The award-winning hit comedy series Glee is attracting some big-name musical talent, but for exec producers Ian Brennan and Brad Fulchuk, it’s the story that comes first.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
Hollywood and high school are just about the best combination since peanut butter got with jelly between two slices of Wonder. But no matter how much it’s been done, no matter how many John Hughes movies, Beverly Hills 90210s or Degrassis there are, those four years of life just keep bearing fresh, delicious, if not always nutritious entertainment fruit.
Glee, the snarky, sweet, Golden Globe-winning hit Fox comedy/song-o-rama is not only making good PB&J, but it’s one of those kind that are sliced diagonally with the crust cut off.
In these cynical, celebutante-ish times, it’s undeniably groovy that some unknown actor from wholesome Mt. Prospect, Illinois could, with the help of Nip/Tuck’s Ryan Murphy, create a scripted, golden-hearted comedy about a high school glee club where the actors actually sing and make it a huge hit.
Ian Brennan is that heretofore unknown actor, who came up with the idea for the show based on his own personal experience in a high school glee club, or, as they called it at Prospects High in the Hughesian Chicagoland area – show choir.
Brennan and Brad Falchuk, a writer and producer from Nip/Tuck who created the show along with Brennan and Murphy, spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about how Glee came to be, where they see the show going, and how they never want it to end.
How did this all coalesce and you guys get together with Ryan Murphy?
Ian Brennan: I had an idea for a movie, and it ended up with Ryan and Brad, and they said it might make a good TV show. So I went in and met them, and we clicked right away. We went right into making a pilot, and here it is, probably 20 months later.
So this has been whirlwind for you in particular?
Ian Brennan: Crazy. It feels like I’m living someone else’s life. Wonderful.
Tell me how the writing on this show works. What’s the rough recipe for breaking and turning around episodes?
Brad Falchuk: The process is basically that Ian, Ryan and I come up with a basic theme or premise for an episode, and we’ll start pitching ideas and breaking story from that point. There’s a lot of pitching and back and forth that goes on between the three of us. Ryan has a very quick ability to take a lot of information and hone it down to simple beats for a story. So we might have pitched out 12 beats, and he’ll be able to say, “Hold on,” and write down a nine or 10 beat story.
Photo: © 2009 Fox Searchlight
Jenna Ushkowitz (l-r), Chris Colfer, Kevin McHale, Amber Riley, and Lea Michele in Glee.
The process tends to go pretty quickly. We meet up Sunday nights at the Chateau Marmont for dinner and talk about what the next episode is going to be. We start gathering our beats and then break those out into acts, and then we start writing scenes.
Then we put them all together, and there’s very little rewriting that goes on once you get to that point. There’s cutting and a joke pass to punch it up a little bit, but that’s usually about it.
An interesting thing with this show is how instrumental – pardon the pun – the music is to the story. Do you always have the beat of the episode and then fit the song to it or does it ever work the other way around?
Brad Falchuk: By and large the music always comes out of the writing. We’ll know the story and the scenes first, and normally we just know, “Oh, the song that needs to go here is 'blank.'”
We’ve been incredibly lucky getting the music we want. It’s been shocking. I think we have a success rate of about 95 percent. And we’re now in position where artists are kind of courting us.
Are you guys being deluged?
Brad Falchuk: A little bit, but it’s a high-class problem to have. We know that it doesn’t work that way because we start with the concept and the story, and it all comes out of the story. [So] we don’t have to worry about being, I don’t know, corrupted by some artist’s insistent manager.
Well, it’s early yet… This show is a hit and unique because of the music. With the music industry being more ravenous for exposure than ever, you don’t feel there’s any danger of the show’s writing and narrative soul being affected by the music?
Brad Falchuk: That’s our job, to keep the integrity of the show’s voice pure. We’re fortunate that our corporate partners are so supportive they would never dare do that. They understand how the show works. The songs that sell the best are the songs that are involved in the strongest story lines and writing. So the idea of coming the other way around and saying, “Let’s find an emotional way to use this song,”would not work. I think they realize that and we realize that. As long as we focus on the writing and these characters, the music will keep selling, but the second it becomes a music video, then it doesn’t have any meaning to it.
The writing is definitely the ball you want to keep your eyes on here?
Brad Falchuk: Absolutely. What happens with the best film and TV music is that you watch a scene and hear a song and you can no longer hear that song without thinking of that scene and those characters.
Ian, from your original conception of this as a film, what has most surprised you about how this idea, this story has worked as a produced piece?
Ian Brennan: I think what has surprised me about the show throughout – from the writing of the pilot to now, is its capacity for heart, which sounds weird. I think of the three of us, I have the most cynical mind about the subject matter. I mean I was in show choir, and I have a bitter sense of it all. I’m amazed every time we come up with a script how much heart is in it without it ever seeming sappy.
To what extent do you guys think that, in these sober times, there is more of an appetite for the kind of heart, sweetness, and positivity you see in this show and other new shows like Modern Family?
Brad Falchuk: I think our attitude was to give the show snark and edge without any cynicism. We beat people up pretty good, and our characters get beat up pretty good, they’re tortured the way high school kids are, but there’s never any hopelessness or cynicism in it.
I don’t know if that’s a sign of the times. It feels to me like a more mature kind of comedy in a way. It’s not laughing at people, it’s laughing with them and saying, “That was me, too. I felt that way and I get it.”
So where do you guys see this show going?
Brad Falchuk: We’ve aired 13 episodes, and we’re just about to start shooting our 16th. If you think about when TV shows find their stride, this show is still cold. We’re just starting to figure this out. I’m really excited to find out what happens with these characters in a third season.
Ian Brennan: I don’t know. This is such a dream. It’s the kind of dream you don’t dare voice, it’s been that amazing. It’s the kind of thing where you just hop out of bed in the morning. I just want it to go on forever.