In the TV Writers’ Room: An Interview with Theo Travers
I’ve interviewed quite a few lady TV writers so I thought it was time to interview a guy. Not just any guy. Theo Travers is a writer on Showtime’s House of Lies and all-around nice dude. Theo and I went to NYU together, and I swear that he hasn’t aged at all. Theo was kind enough to share his thoughts on breaking into TV, advice on diversity in television, and great networking advice.
1. We both went to the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and studied dramatic writing. How did your schooling help you in your career today?
Tisch gave me a high bar to clear and a mountain of debt, both excellent motivators for following through on my bright-eyed aspirations. The Dramatic Writing Program as it was called in my day, now rebranded as DDW (Department of Dramatic Writing), was in every sense a think-tank of creativity spearheaded by pros who didn’t shy away from sharing the brutal reality of making a living at the craft. They encouraged us to search inward, and equipped us with a platform to share our voices however we felt best. In my case, the results yielded potential, but not a portfolio strong enough to attract an overall deal. It’s a good thing I knew how to make coffee and eat humble pie with my mouth closed. Tisch lived up to its reputation of being a world-class film program. And while my time there was a transformative experience, I often find in an industry built primarily on relationships that the true value of the degree yielded years later in the association with the program and the friends I made while there. When I moved to Los Angeles 5 years ago, the NYU recent alumni association was my lifeline. The board was made up of folks who knew me before my late-teen complexion cleared. They pointed the way, gave me a lay of the land, connected me with resources and, most importantly, a strong tug back from the ledge when I was ready to clear it.
2. You currently write on the Showtime series, House of Lies. How did you land the gig? What do you enjoy about writing on the show?
I get that question often. Along with it, a variety of mixed responses when I tell the answer. The abbreviated version begins with a chance meeting of the show’s creator and executive producer, Matthew Carnahan, in an Irish bar in Santa Monica. We were introduced by a mutual acquaintance that worked on the show. We talked for a bit, mostly about life in NYC, and what followed was the thing that almost never happens in that kind of situation: Matthew offered to read something of mine. Correspondences over email in the months after led to the most surreal, creatively challenging and life-altering experience of my life. I caution though, there’s an inherent flaw in taking too much stock in the truncated, romanticized version of my “breaking in” story. No one cares or has time to hear about all the shitty scripts I wrote in the 12-plus years before that night. At best, some of my more exciting assignments as TV news reporter in Memphis make for good icebreakers, but the dull truth is I cut my teeth on hundreds of not-so-exciting stories before I ever moved to Los Angeles. I learned how to approach people in awkward situations, how to get to the point quickly and read a person’s face to gauge how badly I’m offending or boring them. I worked for years as an assistant to busy production executives, learning the business and politics of the industry. I was vetted by several of the professional writing programs housed at the networks (more on that in a bit). And yes, over time, I’ve also learned how to drink in public without getting naked or throwing up on myself. It’s harder than it looks. And all of those combined experiences were the wind in my sails in that moment.
I’m now back in the room on Season 4 of House of Lies. This part of the creative team includes Matthew Carnahan; veteran comedy writer David Walpert; executive producer Jessika Borsiczky; my fellow NYU pal and Entourage alum, Wes Nickerson; Taii Austin; and yours truly. There are so many things I enjoy about writing for this show. Our sandbox gets messy as we attempt to break narrative conventions and tell honest stories in ways we haven’t seen before on screen. It helps that we’re writing for one of the best actors of our generation, Don Cheadle, who is also an executive producer. Cheadle brings a hurbis to the character of Marty Kaan, a scrupulous management consultant who feeds his own greed with the blubber of corporate whales deserving of being gutted. Marty’s most redeeming quality is the love he has for his son. He rises to the challenge of being a single father in spite of his other insipid qualities. He’s a very complex character inhabiting a very complex ecosystem. This gives us some much latitude as storytellers. We also have the support of a premium cable network (Showtime) that encourages us to push the limits. The end result hopefully speaks for itself. We have as much fun making this show as the characters are having on screen. It’s an ideal creative workspace.
3. For minority TV writers who are trying to break into the industry, what suggestions would you have for them? What are some great programs that writers should apply to if they are just starting out?
Good questions. I have numerous thoughts on this topic. Some based in fact, others opinions I’ve adopted over time. I’m happy to distinguish between the two. Gone are the days (hopefully for good) where widespread exclusionary practices tied to discrimination were so blatant there was no mistaking them for anything but what they were and no recourse to correct. Our thinking as a society has evolved and continues to evolve. The demographic landscape of the viewing audience for film and TV is growing, and getting browner by the day. So too are technological advances that are giving consumers a burdensome amount of choices. It’s a perfect storm of change that makes inviting a diversity of voices into the halls of power and decision-making not just the fair thing to do, but plainly smart business. It should come as no surprise to anyone that institutionalized racism, sexism, and homophobia is only a problem when it hurts the bottom line. But the less cynical way of thinking about it is this: one could argue there’s never been a better time to be a writer, especially if you’re someone who feels your worldview has been underrepresented in Hollywood.
In TV, CBS, Disney/ABC, Fox, NBC, Nickelodeon, and WB offer the most reputable programs for writing, largely due to the direct access they offer to executives who oversee development and production, as well as additional money to shows for staffing writers. These programs are the closest thing to the apprenticeships that existed before the fall of the old studio system. Getting into one of these programs is often viewed like winning the lottery. The impression is if your name is pulled out of the hat, you’re on the fast track to stardom. While the programs all have bolstered successful records for participants staffing, it’s a misnomer that you’re guaranteed work. I went through three of them without landing a writing gig. Another myth is that these programs have created a reverse-discriminatory policy that excludes white men, making it harder for them to break in. Also, not true. First off, there’s no shortage of white men getting work in Hollywood. Some writing programs don’t have strict diversity background requirements. And the money allocated for staffing through the programs only adds seats at the table, doesn’t take any away. Smaller rooms are now the results of shrinking budgets and a struggling economy.
My advice for any writer is come with strong material, a great attitude, and a willingness to work and you will find a job eventually. If you get bogged down with concerns of discrimination, real or perceived, you’ll adopt an offense based on defense, which over time creates an aura around you that doesn’t inspire confidence in your abilities nor the desire to work with you. Pursue all avenues. Be patient. Constantly work on your craft. Create and launch your own projects. Network and collaborate. Don’t wait for someone else’s permission to tell the stories you want to tell.
4. Before making the transition into TV writing, you had a different career in journalism. Can you tell me what you learned as a journalist that you can apply to your TV writing?
Everyone lies, especially to themselves. No one’s an expert. All good stories, regardless of the medium you’re writing in, have the same elements: a central character with a problem and the drive to do something about it. Writing is like any craft, it requires a lot of work and discipline to master. Brevity is king.
5. I’ve joked that you look exactly the same as you did in college. What’s your secret? You are ageless!
I have a cucumber and charcoal scrub that works wonders. 😉