The second annual New York Television Festival keeps rolling last night with a “Happy Hour” panel titled “Welcome To Our Home: The American Family on American Television.” Despite the deceptive billing (there was nary a cocktail in sight), the panelists were well-worth the ruse. Surrounded by acres of billowy merlot velvet curtains on the stage were Mike Scully (Executive Producer of The Simpsons), moderator Robert Thompson (Syracuse’s Television Center director), Phil Rosenthal (EP of Everybody Loves Raymond) and Mitchell Hurwitz (EP of Arrested Development). The funny foursome traded barbs and war stories while trampling over Thompson’s refreshingly laissez faire approach to moderating.
Between jokes, the four tried to stay on the topic: Writing about the American family, they agreed that most of the things you see on your favorite sitcom actually happened to the writers in real lives. “On Raymond, the homework used to be that the writers had to go home and get in a fight with their wife,” Rosenthal said. “Then the next day we would talk about how it went and what was said, and then we would write it up.”
Scully admitted many of Bart’s antics came from his own childhood misdeeds, and Hurwitz spoke of creating the Bluth family in Arrested by using a tool he called “The Matriarch, Patriarch, Craftsman and Clown.” What initially sounded like self-important psychobabble (and was regarded as such by Rosenthal, who pretended to fall asleep) was actually interesting. The same format—look it up—has worked on shows like The Honeymooners and The Wizard of Oz.
The most interesting part of the conversation, however, touched on Janet Jackson’s infamous breast and the FCC. Thompson asked if they had been forced to change the way they work. Scully, for one, said he had: “I know I stopped showing my nipples after that happened.”
In all seriousness, the writers all could recount moments where they received pushback from networks over the use of certain scenes or language—and how the scrutiny was getting closer. “Remember when The Simpsons was a threat to the America family?” joked one of the writers. “People had protests about those shirts that said ‘Eat My Shorts.’”
The funniest story came from Scully, who told of a writing session where the Simpsons team decided to do a skit on the ridiculousness of the famed Super Bowl commercials. They set the scene: A guy pulls his car into a service station and a bunch of scantily clad women shimmy around him, filling his gas tank and popping his trunk. But what could the commercial be advertising? The answer came to them: The Catholic Church! Scully said the higher-ups at Fox asked them to change it. “What should we change it to?” Scully asked. The network’s response? “Maybe the Methodist Church?” (For the record, the episode ran with the Catholic Church once before it was edited.)
During the question and answer portion at the end, I craned my neck to survey the crowd at the DGA Theater, which I ball-parked to be about 200 people. The usual suspects were in attendance: young wannabe TV guys sporting glasses and messy haircuts with their superhero tee-shirts and/or rumpled plaid button-downs straining over the few extra pounds that life wrapped around a writing table (or semi-passed out on a couch bathed in blue light) affords you. Sure, they had questions about technique and all that “writing” stuff that comes with the job—but what they really wanted to know was how to turn the greasy script currently burning a hole in their messenger bag into the next big hit.
The panel’s unanimous advice? Get on the bottom rung of the ladder and be the best runner/gopher/coffee-fetcher/receptionist you can be until your big break. And be prepared: It’s an arduous ascent. “If you’re a coffee-getter and you bring us our coffee, maybe bring a cookie?” Rosenthal suggested as a way to get to the top faster. “All we really want is a cookie.”
By Caroline Palmer