“If you can't make it better, you can laugh at it.” – Erma Bombeck


 

INT. ANDREW’S OFFICE

Danny peeks in to find Andrew working away.

Danny: Hey, Andrew. You got a sec?

Andrew: Go.

Danny: Um, I know you’re getting ready to present to the partners, so if there’s any way I can help, I’d love to--

Andrew: Hold up a sec, Ace. Have a seat.

Danny reluctantly sits.

Andrew: Why the change of heart?

Danny: No change of heart. I just--

Andrew: Ace. Let me be your bodhisattva.

Danny: My what?

Andrew: In Buddhism people try to reach Nirvana, right? Well, a bodhisattva is someone who just wants to help others achieve enlightenment.

Danny: I just want to achieve promotion.

Andrew: You're not the first guy who had to pay his dues as a mail cart jockey.

Danny: You started as an intern?

Andrew: No. I was hired as a Junior Associate straight out of the H-bomb. Harvard.

Danny: Got it.

Andrew: But I know how it feels to be low man on the totem pole. And I struggled here at first. 'Til I asked for help from the man upstairs.

Danny: I didn’t know you were religious.

Andrew: I’m talking about Julian. In the old building he had the office right above me.

Danny: Look, I talked to Julian. I got the message. I’m going to be a better team player. In the meantime, just let me know if you need anything.

Danny gets hi mail cart ready to go.

Andrew: There is one thing... You may be surprised to know I’m single.

Danny: You?

Andrew: Don’t get me wrong. Back at Harvard I bagged more pelt than a Quebecois trapper, but lately… Let me put my cards on the table.

Andrew gets up and closes the door.

Andrew: I know I’m an acquired taste. My personality is muy grande, and that can throw people. Add to that a ninety hour work week and it’s no wonder I’ve been a lone wolf so long. But I’m ready for someone to rock my world.

Danny: Are you asking me to set you up? Geez, I don’t know any women your age.

Andrew: What about Gracie?

Danny: You want me to set you up with Gracie?

Andrew: Whoa, Ace, can we massage your wording? Technically it’s not even kosher to have this discussion. Let’s call it product placement, like in the movies, only I’m the product. Work me into the conversation in positive ways. E.G. “Nice Harvard sticker on Andrew’s Boxster, huh?”

Danny: Is she giving you any indication?

Andrew: Big time. (BEAT) None at all. That’s why I need you in my corner.

Danny: Look, Gracie and I aren’t on the best of terms at the moment.

Andrew: Fair enough. You think you’ll find yourself on better terms with her before the next round of promotions?

Danny: Are you saying this is quid pro quo?

Andrew: I’m saying you scratch my onions, I scratch yours.

Danny: Yuck.

Andrew: Here endeth the lesson. Now, go forth into the world and crush.

Continued Conversation:

 

Neely: Regardless of the changes you made for the shooting draft, Andrew was, as can be seen here, a well defined character with a high ick-factor.

So, we stopped our discussion before talking about some of the other things you’d done before the “Untitled Peter Knight Project” – catchy name, by the way.

In reviewing your past credits, I notice that they have almost exclusively been on cable, even before cable was a major force. The first credit I found on you was as creator of “Big Wolf on Campus.” What was that show and how did you land it?

Peter: I have a tremendous soft spot for that show. It was great. I had a writing partner once upon a time, Chris Briggs, who just produced “Shark Night 3D” (he wrote it under a pen name); he’s one of my best friends to this day. He and I were working on “Sweet Valley High” and “Breaker High” together. Those two shows were a great boot camp. We had a very good showrunner and a pretty capable cast on both of those shows – Ryan Gosling and Tyler Labine were the Spade and Farley on “Breaker High.” The shows were very much off the radar. They were on UPN or syndicated. I think within a year or two, Chris and I had written something like 17 episodes between those two shows. They were the kinds of shows that were getting writers who were just starting out, or just heading out. So it wasn’t impossible to distinguish yourself on them.

Saban, Haim Saban’s company, and Fox were buying the Family Channel from the Christian Broadcasting people. We knew they needed programming and we asked to pitch some shows and they said okay. So we went in with thirteen single spaced pages. Each page was a show idea. We thought that was how you did it. It’s not, by the way. And we had one little afterthought that we had put as a bullet point – A Buffy-lite with a male werewolf lead. It was a buddy comedy with a strange friendship between the Goth who understands what’s happening to this guy and the big hearted jock who has no animus against even the people he’s in conflict with.

It went three seasons, shot in Montreal. My partner quit in the middle of the first season because… well talk about a rocky production! That one was rough. They brought in an executive producer, a very nice guy named Rich Eustis. I don’t want to say he’s old, but his first credit was “The Dean Martin Show.” (Neely cackles) Really! He’d also co-created “Head of the Class” and was a really nice guy who knew a lot but he was not the right guy, I don’t think, for our show. He got fired on the second day of production.

Then they fired the director on the third day. So you can see that I know something about shipwrecks. And I had not quite figured out what the show was either (sound familiar?). Again, the only thing that sustained me there was my ability to take punches to the face without going down. But my partner did not get along with the new producer they brought on to help us and so he quit. I kind of stayed with it. And the guy that Chris did not get along with knew enough to see that there was something good in this show, so I give him a lot of credit. I eventually had some problems with him but he knew how to keep the series afloat in those early days.

Finally, after about six or seven episodes I had it figured out – it was a buddy comedy. I had the time of my life doing that. Those were some of the hardest times of my life, the hardest work, with production meetings slipping into French, but it was a great show. It’s well remembered by the handful of people who enjoyed it. Every month or so I’ll go on Twitter and see what people are saying, and somebody is always saying, “Oh, yeah, I remember that show; it was so funny.”

Neely: Did you have to move to Canada for it?

Peter: I did. I lived in Montreal. We shot it in three seasons over about 4 to 4 ½ years. It was really off the radar, but much better than it had any right to be. Really good cast, Brandon Quinn, who I think did “The OC” and is now on a Lifetime series, and this guy Danny Smith. They were a fantastic duo. It was a lot of fun and I remember it very fondly.

Neely: This always leads back to the beginning and what you wanted to be when you grew up. So… what did you want to be when you grew up?

Peter: I don’t know if I ever thought about it that hard enough. When I got out of college was probably the first time I thought to myself that I was supposed to know what I wanted to do. My parents lived in Connecticut and I was still living at home, which is a sure-fire recipe for depression.

I was commuting by train to New York and I started bringing along a pad and started writing things – just little things. I didn’t know anyone who did anything in show business; I didn’t even know anybody who lived west of Chicago. But I loved “The Simpsons,” so I thought what if I wrote an episode of “The Simpsons.” What would that feel like? I found out that that was what was called a “Spec” and people did it all the time. Then I just, slowly but surely, knew enough people. Through a very very distant contact, I called this guy named Marsh McCall who is now a big time showrunner but was working on Conan O’Brien at the time. I asked him what he did there and how he did it. I remember it was a March day in 1994 and he said that if I wanted to be a writer I had to be in L.A.

A very short phone call and a month later I moved out and found production assistant work. I was a P.A. on a Tony Danza pilot, “Hudson Street.”  A couple of months ago I met with Tony Danza and we talked about it.

From P.A. to more P.A. stuff then to writing on “Sweet Valley High.”

Neely: Where did you go to school?

Peter: I went to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Not too many show biz folk have come out of Trinity. There’s a guy, Franklin Hardy, who’s a writer on something that just aired, it’s on right now. He’s a funny guy.

Neely: He’s on “Man Up,” the Chris Moynihan series. I liked it on the page and I like the execution.

What did you major in?

Peter: I was a history major.

Neely: When you were on your way into Manhattan, where were you working?

Peter: I had an internship at an advertising agency.

Neely: That’s not at all counterintuitive for what you ended up doing.

Peter: My dad had been in advertising and I think I had a little of that default thinking – My gender is male. My most immediate male role model is my dad. I love and respect him. He was in advertising, maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do. If my dad had run a lumber mill, I probably would have been given that a try.

Neely: But it makes sense finding yourself wanting to write when you’re working for an advertising agency.

Peter: Right. And that’s the other thing. I thought advertising seemed slightly more to my liking than going into any aspect of finance which would have been something I really wouldn’t have understood or would never have excelled at.

Neely: So you were lucky your dad wasn’t a hedge fund manager.

Peter: Yeah. We’d have had nicer vacations, but… (Neely laughs) No. I have no complaints there. You’re talking to a survivor of the mean streets of Greenwich, Connecticut. Then I decided it was time for me to figure out what I wanted to do.

I wrote a movie before I came out here (and have not done so since). I thought it was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I thought that once I was in L.A. I’d give it about 6 weeks, it would sell and then I’d be on my way. And it was so bad. I can’t even conceive… it’s so scary for me to think that that was enough for me to move 3000 miles where I didn’t know anybody. To move there on the strength of such a bad script and it was such a bad script that I can’t even…

Neely: You’ve looked at it again?

Peter: I destroyed the last existing copy not too long ago.

Neely: I run into people all the time who think they have gold in what they’ve written the first time. But it’s a special person who has the guts to be able to do what you did. And even more, the guts to realize that maybe “this” isn’t it.

Peter: Well it just takes a little bit… Well, as an example… the first TV writing job my partner and I had, I remember the showrunner saying, “The outline is due in 4 days.” And I said, “That’s great but I don’t really do outlines. That’s really not how I write.” Of course I was disabused of that and you can only get that on the job. You have to say idiotic things like that but you also have to take a lesson from it. She came back, Abbie Charette was her name, and she said, “You will write an outline. That’s how you do it.” You just learn those things. A lot of times I will read scripts for friends or someone who’s just starting out and I will spot all the pitfalls of a script that did not begin with an outline.

Neely: Reading friends’ scripts is something of an art form., but in essence, because it is friendship, you gauge it in terms of how deep the friendship is and you don’t take things from people you know aren’t going to listen. If they’re not willing to listen, then it’s a waste of time.

Peter: The thing that I don’t love is when a lawyer or someone like that goes “I got a great idea for you.”

Neely: (resignedly) I know.

Peter: I’ll listen, but that, to me, rankles more.

Neely: How did you land that first PA job?

Peter: When I got out here I had a friend who wanted me to meet Graham Taylor, who’s now a big feature Indie agent at William Morris Endeavor. He’d gone to college with a friend that I’d gone to high school with and she said for me to look him up. Graham needed a roommate at the time and he has the best personality of anyone you’re ever going to meet and he took me in. He was so plugged in and had this great social network.

Neely: Was he an assistant at the time or an agent?

Peter: No, he ran a location. He was the location manager at the Ambassador Hotel, hoping to become a producer. He was also working with a bunch of people just starting out and producing their shorts. I tapped into his network. He was very plugged into some of the Wesleyan people out here, including the guy who became my writing partner. But in the more immediate term, he knew this girl who was working at Sony who said they were looking for PAs and I should get my resume in. I got my resume in and…

Neely: …you got it.

It sounds as if you have had supporters along the way. How about mentors or people who really wanted to see you get ahead?

Peter: I had several. The first one was Mike Fleiss, the reality producer. I was a PA on one of his shows and he recognized right away that I was funny. He looked out for me. He also hired Chris and we became writing partners while working there. Our very first credit was on “Before They Were Stars.” Don’t look for it on IMDB because it’s not there. That was a fun one.

Then at “Sweet Valley High,” Abbie Charette was this strange hybrid. She was an executive at Saban who also ran the room at “Sweet Valley High.” She had a real knack for it. She knew what she wanted and was somebody who looked out for us and brought us on to “Breaker High.” She would arrange for us to fly out to Vancouver to be in on the table reads. We didn’t get the title or the salary but we were clearly more than staff writers, which I think was what our credit was.

Then I did “Big Wolf.” I was in my late twenties or very early thirties and I was running my own show and coming back into to town. But Abbie had left show business and she was that person who might have been the one who could have helped me jump the line; but she left. I was in the dark and didn’t quite have the right representation.

Then the next person I found who was like that was Brad Johnson at Twentieth. We hit it off from the get-go. He’s a writer at heart, but he’s been an executive and a producer. He’s done all of those things at a very high level. I’m very lucky to call him a friend and someone I learned a lot from.

And the other one is Doug Robinson who runs Happy Madison. When other people didn’t want to take a chance with me, he was always there to say “I’ll work with him.” So when you say who really looks out for you and wants you to get ahead, those are the main people I’m really indebted to. I also have to say that I now have fantastic representation which I did not have before. But I’m now at CAA with Peter Micelli.

Neely: I’m very grateful to Peter for sending you my request.

Peter: When somebody tells me they want to sit down with me and hear me talk… (Neely laughs) it’s hard to say no.

Neely: What can you point to as influences in your career – films, television, writers?

Peter: I can say a couple of things pretty easily. Woody Allen is all over my work. Anything I think about comedically, to a degree it goes to Woody Allen for me. Not just in the comedy, but even at the level of storytelling. Take a “Purple Rose of Cairo” type of thing. It’s not that that’s his best movie but I did an episode of “Big Wolf on Campus” where these kids, in present day, are made to watch instructional films from the 50s, and the bully who’s pushing people around in the film comes out of the screen and starts terrorizing the town. He became the villain of the week. Butch was the bad boy’s name and the episode was called “Butch Comes to Shove.” That’s just a pure rip-off of Woody Allen - a fantasy point of departure intersecting with a mundane world. And of course his comedy is incredible and so distinctive. I’m not a huge fan of his personal choices but…

Neely: …you have to separate. Picasso was a schmuck but that shouldn’t take away from his artistic genius.

Peter: If I could ever do something like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” then maybe I’d allow myself a little more shitty behavior.

Neely: (laughing) I certainly hope not.

Peter: So Woody Allen is definitely a huge influence. And then right around the time I was starting to ask myself what I wanted to do, “The Simpsons” came along and it was just… to this day I quote “Simpsons” like literate people quote Shakespeare. That was a huge huge influence on me. The animation is so charming and lovely and the voice cast is so skilled, but it’s the writing, it’s the words, the words and the ideas that are so killing. It was the first show that really screamed to me that writing was an important element.

Neely: It’s the writing. It’s the words.

What about theater or books?

Peter: I can’t read… no. A book that has that kind of power where I wondered how someone could be that funny was Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

Spy Magazine was another huge influence. I thought it was so clever and so bright. It was just so illuminated by something I wanted to touch. I wanted to be part of something that interesting and I felt like I could spot it in disparate things, whether it was “The Simpsons” or “Larry Sanders” or “Spy Magazine,” which was just starting to fade as I came out here. Then there are movies like the Coen Brothers and so many different things. It all just said to me that I could just try to touch those things and go out there and get into it.

Neely: What are you reading right now?

Peter: I’m reading the third one of the Dragon Tattoo books.

Neely: The Stieg Larsson series.

Peter: I also just started this thing called Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. It’s a collection of essays that starts with a guy trying to find a ride to go down to see a Christian music festival. He’s trying to infiltrate that world for what he thinks will be an easy piece to write. But of course his assumptions are dashed. It’s interesting.

Neely: Any books from the past that you go back to or that really made an impression on you?

Peter: Chuck Klosterman I think is a fascinating guy to read. Do you know who he is?

Neely: No, but I did just see that he has a new book out.

Peter: I haven’t read his fiction, but mainly he writes about pop culture and has a great way of breaking things down. We’re about the same age. But he’s just brilliant. And I also love Philip Roth. I think I’ve read more than half of what he’s done. Sabbath’s Theater, Portnoy’s Complaint and American Pastoral are my favorites. Those just blew me away.

Neely: Watching? TV and film.

Peter: I think that “Modern Family” deserves every bit of praise that’s ever been heaped on it. I think that “30 Rock” and “The Office” are fantastic still. I like “Louie.” When I like “Louie,” I love it; and when I don’t, it’s just kind of weird. Do you like “Louie?”

Neely: I haven’t watched it.

Peter: There are things that you’ll see on “Louie” where you’ll go, “That’s the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen on television.” And then there’ll be something that doesn’t quite land for me. But I love that he gets to take those swings.

Neely: Like a great stand-up. It doesn’t all work but when it does, it’s great.

Peter: It’s so daring. So I love that. I’m very into “Mad Men,” very into “Breaking Bad.” I liked “Entourage” more than most people, I think. I love “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” There’s no multi-cam right now that I rush home to see. “Rules of Engagement” is a rare one that can make me laugh out loud. I think that’s another thing that made the pilot hard for me to do. I’d never really done anything in the multi-cam genre or format. In fact, it was one of the first times that I’d done anything where the genre was comedy, period. “Big Wolf on Campus” had horror/spoof elements…

Neely: It mixed genres.

Peter: … and “Krod” was using the sword and sorcery “Game of Thrones” genre as its story engine and then pausing for comedy. I’m still not quite able to call it a spoof. But with this pilot I was trying to just go and be funny. Feed that beast on the stage and make these people in the bleachers laugh, which is why I can’t really claim full credit for the finished shooting version of the script that came out well and worked well on tape night. My writing partner was half of Hollywood on that and I got a lot of help from some really good people.

A part of the problem was due to the multi-camera thing. I didn’t realize that it was a train that runs on jokes. You’ve just gotta be…

Neely: …fueling that engine constantly. Set-up, joke; set-up, joke; set-up, joke.

Peter: You will hear people deride multi-cam because they claim they hate that set-up, joke, set-up, joke rhythm. Well I don’t think the rhythm is the problem. I think it’s the melody. If the jokes are good, you might like the rhythm more. Anyway, that was the way I was trying to think; to psych myself up for the challenge. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the format, it’s possible that people are settling for less in the writing.

Neely: When somebody comes up with an organic multi-cam situation, meaning that the set-up and the joke are completely organic to the situation instead of forced, as most of them are, then people will want to watch it. There have been plenty of multi-cams that are set-up/joke. “Two and a Half Men,” even though it’s not my cup of tea, is a traditional multi-cam. Chuck Lorre is the king of multi-cam. My only objection is that it stoops too often into the too obvious. I get tired of the too obvious, but then I’m not their audience or their demographic. I’m just waiting for the right multi-cam.

What about film?

Peter: I just saw “Drive” with Ryan Gosling (who was on “Breaker High”). I thought it was really cool.

Neely: I want to see it. I love the author of the source material, James Sallis. He writes character and atmosphere.

Peter: It’s more than the sum of its parts. There’s not a lot of story there and what there is, is thin. It’s told in just a couple of brush strokes and the rest of it is character work by Ryan Gosling. There’s a great soundtrack, great visuals, great frames. It’s really beautiful.

I heard someone describe it as a Western. There’s no back story to the guy. You find out so little about him. So much of it plays in Ryan Gosling’s face and his coolness. And the soundtrack is so cool. You actually feel a little bit cooler for having watched it and I don’t feel cool very often.

Neely: Well Gosling is definitely the acting “it” boy right now. He’s spectacular in “Ides of March,” absolutely spectacular. I loved that movie.

Peter: I haven’t seen that one yet.

Neely: Most people may go see it for George Clooney, who’s great in this and directed it, but go see it for Ryan Gosling.

Neely: How about past favorites.

Peter: “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is my all time favorite and most watched movie in any genre. “Broadway Danny Rose” is one of my favorite comedies. I’m still waiting to find a movie I like more than “Taken,” the Liam Neeson film. I love “No Country for Old Men,” ending and all. I’ve arrived at some peace with the ending.

Neely: Yeah, but what about the hair?

Peter: Oh the hair is a triumph! The Dorothy Hamel haircut!

I love heady idea things like “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich.” I love Wes Anderson. “Life Aquatic” is amazing; “Royal Tenenbaums,” “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore” as well. I’ll see anything he does. I love Paul Thomas Anderson as well.

“Drive” is the last thing I saw. I have young kids, 5 and 8 and 14 and 17, so I don’t get to the theater often, but when the screeners come around I get excited.

Neely: What about past TV?

Peter: “Seinfeld” is probably my favorite multi-cam. I liked “Frasier,” I liked “Will and Grace,” and “Larry Sanders” and the British “Office.” I like the American “Office” a lot, but I think that the British “Office” is in a league of its own. A masterpiece.

Neely: You’re more likely to take a great idea with great acting and make it a masterpiece if you only have to produce 13 episodes. Actually I agree with you about “The Office,” but the American “Office” stands on its own. It’s a different animal.

Peter: And what’s funny is that you can watch the American “Office” and if I asked you what show this reminds you of, you wouldn’t necessarily think of the British “Office.” It succeeds in its own way.

I also think that Tina Fey on “30 Rock” is so funny and smart and likeable. That’s a hell of a show too. It’s bonkers, sometimes too bonkers for some people. It hasn’t lost me yet.

Oh, and I can’t forget “Get Smart.” I loved “Get Smart.”

Neely: Any dramas?

Peter: Oh yes. And I think that comedy writers tend to like drama more. I loved “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men.”

Neely: So what have you got up that sleeve next?

Peter: I’ve got all kinds of things up my sleeve. I’m on the one yard line trying to push two scripts across the goal line

Neely: I’ll read whatever you write and hope to watch whatever you get produced. Thanks for taking the time.

Peter: Here’s hoping there’ll be something to watch.

Quote

"Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision."

- Salvador Dali

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