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Alison Flierl (Bojack Horseman) on Comedy – LondonSWF2020

Having written for Bojack HorsemanSchool of Rock, and Conan, you may be surprised to learn that one of Alison Flierl’s favourite shows remains her no-budget webseries called TV Guide Letter Theater – specifically the episode featuring a musical ode to NCIS. After watching an episode, I can see why: It’s impossible not to laugh as the “TV Guide viewers” parade out, singing their reactions to the show, with gems like: “I didn’t know there were so many navy crimes!”

The London Screenwriters’ Festival Interviewer Bob Schultz (still grinning gleefully as the clip ended), chimes in, “I feel like you guys were ahead of your time – making dry commentary on the commentary on the commentary.”

She laughs and agrees they were “very meta.” Even then, Flierl’s “voice” was strong. The entire first season was made for only $100 – and yet its fans went on to include two of the executive producers at Netflix (the studio behind Bojack). It brings home a point she made several times during the course of her session:

“The smallest thing can get you into bigger opportunities. You can find material anywhere. Get some pizza, get friends, and make something funny!”

Alison is living proof that it’s not a straight path to a successful screenwriting career – an idea she’s devoted her podcast to. In 2 Degrees of Alie, she interviews fellow Hollywood chums on their routes to the top.

So how does one follow in her footsteps?

“Learn to trust your voice. In a writer’s room you also have to learn to pitch with confidence. It took me a while to say, ‘I’m a writer’ – even though I’m not a shy person.” 

Good to know ‘imposter syndrome’ can affect someone even as confident as Alison. So how do you move beyond that? By getting a little help from your friends, of course! She recommends taking improv and doing stand-up.

“Creating your community is so important. Standup, improv – finding people whose opinions you trust, who make you laugh, who you want to get notes from – it’s really important to the writing process.”

For her, a key part of that community is her writing partner Scott Chernoff. They met while working on Conan and developed the TV Guide Letter Theater together.

Bob asks, “Tell us what it’s like writing with a partner?”

She laughs, “It’s a bit like marriage… In the beginning if we weren’t on a show, we would write at my house, on the couch, with Final Draft up on the big TV, both sitting there, bouncing off. But as we progressed, life got more complicated as we both had kids.” She pauses and adds impishly, “separately”  before continuing, “now we break it down more.”

That means dividing the workload by act or scene. But still, they go through it together several times prior to handing it in, acting it out, seeing what makes them laugh. All of this “a little harder right now with the pandemic,” she says ruefully.

Bob points out, “In the last 15 to 20 minutes we’ve been talking, you mentioned it’s important to make YOU laugh, not the audience… How do you decide what’s funny?”

“Different people are going to like different things. I have a good idea of when jokes work, but comedy is a weird place and hard to predict… I’ve hopefully been good at not falling in love with my own joke and overusing it. The best jokes come out of character.”

With advice like that, no one will be asking you “why the long face?”

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Chris Lang’s Unforgotten Gobbets – LondonSWF2020

You may know Chris Lang as the creator and writer behind the breakaway hit Unforgotten, described by the Telegraph as “the most watchable cop drama on TV.”

You may know his prolific body of work, writing and creating over 85 hours of original prime time drama.

However, for the attendees of the 2020 Online London Screenwriters’ Festival, he’s known for a single word: “gobbets.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Rachel Patterson interviewed him during a session titled “Forensic Analysis of a Criminally Successful Career.” He initially trained as an actor, then got his start writing comedy alongside Hugh Grant (yes, really!), but it took him 10 years to transition to drama – something he regrets:

Q: Does training as an actor make you a better writer?

A: My desire to be an actor speaks to the same desire in me that led me to being a writer – an interest in telling stories. You could spend 50 years learning to be a writer and you’ll need every one of them. If I have any regrets, it’s that I wish I’d started writing drama sooner and believed in myself more.

Q: A debate rages among new writers over whether or not to try and get on continuing dramas like Casualty, do you have an opinion? 

A: A strong opinion. It would be insane to think you could go into making your own original series without first training on a show like that. It’s like flying hours, you need to get them under your belt. They teach you structure, character, dialogue, holding an audience – and all within a fairly benign situation.

Q: Unforgotten has the stories of four suspects in the present, their stories in the past, then the investigation, and the investigators living their own lives. How do you keep track of it all? 

A: A writer never creates a show like Unforgotten with a fully formed idea – it’s an evolving process.

For Chris, that process starts with a four or five page treatment outlining the core ideas, themes, and characters, and plot of the investigation. Then the hard part begins: structuring the series. He’s got a great way of mapping it out one thread at a time – but I’ll leave that for you to discover by watching!

Chris’s pitches can be seen in action on his website.

Q: How do you balance the elements of mystery without it becoming needlessly cryptic?

A: Ask a question and don’t answer it right away. Charles Dickens said, “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” That’s one of my credos: make them wait.

Finally, with only minutes left in his session, he was asked that dreaded question that has plagued most (though not all, it seems) writers throughout time:

Q: Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

A: No. I am unusually – and perhaps dislikeably – confident in my ability to write something on a daily basis. Stop beating yourself up. It’s perfectly okay to write drivel!

The words that followed eclipsed Chris’s advice thus far: “Literally all I do all day long is throw gobbets of ideas – half formed – at a screen – and then some of the gobbets stick and I think – I can attach something to that… and everything you attach fleshes it out, and it starts to become more than just a gobbet – it starts to become an idea.”

One of my fellow attendees said, “If there could be a vaccine against writer’s block, this would surely be it.” I agree. It’s like someone gave me the cheat code to the game of writing. I don’t have to write 60 pages, or even five. Somehow that alleviates the feeling of hopeless frustration that can spring up in this oddly isolated world, when I’ve got “free time” and yet can’t manage to fill that blank page. I may not be able to write a proper scene – but I can write a bit of drivel.

So go forth fellow scribes, hurl your gobbets at your screen and see what sticks. Flesh them out, and if you’re very lucky, they will start to become more than gobbets. They will become ideas.