A conversation with Lee Eisenberg on his start in the industry and tips on character building.
Starting off the 2023 festival, I had a conversation with Lee Eisenberg, the showrunner and creator of Lessons in Chemistry, showrunner of Little America, co-creator of Jury Duty, co-writer of Good Boys, and writer on The Office. (There's so much here, and that's not even all!).
With decades of experience in this industry, Lee had ample guidance to share on creating interesting characters, creative collaboration, and the craft of getting your first job(s) in this industry. Like me, and many of you, he's from out-of-state (Massachusetts!) and had to start fresh when he came out West to LA.
Through listening, transcribing, and re-reading this interview, I gained tidbits to help my writing and my confidence, and I hope you grab onto some tips, too!
PR: When you first decided you wanted to work in this industry, did you have a dream for what you wanted to accomplish?
LE: I think my dream to start was I just wanted to get hired on a TV show as a staff writer and do that! The idea of having someone buy a movie script of mine seemed amazing. And so I don't think my initial dreams were like, “I want to win an Oscar and I want to direct George Clooney and Julia Roberts.” I think it was… the baby steps into the business that seemed really hard and insurmountable.
PR: Jumping off of that, for your first job out of college: What was that? And how did you go about getting that job and stepping up the ladder to staff writer?
LE: So, my first job in LA in the industry was... I was a PA on a movie called Bedazzled with Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley. I got it through like a random - like not a close, you know - guy who lived in my neighborhood 20 years earlier. [He] was the head of transportation on the movie and then put my name into the mix. And so, I got hired!
… I worked on that, and then I met someone who was working at HBO, and they went on vacation and I became a temp at HBO. So, I started temping at HBO for a few years, and kind of, I got to know all the different executives and people would request me, and some of the jobs became more long-term.
And then that was really how I started to kind of make more inroads, make connections. And then, because of my relationships with HBO, I got hired to be a Writer's PA and then a Writer's Assistant on one of their shows, and then that was kind of the beginning of me starting to become a Writer’s Assistant on that stuff.
PR: That's awesome. I wanted to ask about your writing partnership with Gene. Like, how did you first meet him? I think for up-and-coming writers, it can be tricky to figure out who you might want to partner with. So, what did that look like when you first started to write together?
LE: Gene and I met on Bedazzled. He was an intern for the director who's since passed (Harold Ramis) and I was the office PA, so I taught Gene how to use the coffee machine, and that's the way we met. You know, I think we had similar sensibilities, and I mean, these things are kismet. It wasn’t like I read five scripts of Gene and was like, “Oh my God, I can't believe I get to write with this person!” It was like, I didn't know anyone in LA, and the two of us had a similar kind of taste in movies and TV shows and we just decided to start writing together. In those early days, there were other people that I tried writing with, and Gene and I just kind of connected the most.
I would say to people: You know, if you want to write with someone, it's just like dating! You're not marrying someone because you say, “Hey, let's write a script together,” like write the script together, and if it was a fun experience or you think that you guys are better together than you are by yourself, then you should write another one.
If it was not such a fun experience, or you feel like they didn't deliver on their end, or they were shutting down your ideas, then it's probably not a good fit. Then, either try writing something on your own and see if you have the confidence and the ability to do that, or find somebody else to write with.
PR: Do you feel like you complement each other with different skill sets?
LE: I think that I think our skill sets are pretty similar. I would say that I think that I want to move faster, and Gene wants to move slower and go over something more than once. Not that I want to go over something just once. But like I would say that - when we write together - he really wants to stress test every line. So, I think, you know, without one another, I think I would probably go too fast and maybe miss some opportunities for jokes, and I think without me, Gene could go too slow and like, be working on the same scene for a month.
PR: I've noticed that you've worked mostly in comedy, but in a variety of different comedic subgenres. What attracts you to a project?
LE: I just get excited about a world or a concept or a character, and then I really just want to dive in. And so, you know, over the last few years, I've really kind of been toggling between comedy and doing things that are a little bit more dramatic… I'm kind of just agnostic to genre. I'm writing a thriller right now. I've never written a thriller before, but I'm really excited about it.
And so I think that, you know, part of that is collaborating with the right people and like, using Jury Duty as an example, Jury Duty was an idea that Gene and I had had for a million years: to do a scripted version! These producers came to us with this idea of doing the hidden camera version of it, and we combined our two ideas… Adding that component of the hidden camera thing was scary and exciting in the right way. And so, that was something where I heard that premise and was like, “I need to be a part of that.”
PR: You know, you’re hitting me with perfect segues! You mentioned Jury Duty: What were you looking for in your everyman character who ended up being Ronald Gladden?
LE: I think we really wanted someone decent and kind and open to new experiences and also to connecting with the other characters. We always looked at Jury Duty as a Hero's Journey: You have someone who - at the beginning - just wants to kind of be a face in the crowd. Like, we made him the foreman, but he doesn't want to be the foreman. He doesn't want to have to be responsible for those things. By the end of the show, not only has he connected with his other jurors and formed relationships that are completely real… but in the last episode, he’s really kind of running the jury deliberation room and getting everyone on board. He's listening to everyone, and he really becomes a leader.
PR: With the rest of the characters, how did you go about creating them? Did you already have archetypal roles in mind when you went out to these comedians? How did that process look?
LE: It was a little bit of everything. We had some [ideas]; we wanted to have a character who was kind of a student who was going on a trip with his girlfriend and then the trip gets canceled… and him trying to get out of jury duty by saying he's a racist. Those are things we've had for years. We wanted to have a celebrity; we wanted the celebrity to be insufferable. James Marsden did an incredible job with that.
And so we had ideas like that, and then so much of it in a show like this is really about casting. These incredible improv actors bring their own energies to it. They just, they kind of took the ideas and the notions that we had on the page and just completely made it alive with that.
PR: Did you have certain tent poles that you wanted to hit each episode? How did it look on the page?
LE: Basically, there would be kind of a loose structure for the episode, and you'd want to kind of try to hit all of the [points]. Like you do these things where you kind of force the characters into a place… You know, “We're going to do the lunch order, so somebody make sure that you bring in the menu book!”
You don't know exactly what Ronald is going to do from moment to moment. So, sometimes, the other characters are making changes so that Ronald is along for the variety of it. Then, if Ronald surprises you and says, “You know what? I don't want to go to Margaritaville,” You then have to adapt because it's not like we've rented out five restaurants. We've only rented out Margaritaville! So then, you're pulling the actors aside sometimes to do talking heads and then when you pull them aside, you say, “Hey, make sure you get Ronald to get on board with X.”
PR: Wow. Was there ever a time when something went drastically wrong or like drastically off-script?
LE: There was nothing drastically wrong. It was just kind of… moments that like you think, oh, we could never have written that… Like [Ronald] showing [Todd] A Bug's Life. [Ronald] is so decent and kind and generous of his time, so there are all these kinds of discoveries that happen in this type of genre that you could never anticipate.
PR: Moving into character; I think that you've created and written some amazing characters. So, I was wondering what you think makes a good character and what your first steps are in bringing a character to life.
LE: When I talk to young writers, to me, it's like specificity, specificity, specificity. I think so many scripts that I read kind of feel like either somebody doesn't know that world that they're writing about, or they're not able to access it and the exercise that I always, I do for myself and I encourage other writers to do is take your characters outside of your show.
So let's say you're doing a show about two sisters that are solving a murder and, if they're not professional detectives, you could write funny lines about it. But if you take the characters outside of your show, and you put them in a supermarket or you put them at a wedding or a funeral - those are the three things that I've arbitrarily chosen - How are they funny?
If you take like an iconic character like Dwight Schrute or George Costanza or Elaine from Seinfeld or Jonah from Veep or Tina Fey from 30 Rock or… you know what I mean? Or any of the characters from Modern Family and you put them in a supermarket. I know Dwight's going to be obsessed with like the ten items or less, [making sure that] people are following the rules. Dwight is going to want to talk to the assistant manager. Michael Scott at a funeral is going to want to give a eulogy even though he doesn't know anyone.
And so, when you have characters that have full personalities and are not just servicing the murder plot of your pilot, you could pitch a million [ideas]. But if your character of the sister doesn't really have a personality but has funny lines about the murder, you'll find out very quickly at the supermarket that she has no personality.
PR: Do you still test your characters now with theories like this?
LE: Yeah, I mean, I think about that stuff all the time. Gene and I wrote a movie called GOOD BOYS and you know, the earlier drafts of the script I think were very funny, but like the kids’ lines were interchangeable. And then as we started digging into the characters, it was like, “Oh, well, obviously this one character couldn't say that thing! It's not like you're just handing out lines like candy, they all have a [distinct] point of view.” If you just kind of have three kids that all have similar takes on the world, then that's not as interesting.
Thank you, Lee, for taking the time to do this interview, and thank you for sharing your endless knowledge!
Thank you to Lenny for coordinating.