https://youtu.be/Sc30IIZGo6M?feature=shared

Stephen Engel is an Emmy Nominated Showrunner of Dream On. He’s known for The Big Bang Theory, A.N.T. Farm, Mad About You, and Just Shoot Me!. Join Michael and Stephen as they discuss how Stephen broke in, what it takes to make it in Hollywood, and how he approaches story.

Show Notes

Stephen Engel on IMDBhttps://www.imdb.com/name/nm0257145/

Stephen Engel on Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Engel

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Autogenerated Transcript

Michael Jamin:
You’re listening to Screenwriters Need to hear this with Michael Jamin.
Hey everyone, this is Michael Jamin. Welcome back to another episode of Screenwriters. Need to hear this. My next guest is a great dude and one of the first dudes I’ve ever worked with in Hollywood as a TV writer, Mr. Stephen Engel. And his credits are, well, geez man. These guys come fantastic credits. Dream on which you ran. He was the showrunner of Dream on. I did. We’re going to talk about that because that was one of my favorite shows. Mad about You. All right. Already. Which you created. You co right? You co-created it or

Stephen Engel:
You created I didn’t create it. I ran it though. You ran it? Executive. I supervised an executive who the pilot and then ran the series. Co-ran the series.

Michael Jamin:
All right. Okay. Just shoot me, which we worked on together. Work With Me. Which that were you cr Wait,

Stephen Engel:
Did you create That? I created, that I created

Michael Jamin:
Now was it work with Me or Work With Me? It

Stephen Engel:
Was work with me. It was work with me. It was Work with me

Michael Jamin:
Inside Schwartz, which I know you created and I, yes. Remember I helped out for a day or a day and a half. Yeah. I think I gave you a three hours worth of work in a day and a half.

Stephen Engel:
It was very appreciated.

Michael Jamin:
The big house. Yeah. Quintuplets, the war at Home, big Bang Theory. Ant Farm, mighty Med Sigman and the Sea Monsters. Yeah. Yeah. You got a lot of credits, dude. Now I,

Stephen Engel:
I’ve been around. I’ve been around. You’ve

Michael Jamin:
Been around. Tell me, well, let’s first begin with the beginning. Okay. Because I know you started as a lawyer.

Stephen Engel:
That is correct.

Michael Jamin:
And how long were you lawyering?

Stephen Engel:
It felt like forever, but it was really only three years maybe. And

Michael Jamin:
This is in New York, right out of law school.

Stephen Engel:
I went to law school, which was a very big mistake. I knew within a month that I’d made a terrible mistake, maybe sooner.

Michael Jamin:
But why?

Stephen Engel:
I just got there. I went straight from college. Really? Cause I didn’t know what else to do. And back then I didn’t know I lived in New York. I grew up in a town away from you. And I didn’t know what the TV was. I didn’t know anything about. And so I was good at going to school. So I went to law school, I applied, I got into a good law school. I went and I just got there and it was like just stultifying, if that’s the word it was. But

Michael Jamin:
I thought, what I’ve heard is that law school is interesting. It’s being a lawyer. That’s not fun.

Stephen Engel:
No, I had all through college, I wasn’t really do a lot of creative writing. I didn’t take creative writing courses. But I was actually looking back at some, I found some of my old economics papers and I reread them and I wrote them as if they were Woody Allen vignettes for the new they, they had these big tee ups that were comedic. And then I would get into the substance, but it was with examples that were funny. And then I would sort of sum them up at the end and my professor would always be like, thank you. After reading 25 papers, there’s a pleasure to read something that was entertaining. Oh,

Michael Jamin:
That’s nice. So

Stephen Engel:
When you get to law school, there was no leeway for that. It was, everything was just completely dry. So intellectually it was kind of interesting, but it was very creatively stifling.

Michael Jamin:
But as a kid you didn’t do any creative. No. You were in the theater, you weren’t doing anything like that?

Stephen Engel:
No, not really. I mean, I was interested in comedy. If I look backwards, I could see all of these things that I did. I did a TV show in college, a game show that I wrote and hosted. I taught a class on 20th century humor and satire. So all of the things were there. In retrospect, you could see a path that was leading to writing comedy. But I didn’t know that it was a job. And it wasn’t really until law school that I started exploring doing comedy. I started doing standup a little bit. Really?

Michael Jamin:
I didn’t know that.

Stephen Engel:
Yeah.

Michael Jamin:
But then how did you realize it was a job? At what point?

Stephen Engel:
At the time, I had a friend who was doing from college who was doing standup also. We, our girlfriends were best friends and he was a year behind me. He was applied to law school, didn’t go and decided he wanted to try to break into writing. And we were both doing standup. And then we said, we just started talking and said we should write a movie. We’re like, okay. So we kind of got together one weekend. He was living in la I was in NYU law school. I interviewed for law at law firms in California. So they would fly me out so that we could get together and talk about movie ideas.

Michael Jamin:
Oh

Stephen Engel:
Wow. Yeah. So we came up with an idea. We started writing separately and we knew nothing. We literally knew nothing about writing screenplays. We just had seen movies and you knows. And so we were like started writing this idea that we thought it was really great. We had about 50 pages that we thought were fantastic. So we ended up through, a friend of a friend had lunch with a guy who was a professional screenwriter and he told us, you know, should read this book screenplay by Sid Field, which everyone should read. They’re trying to write. So we read this book and we’re like, oh no, you’re doing it wrong. We dunno anything. And we realized that the 50 pages that we wrote that we thought were gold should have been five pages. Nothing was happening. It was just character development, character development, joke, joke, joke, joke, joke, funny scenes. So we took those 50 pages, compressed them down to five pages and came up with a proper structure. And then we were writing this whole movie. Well, he was pursuing his career and I was a lawyer guy guy’s name by the way is Rob Burnett, who we were writing partners. And he went on to great success at David Letterman. And he was executive

Michael Jamin:
Producer of le. But was he the head writer or executive

Stephen Engel:
Producer? Head writer, executive producer. And basically president of Worldwide Pants. And we wrote five movies together for studios, various studios. And ultimately I got a job on Dream On and moved out to LA to write by myself because he was writing a Letterman by himself. And at that point we didn’t need to collaborate because we both had individual careers.

Michael Jamin:
You skipped a step. How did you get hired on Dream On?

Stephen Engel:
Okay. He and I were writing this movie. I got a law job when I graduated. They, I’d worked there for the summer. They offered me a job when I graduated. And I did the first risky thing I’d ever done in my life. I had never done anything remotely rebellious. And I decided that I was going to take probably the first gap year that anyone ever took. Oh wow. I asked the firm if I could defer my job for a year because I was trying to write. They’re like, okay, yeah, no problem. You’ll have a job waiting for you in a year. So during that year we kept working on this screenplay and trying to finish it and hone it. And he was still working at Letterman and he at that point had had risen from an intern to work in the talent department to being a writer.
So he worked with a woman, we finished a screenplay and he worked with a woman. He shared an office in the talent department with a woman who had been there a long time and decided to leave to become a manager. And her only client at that point was I think Chris Elliot who had been on Letterman. So he knew, she knew that we had this movie because Rob had mentioned, she’s like, let me see it when you’re done. I’ll see if I could do anything with it. So she read it and she sent it out and got us hired to write a movie for 20th Century Fox. Oh wow. A week before I started my law job. And I didn’t want to not start the law job because we were a writing team. It was like guild minimum. I thought this may be the only writing job I ever have and I have a pretty high paying law job. Let me try to do both and keep both paths open as long as I can. So I did that essentially for three years. I practiced law while I was writing the entire time writing movies for studios.

Michael Jamin:
And Wait, and you were practicing law out here in la?

Stephen Engel:
I was in New York. You

Michael Jamin:
Were still in New York?

Stephen Engel:
I was still in New York. And essentially the law didn’t know what I was doing. So I had this double life where I was treating my law job, this very prestigious law job. I was a bartender gig writing movies at the same time. And eventually I couldn’t keep all the balls up in the air. The law firm said, you know what? We want you to go, we got a great treat for you. We’re going to send you back to law school at night to get your master’s in tax law. I’m like, that’s fantastic. And I didn’t tell them was, now I had two jobs and I was going to school at night

Michael Jamin:
And you couldn’t turn down. You couldn’t turn on their offer.

Stephen Engel:
I couldn’t tell them. And eventually I couldn’t do it anymore. I was getting too much work at the law firm. I had school screenplays, deadlines. I just finally kind of went into work one day and just kind of said, I no moss.

Michael Jamin:
How’d that go over?

Stephen Engel:
They were like, you know what, this makes so much sense because we were all, you seem really smart and you’re really good at what you do, but it just didn’t feel like your heart was in it. Yeah, right. So they could tell and it answered a lot of questions for them. So then I quit and decided to write full time panicked that I had just thrown my entire life away. So we ended up getting, because by the way, that manager was Lori David. She went out to marry Lori Leonard who went out to marry Larry David and divorce Larry. David and then produce an Inconvenient Truth as she won an Oscar for that.

Michael Jamin:
But then she submit you to get, how did you your Hands fund for

Stephen Engel:
Dream On? For Dream on. So I had, eventually what happened was we got a second screenplay deal to write another movie and she said, by the way, I am not allowed to negotiate your deal cause I’m a manager, so I’m going to bring an agent in to negotiate your deal. And we kind of said, well then I guess maybe we should look for an agent rather than just have this guy come in and do the deal and I’m not sure we really need a manager and an agent. Back then you didn’t. We ended up getting an agent at icm. Right. A feature agent. And we then did a couple of other projects and eventually I started between drafts of a movie I was writing. Rob by the way, was at this point a writer at Letterman and I quit my law job. So I was like, well if he has a day job while we’re writing movies at night, I need my own career as an individual.
So I wrote a movie by myself, gave it to my agent, he shopped it around. I got a lot of meetings and stuff. And then I wrote a just a TV spec on the whim between drafts of this movie because I felt like taking a break from it. And I gave that to my feature agent. He gave it to a TV agent at ICM who loved it and started submitting me around. And I ended up meeting with Kaufman and Crane for a show, not Dream On, they had Dream on. And they had another pilot that was going to series on nbc.

Michael Jamin:
What show was that? And

Stephen Engel:
It was a show called The Powers that nobody saw. It was with John Forsyth and Right. David Hyde had an amazing cast. So I go to meet with them and my agent had sent me episodes of Dream On and had sent me the pilot of the show. So they come in and they go, what’d you think of the pilot? I go, yeah, it was pretty good, but I really like Dream on. I’d never seen it before. And I kept talking about Dream On and how much I loved it. And we had a really good meeting. And then when I get back, my agent calls me and says, just so you know, when you go up for a show and someone says, how’d you like the pilot? And that’s the show you’re up for. Yeah. You loved the pilot and it gets the show you want to work on. Right. They’re not hiring for Dream on right now and they don’t want to hire you on this pilot cause you didn’t seem interested, interested. I’m like, okay. Yeah. And then a month later they were hiring for Dream On and they remembered me and they hired me for that instead. So I did. And in fact, I ended up back backing into this job that I much preferred.

Michael Jamin:
How, but how many years were you dream on before they bumped you to showrunner? Okay,

Stephen Engel:
So I was a stor. I went as staff writer, not had not worked a day in television. Really? Andy Gordon was Andy and Eileen. It was their first day right writer named Howard Morris. It was his first day. We were all three staff writers, but I had written five movies. So I had a pretty good understanding of story structure and if you can write a movie, you can write a tv. So I did the first season Astor as staff writer. The next season I was a story editor and then the showrunners left and they needed to find a new showrunner and they couldn’t find anyone they liked. And eventually they just said, I think Stephen can do it. So I literally went from being my second year, I was a story editor or executive story editor, maybe I got a bump at the end to showrunner.

Michael Jamin:
That’s crazy.

Stephen Engel:
So I was, I didn’t know if I was ready at all. I was just, the only reason to say no would’ve been out of fear. And I realized worst case scenario, if I completely flame out then so they bring someone in over me and I’m still in the same position.

Michael Jamin:
And then what were they? Or they fire you, but they get

Stephen Engel:
Rid of you. Well, I don’t think they probably would’ve just kept me around because I was the only one who knew the show.

Michael Jamin:
And how many years did you run it for?

Stephen Engel:
I ran for the next two seasons, the last and then the show ended.

Michael Jamin:
And why do you think they left? Why did they leave the show? Their own show. They had a deal somewhere.

Stephen Engel:
Har and Crane created the show, ran it for three seasons. They were getting paid like a dollar to do this. They had never done anything. It was insane how little money they were making. And they got a deal at Warner Brothers. So between season two and three, they had created a show before Friends called Family Album. And I went and worked on that between Seasons of Friends, between Seasons of Dream On. And then I went back to Dream on as the showrunner. So the season, the second season, two other writers who had been on, who had been producers, Jeff Greens son and Jeff Straus rose to showrunner, then they left and took a deal at Universal. So there was nobody, because they weren’t paying a lot, so people were going to more lucrative jobs. So they needed a showrunner and nobody had else had worked on the show. And they were like, we could bring in someone else who doesn’t know the show or we could let Steven try.

Michael Jamin:
And I mean, you were not intimidated by, I mean, I

Stephen Engel:
Was scared shitless.

Michael Jamin:
Right. I mean,

Stephen Engel:
I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea. I learned, fortunately I learned from really good people,

Michael Jamin:
But I remember when we worked together and just shoot me the first six episodes. First season, yeah. I was, was useless. And I didn’t know what to say. And I would look at you guys, the more senior writers. I’m like, how did they know what to say? How did they know? I mean it was real. I was so lost. Yeah.

Stephen Engel:
I think part of it had been that I was a little older than you were. I had already been a lawyer for, so I was like 30 when I had my staff writer job. So maybe I was a little bit more confident just in Gen general. You were like 25, 23.

Michael Jamin:
I was 26. I was 26. Ok. But ok.

Stephen Engel:
So I had gotten my first writing job when I was 26 writing a movie. And I, so I done a bunch of movies, I understood structure, I had a confidence in that I knew how to tell a story. So I guess I kind of, the first day of Dream On, I remember pitching something where they were telling a story that had a fairly conventional ending where everything worked out really well. And I pitched this subversive twist on it where the character looks like the character was going to win. And then at the end it all got pulled out from under him. And they were all, I think that’s better because I had just not really been around network television or even any kind of television. So I was pitching kind of a lot of, I don’t know, movie, more movie-like ideas I guess.

Michael Jamin:
That’s so interesting because I really remember, I remember on jhu Me, you would stand at the board a lot. I remember, to be honest, we often disagree with Levitan. And you made such a compelling case and you’re always at the board. You had immaculate handwriting and you’re always standing at the board breaking the story and you’d make an argument. And it was so compelling. I’m like, maybe we should be listening to this guy. It was dooms. If we don’t what’s going to happen, of course there’s many ways you could do it, but of course I was like, of course. I was like, wow, what’s going to happen if we don’t do it that way?

Stephen Engel:
It’s very funny. I remember the first season of Dream on Howard Morris who I love. He’s a great guy, very emotional guy. And I was very logical in a lot of ways. And he had written a script and he had this whole run that he really was in love with. And the script was long. We needed cuts. And I was like, I think we can cut from here to two pages later. And you really, the story actually, not only would you not miss it, but the story would actually be working better and be more tight. And he was like, you can’t do that. You can’t possibly do that. This is the greatest thing that’s ever been written. It is really good. But I think we need cuts. And I don’t think it’s actually, and one by one, everybody in the room was like, I think he’s right. And he was losing his mind. He was like, right, don’t listen to him using his logic on you. He’s a magician. And we ended up cutting it and it ended up working better. So it’s funny that I guess the legal training came in, I guess to some use

Michael Jamin:
Well, yeah, I, but I also remember you saying, I quote you as this saying this, that I have to get this right. Your worst day as a writer was still better than your best day as a lawyer.

Stephen Engel:
It was probably, I’m not sure that’s true anymore.

Michael Jamin:
I believe that

Stephen Engel:
For a long time that was true. I would say there have been some dark days. But what

Michael Jamin:
Do dark days look like then for you? Yeah. What is

Stephen Engel:
It? Well, the day your show gets canceled, right? There were days, there was a, one show got canceled where I was like, oh, thank God. Right? Because I had a deal behind it and it was like a nightmare. And I hated going there every minute. And I was like, I had to go into the room and pretend like I got really bad news. Everyone, the show’s been canceled. I was like, this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. There are sometimes when it’s so bad you’re like, just end it. Just fucking euthanize me. So that there are days where it show you isn’t going badly, gets canceled and then it’s kind of heartbreaking.

Michael Jamin:
Now do you have a preference? Cause you’ve done a lot. Do you have a preference between working single camera R? Right. Writing.

Stephen Engel:
I prefer single camera. Why? I think it comes from my feature writing career. It was funny, I made such a conversion when I worked on that show family album with Kauffman and Crane. We went in and there was some joke in my script and it was a good joke I thought. And we go to the table read and it doesn’t do great at the table. This is my first time I’ve ever had been to a multi cam table read ever my first multi cam script. And everyone in the room is kind of like, yeah, I think we maybe want to punch this joke. And David Crane to his credit was like, no, I believe in this joke. And there’s a really good smart joke. So we go to the run through first run through, it dies. And again, everyone’s like, maybe we want to pitch on this. And David’s like, no, no, I really, let’s give it one more day. I don’t think, I feel like they didn’t do a great job on it. Let’s give it one more day. By the third day it dies again. And same thing. And David’s like, let’s give it another day. He goes, I think it’s rye. I’m at this point I’m completely converted. I’m like, fuck rye. Rye is fucking crickets.
We could pitch 20 more jokes. It took me three days to realize that, you know, can’t get away with clever. You need to get real laughs.

Michael Jamin:
Right.

Stephen Engel:
And I’d like, I like it. I just like the storytelling in Multicam a little bit better. Or

Michael Jamin:
Just you, the storytelling multicam better.

Stephen Engel:
No, no. In single Camm a bit better. Yeah. Frankly, I used to think a perfect job for me would be you write the scripts and then you send them out magazines. You don’t actually have to produce them. Oh yeah. That was always where the hard,

Michael Jamin:
It’s never as funny as it is. It’s never as

Stephen Engel:
Funny. Sometimes it is. It depends on your cast. But other times it’s the rewriting and the endless rewriting. It’s just have them read it and let them imagine what it might look like.

Michael Jamin:
It’s called a book.

Stephen Engel:
It’s called a book. Yeah.

Michael Jamin:
There was a episode, I think it was, not sure if you were there then, but I, I was fighting, I fought with Sievert, my partner about a joke that I wanted in the script. I go, this joke is going to kill. And he’s like, this joke is terrible. I’m like, it’s going in, it’s going. And we got blows over it. We put it in the script, we go to the table and the joke just dies. It gets nothing. And then I start laughing hysterically. He goes like, cause how could I have been so wrong and so arrogant? And I’m laughing hysterically Now everyone’s looking at seabird because they’re like, it’s his joke. You’re laughing at

Stephen Engel:
Him. And now I’m

Michael Jamin:
Laughing even more. I’m like, yeah, it’s his fucking trouble.

Stephen Engel:
There’s nothing more humbling than watching your jokes die on a stage. Like after a while you get used to it. But the great thing about single cam on, dream on, we’d write it, we’d go out and film it. And if no one’s laughing, you never know.

Michael Jamin:
You never know. Right. But did you can’t believe in it. But you did table reads for Dream on, I’m sure, right? Did

Stephen Engel:
Not do table reads.

Michael Jamin:
That’s so interesting. How did you get away away with that?

Stephen Engel:
They had no, they didn’t. They gave no notes. H B O gave no notes. I remember getting one note one time and being like, I can’t work like this. This joke is, I’m not changing this joke. And I was like, indignant a playwright. Eugene O’Neal had been

Michael Jamin:
Married

Stephen Engel:
To change a stage direction. And then I got to network and it was like, oh, okay.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. Now these are notes. This is how it works. When you were, now you’ve done also a lot of kit shows. I mean, you get a lot of notes on Kit shows more or less. Oh my

Stephen Engel:
God. Yeah. You’d get tons of notes

Michael Jamin:
More than networks.

Stephen Engel:
I did. Oftentimes you get a note, it’s like, I please take some of these jokes out. I we doesn’t need to be this funny,

Michael Jamin:
Real, what’s the problem with, all right,

Stephen Engel:
I can get you the best punch down. Writers in. Yeah,

Michael Jamin:
Bring them in. But really they don’t want fun. Is that what kind of notes they give you in these show? I did a

Stephen Engel:
Show, did a show this, show this Sigma and the Sea Monsters reboot, which was

Michael Jamin:
Very scary

Stephen Engel:
For Amazon. And the first thing we turned in there, it was very funny. And they were like, we don’t really do this. It’s like, we don’t want this to be funny. As nearly as funny as this script is, it’s just don’t feel compelled to put a joke on every page. I’m like a joke. You don’t want one joke on it on every page. And they’re like, no, if it’s warm and fuzzy and they just were afraid that it was going to feel too Disney or too

Michael Jamin:
No

Stephen Engel:
Jokey networky or jokey or whatever.

Michael Jamin:
Because when you look back at sitcoms from the sixties and seventies family affair, there weren’t a lot of jokes in Family Affair. I mean,

Stephen Engel:
No, I think that’s what they were going for. They were going for just kind of poignant and sort of warm. They, I feel they felt like jokes would alienate people and be too controversial. Or they kept referring to their viewers as customers,

Michael Jamin:
Buyers. They

Stephen Engel:
Want buyers.

Michael Jamin:
Buyers,

Stephen Engel:
Our buyers, our customers don’t really want that. I’m like, okay, all right.

Michael Jamin:
That’s so good. I wonder if that’s, that’s really how they saw them is like, yeah, what else were they going to about?

Stephen Engel:
Yeah, yeah. It was,

Michael Jamin:
Oh my God. Did that make the hours easier since you didn’t have to punch up

Stephen Engel:
Or doing a sort of family shows?

Michael Jamin:
Are you getting out earlier?

Stephen Engel:
Yeah. Yeah. I think so. For the most part. We never phoned it in. We were always trying to do, and we never wrote down the shows that I worked on. We made them as funny as we could and as bendy and weird as we could, oftentimes we would get notes saying, this is too, I think you’re, you kids aren’t going to get this. But what they don’t get, they’ll ask their parents or their older siblings and let’s not underestimate the audience watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. You’re going to still laugh and you may not get every level. So we were kind of writing it for the adults.

Michael Jamin:
You were able to push back on that.

Stephen Engel:
Yeah, yeah. I mean, I guess their recourse was ultimately to cancel you if you weren’t doing what they wanted you to do.

Michael Jamin:
Well, do they have different ways of I they must, different ways of measuring. We haven’t done too many streaming shows, but measuring when people are dropping off, what kind of stuff they like more statistics. Do they share that with you?

Stephen Engel:
No,

Michael Jamin:
No, never.

Stephen Engel:
I only did mean the Amazon was the only streaming show and they never really wanted this show. I don’t think to begin with. I think it was inherited from the previous regime or something. It was like the whole thing was driven by puppets and they were, if we had our druthers, we wouldn’t even have the puppets in it. Well, well the main character is a puppet, so you’re kind of stuck.

Michael Jamin:
So, oh man, that’s Hollywood man. Yeah. Now do you, but you must get more obviously opportunities in the children’s businesses.

Stephen Engel:
I don’t. I don’t. Don’t. And I don’t pursue them. I didn’t really want to do it. Right. I basically did it. I only did it because it was a show writing opportunity and I didn’t want work on someone else’s show at that point. And I also leveraged it into, I wanted, I said, I’ll do it if I can direct.

Michael Jamin:
Okay.

Stephen Engel:
So I ended up getting in the DGA and directing a handful of episodes.

Michael Jamin:
And they were single camera?

Stephen Engel:
No, they were multi

Michael Jamin:
Camera, multi and so interesting.

Stephen Engel:
And it was kind of fun. I mean, I had just sort of aged out of coaching my kids little league and basketball teams and stuff. So they were now just had just more or less finished that. So working on a show, that was almost like being a coach or a camp counselor in a weird way. You’d go to the stage, the kids would be thrilled to see you, you’d get down on one knee and get eye level with them and give them a compliment sandwich. Do you know that from coaching?

Michael Jamin:
No. What is that?

Stephen Engel:
A compliment sandwich is basically in baseball you would literally get down on a knee and you’d say you’re doing tee-ball. And in tee-ball what happens invariably is a kid hits the ball to left field and every kid on the field runs to get the ball from every position, or at least a handful of them do. So you get down on the knee and you go, I love your hustle and great enthusiasm. Then you put the criticism in the middle and you’re like, but you know, need to stay where your position is so that everybody has their own spot. And if the balls it to you, the ball, you know, field it. If the balls it to left field, they field it. But again, great energy and keep up that enthusiasm. So you put the constructive criticism in between two compliments. I

Michael Jamin:
Would think that they would remember the first thing and the last thing they heard.

Stephen Engel:
Well, that’s great job. We did a joke like that. We did a joke like that where a character on an forum was giving a note to somebody. They were doing a musical performance or something, and the main character said to this other character, I really like your enthusiasm. Try to hit at least any of the notes if possible because your singing’s not good at all. But again, great energy. And the character goes, thanks. Hey, thanks.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah, that’s what I would, so that’s so interesting. And were you dealing with a lot of parents on adult momager or

Stephen Engel:
Whatever? Yeah, there was a lot of that. It was fun, but creatively it was like, I’m done. This I just want to do, I’d rather not work and just write stuff I want to write than write on a kid show at this point. Because I also felt like they weren’t really looking for you to do anything smart and that smart or that funny. It’s changed. I think they’re trying to be more creative and more inventive now, but at the time it just felt like, I don’t really feel like doing this anymore. It’s just not like someone would say, what are you working on? I’m like, it’s not important. Don’t worry about it. You’re not going to watch it. It’s fine.

Michael Jamin:
Well

Stephen Engel:
Fine for what? But I don’t watch it. You’re not going to watch it.

Michael Jamin:
But when you say working on your own stuff now, so whatever, you’ll just write stuff on spec and hope to

Stephen Engel:
Sell. Yeah, I’ll pitch stuff. I’ll write stuff on spec. I’ve written a bunch of specs recently where I’ve tried every possible way to skin a cat in this business. I’m like, it’s all I’m going to write spec scripts. That way they’ll totally see what the show is. And then I would have a bible behind it to pitch all of these things. And I’ve had a couple of things where I had studios say, let’s go out with this, but let’s pitch it. You didn’t write it

Michael Jamin:
Right yet.

Stephen Engel:
I’m like, well, why would you do that? Because I’ve got it right here. And

Michael Jamin:
Because they want to put their thumbprints on, they

Stephen Engel:
Want to put their imprimatur on it. So the way I put it is, if you give, give someone a baked fully baked cake, they’ll be like, this is a, it’s a good cake, but I’ve got this recipe for a cake. Yeah, that’s going to be the best cake that’s ever been made and we’re going to put in all these different ingredients and make it even better. And then that gets turned in and they’re like, it’s a cake. There’s always that unknown potential of what a pitch is going to be. Whereas a spec, they’ll go, well, there’s this one thing I’m not sure about or this other thing and they want to get involved.

Michael Jamin:
But have you ever sold anything on spec? Because

Stephen Engel:
When you, honestly, I don’t think I have. I

Michael Jamin:
Know haven’t written a few.

Stephen Engel:
I have a project, I have a project right now that it, we’re going back and forth on negotiations, negotiating an option for them to, to option the script. And they’re trying to decide whether we should go out with the script or go out or whether I should reverse engineer the pitch.

Michael Jamin:
But

Stephen Engel:
We have an option. They have an option for a year within a purchase with a purchase price to buy the script. What would happen is if we pitch it, they would basically go, okay, just wait three months and then turn in the script that you’ve already written because we left the script. But again, it’s unclear as to what my feeling is. We should send out the script because the idea and it’s in and of itself is not necessarily that unique. It’s the execution of the idea. That’s unique. Of course. And I think that’s what got you interested. If I had just pitched you this idea, you probably would’ve said, well, I don’t know. It seems like there’s stuff out there like that. But it was my script that got you excited.

Michael Jamin:
Right, right. I remember early on, I wonder if you still feel this way. I remember I just shoot me, you telling me, yeah, because you were ready to leave, move on. And you’re like, yeah, I want to go back to running a show. And then you did couple many shows. Yeah. But do you still feel that way? Do you care so much whether you’re running it or,

Stephen Engel:
No, I’ve had good experiences and bad experiences doing both for a while after the big house, which was a good experience. My kids were at that point, maybe, how old were they? Eight and six. And I was running a show was very all consuming. And you, yeah, you never go home. I mean, yeah, even when you’re home, you’re like, you’ve got outlines to read, you’ve got cuts to watch, you’ve got the weight of the show on your shoulders at all times. You can’t get away from it. And I was like, I really want to be more present. I want to be able to go to my kids’ games. I want to be come home and be able to relax. So I’m like, I want to go on be someone else’s, like consigliere, I’ll be the number two. Yeah. I’ll go, here’s what I would do. Do it. Don’t do it whatever you want. And then go home and be like, I’m done for the day. And I did that for a while. And I think in retrospect it sort of took me off of the showrunner showrunner’s list for doing that for three or four years. I think people were necessarily remembering or thinking me necessarily when they were looking for showrunners because I was all of a sudden now someone’s number two. But I don’t regret it because I got to spend the time with my family.

Michael Jamin:
But now I now want to go back to running. I mean, it is a lot of work,

Stephen Engel:
My kid, well, right now, honestly, nobody, you know me, but anyone under the age of 40 doesn’t, has never worked with me and doesn’t know who I am. So for me to get a job on another show, because I, it’s been a while since I’ve worked on a show where with people who would be young enough to go, oh, we need to work with this guy. He’s really smart and good and funny. If I’m going to get a job, it’s because I’m going to create a show myself and run it. And that’s the job I’ll have. I don’t even know if my agent even submits me. I have no idea. So I’m back to just pitching and writing my own stuff and if it sells, of course I’ll run it. So look, they both have their perils. I missed my kind of adolescence as a TV writer. I went from being right a second grader to a college student. I never had that. So I got to go and be on someone else’s show. And sometimes it was good and sometimes it was bad. I worked in the Big Bang theory and it was not fun

Michael Jamin:
From a lot of people. The

Stephen Engel:
Most fun place to work, it was delightful show. But I used to not going to work every day. Right. Cause I didn’t take the tone of the show, the work environment, I mean the tone of the show, I was fine not dictating the tone of the show, but I was not enjoying the tone of the work environment.

Michael Jamin:
I got you. I know what you’re

Stephen Engel:
Saying. So it was not a good experience. I dreaded going every day. It was a job. It, I might as well have been a lawyer again.

Michael Jamin:
Hey, it’s Michael. If you like my videos and you want me to email them to you for free, join my watch list. Every Friday I send out my top three videos. These are for writers, actors, creative types. You can unsubscribe whenever you want. I’m not going to spam you and it’s absolutely free. Just go to michaeljamin.com/watchlist.
Yeah. You’ve had many experiences like that though. Were you like you pitting your stomach every morning?

Stephen Engel:
Not that many once on my own show, just because I had a difficult situation with one of the stars who it’s not worth going into, but

Michael Jamin:
At least on the air.

Stephen Engel:
What’s

Michael Jamin:
That? At least? At least not on the air. Not

Stephen Engel:
On the air. But most shows have been, some are better than others. I worked on a show that it was very dysfunctional and I’ve gone into work on shows where, where I had a deal where they were like, we need you to go help on this show. And it’s kind of in shambles. I’m like, I’ll go in and help, but I’m going in between the hours of 10 and seven. And if they start at five, I’ll be there from five to seven.

Michael Jamin:
But okay, you can make that deal with the studio. But then the minute the showrunner finds out about that, during I made it

Stephen Engel:
With the show, I made the deal with the showrunner.

Michael Jamin:
Oh, okay.

Stephen Engel:
Because they needed the help. And I was like, I’m not going down this sinkhole. I’ve already, I’m in a deal. I don’t, I’m doing this. I’m helping out because I want to be a team player, but I’m going to help out within the hours that are reasonable hours. And it was so dysfunctional, people would show up and play guitars for four hours and play ping pong. And I’m like, are we going to work or not work? So I’m like, let me know when we’re starting and I’ll be there.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah, I know. I wonder, I don’t know if that happens so much anymore. I think that’s something that’s been cleaned up a little bit.

Stephen Engel:
I don’t know. I don’t know mean, look, some shows, some showrunners are not, some creators become writers, become creators are not prepared to be a showrunner. They don’t know how to manage a business. That’s

Michael Jamin:
Exactly right.

Stephen Engel:
And it’s a different skillset being a talented writer and being a manager or a C E o or different skillsets. And some people are lucky enough to have both skills. Some people are good CEOs but not great writers and they need a better team. And some people are great writers and need someone to help them literally get through the day. And

Michael Jamin:
People don’t realize that because no one goes into comedy writing to become a manager of people. No.

Stephen Engel:
And if you have the talent, you eventually rise to a level where you’re expected to all of a sudden be in charge of 150 people and to show up every day on time and to try to be responsible and actually conduct yourself in a way that’s professional. And not everyone can do that.

Michael Jamin:
And always the trickiest thing. I think as a show runners, no one went to push knowing how far you can push back against a network note or even a difficult actor. Yeah. And what’s your thought on that?

Stephen Engel:
Well, what I used to do is they never would give me a note. The trick to getting and addressing notes is to get them to realize that they’re being heard. And you’ll say, we’re not going to figure this out right now together. I hear you. I know what, I know exactly what to do. And then go off and change it enough that they feel like you’ve taken their, at least into consideration their thought, their thoughts into consideration. But oftentimes what I would sometimes do is they’d give a note. I’m like, we can do that. But just so you know, here’s the ripple effect. If we do that, then this scene here no longer makes sense because this scene that you really love won’t make sense because we’ve already revealed this information. So this scene doesn’t play and then this scene doesn’t work because whatever this and this and this, we can do it. And I’m have to change those scenes and I’m willing to, but just realize that it’s not as simple as making this one change here. There are ripple effects throughout the rest of the script. And they’re like, you know what? You’re right. Stuff’s working great. Don’t worry about it.
So they don’t know. They don’t necessarily always see the big picture and understand how pulling one thread could unravel the entire sweater. So I just present it to them and go, would you like me to do that? We can do that. And then they go, no, no. Like I, I hear what you want and I’ll massage it without having to do those things. But I hear what you’re saying and I’ll try to adjust it as best I can without unraveling the whole script

Michael Jamin:
And then working. What about working with difficult actors?

Stephen Engel:
That’s harder. That’s harder because you can’t

Michael Jamin:
Put the words in their mouth. You can’t make mistake, you can’t

Stephen Engel:
Make them do it. I mean, had an actor who literally was so he just wanted to take over the show and was, he never should have done it. They backed up a money truck to get him to do it and he didn’t want to do it. And he did it reluctantly and didn’t wanted it to be his show and not my show. So I think wanted tried to get rid of me and came to table reads with sunglasses on and just looked down the whole time. And which was the best thing that ever happened because the network saw that he was not doing his job. He was doing my job, but he wasn’t doing his. But they’re

Michael Jamin:
Still going to take his side. The

Stephen Engel:
Show went down, but I didn’t get, they were like, you handed yourself really professionally. And that person,

Michael Jamin:
Were you worried so much about that? Are you worried so much about protecting your reputa reputation like that within the industry? I mean,

Stephen Engel:
You always have to be a little bit worried. I, I would probably think that just given my, I don’t know, I guess I have a, it’s maybe it’s coming from being a lawyer. I can see, if you tell me, like I mentioned, if we should change this joke or this line or this, do we need this? I can see all of the ramifications all at once. So sometimes I will, by pointing out the flaws in the note, some executives don’t want to hear that. They don’t want to know. They just want to think that they’re right. Or they also want you to basically, I remember in one situation on a show where they were like, we’ve got great news. The network wants to do a mini room. I’m like, great.

Michael Jamin:
How’s that? Great news? The news?

Stephen Engel:
I thought the deal was they’re either going to pick up the show or not. That’s why we went there. It’s

Michael Jamin:
Great news for us.

Stephen Engel:
They’re like, well, why wouldn’t you want to delve into the characters more? And I do, but that’s not the deal we negotiated and now you’re basically, I have to do all the same work for one 10th of the money. And they didn’t want to hear that. So I think sometimes it’s just best to be like, and I would also maybe sometimes have a tendency if somebody is lying blatantly to me and I say, wait, I don’t understand last, yesterday you said X, Y, and Z, but now you’re saying A, B, and C. So I’m confused. And they just want to go. They don’t want to be called out on that.

Michael Jamin:
Right?

Stephen Engel:
So they’re like, look, why are you being difficult? I’m like, I’m not, I’m just asking for clarification. Cause it seems like you’re telling me two different things and I don’t understand as opposed to just going, okay, I hear you. We’ll do it without any. So I think sometimes you just have to swallow your pride and just eat shit and not speak up about it.

Michael Jamin:
The problem is you’re saying, I feel like most of those fights are not winnable.

Stephen Engel:
They’re not winnable. So there’s no point in pointing it out. But sometimes I’m just, I don’t, don’t understand. Just tell me what, what’s going on and then we can move forward. But they sometimes they don’t even remember what’s what they’re spinning.

Michael Jamin:
I don’t think I’ve ever convinced an studio or network executive that I was and they were wrong. I don’t think I’ve

Stephen Engel:
Ever, it may have been a per victory, but I have.

Michael Jamin:
You were fired shortly afterwards.

Stephen Engel:
No, I mean it just may be whatever. Yeah, you’re right if you’re doing it this way. But in the long run, they just maybe weren’t that happy with the direction, general

Michael Jamin:
Direction. Right.

Stephen Engel:
I did the show where this kid show, and it was about a superhero hospital and there were villains and there were heroes and superheroes and super villains. And we wanted the villains and the heroes to have distinct personalities and flaws and be funny. They could be a villain and be funny at the same time. They’re like, look, just have them villains. Just be scary and don’t give them, they don’t have to be funny. But we’re writing a comedy and eventually we took a lot of the jokes out, but we didn’t want to deliver a show that we didn’t believe in. And then ultimately they were like, we did two seasons. And they were like, this is not really what we want to do. So they didn’t do a third season. So you either go down with your ship and what you do, the show you want to do and have it not get picked up for another season or do a show for four seasons that you don’t believe in.

Michael Jamin:
Though a lot of people on social media, they say, well, they don’t understand. I think all the writers in Hollywood terrible, because if all the shows I’m like, you don’t understand how shows are made. It’s like, no, no. Sometimes the system is designed to make a show bad and there’s really nothing you can do about it other than either,

Stephen Engel:
I mean, no one’s looking to make a show bad. It’s just what the creator thinks is good and what the network thinks is good may not be the same thing. There’s that famous story about what those guys who did that Stephen Weber show called Cursed,

Michael Jamin:
I dunno if I know this story. Okay.

Stephen Engel:
Steven Webber did a show, there was a show starring Stephen Webber, it was called Cursed. It was for n b NBC back in the nineties. And the premise was, Stephen Webber is like this kind of womanizing dating machine who goes on this date and with a I, you shouldn’t even say Gypsy, I guess, I dunno if it’s derogatory, but a woman who puts a spell on it, he basically ghosts her or doesn’t call her or is not nice to her on a date. And turns out she puts a curse on him that he’s never going to find love and oh, his romantic life is going to be a disaster. Okay. So the cast, Steven Weber, he’s super charming and funny. They decide to pick up the show and they go, we’re picking up the show, but we have one elemental change if we’d like to pick. It’s a small note. They’re like, okay, what is it? He goes, we don’t want him to be cursed. They’re like all cursed. They’re like, well, we can change it. We’ll like so. Well, well, the Steven Weber show.

Michael Jamin:
Okay,

Stephen Engel:
So now what’s the premise about Steven Weber dating?

Michael Jamin:
Oh, okay. But he is not having a hard time dating. He’s

Stephen Engel:
Just, he either is but there’s no curse.

Michael Jamin:
There’s no curse.

Stephen Engel:
Yeah. Okay. Nig did a show called Inside Schwartz, and the whole idea of it was that you’re inside the main character’s head. Right. So the idea is that, you know, get to see his internal and hear his internal dialogue with characters he’s talking to that only he can see. All right. And at one point about halfway through the series, the president of the network came to run, came to talk to me after a run through and said, look, we really like the main character. He’s a great actor, but he’s like, we want it to be more of a Michael J. Fox character dives into things without thinking. I’m like, well, the character is written is an overthinker and he’s thinking about everything. And we dramatize those in the forms of him talking to these people who only he sees. He goes, well we, no, we don’t. We want him to not be an overthinker. We want him to be just to jump into stuff. I’m like, so I’m writing inside Schwartz and you want outside Schwartz, right? And they went exactly perfect. I said, all right, I guess. But at that point it’s like, how do you turn a aircraft carrier around
Through, and you’ve got four or five scripts that are ready to go that are all, hold on, I’m

Michael Jamin:
Hollywood

Stephen Engel:
That are written inside Schwartz, and you want outside Schwartz. And they’re like, well come up with new scripts, you know, can take an extra week, a hiatus and change. So we had to basically change course and make an adjustment. So just because they think, what if they changed their minds? They love something when they saw it and then they start to panic that they think it should be this, and they the next day have a completely different idea. But it, it’s just, that’s the idea they woke up with.

Michael Jamin:
Or often it’s whatever was a hit over the weekend, that’s what they want and make it more like that.

Stephen Engel:
Exactly. Exactly. So that has ramifications and real life ramifications that you’ve then got to make work. And it’s your job, unfortunately sometimes is to try to turn a cat into a monkey. It’s just like, all right, that’s what I’m going to have to try to do.

Michael Jamin:
And are you able to do this with a good attitude?

Stephen Engel:
I to, I think I have probably, I have a better attitude about it now. I’m just more mature and it’s like, all right, it is what it is. I understand it. Back then, I think I took everything much more personally and I was agonized more about it. Now I’m just like, I come, it’s coming and you just have to deal with it or not deal with it or whatever. I, I’ve walked away from it. I’ve walked away from a deal on a show where I was like, I didn’t feel right about it.

Michael Jamin:
What do you mean you didn’t feel right about it?

Stephen Engel:
I just didn’t, I don’t know, I just wasn’t comfortable ultimately with the people I was going to be working with. As I got to know them better, the deal wasn’t the greatest deal and I was like, I don’t think this is worth it. I think this is going to be a nightmare. And I just said, I turned wouldn’t, they didn’t come up. I just said, you know what, no mean, at the time I was running a different show, so this was development behind it, so I didn’t need the job, but I was like, I see the writing on the wall here and if I can’t, you can’t meet my numbers and this is going to be unpleasant. And I can already tell. And

Michael Jamin:
How do you think they took it when you did that? No one likes to hear that

Stephen Engel:
They were really not happy. I mean, yeah, really. I said, look, I’m just not comfortable with it. And I just, things had changed. It was an idea that it’s not worth going into. It was easier to just say, forget, don’t rather not do it than go into what I know is going to be a shit storm

Michael Jamin:
Right now. Not enough money. The industry has changed so much even in the past maybe 10 years or so. But I dunno, what are your thoughts on it? What are your thoughts on where it’s going? Look,

Stephen Engel:
I’m one of those people who, whatever, everyone who’s not in the industry says, oh, must be so great now, all these different streaming networks and some to sell shows. I’m like, it’s not great. First of all, these places are, you know, do all the same work and you’re doing six episodes or eight episodes or 10 episodes, and that’s exactly when the curve starts to get, there’s a very steep curve getting a show off the ground. And then it’s like, now I get the show and now it’s sort of the, it’s heavy lifting at the beginning and then it sort of tapers off and it’s always heavy lifting, but you start to figure it out. And then for the back nine it’s like, it’s not as hard if you stay on top of it and you get stories broken on time. So you’re doing all of the heavy lifting without any of the economies of scale and you’re only getting paid by the episode and you’re working 40 weeks to do seven episodes or eight episodes instead of 40 weeks to do 22 episodes.

Michael Jamin:
Okay. So in, cause they make, that’s not the case on many of the shows we’re doing. Maybe they’re lower budget, they just usually bring you on thete, the writing staff in pre-production. And so then you’re the show

Stephen Engel:
Runners. But as a showrunner, you’ve got to do, you’re there for whatever the eight saying you’re doing eight episodes, you’re going to do eight weeks of pre-production and writing. You’re going to do eight weeks or more of production, then you’re going to do eight to 10 weeks of post. And yeah, you’re working 35 weeks to do those eight episodes. Whereas if you’re working on a network show for 22 episodes, you work 40 weeks and you do, you get 22 fees. So the writers who come in and do their six or 12 weeks get paid for their eight episodes and not, that said they work there eight weeks and they do their 12, their eight episodes. Do you

Michael Jamin:
Feel this affects the quality of writers that you’re able to hire now because they have less training?

Stephen Engel:
I think so. They’re not around production. They don’t understand or understand production as well. It, it’s tricky. I also think that to some extent, I may be alone in this. I think that some of the storytelling and streaming, it feels like a lot of shows feel like they, someone took a movie and they probably didn’t sell this movie, and they said, I got an idea for a series and it would be a great movie. But what they end up doing is they, it’s those chest spreaders if you were to have a heart bypass or something, it’s like they put a chest spreader into the screenplay and they open it up and they jam six episodes of filler in the middle. And the beginning is the first half of a good movie. And the last two episodes, this is the second half of a pretty good movie, and the middle is just treading water. And you’re just like, yeah, each episode becomes a chapter in a book. So a lot of writers are not learning how to tell an episode that has a beginning, middle, and end because it’s all middle.

Michael Jamin:
Right?

Stephen Engel:
Episode one is a beginning, episode eight is the ending, and everything in the middle is middle. No. Those episodes don’t have a beginning, middle, and end. They’re picking up from the middle and ending somewhere else in the middle. They’re moving the ball down the field. But you don’t have a kickoff and you don’t, I think a lot of writers maybe don’t know how to tell a complete story anymore because there aren’t any freestanding episodes.

Michael Jamin:
How do you think these new writers are breaking in today? It’s very different than when we were breaking in. How are they getting in?

Stephen Engel:
I teach a course at UCLA and I always, they always ask the same question. How do you get an agent? How do you break in? I guess it’s not that different other than the fact that there are maybe fewer barriers to entry. You want to write a web series and shoot it on your phone and send it out to a million people on. Now the trick is it’s getting people to see it, but no one was going to read your screenplay. If you’re a new writer and you say, Hey, will you read my script and you’re in my class? They’re like, Hey, can I send you a new script I just wrote? I’m like, no. Yeah, I’m not going to read that. But if they send me, Hey, I wrote a one minute episode, you want to, would you watch it? I’m like, okay. I mean, I could watch a one minute episode of something.
Right? And if it’s interesting, then you could go, that’s really kind of interesting. Let’s talk about it. So there are ways to get in. I hired a writer on an farm I was writing with a guy named Dan Sinner. Sinner, great guy, funny writer. And we were looking for an assistant. So we met this woman and she came in and she had no experience as an assistant, but she had just graduated from Harvard six months earlier. But she mentioned she had a Twitter feed and that she had written a couple of jokes that somehow Maude Aow had found. And she was like 12. And she tweeted it, retweeted it, and then because Judd Aow followed her and saw the jokes, he started following her and retweeted it. And then a lot of his followers were started following her. So all of a sudden I had 10,000 followers.
So anyway, we finished interviewing her. I really liked her. And I’m like, what’s the feed? What’s the Twitter feed? She told me And I went and I read it and there were, I read the first 10 jokes. Eight of them were a plus jokes. And I said to Dan, I’m like, let’s hire her as our assistant. If we need jokes, we, she’s really good at joke writing and we’re still looking for a last staff writer. And she was our assistant for a day. I’m like, do you have a spec? You’ve written? Like, I wrote a 30 Rock. So I read it and it was green, but first five pages, five great jokes. So finally Dan and I were like, let’s hire her today because in three years we’re going to be looking for her to hire us because she was that talented.

Michael Jamin:
Have had three years passed.

Stephen Engel:
She very quickly became very successful and has over a million Twitter, Twitter dollars.

Michael Jamin:
But is she working as a writer?

Stephen Engel:
She ended up working on Silicon Valley and Oh wow. Parks and Rec and she ended up working on The Simpsons. And so

Michael Jamin:
You were right. The good place.

Stephen Engel:
Yeah. I mean she was really talent. It was undeniable. So I always tell writers, write Jo, if you could write jokes, you’ll work to, you’re 90. To the extent shows like to have jokes anymore, which a lot of them don’t. Right. I always think about that joke. I dunno if you remember this from the Emmys, maybe like four or five, six years ago, Michael Chay and Colin Jost hosted the Emmys. And I always tell this to my class, Colin, Joe says that the opening monologue, he says, tonight we give awards for the best comedies and dramas in television. And for those of you who don’t know, a drama, a comedy is a drama that’s 30 minutes long.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah.

Stephen Engel:
There’s just so many shows now that are not really that funny

Michael Jamin:
That I ain’t going for it. What is this club, what’s the class called that you’re teaching at U ucla?

Stephen Engel:
It’s in the professional program through the school of the Film School write writing a half hour pilot.

Michael Jamin:
So a graduate. So they have a grad, graduate

Stephen Engel:
Program. It’s not a M ffa and it’s not undergrad. It’s like a professional program where you can apply, it’s a one year program. You take three quarters, 10 weeks each, and you go from basically Idea to finish script in 10 weeks.

Michael Jamin:
And it’s at, you say, so it’s not used to extension, it’s something else.

Stephen Engel:
No, it’s not Extension. It’s a, it’s through the School of Television, film and theater. Wow. That’s theater, film and television, I guess it’s called. Yeah. So eight to 10 people. And you’re kind of, wow. I kind of act as the showrunner, but I want to hear, get everybody’s input. Everyone gets input from each other about their ideas. So it’s like a writing class group.

Michael Jamin:
They’d be lucky to get in your class. For sure.

Stephen Engel:
Yeah. I tend to give them a lot of, I think, very thorough notes and hopefully it’s helpful. And I don’t mince words. I mean, I’m gentle with it. I’ll always, I’ll do my notes and then I’ll go back and soften them. I’ll be like, instead of this, I don’t think this is working. I would say, I wonder if some readers might think this is a bit confusing as opposed to, this is confusing. Or I remember confusing.

Michael Jamin:
I remember. And just shouldn’t be turning to you. I can’t remember. It was a script. Levi 10 was running the show, and I think we had a problem with the scene. And I seem to remember you helping us. You pulled you aside, Hey, how do you think this scene should work? Because we were lost and you were very helpful.

Stephen Engel:
Well, I had at that point already run Dreman for several years and and had some showing experience. And look, Ste, Steve was a great showrunner and one of his, he’s smart enough and secure enough to know that I will benefit by having other experienced showrunners on working with me and other very experienced writers. Cause I may not have the answer all the time.

Michael Jamin:
Oh, I also remember thinking that I don’t want to bother the boss. I’ll bother someone who’s not the boss.

Stephen Engel:
Yeah. But again, was you were your first job and you’re want to make sure you don’t do any. I’ve worked on shows where staff writers are told, don’t even say a word.

Michael Jamin:
Oh, really?

Stephen Engel:
More or less. It’s just you’re there to generate jokes on your own and just keep quiet. Which is to me is if I can get a joke from a pa, I’ll take it. I don’t care where the joke comes from. If it helps make the script better. If a PA comes in and delivers a pizza and goes, what’d be funny? I’m like, that is funny. Right. I’ll put that in.

Michael Jamin:
Right. Yeah. You whatever gets you home earlier. Yeah. Yeah.

Stephen Engel:
And makes the script better. And hopefully makes the script better. It’s all going to make you look better as a showrunner.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah, it was. And you’re right, dude. I mean that show that it was really top heavy, just shoot me. It’s top heavy. And it was, that’s probably what was so intimidating to me was everyone was so funny. And I remember even turning to Marsh after several weeks. It was like, Marsha, I, I’m laughing too much. I’m not pitching enough. I’m enjoying myself too much. Right. What do I do? Because I’m not here to observe.

Stephen Engel:
I can see how it would be intimidating. I was lucky enough that on my first job it was Kauffman and Crane were the showrunners. Greenstone and Strass were like the producer, co-producer, exec producer, kind of supervising producer level. And then we had three staff writers who were all pretty new. So it felt democratic. But you come into a Topheavy show and you’re, you were the only staff writers. Yeah. There.

Michael Jamin:
And there’s Tom Martin. There’s Tom Martin. Oh,

Stephen Engel:
Tom. Right. Tom, Tom Martin. And I know that he was probably a little intimidated at first too. Cause everyone seems to know and what to do and it’s like, I don’t even understand what we’re trying to,

Michael Jamin:
I don’t even understand what we’re trying to

Stephen Engel:
Do here. Yeah. So it’s complicated. But you guys were funny and you guys figured it out. And you stayed on the show for how many seasons?

Michael Jamin:
We were there four seasons. Okay.

Stephen Engel:
Yeah. So, you know, grew up on this show.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. And in many ways

Stephen Engel:
You get more experienced and confident and then you rise up in the ranks. And

Michael Jamin:
That is the, that’s kind of the school that we came out of it. It’s like you learn how to write a show from basically the first person who you work under who runs a show. Hopefully you get their,

Stephen Engel:
I hate, hate to use this metaphor, but it’s a little bit like abused children become abusive parents if you grow up, your first show is a show with a dysfunctional environment. Always just how you learn to run a show. Hopefully I’m never going to do that. But I grew, my first showrunners were Kauffman and Crane, and they could not have been a better showrunners to model your career after, in terms of being kind and smart and funny. And it was ideal. My dog was insisting that I’d do something. I don’t know what, feed her or whatever. Can you see her back in the door? I saw

Michael Jamin:
She, oh yeah, I do actually. She, she’s staring at you. She’s giving you the occhio evil, evil

Stephen Engel:
Line. She’s thing. So I was fortunate enough to learn from really smart, good, kind, supportive people. And I hope I became all of those things as a result. I mean, I think people are wired. Look, you’re, you’re a good person. You’re going to be a good person as a showrunner. If you’re a broken person, you’re going to be a broken person as a showrunner. Right. No matter who you’re training, who gave you training.

Michael Jamin:
For

Stephen Engel:
Sure. And we all know that A lot of writers are not necessarily the most intact.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. Right. I mean, you don’t go into comedy writing because Well, you’re necessarily, if you’re well adjusted, but,

Stephen Engel:
Well, some people do, but a lot of people don’t. Yes.

Michael Jamin:
Stephen Engel, I want to thank you for taking your time out your day. Thank you for

Stephen Engel:
Being such a good interviewer and

Michael Jamin:
This is helpful for me.

Stephen Engel:
It’s always a

Michael Jamin:
Pleasure. It’s 20 years ago,

Stephen Engel:
It’s always a pleasure to see you and talk to you.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah.

Stephen Engel:
And it was fun.

Michael Jamin:
It was great. Don’t go anywhere. All right. Alright everyone, thank you so much. Another great episode. For more information, go to michael chapman.com. You want to get on my newsletter, get him my son up, my webinar and all that. And that’s it. Until next week, keep writing. Thank you.

Phil Hudson:
This has been an episode where Screenwriters Need To Hear This with Michael Jamin and Phil Hudson. If you’d like to support this podcast, please consider subscribing, leaving a review, and sharing this podcast with someone who needs to hear today’s subject. For free daily screenwriting tips, follow Michael on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok @MichaelJaminWriter. You can follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok @PhilAHudson. This episode was produced by Phil Hudson and edited by Dallas Crane. Until next time, keep writing.

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Michael Jamin, Showrunner, TV Writer, Author

Michael Jamin

For the past 26 years, Michael Jamin has been a professional television writer/showrunner. His credits include King of the Hill, Beavis & Butthead, Wilfred, Maron, Just Shoot Me, Rules of Engagement, Brickleberry, Tacoma FD and many more.

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