Two Decades in Comedy’s Best Writers’ Rooms: A Conversation with John Riggi

by Matt Siegel

John Riggi has written for, among many other shows, The Larry Sanders Show, 30 Rock, and the first and second seasons — nine years separated — of HBO’s The Comeback. He spoke with us about his two decades in the industry: about how TV writing has changed; about how TV writers have changed; about working in the industry while gay, then and now; and about coming back, again, to HBO.

My way into television writing was so atypical, because I started out as a standup and that’s what took me out of Ohio to Chicago. I started working a lot at the Improv in Chicago, and I met a lot of L.A.-based comedians there and one of the main ones, strangely — I say because of our different political leanings — is Dennis Miller. We worked together for a week and really kind of keyed into each other, and he was very interested in me and he just kept saying you’ve got to move to L.A., you’ve got to move to L.A., and so I did. He had said he was potentially going to get this talk show, and would I be interested in writing on it, and I said sure.

I wasn’t really interested in political humor, so I kind of pushed through the idea of doing these desk pieces that became longer and longer and more complicated and became little narrative pieces. And then that show got canceled after eight months. I had read for a part on a show that Garry Shandling was doing called The Larry Sanders Show, and I got the part, and then through a very long story that isn’t important, I ultimately didn’t get the part. The Larry Sanders Show was just about to start up at the same time that The Dennis Miller Show was canceled, so I wrote a script, and I didn’t know what I was doing; I had never written a script before in my life. My script got to Garry and I went in and had a meeting, and then heard nothing, and was kind of giving it up. And then I met him at Campanile [a Los Angeles restaurant] where HBO was having a party for the Cable Ace Awards. My One Night Stand for HBO (a now-defunct stand-up comedy series) was nominated for an award, and my husband David said, “Put your tux on and go down to Campanile and find Garry and talk to him about this job.” So I did, and I finally got to Garry, and he said, “I’m just really worried; I’m not sure you’ll be happy being a writer on The Larry Sanders Show because you wanted to be an actor,” and I said, “I just want to work on it — I don’t care.” And that was on a Sunday and then that following Wednesday I got hired.

What was your brand of humor?

It was very long form, like I didn’t really have jokes. One time I got this gig where I got to open up for two weeks for Diana Ross in Las Vegas and I was so excited. The first night I did it I bombed terribly, and I realized that the Las Vegas audience didn’t want to get to know me, they just wanted me to do some jokes and get off, and so I went back to my room that night and thought, “What setup punchline jokes do I have?” So I just extracted everything else that wasn’t a joke and just went out and told jokes for ten minutes and it went much better.

Your first writers’ room was Dennis Miller. Was that a boys’ club?

Yes, the only woman was Leah Krinsky, but it was an amazing writing staff. It was Max Mutchnick and David Kohan (creators and Executive Producers of Will & Grace), it was Eddie Feldman, it was Kevin Rooney, it was Drake Sather, it was Ed Driscoll, Steve Rudnick and Leo Benvenuti — people who went on to do a bunch of different things.

Was gay okay in that writers’ room?

It was okay — I don’t think it was necessarily prized in any way. I don’t think it was like, “What’s the gay perspective on this joke?” I don’t think that ever happened. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me quite frankly…maybe on The Comeback.

Writers’ rooms, to me, don’t necessarily seem like a “safe space,” so where was your comfort level during Dennis Miller?

Oh my god, I’m just realizing that I don’t think I was out yet. I wasn’t out. So my comfort level was really bad. Like I remember one time — I don’t know why he did this, I can’t remember the circumstance — but we were looking to move to this guesthouse in Silver Lake — me and my boyfriend at the time. And for some reason Dennis [Miller] came with me to look at this place, and I remember that I went to work wearing black bicycle pants and Doc Martens and some kind of weird t-shirt, and I remember we were walking up the steps to look at this place, and I remember Dennis going, “Reej, what’s going on with the outfit? What, are you going gay on me?” I remember him saying that and I was like “No, no, what are you talking about?” So my comfort level was not great as far as that goes. Like I was very much a part of that [writers’] room and I was appreciated for what I was bringing to the table comedically, but I was not at all talking about my personal life.

So you flew under the radar in terms of passing as straight.

Yes, surprisingly.

But, could one be a big ol’ queen in a writers’ room in 1991?

I don’t think — not on that show. I don’t think so. I think it was too — I don’t think it would be overt, but I just don’t think it would work. I don’t think it would work.

So, you went from Dennis Miller directly into writing for The Larry Sanders Show. Did you feel more secure as a writer at that point?

No, I felt like I jumped in the deep end of a swimming pool — I knew what that show was. I mean, almost immediately I realized that I was working in an environment where the bar, writing-wise, was so high that it was a little bit intimidating. Garry taught me the kind of writing that I like the best, which is writing about human behavior that’s funny as opposed to writing jokes. I can write jokes, and I do it for a living, but, like, Garry used to say to us all the time, “Write the behavior and then figure out what’s funny about the behavior.” I’ve never forgotten that and I think it’s really good advice, but it’s also really hard — that’s why people write jokes.

Even then, as green as I was, I remember watching us shoot stuff, and I remember thinking, “Oh my god, I’m seeing something that is above the level of what most shows are.” Just the level of those guys like Rip [Torn] and Jeffrey [Tambor]. They were such good actors.

What was the Larry Sanders writers’ room like?

It was a little different. We wouldn’t gangbang a script or punch up a script together — the show didn’t work that way. Everyone considers Larry Sanders to be a single-camera show, and in the sense that we didn’t have an audience, it was single-camera, but we were shooting three cameras all the time, which Todd Holland really pioneered, because when he got there it really was single-camera, and Todd was like, “This just needs to go faster and we need to shoot quicker,” and so we shot The Larry Sanders Show in two days. We’d shoot on Thursdays and Fridays and we’d shoot like seventeen pages a day, which for a single camera show is unheard of. Basically the way it would happen is we’d have a script, we’d do the table-read on Monday, we’d take the script back and a small group of people would rewrite it, and then it would go back out on Tuesday. And then on Wednesdays, the script would come back up from the floor and it would have improvised new lines in it and then I would say yay or nay to them. Sometimes Garry would say, “I want this one in for sure. Put that in.” So my work Wednesday nights was to put those improvised lines in — or not — and then we would shoot Thursday and Friday.

At the same time, you were actually writing about an actual writers’ room on both The Larry Sanders Show and The Comeback. Is there an evolution between the way you wrote the writers’ room on The Larry Sanders Show and the way you wrote the writers’ room on The Comeback?

I think the writers’ room depicted on The Comeback, honestly, was a more realistic representation of probably what happens in a room in general. First of all, on The Larry Sanders Show, very seldom did we do stories that revolved around the writers. It was basically that triad of Hank, Larry, and Artie, and the writers would move in and out of those stories. When we did The Comeback, the idea that writers have a sort of love/hate relationship with the people that are in the show, I think is a very common thing. So we kind of took that to the extreme with Paulie G. [the name of the showrunner character on The Comeback], but I think that room is pretty typical of what you might see on a sitcom because it really is a boys’ club — it really is. When I worked on Will & Grace, that was the gayest room I’d ever been in in my life, and it was sort of the antithesis of every other room I’d ever been in. We had every gossip rag out there in the middle of the table and that’s what we would do host-chat with — we would go through the gossip rags and talk about them and I’d never seen that.

Host-chat?

Host-chat is a thing they called it at Will & Grace, which I’ve sort of taken up, which is before you dig in for the day. Like, if 10 o’clock is the start time, the writers walk in and everyone has a cup of coffee and a bagel, and before we jump into the work, there’s a thing called host-chat, where basically you just kind of get your motor going. But I’d never been in a room where there was like US Magazine and People and OK! on the table, and there was a large presence of gay writers in that room. Also, the other thing, by the time I got to Will & Grace, that show was running like a machine — it had been on for seven years, and so the room was well-established and ran pretty well.

When people ask me what it’s like to be in a writers’ room, I always say that it’s like every day you go to a dinner party and the dinner lasts for twelve hours and you have the same six friends and you’re all talking about the same six friends. You spend an enormous amount of time with these other writers. If you start a brand new show and those eight or ten writers walk into that writers’ room and they look at that table and they all take a seat, once they have sat in those particular seats they never give up those seats, so things get territorial.

It’s very communal and it’s very very interactive, and there can be a great writer in there but he or she might just drive you out of your mind for whatever reason. And there’s a weird thing of knowing when to talk and when not to talk, are you talking too much or are you not talking enough, are you pitching too much or are you not pitching enough — there’s all these various things to keep in mind.

And people judging what you’re saying.

Yeah, it’s a very judgy room. Like I’ve always heard the Frasier [writers’] room was almost silent because unless you were absolutely one hundred percent sure that the thing you were about to pitch was a home-run, you did not say it because otherwise you were shamed. So I’ve always heard — again it could be just a rumor — the lore that Frasier was a very quiet room.

Is there any difference between the writers’ rooms of the early nineties and the writers’ rooms of today?

I think the writers — I don’t know if I want to say this. I will say a couple things. I will say that writers are dealing with an audience that is much more savvy about what they’re watching, and secondly, a dwindling audience. I’m sure when sitcoms were first invented it must’ve been great to be working on them, because nobody had ever seen anything yet, so everything was new and everything was fresh. I Love Lucy was in the fifties so now we’re almost seventy years later — what are we supposed to invent that’s new at this point? What haven’t they seen? In a way I think it’s good because I think it makes you write more about characters. I also think — I guess I will say — I think that some writers today, at least it has been my experience recently — that I have worked with writers who don’t in my estimation fully understand the process and what’s involved in running a show and putting a show together and making a show. I’ve had experiences with writers where there seems to be a kind of naiveté about how writers’ rooms work, what’s expected of them, how hard they should be working — just stuff that I would never do. I’m gonna sound like an old man but I’ve had experiences with staff writers coming in and being like, “Can I have tomorrow off because my sister’s having a birthday party for my nephew and I kind of want to be there,” and it’s like, we’re shooting tomorrow.

Entitled.

Yes. Entitled. Entitlement. For sure.

The character of Gigi on The Comeback is an archetype for the young over-educated east-coast playwright genius who is recruited to write for television. Does that happen?

Yes. As writers we kind of go through these cycles of “Who’s out there whose interesting and isn’t doing the same old thing?” and so a lot of times you do get playwrights, and in theory that sounds great, but sitcom is such its own little weird animal — totally 100% weird. This is not a disparaging remark about playwrights; sitcom writing is just a weird writing form. You really have to keep so many things in your head. Like right now we get like twenty-one minutes to tell a story on a network sitcom. So if you have an “A” story and a “B” story, that means both of your stories are ten minutes long. And if you have eight characters, how long are they gonna be on screen for, like a minute each? So the idea of Gigi was that Gigi was a smart interesting writer who basically got thrown into the lion’s den of this boys’ club of comedy writers because we’re tough as a group. I would say you have to have a pretty thick skin in a writers’ room.

For me, being gay, I mean you hear a lot of gay jokes. You hear a lot of jokes that you kind of sit there and go, “Really? That’s the thing?” I remember one time I was in a room and I was wearing a flowered shirt and the showrunner said to me, “See, that shirt I could never pull off because it’s got flowers on it.” And I said, “So?” And he goes, “Well, you know, you’re gay so you can wear a flowered shirt, but for me it’d be hard to wear a flowered shirt. What are people gonna think?” And I’m like, “What, they’re gonna think you’re gay?” I remember it making me really angry. I remember thinking, “Buddy, if all that’s stopping you from sucking a dick is a flowered shirt, put the shirt on.” So the idea of Gigi was to see what would happen when you put a female writer in a room full of comedy writers who were used to getting swiped at all the time, and she wasn’t. That part of that writers’ room depicted on The Comeback was a real thing. It was something all of us had experienced: Michael [Patrick-King] had experienced it; I had experienced it.

Which part?

A writers’ room can be very tough. Everything is questioned. Everything is potential to go after you. You could come back from Thanksgiving and someone could go, “Oh, well, somebody was eating turkey.” You just have to steel yourself because you walk into the room and they’re comedy writers, so, as comedy writers nothing is off limits. Nothing. And depending on what mood you’re in on any given day, you might find it really funny or you might be going, “Hey, you know what? Fuck you. I’m not in the mood to hear your bullshit today.” So, even a normal comedy writer can have that perspective. So what happens when you amp it up and make it a female playwright who has no idea what that world is like? So, we basically sort of fed her to the wolves just to see what would happen.

And in these rooms everyone is always “on.”

Yes

That must be annoying.

It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting.

I assume you don’t feel the need to be on all the time after twenty-plus years in these rooms.

Well, there’s a herd mentality. It’s like if you’re not on, what are you doing? I think the nervous feed is, “Yeah, but if I don’t have a room bit or I don’t have a thing maybe the showrunner won’t think I’m paying attention or won’t think I’m engaged and maybe he won’t like me or he won’t think I’m doing a good job or that I’m not one of the guys. So you can very easily get pulled into it. I didn’t really care because I was like “whatever.” But I don’t fault people for doing it. I’ve seen it over and over again where people are like, “I gotta play the game here.” And depending on who the showrunner is, you have to keep them thinking you’re paying attention and you’re engaged and you’re a fun guy. Sometimes it’s like you wanna be in the room when they’re breaking a story, and if the showrunner suddenly has decided that you’re not one of the fun ones, you get put in the joke room. So now you’re in the punch-up room, now they’re in the main room coming up with the next five episodes, but you didn’t get picked because you don’t have a funny bit that anybody likes. That does happen.

Tell me about the writers’ room for the second series of The Comeback.

The Comeback “room” was Michael Patrick-King, myself, Amy Harris, and Lisa Kudrow — that was it. That room was great. It was kind of a distilled version of the first series of The Comeback where there were a few more writers. But at the time we were only contracted to do six episodes so Michael decided — and I don’t think it was a bad idea — to say, “Let’s just let it be the four of us.” That room works in a completely unique way in that we start talking about scenarios and it’s easy to stay engaged because Lisa starts doing [her character] Valerie. So it’s like what would Valerie be doing, and then Lisa does Valerie, and then you start talking to Valerie, and the scene starts coming out, and the writers’ assistant is just trying to take it all down because it’s just all happening in the moment and it’s very exciting and it’s very cool. I’m the biggest fan of Lisa’s. It’s hard to work with someone who you’re that big of a fan of sometimes, especially when you have to direct them.

And the storytelling of The Comeback is completely its own thing because, to me, it’s like TV story-telling pulled inside out because in regular TV you write a world where people are just going through their lives, and that’s a world, and they live their lives, so you write it like they live their lives. In The Comeback, every single person knows that they’re on television, so that’s always on their minds. And the number one person who never forgets it, who ultimately probably can’t live without it, is Valerie. And so coming at writing her character from the perspective of saying, “I constantly know there’s a camera right there,” is very unique and unlike anything else I’ve ever done for sure.

We all know each other; I’ve known Michael forever. We’re also four really passionate people about the show — first and foremost, Michael and Lisa because they’re the ones who devised it and came up with it. But Amy and I came on board in the first season and that show is so important to me and I never forgot it. As a matter of fact, when I just heard inklings through this back channel that The Comeback was gonna come back for six episodes, I emailed him [Michael Patrick-King] and said “Please tell me that I’m involved.” So we would have just vigorous discussions about the show and where the show could go. The first time we did The Comeback, people liked it but they would say to me, “I don’t know what I’m watching,” because people forget it was nine years ago — almost ten years ago — and reality television, people didn’t really even know what it was. So now it’s almost ten years later and now it’s like, “Where is Valerie with reality television?” That was a big discussion among the four of us.

Valerie is not the same in regards to her knowledge of what that camera is doing to her for every second that she is on it — she’s much more savvy about it. And so we tried to make it feel like nine years has gone by and Valerie, like the general public, understands what reality television is a lot more, and what it can do to you, and how you can manipulate it for what you want it to look like. But that writers’ room was a dream because it was four people and it was very intimate, and it reminded me in a way of doing radio in the sense of like, “Is anyone listening to this? Is anyone ever gonna see this?” That’s how I would feel. I would feel like we were just sitting around talking and having fun and just laughing our asses off, and sometimes arguing about what we thought the show or an episode should be, but mainly laughing. And it was so much fun, I was like, “Are we actually really gonna do this, or is this just like us having a party?” And then we got into the shooting and it was not a party. It was an incredible amount of work in a very short amount of time.

Was this writing experience like the pinnacle in terms of the harmony in the room? Nobody’s having to kiss anyone’s ass; you’re just creating. Does it get any better

It was very free in that sense. Listen, I love The Comeback, it’s one of the high points in my career without a doubt. I also know that people are very polarized about it — people either really like it or they go, “Oh my god, I can’t watch it. It makes me cringe.” I see this thing all the time, “cringe-worthy” in the press, and all I can say is that I have a completely different experience with it, and maybe it’s because I have the benefit of seeing Lisa cut the character and we all start laughing, like I’m always always aware it’s not real — it’s Lisa doing this character that we all think is hilarious. And that’s not to say that I haven’t been moved — Lisa has made me cry playing Valerie while we’re shooting, so I get it. But for whatever reason, this “cringe-worthy” phrase to me is always pushing it beyond the limit of what I even thought it was. I guess I just don’t look at it that way, but I do absolutely look at it as one of the pinnacles of my career.

But I have to say that 30 Rock, for me, when we won the Emmy our freshman year, that was unprecedented. I mean, I remember that moment…and I remember us going back into that writers’ room in the second season and now we all had an Emmy.
 We were such underdogs, so for us to win was a big thing. So I have to include 30 Rockbut the great thing about The Comeback is that it’s probably as close as you can get in television to a one hundred percent labor of love. I think it’s a labor of love on Michael’s part, on Lisa’s part, on Amy’s part — everybody — even HBO. I think those guys loved that show so much that they just wanted to bring it back and see what would happen. And the other great thing about HBO is that they just let you make the show, they’re very very hands-off.

For me, I love that character [Valerie], and I always say that I could write Valerie till the day I drop dead.

Top photo by Rubenstein