Primetime animated television shows are experiencing an unprecedented boom, with eight series airing on five major broadcast networks and at least three others on the way. Animated hits such as The Simpsons and South Park can generate gigantic rewards for its writer-creators, including big returns from video games, merchandising, and various ancillaries. And compared to the massive $5 million to $6 million per-episode budgets of hit sitcoms like Frasier and Friends, animated half-hours are cheap to produce–running only about $2 million an episode.
In our continuing series of pros talking to pros, Written By sponsored a roundtable discussion at the WGA among eight top animation writers (who have amassed 22 Emmy nominations, 10 Emmys, a Humanitas award, and other honors). During their discussion, only one other person was present: our correspondent.
Patric M. Verrone: Let’s begin by talking about the current landscape of animation. We now have four shows currently on Fox: Futurama, King of the Hill, Simpsons, and Family Guy. In a few weeks The PJs will return. NBC had God, The Devil, and Bob. We’re told they also have Sammy coming down the pike. ABC has Clerks soon. The WB might return Mission Hill and also has Baby Blues and The Oblongs. With that in mind the obvious question is: “Is this glut going to continue?”
“I was at ‘The Simpsons’ probably nine months before I was assigned a script, and I was happy that it was that long because it’s a very easy show to write badly. People tend to think that if there are no rules, you can do just about anything.
I believe that I could not have written a good spec ‘King of the Hill’ or ‘Simpsons’ or any of the shows around this table unless I had spent a few months trying to get the sensibility of the show and seeing what the rules are in those worlds–because they do have rules.”
Matthew Carlson: I think I just killed it. [laughter]
Patric M. Verrone: Do we think that CBS can put up an animated show?
Matthew Carlson: I don’t know if they’re looking to do that. With their demographic I’m not sure. I don’t think anybody would want to take an animated show to CBS. I don’t think they’ve sent a message that they’re looking for one.
Mike Scully: They’d have to get an animated audience first.
David X. Cohen: Really, with the exception of The Simpsons, there’s not one show here whose ratings could be described as “through the roof,” so I’m not sure they’re going to be that enthusiastic about a lot more animated video porno programs.
Mike Scully: I take no position. [laughter]
Richard Appel: You have to draw the kids in first, through the animation. Kids don’t feel guilty or stupid sitting down to watch a cartoon. Once you get the kids into it, you can kind of suck the adults in when they realize that the show is not just for kids. But there’s still a lot of adults who have a problem just sitting down to watch an animated show on their own.
David X. Cohen: Or if you are The Simpsons, you can just wait until they grow into the 18-to-49 demographic. [laughter]
Patric M. Verrone: Eleven years ago The Simpsons came on and was the first animated show since The Flintstones went off 23 years before. It took five years before King of the Hill established a beachhead. Since then we’ve had two or three other shows kind of come and go and come back and go again. I wonder, are there going to be this many at any point in the future? Eight years ago, with the exception, of Mike [Scully], none of us was in animation. We were mostly variety writers, sitcom writers, a lawyer, a graduate student–whatever. Animation wasn’t hot eight years ago. Eight years from now, where will we all be?
“We’re really only writing for adults. Matt Groening’s theory is that when you do an animated show you get the kids for free, and they are yours to lose.”
Richard Appel: I wonder, too, how much the proliferation of shows is directed just by the studios or networks as much as by the writers who I worked with at The Simpsons for four years. There are a lot of advantages to doing an animated show. I think that possibly the shows that were developed after The Simpsons and after King of the Hill were also fueled by writers’ desire to work in a more protected environment, where you have a little more freedom and the production timetable is less demanding. You have more freedom in the direction of the shows as you’re deciding things from the storyboards to when they air. Although you work with first-rate actors, The Simpsons is not known as the Dan Castellaneta show.
Mike Scully: It is among the writers. [laughter]
Patric M. Verrone: Let’s talk a little about the process.
Larry Wilmore: In the live-action sitcom world everything takes place in a week. Once you have the script, you table that on a Monday with the actors; they sometimes rehearse that day; sometimes they don’t. Tuesday is a full rehearsal with the run-through for the producers of the show. Wednesday is another rehearsal with a run-through for producers, the network, and the studio. Notes are given on both of those nights. Thursday’s a camera-block day, and Friday you shoot it. As a writer you’re pretty much done after that week. Anything after that–in terms of cutting the show–is done by the exec producer. But it’s really made on the floor in front of the audience, as opposed to the editing room. In animation you don’t know if it’s funny until nine months later when someone watches it at home.
Mike Scully: You’re basically getting those same five days, but they’re spread over nine months. You’re always working on seven or eight different episodes at the same time, which are in different stages of production.
Patric M. Verrone: Is that an advantage or disadvantage?
Patric M. Verrone, Futurama supervising producer, shown here in the official Futurama writers’ uniform. “Eight years ago, with the exception of Mike Scully, none of us was in animation. We were mostly variety writers, sitcom writers, a lawyer, a graduate student–whatever. Animation wasn’t hot. Eight years from now, where will we all be?”
–Patric M. Verrone
Seth MacFarlane: I think it’s an advantage. You have the chance to go back four months later and look at a scene and maybe you have an idea that you didn’t have early on; you think, Oh God, this is what I should’ve done here. On a live-action show it would be over, but in an animated show you can go back in at the animatic stage–and you can go in again to a limited extent at the color stage–and rewrite it. The animatic stage is the first time that we actually see an animated show screened. Prior to that we receive storyboards from the artists, we give notes, and we do whatever redrawing needs to be done. Then we screen the animatic, which is basically a very limited version of what the show will ultimately look like. It’s basically a video–a shot version of the storyboard drawings. We do a rewrite, depending on what jokes work and what jokes don’t work. Then it gets shipped over to Korea or to the Philippines or Portland, depending on where the studio is. We get it back 12 weeks later, and we see it in color. Then you get another chance to go in to do another set of rewrites–to a much more limited extent because it’s more expensive at that stage. So you really can look at it with a fresh eye twice after you do the script.
Patric M. Verrone: Steve, is there something unique about The PJs that you can add to the mix?
Steve Tompkins: Yeah, just about every advantage that cel animation has is a disadvantage in stop-motion animation. Because it’s filmed, and the backgrounds and the subjects are married together, we’re much more limited in our ability to cycle the animation and the mouth movements. So we have a very limited capacity for looping. However, looping is the only tool we do have, so we use it as much as we can. I remember from working at The Simpsons and The Critic that a lot of times the show would come back with anywhere from 100 to 400 extra feet on it. On PJs we sometimes have 15 frames extra. So it only runs three seconds over, to be liberal. And several times we’ve come up short. That means you’re pretty much going to keep everything that was shot in some form. So it’s up to you to spit and polish it as best you can.
Larry Wilmore: Our show has all the limitations of animation, but all the limitations of live-action, too. [laughter]
“I think the main reason we did this animation is because I would never do God or the devil or go to hell on a live-action show”
Patric M. Verrone: Let me turn to Matthew here because you are from a sitcom background. This is your first animated show. Did you find working in animation invigorating or not?
Matthew Carlson: For me it was very invigorating because I just came off a miserable experience on Men Behaving Badly. That was one of the reasons I was drawn to do animation to begin with. It was a great freedom for me not to be working with actors, although we have great actors and I love working with them.
Richard Appel: With animation there are no dressing rooms for the actors to lock themselves in.
Patric M. Verrone: Let me turn to Seth then and ask for your perspective. Your background was with Hanna-Barbera, which uses a different process. Can you elaborate on that?
Seth MacFarlane: There are luxuries that we have, working on a primetime animated show, that we did not have at Hanna-Barbera. I had never heard of doing rewrites after color footage came back from overseas. In primetime animation there’s just more money, there’s more time, and you have more writers.
Patric M. Verrone: This raises an interesting question. They often call television a writer’s medium–particularly when compared to features. And it seems that animation is even more of a writer’s medium than sitcoms and hourlongs.
Seth MacFarlane: That’s right. I don’t, for instance, think The Simpsons ever would’ve been as funny as it is if Disney had animated it. There’s a charm to the simplicity of it. We notice that primetime shows, with the possible exception of The PJs, tend to be very simplistic; they look more like doodles. Whereas all the Saturday-morning shows tend to look much slicker. I don’t know why exactly, but the look of primetime shows, their simplicity and limited animation, tend to appeal to more mature teen and adult viewers.
Steve Tompkins, Larry Wilmore
“‘White people can drink beer but black people can’t drink beer?’ And this was their response: ‘Yeah, but those are just cartoons. Your show is real.’ What do you mean our show is real? They actually said, ‘Your show is real!'”
Patric M. Verrone: With that in mind, let me turn to David and ask about Futurama, where we try very hard to make what is actually unlimited animation resemble the limited animation.
David X. Cohen: One of the interesting things about our animation is that we strive to give it the sort of hand-drawn look, even though there are usually several computer-animated scenes in every episode. It’s interesting that some of the highest-tech animation being done is being employed to make good stuff look bad. There’s something funny about Matt Groening’s hand-drawn style, so a lot of effort goes into making a spaceship have an overbite that matches his drawings. The more you work with editing the more you realize that people’s attention is so drawn to the face of the character talking that they don’t generally notice that the rest of the scene might be literally frozen stiff. You grow to love those scenes where everything is frozen stiff because then you have remarkable editing possibilities on the one thing that is moving. People are so trained to focus on the face of the person speaking that you can get away with murder.
Larry Wilmore: Ironically, we do the opposite on The PJs. We try to make our world as detailed and realistic and dense as possible. In 3-D the more real it looks the more heightened the comedy is. In fact, at one point we had a “meeting” with the NAACP about our show, and they were arguing over our character drinking beer. We showed them the Family Guy pilot, and I said, “Look how much beer this guy is drinking. Look how much beer Homer Simpson drinks. King of the Hill, for chrissakes. White people can drink beer, but black people can’t drink beer?” And this was their response: “Yeah, but those are just cartoons. Your show is real.” What do you mean our show is real? They actually said, “Your show is real!” It actually had that effect on them. They thought our Thurgood could just walk across the table and grab a beer. So it’s funny that our show takes the opposite approach to that.
Mike Scully: But at the same time I think you’re under the obligation to take advantage of the fact that you’re animated. At the end of each episode, you shouldn’t look at it and say, “We could’ve done this exact same show live-action.” There should be a point to being animated. A lot of times a script will come in, and even if it’s in good shape, we’ll realize it could just be done live-action. So we’ll deliberately go in and insert some dream sequences or flashbacks or something that you just couldn’t do on a live-action show.
“‘Simpsons’ is one of the only sitcoms that has just one story going through it. I think it kind of helps on an animated show because you can really look at all the angles of a specific story and not be confined by things like sets.”
David X. Cohen: There’s also an amount of physical comedy you can do. Homer would have a lot of brain damage by now if he were an actor. So it’s kind of interesting that it’s a writer’s medium, yet you’re often writing these fairly visual, slapsticky kind of jokes.
Mike Scully: Yeah, we’re going to do one next year that we’re working on right now where Homer goes on a hunger strike. What we want to do is have the weight coming off in weird places. His neck is getting very skinny. But he always has the gut, no matter what. You could never do that joke in live-action.
Patric M. Verrone: As I look around this room, virtually every one of these shows, with the possible exception of Futurama and King of the Hill, has had some big problem with a group of people who have found the show objectionable in one respect or another.
Matthew Carlson: I think the main reason we did this animation is because I would never do God or the devil or go to hell on a live-action show–although I have. I expected the Christian right–Falwell and those people–would get upset any time you put God in any kind of comedy. These self-appointed moral watchdogs are always barking. But I was surprised to see affiliates actually take this up. That was really shocking to me.
Mike Scully: Especially when you’re leaving Veronica’s Closet on.
Larry Wilmore: You should have called it Suddenly Satan.
Mike Scully: You know, The Simpsons might actually be the only show on TV now that has a minister as a regular cast member.
"A lot of times a script will come in, and even if it's in good shape, we'll realize it could just be done live-action. So we'll deliberately go in and insert some dream sequences or flashbacks or something that you just couldn't do on a live-action show, just to take advantage of the fact that we're animated."
Richard Appel: That was your demographic.
Mike Scully: You want to get that religious audience. We get our share of letters because, like Matthew said, the minute you say God and put Him in any context, people just get uptight.
David X. Cohen: There was one great letter when I was writing for The Simpsons. Some joke had been made about the Protestant Reformation on the Halloween show–
Richard Appel: –Always a go-to category for humor, the Protestant Reformation.
David X. Cohen: And this letter came from Father Somebody on this church letterhead, First Church of Somewhere or Other, and it started, “I saw this joke about the Protestant Reformation . . .” I was getting ready for one of the standard complaints, but it went on, “. . . and I have to say I was roaring with laughter. Good work, and kudos to your whole staff.” We had it posted for a year or so.
Richard Appel: We do well if we just stick pretty closely to the 24-episode suggestions we get from the network. We have an episode coming up where Bobby is mistaken for a reincarnated lama–
Mike Scully: Oh, shoot! You guys are doing that, too? I’ve always tried to point out to people who do complain about the religious jokes on the show, that The Simpsons are actually one of the few families on TV that you see going to church every week–outside of maybe Seventh Heaven, where that’s his job. But they do go every week. Marge goes willingly. Homer goes grudgingly, but he goes. There’s something to be said for that.
Patric M. Verrone: Do you ever get some indication from network that you should be writing for a specific demographic, or do you try and appeal to as wide an audience as you can?
Mike Scully: In the beginning when Jim Brooks, Matt Groening, and Sam Simon set The Simpsons up at Fox, they established the principle of “no network or studio notes.” So we really operate pretty independently, and we just do whatever we think is funny. We don’t specifically target groups, but if you look at the history of The Simpsons, Bart carried it for the first couple years, and then gradually, as the adults started to watch the show, Homer evolved as the real star. That’s what happens with animation.
Our Gang Comedy
Moderator Patric M. Verrone won an Emmy for Muppets Tonight! (1997) and was also Emmy-nominated for Futurama (1999) and The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. Verrone wrote and co-produced The Critic (1993–95), was a staff writer on The Tonight Show (1987–90) and is currently supervising producer of the hybrid computer-traditional animated series Futurama.
Mike Scully has written on The Simpsons for eight seasons, executive-produced it for four, won three Emmys and two nominations for that work, and currently executive-produces that perennial Fox hit series. He began as a writer on the 1986 syndicated Yakov Smirnoff sitcom What a Country and also worked on Eddie Murphy Television’s 1991–92 CBS show The Royal Family. Currently he is doing a live-action Fox sitcom pilot starring comic Robert Schimmel.
Richard Appel won two Emmys for The Simpsons (from 1995–98, rising to co-executive producer) and another for the Texas-accented animated series King of the Hill, which he has executive-produced for the past two seasons.
David X. Cohen developed and executive-produces Futurama (1998–2000), for which he was Emmy-nominated, and garnered two Emmys and two more nominations for The Simpsons.
Steve Tompkins began as a staff writer on In Living Color (1989–93), earned an Emmy and a nomination for The Simpsons (1994–98) and was nominated again in 1999 for The PJs, which he co-created and executive-produces. He has also written for Everybody Loves Raymond, Working, The Edge, and The Critic.
Matthew Carlson, who garnered the Humanitas Prize and two Emmy nominations for writing The Wonder Years (1988–90), was recently executive producer of God, the Devil and Bob, which was dropped by a few outraged NBC affiliates in the religious heartland and then cancelled by the network. Since 1990 Carlson has created and executive produced four live-action series: ABC’s Camp Wilder (1992–93) and Townies (1996–97), CBS’s The Boys are Back (1994), and NBC’s Men Behaving Badly (1996–98). He also wrote the comedy screenplay Wagons East (1994).
Larry Wilmore is executive producer and co-creator of
The PJs, for which he was Emmy-nominated last year. Wilmore began as a standup comic but has written and produced six series since 1991, including In Living Color (1991–94); Sister, Sister (1993–95); Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1995–96); The Jamie Foxx Show (1996–97); and Teen Angel (1997-98).
Seth MacFarlane, who began his career with Hanna-Barbera, created and executive produces The Family Guy (1998–2000), which earned him an Annie nomination. After MacFarlane refused to change the name of a Family Guy character, his former headmaster (an Episcopal clergyman) successfully pressured several companies to pull their ads from the show.
David X. Cohen: We’re really only writing for adults. Matt Groening’s theory is that when you do an animated show you get the kids for free, and they are yours to lose. But as long as you don’t do anything to get rid of them, they’re there. It’s the nature of our show, Futurama, that there’s a lot of stuff in there that kids are interested in–rockets and robots and monsters and stuff. So really, just by virtue of the subject matter, we’ve got the kids. We aim the jokes and the storylines more at adults.
Patric M. Verrone: Let’s change gears a little bit. How does one get into this business?
Steve Tompkins: I’ve always heard people say, “Write a primetime spec.” They’re still looking for the best quality writer.
Larry Wilmore: It’s also smart, especially if you’re trying to break in, to write several specs that cover different styles of shows. If you write a Frasier, also write a Raymond, so they can see your different writing styles.
Richard Appel: I was at The Simpsons probably nine months before I was assigned a script, and I was happy that it was that long because it’s a very easy show to write badly. People tend to think that if there are no rules, you can do just about anything. I believe that I could not have written a good spec King of the Hill or Simpsons or any of the shows around this table unless I had spent a few months trying to get the sensibility of the show and seeing what the rules are in those worlds–because they do have rules.
David X. Cohen: One thing I’ve noticed just repeatedly, in the animation spec scripts I get, is that people have a tendency to assume that because it’s animated, they can go in 18 different directions, bouncing from one incident to another, and they don’t really need a solid A-story. To a lot of people who watch casually, that’s what the show is. But if you actually study The Simpsons or read the scripts or put some thought into it, you realize that 98 percent of the time it has a very solid A-story.
Seth MacFarlane: It’s one of the only sitcoms that has just one story going through it. I think it kind of helps on an animated show because you can really look at all the angles of a specific story and not be confined by things like sets.
Richard Appel: Is your show a three-act show or a two-act show?
Matthew Carlson: A three-act show.
Richard Appel: I know the rest are too, and I think that’s a hard script to write. We’ll write the first act break with a twist that we love, and then for months we’re just trying to break the next twist that could end the second act, and we haven’t yet cracked it. If it were a two-act show, I’d feel much better about it.
Mike Scully: One of the most common mistakes I see is when people submit a Friends or Seinfeld spec script that has three or four storylines going at once. The odds of you writing four great, solid stories to go through your spec script are so slim that you’re better off just coming up with a solid A and maybe a B, and that’s it. Try to write those funny instead of trying to juggle multiple storylines.
David X. Cohen: The other thing I tell people is that they literally wouldn’t believe the number of man-hours that go into one of these scripts. You have 10 experienced writers sitting around a table for a week or more, for 10 hours each day, in addition to someone spending several weeks writing a script and a group of people pitching out the story and giving the jokes. So the number of man-hours is tremendous–greatly exceeding the amount of time one person could put into a spec script.
Larry Wilmore: The first thing that I’ll notice about a bad script is where the writer doesn’t really pay attention to who the character is. They’ll write things that aren’t true to that character. A lot of people think what matters most is how funny the jokes are, but it really isn’t. It’s how well you know these characters and how well you’re writing the character. You can write a page full of straight lines, but if it’s really that character, it can be real interesting. (I don’t suggest doing that, of course.) Make the terms funny as well as the jokes. With the three-act structure, it’s really like writing a mini-movie. You need interesting turns–positive-negative, negative-positive–to make it real interesting. Whereas in live-action, the actors’ performances really make a difference in the entertainment value of the show. Lacking actors, we tend to write more realistically, making it more about behavior. The words our characters say are much more important than in live-action. The script is king, and we really don’t allow ad-libbing.
Mike Scully: Animated comedy writing is really all about the characters and having a solid story. In spec scripts you have to have a real solid story, with a strong emotional through-line. You have to have really good jokes, too, but that’s like third on the list. Finally, it has to be less than 50 pages.
Patric M. Verrone: Let me touch on the subject that’s important to the Guild and its members these days, which is the diversity issue, both onscreen and behind the screen.
Mike Scully: In terms of behind the camera, I know NBC has made a deal where if your show is on after one year, it’s mandatory you hire a minority writer–and the network pays for it. I just feel that’s not the way I would want to be hired on a show. Writing truly is color-blind and ethnic backgroundblind. When you’re opening a script up, you have no idea who wrote it. They’re not color-coded or stamped when they come over. You just want the best person for the job–as clichéd as that sounds. I don’t know what the statistics are in terms of minority writers, but I think when you start making it a forced thing, it’s the wrong answer. That being said, if I read a couple scripts that I liked equally and met the writers and one of them happened to be a member of a minority, I might lean that way a little because opening the door up is a good thing to do. But then at that point you’re hiring a qualified person.
Larry Wilmore: The biggest thing about diversity is getting exposure to a wide range of writers. I am a black writer, and I’ve worked on a lot of black shows, so I knew a few more people who I thought might be good for our show, and I was able to hire them. The animation world is not really clique-y, so you do know a lot of different people. It’s a world that’s built on respect for your writing ability–more so than on any type of TV show, I believe. I feel I could probably go to any animated show today because people know who I am. And fortunately, the writers who’ve worked for me might have that opportunity, too, which I think is great. You succeed by getting a good reputation. I completely agree with what Mike said, that it should completely be a meritocracy, with jobs going to the best scriptwriter. I’d say that about 40 percent of the PJs writers are African-American. I don’t think there are any black writers on any other animated shows, and there are not many women either. We have always joked about the diversity of our crew because, like the Ark, we had two virgins, two transplantees (one had a kidney transplant and one had a lung transplant), two orthodox-religious people (one an Orthodox Jew and the other a born-again Christian), two brothers, and two gay people. We had just about everything, but it was all by accident. We didn’t try to do that.
Patric M. Verrone: Well, the clock on the wall seems to indicate the time is running out. I’m mostly impressed that we were able to get each of the six families into the same room and there was no assassination attempt. So that being said, the Writers Guild and I thank you all for being here. Keep writing.