Having written for Bojack Horseman, School 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?”