Can stars also be showrunners?
December 11, 2012 11:15 AM   Subscribe

For TV shows like The Mindy Project or 30 Rock, where the creator is also the star, to what extent is the creator involved in the writing? Do they split the job of showrunner with someone else or are they not in the writer's room at all? If there is a showrunner, at what point in the pitch process does that person usually get hired?

I know there's probably a lot of variability, but I'm curious as to what's typical. I'd also be interested in examples of shows with a single creator/star that are dramas rather than comedies.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld to Media & Arts (8 answers total)
From what I've read: there's a lot a variability based on the deal made with the studio and who is hired to run the show after it is "created". Rosanne: A lot influence on the writing. Ray Romano: some influence on the writing given that his buddy was the show-runner and it was based on his life, but he wasn't involved in production. Many many examples of failed sitcoms: star and "creator" just shows up and says the lines.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:28 AM on December 11, 2012

For 30 Rock, Robert Carlock is essentially co-showrunner. For Mindy, Matt Warburton is. In most cases, that person is hired after the show gets picked up to series. During the life of the show, there's usually a pre-production period when the show is not being filmed, as well as production hiatuses throughout the year. Those are critical times because the star can be in the writers' room much more. During production, when the star is on set constantly, it's up to the star and the co-showrunner to create a system that works. Sometimes that means the star just trusts the other person to make big decisions without them, or sometimes that means they work late at night and on weekends - whenever the star is free. It's always very taxing and usually there's a lot of wasted time when the star is acting and the writers can't move forward without them.
posted by malhouse at 11:47 AM on December 11, 2012

It depends on the person and the show.

For example, Lena Dunham has at least a co-writing credit on every episode of the first season of Girls. I'm not sure whether she's technically the "showrunner", mainly because I'm not sure whether the show has a proper writing room. She has Executive Producer credit, but that is virtually meaningless for a show like Girls (Judd Apatow is also Executive Producer, and he neither writes for nor produces the show in a day to day sense).

I seem to recall Tina Fey writing a pretty high number of early 30 Rock episodes, and she definitely wrote the pilot. From her book, she seems to have a high degree of involvement with the writing staff. Though she is not the showrunner. She is not the "co-showrunner", either. That job is called Co-Executive Producer and is a very specific role. She's an Executive Producer who is the series creator, writes some episodes, and has a very high degree of hands on creative control.

My guess is that Mindy Kaling is mostly just a performer but will write some episodes. She's nowhere near qualified to be a showrunner, and that show is of the type that probably does have a traditional writers' room.

It's always very taxing and usually there's a lot of wasted time when the star is acting and the writers can't move forward without them.

This is silly. TV is all about hurrying up and then waiting. There is TONS of down time for stuff like hammering out dialogue or getting approvals on stuff. 90% of the time, the actors are acting very nearby the place that the writers are writing. In TV, too, the writer of the episode being filmed is likely to be on set during filming. Additionally, cell phones, laptops, and iPads exist, and all these people have assistants who can keep lines of communication flowing. There is no wasted time sitting around waiting for the star of a show (whether writerly or not) to weigh in on a creative decision.
posted by Sara C. at 11:23 PM on December 11, 2012

If there is a showrunner, at what point in the pitch process does that person usually get hired?

I think this is something else that will depend on the show. I mean, if the creator isn't the showrunner.

Usually, this person is not on board in a "showrunning" capacity during the pilot production. There's no need for a showrunner on a pilot since there's no writing staff.

I worked on a pilot where the creator pretty much knew he was going to be showrunner. I worked on a series where the creator was not really involved and instead a showrunner was brought in for production of the series. I just recently did a pilot where I'm not sure what's going to happen if the show gets picked up, because the series creator is really inexperienced. There was not a showrunner waiting in the wings during the pilot phase, to my knowledge, and unless that information is kept secret even from the writer's assistant (me), there was not a silent proto-showrunner involved in developing the show.

For a series created by a writer/performer, probably the producers start looking for a day to day showrunner early in the process, because that's a role they'll definitely have to fill, and that person is going to need to hire all the rest of the writers and get a season's worth of scripts written pretty quickly. Showrunners run the writers' room. They don't necessarily pitch the series, develop it, cast it, etc. If you're bringing in someone who isn't the creator, you want to do it early on, but not so early on that you don't know if you'll ever have a writers' room to run.
posted by Sara C. at 11:33 PM on December 11, 2012

Sara C., I am a professional TV writer. I promise you that everything I have said is 100% correct.
posted by malhouse at 11:54 AM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

First of all, Co-Executive Producer does not mean co-showrunner. Many shows have several Co-EPs that do not have anything close to showrunner duties. Co-EP usually signifies a high level writer on the staff, it does not necessarily mean anything beyond that.

Mindy was an EP on the office for a season and she wrote over 20 episodes. She is definitely not "mostly just a performer." She's qualified to be a showrunner. The only problem is that she has to act a lot of the time. Which means, like I said, pre-production, after hours, and weekends become crucial.

There is plenty of downtime when acting, but the reason that still leads to wasted time is that a lot of high level writing decisions require one or more hours of attention. If the writers want to pitch an episode they've broken, that's already about 15-20 minutes. Then if the star/creator/EP has notes, that's anywhere from 10 minutes to hours in order to fix it. And say a rewrite of a table draft takes place. The writers might be done with the rewrite but they certainly can't lock it without a showrunner's signoff, which requires reading it, thinking about it, making notes... meaning, hours of downtime. Sure, there are things the writers can do while they wait, like coming up with story ideas, but that often feels like barely more than busywork.

Also, creatively, a lot of showrunners simply don't like the work that was done when they weren't in the room. So a writing staff might want to move forward on something but they find that it's pointless because they know the showrunner will just scrap most of it.
posted by malhouse at 12:08 PM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

To clarify, I meant that Mindy Kaling's role on The Mindy Project will probably be mostly as a performer but that she may write some episodes. I'd be surprised if she had the relationship with the writers' room that Tina Fey has had on 30 Rock, merely because Tina ran the SNL writers' room for many years.

I'm not a super-fan of The Office, and I know it was on for a long ass time so I could be really mistaken about this, but my guess is that Kaling was made EP as a contractual thing, not because she was ever the showrunner.
posted by Sara C. at 12:19 PM on December 12, 2012

She was never the showrunner of The Office, but being the EP still exposes you to enough production-level duties that you are qualified to be showrunner (or as qualified as possible for someone who has not been showrunner before).

Mindy makes the final story and script approvals for The Mindy Project.
posted by malhouse at 12:22 PM on December 12, 2012

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