Q&A: Robert Carlock and Mike Schur on ‘SNL,’ Emmys and Making Broad Comedy

Robert Carlock and Mike Schur in Conversation
Courtesy of NBC

Although Robert Carlock and Mike Schur haven’t worked together in years, their careers keep intersecting. They met as writers on “Saturday Night Live” in the ’90s. Carlock went on to showrun NBC Emmy favorite “30 Rock” with Tina Fey, before the pair co-created Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Schur spent three years on NBC’s “The Office” before launching Amy Poehler starrer “Parks and Recreation” on the same network. Seven seasons later, “Parks” has come to an end and earned a farewell nom for best comedy series alongside the debut season of “Kimmy.” And now Schur is working for Netflix too, exec producing the upcoming Aziz Ansari vehicle “Master of None” (which, like “Kimmy,” is produced by NBCUniversal).

VARIETY: Robert, you were on a show that won a lot of Emmys. Mike, your show has been largely ignored by the Emmys. Robert, what is Mike doing wrong?
MIKE SCHUR: I’m actually very interested in hearing this.
ROBERT CARLOCK: You chose the wrong female “Weekend Update” anchor to hitch your wagon to. Mine’s better.
Schur: The simplest way to put it is that your actors, writing and show are objectively better than mine.
Carlock: Yeah. Well, ’cause the Emmys. Until, like, 2009 or 2010 the Emmys were really good. Then I don’t know if new people came in or something, but they stopped working.
Schur: Where do they house the giant objective computer that calculates the correct winner of the Emmys?
Carlock: It’s in the secret Pentagon. Basically, you should’ve done our show, instead of trying to do your own show.
Schur: I should’ve waited until you guys made an episode and then made the same episode?
Carlock: Yeah.
Schur: That would’ve been a great prank if I could’ve gotten them to NBC before you. I should’ve had Tom Ceraulo sneak me the scripts.
Carlock: Tom would’ve done that in a second for you. Is this the first time you guys have been nominated, Schur?
Schur: “Parks and Rec”-wise? We were nominated in season three and then were not nominated four, five and six, and sort of thought it was over. To the point where normally NBC or Universal sends out an email to me that says, “The nominations come out at this time and if you want to prepare a statement in the event you’re nominated send it to us ….” This year they didn’t even send the email. It was so off of everyone’s radar. But it was great though because it was a true shock and surprise in the way these things really should be.
Carlock: But Amy had been nominated before, right?
Schur: Amy’s been nominated every year since season two. I think this is her sixth nomination for Leslie Knope. She was also nominated for “SNL” and a bunch of other stuff. It’s really crazy. She and Jon Hamm did this thing a couple years ago — they had an Emmy Losers party that they announced before the Emmys because they were so sure they would lose. You could only come if you lost. If you won you had to leave your Emmy at the door with a security guard and make a donation to Worldwide Orphans. Julia (Louis-Dreyfus) went and had to make a huge donation to this charity because she’d won. Amy and Jon together are something like 0 for 32.
Carlock: Boy, they stink.
Schur: They’re really bad at acting.
Carlock: It’s so embarrassing for them. I don’t get why they don’t stop.
Schur: It’s weird they even keep trying.

Robert, did you have any expectations of a series nom for the first season of “Kimmy”?
Carlock: It’s such a crowded field. In any year it’s hard. The objectivity computer doesn’t always work. We were cautiously optimistic. Going into it, I think we thought our theme song was going to get nominated. That didn’t happen, because of all the other theme songs people have been talking about so much this year. But it was very gratifying to have the show nominated and some of our actors. You can’t commit too much to caring that morning.
Schur: There was a year, I think our second season, our theme song was nominated. The woman who wrote it, Gaby Moreno, is a very talented singer-songwriter. It was nominated and we were so happy, like, “That’s so great!” Then the Emmy committee came back to us three weeks later and said, “Actually, we just ruled that your theme song is ineligible. You aired six episodes last year and in order to be eligible it has to be a new theme song.” We have to be the only show in history to have a nomination for theme song revoked.
Carlock: That’s amazing.
Schur: I thought for sure Ellie (Kemper) was going to get nominated. That was a shock to me.
Carlock: That morning my nerves were relaxed a little based on Ellie and our theme song, like, “We’ll get two nominations, that’ll be nice.” And then …
Schur: She’s certainly more than deserving. It’s a pretty incredible performance she’s giving.
Carlock: You couldn’t do the show (without her). We built the show around her and we were glad to be so right in our estimation of her skills and what she communicates. I just don’t know a ton of people who could pull off what she’s doing.
Schur: In a weird way it’s like what Jon Hamm is doing with Don Draper. If you replaced this character with any other actor the show just falls apart.

Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld did a bit on the “SNL” anniversary about how they had “the last two tickets before Disneyland burned down,” meaning they made one of the last mega-hit network comedies. Do you think it’s still possible to make a great broad appeal comedy like “Seinfeld” or “Cheers”?
Schur: Quality-wise, of course it is. In fact, the chances of it happening are greater and greater every year because there’s more and more outlets making television. But when people say it’s not possible any more I think they’re talking about the audience, and that’s definitely true. The “MASH” finale was watched by 100 million people, and the “Cheers” finale — those shows are few and far between. But when people say, “What’s the audience for these shows?” they’re talking about when they first air, and who cares? The problem is we’re still trying to measure things based on these overnight Nielsen ratings, which are completely irrelevant because it’s not how people watch TV anymore. I remember when the “Lost” finale happened — it was a pretty important show to our generation, a pretty significant phenomenon — and I remember looking at the ratings for the finale and finding that the number of people who watched the “Lost” finale was just shy of the number of people who watched the “Mr. Belvedere” finale.
Carlock: Don’t tell me what happened on “Mr. Belvedere.” I haven’t watched it yet.
Schur: You know what? It was almost exactly the same as the “Lost” finale, that’s the irony. Very similar stories.
Carlock: Oh, but I can see that working better on “Mr. Belvedere.”
Schur: I thought it worked great in both shows. Maybe more shocking on “Mr. Belvedere” because there’s no indication about any of it on that show.
Carlock: Right, it’s a really dramatic hour.
Schur: But the problem is, whatever the rating was for the “Lost” finale, it’s like “12 million people watched.” No, 30 million people watched. They just didn’t watch it in that moment live on TV.
Carlock: Whenever I talk to a friend’s teenage children, I’m always interested in what they watch and how they watch. I’ve started hearing people talk about discovering “Friends” because it’s on Netflix now. If you were able to take some of those aggregate numbers, a show that was a huge hit even in the traditional sense and now a new generation of people finding it. … How do we make money off this? I’m not sure.
Schur: No one really does, but that’s the point. People are still insisting on reporting ratings the morning after a TV show airs. There are a million analogies you can make but my favorite is that it’s like in the old days when you’d wake up in the morning and check the newspaper for baseball scores and they don’t have the West Coast scores because the game started too late. It’s like if they reported “at press time the Mariners beat the Angels 1-0 in the second inning” — you wouldn’t rely on that information as being accurate. That’s what we’re doing to this day (with TV ratings). Until we stop doing that the perception of network television as troubled is going to continue, and it’s very silly because it’s not an accurate reading of how people are watching.

Robert, that must have been a major consideration in taking “Kimmy” to Netflix. To free yourself of that anxiety of overnight ratings and be at an outlet that doesn’t report viewership. Do you even know the “ratings” for “Kimmy” on Netflix?
Carlock: I don’t. They give every indication that they’re extremely pleased, but we don’t get numbers. I think they know everything — how long you watched, how many episodes and at what time, who you’re with, whether you’re cheating on your wife — and they use that against you.
Schur: That’s their business model. Most of their business model is blackmail. They get information on you and then somebody shows up at your house and says, “We’re telling everyone.”
Carlock: It’s two revenue streams. First, you pay for the service and then they come back around and say, “Now we know X, Y and Z. What is your life worth to you?”
Schur: That’s actually the company motto. “Netflix: What is your life worth to you?” You don’t get it until they show up at your door, and then it’s like, “Oh, that’s what it means.”
Carlock: What’s nice about working for them is that Ted Sarandos does that himself. He makes you feel valued. What was the question? Oh, yes, “30 Rock” for all its success — to Mike’s eloquently put point about measuring viewership — was a show that did suffer from that. It still, in the traditional sense, clung on by its fingernails. You were sick to your stomach every Friday morning. Well, we were on about 20 different nights. They actually added days to the week to make sure we could move more. On Glurnsday you would wake up and know that email was coming. There were tenths of a point between getting a congratulatory phone call and feeling like, “Oh boy, we’re not getting it done here.”
Schur: Yeah, tenths of a point, by the way, in a system where the margin of error has got to be tremendous. They’re like rounding errors on some level that determine whether you’re happy or sad on a Glurnsday morn.
Carlock: Curse those Glurnsday morns.
Schur: Our joke at “Parks and Rec” for a while was that we were being picked up act by act. Like they would air act one of the episode and then during the commercial break go, “Yeah, OK, air act two.”
Carlock: “Let’s see if it pays off. The runner better dovetail.” Not having that anxiety is great, there are plenty of other things to worry about. I’m very happy not to have that silliness of tenths of a point in my life right now.

What are some of the lessons you learned from “SNL” that still inform how you work today?
Schur: Don’t make Lorne angry. I don’t work for him anymore but I still live by that rule every day.
Carlock: Don’t make Lorne throw his headphones. I feel like the unspoken thing of, “Why did you make this sketch?” — it was such a bad feeling. “Why did you try to put this on my show?”
Schur: It was like, “How could you treat me this way? I gave you a job.”
Carlock: “SNL” was such a great place for a young writer to work, in part because you have to go produce your own sketches. You learn, or try to learn through making mistakes, how to take into consideration the practical needs of other departments. It’s something that’s with you every day when you’re doing this (showrunner) job. And Lorne taught me never cut to a closed door. So I don’t do that.
Schur: And never shoot the floor. I would second that, the best thing about that place is its essentially Darwinian nature. On the first day it’s like, “Go pitch a sketch to Samuel L. Jackson. One of them got chosen? Good. Now produce it.” You literally don’t know how to. Your choices are panic and run away, or start asking questions, learn and be self-sufficient. By the time you leave you have a basic level of acumen in every skill necessary to produce television — editing, directing, shooting, rewriting — it gives you a crash course in every aspect of it. The other thing I’d say is, it’s not for everyone. It’s not like there’s a direct correlation between success at “SNL” and success elsewhere. Larry David worked there for a year and didn’t get his writing on and is doing fine. But both Robert and I had ultimately, I think, very good experiences there that prepared us for what we’re doing now.
Carlock: But if your first time doing that job is your pilot or something … What “SNL” gives you is repeated failure. Hopefully you then won’t make them on your pilot when the stakes are higher.
Schur: That’s totally true. And another thing that’s great about that show is that in general you’re given some slack when you start. When you start you’re pretty bad, except for Tina — she was great from day one, Adam McKay was great from day one — but for most people it’s like, “Where the hell am I?” I was a terrible sketch writer for a solid six months. They just kept letting me fail. Eventually they would’ve fired me but I figured it out.

Actors get a lot of attention. Now showrunners are getting a lot of attention. Who do you think is the most undervalued person involved in the making of a TV show?
Schur: I would say editors. “The Office” and “Parks and Rec” were shot mockumentary style and the first cuts of the episodes would sometimes be 45 minutes long, and had to be 21. You can take the worst episode you’ve ever seen in your life and make it really great with editing, or you can take the best episode and make it terrible. The editors on both shows became an incredibly important part of the process. Greg Daniels would always refer to the editing process as the final rewrite. His view of it was you finish the script, you shoot the script and at that point you can create a completely different story if the story you intended to tell didn’t work. No one ever thinks about the editing in TV and to me it’s as important as the writing on some level.
Carlock: Nothing’s as important as the writing.
Schur: Where you get lunch from is as important as the writing.
Carlock: I know everyone says “greatest crew,” but everyone on a crew is underappreciated.
Schur: That’s a great point. Every single person who works on a TV crew except for writers and actors is underappreciated.
Carlock: It really is. Technical Emmys aside, or technical Emmys included. Watching a crew work — I love it. I always feel a great responsibility when we put our junk on the page. I think, “Someone’s gonna have to build that. Someone’s going to have to get up at five in the morning and drive a truck to Red Hook.” There’s no way to fully express the appreciation for people who are realizing in a three dimensional world the silly nonsense that you wrote just because you have a copy of Final Draft. But not to gloss over — thank God, finally, showrunners are getting attention. We are fascinating.
Schur: We’re a better class of people. We really are.
Carlock: I think it’s gonna come through. I think we’re gonna come off great. Are we gonna be cited at the State of the Union? When is that gonna happen?
Schur: Every time you read something about a guy who works for Doctors Without Borders or some cardiothoracic surgeon who had a breakthrough, it’s like, “When are we going to get our due?”
Carlock: “When’s our parade?” I’m so glad it’s finally happening.
Schur: That should be the title of this: “When’s our parade?”
Carlock: It’s like when your kids ask, “Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, when’s kids’ day?” The answer is every other day.
Schur: 363 days a year.

I know Mike especially loves coming up with funny character names, and Titus Andromedon is one of the best names of last season. What are some of your tips for creating names?
Schur: Richard Wayne Gary Wayne is another great one. It reeked of Carlock to me.
Carlock: Well, sure. Or Fey for that matter. Will Forte’s character name on “30 Rock” was Paul and his last name was L’Astname with an accent at the end. That was one of my favorites.
Schur: You used to love Bill Fakename.
Carlock: And Guy Person.
Schur: Bill Fakename had a brother too, I can’t remember. At “SNL” it was so annoying to think of names we’d just use Fakename.
Carlock: Some are jokes, like Dr. Spaceman got there organically, but for a name like Kimmy Schmidt we wanted something solid and real that wasn’t a joke. It sounds like a person, but it’s a first name that’s more like a kid name than an adult name. And then a German last name, that’s German for Smith, what could be more ordinary? It depends on the character, but it is fun to pursue some silliness when you have a character you know you don’t have to make into a completely realized human being.
Schur: We had a rule at “Parks and Rec” that every character had to have a first and last name regardless of whether they had one line or no lines — any casting had to have a complete name. It was such a pain in the ass but it was so fun. We got so invested in crazy names that there were times we couldn’t come up with a normal name. Justin Theroux played a character in season two who was a love interest for Leslie and we just named him Justin. It was like, “What’s his last name?” It took us four hours and what we settled on was Anderson. Then later that year we had Louis C.K. on to also play a love interest for Leslie and we were going to name him Louis. But he had just sold his show and he said, “My show is called ‘Louie,’ it might be weird.” So we said, “Alright, his name is Dave.” But again it took us four hours for his last name, and we settled on Sanderson.
Carlock: You think maybe the time you spent coming up with last names no one ever heard would answer Geoff’s first question in the interview about why you didn’t get nominated more?
Schur: Yes, absolutely, no question. If we had just put a little more of that care into the show that we put into last names.