A Conversation with Megan Amram
This week on On Story, The Good Place, Parks & Recreation, and Silicon Valley writer Megan Amram discusses developing characters audiences care about, the emotion behind the humor, and her Emmy-nominated web series, An Emmy for Megan.
- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller
is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."
[multiple voices chattering]
[Narrator] On Story offers a look inside
the creative process from today's leading
writers, creators, and filmmakers.
All of our content is recorded live
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To view previous episodes, visit OnStory.tv.
[Narrator] On Story is brought to you in part
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From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.
A look inside the creative process from today's
leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's On Story,
The Good Place and Parks and Recreation
writer, producer, Megan Amram.
- To me, the most fulfilling type of thing that
I've worked on are these 30-minute shows where
you can really get to know the characters.
And for me personally, I always feel like comedy
is more impactful when you really have spent a lot of time
with the characters that you're watching.
[Narrator] In this episode,
The Good Place and Parks and Recreation
writer, producer, Megan Amram,
discusses developing characters audiences care about,
the emotion behind the humor
and her Emmy nominated web series,
An Emmy for Megan.
- Tell me a little bit about the genesis of
An Emmy for Megan.
- If you haven't heard of this thing I'm doing,
it's going to make literally no sense
and I apologize in advance.
But I'm primarily a television writer
and three years ago, the Television Academy
announced a new category for the Emmys,
which was short form comedy or drama series,
and actress in a short form comedy or drama series.
And I was like,
There can't be that many people applying for that."
So I made a web series
that fulfilled the minimum requirements,
which is six episodes,
at least two minutes long,
which was a rule change because of me,
which I'm happy to go into more detail about.
It is the most impressive thing I've ever done.
Six episodes, you have to be in all of them
and I did force myself
to get nominated for Emmys for those
two years in a row.
[John] Right, it worked.
- It worked sort of.
I didn't win, which of course is the ultimate goal.
- But, yeah.
- But maybe season three.
- I now feel like I have to do it forever
[laughing] which is a problem.
If you follow my social media,
I have a real problem with committing to bits
to the detriment of my health.
Hi, my name is Megan Amram,
but a fictionalized version of myself for this web series.
I was watching the Emmys last year
and there was a category called:
outstanding actress in a short form comedy or drama series.
And I thought to myself,
I could win that.
- It's kind of impossible to tell your story without
talking about your Twitter.
You were one of the first sort of superstars,
if I may say so.
- Thank you.
- And talk a little bit about that.
I mean that was a comedy outlet,
I imagine a great practice.
- I started-- after I graduated college,
one of my friends who is now a writer,
started using Twitter to practice writing
jokes basically, or to essentially have
open mic nights and do jokes for your friends.
And I had not realized that that was a use of it.
- And started doing the same thing.
So truly I just copied him.
And it was a way--
and this again, I had heard from other people
that they were like,
"If you want to be a writer you should write every day."
And so partially because I've always loved the
game of writing short jokes, I started doing this on Twitter,
like 10 years ago at this point.
And amassed a following just because it was
the right time when everyone
started using Twitter to make jokes.
Like truly it feels like a different era
of social media when people
are just being silly and making friends.
And when I first moved to LA, it's like I met a bunch of
my friends who are still my friends because we liked
each other's jokes, which seems really creepy.
But you can kind of tell people's sensibilities
based on what they talk about.
And for my first--
not just my first few writing jobs,
but even now when I meet with people,
they often know me from my writing.
They're, on the outside, I think people who are writers
from different generations would be like,
"Why are you giving this all away for free?"
-Right. -And my thought at the time
was like, "Okay, if you write enough for free,
you'll amass a portfolio,
which then someone will hopefully pay you
to do this job for."
And that's sort of how it worked out for me
and a lot of different people.
- That's one of the things I really find
fascinating and awesome about your career is you've written
so many different kinds of comedy.
I mean you've done shorter fiction for New Yorker,
you've done sketch shows, you've done award shows.
- I'm very grateful that I've been able to bounce around
from that because also, working in different media,
I think makes you better at the stuff
you really want to be doing.
- But again for me it's a way to continue working forward
in the same career while also
doing different stuff all the time.
And then you're not bored.
Not that I'd be bored working on the same type of TV show
but sketch is really fun.
I really like working--
so after Kroll Show I got hired on Parks and Rec
with all of my best buds
and it was such a dream come true
because that was my favorite show before I got hired on it.
And to me the most fulfilling type of thing I've worked on
are these 30-minute shows where you can really get to
know the characters.
And for me personally, I always feel like comedy is
more impactful when you really have spent a lot of time
with the characters that you're watching.
- Walk me through sort of writing an episode of Parks
and how that--
- Yeah, So the creator of Parks and Rec who also showran
that show and then also created and showran another show
I wrote for The Good Place , is named Mike Schur,
who I cannot say enough amazing things about,
to the extent that I'll seem creepy.
But he's also a really good teacher,
which just because you're a showrunner,
it doesn't necessarily mean you
know how to manage people or know how to help
greener writers figure out what's going on.
And that's a very delicate skill I think
because a showrunner is the person usually
who created the show,
is the head writer of the show,
but then also ends up being the manager of every single thing
that happens in it.
And it takes a rare individual to be able to do all those
things really well.
But I think he can.
So luckily at Parks and Rec
there was a lot of different levels of writers.
So there were people who'd been there forever
and there were new people who we all sort of
learned the ropes at the same time.
I started at Parks and Rec with this writer and comic,
Joe Mande, who's a hilarious standup
and I've worked with him at every show that I've worked on,
which is great.
But we, on that show, would spend the first couple of months
of the year sketching out what was going to happen
over the whole season.
Then we'd start actually writing episodes
and usually your showrunner would assign episodes
based on the individual writer's talents or interests.
I wrote an episode
the last season of Parks and Rec
about William Henry Harrison because Mike was like,
"Megan's really weird and has a lot of very specific
interests and information."
And I was like, "Yeah, that sounds right."
So I wrote about like a William Henry Harrison Museum
in Indiana, which was very interesting,
if you guys want to hear more about that.
- William Henry Harrison is totally ridiculous.
They can't even fill a small museum with real stuff
about his life because he was so lame.
The If He'd Worn a Coat Room explores how great
America would have been if Harrison had worn a coat
at his inauguration,
and not died.
This room is called Other Things That Were Famous For One Month.
Oh and side note, admission to this museum costs $14.
And while you're here, why not visit the other
famous Harrison's exhibit.
- One of my favorite things about being a TV writer
rather than a film writer is that
by the time an episode gets to your television,
I like the feeling that no one knows who wrote what joke,
that it was so collaborative that--
I mean some writers keep a little closer brag.
I'm just like, "We all wrote all of them."
But I find that collaboration amazing.
And also when you say half of a joke
and someone else says the other half
and then it comes together and it's great, I was like,
I never would've been able to think of that on my own.
- One of your favorite episodes that you worked on there
was "Ron and Diane". - Oh, yeah.
- Tell me a little bit about why that was such a
favorite for you.
- "Ron and Diane" was very fun.
It was my first episode of Parks and Rec that I wrote
and it also was like a Christmas,
it was a crazy episode
where Ron was at a woodworking awards show,
which already is very silly in retrospect.
And then it had Lucy Lawless playing his new girlfriend
and Megan Mullally as his ex-wife, who is so funny,
and Amy Poehler trying to run interference between them.
And then he played saxophone at the end of it.
- It was like, to me, everything that made
Parks and Rec great, which is like really zany,
but somehow you really cared about everything
that was going on.
- Hopefully at the time.
And just like everyone having a lot of fun.
- Welcome to the Indiana Fine Woodworking Awards,
or as I like to call it heaven.
Leslie, may I present Diane Lewis.
Diane, this is Leslie Knope.
Wow, Ron has told me so much about you,
in that he has told me your name is Diane and you exist.
- Oh, yeah.
He's not a big sharer.
I don't even know what his middle name is.
- Oh, it's Ulysses.
- I can see why he didn't tell me that.
- Mary, mother of God.
That's Christian Becksvoort.
He's the modern master of the shaker style.
I never dreamed that I would see him in the flesh.
- Go over and say hello.
- No, I'm sure he gets swamped with attention all the time.
Ooh, if you ladies will excuse me,
there is a jack plane that needs my attention.
[Diane] Go on then.
- Then you go into The Good Place .
- I think made it clear that I will like follow Mike Schur
to the ends of the earth.
And he, a few years ago, got in touch with me and was like,
"I have a new show.
Do you want to come write for it," basically.
And I was like, "Yes," and had no idea what the show was.
- Had not heard anything and I was like, "I don't care.
I'm going to go write for the show."
And we were really close as a writers' room of Parks and Rec
and half of the Parks and Rec writers room
also ended up coming to The Good Place for
either the whole run or for a year at a time or whatever.
So that was also amazing.
It feels really wonderful to be so comfortable around people
because I also find one of the hard things about
sometimes going into a new show
is even if you know people socially,
you don't have that rapport
where you feel comfortable making jokes all the time.
- And I don't even mean like topic, I just mean
you have to feel so comfortable around people to like
take the risks to say dumb things around them.
- So anyway, Mike reached out to me,
asked me if I wanted to write for the show
and then I went and met with him
and was like, "So what's the show?"
And he pitched the basically entire first season,
which, if you've seen The Good Place ,
the premise is that Kristen Bell wakes up
and Ted Danson is sitting at a desk and he's like,
"Hey, what's up?
This is the great retelling of this show.
He's like, "What's up?
"There's a good place and a bad place, but congrats,
you went to the good place."
And she's like, "Cool."
And then it's revealed through the pilot that she was
a really [bleep] person on earth
and that there has been some sort of mistake
and she has a friend who becomes a love interest named Chidi,
who is a philosopher who helps her through this.
And so it's a show where we talk a lot about
philosophy and death.
[John] [laughing] Yes.
- And I was like so excited about that.
- [laughing] Yeah.
- Like instantly, because if there's one thing I like
more than philosophy, it's death.
And yeah, so that room, the show I think,
maintains a lot of the same humor as Parks and Rec ,
which I would describe as sort of like silly and absurd
and generally family friendly.
But it deals with a lot deeper subjects
or subject matter,
which I found very fulfilling as a writer there.
- Maybe my biggest question, am I,
I mean is this...
- Well, it's not the heaven or hell idea
that you were raised on.
But generally speaking,
in the afterlife, there's a good place
and there's a bad place.
You're in the good place.
You're okay, Eleanor.
You're in the good place.
- Well that's good.
- Sure is. [laughs]
Let's take a walk, shall we?
- Yeah, I mean you guys sneak in a lot of heavy
philosophy stuff into a sitcom.
You have a terrific episode on freewill and determinism.
- I would say the philosophy in The Good Place
is like probably a 101 college level.
But I've talked to so many people who watch the show
with their children, which most of it is okay for kids.
- There's one who talks about masturbating all the time.
And I was like, I guess that just, uh--
but yeah, it warms my heart because I was like,
this is a great way to sort of like start
talking about these basic ethical questions.
- But yeah, we get in sort of fights in The Good Place
writers' room because we all had very different opinions
on the things which I also find, not fights,
but like discussions.
- I very much do not believe in free will.
You guys have to come to my panel.
But yeah, it's very interesting.
- What was it like writing for The Good Place with regard to
it reinventing itself every season?
- It's very fun and very hard.
It was like, we constantly would be like,
"Why are we doing this?
"We could have just coasted on season one stories
for so much longer."
But I think the best way to describe The Good Place room
is it was just really exciting because
we were trying to do so many things at once.
That being said, there were days where we were just like
sitting in silence and like couldn't figure out things.
I mean Jeremy Bearimy, the timeline thing,
was a huge problem solver because we wanted to make it
clear why someone could be alive on earth and then
also dead in the afterlife sort of at the same time.
And one of our amazing writers, Josh Siegal,
who also plays Glenn on the show,
just like scribbled Jeremy Bearimy
and he sort of just like had this epiphany,
which was amazing.
And each writer, at some point or another,
had epiphanies like that.
And it's also very exciting when someone has a breakthrough
and is like, "Oh, we should reboot everything all at once,"
I clearly don't ever remember when things happened.
- Who's Jeremy Bearimy.
Things in the afterlife don't happen
while things are happening here
because while time on earth moves in a straight line,
one thing happens,
then the next,
then the next.
Time in the afterlife moves in a Jeremy Bearimy.
- In the afterlife, time doubles back and loops around
and ends up looking something like
This is the timeline in the afterlife,
happens to kind of look like the name Jeremy Bearimy
in cursive English, so that's what we call it.
- Sorry, I...
my brain is melting.
- Yeah, Jeremy Bearimy is an episode I wrote
but is also referring to the timeline of how time works
in the afterlife, which looks like the cursive name,
And I think that's very-- that's a really interesting question
because to me, things are just always a million times funnier
when they are specific because you're like,
this could be real in a different world.
But it's like that much more surprising when you give--
rather than just saying like the timeline in the afterlife
is a bunch of loops,
which is the same descriptive thing.
But it's like it's going to be so much weirder
if we give it like it's lore.
With The Good Place especially,
which is basically a sci-fi show,
we also wanted sci-fi fans to
like and respect our show.
And part of that means making rules for yourself
that are really-- that you do not break.
So I would say there was like half of us in the writers' room
who were fans of sci-fi shows and genre things
and we'd always be real sticklers for like,
what are the rules of time,
what are the rules of how people can move in this space?
Because we were like, "Someone on the internet
is going to care about this."
It's really all riding towards the internet,
which is not a good idea.
But yeah, I don't know if there was one,
we all just sort of had similar group think about it.
But I would say, I always really enjoy comedy
when it's highly specific.
- You talked a little bit about structure.
What do you look for or what makes a good structured episode,
or how important is structure in comedy?
- It's again, it's part of the reason I love sitcoms so much
is because it affords you the opportunity to like
get people to expect something.
So if you do six episodes in a row that's generally
the same type of story.
I mean still interesting, but the characters,
you're getting to know them,
they're acting the way you're expecting them to.
And then you do an episode like this where it's suddenly
blowing up everything.
That to me is so fun and you can only do it because
you spent those other six episodes being normal.
That's a really fun thing about, um--
also the fact that shows now,
we weren't exactly living in fear of being canceled.
We knew the show was not going to last that long
because it doesn't really have a story to sustain 20 seasons.
So we kind of always knew we wanted it to be four seasons.
It's also like TV is so inventive and good now.
I watch so many shows and I'm like,
"That's the best show on TV.
No, that's the best show on TV."
They're all really good.
- Yeah, yeah.
- And they're all really different.
And TV viewers again, are so knowledgeable about television
that I think we who are making it are like, "Oh, okay,
"so we can like hold our shows to a higher standard because
"the people watching them are on the same page and are willing to
"like have whole episodes about side characters
"or episodes that are genre-y
or are completely breaking the mold of the show,"
or whatever it is.
Like now is a great time for
weird standalone episodes of TV.
- One of the things that The Good Place
and Silicon Valley even, and Parks and Rec
have in common is they're very funny
and have some jokes that are really joke jokes.
But they also have characters that you really care about
and that there's emotion behind a lot of the humor.
Can you talk a little bit about writing characters like that?
- Yeah, I also have been thinking about this a lot
because it's something that, again, I was, I think,
extremely grateful to learn from Mike Schur,
but also it has just become a different conversation
in comedy than it was 10 years ago.
But like, when I was younger,
I watched a bunch of South Park and Family Guy
and stuff like that,
which is fine if you're a child,
But it did--
It's like my view of what comedy was and also the
type of people who did comedy was very different,
in a bad way than it ended up becoming.
I also remember moving to LA and being like,
"Okay, well I'm going to try to be a comedy writer
and so everyone I know is going to be mean."
- Because one, growing up, a lot of people I knew
who were into comedy were kind of like mean about it.
And two, I just assumed that's what writers' rooms were,
were people breaking each other's [bleep] all the time.
And then I have been so fortunate,
but like the vast majority of rooms I've worked in
have been the kindest people who all they want to do,
and it has only ramped up more and more over the past
few years, all we want to do is put good out into the world.
And I was like, especially--
it's funny, we talk a lot about how Parks and Rec
was really a show of the Obama era because it
was about a woman who really was like raising herself up
by her bootstraps and was in local politics in Indiana.
And it sort of almost seemed to be an apolitical world where we
never really talked about Leslie Knopes' politics.
It just was like she was a good person.
It was about her as a person.
And The Good Place we talk about as a show that sort of
is like for the Trump era, which is like there is a lot of
darkness that people were not talking about in all contexts.
And our show is not about politics,
but it's literally about what makes a good person.
And I think it can be among like a million other things,
you can like look at the world and be like, how are there
so many bad people in the world?
And then if you break that apart it's like,
well what does that mean?
Should you give up hope on the entirety of being alive,
or are there ways that people change?
Or, if there aren't,
what does that say about your individual life?
It's like all these very complicated things.
But it is very much a reaction to us
dealing with our own collective trauma, I guess.
[Narrator] You've been watching a conversation
with Megan Amram on On Story.
On Story is part of a growing number of programs
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