It’s hard to pin down a veteran executive producer in Hollywood, let alone one who’s a five-time Jeopardy winner with a semi-photographic memory.
Jonathan Groff—a veteran showrunner who has worked on half-hour comedies like Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, and Happy Endings—might be the only person in Hollywood who fits that very narrow intersection on a Venn diagram.
Groff currently works at ABC, but he started his career in live comedy before working his way up on shows like Short Attention Span Theater and Late Night with Conan O’Brien (where he quickly became head writer). Since then, more than one major studio has hired Groff for an overall development deal (a long term contract with a studio), which are becoming increasingly rare in the industry. In a world where the executives are happy to let more and more writers become freelancers, Groff has proven himself to be a guy to keep in your pocket.
Only a few days after the news dropped that he will be an executive producer on not one but two upcoming pilots (DINKs and The 40’s), I sat down with Groff to talk about what it’s like to be a showrunner, and to dissect the method behind the madness of doing one of Hollywood’s toughest jobs.
Pete D’Alessandro [PD]: Can you tell me exactly what a showrunner does?
Jonathan Groff [JG]: A showrunner is basically the creative CEO of a television show. You’re involved in everything…There’s a line producer, who is usually the person that is the boots on the ground, to use an overused expression. But the showrunner works closely with that producer and is in charge of anything creative—hiring all the creative department heads, approving the list of directors, hiring the writers. You’re also the head writer of the show, generally speaking. Everything in television starts with the writing—it’s a truism, but it’s a writer-driven media. It’s a pipeline and it needs to be fed. That can only happen if the writers are in charge of it all, so certainly [being] a head writer is the biggest part of the showrunner’s job.
Another part—and a lot of writers aren’t built to do this—is interacting with the network. Dealing with your cast. There’s a captain of the ship mentality. The buck stops with you.
PD: What's a typical day like in the life of a showrunner?
JG: A typical showrunner’s day might begin with—for a series that’s in production—stopping by the set in the morning, before the other writers are even in the writers’ room. Typically, you’re the writer who’s on the set early, although the writer who wrote that particular episode is always on set. You check to make sure the first scene of the day is going well. If you’re really committed, you’re there for the rehearsal of the first scene of every episode, every Monday—which I usually was. You get to meet with the director for that episode and get the week off to a good start. Other days, you come in and go straight to the writers’ room and stop by the set when you can.
You read an outline for an episode that’s shooting a month or so away, and then the writers come in and you instruct them on what you want them to get done that day.
You might be rewriting an episode for two hours, and meanwhile running rehearsals for a scene or talking to an actor who isn't happy with the way the scene is shaping up. Meanwhile the costume designer needs you to approve a final outfit, or the casting director needs you to make a decision about an actor so that the wardrobe department get can measurements for that actor. Or you might need to watch casting. If you’re really lucky, you might get to watch casting for a big, big part, like for a five episode arc on the show as somebody’s boyfriend. You really want to be there, so you take an hour of your time for that.
Then you have to get a cut turned around to the studio for an episode that’s going to be airing soon, so you spend an hour or so editing at lunchtime. Then you go back to the writers’ room and the writers are working on a story. They pitch it to you, and you don’t love some of it so you have to spend an hour in [the writers’ room]. Ultimately, the bulk of your time is eaten up in the writers’ room—doing a rewrite or giving notes on an outline.
PD: It takes a lot of really smart people, who are working really hard, a lot of time and resources to make a show. Why do some shows fail?
JG: There are a shocking number of really smart people working in this business. I don’t know who to attribute this quote to. When you see something bad, you say to yourself, “Just remember, it took a lot of really smart people an incredible amount of time and a lot of hard work to do something this bad.” It happens a lot.
I think a lot of it is that everything has to line up. You can make a really good show, and then the audience just doesn’t stick around. Or the audience doesn’t respond to it. Then there are shows where the writing is great, but the actors aren’t that good. Or it didn’t really get good until the audience stopped paying attention. Or you are saddled with an initially bad premise, and [the show] could never escape from that. I think that happens in television a lot.
On Happy Endings, the initial premise of the pilot, which [creator] David Caspe had used to sell the show, was this blown-up wedding that we would flash back to. We would mislead the audience in the cold open into thinking the show was about this guy who was racing to the altar on rollerblades, and he steals Elisha Cuthbert away. And all of a sudden you turn the camera around and you realize you’re supposed to be following the guy who’s left at the altar, not the guy who stole the girl away. Then the story is about “Can they keep the friendship together?”
I love our pilot, but we actually ended up losing that first cold opening with the fake guy because the audience hated it. Even though that was the hook that sold the show. Sometimes what sells a show is the thing you end up having to distance yourself from once you start making the show. Because getting the show on the air is different than getting people to tune into a pilot.
PD: Are there any rules to running a show?
JG: One of the biggest rules is that “the perfect can be the enemy of the good.” It’s an old cliché, but as I get older, I find that a lot of these clichés are clichés for a reason: because they work. And that really is a big one. Maybe there are a bunch of jokes that aren’t necessarily the jokes that you would have done, but you can tell they’re really funny. As long as its not a huge insult to your taste, you want [your staff] to feel empowered and heard.
Secondly, you could spend so much time in a story or in a scene that it could hurt the overall quality of all the other shows you have to make. That’s really where it becomes the enemy of the good. You try to make one little thing perfect, and all of a sudden you make a kind of crappy episode a few weeks later, because you didn’t spend enough time fixing the story on that episode.
You have to keep moving. At some point, you have to realize that it’s a television show and it’s not pediatric neurosurgery—where you really better get it right. If it’s entertaining and people have a good time watching it while they’re making their kids’ lunches and surfing the internet, then you’ve done your job.
Part of being a really good showrunner is delegating and trusting the people around you, whom you hired. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do your final pass to make sure that things work in line with your show. Over and over, I hear about shows where the showrunners don’t communicate with the writing staff. The showrunner is in a star chamber where the writers never really know what’s going on. The writers feel kind of alienated. It’s important to keep people feeling looped in as much as you can.
PD: Do you think you personally have certain qualities or skills that make you a more capable showrunner?
JG: I think the best kind of smarts to have aren’t necessarily just brains, but more social intelligence. I ran my college radio station my junior and senior year of college. It was a big commercial radio station with a big commercial license, and we were losing money. We had to come up with a plan. There were a bunch of people who all wanted to save the station, but they couldn’t agree on how to accomplish that. Trying to build consensus is a skill that I still draw on, and I think that’s very analogous to figuring out what a season of a show is going to be like. We all want this to be good. We all know these characters. We all know what’s funny. We all have different opinions. How do we value everyone’s opinions, but also get things done?
It’s like what a manager does on a baseball team. Not everybody has flat-out foot speed and can hit for power and field and has an amazing throwing arm. But if you do two or three out of those things really well, how do I allocate your resources?
PD: What makes your job easier?
JG: One, when you have an unbelievable cast that can atone for mistakes in writing or shortcomings. They just take it to another level, or they improv another joke. They give a twist to a line and add to it. That makes your job easy.
[Another] thing is when you have people that you hired, whom you trust, and they deliver.
What really makes your job easy is when you find that “thing” for a character that helps you write that character. [In Happy Endings,] there’s a joke in the pilot where Dave sleeps with some girl at a dance club. And Jane says, “He slept with her on the sheets we gave you for the wedding? How do you get slut of Egyptian cotton?” It was like, “That was what she was thinking about?” It was a moment when Jane crystallized.
PD: What makes your job harder?
JG: Actors being late and unprepared. Writers who pitch problems—and not solutions. Network mishandling of a show. Wrong time slot. Moving things around on the schedule. The problem is that you’re still in production and people get disheartened.
There are some people who’ve done my job, which is to come in on a pilot with a newer writer, and just assume because [the new writer doesn’t] know anything that they have to be subjugated a little bit. You need to strike the balance between teaching them and mentoring them, while also trying to safeguard what’s special about what they do. Sometimes the relationship is kind of adversarial, and I give a lot of credit on Happy Endings to [creator] David Caspe, who was really smart about what he didn’t know, but also really confident and dogged about what he did know and was really good at. He had that unique personality where you can say, “Show me the ropes, but this is still my show. I still know what I want.”
David, to his credit, really partnered with me and said, “This is our show.” Someone in his position could think, “You’re here to take away my show.” At the same time, someone in my position could think “Your name is on it, but you don’t know what you’re doing.” Neither of those will work—so luckily there was a good marriage, [which] made it work. It doesn’t always work that way.