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Talking the Modern Romantic Comedy at Variety’s Night in the Writers’ Room

Comedy scribes Aline Brosh McKenna, Mark Duplass, Stephen Falk, Zander Lehmann, and Darren Star talked about the modern romantic comedy at Variety’s Night in the Writers’ Room event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.

The showrunners behind “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Togetherness,” “You’re The Worst,” “Casual,” and “Younger” discussed how they ended up creating and shaping their innovative relationship comedies — from how to set up their writers’ rooms to when and how to showcase characters having sex.

Chief on the writers’ minds was how television afforded so many more opportunities for the types of relationships each writer wanted to explore. Television, Duplass said, “is better for living inside those interpersonal dynamics than movies are.”

“Movies aren’t interested in [romantic comedies] anymore,” McKenna said. She pointed out that the shows represented on the panel were all “high-concept shows that would have been high-concept movies.” But with film romcoms, “What was out there was so grindingly formulaic — so cookie-cutter. And they tanked.”

“Movies that are released on a bunch of screens — they lack curiosity and an adult point of view,” Lehmann said. Outside of independent film, “movies don’t really cater to that audience anymore.”

The scribes also shared observations on creating comedy in the era of Peak TV. There were more opportunities than ever, it was agreed. McKenna pointed out, “Every show on this panel would have been canceled halfway through the episode, just based on the ratings. TV shows can do more things now than just grab eyeballs.”

But the downside to great opportunities for television comedies with vision is that more and more great ideas are taken. Lehmann said he’s afraid to watch more than an episode or two of these comedies, because he’s afraid “It’ll come out in [my] show.”

Plus, Falk pointed out that in comparison with prestige dramas, comedies are still seen as less important, because they’re “half as long.” He joked: “I’m not saying drama’s easy, but… drama’s f**kin’ easy, you guys. You don’t have to put in any jokes!”

Each showrunner pointed out that their individual takes on the typical romance created a theme that made the show move forward. For Falk, it was about taking the bad behavior that he loved in villains from Falstaff to Al Swearengen and putting it in a romantic comedy. “I always like the bad guys.”

For Star, it was a different angle. “In TV, you have to have themes to explore, and in ‘Younger,’ that’s the generation gap. How does someone over 40 function in the world of social media?” Star said. “You can really reflect the world you’re living in, immediately, commenting on our times right now.”

Mckenna said that she and co-showrunner Rachel Bloom (who is also the star of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) don’t think of their show as a romcom. “We frame it as one person’s descent into her own personal issues,” she said, adding that AMC’s “Breaking Bad” is a big inspiration for the show, as unlikely as that seems. Star cited the same show as an influence, because both “Younger’s” protagonist and “Breaking Bad’s” are carrying a secret. “I’ve never seen it!” he confessed. But they’d discussed a great deal in the writers’ room. “I know it so well.”

Duplass said that after “Togetherness”’ first season aired, he was surprised to find that the relationship that struck viewers most was the romance between “the two boys” — best friends Brett and Alex, played by Duplass and Steve Zissis. And that led to another topic for the writers, about the difficulties of managing audience reaction in the age of social media.

“The audience wants the characters to be happy, which is the end of the story,” Star said. “You have to defy expectations while still being true to the characters…. The audience is so much savvier than they used to be.”

“The first season was agonizing,” Lehmann said. “It’s the first time you’re getting feedback. But now with the second season, the people who didn’t like it have just stopped watching, thankfully.”

He added: “Sorry audience, you’re not going to get everything you want. And sometimes you will! But we have feelings, too!”

Duplass said, “My stance is that you can’t look on Twitter and look at those things… and then I always go and read about my show.”

Star’s social media strategy is more strategic. “I have many pseudonyms with which I respond,” he said, to laughter from the crowd.

The writers also shared war stories on how to wrangle sex scenes through network standards and practices. Falk discovered that on FXX, you can’t show pubic hair. McKenna learned they couldn’t use the word “crap.” And Duplass shared “Togetherness”’ self-imposed principle of “balls equality,” wherein if there was a scene with female nudity, the show had to respond with an equal amount of male nudity. “And of course I’m in the show, so, they’re mostly mine,” he said.

The overall feeling from this collection of showrunners, who came from backgrounds as diverse as independent film and TV recapping, is that this is a great time to be in TV. “All the filmmakers I loved as a child,” McKenna said, “I feel like they would be doing television now.”

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