What: Danny and Grace are interns at a venture capital firm and one of them is going to be promoted to Junior Associate.
Who: Danny, Snyder, Marques, Randall and Grace, interns, work in the mailroom of a venture capital firm. One of them is about to be promoted and Danny is certain he has the inside track, especially since one of the senior partners has told him that the job was his. His only viable competition is Gracie, his girlfriend.
Gracie: Thanks. Look, there’s something you should know about the promotion...
Danny: I already know. (Off her look) Last week a senior partner from the New York office, who will remain nameless, told me it was mine.
Gracie:Was it Wes Maynard?
Danny: Won’t tell. Not my style. (BEAT) Yes.
Gracie: You need to start reading your emails before eight A.M. Wes was fired yesterday for gross sexual misconduct.
Danny: (shocked) Wes?
Danny: For “gross--
Gracie: Sexual misconduct. Yes. Crazy, I know. But it’s true. And there’s more. I met with Julian this morning… I know who’s getting promoted to Junior Associate.
Just then, Julian, 50, African American managing partner, stud (think Delroy Lindo), enters, gives Gracie a collegial wink.
Danny’s best friend in the office is Snyder who lives his social life vicariously through Danny. Snyder is the very definition of slacker, sleeping on the job and generally just avoiding any and all work. He is, to say the least, not terribly motivated to move up the ladder.
INT. Julian’s Office – DAY
A beautiful executive suite, Julian sits at his desk fretfully examining his laptop, frustration mounting.
Julian: Snyder, get in here, please. (Hearing no reply) Snyder!
Snyder enters showing no deference, rubbing bleary eyes.
Snyder: Sorry. Little buzzed. I don’t know how those Mad Men guys do it. What’s up?
Julian: Something’s wrong with my laptop. It’s frozen. I can’t access my files. Email. Nothing. Seems like you know what you’re doing on the computer.
Snyder: (chuckles) I like when old people call it “the computer.”
Julian: Can you take a look at it? It started going screwy last night.
Snyder opens the laptop and begins fiddling.
Julian: You don’t need to dig too deep. I just thought there might be a quick fix.
Snyder: What were you doing?
Julian: Research. On Asian currency markets.
Snyder: (re: computer) At OrientalPoontang.com? I know Japan has the yen and China has the yuan. Who’s monetary unit is the poontang?
Julian: You know how fast I’d fire you if your father wasn’t the CEO of this company?
Snyder: Yeah. That’s why I don’t work hard.
Julian: Then why don’t you just quit?
Snyder: Because my dad would, y’know... (Snyder runs his finger across his throat)
Julian: Kill you?
Snyder: Worse. Cut me off.
Julian: So, what am I supposed to do with you?
Snyder: Well, I was hoping that together we could carve out a sweet spot for me between sub-standard performance and dangerous incompetence.
Julian: Not happening. You know your old man begged me to take you on my desk?
Snyder: Take it as a compliment. He thinks you’re the best. He probably sees this as a character builder for me, but frankly character’s never gonna be my thing. Besides, when I inherit the reins of the company—
Julian: God help us.
Snyder: (Continuing; re: computer) This won’t even be grounds for dismissal.
Julian: Do you know what’s wrong with it?
Snyder: Looks like a nasty virus.
Julian: Can you fix it?
Snyder: Well, that depends on what you’re willing to do for me?
Julian: What I’m willing to do for you, huh? How about this? Fix it and I won’t drop a dime to your dad.
Snyder: And if I don’t?
Julian: I’ll send it down to IT and tell ‘em it was working fine til you hopped on there. If they don’t believe me they can call CSI and dust it for prints.
Snyder: But my prints are... (realizing) Oh.
Julian: Now, let’s see what you’re willing to do for me. You got til the end of the day. Tick tock.
Without that promotion, Danny is at sea. He was certain he had done all that was necessary, but Julian points out that Danny’s relationship with the lead associate, a self-impressed prick who name-drops Harvard at every opportunity was abysmal and it was Andrew who was allowed to pick the next junior associate. Determined to repair the relationship, Danny is backed into a corner when he finds out that Andrew has a thing for Gracie and needs his help to try to land a date.
Will he or won’t he, you can figure out where this will go with either scenario.
No Meaner Place: They’re young, they’re ambitious (well some of them are), and their home turf is the workplace. These elements, along with a top notch cast including the hilarious, too-little seen Larry Wilmore as Julian and Michael Landes who would have done charmingly smarmy to perfection as Andrew, should have guaranteed this a pick up on any networks; lord knows NBC could have used it. Unfortunately, it landed on CBS’s slate at a time when they have decided that more sex and less innuendo are de rigueur as exemplified by “Two Broke Girls” (a show that would be a lot funnier if there were fewer vagina jokes) and the now defunct “How to be a Gentleman”. As the boy/girl relationship, in tatters by the end of the pilot, was only one element, this may have seemed too little and too soft for CBS, or it may just have been part of an embarrassment of riches for a network with too few slots.
Life Lessons for Writers: Sometimes it’s not what you sell, but where you sell it.
Neely: Peter, originally this office workplace comedy was centered in a venture capital firm. I understand that you changed that locale to a consulting firm. When did this change?
Peter: That’s actually not quite the case. We never really said what it was. And it wasn’t supposed to be about the work itself, more about the people doing the work and their relationships.
When I closed my eyes and pictured this office, I was drawing on a friend of mine who had worked for a management consulting company.
I remembered the very first time I went to see my friend. It was in that building, the only office high rise in Santa Monica overlooking the beach. Everyone there was about 26 and nobody there was older than 35. It was conspicuous. But these people were all working until 11 at night and they were all really driven and ambitious and I thought that was really something I could relate to because all I wanted to do was succeed. I was in a hurry too. I thought that portraying young people like that would be an interesting change from the typical TV version of a 20 year old in a band or working in a coffee shop.
But we thought that consulting might be a little hard to get your head around, so at some point Doug Robinson from Happy Madison suggested venture capital. And that seemed kind of exciting, plus my friend from Santa Monica, now works in venture capital, so that might have made that decision easier. I thought if I ever need to get into the nitty gritty of what goes on, I can always ladle on some after-the-fact authenticity through my friend.
Neely: How did making this a consulting firm open up the comedy possibilities?
Peter: I’m not sure it did. It was never meant to be about the actual work because we wanted to focus on the relationships between people and not so much on what the business was about. Venture Capital seemed like a better bet because you could have people coming to you. You would be hearing pitches from companies that are looking to raise money. We also wanted something where there was a deal-making aspect to it because I think that gets you into interesting areas. But it was never “let’s take a comedic look at venture capital.” It was more “let’s look at young people in a very specific situation who deal with an elite level of co-worker.”
Neely: Well actually in thinking between the difference between venture capital and consulting, definitely there’s the pitch aspect to both of them. Using a baseball analogy (somewhat appropriate at the moment), one group is doing the pitching and the other group is fielding.
The public perception of venture capitalists is that they more like sharks than people at consulting firms, although in reality both are selling you a cloud.
Peter: How so, selling you a cloud?
Neely: You’re dealing with a product that may not actually be a product. In venture capital, you’re betting on a dream; in consulting you’re trying to sell one.
Peter: At least with venture capital they’ve got their nose in the air to say, “Can money be made by finding money to give to these people?” Is there an opportunity here to take this business from point ‘A’ to point ‘B,’ with point ‘B’ being wild profitability? We definitely wanted the shark aspect of that, personified in the character of Andrew, somebody who can just get to the bottom of the deal, analyze it and say this is a money maker.
Neely: So he can milk it.
So who was shepherding it along these lines? The change to venture capital, was this something you came up with? And at some point didn’t it move back to consulting?
Peter: I remember seeing it somewhere in the Trades as it being consulting and I thought, “Huh! It’s not in the script as that, and I’m not sure we’ve ever really said what it is, but that was something we had talked about.” I don’t remember exactly. Several people were very helpful in this.
Going way back, I was writing a script for Sony that was going to be developed internally, that is to say not taken out as a pitch. I was just going to write a spec. Sometimes good pitches don’t always make good shows, so I was happy to just write.
I love that sort of “life is high school” idea, so I thought we should do “Pretty in Pink” in a hedge fund in New York. The hedge fund managers are the James Spader rich kids, the Molly Ringwald girl is running IT and there’s a guy working side by side with her who’s secretly in love with her. Then a new hedge fund manager comes in who’s not quite as ass-holey as the others and they have a “will they, won’t they” relationship. I thought that was great. It had that Upstairs Downstairs feel that I thought was something you could really explore over the course of a series. I knew what that one was.
Then I was helping out on a pilot one day and I heard two NBC executives talking about their slate and one person said that they’d just acquired a pilot from the UK called “The IT Crowd.” What the !!! I ran out of the room and called Doug Robinson at Happy Madison. I asked him to look into “The IT Crowd” and he called me back and said, “Yeah, yours is dead.” Now I start to get nervous because that was the pilot I was going to write for Sony.
But then Tal Rabinowitz, who was at Sony at the time, said, “You can still do this but it doesn’t have to be IT, it could just be assistants with the Upstairs/Downstairs element.” I wasn’t sure about that at first because, if I’m remembering my PBS correctly, that show was about a well-to-do household in Edwardian England where there were the rich people who lived upstairs in the house and then there were the servants down below - maids with feather dusters going around the house; but even if they dusted the feathers extra hard, they still weren’t going to become the aristocrats living upstairs. So it didn’t quite land with me that you could do it that way.
We thought through the new direction and decided it did need the aspirational thing. If these are people who are dying to get ahead, you focus on the “dying to get ahead” thing and bring in some competition with an office romance in the middle of it. That seemed fun and believable. When you’re working 17 hour days, the only people you see and socialize with are your co-workers. Bringing them in as competition is where I started to lock in and see it. That’s the long version of the back story of how it came to me. I guess the short version is, let’s just make them assistants.
We knew we wanted a high level firm of some sort, so that’s why I say it wasn’t so much about consulting versus venture capital. I actually think it was Doug who suggested venture capital for the very idea of the pitching and deal making as opposed to consulting, which is a lot about presenting to clients and going out of the office to present. We wanted to make the world come in a little bit.
Neely: Tell me a little bit more about Doug because it seems like he was the one who was instrumental in guiding this along.
Peter: Doug runs television at Happy Madison, which is Adam Sandler’s company. I met him some years ago and we’ve developed several different scripts together. This was the first one we got made. He was an agent at CAA and then at Endeavor, and decided he didn’t want to be an agent anymore so he started up Sandler’s television company. Actually, a lot of the mailroom aspect of the show came from Doug’s experience before he became an agent. Anyway, Happy Madison has a few shows on the air right now - “Rules of Engagement” on CBS and “Breaking In” on FOX. Doug’s very sharp. He thinks like a writer. And he knows how to get the best stuff out of me.
Neely: Why CBS? Or more specifically, was there ever anyone else in the mix?
Peter: Yes, from what I can tell. One good thing about working with a pod, which is what Happy Madison is at Sony, you are sometimes hearing things through them (which can be both good and bad). Anyway, I got a call from Doug when I was off doing another show, a thing called “Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire” which is on Comedy Central. He told me people liked the “assistants” script. There were some notes they wanted to give and they wanted to take it out. And I thought, “Oh really? Come on! This thing is dead.” But Sony had their notes, and I addressed them.
I was pretty fully moving on to other things when I got a call from Doug who said there was interest in this and CBS wanted to know if it could be done as a multi-cam. I wouldn’t say that there was a bidding war, but maybe a little skirmish. I think everybody except FOX had at least some interest in it. As you can see, it’s a complicated back history.
In any case, the next year I took out a pitch with Doug that we had multiple offers on. We ended up going with CBS because CBS said they would put a big penalty on the pitch and part of the penalty was that they would make either the one we were pitching then or my office assistants comedy. Sometime last January, I had left my phone in my office charging when I was reading to my kids and putting everyone to bed. As an afterthought I remembered to check my phone. There were texts and emails of congratulations – “just saw it on Nikki Finke.” And I didn’t know what was picked up; I didn’t know which one they ordered. Finally I figured out what it was and I reread it that night, having not read it in a year or more. I thought, “You know, that is pretty good. I like that one. It’s a good one.”
Neely: What was the other pilot was that they passed on.
Peter: It was somewhat autobiographical. My wife was married before we met and had two kids. The pilot was a stepfather dealing with the biological father in a co-parenting situation which was very similar to what I was living. I thought that one had come out quite well also. So I really had no idea which one they wanted.
Neely: Bluntly speaking, I’m not sure your sensibility is the overt sexual innuendo (that’s a contradiction in terms) blatant comedy that CBS seems to gravitate toward these days. They definitely seem to pick up things to pilot that are their better selves, but only put on things that aren’t. I mean, I get why CBS. It’s still the jewel among all the other networks, at least as far as advertising sales. And this was never going to be a Fox comedy, so they had the good grace not to bid. But CBS is showing itself to be more overtly sexual than the direction this comedy was leading.
Their successful new comedy fits into Monday night like a glove, with the exception that it’s about vaginas instead of penises (even “Mike and Molly” is that almost perfect blend of member and receptacle jokes). Their unsuccessful comedy, “How to Be a Gentleman” might have had a better chance behind “Two and a Half Men” than it did behind quasi-cerebral “Big Bang Theory,” a place that would have suited your “assistants” better.
CBS ultimately picks for their brand and their audience, but this is not their “higher self.” And unfortunately, when they buy a show reflecting that “higher self,” it also means that another network that might actually put it on the air doesn’t get that opportunity. Hard to believe that this was the network of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Peter: I have a hard time figuring out that kind of thing. I don’t know if I’d make a great network executive or a terrible one.
Neely: At the end of the day, you have to do what your audience is asking. But how do you know your audience isn’t asking for something that’s a little classier if you don’t put it on? Or maybe I’m being naïve and the audience has spoken.
Peter: I read in either The Rolling Stone or The New Yorker tribute to Steve Jobs, saying that he was not inclined to say, “Let’s test this.” Instead he gave people his vision perfectly executed and then let the market decide in a yes/no way.
I think that television programming would be harder to do that way. You’re talking about discrete universes for each show and those universes have to harmonize with each other.
Neely: But Brandon Tartikoff oftentimes went with his gut and allowed things to stay a little bit longer than anyone else just to see if a show would find its audience. And that was “Cheers” and that was…
Peter: … “Seinfeld.”
Neely: So what kind of notes did you get?
Peter: We realized at the table read that the romance aspect that I thought was going to kill, instead felt forced. I learned that romance is incredibly easy to suggest - take a man and a woman and make them single and you’ve done everything you need to hint at a romance. But beyond that hint, it’s about chemistry and you cannot force it. You’ll never succeed in forcing it. That casting piece and the writing have to be one pod docking with another in space; it just has to come together in the right way. And if it’s off by a tiny bit, it will ring inauthentic. We felt that the romance of it was not quite working.
We cast leads we liked a lot but wondered how they would fit together. So that began a little bit of a change, romantically speaking. When I say a little bit, I mean it was slowly but surely wacked out of it, so by the end there wasn’t even a whiff of romance between Danny and Gracie.
When we had to lose what I had thought was our original objective, that undercurrent of romance, I felt a little bit shipwrecked. I was under water and I didn’t know which way to swim to get to the surface. When your showrunner finds himself in the woods without a compass, that’s when the network steps in.
I never got bad notes from the network, but I got every note. I got every note that could be given.
Neely: You were noted to death.
Peter: I wasn’t noted to death. I think that “noted to death” implies that you wish everyone would just fucking leave you alone because you know exactly what this show should be and you can write it. No. In this case I was more like “noted to life.” I don’t quite know how to put it. We were trying so many different things and there were very good notes given on all of those different things, but it was because I lost my way. I lost my way because it changed.
Neely: Then was this a situation where when you need the most concise guidance you were, instead, inundated with “what if we do this or what if we do that or what if we do this?” That kind of “noting” has a tendency to splinter the thought process even more. Rather than helping something that may be under water, it tends to push it further down because you don’t know which way to…
Peter: I have been in a situation where I thought I knew exactly what the show was and then came the notes. This was not that. I never had any level of resentment for the notes or any moment of “Are you fucking kidding me? That’s the stupidest note ever.” I never had that level of frustration with the notes. I just felt the stress in my own inability to find the North Star.
I’m very fortunate in that I got tremendous help when I needed it most, first of all from Doug who was always able to stay clear-headed and say “we need to find the direction for this.” He’s not a panicker at all. I’m not particularly a panicker, but in this situation I was feeling very stressed.
And I had fantastic writers coming in to punch up on jokes and rebreak the story. The changes that the script went through from table read to run through, from run through to shooting were four different scripts. That’s both the part that’s supposed to make you lose hair, but it’s also the part that I think is so exciting.
Neely: You had a fantastic cast. I’m a huge Larry Wilmore fan and adore Michael Landes since the time we worked with him on “Wedding Bells.”
Peter: Larry Wilmore was Doug’s idea from the first day of casting. I was looking for someone in the role of Julius to be like a Delroy Lindo. Doug said, “What about Larry Wilmore?” Right away I was just “There it is. That’s it.” Much to our surprise, he came in to read, which I thought, “This guy is going to come in and read???” And he was great and that was it and it was just a matter of “how do we get him?” We kept seeing people, but it was always, “Let’s get Larry.” And we did.
Andrew was a very hard part to cast even though I would have bet money that it would have been the easy part - a larger than life guy with a little bit of blustery and obnoxious.
Neely: (laughing) It’s remarkably hard to cast an asshole.
Peter: Right. Because you still have to like him.
Neely: There has to be something in there that has a socially redeeming quality, otherwise the audience is going to hate him and not want to see him.
Peter: We’d seen a lot of people, even a few that I really liked, but CBS wouldn’t go for anybody. And then after the table read we got the call from CBS saying that they would approve an offer to Michael Landes. By this point, you’ve taken a couple of beatings and you just go, “All I heard was ‘will approve.’ I don’t know who he is, but I heard something about ‘will approve’ so I’m on board for it.” What a great surprise that was! He was just fantastic.
We didn’t have either Michael or Larry for what turned out to be a laughless table read, and I wonder if we’d had them at that point, I might not have gone into such a depression immediately afterwards. If they had been in that table read, there might not have been such a perceived emergency to rewrite everything.
But even so, I went into a writers’ room with some incredible writers from “Rules of Engagement” who were very loyal to Doug. I don’t even want to say names because I’ll forget somebody who was in the room, just a really deep dugout. So I walked into that tiny room so scared and overwhelmed. I just tried to pretend I was in control, but I was so scared. Inside, bombs were just going off in my head.
I got some good advice that night and slowly the rest of that cast just came into shape. I have to say it was harrowing, it was really hard. There’s just a huge difference when you know exactly what you need to accomplish, on the one hand, and knowing that the only strength that I’m bringing to this battle is that I can take a lot of punches to the face without hitting the mat. I didn’t know what my game plan was. The difference between those two things is huge. And though it’s nice to know that you can take some punches to the face, it’s no substitute for knowing exactly where you need to go.
After all that, though, I have to say, the finished product is a very polished piece of work; it’s good. I’m not going to say it’s an incredible pilot but you know how incredibly bad pilots can be…
Neely: Oh god yes!
Peter: …where you just go, “I can’t believe what I’m looking at.” This was nothing like that. It merely just wasn’t excellent. But I’m proud of two things: that during the process I never once cried and that we got a product that’s pretty good. I think that…
Neely: …was quite an accomplishment.
Peter: Yeah. Episodes 2, 3, 4 and 5 wouldn’t have been much easier because we have a friendship between Danny and Gracie. That’s what it became. In the pilot episode the question was whether Danny would compromise his friendship and set up Gracie with Andrew. And he does at first and then he doesn’t. He does the right thing and shows up at Andrew’s apartment.
That was the best scene when he shows up at Andrew’s condo, which he calls “Thunder Dome.” Andrew has this thing rigged where the softer he talks, the lower the lights go (Neely laughs). Landes just played that like a dream. We had some bits that we cut out but they were good but they just slowed… like he takes his change and puts it into a devise and says “sort” and the change sorts. He had his apartment all rigged for voice commands.
That’s what ended up being the essential Gracie/Danny story. It was a small story, but it worked well. Also, Danny gets mentored by Larry Wilmore’s character. We did come up with some other stories about the way your life unfolds in the office, outside of the actual work of venture capital.
Neely: It’s a relationship comedy and it just so happens that most of the relationships are male or platonic.
Peter: We thought there was going to be an option for them helping each other to find someone to date because it became screamingly obvious that we didn’t want them to date. It went from the version of the script you read where Gracie and Danny had hooked up the night before and needed to keep it quiet because there’s a promotion coming. They’ve been in love with each other for a year but only just got together and the timing couldn’t worse. Then it
Morphed to a completely platonic relationship, with a tiny reference in the tag where he says to her, “You know you want hit this.” And she says, “Yeah, I do.” And she punches him. It’s cute and it got rid of the idea that there could be something between them. As much as it didn’t work as a romance, it did work as a friendship. You bought it that they were buddies.
Neely: You had a pretty heavy duty production company behind you – Happy Madison, Adam Sandler’s company. How did you hook up with them?
Peter: I think that happened through my agent some years ago. We’ve now done 3 or 4 scripts together, but only the last one got made.
Neely: Were they producers on your Comedy Central show?
Peter: No. That was another producer-writer I have worked with a lot, Brad Johnson, who had a pod at Twentieth. He and I worked very well together. Similar situation. Did three scripts and then we took “Krod” out to the networks. I’d set it up so that if we didn’t sell it to a broadcast network, it would come back to me. That was one of the few, very smart business moves I’ve ever made. That was a precondition and for some reason Twentieth went for it, which they don’t normally. So it came back to me. Brad and I ended up writing and producing “Krod” together, but that was not through a studio.
Neely: Do you think you’ll work with Happy Madison again?
Peter: Yes. I just took a call from Doug because we’re waiting to hear on another thing with ABC.
Neely: And the über talented Neil Patrick Harris was your director.
Peter: He’s just great. So many different pieces of the puzzle were hard to find. I think sometimes you’re blessed and you’re cursed when you have talent attached. For instance, if you are taking something out with a director attached, that can get everyone excited but it can also…
Neely: …kill it.
Peter: …it can kill it. Likewise with talent.
Neely: At what point did he attach to this?
Peter: We had tried to get one of the big, sought-after multi-cam directors, but none of them were available or interested; sometimes you don’t want to know which. Then CBS said, “What about Neil Patrick Harris?”
Doug and I met with him. He’s a fantastic guy and you just had that sense that “if I were in a plane and it was going down and there were no pilots on board, before I lost hope I’d ask first if Neil Patrick Harris was on that flight. Because if he is, I’d like to get him into the cockpit as soon as possible.”
Neely: There doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t do.
Peter: No. There isn’t. And he did a great job. There was a wrinkle with his availability. He’d committed to do a play in New York after the table read. So we took a week off which allowed us to really do some rewriting.
That was during my darkest time where I felt that I just couldn’t find my navigation point. It might have just been worse if we hadn’t had that break and we’d decided, for better or for worse, that we were shooting this the way it was.
Neely: That’s right. He was doing a concert version of “Company.”
Neely: He is the perfect Bobby.
Peter: So he did that concert and then he also would have to finish his shoot day on “How I Met Your Mother” before coming down to Sony. He was a dream. And our audience loved the fact there was a massive star directing our pilot.
Neely: Let’s return to the characters. How about Snyder? Does he stay the rich boy slacker living vicariously through Danny?
Peter: Absolutely. And Tim Pepper was born to play this part. That’s another character who’s a heel; a character that you want to smack in the face. But you also have to wish you had a friend like that because he’s honest and doesn’t pull any punches with you and he doesn’t pull any punches with himself. I thought he was a good counter-balance to the incredibly ambitious characters, watching them work with the attitude, “Guys. Come on. What are you doing?”
Neely: He didn’t seem to care. But I really liked that delicious follow-up scene where Julian nails Snyder’s fear and may actually instigate some behavioral change in him. How were you going to accomplish that?
Peter: It worked quite well. It’s interesting because Snyder thinks he has the leg up on Julian and Julian just absolutely devastates him. But the idea that Julian finds something in Snyder to redeem is gone. We could always play with that because Tim Pepper has this great manner. He had this scene where he came into Julian’s office and saunters in saying, “Hey Boo.” That’s just the way Tim talks and I wanted to use that. I think if the series had gone on, there was a rich vein to be mined between those two because they really worked well together.
Neely: I’d love to talk more about you and your background. This would be a perfect place to break before we discuss some of your unusual credits.