Variety Virtual TV Festival
For Paul W. Downs, the co-creator, co-showrunner, executive producer, actor and writer of “Hacks,” producing a TV show in the middle of a pandemic was like “whack-a-mole. You were constantly sort…
For Paul W. Downs, the co-creator, co-showrunner, executive producer, actor and writer of “Hacks,” producing a TV show in the middle of a pandemic was like “whack-a-mole. You were constantly sort of solving one problem and finding another.”
Of course, he was far from the only one. It’s been the most unusual year to write, shoot, produce and air TV, and everyone’s got a story. Executives from some of today’s biggest comedy shows joined Deputy TV editor Michael Schneider at Variety’s A Night in the Writers’ Room Comedy Panel to discuss how they’ve pivoted their shows and production processes due to the COVID-19 reality.
The panelists included Downs; Regina Hicks, co-creator, showrunner, writer and executive producer of “The Upshaws”; Anna Konkle, co-creator, showrunner, actor and executive producer of “Pen15”; Courtney Lilly, executive producer and showrunner of “Black-ish”; Chuck Lorre, creator, executive producer and director of “The Kominsky Method”; Sierra Teller Ornelas, co-creator, executive producer and showrunner of “Rutherford Falls”; Alena Smith, creator, showrunner, executive producer and writer of “Dickinson”; and Darren Star, creator and producer of “Younger.”
Speaking on the difficulties of incorporating Covid-related storylines into “Black-ish,” Lilly said his comedy caught flak on social media for not responsibly portraying the pandemic on screen.
“We had a wedding episode that was probably moderately irresponsible for trying to play it in the middle,” Lilly said. “We hear about that on Twitter, like, ‘There should be masks. They should be this far apart.’ We just wanted to add a wedding, all we wanted to do was see people be happy in pretty dresses and say they love each other. So it was all a learning experience.”
While period shows like the 2000s-set “Pen15” and 1850s-era “Dickinson” didn’t have to consider incorporating the pandemic into their storylines, COVID-19 certainly impacted the writing, production and post-production of these series.
“Because of the pandemic, I sort of got stuck at my parents’ house, so I was doing a Zoom writers’ room from the basement of my parents’ house,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘This is a little Emily Dickinson cosplay that I don’t want to go this far with anymore.'”
Speaking on efforts to keep everyone safe on the “Rutherford Falls” set, Ornelas, who is the first Native American showrunner of a comedy, spoke about the unique responsibility she felt due to flying in indigenous tribe elders during the pandemic.
“I was so much more worried about keeping people safe just because Covid disproportionately affected indigenous people,” Ornelas said. “We had such a large indigenous cast, and we were flying people in. We had no spread on our set, and I was very much worried about that… trying to keep it funny and keep it light, but keep everybody safe.”
Downs described the “daunting undertaking” of creating a show top to bottom entirely in the pandemic.
“We even screen tested Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart during Covid, which meant their chemistry read was more than six feet apart,” Downs said. “Jean is over 65 and a Type 1 diabetic, [so] we were like, ‘Protect our national treasure at all costs.'”