In the TV Writers Room: An Interview with Jessica Gao
I first met the lovely, talented, and general badass Jessica Gao when she worked with my husband, Brendan Hay, on the awesome Nickelodeon TV show, The Mighty B! (It’s no longer on the air, but the main character was voiced by the super talented Amy Poehler, so you know it’s good.) Ever since then, I’ve been impressed with her consistently working as a funny female TV writer (They exist! And I know plenty of them!). She has written on several shows—the latest being the new untitled HBO comedy series about Silicon Valley. For anyone who has wondered what’s it really like to be a TV writer, Gao has some great insights.
1) How did you get started in TV writing?
Unlike pretty much every TV writer I know, I did not plan to be a writer. I was actually an art major (super useful degree) and just started working at a lot of random odd jobs because a) I had that super useful art degree and b) didn’t know what I wanted to do. I ended up working at a big entertainment marketing agency, going in as a two-day temp and somehow staying for a year. My boss wanted me to stop insisting I was still a temp and offered to promote me, so I quit. I knew that if I got promoted, started earning a salary, and received benefits, I would get complacent and not do anything else. Then I would probably be dead inside.
I had a lot of friends who wrote and drew comics, and they helped me see that I was very interested in storytelling and writing. I never finished a comic of my own because I was too lazy to draw the whole thing after I’d done the story part. I decided I should write for animation because it seemed like a good transition from comics. It already had a system in place where I could do the story part and the art stuff was someone else’s problem. But I didn’t know the first thing about TV, the entertainment industry, writing professionally, etc. I sent out a mass email to all my comic book friends that basically said, “I’ve decided to become an animation writer, but I don’t know how. If you know, tell me right now.” One of my friends knew someone who worked at Nickelodeon and she told him I should check out the Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship.
After looking through the submission guidelines and Googling “How to write a script,” I made every rookie mistake. I thought since I was submitting to Nickelodeon, I should probably write a spec script of a Nickelodeon show. DON’T DO THIS. It’s a general rule of thumb that you don’t use a sample of the show you’re attempting to get a job from. I wrote a Spongebob Squarepants spec, which was extra dumb since Spongebob isn’t even a script-based show (it goes from outline to storyboard, no script). Somehow, that script got me through to the semi-finals and I had to turn in a second script. Which I didn’t have. Because I was, am, and probably will always be incredibly lazy. The director of the fellowship gave me four days to write a second script. She made sure to tell me it should be a spec script of a primetime sitcom, not another Nickelodeon show. At this point, I was working retail and kind of putting all my eggs in this one basket. I wrote a second spec (The Office), got into the Writing Fellowship, and from there, was hired onto my first staff writing job on The Mighty B!
2) What’s it really like in a writing room?
Every writers’ room is different. It all just depends on the showrunner. On my first day in a new writers’ room, I try to assess what the vibe of the room is like first and take cues from the more senior writers. Some showrunners like the room to be a free-for-all of ideas with everyone riffing constantly. They’re the type who feel like it’s a numbers game and you have to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. Other showrunners only want you to talk when you really have something good to add to the conversation. Quality over quantity. So you kind of have to gauge what type of room your showrunner is running and act accordingly.
The writers’ room is and should always be a safe place. You can make any terrible, horrific, tasteless joke and not “get in trouble” for it. You’ve also got to have thick skin. If your ideas or jokes aren’t landing with anyone, move on to the next thing. Shockingly, repeating the same idea that no one likes is not going to make them like it any more. Sometimes you’ll go home at the end of the day feeling like everyone is an idiot and no one gets you, but the next day is a new day and you should have a billion new ideas by then.
Nothing makes or breaks a writers’ room experience more than the other writers in the room. A good mix of people makes you feel like you’re getting paid to hang out with your buds and make each other laugh. You’ll marvel that this is your job. A bad group (sometimes even just one or two bad eggs) makes every minute feel like ten miserable hours.
3) What advice would you give to lady writers trying to break into TV?
Ladies, you gotta have good samples. Trying to get a writing job without any solid scripts is like telling someone, “I can totally give you a root canal. I have no dental experience but trust me, I’m pretty sure I can do it.” When I was applying for the Writing Fellowship, an executive gave me a really great piece of advice that sounds douche-y in the retelling, but I assure you was not. This executive knew I had been an art major and he told me, “I know I’m not an artist. I can’t pick up a pencil and draw something. But I can type. Everyone can type, so everyone thinks they’re a writer.” He wasn’t trying to discourage me. He was letting me know that if I truly wanted to get hired as a writer, I had to prove I had the goods.
For anyone trying to break into TV writing, it boils down to this: write a lot of good scripts and get those scripts out there. Many of the major networks have writing programs and fellowships. They’re an excellent way to get your start. Take screenwriting classes with reputable teachers who can connect you with producers, executives, agents, and managers. There’s also the traditional route of getting a production assistant, writers’ assistant, or executive assistant job. Be a hard worker and let everyone know your goal is to be a writer. Have your spec scripts ready so when opportunity comes, you have samples people can read right away.
Okay, now I’m gonna get real-real with you. It’s harder for a lady. More often than not, I’m the only female writer on a show. This is a generalization, but dudes get thrown off when there’s a lady in the writers’ room. Good or bad, the dynamic definitely changes. I mean, I could talk all day about the social politics of women in the writers’ room, but here’s the important thing: don’t try to compensate by out-crassing the guys. You were hired because you’re you. Don’t think you should turn yourself into a dude to fit in. Why do that? Like there aren’t enough dudes in the room already? No matter what you say or do, you’re not a dude. But guess what? It works both ways. No matter what they say or do, they’re not women. When you get hired as a writer, you’re being counted on to bring your unique voice and experiences to the show. The worst thing you can do is suppress that to homogenize yourself.
4) What’s your best tip for beating procrastination?
Dude, I have no idea. I’m the worst procrastinator. I’ve checked myself into a hotel in the middle of nowhere just to force myself to work on a script. I only wrote a third of my goal and checked out early. And I ate a whole bag of chocolate-covered pretzels.
5) What have you learned about writing that you’d tell younger Gao?
Figure out a way to beat procrastination. I mean, this is ridiculous. I’m giving long answers to these questions because I’m procrastinating right now!
Read some damn books on writing! They’re not all dated and boring. (I most enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing and Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant’s Writing Movies For Fun and Profit.)
Be strategic about when you get an agent. When you start doing well and working on cool stuff, that’s when people get interested. It really is a strike-while-the-iron-is-hot situation. And you do need an agent. Someone who is excited about you and what you’re about, not someone who just wants to shove you into the next paying gig.
“Good enough” is never good enough. Just because you’re tired and you’ve been plugging away at a particularly problematic scene all day doesn’t mean you should just give up and go with a second-rate idea because it “works fine.” If you know you can beat it, then beat it. If you’re burned out for the day, sleep it off and come back fresh the next day. But you have to keep at it until it’s good. Don’t let yourself get used to settling.
Follow the trades and learn how the industry works. Learn how to pitch, learn how deals work, learn the difference between people you should be friends with versus people you should only be friendly with. Always be working on something.
Actually, that’s advice I need to give to myself now. Girl, you better be working on something right now. You only get better by doing.