Emmy Nominees: Pay-TV Writers & Directors Rule Comedy Roost

Every nom went to a show on a subscription-based service; none went to basic cable or broadcast.

Emmy Comedy Writer Director Race
Courtesy of HBO/Netflix

HBO racked up a tidy nine nominations for comedy series writing and directing, but the bigger story is that every nom went to a show on a subscription-based service; none went to basic cable or broadcast. HBO, Netflix and Amazon all need attention-grabbing shows to drive subs, and with these comedies, they have just that.

Veep (HBO)
Directing: Chris Addison, “Morning After”; Dale Stern, “Mother”; David Mandel, “Kissing Your Sister”
Writing: David Mandel, “Morning After”; Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck, “Mother”

Chris Addison remembers walking onto the Paramount lot feeling worried. A lot of changes had taken place on “Veep” since he was last on set. Showrunner Armando Iannucci had left the show and there was a new man in charge. That wasn’t all. The comedy that for four seasons had shot in Baltimore in an old warehouse had now moved to Hollywood and even the set was looking just a little bit too… nice. “I remember thinking, ‘Holy hell. Everything’s going to change,’” he says.

New showrunner David Mandel was also feeling some trepidation. “It was a little daunting,” he admits of penning the first script of the season. “They had just won an Emmy — all of a sudden, the job gets a little bit harder.”

As Addison, who had been asked to direct the opener to provide continuity, reached the Oval Office and saw the cast, a wave of relief came over him. “Everything’s going to be OK,” he thought. And it was.

As the season progressed, writers Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck were eager to push Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) into new emotional territory, in an episode in which Selina’s mother dies. “We were wondering, ‘Why is she such a shitty mother?’ This was our way of answering that,” Huyck says.

Though the writers built the emotional roller coaster, they credit Louis-Dreyfus with taking it to another level. “There are other people in whose hands the episode would have been just a dark exploration of a horrible person,” Gregory says. “With Julia, you actually feel empathy for a horrible person.”

Knowing how unique an episode he had on his hands, director Dale Stern threw himself into prepping. After finding the right hospital, Stern gained access to the location, acted out each part, blocked every scene, and storyboarded the entire episode. “I needed to remove every single distraction so that when Julia walked on that set she could concentrate 100% on performance,” says Stern. The pieces all fell into place in the scene in which Selina is left to say goodbye to her estranged mother. “It was crucial to show what this character is like inside and it made Julia get into this new bag of tricks that nobody has seen before,” he says. “I wanted viewers to sit up and go, ‘What the hell was that I just saw?’”

The penultimate episode, “Kissing Your Sister” required not just 70-plus sets and a deep dive into events from this season and seasons past, but Mandel had to come up with a look for the mockumentary created by Selina’s daughter. “I was really trying to come up with a different visual vocabulary to make it not like ‘Veep,’” says Mandel. “How would Catherine Meyer shoot this thing? What keeps it feeling like a not necessarily great documentary?” The undertaking was colossal, but their ambitions paid off. “I think the entire team rose to the challenge, so it was exhausting, but it was like a wonderfully creative exhaustion. Like, ‘Oh! This is fun.’”

Silicon Valley (HBO)
Directing: Mike Judge, “Founder Friendly”; Alec Berg, “Daily Active Users”
Writing: Dan O’Keefe, “Founder Friendly”; Alec Berg,“The Uptick”

When initially written, the season premiere, “Founder Friendly” was meant to begin with the scene in which, after finding out he is fired from his own company, Richard goes barreling down the road with Erlich and smashes into the robot reindeer that Erlich then proceeds to kick apart.

It’s one of the funniest scenes in the episode, but something seemed amiss. “I was worried that the opening didn’t work, and that turned out to be right,” says episode scribe Dan O’Keefe. “We didn’t realize that it would be disorienting for the audience. Sure, there would be a sense of forward motion, which is always nice to start a season with, but the audience needed a chance to reset.”

In the end — the very end of production on season three, that is — a new scene was added with only a few actors still left on set. “Kumail [Nanjiani] and Martin [Starr] were gone,” says Mike Judge, who directed the episode. “We just shot T.J. [Miller], Thomas [Middleditch], and Zach [Woods]. We wrote up those pages real quick and shot it in the middle of another episode. That was our last-minute save, but I think it really makes all the difference.”

By way of creative trials, that was only the beginning. “The first three seasons, these guys have been working on creating this software that was going to make them all captains of the industry. When they don’t succeed, the big worry was, ‘Are people just going to feel like they invested all this time and energy in rooting for idiots?’” says Alec Berg.

For Berg, who directed the penultimate episode and wrote the season finale, the benefit of being in charge of the writers’ room with Judge is that he could play around with the script on the spot. “An outside director probably feels like, ‘OK, I have to make this work.’ I have the authority, should I choose to use it, to change this however I want to,” Berg says. “That happens a lot actually. And that makes the system more efficient.” Ultimately, the writers established that the failure was due to an over-sophisticated product, and even allowed them a surprise victory at the end. “The huge writing challenge was, ‘How do they fail in a way that’s actually flattering to them?’” says Berg. “I think we came up with something pretty elegant.”

Master of None (Netflix)
Directing: Aziz Ansari, “Parents”
Writing: Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, “Parents”

While much of “Master of None” is based on creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s lives, no episode hits as close to home as “Parents.” Immediately after selling their show to Netflix, Yang recalls remarking to Ansari: “It’s insane that we’re getting to do this. My dad grew up in a tiny village in Taiwan named Tiger Tail. He literally didn’t have enough food to eat growing up, to the point where he had this pet chicken.” The conversation inspired the duo to write an episode about their experiences as children of immigrants and the stories their parents had told them, but Ansari and Yang realized soon after the show’s release that the material resonated with almost everyone.

“Chances are your life is probably a little better than your parents,” says Yang. Playing Dev’s parents in the show are Ansari’s real-life mother and father, Fatima and Shoukath Ansari. “They have never acted before and in some ways, Dev’s father is the main character of the entire episode,” says Yang. “We designed it so Aziz would direct that episode and really get performances out of his parents. It helped to have the actor’s son on set to help guide them through. By the end, [Shoukath] had made people in the crew break more than any other actor we ever had on the show, including Aziz.”

Catastrophe (Amazon)
Writing: Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, “Episode One”

Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan’s first stab at writing a comedy about an Irish woman and an American man who get together following an accidental pregnancy was, well, a near catastrophe.

“In the earliest drafts of the pilot script, the network helped us focus our ambition. Rather than have the first episode span decades, they were like, ‘What if it was just months?’” recalls Delaney. “I’m sure we said to each other in the beginning, ‘Nobody wants to see them get to know each other.’ And everybody else involved was like, ‘No — they might.’”

The result is a high-stakes love story, with all the snags that come with the intermingling of two lives. “I’m really glad that someone stopped us and said, give yourselves a break and just enjoy these guys,” Horgan says. “That was a really, really great tip.”

Transparent (Amazon)
Directing: Jill Soloway, “Man on the Land”

In the penultimate episode of “Transparent” season two, there is a poignant scene where Maura’s experience at a feminist music festival is intercut with the raid of the Institute for Sexual Science by Nazis in 1930s Germany. The harrowing flashback has become one of the season’s most memorable moments, but it almost looked very different.

“We were originally going to play out the Berlin storyline as a Holocaust musical,” says creator Jill Soloway. “As conceived, it was like ‘Springtime for Hitler’ with a little bit of beauty and grace. Gigantic mistake. But we knew it before we shot it.”

Soloway credits Amazon with giving her and her writers the freedom to take risks. “They really like us to give our insane ideas a shot,” she says. “And we also have a brilliant team of people working at every level to let us know when we’ve gone off the rails. Collectively, the system works and hopefully it all shines through in the work.”