Better Know a Writing Staff: THE BIG BANG THEORY

I haven’t done a writing staff post in several months, and returning to the format, I decided to do one of the CBS comedies. This one is as good a choice as any, because it’s one of their two most enjoyable comedies (the other being How I Met Your Mother) and because Chuck Lorre is building kind of a comedy-writing empire.

Update: Bill Prady says in comments that this post is about 75% accurate, which, I have to say, is not as bad as I feared. (I should say again that unless there’s a full biographical article available online, these posts are based on Google searches, news items, credits on Imdb and TV.com, other blog posts, and so on. But one thing I need to do in future is provide more documentation so it’s clearer were each piece of information comes from.)

As I said in an earlier post, Lorre uses his writing staffs differently from most other TV producers. Normally the staff beats out the story and then sends the assigned writer off to do a script, which is then rewritten by the whole staff. Lorre has cut out that middle stage, which is why his shows have three or four credited writers for every episode: the episodes are all room-written, and they then rotate the credits (union rules usually don’t allow an entire writing staff to be credited for writing an episode, except in very special cases). Whether this is a good or bad method is something I can’t judge without actually having been in the room. It arguably isn’t that big a change in practice, since most comedy shows are so heavily room-written that it’s almost useless to look for the individual personality of a particular writer in the script, no matter whose name actually comes after “written by.”

Here are the writers who have been credited in the current season. As with any writing staff, there are certain “themes” you can detect in terms of who gets hired. The most important theme, obviously, is that the people who work on Chuck Lorre’s shows tend to be people who have worked for him before. (Lorre has created and produced a lot of shows — some of which he didn’t even get fired from — so that leaves a lot of people for him to hire.) Another is that he seems to go for writing staffs where the median age is a little higher than on most comedy shows (certainly higher than the median age in the youth-obsessed ’90s). And several writers are there from previous associations with the other creator/showrunner, Bill Prady.

Bill Prady (co-creator, executive producer) – Prady’s Chuck Lorre connection is that he was a writer and producer on Dharma & Greg. When he was 22 he went to work for Jim Henson, writing for many Muppet projects including the short-lived Jim Henson Hour. (He also freelanced some scripts for You Can’t Do That On Television, adding to his ’80s cred.) After Henson’s death, Prady continued to return to the company occasionally to write material for the Muppets. He moved into sitcom writing, freelancing some episodes for shows like Married… With Children and getting staff writing/producing jobs on shows like Dream On, Caroline In the City and the aforementioned Dharma & Greg. Before re-teaming with Lorre, he was a co-executive producer on the fifth season of Gilmore Girls.

Lee Aronsohn (executive producer) appears to be Lorre’s right-hand guy. He co-created Two and a Half Men with Lorre and was a writer-producer on two of Lorre’s previous shows, Grace Under Fire and Cybill. His first job as a TV writer was on The Love Boat, where he was a staff writer in the second and third seasons; his claim to fame there was writing the episode that introduced Captain Stubing’s illegitimate daughter Vicki (named after his dog). Throughout the ’80s he contributed scripts to many sitcoms, including Charles In Charge (which Chuck Lorre also wrote for, but at different times). He was a writer/producer on Murphy Brown the year she had her baby, and he once wrote an interesting post on rec.arts.tv about why Murphy’s baby vanished from the show. (“I was really excited about what this could mean for the character, and I wrote an episode about the conflict she feels between pursuing her career and caring for her child (“Midnight Plane to Paris”). However, at the end of that season, network testing discovered that people were not interested in seeing Murphy as a mother — they wanted to see Murphy being Murphy — so the kid was shoved into the background.”) After producing Grace and Cybill, both successful but troubled shows, he created a show for CBS called Life… and Stuff, a vehicle for comedian Rick Reynolds, a slightly bitter domestic comedy in the Everybody Loves Raymond vein; he was removed from the show during production and it only lasted a few episodes as a summer replacement. I don’t know what he was doing between that and Men, but in any case, he re-emerged as co-creator and co-showrunner of CBS’s biggest post-Raymond hit. He also is, or was, a big fan and collector of Mad magazine memorabilia, and contributed some items from his personal comic book collection to Leonard’s bedroom on TBBT.

Chuck Lorre (co-creator, executive producer) – this piece, re-published at his vanity card website, pretty much recaps his whole career. The “embarrassingly silly” show where he got his first network staff job was My Two Dads (which, however, appears to have influenced Two and a Half Men to some extent); the first show he created was called Frannie’s Turn; the star who “hates kids, hates people, hates sitcoms and, most importantly, hates you” was Brett Butler of Grace Under Fire, the “wack-job diva” was Cybill Shepherd of Cybill, and the show with “wonderful, loving people” was Dharma & Greg starring Jenna Elfman, who is apparently quite lovable to work with though unbearable for us normal humans to watch.

Tim Doyle (consulting producer) is another longtime Chuck Lorre guy who worked for him on Roseanne and Grace Under Fire. After breaking in by writing the low-budget horror-spoof Zombie High in 1987 (with a cast that included a young Paul Feig), plus writing and directing a short student film that was included in the anthology Road Lawyers and Other Briefs, he went into TV writing and has been working steadily in TV comedy writing since 1990; his other big staff jobs included writing many episodes of Dinosaurs (created by the guy who gave Chuck Lorre his first staff job, Michael Jacobs), consulting on Sports Night, writing and producing for Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and acting as executive producer of Still Standing and, last season, Aliens in America. He’s also created some unsold pilots, including a planned vehicle for comedian Greg Giraldo.

Stephen Engel (consulting producer). Engel wrote a bit about his background in this “Why We Write” piece during the writers’ strike last year. He spent many years writing for Dream On, the early HBO comedy hit (and the first hit show created by Friends-niks Kaufman and Crane), where one of the other writers was Bill Prady, now the creator/showrunner of TBBT. The shows he created include Work With Me, about a married couple who are also law partners (I only remember this show because of the episode where Lynda Carter was one of their clients), and Inside Schwartz, an NBC flop starring Breckin Meyer as a sportscaster with a fantasy life reminiscent of Dream On.

Jennifer Glickman (consulting producer), who did a podcast last year with two other writers for this show (MP3 available here), has been writing for TV comedies since the early ’90s, when she was a writer on Gene Wilder’s one-season flop Something Wilder and a story editor on the short-lived Ned & Stacy, aka the reason we used to like Debra Messing until that Will & Grace thing came along. She joined the writing staff of Caroline in the City in its first season, where one of the other writers was Bill Prady, who went on to hire her for The Big Bang Theory. She was also part of the writing staff of the Jenny McCarthy vehicle Jenny, which may be the worst show ever to have a high-quality writing staff — the creators and produers of the show were from shows like Taxi, Frasier and The Simpsons. Which is to say, a writing staff of people with impressive credentials doesn’t always mean much if the concept itself doesn’t lend itself to good writing (but that’s another post).

Dave Goetsch (co-executive producer) – Goetsch, who was interviewed alone for a podcast last year, wrote many episodes of 3rd Rock From the Sun, starting as a story editor and moving up to executive producer by the end of the show. After that show ended, he continued working for its producer, the Carsey-Werner company, writing for their UPN flop animated series Game Over and their more successful show Grounded For Life. He then created an unsold pilot for MTV2, “Are You Game?” where contestants would compete in live-action versions of familiar video games; this didn’t get picked up, but it was the perfect training ground for The Big Bang Theory, where most of the characters would definitely have wanted to appear on a show like that.

Daley Haggar (staff writer) is a stand-up comedian who has written for Adam Carolla’s Comedy Central show Too Late and the MTV cartoon Where the Dogs At? She also wrote some material for The Apprentice (reality shows have writers) and was hired by former Fox network genius Barry Diller to edit a revamped version of Collegehumor.com. Like a number of Comedy Central-affiliated writers, she also contributed jokes to South Park, and got a “consultant” credit for the episode “Red Hot Catholic Love” (all staff writers except Trey Parker get “consultant” credits on that show).

Eric Kaplan (co-executive producer) is best known as a writer for Futurama. He was a writer for the last three seasons of the show and came back to work on one of the recent DTV movies, Bender’s Game. Obviously, being a Futurama guy requires familiarity with all the geek culture that is routinely referred to on TBBT; I’m just surprised they don’t have more crossover between the two shows. He began as a writer for David Letterman, after which most of his work has been in cartoons and cartoony single-camera shows like Malcolm in the Middle and Andy Richter Controls the Universe, so this is his first major job on a multi-camera sitcom.

Steven Molaro (supervising producer) is living proof that a writer can cross over from tween TV to the world of network comedy: much of his previous work has been for comedies on Nickelodeon. He wrote for Nickelodeon’s star producer, Dan Schneider, on the Amanda Bynes vehicle The Amanda Show, and has also worked on Schneider’s productions Drake & Josh, Zoey 101 and iCarly. (He also wrote for Nickelodeon’s long-running sketch show All That.) His entry into regular-network comedy also came through Schneider, who went with Amanda Bynes to the WB network to create her network vehicle What I Like About You. After that, while continuing to do freelance work for Schneider, he got jobs on such network sitcoms as The Class, The Freddie Prinze Show (aka Freddie) and the Mel Gibson/Mike Scully co-production (now there’s two names you don’t want to hear together) Complete Savages. TBBT is the first hit network show he’s worked on.

Richard Rosenstock (consulting producer) is one of the busiest “consultants” in U.S. TV. He’s also the most veteran writer on the staff, with a career that goes back to the ’70s; one of his first big episodes was the Happy Days episode where Fonzie goes temporarily blind. (Yes, everybody has written that story at some point.) He went on to write for Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy and many other shows. But what gives him cult cred in the business is a show he created for the Fox network in 1992 called Flying Blind, a screwball comedy about a romance between an uptight guy (Corey Parker) and a crazy, risk-taking weirdo (Tea Leoni). Apart from being more or less unofficially remade as the more successful but less good Dharma & Greg, it became something of a cult show among comedy writers, who admired its strange sense of humour and the fresh perspective it brought to a familiar premise. It lasted only one season, but since then, Rosenstock has been hired to consult on many successful shows that are looking for some of his quirky style: he’s had a consulting producer credit on Family Guy, Will & Grace, and Arrested Development (where he wrote or co-wrote many scripts in the first two seasons) among others.