MAY 14, 2018

Emmy Winner Robert Carlock: Trust Your Intuition

This episode was originally released in May 2017. Press Play above to listen.

About this episode’s guest:

  • Award-winning writer and producer
  • Longstanding collaborator with Tina Fey
  • Executive producer of NBC’s 30 Rock
  • Co-creator and executive producer of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Topics covered in this episode:

Press Play to hear the full conversation or check out the transcript below. You can also subscribe to Office Hours on Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

(Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt photo courtesy of Netflix)

Spencer Rascoff: Hey, Robert. Great to see you.

Robert Carlock: Hi, Spence.

Rascoff: Thanks for getting together with me today. I’m excited to talk to you about your –

Carlock: You told me this was just going to be lunch. I don’t understand.

[Laughter]

Rascoff: And then I brought these microphones. Sorry about that. So describe for listeners the scope of your responsibilities, firstly. So let’s focus on Kimmy Schmidt firstly. How many people work on the show, how many months a year do they work, where do you tape, like what is the company of Kimmy Schmidt?

Carlock: Right. There are about 200 people who are employed directly by the show, and then there are a variety of other people at studios and networks for whom the show is part of their duties but we don’t pay them. So –

Rascoff: Year-round?

Carlock: − year-round, yeah. No. We do 13 episodes, shooting about six-plus months, and then about three months − well, no, not, but about two and a half months of pre-production, which is really just the writing staff and our immediate support staff, so that’s 20, two dozen people year-round or 10 months of the year. Then, when we’re in production, it balloons up to 200.

Rascoff: Now, you’ve never worked at a normal company –

Carlock: At a place?

[Laughter]

Rascoff: − before?

Carlock: I had a summer job at Massachusetts Financial Services. My father worked in investment. America’s oldest mutual fund company, Spencer.

Rascoff: OK, good to know [laughs].

Carlock: − and I decided very quickly that I did not want to do that. I don’t think I admitted it to myself until much later, and I certainly didn’t tell my parents until much later.

Rascoff: Your parents do know what you do now, though?

Carlock: They don’t, no.

[Laughter]

Fortunately, they don’t know how to use a computer, either.

Rascoff: Well, hopefully they don’t listen to this podcast. So how does this company, if you even think of it as a company, compare with –

Carlock: How dare you.

Rascoff: − a normal company?

Carlock: Well, I mean right now, what you see here at this office, our Manhattan office, where I’m here and Tina [Fey] is next door, and we have three assistants out there. Tina’s husband, Jeff [Richmond], who does all our music, is down the hall either writing music for the show or working on a musical that he and Tina are working on, and Tina’s sort of producer/development guy is a little farther down the hall. This kind of is the company. In success, when someone buys something from us, we need a lot of people to help us actually put that on film, so I think what’s different is the way that that changes and the way that, okay, right now, yeah, they’re working on a Broadway musical, and that’s a whole different set of helpers. You can call them temporary hires, or whatever. We’ve worked with some of the same people since the beginning of 30 Rock, and that’s going on 15 years. That’s bad math; 10 years, I mean. You see? I’m not –

Rascoff: You’re not –

Carlock: I’m a right-brain guy.

Rascoff: − suited for a mutual fund.

Carlock: So I think part of maybe what’s different is that you’re constantly collaborating with people, some of whom you haven’t worked with before, and that’s if you’re lucky. That’s if people are buying what you’re selling. We could just sit here in front of our computers for a couple years, at least, until anyone noticed that we hadn’t done anything −
[Laughter]

− but that would be bad.

Rascoff: So let’s talk about management on a TV show. You’ve got how many writers on –

Carlock: I think we had 11 this year, or maybe it’s 12.

Rascoff: And then cast, crew totaling 200 or so people. So when you’re managing creative people, whether it be cast, crew, writers, what are some of the challenges of managing creative types?

Carlock: I think, and this is probably compounded by being a manager who is a creative type, that I’m always very conscious, especially with writers and actors, of the way in which they as individuals are putting themselves out there. With an actor, of course, it’s their face and body and everything, and I certainly know as a writer that when you put your material out there, that that’s a very vulnerable feeling, and so it’s hard.

Rascoff: Is it hard to give feedback to a writer, for example? I mean in my world, there’s a lot of data to inform these decisions –

Carlock: Right, so you can hide behind all your numbers.

Rascoff: And use them, yes.

Carlock: “Look, seven.” But I try to do it in a way that is constructive and helpful. Performance is a hard thing to give feedback on. When you have a script or an outline, I can be much more direct and say, “I’m not following the story,” or whatever it is. I do think it’s hard because I don’t − with the writers in particular, and let’s focus on that, I’m spending a lot of time in a room with these people. I hire people, Tina and I hire people we think we’ll like, and we usually are pretty good at that. It is hard to figure out whether someone is going to be a – there are a million reasons why a talented person doesn’t necessarily work out. Giving that kind of feedback is really hard, because there are two things you don’t want to do. One is just crush somebody whom you want to continue to have this intense working relationship with. You have to. That’s the only way things get done, is working in that room for long hours. You also don’t want to encourage or give the impression of, “Oh, I just need to talk more,” and then you’re just getting more of nothing, if that makes sense.

Rascoff: For those of us that have never been in a writers’ room before, how collaborative is the process?

Carlock: It’s a mixture, but the bulk of our work, the bulk of any individual member of the staff’s work is done in the room, and it’s highly collaborative, and I think groups of five or six are kind of the most efficient number. There are certain tasks that we do, for instance when a script comes in and we just want to discuss the script as a whole and talk about how we’re going to rewrite it and what we’re going to change, and what we liked or didn’t like, we do that with the full staff. But I just think it gets sclerotic to try to do work – as soon as you get seven people, three people stop working. If you have five or six, I think everyone tends to concentrate. So that’s kind of the nucleus, two groups. When we’re in production, Tina and I are running the editing, we’re watching casting, someone is on set; hopefully, someone is off writing a script. One room is working on an upcoming script, one room is rewriting the next script to shoot.

Rascoff: So, when a viewer sees, “Written by,” or, “Screenplay by,” that’s the person who wrote kind of the –

Carlock: The first draft.

Rascoff: − first draft, and then it gets worked on by the team.

Carlock: Right, so the team, we’ll say, breaks the episode, outlines it, pitches it, and the team then gets the script back, then there’s a table-read with the actors, and then the team goes back and rewrites that, as well. Sometimes there’s rewriting that kind of dribbles out, but it’s usually two big rewrites on the original writer’s draft and on the table draft, and each of those rewrites takes about three full days. By full days, I mean 16-hour days. So budgeting that time and getting the right combination of people in that room is really difficult, and I do think managing creative people is a balance. I know that there are times where I haven’t done a good job of it or I haven’t communicated clearly. I think, in particular, writers and creative people are hired because they’re capable of maintaining and believing in fictions, and sometimes people who aren’t doing a great job have, nonetheless, written a fictive version of their role.

Rascoff: Have you worked with writers that are very funny in person but aren’t able to put that pen-to-paper, aren’t actually funny writers, and vice versa?

Carlock: Definitely. Yeah. I’m not going to name any names.

[Laughter]

Rascoff: What is the role of the director and the cast? I mean if you have a script that’s been written initially and then rewritten by the team, if that were in the hands of, say, one director, could it come out quite different than if it were in the hands of another director?

Carlock: Television, for good or ill, is a producer’s medium, which means it’s a writer’s medium. I don’t know how that came to be, whether it’s out of necessity. The writers are the ones who were there, the ones who created it to begin with, they spent the most time with it, unlike film, where a director takes something very early and makes it his or her own. So we bring in directors, almost all of whom we have worked with before and have a shorthand with, some of whom we have worked with for many years.

The show has a style, a visual style and a comic style, and a pace and an editing style, and we’re always looking for a director to add his or her imprimatura to it. But it still has to fit within the vernacular of the show, and sometimes something interesting and, “OK, go for that. Go for that shot,” but that’s not the clearest way to tell the joke, or the way that we want to tell the joke. So, at the end of the day, in editing, it’s the producers again, it’s me and Tina and Jeff. So that is very different from film.

Rascoff: So you’ve had live shows, SNL

Carlock: Mm-hmm.

Rascoff: − you’ve had scripted shows on broadcast, Friends and 30 Rock

Carlock: Right.

Rascoff: − and you currently have a scripted show on streaming, Kimmy Schmidt is on Netflix. So what are the differences of those different mediums from a producer and writer’s standpoint?

Carlock: Yeah. Well, from a writer’s standpoint, there are some subtle things that, nevertheless, become significant when you’re getting down to brass tacks and getting down to writing these things. One is that in broadcast, you are constantly feeling the pressure, or the necessity to reintroduce existing characters and restate premise. Early in the life of a show, they call it re-piloting. The pilot is supposed to tell you what the show is, but you often will hear that unfortunate neologism all the time about just restating. Well, we can assume in streaming that if you’re watching Season 2, you’ve watched Season 1. That can have small effects, where we will sometimes tell a joke that depends on something a couple episodes before, and just hope in the giant sea of jokes on the show maybe some people pick it up, maybe some people won’t, maybe some people will be confused and that’s our ultimate goal. That’s something we just never would do on broadcast because you can’t make that assumption. So that’s a small detail, but I think it accrues into a slightly different kind of storytelling.

Rascoff: So that’s a net positive for you –

Carlock: Definitely.

Rascoff: − as a content creator.

Carlock: I think I know what net positive means.

Rascoff: All right [laughs].

Carlock: You know, similarly, you can feel a little emboldened to play with time a little bit more, it’s nothing that we’ve done too aggressively or ambitiously, but you often in broadcast really have to think of each episode as a discreet unit. Even if you’re telling a larger story, an arc, you know, Ross and Rachel, whatever it is, that’s a more kind of macro view. Each episode has to present itself fully.

Rascoff: Twenty-one minutes no matter what.

Carlock: Yeah, 21:15, which that’s not a lot of time. And that’s another big difference, which is that outside of just the limitations of time in the real world, our episodes can be longer. That allows directors to do more interesting things and actors to do more interesting things, and us to write bigger, fuller stories, and that certainly is freeing.

Rascoff: So, if hypothetically 30 Rock had been on Netflix and not on NBC, do you think the product that we as viewers watched would have been that different?

Carlock: That’s a very good question. I think it would have been longer, and that’s not always a good thing. I mean, look, I don’t think I’ve ever written something that wasn’t better shorter, at the end of the day. Our cuts now come in usually a little over 30 minutes, and we lose four or five minutes. It’s kind of the same number of minutes that we take away, as a 30 Rock episode would come in at 26:00, 27:00, maybe less, actually, and we would lose five or six minutes.

Rascoff: You would lose in the editing?

Carlock: Sorry. In the editing process, yeah. All that time, 21:15, often hurts, and I think it was often not the best episode at 21:15, but 26:00 was never the best episode, and 32:00, 33:00 is never the best episode, and 2.5 hours is never the best movie.

Rascoff: What about language? Do you have more flexibility with language?

Carlock: We would. I think we wrote a show that, even though it was originally written and edited the first season for broadcast, until we went to Netflix, we wrote a show that even when we went to Netflix, setting aside the fact that we had already established a tone, and why all of a sudden in Season 2 does everyone start swearing and taking their shirts off, despite my attempts. It’s a show at the center of which is this woman who kind of represents optimism and innocence and all these things that don’t go with that sort of tone. So we could, and we’ve pushed the envelope. There are certainly things we’ve done − was it the Hays Act, was that the obscenity act in Old Hollywood − both on that side of things, but also one of the interesting things is because there are no commercials, we don’t have a sales department to deal with, and we do like to write jokes.

In that our reality tends to be a little pushed is really helpful to write jokes and to tell stories where people are interacting with things that we recognize, and that we say Google instead of NetSearch.org, or whatever you would have to do on broadcast. We don’t say Zillow ever −

Rascoff: You should.

[Laughter]

Carlock: − because none of our characters can afford to buy a house. So that’s been kind of interesting, and it took me a little while to realize, “Oh right, I’m not having those arguments on the phone with sales departments anymore.”

Rascoff: Now what about data? So, with broadcast, of course, you got ratings data from NBC and from others. With Netflix, you don’t, I don’t think, get viewership information, right?

Carlock: We get nothing.

Rascoff: So is that liberating because you don’t have to worry about it, or do you ever wonder, like, “Is anybody watching this thing?”

Carlock: Right. It is, like most change, a double-edged sword. As the character Titus once said, “Why does anyone want a single-edged sword? Why is that a bad thing, to have a double-edged sword?” But it’s terrifically freeing on a day-to-day basis. Our relationship with Netflix is great. They give us kind of a general, “You’re doing great,” feedback, and occasional little details like, “Much better in Germany and Australia than we though we were going to do,” kind of stuff. We’ve only heard positive things from them.

Rascoff: The speculation is the reason they don’t give this information to producers is so that they have more leverage when buying content. Do you agree with that?

Carlock: I mean right now, we’re waiting for our Season 4 pickup, and the conversation is about budget, and how do you have a conversation about budget without knowing the other side of it?

Rascoff: I would be frustrated. They must know which demos –

Carlock: Oh, it would drive you crazy.

Rascoff: Yeah, exactly. I mean they must know certain storylines that people tend to stop watching, you know, what the percent completion rate is, what time of day people watch. I mean they have all this data –

Carlock: I think they have everything.

Rascoff: And, yet, they don’t share it with the content creators.

Carlock: No, they don’t. As an absolute, inviolate rule, they don’t. What’s interesting is that I’m sure they know all of that. They have not used any of it to guide us creatively or to push us one way or another creatively. Sometimes we have conversations but it’s always a conversation with a creative executive who seems to be coming from, it’s a guy, so I’ll say his point of view. Women can be creative executives, as well, Spencer. There’s never been a feeling of like the algorithm is saying, “Oh no,” when Kimmy dances, “You need more Kimmy dancing.” Then, on the other side, when it comes time to talk about, “What is the value of this show to you?” it’s kind of a mystery, so we’re waiting for the white smoke, I guess.

[Laughter]

Rascoff: So, when you put all that in balance, I mean do you have an overall preference to create shows for streaming? I mean do you miss the certain aspects of broadcasting?

Carlock: Totally. We keep our irons in the fire as best we can. I mean when we’re running a show day to day, month to month, it’s kind of impossible to really be doing anything else, but we’ve been developing with other people. We have a broadcast show coming out on NBC in April called Great News, sort of led by, I should say, and the pilot written by a woman named Tracey Wigfield, who was a 30 Rock writer, Jack Burditt, another 30 Rock guy helping her out. We love it. It’s a great, funny, perfectly networked, 21:15, great cast, genuinely funny show, but it’s not something you would do on Netflix.

We’re producing another for NBC with a guy named Luke Del Tredici, who was another 30 Rock writer, this spring. There’s just a pilot at this point. You know, taking it all in balance, we’re talking about the collision of art, so to speak, and commerce, and that is a balance, right? I mean there’s more freedom in one place, there’s more transparency in another place, there’s –

Rascoff: What about the social aspect of –

Carlock: Oh, I don’t have a social –

Rascoff: [Laughs]

Carlock: What?

[Laughter]

Rascoff: People on Netflix are watching it asynchronously, right −

Carlock: Yeah.

Rascoff: − whereas they watched Friends all at the same time, right?

Carlock: Yeah.

Rascoff: It was at the water cooler, or on Twitter or social media now –

Carlock: It’s funny, because the binge-watching does allow for a certain kind of synchronicity. I mean by the end of that week, you’ve heard as much kind of chatter and feedback as you hear over a season of a broadcast show. What is interesting, not really what we’re talking about right now but you can edit it out, is the fact –

Rascoff: This show might come in at 30. We might need to bring it down to 26, that kind of a thing.

[Laughter]

Carlock: You might need to bring it down to 26, exactly. It’s just not playing at 30 – is that part of the creative process on a broadcast show, when you’re doing 22 episodes and when you’ve only shot five or six of them when the season starts, is that that feedback plays a role in what you do for the other 15, 16 episodes. Not having that took some getting used to. I mean we’re always our worst critics, but it definitely was an adjustment to kind of do it in our vacuum of 200 people instead of having the whole world tell us –

Rascoff: I don’t know –

Carlock: − that we suck.

Rascoff: − if I ever told you. I had a summer job at Fox Broadcasting in 1990 when it was the fourth network, and this was when I was –

Carlock: 1990?

Rascoff: − in high school, and I worked in the research department that summer. I did focus groups and other data mining on some of their shows, making programming recommendations to creative people like you about Melrose Place and 90210, and what storylines were resonating with viewers and which characters they should kill off. The research department, which was 20 people back then, it’s probably 200 people today, was making all these programming recommendations –

Carlock: That’s interesting. Do you feel like they were being followed through on?

Rascoff: Frequently. I mean there was one I definitely remember. There was a gay couple on Melrose Place. This was the original Melrose Place. We were running testing on how that was playing, because that was very controversial at the time. That was one of the first major network shows with a gay couple. It turned out that the viewers were OK with a gay couple but they just actually didn’t like the casting of those two characters, and so they actually ended that storyline and reintroduced a different gay couple later in the show’s history. I’m sure research still comes into play on broadcast in some way. Whether producers follow those recommendations or not, I guess I don’t know. But you obviously don’t have that in the case of streaming.

Carlock: I guess not. I mean I’m sure perhaps it’s, and this is just guessing because, as you say, the data are endless. I would imagine in terms of their actual programming decisions, there’s probably a lot of number-crunching.

Rascoff: Right.

Carlock: I think we, at the time, it seemed like an easy decision from that end of Tina Fey and they got to watch 11 of the episodes and say, “Oh, these are really funny, and let’s put it on our air.”

Rascoff: Would you like more social viewing? I mean it strikes me as the Netflix experience is very asocial, I mean you would think that while you’re watching, you could see friends and friends of friends’ commentary and discussion about that episode, or as a content creator, how do you fill up a second screen? You’ve had me over at your apartment and watching a TV show, and I’m on Twitter kind of following along with the show. Are you like, “Oh god, why won’t these people just concentrate on my work and my art?” or no, that improves the experience? Do you know what social is?

Carlock: I think it’s like when friends hug.

Rascoff: [Laughs]

Carlock: Sorry, but you feel like streaming is less social than broadcast?

Rascoff: Partly because of binge, but also, I mean there are no social features built into Netflix, for example. You could imagine watching Netflix on my iPhone and watching an episode of Kimmy, and even if I’m watching it a month after the season drops on Netflix, it’s showing me a social newsfeed of things that people have said, impressions that people have of that episode.

Carlock: Do people want that? I mean I know people will follow things on Twitter while they’re watching it. This is above my pay grade, but it’s an interesting conversation. I mean I certainly would rather people watch the 26 minutes and pay attention to it and then participate in that. That’s all great. That conversation is fantastic. The idea of using the platform to make it a multitasking experience, for me as a creator, isn’t particularly appealing.

Rascoff: I think it’s comic. I mean you look at what Twitter is doing with the NFL, for example, and Facebook is moving in this direction also, I mean Facebook is going to –

Carlock: But football games are like 90 percent stopped time.

[Laughter]

Rascoff: That’s true.

Carlock: I mean it’s perfect for football.

Rascoff: And baseball.

Carlock: And baseball.

Rascoff: So we talk a lot in this podcast about employee engagement and how to get the most out of your employees, and at least in tech missionary companies tend to do much –

Carlock: That’s inappropriate.

Rascoff: − better than mercenary companies.

Carlock: Oh, OK. I thought you meant – I didn’t know what you meant. Missionary companies do better than what?

Rascoff: Mercenary companies.

Carlock: Mercenary companies, gotcha.

Rascoff: Right. They’re able to recruit, retain, and motivate people better, people want to work at companies that are trying to change the world, trying to make a difference, trying to do something innovative and creative. Most people don’t want to just show up for a paycheck.

Carlock: Sure.

Rascoff: So, in your world, I mean with a TV show for example, do you think of it that way like, “Hey, we’re going to motivate –

Carlock: Change the world or –

Rascoff: Well, or do you have a higher purpose like, “Hey, look. Our role of this season of Kimmy is to make people laugh, and the world needs laughter more than ever, so hey, let’s go and try to do that,” or no, it’s not –

Carlock: I don’t think we articulate that very often. I mean I think we’re very proud of doing a show that we think is genuinely funny in a time when, yeah, I would hope that people would find that to be a relevant release. Unfortunately, we shot almost all of the season before the election, just because the narrative of the election, a woman against a bully, kind of would speak very strongly to our lead character, and so we’ve only really touched on the outcome. Maybe we’ll deal with it more directly next year, if they give us one. But I think we definitely have been very lucky, both 30 Rock and with this project, in getting to do the show we want to do, sometimes in spite of some of the more corporate interests or the testing or what have you. Tina talks about the testing for 30 Rock, which kind of often boils down to, “Did you like this character? Do you like this actress? Do you like this character? Do you like this actor?” and it’s sort of, “Yes, yes, I like all that stuff,” and then, “Would you watch it again?” “No,” which would kind of be the takeaway.

[Laughter]

Rascoff: So how do you measure success, then, for a show that doesn’t have ratings given to you? I mean is it accolades, awards, your own –

Carlock: Awards help.

[Laughter]

The awards help. I think, again, we’re pretty tough on ourselves in terms of our assessment of our work, but we’re proud of the show. And we are proud, as I alluded to earlier, to continue to work with some really talented people on cast and crew. I mean when you look at a film crew, and you’re talking about camera operators and you’re talking about people who do graphics, and you’re talking about sound mixers and editors, these are creative, talented artisans who choose to continue to work with us. It means a lot –

Rascoff: It’s a validation, for sure.

Carlock: − and it’s a validation. Yeah, our sound guy, whom we’ve worked with since the first day of 30 Rock, is so complimentary, and he’s not that kind of person, either, but of what we do, and we appreciate so much what he does in that he provides that stability, and then you get that shorthand and then you have a team. People invariably come in and out for various reasons, but it does feel like we’ve kind of had a team for 10 years doing a good show, and that’s sort of as much as we could hope for.

Rascoff: So, when you’re flipping the channels at home and you come across an episode of 30 Rock or maybe Friends or an old SNL episode, do you ever watch your old work, or you don’t, you know, you keep going?

Carlock: I don’t, really. I hate watching it. I mean in my role as show runner, I’ve seen each episode so many times and so intimately, such a sausage-making way, that I don’t want to see them again, but I also don’t like watching them with other people very much. I don’t like watching the juvenilia because it’s embarrassing. I don’t know. I don’t much. I’ll stop on a Friends. That’s just so pleasant to watch and so fun. The other stuff just reminds me of –

Rascoff: Work.

Carlock: − work.

[Laughter]

Rascoff: Thanks a lot, Robert. Congratulations.

Carlock: That’s it?

Rascoff: That’s it. I told you it would be painless. Thank you.

Carlock: We didn’t even get to my poetry. OK, Spence.

Rascoff: Thanks, Robert. That was fun.