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Starting Out In TV Roundtable PDF Print E-mail
Written by CUE Editors   
Tuesday, 24 July 2012 01:37
With CUE members making their mark on a broader spectrum of the entertainment industry than ever, more and more are finding success and inspiration in scripted television.  We sat down with a few recent alums who are in the early stages of exciting television careers to talk about how they chose television and how they went about breaking in.

Scott Burkhardt (Film ‘08) served as Staff Writer on the first season of Smash (NBC) where he wrote the episode “Hell on Earth.”  

Grace Edwards (Film ‘10) worked as writer’s assistant for Comedy Central’s Ugly Americans as well as the pilot for Come Inside with Amy Schumer.

Jon Haller (Film ‘09) works as Script Coordinator on the ABC show Last Man Standing starring Tim Allen.   His episode “Ding Dong Ditch” aired as part of the show’s first season.

Berkley Johnson (Film ‘05) is a writer for New Girl (FOX).  He wrote three episodes in the first season:  “Thanksgiving”, “Landlord” (with Josh Malmuth), and “Fancyman II” (with Kim Rosenstock).  

Edward McGinty (Film ‘06) is a researcher on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and plays one of the ward bosses on the show.  He also co-founded CUE.  

Can you outline the route you took from graduation to your current position?

SB: I was taking a class called TV as a Dramatic Medium in my second year at Columbia and one day Evangeline Morphos, our professor, came in and said Theresa Rebeck was shooting a pilot for CBS and needed an on-set assistant. I was supposed to go to Phoenix, AZ to visit my Dad for Spring Break but after interviewing with her and getting the job, I canceled that trip and worked with her on that for two weeks. After that, I worked with her part time for the next five or so years. She was supportive of me and liked my work so when Smash came around she offered me a writing job on the show.
GE: In 2009, I was chosen for the Comedy Central Summer School Writing Fellowship. This was a great program which put me in contact with writers from the Daily Show and Colbert, as well as Comedy Central's Digital and Development departments. I maintained contact with a few people including the head of Development at the time, Dan Powell. Dan left his staff position at Comedy to become an executive producer on Ugly Americans. After I graduated, I made sure Dan knew that I would love to work for the show. About 8 months later, something opened up and Dan contacted me to work as a production coordinator/writers' assistant on Ugly. I also recently worked on the Comedy Central pilot, Come Inside with Amy Schumer with him as a writers assistant. So, keeping in contact with people you've interned or worked for in the past is key.

JH: I took Alan Kingsberg’s TV writing class at Columbia where I learned how to write TV specs
Alan recommended me for an internship to his friend Warren Leight, who was running the second season of In Treatment ­
Became an intern at In Treatment
Made lots of coffee
Their writer’s assistant took another job and I took over because I made such great coffee
Graduated Columbia
Warren Leight’s assistant Marygrace O’Shea (a phenomenal Columbia alum) recommended me for a gig at 30 Rock
Worked as 30 Rock’s writer’s assistant for seasons four and five
My girlfriend moved to Los Angeles while I stayed in New York
Beat Tina Fey in bowling
Drank lots of coffee
Missed my girlfriend
Got a job as writer’s assistant on Jack Burditt’s new show Last Man Standing in Los Angeles
Moved to LA, bought a tiny car (Ferris the Yaris) and moved in with my girlfriend
Became script coordinator
Worked long hours, drank lots of coffee
Got to write my own episode
On hiatus now, just made a fresh cup of coffee.

BJ: In the summer of 2004, Columbia classmate (and, to give you a sense of time and place, vocal Iraq war proponent) Jennifer Grausman and I were walking through midtown scouting locations for my Directing 4 when I got a call saying I’d gotten a 6-week job on a show called B-Roll with John Henson. After that I was hired as an in-house writer at SpikeTV, thanks, in large part, to legendary Columbia funny-man Chris Carlson. Then it was off to MTV2’s  Stankervision – which, no matter how much the title might indicate otherwise, was NOT about webcam fisting. Then I made the classic Stankervision to Late Night with Conan O’Brien jump, thanks, in even larger part, to legendary Columbia funny-adjunct Chris Albers. Then there were 7 months of The Tonight Show, a gauzy meeting with Bill Carter to explain to me what happened, and Conan on TBS.

[For New Girl] I first met with Liz, Brett, and Dave in May of 2011. I don’t remember too many details about the meeting – except that the nicknames I came up with for them at the time were “Blanket, Drinky, and Tats” – which, over a year later, still apply.

[Regarding how episodes are assigned:] If anyone out there knows how episodes were divvied up and assigned among the staff, I know a roomful of people who would love to speak with you. Regardless, somehow I ended up writing/co-writing 3 episodes: “Thanksgiving”, “Landlord” with Josh Malmuth, and “Fancyman II” with Kim Rosenstock. Though in reality, everyone works on every episode. So while you generally end up with more of your time/life/stomach lining invested in “your” episodes – the truth is you put a lot of yourself into other people’s episodes – and they put a lot into yours. I’m speaking obviously of the royal “you.” I, personally, only work on things I get credit for. And sometimes not even then.

EM: I got acting training at the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) before I went to
film school. I wanted to be a director, so I took acting classes to learn how to work with actors.  I ended up staying, immersing myself in the craft, for a year and a half. I really enjoyed the process and got my directing chops by helping other actors prepare their scenes. That helped me directing actors at Columbia, where I also acted in a number of classmates films, including Chris Zalla's 2007 Sundance winner "Padre Nuestro."  

Of course, opportunities come from the strangest places. I landed in Los Angeles a few scant weeks before the beginning of the writers strike.  After a number of lost months in the sun, my classmate, Ben Odell ‘04 (who produced my thesis film, "Morning Fall" & Zalla's "Padre Nuestro") told me Terence Winter (who we had met at a Carla Kuhn "Sopranos" Screening) was working on a show about Atlantic City. 

 I am a third-generation Atlantic City native, and I knew it was the job I was born to do.  After months of calls, e-mails and sleepless nights, I met with Terry Winter at an L.A. diner, armed with a shopping bag stuffed with photos and books about my hometown. I realized you have to brand yourself, and I decided I was going to be the Atlantic City guy.

The first two seasons, I was in the writers' room on a daily basis.   Early on when the pilot was being cast, Terry Winter said, "You should be one of the Ward Bosses".  I thought he was kidding, but he called me on Sunday night & said, "I'm serious, you have to audition first thing tomorrow". I was so nervous I blew the initial audition, but fortunately, thanks in part to diligent research, I found out that Atlantic City had four wards back in the 1920s - so I made the cut.  It's been an incredible opportunity that has given me a chance to watch the directors work on set. I got my MFA at Columbia, but my PhD on Boardwalk Empire.

Can you describe your duties. What does a typical day look like?
SB: The "typical" day is really dependent on the showrunner and how they want to run things. We would meet and discuss ideas a few times a week but then it was really about you going off and writing a draft of your episode and then working with Theresa to make it her voice.

GE: Ugly Americans is animated. Come Inside With Amy Schumer was live action. The daily duties are somewhat different. Although Ugly Americans had a writing room, my main duties were taking notes on network calls and conforming all the scripts to each edit. In animation, we go through many stages of animatic. Things are added and subtracted and re-scripted as we go along. Thus, it's important that a new draft is created for each stage of the edit that reflects the changes. I make sure each draft was updated and made sure all the network's notes are addressed in ADR sessions.

On the Amy Schumer show, I had more traditional writers' assistant duties. I took notes in the writers room, cleaned and sent them out to the writers. Since the show is sketch-based I broke the notes up so that each writer only got room notes for the sketches he/she was writing. For each draft of the script, the writers would send the sketches to me and I would compile them into one master draft. I would then make sure everything was formatted and spelled correctly. I would print out copies of the script and distribute them. Most importantly, I kept an organized archive of both the notes and the different drafts of each sketch and master script.
JH: There is no typical day. During pre-production, script coordinators and writer’s assistants are in the writer’s room typing every joke, every kernel for a story, every possible thought that can help a writer when he or she goes off to write a beat sheet, outline or episode. Thus, we are responsible for archiving all the written material for the show as well as misusing the word “thus.”

Once production begins, we communicate with the department heads all the needs for a specific episode as it undergoes changes. We type and proof the scripts as they go through different drafts and distribute those changes to the entire staff, studio and network. It’s an intense job. The hours are long. And a lot of time is spent cursing Final Draft. The perk, however, is getting to be in the writer’s room. Picture a well-lit mental institution where the food is brought to you and the patients are really fucking funny.

BJ: Honestly, no. I’m still trying to figure it out. But I can tell you that a typical day began at 10:30 AM, was a ton of fun, and ended sometime around dawn-ish.

EM: I provide the historic research for the writing staff, essentially building the world of 1920s Atlantic City through historical photos, documentaries, books, archives, etc. 
Each department does their own initial research more within in their purview - specific to wardrobe, architecture, design, etc., and I will find the answers to any additional questions they have outside of their expertise.

I'll help prep directors, especially those new to the show, with as much visual material (movies, paintings, et al.) as possible to help them encompass the overall vision of the show.

In the first season, the work was more visual and broad, over time it becomes much more focused - answering specific questions at a moments notice such as law & medical procedure from the time period. I've learned more than enough to earn a law degree from Columbia in the early 1920's. So if anyone needs to sue a bootlegger for crashing into your Model T - I'm your man.

What was the biggest surprise for you (compared to your expectations) when you started working in television professionally?

SB: I had been around TV for awhile before I got my first formal writing job so there were not a ton of surprises. But the individuals involved obviously make each experience unique and surprising at times.

Things constantly change and you are serving a lot of interests when you write for television so you have to be pretty nimble on your feet and not be precious about things. But I enjoy the back and forth of it all and the process itself

GE: The biggest lesson I learned is that people shift around often and that everyone's path to their dream job is vastly different.

JH: There is so much free food
BJ: The staggering amount of medium-quality free food.

EM: I think the biggest surprise is that you simply can't imagine the amount of work that
goes into a project like this and the speed at which it all comes together.  The wardrobe
department alone has a huge staff with their own "factory" of sorts to build, fit, inventory, & store thousands of costumes. The amount of work an actor like Steve Buscemi has to memorize and prepare for on a daily basis is just astounding, he's a true professional. 

The most amazing day was seeing the Boardwalk set for the first time - I was knocked out by the scale and detail. I had researched a bunch of photos a few months prior, and the Boardwalk & storefronts from those photos were now laid out before me.  Terry Winter walked up behind me and said, "I still can't believe I wrote EXT. BOARDWALK - DAY on a piece of paper and now it exists."

And you get free food after 12 hours of work!   

What was the best piece of advice you received or if you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice in your first year out of Columbia, what would tell yourself?

SB: Just be ready for the long haul of it all, whether you are pursuing a more independent route or you are looking to work within the studio system. Take the voice you honed at Columbia, embrace that and build on it. Your career and your classmates careers will ebb and flow and its important to be supportive of one another. Some day you may be writing a $200 million dollar studio tent pole feature and you can send it to your Cannes winning classmate (don't tell your producers!) and say "Does this suck? Gimme some notes." And vice versa. ;)

GE:  I woud say that you have to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. Actually, when I was graduating the amazing Malia Scotch-Marmo gave me that advice. That if I wanted a comfortable and certain life that I should do something else. To be a creative person is to be in flux.

JH: 1) Exercise. 2) Learn to appreciate the generic taste of salads. 3) Stop writing specs and focus on original pilots. That’s what everyone wants to read now.

BJ: I made so many poor moves that picking a best move is a little bit of a smartest hillbilly situation. But my former self should know that skipping Todd Haynes Q&A #9 to work on a Tough Crowd submission was the right call – and that Australian girls are a bad business.

EM: Write, write, write, write, write. And when you're not writing, write some more.  I was told
that advice at Columbia, and once you're out in the industry, you realize it is the only advice that
matters. Content is king, and without material you are just a pawn. The advice I'd
give is to figure out what sets you apart, what will make someone pull you
up from the thousands who are trying to do the same thing. Find the way to make that
unique angle work for you. For me, it was Atlantic City, and Boardwalk Empire happened to
come along at the very right time. Patience, and sleeping with as many people in Hollywood as you can helps too.

Anything else you want to add?

SB: Everyone's journey is different so if none of the above relates to you I'm sure you'll do just fine too. :)

JH: Screw the Harvard mafia. Go Lions! Unless, of course, a Harvard alum is hiring. Thus, go Crimson!

BJ: I still feel like a lot of the accusations hurled in my 8-12 crit were highly unfair. I’m looking at you, Mendelsohn.

EM: If you move to LA, join CUE and get plugged in -  we need to build a solid network in this
industry to get anywhere.

Thank you to all our panelists for taking the time to answer our questions! Be sure to check out their shows.

If there are any roundtable topics you’d like to see in the future, please let us know!