From their obsessive rituals (Peppermint Patties! Oatmeal! Bruce Springsteen!) to the parts of their jobs they hate most (killing characters off, dealing with agents), TV’s most influential writer-producers featured on The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual list of the Top 50 Showrunners come clean about the people, things and quirky habits that keep them — and their shows — alive.
Chuck Lorre, Two and a Half Men; Bill Prady & Steve Molaro, The Big Bang Theory; Mark Roberts, Mike & Molly (CBS)
The show that inspired me to write:
Lorre: All in the Family was a turning point. Prior to that, I don’t remember half-hour comedies dealing with such weighty issues and being as funny at the same time. That was a really ground-breaking show; making a real controversial character the centerpiece and to have him be so beloved was magic.
Molaro: I never knew I wanted to write for TV until I fell into it. But there was an old, weird magazine called The Nose that inspired me to start writing.
Roberts: That whole block of comedies that was on in the 1970s: Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore all the way through to the Carol Burnett Show.
Prady: My dad tells me that I used to watch The Dick Van Dyke Show and tell him that that’s what I was going to do for a living.
THR’s Top 50 Showrunners 2012 — the Complete List
My first big break:
Molaro: The Amanda Show on Nickelodeon. The first thing I ever wrote was a commercial parody for a kids’ breakfast cereal called Meatloaf Crunch. I still have the cereal box.
Roberts: Two and a Half Men.
Prady: You Can’t Do That on Television.
My TV mentor:
Lorre: There’s a long history of great writing on TV where the bar was set high and raised yet again in different ways. I watched The Twilight Zone when I was a kid; I loved what the Smothers Brothers brought to television; Norman Lear is a game-changer; the Charles brothers with Cheers, Larry David with Seinfeld, Steven Bochco. Now you’ve got Vince Gilligan raising it again to places that are breathtaking to watch. What Matt Weiner does with Mad Men, the Borgias, Game of Thrones, Homeland folks, it’s inspiring to watch and great writing and acting makes the genre irrelevant. I go home and watch dramas and it’s like a different language. I’m amazed, mystified and mesmerized by it — all at the same time.
Molaro: Dan Schneider gave me my first job in TV. We have worked on and off together for the last 12 years and I have learned an endless amount from him. Currently I’m soaking in as much Chuck Lorre as I possibly can. But I’ve gotten to work with so many amazing people like Bill Prady, David Crane, Mike Scully, Bruce Helford… they’re all in my DNA now.
Prady: I had the amazing luck to work with Jim Henson for six years up until his death in 1990.
My biggest accomplishment this year:
Prady: Despite the constant availability of craft service food and take-out from Burbank’s finest restaurants, I lost 20 pounds.
The toughest scene to write this year:
Roberts: The two-part wedding episode was challenging. We’d never done a two-parter before and the thing about it is that each episode needs to be free-standing and still create an interest and momentum for the second half. It was just a culmination of a lot of personalities and a lot of back-story and we had to try to honor all of that and tell a funny story.
Prady: The toughest scene was also the most satisfying – the finale to season five. I resisted the emotional honesty of the scene as we were writing it. Fortunately Steve Molaro and Chuck Lorre prevailed and we wound up with one of the best scenes we’ve ever done.
The most absurd network note I’ve ever gotten:
Roberts: Because I have Chuck connected to my show, I don’t get a lot of network interference.
Prady: Amy’s character was doing research involving monkeys smoking cigarettes. Sheldon asked how it was going and she said that the onlything they’d learned so far was that the monkeys who smoked looked cooler. CBS Broadcast Standards asked us to “place the comment in context” so that we weren’t implying that smoking was cool, so we added “of course, all the other monkeys just sit around and masturbate.” They thanked us for addressing the note.
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The one aspect of my job as showrunner that I’d rather delegate:
Prady: Well, I’ve delegated almost all of them to Steve Molaro this year, so you probably should ask him which aspects of the job he was least happy to receive.
Molaro: I often feel guilty when we are casting for a part with only one line — knowing the actors spent all this time getting to an audition that lasts 8 seconds.
Roberts: Talking to actors’ agents.
My preferred method for working through writer’s block:
Lorre: What’s writer’s block?! You have to do 24 shows in 30 weeks, there’s no time to sit and go, "Oh no!" You don’t have that freedom — you can’t go home until it’s written, there has to be a second act to the script otherwise you get calls from all sorts of people and lawyers start to call! That’s not available in television; that train keeps rolling and it rolls right over you. You don’t have the freedom to be stumped and that’s why you surround yourself with really smart writers. That’s the key to my success: Surround yourself with smart, funny people. At any given moment, if you don’t have the answer, they might. Everybody has days and moments when they have nothing to contribute but that’s why we work as a group.
Prady: My preferred method is three months in an opium den. Sadly, due to the economy, most of the nearby opium dens have closed.
If I could add one writer to my staff, it would be:
Roberts: Do they have to be alive? Dorothy Parker.
Prady: The Green Lantern. I don’t know if he’s a good writer or not, but the ring seems cool.
The three I need in order to write:
Lorre: Fear of having not written and this ridiculous, obsessive idea that some day you’re going to get it right — and that never happens. That belief that won’t go away that you’ve just written the scene or a joke and it’s perfect and beautiful and pristine and you’re wrong, and it’s not. But this ongoing belief that you’ve gotten it right. I don’t know what that is, it’s a delusion. The delusion that someday you might get it right would be the thing that keeps me going.
Molaro: Coffee, anxiety and self-loathing
Roberts: A good writer’s assistant; a big jug of water, and 4 to 7 other funny people.
Prady: 1. Stuff to fiddle with (currently a replica “Doctor Who” sonic screwdriver) 2. A comfortable chair 3. Colleagues who are much more talented than I am
The show I’m embarrassed to admit I watch:
Lorre: I love Syfy’s Alphas, I think that’s a great show. They took the superhero format and reinvented it in a way that was much needed without leotards and capes. It’s got a great cast.
Roberts: Boss with Kelsey Grammer. It’s like half good. He’s really amazing and then all of a sudden they have these Zalmen King sex scenes that are just insane.
Prady: I’m not embarrassed to admit that I watch Judge Judy on the treadmill. Should I be?
If I could scrub one thing off of my resume, it would be:
Prady: Platypus Man