How Showrunners Keep the Laughs Coming, Season After Season

The day after the presidential election, Kenya Barris knew he had to figure out a way to capture the national mood for “Black-ish,” his third-season ABC family comedy.

“I woke up and I was like, ‘I have to talk about this,’ because I was seeing such a mirrored response from everyone around me,” the veteran showrunner says. “Everyone complaining and saying they couldn’t work and felt devastated.”

His response? An election-inspired episode, “Lemons,” with a heartfelt debate about Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and America’s future at the office of Dre (Anthony Anderson). The episode aired just two months after the election and won widespread praise for, among other things, giving each side its due.

“It came out quick enough where it could still be impactful,” Barris says. “The actors didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time; we didn’t have time to really do notes. What you saw was basically what was written.”

The “Black-ish” example offers a vivid illustration of how showrunners can keep comedies fresh, even sometimes — yes — vital to the national conversation. That’s not always easy to do once the sheen of the “freshman” label has worn off. Fans have settled into the show, and can resent sudden twists that upset expectations or that strain credulity — there are reasons “jumping the shark” and “Cousin Oliver” have become part of the lexicon. The attention of the news media, meanwhile, has often moved on to what has become a never-ending roster of series premieres in an era of “peak TV.”

A half-dozen showrunners explain why keeping a comedy relevant well past the crucial first two seasons is an art unto itself.

“Landing the plane is one thing,” says Robert Carlock, executive producer of Netflix’s offbeat comedy “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which released its season three in May. “Keeping it going, another.”

HBO’s tech-world parody “Silicon Valley” premiered its fourth season this spring.

“Every year we do the show, it gets harder, because there’s more things we’ve done, so there’s more reason to throw away stuff that we’re thinking about,” says executive producer Alec Berg. “‘Ah, it’s too much like that other thing.’”

Transparent,” top, and “Silicon Valley” were based on real-life experiences.
Courtesy of Amazon Studios/Transparent

But like the writers on “Black-ish,” the “Silicon Valley” scribes have discovered that real life is a gift that keeps on giving, though the latter show has a bitingly satirical take on the world it depicts.

“We decided to hew to reality and make the show very photo-real,” Berg says. “The tremendous advantage of that is that people in the real Silicon Valley are doing tremendously asinine things all the time.

“When we run out of stories of greed and avarice and social awkwardness, the real Silicon Valley makes more and we can steal that,” he adds.

This season, for instance, tech whiz Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) struggles to pitch a supposedly miraculous food app, only to discover its really marketable use, as a pornography filter. Periscope eventually buys the app for millions of dollars, an outcome that doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to anyone who reads Tech Crunch or Recode.

More often, though, the inspiration that TV writers crave comes less from politics or other outside events and more directly from tapping into their characters’ journeys. It’s an organic creative process, if often a bumpy one.

Jill Soloway created Amazon’s family comedy “Transparent” after their real-life father, psychiatrist Harry J. Soloway, came out as trans. (Soloway, who identifies as non-binary, prefers gender-neutral pronouns such as “they/them.”)

They believe the show’s premise, which concern the family aftershocks after dad Morton becomes Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), creates plenty of room for exploration.

“In terms of this family, they’re really toddlers, because the moment that Maura came out, the dial got set back to zero,” Soloway says. “Each person is slowly but surely trying to learn to walk in this new reality.”

Season three, which premiered last fall, found Maura struggling to adapt as a counselor at an LGBT center; the Pfefferman adult children, meanwhile, continue on their quest into spiritual matters with Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) playing a pivotal role.

Soloway has a powerful method to keep “Transparent” grounded in everyday life, even with a dramatic change in personal identity as the story’s impetus.

“I’ll ask the writers at the beginning of the season, ‘So what’s on your mind right now, what are you working on to solve in your life this year? What are you trying to change in your life? What’s important to you? What matters to you in a big way?’ And then when they get down there to the set with the actors, they can say, ‘This is what this scene is about.’ The show has to be working on the writers for it to succeed at what it succeeds at, which is feeling emotionally real,” Soloway says.

With its final season this year, HBO’s millennial comedy “Girls” bid adieu to its heroine Hannah (Lena Dunham) as she embarked on an uncertain journey into motherhood and something resembling adult life.

“When we run out of stories of greed and avarice and social awkwardness, the real Silicon Valley makes more.”
Alec Berg

According to executive producer Jenni Konner, it helped that HBO gave the writers the option of choosing when the show would end before it ever premiered.

Devoting four seasons to Hannah’s journey, and no more, made it easier to focus on stories that needed to be told and avoid filler.

“That helped us a lot in the writing,” Konner says. “When you have an actual goal you don’t really have time for the stories of like, ‘Someone dates someone’ or ‘You go to a restaurant.’ It all had to be fairly story-oriented.

“I just think it was time for Hannah to have some very high stakes,” she adds of the final season’s plot developments. “This wasn’t a job she could quit or a boyfriend she could break up with — this is a baby, and it’s different, and she’s stuck with that child for her lifetime. It would force her to make more adult decisions, just organically.”

Other shows have found that freedom rather than limits are what’s needed. On HBO’s “Veep,” another Emmy mainstay, Selina, the petty, much put-upon pol played by  Julia Louis-Dreyfus, has moved through several iterations of her career and is now an ex-president.

“Periodically, the show’s premise sort of gets blown up and she moves to another phase,” says executive producer David Mandel. “We, as writers, are looking for the challenge to ourselves and to keep it fresh, but also as a challenge to the characters. … You have to keep the sand under their feet moving.”

Sometimes the best surprises can come from one-offs: situations and characters that seem to come out of nowhere and shake up the show’s established foundation.

One of Carlock’s favorite “Kimmy” episodes is this season’s off-the-wall battle over a gas-station restroom key.

“We find out that Titus [Tituss Burgess] has been using that bathroom, just out of a sense of dignity and propriety, forever,” Carlock says.

The character soon finds himself at odds over the key with the station’s new owner, played by Ray Liotta.

“It’s just a sort of crazy episode that I love, because it’s a step away from the big arcs and everything. It’s Titus and Kimmy going in a kind of cops-and-robbers thing.”

The most important thing, writers agree, is to keep the show moving forward.

“The stories are becoming harder to tell, because they are based on our families,” “Black-ish” showrunner Barris admits.

“As the stories grow, you feel like, ‘Am I gonna run out of stories to tell?’ You start to pressure yourself and be like, ‘Oh, I want to do this [story] again.’
“I think that’s the worse thing you can do,” he says. “But that’s probably the nature of success.”

But a writer who returns to what moves people can always find a story, just as Barris did after the election. “As a writer, you know when people are feeling something,” he said. “You can’t write a ‘universal’ angle, ’cause then you hit nobody. You find your particular angle, and you write that.”

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