluids.
What was your first job in the industry? What did you learn from it?
First job in the industry was being a PA for Larry Harmon, the original Bozo the Clown. What I learned from that was to work really, really hard on being a writer so I didn’t have to wash Bozo the Clown’s car anymore. My next job was being a PA for a coke-headed film producer who carried a loaded gun in his briefcase and didn’t pay his bills. I learned that the 1980s are nothing to be nostalgic about. My first WRITING job was for a CBS remake of the old Twilight Zone series, and I learned I could make a living writing. That was huge. I sold pitches to writers there who were my idols (like Harlan Ellison) and who were so encouraging that I quit my last day job and stuck it out.
What is your writing process like?
A lot of procrastination, like I’m doing by answering these questions. Then an attempt to focus my brain. That’s really hard for me — maybe if ADD had been invented when I was a kid, I would have had that — so I have to be in a silent room with no distractions. Good luck with that these days. I’m a “morning writer,” so I am as god as I’m going to be all day when I first wake. So, the faster I get to the keyboard, the better. I prefer the afternoon be for producing duties, like casting and editing and to keep the mornings clear for writing. I envy those writers who can write at night, or in Starbucks. I can do it, and have, plenty of times, but I love the freshness of a morning and the clear path toward the end of the script. Maybe it’s to create that bubble in my mind (so that I can listen to the characters talking, because that’s what scriptwriting is, right; writing down what they say in your head?) I often subconsciously put my forehead on my desk, a position that has caused many an assistant or wife to assume that I finally did myself in.
How has it been working on This is Us? How is it different from previous projects you’ve worked on in the past?
This Is Us has been a dream, both as writer and producer. Dan Fogelman’s creation allows for exploring nearly every aspect of humanity, and family, and adulthood, and childhood, and love, and death, and race, and those damn 1980s again. Any story you can think of can fit into a character’s situation, so the freedom is exciting. And our relentless push for moments and revelations (both internal and external) that are NOT the expected ones is great training for the writing muscle. Too often in network TV, the easy and familiar way is the most successful. A writer can get lazy, being rewarded for copying other scenes and shows, until what we’ve seen on TV appears to be what happens in real life. Suddenly, real life feels fresh and surprising. We try to remember what people might actually do in a situation, not what we remember other TV character’s doing. Network TV writing will not usually challenge your skills. You have to do that yourself.
Every episode of This is Us features flashbacks and most of the time focuses on one instance as the focal point of the flashback. How in the writers’ room has it been coming up with those stories? Have a lot of them been pulled from situations some of the writers have been in themselves?
The flashbacks (which we don’t call flashbacks because they are part of an unfolding story that happens to take place in another time) are a challenge, but the good kind. It forces us to always know what stories we’re telling, for all the characters, because these seminal moments from the past inform them all in different ways. The show is conceived in three dimensions if that makes sense — every story informing, forward and backward and then across each other, the result. A lot of brain power in that writer’s room — truly the best, smartest staff I’ve ever worked with — and it’s all necessary. And yes, every story comes from either Dan’s life or the lives of the writers in the room. We all have to be honest with each other about our secrets, in order to put them on the screen. For instance, I gave birth to triplets. Tore the shit out of my birth canal.
What is your favorite thing that you’ve ever written? (From This is Us, Samantha Who, Hart of Dixie, or Ugly Betty)
Like all TV writers, my favorite thing would not be something you saw, it’d be some pilot script that never got made or aired. But of the things that aired, the Samantha Who? pilot script is a favorite because it explored my favorite themes of identity, nature vs. nurture, and whether we shape our own selves. The whole process of that was very smooth, which usually tells you you’re on the right track.
What shows made you fall in love with television? What shows are you currently loving?
I grew up watching a LOT of TV. Prime time, reruns, all of it. Mostly comedies, which is why I started out in comedy. And I was lucky enough to be a kid when some of the greatest TV work was beginning. I vividly recall the premiere of All in the Family, because my mom wouldn’t let me watch, but my dad did, and it was shocking and stunning and hilarious, and the world changed right then. What followed that moment for me were grown up shows like MASH, and Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda and Maude… TV that meant something. I’ve always been drawn, since then, to making shows that have at least something to offer beyond the laugh. I respect those writers to whom the laugh is enough, but I feel that if you’re going to give me your half-hour or hour, I’m going to try to end it better than it was. Probably too self-important a mission, but it keeps me interested.
Now, I watch things that engage me, not relax me. Off the air but still, my favorites have been Justified, Deadwood, The Shield… and right now it’s Better Call Saul, The Americans, and comedies like Veep and Silicon Valley and Atlanta and Girls.