“If there had been a Rotten Tomatoes in 1601, he would have gotten a 73.” So WGAW Vice President Howard A. Rodman compared Shakespeare to television. What he meant is that the Bard in his day was, like television until rather recently, seriously underrated and disrespected. Things change, however, and now, so Rodman asserts, whatever genre you pick out of a hat, the best work is happening on TV. That’s a good a scene-setting as one could hope for tonight’s panel discussion held at the Writers Guild Theater featuring this year’s Emmy writing nominees.
In attendance were Elliott Kalan (The Daily Show With Jon Stewart), Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge), Alec Berg (Silicon Valley), Joshua Brand (The Americans), Matthew Weiner and Semi Chellas (Mad Men), Christine Nangle (Inside Amy Schumer) and Stephanie Gillis (The Simpsons). All are up for statuettes come Sunday, but if there were any feelings of competition or anxiety, you couldn’t tell tonight. The group, many of them close friends, delivered a lengthy, generally hilarious talk about their shows and careers and the changing television landscape.
But first, something you’ve probably been wondering since the show ended in May – the final moments of the Mad Men series finale were not metaphorical, despite the dreamlike fade into one of the most important advertisements of all time. Weiner and fellow nominee Chellas confirmed that when talking about how long in advance they knew how the show would end, with Weiner explaining that Don Draper did find himself and did go on to help create the iconic “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial.
Sure, you say, you knew that. But for those of you thinking it might have been a Sopranos-style moment of ambiguity, now you know. You’re welcome.
OK, another hot reveal from tonight’s panel: The Daily Show staff found out that Jon Stewart was leaving just before the news was made public. As Kalan put it, the feeling wasn’t so much surprise as it was culmination. Apparently the staff felt tremendous anxiety every time the renewal of Stewart’s contract came up, to the point of obsessive worry on the part of some newer staffer.
But the biggest takeaway from tonight’s discussion was that the massive changes television has undergone and continues to undergo looms large in the minds of the writers. From the creative opportunities to the economic challenges, it’s changing so fast it affects everything.
“Television used to be called the idiot box,” Anderson said. “When I was growing up, I had Leave It To Beaver and Donna Reed – they were good shows, but they weren’t really edgy. Television has become what feature films were in the ’70s. … Right now we’re overtaking the feature film industry for inventiveness, creativeness, getting out of the box.”
Weiner agreed. “Traditionally, films would scoop up talent from TV,” he said. “Now it seems to be going to the other way.” But, he continued, it’s an extension of the myriad more ways television shows can be seen. “This is the biggest business in the United States right now. It’s not a quality rush, it’s a gold rush. That’s why you don’t do pilots anymore; if you do 10 episodes, you can sell it anywhere in the world.”
Wiener said later, when discussing whether he writes with ratings in mind: “And there’s so much money. A fraction of the public can make AMC a billion dollars.”
Brand called the new landscape “creative destruction. Joking at one point about how shows used to be killed off when their ratings slipped below 25 million viewers, he later said, “We had these three networks and they exploded. … Proliferation of these alternate vectors has been [a huge opportunity and a challenge]. A big chunk is really a small chunk of what used to be a big chunk.”
That uncertainty creates even more challenges for writers, as best summed up by Weiner near the end. “You cannot let them use your love of your work against you,” he said, meaning that writers shouldn’t let studios and networks unfairly compensate them because they enjoy their work. “That’s why we have agents that’s why we have a union.”
- Nangle on how writing for TV has affected her viewing habits: “I only wanna watch a rerun of something that was on a long time ago. Right now I’m extraordinarily obsessed with Murder, She Wrote. … There’s something about just knowing that that’s done and it’s in the past, and somebody wrote this show and it’s going to be fine — I don’t have to be taking notes and up at 5 and criticize why there’s too many white people in it.”
- The playful competition between The Daily Show and The Colbert Report extended to sending gag gifts whenever one show beat the other to a story or a joke. Kalan said they’d send “a gift meant to depress or distract them.” Apparently The Daily Show attempted to send the Colbert writers a $10 gift certificate for one of New York’s most expensive restaurants, but the restaurant declined.
- Mad Men had a policy that anyone could submit any episode for Emmy contention for any reason. “I feel like everyone should have their chance to have their blurb in the giant ballot that I could never open,” Weiner said.
Relating the story of how Neil DeGrasse Tyson ended up on The Daily Show, Kalan revealed that he and another show writer came up with the idea in early afternoon, thinking they wouldn’t be able to get him. When they watched the taping later that day, Kalan was stunned. “Neil DeGrasse Tyson is on The Daily Show,” he joked. “This is magic. We conjured a man out of words!”