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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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Episodes – an interview with writers David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik

TV veterans David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik drew upon their own experiences in the network wars to create the vivid collection of characters in this insane world.

"We've both been very lucky in television," says David, "But we've definitely got our war stories. It's a challenging process because the industry is ruled by fear. You have all this money being spent, and you have all these executives who need to justify themselves and their jobs. They're terrified they'll make a mistake. The trouble is, no one really knows the answers. They're not stupid people... for the most part!"

Jeffrey agrees: "It doesn't matter who you are or what you've done before, the minute they think that your show's not going to be a hit, they panic. They bury you with notes. Or they decide you're dead before you're even on the air. Yesterday they loved you, and today your call's not being returned. It gets very chilly very fast. It's a punishing process."

Jeffrey Klarik likens working on network television to feeling "like a puppy in a clothes dryer." This is one of the reasons the duo decided to work in the UK on a British-American coproduction.

As Jeffrey explains: "It's given us so much creative freedom. When you decide you want to become a television writer, you naively assume it's going to be like the writers on the old Dick Van Dyke Show. You'll write something and they'll just put it on TV. But what you quickly discover is that American network television is television by committee.

"By contrast, working on Episodes was exactly what we'd hoped it would be. Both the BBC and Showtime have been amazing. We couldn't believe that we'd found a place where the network doesn't sit on your head the whole time.

"We're so used to them questioning every single thing right down to what someone is going to wear in a particular scene. But here it's a case of people saying: 'We love it – go do it!'"

David concurs: "Ironically, our experience on Episodes was the exact opposite of the one we're depicting on the show. While we were making it, we talked to friends who were doing pilots back home and hearing the horror stories.

"A friend developed a show that took place in Washington and apparently the note came back after the show had been bought, read and shot: 'There's too much politics'!"

Jeffrey adds: "Several years ago, I did a pilot about a girls' boarding school and there were two notes from the studio. One was 'can't there be boys at the school?' The second was, 'Can we get those girls into nighties?' They were 15! I'm not kidding! And these notes were coming in two days before I started filming!

"But that system also produces shows like Mad About You and Friends, which somehow slip through the cracks. You happen to have one executive who champions it and the best thing they do is to make everyone else leave you alone. It's a fluke, you can't predict it and you never understand why you flew under the radar."

David agrees: "I'd say that the best thing they did with Friends was just let us make the show we wanted to make."

As the concept for Episodes developed, the two decided that the part of the central American character would be perfect for Matt LeBlanc who they had known for many years.

Jeffrey says: "I first met him when he was working as a counter boy in a restaurant in New York. He was still just a struggling actor."

David talks about the genesis of Matt's role on Episodes: "The idea was that in the original British version of the show the part was played by an elderly Shakespearean actor. So we thought – what is the furthest you could get from him? And then we went beyond even that. It's the worst piece of casting in the world!"

Jeffrey chimes in: "We were a little nervous pitching the idea to Matt. I mean, he's the punchline. But he got on board immediately. He's a terrific sport and has a great sense of humour about himself.

"It was also an opportunity for people to see what range he has as an actor. The character of Matt LeBlanc in Episodes has some real dark sides, and Matt wasn't afraid to explore those."

David adds: "We were also excited about playing with everyone's perception of who Matt is. When people meet Matt, they expect Joey Tribbiani. They assume he's the dimmest bulb on the tree. But he's nothing like that. It's just a reflection of what a good actor he is. They'll get to see a very different Matt LeBlanc in Episodes."

With Matt now on board the writing could begin in earnest. "It was a really refreshing experience for us," Jeffrey says. "We were able to write all the episodes ourselves, which is a luxury you never get back home. We're used to doing everything with a room full of other writers, which has a way of homogenising everything and limiting a specific writer's voice."

David concurs: "We've also never done a series where we could write all the scripts in advance. It allowed us to really hone the characters' arcs and polish the dialogue before filming started.

"When you're doing a network show in America, you're writing the episodes at the same time you're shooting them. It's like you're throwing the tracks in front of the train as it's moving."

As with Friends there is little room for ad-libbing from the cast. "We don't love hearing just the gist of what we wrote," David admits.

Jeffrey adds: "We're sticklers for getting words right. There's a reason why we wrote it the way we did. But we welcome hearing pitches from the actors. If they've got something funnier it's great. The best line always wins."

David says: "For us, another huge difference was that lately we've been doing primarily multicamera shows in front of an audience. So it's been really fun to do this one single-camera with no audience, and not feel so joke-driven. You don't feel that pressure to deliver a punchline every 10 seconds."

Jeffrey agrees: "There are some moments that are really emotional, things you'd be nervous about if it were an audience show. It's been incredibly liberating."

They admit to being influenced by British shows like The Office, Extras, and The Mighty Boosh. "Sometimes we were pretty intimidated," David confesses. "When we were writing Episodes, we happened to be watching the second season of Outnumbered. We had to turn it off. It was just too good."

David and Jeffrey acknowledge that the English couple at the centre of Episodes is very much based on themselves: "We're certainly familiar with the experience of working together and living together. The lines get very blurry."

Much like the couple on their show, David and Jeffrey sometimes found it difficult to leave their work behind at the end of each day: "There is a scene where Beverly says to Sean: 'Can we just not talk about the show this evening?' and there is a long, long, long pause and they just can't find anything else to talk about."

David laughs: "Oh yeah, it consumes our lives!"

Jeffrey concludes: "It's been an amazing project for us. Working with the BBC, Showtime and Hat Trick has been a really positive experience. They've allowed us to make the show that we wanted to make. You live or die by that, but at least it's your choice."

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