Emmy Award-winners that viewers tend to remember are basically the shows and the stars.
Oft-forgotten are all the other categories, including the creative engine behind it all: the writers. Fortunately, “Sublime Primetime,” the Writers Guild of America’s warm-up event to the Primetime Emmy Awards, gives at least some of these unsung scribes a little more time in the limelight.
On Thursday, the annual event returned to the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills in advance of this Sunday’s 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards telecast. With Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk moderating, the panel’s nominated writers included Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story), Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg (The Americans), Alex Gregory and Peter Huyck (Veep), Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (UnREAL), Carolyn Omine (The Simpsons), and Alex Rubens (Key & Peele). A naturally funny and inquisitive personality, Odenkirk kept things light, segueing quickly from writer to writer to coax as many behind-the-scenes anecdotes as he could. Though less introspective than last year’s event, which became something of a meditation on TV’s challenging new economic landscape, 2016 Sublime Primetime still offered plenty of grist for the mill of mostly writers and aspiring writers in attendance.
It was revealed, for instance, that Veep’s Alex Gregory went to high school with the HBO comedy’s showrunner David Mandel, who replaced the series’ creator Armando Iannucci at the start of last season. “So all of you who are wondering how to break in to the industry,” Gregory’s co-writer Peter Huyck joked to the crowd, “the answer is to go to high school with the showrunner.”
Meanwhile, The People v. O.J. Simpson’s Alexander and Karaszewski only had to go to school with each other to succeed. The screenwriters have been a successful team since rooming together in college at USC’s School of Cinema, where they launched a career that has included scripts for movies such as Ed Wood, Problem Child and Man on the Moon. O.J. Simpson was their first-ever foray into television, and “we didn’t realize people still gave a shit about the story,” said Karaszewski. “But just enough time gone by to re-examine it.” They quickly realized they had more on their hands than a retelling of a tawdry celebrity case. As they dug in they realized the story was packed with themes reflecting hot-button current topics such as Black Lives Matter and the harmful 24-hour news cycle.
“All of a sudden, it didn’t feel like a period piece at all,” Karaszewski said.
The Americans, with its tale of undercover KGB spies during the Cold War, is another show whose dated setting has been cleverly tilted to shed light on our present moment.
Creator Joe Weisberg used to be a spy for the CIA himself. When given a lie detector test during the hiring process, “they asked specifically are you pursuing a job with the CIA with the intention of writing about it?” he told the crowd. “I said ‘no,’ but I thought it was a pretty good idea.”
Years later, he would publish his first spy novel while finishing grad school in New York and working as a teacher.
UnREAL creator Shapiro was another writer on the panel whose path to the Emmy nomination was far from typical. A dyed-in-the-wool feminist, she found herself working at a young age on the least likely show imaginable: ABC’s The Bachelor.
“For a feminist, working on The Bachelor was like a vegan working at a slaughterhouse,” she said.
The experience of manipulating the show’s non-actor women into giving TV-worthy performances was so psychologically damaging, she fled Los Angeles and moved to Portland, Oregon. But the experience still haunted her, and she eventually channeled it into the short film that would get her into Nancy Dubuc’s office at A+E Networks.
“Lifetime was not where I thought I’d sell the show,” she admitted, and yet Dubuc agreed to buy it before the pitch (Shapiro’s first) was even over. Since then, Shapiro, along with co-creator Marti Noxon, has found a way to inject her hard-hitting values into UnREAL without compromising its riveting take on the drama behind the drama of reality TV.
“When women destroy other women, they inevitably destroy themselves,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro and Noxon expressed their feminism with boldness throughout the panel, calling Odenkirk out for referring to them as “girls” and accusing The Bachelor of being, as Noxon put it, “the perpetuation of a princess fantasy” ideal of romance. Hollywood clearly needs more creators like them, a fact evidenced by their fellow panelist Carolyn Omine, who despite her Emmy nomination, is the only woman on a Simpsons staff of around 20 writers.
Adding fuel to the fire on the question of women’s ability to write great material, Veep’s Gregory and Huyck confessed that star Julia Louis-Dreyfus frequently emerges from her trailer to watch scenes she’s not even in, and then proceeds to “pitch better jokes than [the ones] we’ve spent months writing,” said Huyck.