In the writers’ room with WGC awards TV comedy nominees

Denis McGrath, Craig David Wallace and Kim Coghill sound off on their writers' room must-haves and how they would bring Less Than Kind and Todd and the Book of Pure Evil together.

Ahead of the Writers Guild of Canada Screenwriting Awards, happening Apr. 22, Playback asked the nominees in the TV comedy category about, well, how they write comedy. Nominated in the category are Denis McGrath (Less Than Kind – Danger, Wrestling), Mark McKinney (LTK – Fugue State), Kim Coghill (LTK – Jerk Chicken) and Ian Malone, Charles Picco and Craig David Wallace (Todd and the Book of Pure Evil – B.Y.O.B.O.P.E.).

Stay tuned for the TV drama nominees on Monday.

PB: Have you experienced any challenges in keeping your writing fresh and still funny in this era of constant communication (Twitter, Facebook, social media in general)? Or has social media helped/positively contributed to your writing in some way?

Denis McGrath: Besides allowing for “micro-procrastination” (you can goof off in 30-second increments on FB or Twitter, most other media will take you away from the keyboard for longer), I think it acts well as a ‘valve.’ It’s kind of a repository for your stray funny thoughts. Plus it’s also easier to discern an individual’s skewed point-of-view or comic voice, because it’s not subsumed to the format, or the rewriting process, or creativity-bludgeoning notes.

Craig David Wallace

Craig David Wallace: It helped that our world of Todd and the Book of Pure Evil was a throwback time of sorts. We had computers, cell phones, and a bit of texting on the show, but for the most part the show was written by a bunch of dudes who were computer illiterate way way back in high school.

We did have a young eager story editor by the name of Ian Malone, who had to answer all our old-man “Boy! What do the kids say today? Is stoked still cool? What is hooking up? Sexting? Is that a nautical term?” questions. We went the other direction and stayed away from fresh by pretending that the last twenty years didn’t happen and that Metallica was still cool.

As far as our fans go, though, social media and computers has been awesome(ish). I’m pretty sure most of the people who are fans of the show didn’t watch it while it was broadcast, instead finding it through “other” means. Its a double-edged sword. Would we be still on the air if people didn’t watch the show illegally? Or would we have a much smaller audience? Now that we’re on Netflix in the U.S., we’re getting a heck of a lot more fans. And if Todd and the Book of Pure Evil is going to live on in some form, it’s certainly going to be ENTIRELY because of social media and our fans. Because our fans are the best.

Kim Coghill: Writers love to be distracted. And shooting little bons mots at each other is a fun way to- OH LOOK, A SPECK OF DUST!… test material and spark new ideas; but really, before- HEY DUST! WHAT UP?… um, before Twitter, there were lots of other distractions; the important thing is to not let it get the best of you and- DUST! DUST DUST DUST DUST DUST!!!

PB: How do you approach writing comedy?

DM: Ass-first, like a breach birth. Actually, I tend to approach it first exactly like a drama: get the story working first, then when that’s solid, pile on the absurdity or twist it for comic effect. That way you’re always grounded in something real, human, and relatable. Though the ass-first thing also works.

CDW: Cautiously. No sudden movements. When comedy is not looking, that’s when you pounce. We had a really great room where everyone had different strengths. Some were really good at setup-payoff jokes. Others were masters at situational comedy which wasn’t about jokes but just really ridiculous situations. Some were really good at hearing a joke and making it funnier. And some were just plain out there in a way that no one else will ever be. And then there was me, who just had everyone else make me look good.

KC: I come from journalism, so I love storytelling and finding the comedy in a story that feels very realistic, which was something I loved about Less Than Kind – its humour is set against stories that feel very real, and that include the full spectrum of human emotion. Because things are funnier when they’re part of a mix of sadness, disappointment, anger, frustration – the more real the characters, the funnier their stories can be.

PB: What’s a must-have for you in the writers’ room?

DM: Generosity. People who laugh at others’ contributions, and who don’t think your contribution must die so theirs might live. That cutthroat-school of comedy is one of the evolutionary branches of how to do this. I’d be pleased to see that go the way of the dodo. Ideally comedy’s supposed to be fun. I don’t know why it has to be miserable for those who make it.

Denis McGrath & Kim Coghill

CDW: Other writers. Writing alone in the writing room sucks. I imagine being in a writer’s room with writers you don’t like is even worse, but luckily that hasn’t been my experience. We all seemed to genuinely like each other, or were really good at faking it. And everyone was really good about taking an idea and running with it, making it better and weirder.

KC: Fearlessness about the story. Being unafraid to rip apart a great idea and make it better. In the Less Than Kind room, Mark McKinney set a great example by really listening to his gut, and if something didn’t quite ring true – the tone, the voice, the joke – we either revamped it, or tossed it, and trusted that we could and would do better.

PB: This category is dominated by writers from Less Than Kind and Todd and the Book of Pure Evil. What storyline could bring the characters from these two shows together?

DM: Two-high school shows, shouldn’t be too hard. Danny from LTK gets ahold of the book at some sort of multiple school field trip. Sh** goes down. There’s blood. Awesome stuff. Craig David Wallace’s world is killer fun. I miss that show.

CDW: We were talking about that all time when we were in production! Todd and Less Than Kind both shot in Winnipeg, with much of the same crew, and a lot of crossover from supporting actors. I always wanted to do a crossover episode where the Book Of Pure Evil ended up at Sheldon’s high school and he met Todd and the gang. Sadly, with both show having finished their run, it’s not going to happen.

KC: I’m envisioning a hard-driving, gritty crime procedural where Sheldon and Todd are grizzled cops who dole out ‘street justice’ for unusual crimes: lost keys, missing buttons, burnt coffee. It’s called “Less Than Evil.”

RELATED: In the writers’ room: McGrath vs. Coghill; Playback Spring 2013 – “Top 10 Tips For Making Your TV Series Into a Cult* Hit” featuring Craig David Wallace and Bob Martin