We welcomed Michael Price, the award-winning screenwriter and producer, known for The Simpsons and F is for Family. He discussed his inspirations, how he started in the industry, how he writes, and more.
Mike said that now that F is for Family has finished, and because he is still a full-time member of the writing and producing staff on The Simpsons, he has gone back to discussing stories for the next season – season 34. Can you believe it?
So where do the writers get their inspiration from? “We’re past 750 episodes, which is insane for any scripted show. Luckily, The Simpsons live in such an elastic universe, so we can have all kinds of things going on. You try to find new things that maybe haven’t been covered before or things that are going on in our own lives or something we’re observing.”
Where It All Started
“My earlier part of my life, I started in sketch comedy and improv. Improv is about one person establishing a thing or a situation, and the next person adds to it. Working in a TV writing room is a lot like that.”
It starts with an idea, anything can happen, and then the idea is built up by a handful of writers, until the show runner guides the idea in a specific direction.
“This person becomes the authority figure who shapes it.”
The Role of the Show Runner
When the writers decide on an idea to pursue, they focus on getting the idea fleshed out on the first day. Working out what the story is about and whether they can make it work.
“Basically where it’s going to go, how it’s going to begin, the middle, and how it’s gonna end. What we’re working towards. Then we’ll come back tomorrow, and if we’re still working on it, we’ll really attack it and say, what’s act one? What are the actual scenes? You take it one piece at a time.”
I think if you just have it wide open, anything can go, but you’ll never make a decision.”
Mike said that when he first started out he was trying to write screenplays that “took years to write because there was nobody on the other end of the phone saying where’s that screenplay.
“You’ve got to get the script going. For F is for Family, we had a much shorter time period – our writer’s room had a much smaller window because we had a lower budget, so we couldn’t afford to pay writers to work for 30 weeks to make 10 episodes.
So that really focused our thinking. If we had five years to write 10 episodes, we’d probably take five years to write it.”
His First Job
“Before I came to Los Angeles, I would have taken any job that came my way, but the first job that I managed to land was with this show that was called The Newz.
And it was a kind of a knockoff of Saturday Night Live. But I got hired on the basis of sample sketches that I had written that were part of my sample material. And it helps that it was an extremely low-budget show and they needed people who were just starting out.”
After that, “a guy in that show, one of the writers, had already lined up a job, working for a show on Nickelodeon called AAAHH!!! Real Monsters.”
They needed freelance writers on the show and after meeting with them, Mike was offered the job of writing two of the episodes. “And then over the course of the next year, they had some openings, so because I’d done a pretty good job on the freelance episodes, they hired me onto the staff for the next two seasons.”
What Makes A Successful Writer
Mike humbly suggested that a combination of talent, being funny, and writing good scripts obviously helps, but the intangibles are being able to improvise.
“Being able to go with the flow and being collaborative. I’ll never forget, I wrote the first draft. And I just laboured on it. Was up until four o’clock in the morning, the night before just making sure it was great. Punching up every joke and really wanted to impress them. I turned it in and I remember all the producers were in their offices and the assistants handed out the scripts and then they came out and one of the producers said, ‘Great script, Mike, great script. It’s going to make the rewrites so easy.’ And that’s the deal. That script becomes the clay that the actual show will be moulded from. And you have to be able to let that go.
You have to sort of kill yourself and think is the best possible joke for this story point. But then when your boss says, we can do better, you move on to the next thing.
It helps to be nice, to get along with people, and to not fight or get defensive when someone wants to change your script, because if you do, you’re invariably not invited back.
Want more advice? Of course you do. You can listen to more advice from Mike, here.