The Road to Sitcom Hell

Episodes’ David Crane & Jeffrey Klarik riff on why they’re still scripting the Hollywood-skewering comedy all by themselves and why they’ll never, ever, go back to writing for network.

Stephen Mangan and Matt LeBlanc as himself in Episodes.
January 10, 2014 Written by Denis Faye
David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik

How much freedom, how much leeway can you give writers and creators? If you come at this with the premise that no one really knows what's going to hit—and you really don't—all you can do is rely on the best work.

— David Crane

If you talk to veteran TV writers David Crane (Friends, Veronica’s Closet) and Jeffrey Klarik (The Class, Half & Half) expecting conversation as satirical and sharp as their Hollywood-lampooning series Episodes, then that’s what you’ll get—eventually. First you’ll need to chat with them about découpage.

Episodes, which received a 2012 Writers Guild Award nomination and returns for its third season on January 12, is the story of a successful British writing team who bring their wares to American network television, only to be swept up into a tangle of note-obsessed suits, institutionalized infidelity, and capricious actors—in other words, standard Hollywood culture. Former Friends star Matt LeBlanc gamely plays as an over-the-top, self-serving version of himself who take the couple down a tortuous and hilarious road to sitcom and relationship hell.

The show is a joint venture between the BBC and Showtime with only a handful of 30-minute episodes per season, giving Crane and Klarik plenty of time to write the entire series themselves. They’re deeply involved with every other aspect of the show, from wardrobe to set design, so they’re plenty busy, but they’re still afforded a luxury few American TV writers possess: the space and time to let their creative process flow.

And today, their creative process requires discussing découpage—the art of decorating an object with cut-up paper—whether the journalist from the Writers Guild of America West website wants to or not. So here we go.

David Crane: So what is this interview about, exactly?

It’s for The Craft column of our website. It's an opportunity for you to geek out, basically, and talk as writers about your craft.

Jeffrey Klarik: Oh, see right away I thought I was going to be able to talk about my découpage.

David Crane: No, no, not that kind of craft!

That's a different website. I write for that one too, but they don't pay as well.

Jeffrey Klarik: Do you really?

No, I don't.

Jeffrey Klarik: I was going to say, you should come see my découpage then.

I'm going to segue into my first question here…

David Crane: Somebody's in a hurry.

No, but that brings up a good point. A lot of times when I talk to showrunner they're in a mad rush because they're scrambling to write stuff—but you guys are done; you’ve written your whole season.

Jeffrey Klarik: Actually, we're not done because as soon as we finish we've got to start all over again.

David Crane: We've already started planning and mapping season four.

Jeffrey Klarik: We don't have any other writers; it's just the two of us and so there's no room, which is wonderful in some regards, but on the other hand, if we don't write today nothing gets written.

David Crane: Which is why we prefer to talk to you as long as possible.

So procrastination? That's all I am to you guys?

David Crane: Are you sure you don't want to talk about découpage?

Well, maybe a little bit, but let’s stick to writing for now. How on earth does that work? When you write the whole season at once, just the two of you, you're essentially writing a four, five-hour movie where you have to keep track of the big season arc along with seven to nine little episode arcs going on at the same time. How do you do that?

Jeffrey Klarik: Well, other than découpage, that's all we do. It's full time; it's all we talk about. Sometimes we stop and eat, but it really is consuming because we start by doing a ton of talking before we even begin to break the first episode—which is what we're doing right now about the next season. It’s just as you say, big arcs, little arcs, individual story ideas, everything's on the table, whatever direction we want to take the characters. And then the next step is to start to structure it.

Once you have those 200-odd pages written, do you have to go back and move stuff around so that each little 30-page episode feels fulfilling by itself?

Jeffrey Klarik: You look at it again fresh and suddenly you realize, No, this doesn't make sense; this isn't really telling us the story we want to tell. It's a cute idea but it doesn't really add up. There's a lot of that kind of stuff.

David Crane: Yeah, a lot of editing. It's the same process that any writers’ room would go through, but we’re planning the whole season in advance so we do have the advantage of being able to step back and go, "Okay, that's our big arc, and we need to get there by episode nine, so we don't have room for this, or this is no longer really germane."

Episodes is drier than a lot of TV comedy, but do you still do the sitcom “we need some funny in this page and we need some funny in that page”? Or do you just kind of sit back and let the funny happen?

Jeffrey Klarik: We don't ever look at it the way you would look at, say, a multi-camera sitcom and go, "Okay, when we get this in front of an audience we're going to die here because there aren't enough jokes per page.” We certainly don't have any problem with a scene being dramatic and not funny, or a scene that starts funny and then just turns dramatic and stays there.

David Crane: These characters took on a life of their own really quickly. We act it all out as we're writing it so they just talk and we know them well, these characters.

Jeffrey Klarik: Which is why it's good to do it only the two of us because we're not great at that!

You channel these characters and talk like them and come up with scenes that way?

David Crane: With accents and everything. It's really cool. Because also we're writing British characters, and we have to hear them out loud, even in our terrible British accents…

Jeffrey Klarik: Well, okay…

David Crane: Jeff would like to believe we have fabulous British accents.

Jeffrey Klarik: I could have fooled the Queen.

David Crane: The British actors would disagree with you. But yeah, we tend to read a lot of it out loud just so we can see how it feels and if there are extra words. Sometimes when you're just writing it, you're not aware how written it feels until you say it out loud.

Because it is so character-driven and it does have a very BBC feel, was there any concern that Americans might not get it?

David Crane: No. It's like any show, we're writing for what amuses us and what interests us and we just hope…

Jeffrey Klarik: It was a choice between doing a show like that or getting paid. So we stuck with that.

Next question. It took me 10 minutes trying to figure out how to ask this without it sounding like an insult.

David Crane: Uh-oh.

This show is much smarter, in my opinion, than your standard network sitcom. So when you guys were writing your standard network sitcoms back in the day…

David Crane: Hey! Wait a minute!

Which were great shows, but this is just a different beast, and I'm just wondering if you were, well, the term is “dumbing down” but I don't want to say they were dumb shows. Do you know what I'm trying to say?

Jeffrey Klarik: No, not at all.

David Crane: You're right; it's a different beast when you're writing a multi-camera comedy and you're much more dependent on an audience response. Certainly I wouldn't have thought that any of the stuff we did in the past was dumb… well, not all of it, but the stuff that we did in the past that we're proud of wasn't any dumber.

Jeffrey Klarik: But you also have the luxury on this series that you can take your time and really tell a story that doesn't have to get all summed up at the end of the 22 minutes. Stories can continue on, you can develop arcs.

David Crane: Yeah, and also we made the decision early on, as I was saying, to play certain stuff for the dramatic stakes of it, which—especially when you're doing the multi-camera comedy—makes you nervous. You go, “Geez, they haven't laughed in five minutes!” Whereas on this show we actually are willing to do that if it's still a good, compelling, interesting theme.

I know that you both did single-camera stuff earlier in your careers, but it must be strange not having the audience laughing now.

Jeffrey Klarik: It's just different. It might be strange for Matt [LeBlanc] not hearing the laughter as an actor, but for us no, it actually was a huge weight lifted.

Speaking of Matt, he’s just Matt in this show, versus Joey in Friends. Do you parallel his Joey character with his Matt character or are they just two different things for you entirely?

Jeffrey Klarik: I know we make a concerted effort not to do Joeyesque lines and stuff.

David Crane: Yeah, we'll never play him dumb. They're very different animals and, in terms of Matt's abilities, what he did on Friends was incredibly skillful because, yes, the character was sometimes dim, but he also had this huge heart, and it was really nuanced. People were very surprised to see him on this show because he did such a good job on Friends and there was a sort of perception that that's who Matt is, when it's nothing like who Matt is.

He plays a lame version of himself in Episodes. I read that when you had told him the idea he was very enthusiastic about the edginess, but now, in practice, does it ever go too far for him?

Jeffrey Klarik: He is beyond open to everything. He'll suggest things sometimes and we'll just like look at one another and just go, "You can't do that, that's horrible."

David Crane: Yeah, we have a greater need to protect the character, even given all the damning things he does. Matt is so game, and he's fearless.

Jeffrey Klarik: He said that he would do any storyline as long as it's funny.

David Crane: And that's where the bar is. It's not about what's too edgy or what's too damning for the character, it's just about, “Is it funny enough?”

Have you had any situations where you've plotted out a whole season and then ran it by the actors, but an actor said, "I don't really think I would do that”?

Jeffrey Klarik: No, we're so lucky. The actors are totally up for whatever we write.

David Crane: And we wouldn't change it even if they weren’t. Fortunately—and this goes across the board with all of our cast—they've never had any big issues with anything. It's really egoless, there's none of that bullshit.

On one hand, there are shows like yours where you get to do what you want—and it succeeds. Then you have the other model that Episodes parodies, micro-managed to the nth degree. Do you think the rest of the television will ever follow the BBC and Showtime lead and say, "Maybe we don't need to be so uptight"?

David Crane: You'd need to ask the rest of the television industry, but it doesn't seem like it.

Jeffrey Klarik: We have friends who are doing shows on network right now, and they just micro-manage everything.

David Crane: Yeah, because there's so much money involved, so much fear and panic and everybody's ratings are going down, down, down. There's just this sense of desperation. No one knows the answer, no one knows what's really going to work in terms of an audience and what's going to be a hit, so everyone is just still trying to figure out the answer.

Jeffrey Klarik: A lot of the same executives who worked on cable and have given people freedom to do stuff are running networks now, and it seems like everything they learned on cable is forgotten on network.

Would you want to go back [to network]?

David Crane: No.

Jeffrey Klarik: Never!

Never. Which one of you guys said, “Never”?

David Crane: That was Jeffrey—and he said it with an exclamation point.

Jeffrey Klarik: Never, ever, ever—for any, any money in the world I wouldn't go back. Because I watch what's happening to friends of ours. They're just so depressed and so unhappy, and they get one set of notes from the network and one set of notes from the studio, and they're always different and… Life's too short.

David Crane: For me, at this point I would never go back to doing a multi-camera show. Part of it is also the schedule of having to do that. You see the run-through, and then you're up until four in the morning doing the rewrite…

Jeffrey Klarik: But the truth of the matter is we're up until five in the morning anyway. It's not about the time, it's about the passion. If you feel like that the end result is worth it then the time involved doesn't matter so much. If you feel like this is actually your vision, and it's important that you get what you want on the screen—it's like my découpage boxes. I'll work on them for weeks at a time because I know what I want them to look like when they're done. And if somebody was saying, "You have to put that flower over there,” well, why don't you take your own paper and glue it down on a box yourself? You do what you do, and we'll do what we do. And that's really how I feel about it.

I still don’t completely understand why the networks don’t give that freedom.

David Crane: How much freedom, how much leeway can you give writers and creators? If you come at this with the premise that no one really knows what's going to hit—and you really don't—all you can do is rely on the best work. It would seem as though we've all learned at this point if you bury people with notes and try to rely on research, it doesn’t work. When you're talking to network people, everybody knows that the research is bullshit and the shows that have really hit didn't score that well in research. And yet the notes are based on what the testing is saying.

The testing never works?

Jeffrey Klarik: If you've got a show that's just fantastic, it might be reflected in the testing but if you factor enough of those sessions where you'll have some guy who says, "I didn't like the mom" and then whoever's leading the session will go, "Who else didn't like the mom?" Suddenly, everyone doesn't like the mom.

David Crane: Shows like Seinfeld tested horribly. I have to say Friends was really mediocre in testing and the best thing that anybody did is ignore that and just let us make the show. According to testing for Friends, they really wanted older characters, from a different demographic. Really. We didn't do it and clearly that was not a problem ultimately.

Yeah, it seemed to do okay.

© 2014 Writers Guild of America West

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