Thursday 12 July 2012

Interview with TV Sitcom Writer JAY KOGEN

'FRASIER' was always my favourite sitcom. I adored the characters and the sense of humour, but most of all: I loved the writing. It was the first show where I got obsessed, by trying to figure out how they crafted all the episodes. And like any show, as the seasons flew by --- some episodes were better than others. And one thing I noticed in later seasons -- is that most of my favourite episodes were written by a guy called Jay Kogen.

So it's exciting for me, years later, to be interviewing a comedic writer who played a big part in my writing interests at quite an early stage. He's also written episodes of 'THE SIMPSONS', 'EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND' and 'MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE', and much more. 

This is an extensive interview with a Hollywood screenwriter who has been in writing rooms alongside some of the all time great comedic writers. We speak in depth about the process of putting together a pilot, writing for a show -- and by focusing specifically on one of his great 'FRASIER' episodes, he explains exactly how an episode makes the journey from the pitch to the screen. A fascinating insight into writing for television with a hugely talented writer: JAY KOGEN.

KID IN THE FRONT ROW: You’re doing a pilot right now, is that right?

JAY KOGEN: I’m just finishing a pilot, yes.

How’s it going?

It’s going well. I think so – every pilot I’ve ever done I thought was going well. I liked them all. I always fall in love with the pilot. Rarely do you do it and think ‘oh, this sucks’. You always do it and think ‘this could be a show, this should be on TV!’

How about when you look back at them like a year or two later, do you still think the ones that didn’t work out are great, or do you see why they didn’t work out?

Sometimes I can see why they didn’t work out. I also see what was good about them. I also see the flaws in them that I saw when---- everything I do still has flaws – I see flaws in everything. I saw flaws in ‘The Simpsons’, I saw flaws in ‘Frasier’. I see flaws in all shows. 

But I definitely see the flaws. And the things that we didn’t get right always come back and haunt me when I look at them again, as well as the things that we got right. 

How much of those flaws, when you look back, are about the writing, and how much of that is all the other elements like the casting and directing, and all the different things---

Y’know. It’s hard to say. Some of the flaws were bad writing, true. Some were good writing, or things that were funny on paper that could not be realised. And I’m not sure whose fault that is --  maybe that’s also the fault of the writing-- writing things that look good on paper but can’t be reproduced by actors on camera. 

Sometimes there are things that were great on the paper but the actor just didn’t hit it or the mood just wasn’t right or it was a physical or visual joke that didn’t get realised properly. So, it’s all a mix. 

Do you think you can always tell when you’re casting, do you always know if the actors are right? Like, I’ve cast people where—you’re convinced they’re right for it… and especially with comedy, when it comes down to it, it’s those little tiny subtle things in your writing isn’t it—that actors can’t always nail –

It’s one of those things where, when your actor can’t do the joke you wrote, you’ve got to change the joke. If you’ve cast them right, they can be like 75-80% of what you thought they could be. And maybe you have to change the writing 20%, or change the writing 10% and goose them 10% to be more in the direction you want, but nobody’s going to be exactly what you want. And writers always make the mistake of thinking they’ll find someone who will do the work just the way they heard it in their head. That’s a huge mistake, because things are often better than the way we heard it in our head. And we let a human being take a stab at it and put their own creative spin on it and it’s better. 

How long have you spent on this pilot so far – how much of your life has it taken up? 

Well, it’s a long process, and it’s not taken up 100% of my time this time, but it’s been about a year and a half.

So of course, if that doesn’t last, it’s pretty heartbreaking right?

Yeah well, I mean, y’know, you’re getting paid for that time, you’re getting paid to do the work on it, so it’s your job. But the heartbreak is that you think there’s so much potential there that is squandered when the show doesn’t get picked up. And odds are – your show will not get picked up. You start off at a network that’s doing a hundred pilots, you’re one of a hundred. Of those pilots – ten will get picked up. Of those ten scripts that get picked up, like three become shows – so few. Your odds are very low going in. It’s better than a regular lottery but it’s kind of a lottery. 

This pilot you’re creating at the moment – did you write it all yourself, or did you have a writing staff?

I did write it all myself. 

Is that your preference? 

I like working with partners. I like writing by myself. I like a combination, it depends. I find that working with people helps me in different ways. It gives me good perspective, it also gives me deadlines. When you’re working with somebody, you can’t slack off as much. 

So with a show like ‘Frasier’, where the characters and style have already been long established by the time you wrote your first episode. How do you combine staying true to what the show is and also getting your style on the page – 

How do you get your style on the page? You don’t! Your job, when you’re doing ‘Frasier’, is to write the kind of shows that the people who run ‘Frasier’ like. And if you don’t like the kind of show that ‘Frasier’ is then you shouldn’t work there.

So like, I didn’t run that show – I worked on it. The most essential boss in that environment was Christopher Lloyd. He’s really smart, really funny – he really knew his characters. Others were there, like David Lee; the creators of the show – but not full time. Chris Lloyd was there full time. And you had to appeal to Chris Lloyd. You had to make your story pitches and joke pitches and moments and edits to be what he likes. So you would pitch things that you thought would go down well with Chris, and that’s your job. Your job is to edit out all the things that you thought were funny but would not go well with Chris. And go to the things that he would like, because we’re all there to make that show. And the longer it takes, the more energy we use; that’s bad. We should only be using our energies to do things that are in the realms of possibilities to get on that show. 

Looking at a specific episode, the one you won an Emmy for, ‘Merry Christmas Mrs. Moskowitz’. That episode, for example, was that an idea that you had pitched? 

That is an idea that came about in a room with a lot of people. It wasn’t my idea that I had brought to him. It was an idea that came about in the room. We wanted to do a Christmas episode, and I think the idea that Frasier pretends to be Jewish may have been something that I pitched, or it may not have been; I honestly don’t remember. But the outline came about, y’know, we pitched the story and the outline; and there was actually a day of outlines that I missed. I came back and some of it had been worked out without me and some of that I had to learn and embrace and we changed that, but it’s funny how it all fell together. And then it was my job to take that outline that we agreed on, and that specifically Chris liked and that the show creators then approved. And then I had to go and write it out into a full outline, y’know, like a fifteen page kind of mini-script --- and then that gets looked at and changed, and then edited, and then they say go ahead and write the script and then I wrote the script.

And then that script went to the room, and it got changed and punched up and fixed. And then it went in rehearsal and the actors took a stab at it and they made things better. And some things got changed from there, and it went through a lot of different processes. So the idea that I want to dissuade people from, which I don’t think is true, at least in most shows, is that showrunners are looking for that magical voice, that is completely different from theirs, to put into their show. I think they’re looking for a magical voice that’s complimentary to theirs, to put into their show; and something that maybe they might have thought of themselves or were pretty close to it – cause that’s what they’ll put on. And so, my job when I wrote ‘Frasier’ and that particular episode, was to write a good version of ‘Frasier’. Many of my ‘Frasier’s’, I think, were broader than some of the others, cause I’m probably a broader writer. I didn’t write a lot of the French farce episodes of ‘Frasier’. I didn’t write too many episodes where it all took place in one room the whole time.

But then that episode was mostly in the apartment, when they were in and out of the kitchen –

Yeah, but a lot of it is physical, and people dressed in costumes, and singing – and it’s more broader than snarky; I dunno. It seemed different.

What writers have influenced you the most?

Well my father, he probably influenced me the most, in all ways (Note: Jay's father is the great comedy writer Arnie Kogen). Ray Bradbury who just died was very influential to me. I’m not sure he was influential to my comedy – but he was definitely influential to me. I loved Ben Hecht, incredible. So many great writers --- Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond. Jim Brooks. Sam Simon, great writer, has influenced me a great deal.  The guys I have worked with, who’ve trained me, they’re my most heavy influence, definitely. 

When you finish a first draft of something, who do you first show it to?

Lately I’ve been showing it to friends. I used to never do that. I used to only show it to the people I was working with. I show it to my wife – sometimes she’s sick of reading my scripts. I show it to my Dad sometimes. I get a lot of input, and usually the things that change are the things that I agree are kind of iffy – and sometimes my Dad will say “This is horrible,” but I’ll love it – and I’ll keep it in any way. You don’t change the things that you’re sure about. You only change the things that you were kind of iffy on anyway. 

What about --- having a Dad who is such a great writer – in comedy as well. You say he’s a big influence for you, but at the same time, has that ever added any pressure on you as a writer?

Umm, pressure to me, hmm.

I can just imagine, having a Dad who is such a great writer – I can just imagine it could be hard also, I don’t know.

Well I’ll say, it was a great advantage to me to have a Dad who is a writer. I think I got a big leg up in a lot of different areas. One of which was seeing how writers work. Another was knowing people in showbiz, already, when I wanted to be in show business, I had connections, when people who come from --- Minnesota, have to work a long time to develop connections. So when I wrote a script and was ready to show it, I had people to show it too. It didn’t always help me, but it is certainly a big leg up. So that was very helpful.

My Dad was not encouraging of me becoming a writer – he was actually discouraging of me becoming a writer, so that was kind of unhelpful, in some ways. 

How old were you when you knew you wanted to write? Did you always know that was what you wanted to do? 

I started out wanting to direct movies, and I still do – but I was an actor, and was a bit of a stand up comedian for a short while, and I did some other things. And writing was only one of the things that I thought I might be able to do. I don’t love the act of sitting alone and writing – 


I like working with people. Writing is hard. So, I was not drawn to it instantly. But I did start writing in High School with some friends. And I showed some things I wrote to my father, even in Junior High, when I was quite young I guess, y’know, fourteen, fifteen. And he was, y’know – pretty honest about how bad he thought they were. He didn’t like them, and he was not really impressed with my writing and didn’t think that it was a field that I should necessarily head into, for a number of reasons. One, I don’t think he thought I was particularly talented at it, and the second is, the life of a writer is pretty precarious, and you don’t really necessarily want that for your kid. So it was a mixed bag. But eventually he came around. 

When did you first write something that really gave you the confidence to know that you had something, or perhaps it gained a certain recognition, do you remember what that was? 

You know what, I mean, once again ---- I like everything I write. Even the scripts I showed my Dad, that he didn’t like, I liked! I thought they had potential. I think that everyone who shows you a spec script--- nobody turns it into you and says “y’know, it’s not very good,” they like it! I liked the stuff I wrote.

But the first thing I wrote that actually got strangers excited was, I wrote with a pal of mine called Wally Wolodarsky, we wrote a spec script for a show called ‘It’s Gary Shandling’s Show’. This is before 'The Larry Sanders Show' – on ShowTime, and we were runners, P.A’s on that show. And we thought, ‘we could write this show’. 

So we wrote a script, and we showed it to the show. And they thought it was okay, but then we showed it to other people and they thought it was much better than okay. The people on the show thought it was okay but they didn’t do anything with it. And then they sort of said, maybe we’ll give you guys an assignment. So we waited a year for our assignment, and that never came.  And so we wrote another spec for the show hoping that they’d buy that one, and they didn’t buy that one but we showed it to Sam Simon who was a consulting producer on ‘It’s Gary Shandling’s Show’ and he liked it enough to show it to the people at ‘The Tracy Ullman Show,’ and we got out first opportunity to pitch a sketch there. We pitched a sketch, they bought it, we wrote it, and then they hired us on staff. So that’s how we got our first job.

For someone who is outside of the industry – sitting in their home in Minnesota, or wherever – writing their scripts, do you have any advice? I know this is a very typical question. 

If you’re in Minnesota writing ---- write. And eventually you have to get out of Minnesota, and you have to go somewhere where they’re actually making movies and TV shows, or whatever it is that you want to write. So you’ve got to go to New York or Los Angeles or Chicago or someplace where there’s an active community of people actually making this stuff. 

I’m sure Minnesota or Minneapolis has an active theater community but I don’t think it’s the same as the New York theater community. And I don’t think their television is the same as Los Angeles television community. There are places to go where your skills are needed and wanted, but you have to come out and meet people and socialize in order to get those scripts that you are writing read. 

Let’s talk about movies. You said you’d like to direct for film – is that something you see long into the future or something you want to realise soon? 

Well, you know, it’s a slow process – but I’ve been directing things on TV for a while, so we’ll see. It’s a matter of getting the right movie. And low-budget enough that someone will give me a chance. And a script good enough that someone will give me a chance to direct it.

So it’s not something you’d want to write yourself – to write and direct your own movie?

Yeah. That’s how you’d have to do it. I have to write a script, and then say, “you can only have this script if I can direct it.” And they’ll say “great, we’ll pay you nothing.” And I’ll have to say “fantastic”.

Ha, Yeah. 

And then go do it. 

So have you already written the material you think you’d like to make, or?

I’m writing a couple of movies right now and any of them could be something I might be able to direct, we’ll see. I always have too many projects at the same time, which is a problem. So I can never, really, fully, devote myself to any one of them—because it’s always a mad dash to finish a bunch of things. 

How does that come about – is that ambition? Or self-destruction? Or that you’re getting so many offers to do stuff?

I think I’m afraid of being out of work. So I constantly generate projects, and I say yes to a lot of things, that I like. And I get offers sometimes that are nice or something, and sometimes I just generate my own things. I constantly wanna be--- I’m also, I may be a bit ADD. It requires me to have other things on my mind. It helps if I have one project to do if I’m also occasionally thinking about something else, so that my mind isn’t always concentrated on the one thing – so I can go back and forth. 

Do you find you get distracted by all the Facebook and Twitter and websites – are you one of them or ---

Oh absolutely. My phone, and texts and games and ‘Words with Friends’ –

‘Words With Friends’ is the worst. 

I have the ability to waste time doing just about anything. Deadlines are really helpful to me. 

So you need them set externally do you think? 

Yes. It definitely helps. 

So – the pilot you’re working on right now. Can you tell me anything about it, or have you got to keep it under wraps at the moment? 

It’s about a guy who is raising his nephew – they’re like, an odd couple, where the uncle is Oscar and the nephew is Felix. 


So they’re an odd couple--- the kid is super-smart and the uncle is somewhat stunted in his maturity—that’s the basic story. It’s for Nickelodeon, they’re starting night-time adult programming, for Nick at Nite. 

It's a 22 minute sitcom?

22 minute sitcom for adults, yeah. 

Do you think sitcoms have changed a lot in recent years? Looking back now at like ‘Frasier’, ‘Friends’ and, or – ‘Seinfeld’, I still love them and they’re still hilarious but that feels like an old style of sitcom now, do you think it’s changing somewhat? 

Well --- I’m trying to think. What’s the new style? ‘Big Bang Theory’? I think they’re just new shows, not new styles. ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is basically the same tempo as ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’. They had lots and lots and lots of different scenes. Lots of short scenes. And ‘Big Bang Theory’ does that. 

‘Modern Family’, which is a single-camera sitcom, is very sitcom-y, by some of the people that made ‘Frasier’ – and it’s very funny and smart. I’m trying to think of how it’s different in essence from something like ‘Father Knows Best’ which was 60 years ago. 

Maybe it hasn’t, I don’t know. It’s just a sense I got – that I thought I’d just throw out there and see what you think. 

I think references change, looks change, tones change. The essence of what it is kind of stays the same. I think sitcoms roll out of favour sometimes and come back into favour. People get bored, it becomes predictable. But eventually, when good acting and good writing come together, y’know hopefully people will show up and watch it. 

Definitely, yeah.

But not always. 

So what are you up to today – working? Writing? 

I’m waiting for the notes from the network on the last cut of my pilot. And then today should be the day we lock it! 


And then we start to put the post-production effects, sounds, colours---- and format it so it looks like a real TV show – so then we send it back to the network and they put it in front of a test audience.

That was the end of the interview. We continued speaking for a few minutes about Jay's questionable 'Words with Friends' tactics (I won't share them here, as they may harm his reputation). I'll keep you up to date in coming months with Jay's sitcom and any news of the feature films that he seems destined to direct. Exciting! 

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