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How To Write For TV: 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine' Scribe Laura McCreary Shares Her Secrets

Photo of Ben Travers By Ben Travers | Indiewire May 8, 2014 at 10:51AM

Laura McCreary has worked her way up from a student to spec script writer to writing for the Golden Globe winner for Best Comedy Series, "Brooklyn Nine-Nine." She walks us through how she got to where she is today.
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Erica Parise/FOX Andy Samberg and Terry Crews on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine."

Laura McCreary isn't a household name -- not yet. But she's well on her way. Currently a staff writer on FOX's Golden Globe-winning comedy "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," McCreary got her start writing for children's programs before moving on to animated primetime and live-action. Her steady move forward speaks to her knowledge of the industry and, more importantly, her comedic talents. McCreary has even received two Emmy nominations, one as an executive producer on "American Dad" when it earned a Best Animated Program nod in 2012. Last week, McCreary took a few minutes to sit down with Indiewire and outline her path from student filmmaker to staff writer on an award-winning network sitcom. 

Could you just talk a little bit about your educational background and where you started off in "the biz?"

Sure. So I sort of had tunnel vision as a kid. I always wanted to write for TV, and I was a little bit of a kid that was raised by a TV for better or worse. I had my parents around, but they were like, "Why don't you watch some TV?" So I always wanted to do it. I grew up a big fan of "The Dick Van Dyke Show," and I wanted to be him. I wanted to be Sally [Rogers]. So I sort of was always a big "Cheers" fan, and a big "Moonlighting" fan, and when it came time to go to college it was basically a debate between USC and Tisch [at NYU]. I chose USC because it did have a lot more TV at the time. Tisch was a little more playwriting. 

I went to the film school there for writing, and, you know, I played around with wanting to do TV and wanting to do features. We wrote a feature a year there, which was great exercise. There were tons of TV electives. Now the program is a little more TV-centric. You do a thesis of a show, which is good. I just did as many TV courses as I could there, and as it happens, my first job was [from] a woman I met through there, Nhanatchka Khan, that was on a show called "Pepper Ann" at Disney. It was through someone I met there that I had a couple breaks, actually. 

Did you have to do any odd jobs in between school and your job at Disney? 

After school, I was a temp secretary while I wrote my spec [scripts]. I tried to be an extra for a summer because I wanted to be on set, and that was exhausting. Not really wanting to act, I quickly realized I got my fill of that. 

So what happened with the kids shows you wrote for?

"American Dad"

I bounced around kids for a while. It was a really fun (and really amazing, in retrospect) story education because there are, like, two of you on staff and you have to come up with 100 episodes for these shows, so as for the very basics of story boot camp, I think it was great for that. And, you know, we could have so much fun, too. In that kids' world you can kind of be a little crazier. I did that and then I was still [doing] a lot of Disney and a couple Nickelodeon shows. 

My first primetime show was "American Dad." I went over there in season two. That was sort of the transition between writing and producing. I think I went in there as a story editor, and I was lucky again in that respect because the show was a little bit of a work horse for FOX. It was doing well, and it kind of just kept coming back. Backing up a little, we sat in on post a little, too, in the kids world. We sat in on sound mixes and editing, but [...] on "American Dad" they would let us sort of do our sound mix which was a lot of the timing of the dialogue. You'd sit in on the record. You'd sort of sit on your sound mix and do notes on your storyboard. So that was when I started doing a little more on the producing end.

How did you get into writing for live-action shows?

Then I left "American Dad," and, again, Nhanatchka Khan comes into play. Her show, "Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23," got a green light and she took me over there with her and that was my first live action, which was a blast. I adored that show. It was so fun. We did two half seasons over there, and then it was canceled. Last year, I was sort of just out into the giant fish pond of staffing, and it worked out. I ended up meeting with Mike [Schur] and Dan [Goor, the creators of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"]. I had sort of known of them through friends, but I'd never worked with them, but I was a huge "Parks and Rec" fan, and I thought the pilot [of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"] was just great. I thought it was so fun to be able to do cases and jokes. So that worked out and they brought me on. We had a small staff in season one. Including Mike and Dan, I think we were 10, but it was great. Great people. There we go. Season one was a rollercoaster and was exciting. Now we're starting season two on Wednesday -- starting writing.

"The traditional path is to be a writer's PA because you were lucky enough to meet someone."

I'm sure they want to take advantage of all the positive accolades and buzz around the show. 

It's early. We're gonna start writing and shooting early so they can try to air a bunch, I guess. 

Was it hard for you to make the transition from kids' programming to adult shows? Did you have to shake off that label?

A little bit. The worlds aren't linked in any way. The traditional path is to be a writer's PA because you were lucky enough to meet someone, and then be a writer's assistant and spend time in the room, and then finally be a writer. It was a less traditional path going from this kids' world without having been a writer's assistant. In some ways that's an amazing learning experience, to be able to sit in like that. I had to write all my specs and my samples and [it was] a little bit starting from scratch in that aspect. 

It's funny. When I got to "American Dad" I had the sense that I had to be a little blue to prove that I'm not a kids writer, and that show is fairly blue, so it worked out. I fit in. But then you just realize you need to be as funny as you can be. As long as you can pull your weight, it's fine. But yeah, I did feel like I had to sort of say, "I can do this, too." And it was a relief to not be in the confines of kids' [writing] anymore, to be a little broader in storytelling and be a little raunchier. That was fun. I guess they had to read my samples and had to start as if I was, I mean, I was a new writer to that world.

Did you feel you needed to know someone to make the transition from animated programs to live action shows?

ABC 'Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23'

Yeah, I mean it was a change. The thing that worked out with "American Dad" was that it's not timed with regular staffing season because it's animated. Every episode takes nine months. The timing was such on "American Dad" that you would not be free at the time the live action shows were looking, which is not to say I wanted to leave. I was very happy there, but it just happened to time out when "Don't Trust the B" came, they let me leave with Nhan because they knew I had the relationship with her and I knew her and she had to build a staff from scratch. 

The biggest shock to me was, one, I just loved how quickly it all happened. My first "Don't Trust the B" I wrote aired before the last "American Dad" I wrote just because the animation process takes so long. And [two], yeah, just how quick it was and how the actors can just give so much more life to it. Obviously, they give all the voices and a ton of it to the animation, but you have a lot more opportunities to redo jokes and tweak a joke. It's a fun level to add, and an exciting level. But, you know, ultimately in terms of just writing and basic storytelling that's not too different. We tried to keep "American Dad" somewhat grounded in terms of telling emotional family stories. A lot of that translated. It was more the production end that was new and different. 

It sounds like you had a lot of opportunities through networking. Did you use a writing agent to land any gigs? 

The "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" job was purely through my agent. I knew of them from "Parks and Rec," and people will always write nice emails about you if they like you to be like, "Yeah, you should meet with this girl." But that was purely through WME. I owe them because they sort of did the ground work on that, and I was lucky enough to get a meeting over there and we clicked. Especially once you work for a while you sort of get, especially people who are on shows that only go one season -- I've been lucky enough to be on shows that go a little bit longer -- but they know everybody in town because they've worked with everybody for nine months. 

As you become a little more experienced, a lot of it is just that: "Oh, how's so and so?" "They're great." "Oh, I know who I want on my staff. I've worked with this person, this person, and this person." So there is a degree of that, but "Brooklyn" was purely through the agency. 

"It's always a catch-22 of getting an agent because they're always interested in you when you have a job, but you need them to get a job."

When did you sign on with WME?

I was with them since "American Dad." I've been with them the whole time. I really like them.

What made you sign with them instead of relying on existing contacts, experience, and word of mouth?

It's pretty necessary, I believe. Some people have managers instead of agents, but I believe you always need someone who is there for you when you do have to find a job or even little questions you have or little contract issues. It's always a catch-22 of getting an agent because they're always interested in you when you have a job, but you need them to get a job. So it's another one of those -- like I said with getting that first writer's PA job -- getting an agent is another one of those milestone things that can be tricky for that reason.

How have things changed since you first started pursuing professional writing?

I think shows are willing to take a lot of interesting risks now. Some of the pilots out there are kind of bold. Even "Malcolm in the Middle," bringing the single-camera back from the multi-cam sitcom. The stuff we do on "Brooklyn" with the pops and the flashbacks and the cutaways, I had experience with that in the animation world. I like being able to mix that kind of storytelling to hide your reality in and hard joke-telling where it's okay that everyone knows it's a joke. 

One of our guys on staff, Luke Del Tredici, was on "30 Rock," and that was a show I loved. They just weren't afraid to tell jokes that everyone knew were jokes. Not necessarily, like, the husband and the wife joking about the kids, but this is just a joke and this character's crazy. I think that TV has gotten a good way into being able to have that freedom. Obviously, we try to keep everything grounded and everyone tries to be real on our show. Then there's the influence of cable, that they can just do whatever they want. I think that's opening up joke-telling in a really funny way. 

What advice would you have for writers' trying to break in now?

There's the "sticking with it," the "you always have to writing the next sample," which is tough because you never know what show people want to read. There's usually two shows that everyone wants to read as a spec and everyone gets really sick of reading them. So then you write a pilot, but then an original pilot doesn't tell you as much as a spec of a show in terms of whether you can catch the feeling of the show. So you kind of always have to be writing and then just looking for that first opportunity to get that PA job or that writer's assistant job. 

Or, you know, now people are out making their own web shorts which can turn into things. That wasn't available when I was starting my career. Nothing was that cheap, and there was barely the internet. So that's amazing, too, that people can have that as samples, as like a fully formed thing that they've created. I don't know. Try to be funny. I mean, half of the writer's room experience is just enjoying who you're working with. Everyone just has to be themselves and try to enjoy each other. 

This article is related to: Television, Television, Interviews, Interviews, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, Filmmaker Toolkit, Filmmaker Toolkit: Screenwriting