I’ve been corresponding with an editor at Marvel Comics whom I met over Twitter. (He’s a Thrilling Adventure Hour fan!). In talking about the possibility of Acker and me writing a comic book for him, he asked:
…as I am only familiar with your comedy writing I am curious if you guys see yourselves as just comedy guys or if you do drama as well? I am a big comedy fan, and I sort of like when drama has a sense of humor anyway (I think Oz was an incredibly funny show, for example… if a bit dark…) so I don’t mean wrist-slittingly grim drama, but…
Here is my response:
This comes up a lot for us. We see ourselves as writers. Thrilling Adventure Hour is a comedy show because that’s what plays on a stage. But the stuff we love on TV—Deadwood, the Wire, Breaking Bad, Justified, even Battlestar Galactica—are dramas (sometimes pretty grim ones) with some seriously great laughs in them. We had this conversation with Jane Espenson when we first met her several years ago—writing “dramas” is sort of the best because the jokes come out of character. You’re not competing or pressured to get the “best joke” [I’ll write more about the pressures of a comedy writers room some other time] but the joke that makes the most sense for the character. I wouldn’t call Bendis’s Ultimate Spiderman or Vaughan’s Y The Last Man “comedic” books, but they do have levity to some of the best moments. And that levity just makes the drama hit harder.
Likewise Supernatural. It isn’t a “light” show like, say, the USA dramas. It’s a grim procedural, it’s gory, there’s a lot of death and (when done well) real emotion. Any humor comes from point of view. These guys don’t crack jokes; they make sarcastic remarks because if they didn’t, they’d crack up.
Which is all to say, we’re on the same page.
This question of “pigeonholing” came up a lot from audience members early on in the Nerdist Writers Panel series. David Schulner (creator of Kings and an all around great guy and terrific writer) had this to say about being pigeonholed:
“I don’t think you need to worry about establishing [your own brand] because people are all too quick to pigeonhole you… like, I’m the character guy. Literally, I had this great thing, an overall deal at a network, and you can develop for them or they place you on a show, you have job stability, and I read all their shows and I said, ‘There’s this great character show that I wanna do,’ and they said, ‘They already have those people. We have this great big sci-fi monolith and they don’t have any character writers, so you’re gonna go there.’” That season, David wound up on The Event, attempting to add “character” to their “big sci-fi monolith” show. You tell me if it worked; I only saw a couple of episodes.
In that same panel, Peter Tolan (co-creator of The Job, Rescue Me, among others, and writer on so many brilliant series including The Larry Sanders Show) said: “…it seems exactly that everybody in the business is so anxious to pigeonhole you, why beat them to the punch? Why not try to keep things open? Now, it’s okay if there are things that you like to do, I mean I guess I would be the ‘dark, edgy comedy pissed-off guy’, I guess.”
And the conversation was later illustrated by this exchange between Schulner and Matt Nix:
Nix: You won’t have the opportunity… people don’t give you a bunch of choices, like “After Burn Notice, here’s a menu of shows you can create.” I mean, there’s a certain logic; I clearly have a brand at this point of shows where things explode—some sort of clever crime-fighting thing with some mixture of comedy and drama, more or less. But that’s a brand that I established with, let’s call a show-and-a-half, like two shows, one lasting a year, one…
Schulner: Matt, when you did Good Guys, did you feel like you could get that made because you’re the guy who did Burn Notice? Good Guys had a lot of those elements, did you feel like…
Nix: Oh, yeah. I mean clearly The Good Guys could happen because of Burn Notice, but I feel like previous to that… I had written exactly zero action movies. None. …And now in features, right, when people talk to me about features, I’m an action guy. Like, people talk to me about action things, because that’s what I’ve done in television, and clearly I’ve always done that, right?
So the lesson seems to be to write what you want to write. Especially now, if you’re not working or just starting out, write the stuff that you respond to. Let others worry about fitting you into boxes. Nix goes on to talk about how, as a feature writer, he was simultaneously pigeonholed as a different kind of writer to different execs: “I was simultaneously the ‘super-dark NC-17 indie-film like semi-comedy drama guy’ and the ‘bright children’s film writer’ and then sort of toward the tail end of that also the broad comedy… writer. Just different sets of people knew me, and so I was sort of separately branded in these different areas in Hollywood, and if you’d asked any of the people who knew me as a children’s film writer, they would’ve said ‘Oh no, he’s far too soft to write an NC-17 indie film.’
So go ahead and cross-pollinate. This season, Acker and I are going out for hourlong dramas (often with a genre bent) and half-hour comedies. We’re comfortable in both and there are great pilot scripts this year in both camps, including lighter stuff by writers known for serious dramas (Shawn Ryan’s terrific Beverly Hills Cop script comes to mind).
But I will leave you with this last bit, also from Matt: “…the only thing I will say is that pigeonholes pay well… If you’re pigeonholed at something and you become, like, the angry guy comedy television guy, well, if somebody’s got that show or they want that, well there’s a premiere guy.”