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Jim Rash on ‘Community,’ the Creative Process and Interviewing His Peers on Sundance Channel’s New Series ‘The Writers’ Room’

Jim Rash on 'Community,' the Creative Process and Interviewing His Peers on Sundance Channel's New Series 'The Writers' Room'

Where can’t you find Jim Rash? Having shared an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for “The Descendants,” Rash and his equally prolific comedy partner Nat Faxon scripted and made their joint directorial debut with “The Way, Way Back,” currently going strong in limited release in theaters. As an actor, Rash has made a mark for himself as the flamboyant Dean Pelton on “Community,” a role he’ll reprise when the series returns for its fifth season. And in the meantime, he can be found playing host on “The Writers’ Room,” a new Sundance Channel series kicking off July 29 at 10pm. Having worked on both sides of the camera, Rash is a nice fit as the interviewer of the writers and cast members of “Breaking Bad,” “Parks & Recreation,” “Dexter,” “New Girl,” “Game of Thrones” and “American Horror Story,” delving into the process of how these successful and acclaimed series are made. Indiewire caught up with Rash by phone to talk about the new series and his ever expanding career.

So how’d you get involved with “The Writers’ Room”?

Sundance approached about it, obviously knowing that I’m a writer and actor. I was awed. I loved it.

And as someone who writes, what is of interest to you in terms of this conversation? It seems like the public is aware of writers of television these days in a way that hasn’t been the case before.

That’s what I love about the angle. I love that this feels like another way in for both fans of these shows and for writers. Fans can learn new angles into their favorite show, especially from the creators’ point of view, how it all came together and what the process is and the choices that were made. For writers, there are the ins and outs of a functioning writers’ room — they can commiserate with it or learn new things. I think the community that’s created within a writers’ room is a very interesting topic. It’s this collaborative effort to bring these shows to life. I think often we don’t hear this story, we don’t know this angle, we just see what’s on tv and then see interviews with actors — not necessarily the nuts and bolts.

As someone who’s written for film as well, how do you see writing for TV as being different?

It is a writer’s medium — there’s a control that writers in TV can have about the ultimate overall product in the sense that a lot of these creators are directly attached to and making the changes, making the choices. Obviously for a writer of screenplays who’s not a writer-director, they are turning over their material to a director and it becomes his or her baby. Then sometimes you’re watching things change that you might not have had in your mind because as they shoot it, things evolve. I feel that television gives [writers] a little bit more of the visual aspect and the control — that’s why people choose to write and direct [film], so they can see it beginning to end.

And the idea of the writers’ room is particularly interesting and unique in the case of TV versus film. Do you feel that authorship is more diffuse in the case of the small screen? What is that dynamic like?

It is fundamentally a collaborative and team effort. You haver this creator that has birthed this world and they’ve created this table of writers who understand the show, understand the voices, understand the journey, whether it’s a drama that has an overall arc and this giant map or a comedy of bringing their own personal stories from home and subjecting them to the room so that they can all pull off these funny things — they really become the show. A group of people are really living at the core of creating each episode and where these characters go as opposed to a [writer] who has to bear that whole journey in a film.

You wrote an episode of “Community” last season — “Basic Human Anatomy.” What was that experience like?

It was great. It was my first foray into a writers’ room — although I’ve had experience working on a pilot helping friends over the years, I’ve never been a staff writer. So this was my first real, extensive visit and it really shined a light on a lot of aspects of it. Having already been on the show for four years, going into that room, I was obviously nervous because I was putting myself into this idea of writing. I wanted to do right by the show and the original vision of Dan Harmon, but I loved being able to tell them my idea and then see a group of people make it better by just talking out loud and giving me places to go before I went off to script.

I left with this great map of people bringing little pieces or big pieces to create what would ultimately become the episodes, and then coming back and getting notes from the collective before I went off to write the rewrite. So it’s nice, because as a writer you often have to be by yourself, unless you have a partner, and you get stuck and you grapple with it, and sometimes it just takes someone to get a fresh look at it.

We often hear that we’re in a “golden age” of TV, and the series you examine on “The Writers’ Room” are a diverse but representative selection of that. How do you feel the rise of the role of the creator plays into that, and how did you go about approaching the conversation?

I think you’re right — we’re in some kind of great phase, particularly in hour-long dramas, comedy as well, but particularly the shows that people have followed from beginning to end, like “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” and “Dexter.” Whatever they’ve tapped into, it’s just great storytelling, and I think we’re embracing things that can be a little darker and more complicated — both for comedy and drama. That excites people, and going into it, each episode took on this great different tone from show to show and there were all these sort of subtle differences about breaking the story, the complexities of the material, how their writing teams work, it really was insightful that way.

Going about that conversation was really about asking each component what it was like working with that other person. Talking to Vince [Gilligan] about “Breaking Bad,” the writers were always quick to complement each other about the certain things each might bring. It was clear to me that they wanted to show how team-like it was. D.B. [Weiss] and David [Benioff] write most of “Game of Thrones” — they have a few writers, but they don’t have a large writing staff. A lot of it is source material and adaptation, but they have to take the big brunt of it themselves, which is sort of scary. In the comedy world you can always get them to throw each other under the bus, especially when it came to storylines that were personal. Liz Meriwether from “New Girl” was open about an episode that was very much inspired by something that actually happened to her. Those are always fun moments.

Were there any surprises? It sound like every series has a different process, but was there anything that stood out as something you weren’t expecting to find out?

In “Dexter” we talked about killing certain characters and the different routes they could’ve taken, and when they bailed on something — when it was too far. And the shock of fans, especially in “Game of Thrones,” reacting to certain characters, because that’s obviously a show where you lose major people. Speaking with David Benioff and D.B. Weiss about working on “Game of Thrones,” I walked into it saying this show terrifies me in the sense that I love it, it’s complicated, and there’s so much at play and you want people to be able to digest everything. Seeing them be just as nervous when they tackle it was such a relief.

As a cast member on “Community,” a show that’s very associated with the voice of a creator who wasn’t involved last season and now is coming back, what has the experience brought to you in terms of talking to other writers from other shows?

I feel like my experience on “Community” was that I saw just how important that first year is for a series. That is where you work all the pieces out, and that means honing the characters’ voices, setting that tone, finding your angle. A lot of these shows would even talk about watching the characters change from the first to second season as they found that voice. In relation to Dan and “Community,” I feel like he had such a specific map of voices, and intuitions, and tone, even though we tonally shifted the series into being able to balance crazy, big episodes with more character-driven stuff — that was his niche in balancing the two.

Watching the writers, even when Dan wasn’t there last year, it was nice to see that when something is strong and there’s a great map — and all of these shows have that — writers come in and explore and have this great launch pad for further explanation. So despite how things might have been a little different without Dan, and they were, there were fundamentals that we could grasp onto and do our best to replicate and be consistent. Now with Dan back, it’s going to be nice to just continue the journey.

Do you have any intentions to write more for television?

Yes, for sure. Nat [Faxon] and I had got into this together. We wrote a pilot back in 2005 for ABC and that was where we started before we found “The Way Way Back.” Nat’s starting a new show on FX, but I think we would always go back, whenever the show finishes its run. I would love to look at myself and try to figure out a way to write my own show, or with Nat… if he’s not, like, a huge star. The same thing with movies. We’ve always just wanted to do any and everything we could be involved with. I don’t know what the future will hold and what will come up first — right now, all we can do is write, and have acting jobs to tend to as well.

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