Who Taught Them Everything They Know? Writers

welcome, Emmy winning showrunner of Veep, David Mandel
and writer, producer, actor from the League and
Veep, Paul Scheer. (crowd applauding) Hi. Hello. Hello. Well this is gonna
be a fun night. I know you know a
little bit about it but we’re gonna be
talking about how people got started, who mentored them. And I have to say Dave,
like your career… Thank you for
mentoring me, Paul. You know, you
learned a lot. No, really, everything
I know, this man. Thank you. That’s why I
brought you out here. And I’m glad to be
here to talk about all the experience
I gave to Dave. You have like the best comedy
career that you can look at. It’s television. My movie work
is horrific. (laughing) Well we’ll focus
on TV, right? Thank you, god
bless, yeah. Saturday Night Live,
to Seinfeld, to Curb. And now you’re
show running Veep. These are all like seminal,
seminal comedy shows. And anyone who’s ever
worked in comedy knows that it’s kind of a scary
space to get into. And you can kind
of be eaten alive. And you’ve kind of worked
at the hardest places and only come out seemingly
stronger for it. Well. No, I mean, you know
the good news is I was always a fan of every
place I’ve ever been I guess I was really
lucky enough to be a huge fan of the show. You know most of those
shows were things I kind of joined in process. So that’s definitely sort
of a pattern if you will in my career. I’m joining these things
that I was already just a huge fan of and
yet despite that I guess I never went into
it worrying like how am I gonna do it? Which I don’t maybe
it was just stupid. Well no, because I think,
well you also come from this background like
you graduated Harvard, you were in the like
prestigious Harvard lampoon. It was like the who’s who
of comedy has come out of the Harvard lampoon and
so I also feel like that gives you a little
bit of, not an ego but you come in knowing
like you’re good right? The thing because obviously
look, people are interested in this and people
know about the lampoon I think people fall into
two categories which is oh another lampoon guy or
at worst kind of F you all you lampoon guys. It’s sort of like well why
do you think you should have jobs and what not? And what I’ve always
tried to explain is first of all nobody should
be just given a job obviously but what I will say is
being in the lampoon was kind of like being
in a writer’s room for a couple of years
before I was ever in a writer’s room and
what I mean by that is, bad ideas you got the
shit kicked out of you and you were sort of made
fun of and those ideas were sort of hung
around your neck for like four years later,
remember that terrible joke? Much like being in a
writer’s room and so, coming, basically I
graduated from college having the experience
of having learned to I have to think of
that other joke. The joke that not
everyone can think of. Whether it was sort of
like comedy alpha dog or just a fear of I don’t
wanna be made fun of, it sort of forced that
next level of thinking and that’s truly what the
lampoon, I mean the lampoon is not a mentor but what it
sort of produces within you. It takes you out of that
place of writing by
yourself. Yes very much so. It puts you with
like minded people. I mean I’m sure it’s like
being in a great group or something. It puts you with like
minded people that you can do stuff with but honestly
you do kick the shit out of each other in a good way. Yeah and then I
also feel like, you know I come from the
Upright Assistance Brigade and we all kind of
support each other and kind of move up and
one of your first jobs was like a Lampoon
like, Comedy Central like a mocumentary. Right which if you
again hate the Lampoon this is not gonna make you
any happier which was the Lampoon did a
television project. This would have been and
again now you’re gonna hate this also, this
would have been between my junior
and senior years, a summer project. That’s exactly. The Lampoon had had
a history of doing like magazine parodies
and this was their first TV parody and it was
called MTV give me back my life, a Harvard
Lampoon parody. It was a fake 10th anniversary
documentary of MTV and what it was made by the
brand new Comedy Central ’cause there had been Ha
and the Comedy Channel. And like Time Warner was losing
10 million dollars a year and like Viacom was
losing 10 million dollars a year and they said what
if we make one place that we each lost only
five million dollars each? And just to really date myself it was like to get Comedy
Central you had to like pay an extra $2.43 to
your cable company. It wasn’t just on the dial. So it was the show that
nobody ever got to see but I got down to Comedy
Central in New York. A bunch of us wrote it
up in Massachusetts and then actually Jeff
Schaffer and Alec Berg you know who were also my
longtime writing partners, we went down to New
York and they slept on my parent’s floor and we
basically then produced the
show. And what was truly incredible
just to go back to it was we walked in the first day
and in an office there at Comedy Central acting
as sort of a I guess Comedy conciliary to
the whole network, but this project
also was Al Franken. And I worked with
Al on that project and then the following summer
he hosted comedy coverage of the democratic and
republican conventions, brought me back for
that, and then really definitely on the
list of my mentors. Just talking about
that ’cause Al Franken obviously had a huge impact
on Saturday Night Live on camera. He was like one of those
writers that was, you knew he was a writer
and he was a performer and when you come in
and work with him are you a little
bit in awe of him? I was fully in awe. I mean I was that kid
was desperately trying to stay up on Saturday nights. I had, they did in like
1979, they did this Saturday Night Live script
book that looked like a real book of the
script of the show. The Hill and Winegar,
I mean I was a real comedy nerd too. Backstage at Saturday
Night Live so I knew all of the Franken
and Davis stories, you know how they got
hired by Lore and all that kind of stuff and
I knew their sketches. Like Nixon the Final Days
sketch and what not, so to sort of meet him,
not just befriend him but also like you
know work with him and really just started
honestly from day one, I mean just start
learning from him. It was kind of amazing. Like I mean and
that’s the thing. I feel like did you find
that you were like minded or was it just sort of
like, what do you think attracted the fact that he
brought you to the next thing? We definitely had just I
think like a real similarity of like kind of
comedy taste I guess. We laughed at a lot
of the same stuff and one thing that Al
did that I treasure to this day and I
think about it a lot. Al, there are shows
where you hear like it’s a really funny show and
people are just miserable. It’s like a comedy coal mine. They’re just, they’re in
there and they’re just making themselves sick
working for like an hour on a line or something. And Al was certainly
prepared to do the work but Al laughed, he
laughed at your stuff, his stuff, he was
not afraid to laugh while he was working and it
was a real sort of like, again, I was like that but
didn’t know you could be like that and it just
sort of opened things up in a really wonderful way. Well it makes
it playful. I always am confused about
why is it miserable when you’re making comedy? It’s not gonna make good
comedy when everyone’s just staring at their laptops. It’s that thing of like
oh, and it’s just like no. And by the way, I do
that too sometimes but the idea of laughing
at it was wonderful and he was really the first
guy, more than anyone I’d ever been around that
was absolutely fearless and I don’t know maybe we
can sort of now sit here and go his fearlessness
with that joke is sort of the trouble. But I guess I’ll
simply say to myself, anyone who knows Al really
well, I keep hitting my mic, I’m sorry, just like,
he was not afraid to make himself look terrible. There was a fearlessness as
opposed to sort of mild, milk toast kind of like,
I don’t wanna offend. Al was very happy to
offend in a wonderful way. He basically got fired
from Saturday Night Live because he was ripped on
the president of MBC. Yeah, what’s
Fred Silverman. Like just ripping him
continually week after week so when Lauren left he was like
Al Franken should take over and Fred Silverman’s like no. But I mean that’s ballsy to do. Al wrote a sketch once, he
had been on spring break, I don’t think it aired,
I’m trying to remember, I really don’t think
it would air. We definitely took it to dress. He had like some horrific
experience in a rental car place with like Budget rent a
car and so it was like we did this sketch and he
wrote it, I did not write it. It was him, it was
like Budget rent a car and the whole sort of
joke was about the fact that clearly he had
had a bad experience on this spring break and
was using his position as a Saturday Night Live
writer to basically shit on them. And just that was Al in
a really wonderful way. So Al brings you in
Saturday Night Live now and Saturday Night Live
is this other monster. This is this, you know you
go from one institution which is Lampoon to this
other hallowed hall which is SNL. What year are you in SNL? I was there 92 to 95 which
was sort of the tail end of like Dana Carvey, Phil
Hartman and the rise of Sandler, Farley,
Spade, those guys. That was a great time
to kind of be there. Sandler, Farley,
Spade, those guys. You had Dana doing
Ross Perot and Bush and you had Phil doing
Clinton and actually one of the big sketches Al
and I wrote together was Clinton jogging into
McDonalds and explaining Somalia as he eats stuff. You know warlords as
he eats the stuff and yeah, I got to
write that with him. Yeah and I feel like SNL,
I always hear the idea is you live and die by the
table read to a certain extent and you know and sort of
you get that respect by those things and so when
you’re at SNL Jim Downey is a big figure there. Jim Downey, longtime I
guess first head writer, than producer and all
that kind of stuff. By the way, another Lampoon
guy, is that yellow already? I’m sorry, I’ll go
as quick as I can. Jim Downey and this is
with my other mentors Al, Larry David, who maybe we’ll
get to, maybe we won’t. We’ll get one
thing about Larry. LarJim Downey is the’ll
funniest human being on the face of the earth. I don’t know how else to say
this and I told the story in a book once which is
working with Jim Downey was like the way like
chess masters play chess where they like don’t
even need the board. Like where they’re
like 40 moves ahead and I remember watching him,
I always tell the story, I hope I haven’t told it
to all of these people. We were writing a sketch,
John Malkovich was the host and we did a sketch
cause he had kind of a funny looking
face in a good way and he looked like on of
the Menendez brothers. So we did him and Rob Schneider
as the Menendez brothers. This is the early
days of Court TV and the joke, the idea
was that their defense was that there were two
here to four other unknown Menendez brothers who had
been locked in a basement and done the killing,
had done the murder. And what they would do is
they were sitting like this and they would go where are
these other Menendez brothers? We’re gonna go get them and
they would get up and leave the court room and they would
come back and switch sides and say I’m Jose Jr
and Alfredo Menendez and you’re not just the other
two Menendez brothers? Uh no we are not. And the whole time the Cairon
is just trying to keep up with this story and I
sat in there with Jim at like four in the morning
and I swear he was just dictating it. We weren’t writing it. He was just, it was like the
sketch had been performed and he was just like, like
if you watched it on TV and were telling someone
how to write it down. And just so many of the
things on Saturday Night Live are because of Jim and
just styles of comedy too. And this may be hard
to kind of distill but what do you think
you took from him? There’s a thing that Jim
did and sorry I’m trying to because I’m so nervous
they’re gonna pull us off the stage. There’s a sketch I’m
sure everybody knows which is, and I wasn’t there
for it but it’s a Jim Downey sketch that I always loved. By the way, he’s the change
and I think he wrote that and that’s just pure Jim Downey. Just sort of the repetition
of the nonsense. He used to say about
commercial parodies it was non-existent problem and
then like not good solution. Like a bad solution for
a non-existent problem. But he did, you guys know
Farley as the Chippendale dancer auditioning
with Patrick Swayze? Yeah. The Jim Downey part of that
is as they’re doing that, it’s the fact that as
they’re all watching Farley how often they like are
writing notes down and almost like really
thinking about it and then the incredibly long
explanation of how much better looking Patrick
Swayze is and that’s why. And it’s that kind of
a joke that I sort of took forward, from
Jim Downey yeah. Well and to kind of just
move us forward a little. Yeah Larry. So you go from Seinfeld,
so you go from Saturday Night Live to Seinfeld. Now at what point do
you join Seinfeld? This would have been in 95,
so this would have been what was Larry’s last season. So the season that ended
with Susan dying. So George gets engaged at the
beginning of the season. So one with Larry, two without. Wow that’s really, ’cause
at that point again, Seinfeld is the juggernaut,
this huge show. I was watching it and
again, lucky enough Seinfeld is the juggernaut,
to be the fan of it too. I know that the writer’s
room there is very different than any other writer’s room. It was honestly not
a writer’s room which was also a really
than and that’s somethingoom. I have very much taken
forward which is like Larry really taught
me that individual writers on a show should have a
responsibility for their episode meaning on Seinfeld, on
my episode, I was the one pitching the George
story, the Jerry Story, the Elaine story as opposed
to we’re all in a room and it’s your turn to write,
or your turn to write even though I’m the one
that put all four ideas in. Exactly. And so the writer
would write his draft and in a perfect world
bring that draft to table. Now that didn’t always happen. Larry and Jerry
definitely stepped in but that was, they had
not come in the sort of network TV system, therefore
they had no reason to run a show that
way and to this day, I know that’s how
we do the show. And structure, Larry
taught me structure too. We’ll wrap it up, but now
so when you’re putting
together a show, so you’re
basically, your writers, do you let your writers? Basically I mean Veep
obviously has a little bit
more of an ongoing narrative
which obviously we sort of have to kind of stay on top
of a little bit as opposed to just purely episodic, go
off and write an idea. So usually we spend a couple
of weeks sitting around just kind of talking
about overall concepts and we kind of sort of start
to lay them into piles of things and then I really do
try and sort of send that writer off who’s really
kind of hit a certain area more than say another
writer and they’re the ones who are really going off,
taking it to outline, doing the draft and then I’m
working obviously with them sometimes on top of
them or simultaneously but really it’s me and
that individual writer. Now don’t get me wrong, we
will punch up in a room. We will try and make it funnier, but what we’re trying not to
do is create from scratch in a room with group think. Now the purpose of this
method is that you’re sending a writer off and
basically trusting them to sort of outline this thing
to whatever they think it should be and then write
it the way they think it should be and I just
think that’s Larry, that’s pure Larry. That’s amazing and
that is unfortunately all the time that we have. But yeah, thank you so much. And here is a little
video that I don’t know what it’s about, but it’ll
probably be pretty exciting. (laughing) (light guitar music) My father was
my mentor. He had been a sound editor
since the mid fifties and so he had his own company. And I worked there over
the summers when I was in high school I started working
for the WB Network when it first started
and Jamie Telenor saw something in me
that was more than just a freelance set rat and he
really took an interest and made sure that I started
to understand story structure and understand how shows
were put together and the budgets and so forth. I was in hair
school actually and I got this opportunity to
go work at Arena Stage in DC and I was lucky enough to
work with this gentleman named John Atchison who
was a wig master there and he taught me everything
I needed to know in the business. It was like a free
graduate program. For me that was
Mr. Shoemaker. He was my math teacher
at Jefferson High School and he was the coolest. He helped me to find
my way to college and coming from South Central
applying for college and going to school and
he really took lunch time to help me with my applications
and really push me. And by the time I finished my
junior year of high school I finished all the math that
LA Unified had to offer and started class at UCLA. So it really was my entry
way into going to college. (energetic music)

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