How Emmy-Nominated Writers’ Rooms Keep Politics in Mind
In a world filled with elections, social movements and national tragedies, how open should the doors of a writers’ room actually be? For some of this year’s Emmy-nominated shows, those doors are wide open.
Before the 71st annual Primetime Emmy Awards air on Sept. 22, the Writers Guild of America, in partnership with Variety and Final Draft, assembled a group of nominated scribes Wednesday night for a candid discussion of their craft — including the influence that current events have on their writing.
Actor and writer Kelvin Yu (“Bob’s Burgers,” “Master of None”) moderated the panel, featuring Ava DuVernay and Michael Starrbury (“When They See Us”), Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine (“PEN15”), Bill Hader (“Barry”), Michael Tolkin and Brett Johnson (“Escape at Dannemora”), David Mandel (“Veep”), Craig Mazin (“Chernobyl”), Bruce Miller and Kira Snyder (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), Thomas Schnauz (“Better Call Saul”), Josh Siegal and Dylan Morgan (“The Good Place”) and Allison Silverman (“Russian Doll”).
“Veep” showrunner Mandel recalled a discussion over whether or not to include a joke about a school shooting. “We had a school shooting joke about Selina ignoring school shootings. In the interim year there were about 11 more school shootings —one worse than the other,” he said, explaining that he saw the situation going one of two ways — either be “out of touch” or “double down”. “It was only by adding the horror, I found we could make it funny and embrace the satire. We had no choice,” he said.
On “Russian Doll,” the writer’s room — made up solely of women — assembled just as the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke and the #MeToo movement began. “That was on our minds a lot,” Silverman said, adding that the brains behind the series also made an effort to hire women directors. “That was important in that moment.”
“I don’t think these types of programs have intrinsic value unless they are allegorical,” Mazin said, sharing that he wrote the first two scripts of “Chernobyl” during the 2016 presidential election. “I was reacting to the world around me. During the election we were already seeing a problem,” he said.
That problem, he explained, rose out of how modern the show’s material began to feel. During the 1980s, when the show is set, “narrative began to obscure everything. Everything became advertising, everything became branding,” Mazin said. “We would look at the Soviet Union and rightfully mock them for their outrageous flights of lying fancy… I don’t feel so good about making fun of them about it anymore.”
“The Good Place’s” Josh Siegal and Dylan Morgan acknowledged President Donald Trump’s impact on the NBC comedy. “We never said the five letter word in our show,” Morgan said, referring to Trump. “But it also permeated every moment in the show on some level or other.” Siegal brought up a conversation he had with the show’s creator Michael Schur in which he asked him, “do you think it’s weird you wrote about hope in a time of hope and now all of a sudden you’re writing about demons in a time of demon?”
For her part, Snyder said she prioritizes telling the story of “The Handmaid’s Tale’s” main character June instead of drawing from external events — although she does notice the show’s parallels with the real world. “It’s not a ripped from the headlines show. Although at the time the show aired, we had these eerie coincidences,” she said. “The points and policies we were depicting are a little retrograde and a little too current right now [in] sort of an unhappy accident.”
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