"Writing Community: A Conversation with Producer Emily Cutler" By Alyssa Merwin & Jason Anders

Playwright. Producer. Television & Film Writer. Actress. Stand-Up. Sketch. When it comes to comedy, Emily Cutler has done it all. She hasn't gone unrecognized for it, either - winning the L.A. Times Gold Derby Television Award in 2010 for "Comedy Episode of the Year" for writing the acclaimed Community episode "Modern Warfare." It was her writing on Dan Harmon's underrated NBC series that made us want to reach out for the following interview, which she was more than gracious with her time for, meeting us at a coffee shop next to CBS Radford before starting her day at The Odd Couple and allowing us to ask her all about her life and career. Oh, and about being Patrick Duffy's daughter-in-law...

Jason Anders: So if I can ask a personal question to start off with, what's it like having Patrick Duffy as a father-in-law?

Emily Cutler: Oh, you did your research! He's an absolute delight, the dad you always wish you had.

JA: I felt like he was my dad having grown up with Step by Step (1991)...

EC: See, I was of the Dallas (1978) time. I've only seen Step by Step recently, which was surreal because now I know him. He's a delightful, lovely, down-to-earth human being. I got lucky in the father-in-law department.

JA: Did you grow up a TV junkie?

EC: I watched everything. I was of the generation when MTV was starting, so we were glued to it. I watched Barney Miller (1974), Gilligan's Island (1964) and The Brady Bunch (1969) reruns. I wouldn't say I was a junkie, but I loved TV.

When I was a kid I liked The Love Boat (1977) because I was young and thought it was a naughty show. Fantasy Island (1977) was a good show, which apparently they are trying to remake right now.
(Thomas Lennon & Matthew Perry on the CBS Radford lot for The Odd Couple)
JA: Everything is being remade...

EC: Yes. Working on The Odd Couple (2015) I can certainly attest to that.

JA: How are you enjoying working on The Odd Couple?

EC: The cast and crew I am working with have been a delight and that is not always the case. In fact, most often it is not the case. You're dealing with a lot of creative types and, often, "crazy" comes along with that. On this particular show everyone is down-to-earth, rational, very respectful and wants to get their work done. It's refreshing.

Alyssa Merwin: How does working on a television series differ now from when you first started?

EC: The staffs are smaller, for sure. There's not as much money being thrown around. As comedy changes, the tone of the room changes. It's not as "set-up, set-up, joke" all the time, sometimes it's a different style of writing, but it hasn't changed that much. I don't even think it's changed that much since the time of Garry Marshall, who actually comes into our room a lot because he's a producer on the show. Essentially, at its core, writing comedy is the same.

I loved the original Odd Couple (1970), I loved Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. If you go back and watch those episodes, the scripts are really just two guys sitting in their apartment talking. There really wasn't a guest cast, it was more like a play. We've rounded out this version and made it more of an ensemble, but at the heart of the show it is these two guys trying to get along. We found actors who are very similar to the roles they're playing, which I think they did with the original Odd Couple.
(Matthew Perry & Yvette Nicole Brown in The Odd Couple)
JA: ... Matthew Perry and Yvette Nicole Brown can do no wrong. 

EC: Matthew Perry is delightful and brings to it his own cadence and rhythm. Yvette Nicole Brown's name got bandied about and I said she was really terrific to work with, she's just at the beginning of her comedy career. She could have her own show. She can do it all and is one of the nicest people in the world. She's the whole package.

AM: Community was such a unique, consistently funny show - what was it like working on those first few seasons?

EC: I think what makes a show special is the voice of the creator; if they fight for it and it's clear then the show is going to be interesting, whether or not it's a success or a failure. Dan Harmon is a mad genius - I really mean genius and I really mean mad. He had a vision and a very specific voice and our job was to help him realize it. Most of the people on the staff got it and had a somewhat similar voice as well. He was the guiding force behind that, it was Dan laid out on a page across your television set.
(Community - "Modern Warfare")
TV is all about collaboration, if you can't collaborate you don't want to be in television. Dan Harmon had to learn how to collaborate. He was used to working on his own. He pushed back against the powers-that-be and just fought for his vision. When they were saying "no" he was saying "well that's what I'm going to do." It's not always the best way to be in television, it can earn you a bad reputation, but he saw what he wanted to do and said, "if we're not going to do it this way then this is not something I want to do." They pretty much caved and let him. The show was crazy, every episode was different - there was even claymation and animation - and after a while they just started to trust him. We got to do amazing things and creatively it was a fantastic place to be.

Time-wise and personal life-wise it was not the best place to be because we spent the night there a couple times a week. We worked very, very late. It was not the most organized way to work but it produced some amazing creative results, so that's the trade-off.

AM: You were responsible for the very first paintball episode, writing "Modern Warfare", which became a tradition...

EC: I did. I can't remember where the idea came from - I know Dan wanted to do something that had to do with paintball and we started talking about different tropes and ways that we could tell the story. I put in the element of the two main characters, Britta and Jeff, having a physical relationship and working through it because we wanted to ground the episode in something so that it wasn't all just craziness. Justin Lin directed it. You don't get a better creative experience than that.
(Community - "Contemporary American Poultry")
AM: You also co-wrote the episode "Contemporary American Poultry" with Karey Dornetto - is it difficult to incorporate homages? 

EC: If you're a movie and TV person like I am, that's the most fun to do. What Dan really wanted to do is make sure that it wasn't just purely a spoof, he wanted it to have reality for our characters and actually tell an emotional story as well as a big, fun romp. A lot of the episodes I really liked were very simple, more about the characters and not big and splashy. We kind of sprinkled those in. If you're not invested in the characters the homages are going to get tiring after a while.

AM: Did you like the paintball episodes that they made after "Modern Warfare"?

EC: I liked them, but I personally would not have done another paintball episode. I liked it just being its own thing. I know what they were thinking and the subsequent paintball episodes were really cool, but I liked having it at just the one. You want to make it fresh and different and I definitely think they did. If you're telling a different emotional story each time, that will differentiate them. It really starts at what story you want to tell about the characters - all the other stuff is just icing on the cake.

AM: How challenging is it to have characters evolve while trying to keep them recognizable without being repetitive?    

EC: That's just life - the essence of who we are is the same even though our situations might change and it's fun to see how the characters might react and evolve. I didn't see the sixth season, but I'm looking forward to it so don't tell me anything. Also, you're working with a cast that's amazing who are bringing a lot to it and are always surprising. When your actors can surprise you, it's great. Community was a playground of pure creativity, it's a great place to be in when you can do whatever you want and let your imagination run wild. A lot of time in television you can't do that, especially in a multi-cam.  
(Community - "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas")
JA: What has been your best education as a writer?

EC: Community. Dan Harmon had a very specific way of doing things, I don't know if you're familiar with the wheel (story circle), which was a real education. I came onto that show as a co-producer and I'd never been on a set alone, Dan just said,"okay, go produce your episode." You were really thrown into essentially making a short film every week. Other than that, every show is an education - not only in writing but in dealing with people.

JA: Do you prefer a studio audience or no?

EC: I was an actor for a while and I loved the feeling of getting something back. You're writing in a vacuum in a lot of these single-camera shows, which I also enjoy, but I love getting the immediate feedback of knowing if something works or not. An audience doesn't lie, if they don't laugh then your joke isn't working. It's fun having a tape night each week, I haven't done multi-cam in a long time and I'm really having a good time.

JA: How difficult is it to rewrite jokes on the spot when a punchline fails with the studio audience?

EC: That's a muscle you have to constantly flex and keep well-oiled. If you take a lot of time away and come back then you're a little rusty and you've got to build that up again. It's exciting, very electric, to all be on a set with everyone pitching jokes - again, it's super collaborative.
(One of Emily Cutler's first spec scripts was for NBC's Frasier)
JA: Do you remember the initial spark for you in being an entertainer?

EC: I just came out that way - I was always a performer and always writing. I was an actor for a long time and it was frustrating to be auditioning for your five-line part on Babylon 5 or whatever, and I just started writing in my downtime. I wrote plays and multi-cams. I think my first spec scripts were Mad About You and Fraiser and it just seemed like I found my place and tribe of people. I just sat down and wrote them to see if I could.

I met director Steven Shainberg, who was living in the building with a friend of mine, and he said, "I know a comedy writer, would you like me to pass your work on?" He gave it to writer Jon Feldman who said, "this is incredible. You do this, you have a shot." I think he may have passed my script on to his agent who said he would "hip-pocket" me, which means sort of represent me. My career just took off from there.

AM: What has been your most surreal career moment?

EC: I sold a movie with a partner at the time and we were walking on the Sony lot complaining about some note we'd been given, and I went "wait a minute, stop. Look where we are. Look what we're arguing about. We're being given notes at Sony, and they bought our movie. Holy shit."

The same thing happened on the Warner Bros. lot because you have that iconic tower. Also, the first time anyone pays you to do anything in this industry it's crazy. Even to this day when my agents negotiate money I'm still so shocked that anyone is paying me to do anything - I'd practically do it for free. Actually, now that I've said this, I will also do it for an incredibly large amount of money.
JA: What do you love most about what you do?

EC: I get to be around funny people all day. I have thought about writing a drama because that seems exciting, too - but I get to sit in a room with the funniest people ever and all we do all day is laugh. It's like a dream. I have to remind myself every day, when I'm tired and cranky waking up super early, that I'm really lucky.

I think that the hardest thing is to be a mother with this demanding job, and even though I'm having a lot of fun I have two kids at home who I want to see. When I was on Community for two seasons I think they were maybe two and four and I rarely saw them. Was it worth it? I don't know. I wouldn't take a job like that now. If I were to meet a Dan Harmon, even if I thought the show was the best thing in the world, and they said I'd be there until 2 a.m. I would have to say no. If you're twenty it's great, but your priorities change.

JA: How did you become involved with The Michael J. Fox Show?

EC: I was brought on only in the initial stages when there was a writers' room here. The whole production was moving to New York and I didn't want to move because my kids were in school here, so I didn't go with them.

That show was a gamble. My dad has Parkinson's so I'm very familiar with what that means. Michael is super talented and it was just a matter of if audiences would accept it and allow comedy to come out of this very difficult situation. I thought the show got better and better but I think people just had a tough time seeing him with Parkinson's. I think they couldn't get past it, which is a shame - I think that he was so beloved as an actor that it made people feel sad and maybe guilty for laughing, but I thought it was really well done. The show runner, Sam Laybourne, is really talented and the staff of writers was amazing. I just think that was the bump in the road.
(Christopher Lloyd guest stars on The Michael J. Fox Show - 2013)
AM: How do you feel television has changed since Netflix and Hulu?

EC: I watched all of Mad Men streaming and it was just amazing. When I caught up to the last season and had to watch it with commercials it really changed the experience. It changes the structure a little bit because what we do in a multi-cam on a network show is featuring act breaks with a tease to get you to come back, not having commercials on Netflix changes the flow of the script. I think watching shows streaming is great, you just have to restructure your script. Shows now are cut way down... I think they're nineteen minutes? You have to tell your story in a very limited amount of time. A lot of things get truncated, some stories cannot be told as fully as you want them to be told. It's a big adjustment.

You asked earlier how things are different in comedy, that is one way; shows are getting shorter and shorter and I wish they weren't. I wish there was more time to tell your story. You have to get to your key points faster and it's not as satisfying. I do think that at places like Netflix and Hulu there's a lot more creative freedom because there's not as many cooks in the kitchen, so it's a wonderful creative place to be. I have yet to write for one of those places, but I would really like to.

JA: What are you watching now?

EC: A lot of cable. I recently started watching The Affair on Showtime. I watch a lot of dramas. When I watch comedy on television it feels like work, I'm not necessarily just letting it flow over me. I sample everything because I like to see what's out there and what people are doing but I haven't found a comedy recently that makes me want to tune in every week.
(ABC's Suburgatory - 2011 - Produced by Emily Cutler)
AM: How do you feel working on a drama would differ from working on a comedy?

EC: I think it's more attention to story. You're freed from having a couple of jokes per page. It would be a challenge for me to do that because I think I'd try and make the drama as funny as possible, which might not be helpful. It's a different muscle and not something I've done before. Sometimes you're in the writers' room for up to twelve hours per day with people who are very serious all the time and I'm not a very serious person. It would be interesting to see if I could fit in to that. I would miss laughing all day.

Telling a story is telling a story, and defining a character is defining a character. Every character wants something and most people have conflict, so it's not that different, you're just thinking of it in a more dramatic and serious way. At the heart of it you're telling a story.

JA: What are your favorite movies?

EC: Midnight Run (1988), Waiting for Guffman (1996), Goodfellas (1990), and Casino (1995). Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) is a perfect romantic comedy.
(NBC's Growing Up Fisher - Co-Executive Produced by Emily Cutler)
AM: What makes a great script?

EC: I can probably tell in the first page or two if someone can write. All of your characters shouldn't sound alike. Specificity is what I look for in a writer. It's the difference between saying "they were staying at a hotel" as opposed to "they were staying at the Holiday Inn." Specificity gives me a picture in my mind.

We just had the argument in the writers' room about whether it's better to write a spec script or a pilot of your own - both serve a purpose; the spec script is going to show that you can write for other characters in another voice, the pilot is your own voice with characters you've created. I like reading a pilot because I'm going to see specifically what your voice is, and if no real voice is coming through then the script just doesn't interest me.

I feel that way with people, too. If I meet someone who has nothing to say and no voice they wouldn't be as interesting to me as someone who has a strong voice and a strong opinion about things.

JA: What is your advice for aspiring writers in the industry?

EC: Write something you're passionate about, no matter what people tell you. Write what you think you can write the best and find what your voice is (you may have to write a lot of crappy drafts before you get to something good.) Each thing helps you find your voice. Don't try to be something you're not - go to your personal experience, it's far more interesting than you think.

Also, meet as many people as you can. It really does help. Sit down with people and get your work out there. The more people that read you, the better. You don't always have to take everybody's notes, but definitely ask for notes and take them. When you first start writing you put all of yourself into it and crank out this draft, making it as perfect as you can, and then somebody gives you notes and you feel like your baby is being ripped apart. It's important to hear all of those notes, even if you don't take them, and take them graciously... don't fight back. A lot of times your instinct is to say, "but I put that in there for a reason!" Just hear everything, take it in, and use what you think will make your script better.
(ABC's How to Live with Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life - 2013 - Supervising Producer)
AM: What advice would you give about being collaborative?

EC: When I asked Garry Marshall what he would tell the writers he said, "be nice." You're in a room with these people spending more time with them than you do your own family, so you have to be a team player. That doesn't mean swallowing your voice, it means hearing everybody, knowing when to fight for something, knowing which hills to die on, and which times to stay quiet. It's kind of like a family, you have to put out fires sometimes. If you're delightful and a pleasant person to be around you'll get a job over someone who isn't pleasant to be around. Know when to talk and know when to listen. I'm still learning that.

Be prepared to rewrite. A lot of TV and film is rewriting and it's a painful process and a painful thing to learn because you worked so hard on your first draft. You have to be willing to change it.

AM: How do you deal with negative criticism and low ratings when they come around?

EC: A lot of people didn't tune in to Community, but we felt like we were doing good work. It depends on what your goal is. It didn't reach the wide audience that I'm sure people hoped it would, but the audience it did reach were impacted in a strong way. Our goal as creative people is to just do the best work we can. It stinks if people don't watch it, but you're hopefully doing it for the journey and not just the destination.
(Watch The Odd Couple on CBS - Thursdays at 8:30/7:30c)
JA: If you had to sum up your life with three words, what would they be?

EC: Hectic. Challenging. Delightful.

Follow Emily Cutler on Twitter at @CutlerEmily