“A Sketch Is A Firework, But A TV Show Has A Longer Life” Screenwriter Emily Altman Talks ‘Big Mouth’, ‘Inside Amy Schumer’, & ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’
Some viewers will describe Netflix’s Big Mouth as mean-spirited or Frat-house-like, but the edgy, adult cartoon series also focuses on empathy, compassion, and vulnerability of its characters. The series, which was created by Andrew Goldberg, Nick Kroll, and Jennifer Flackett, can be described as, “Teenage friends find their lives upended by the wonders and horrors of puberty.” We spoke with Emily Altman, one of the writers on the show.
“I hear a lot of feedback of people saying, ‘I wasn’t expecting this show to be as sweet as it is,’” remarked Altman. Also known for writing on Inside Amy Schumer [for which she won a Peabody Award], Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and The President Show, Emily Altman also has three writing credits for Big Mouth, including the highly praised “The Planned Parenthood Show.”
The combination of comedy and heart is somewhat unique to Big Mouth. While writing the TV show, the team didn’t specifically consider teens-going-through-puberty as the core audience, but they are certainly included within the demographic of viewers. “The actors are not doing little-kid, pubescent voices. It’s more like comedians or actors expressing thoughts. I pictured adults looking back at puberty from a distance to the subject. It’s wild and explicit, but we also work really hard and we believe in the message behind it. The sexual education is accurate.”
Emily Altman received an Emmy nomination for the Planned Parenthood episode. “Our producers had a non-creative meeting with Planned Parenthood. Politically, we wanted to do an episode about them, especially with the 2016 election coming up at the time. As for my personal involvement with Planned Parenthood, as a high schooler, I actually interned with them.”
We asked Emily Altman if her experience there helped contour the episode. “Not at the time. We filed brochures and did office work,” reflected Altman. “I didn’t see it as connected to big dramatic stories, but it did open my eyes that this is an everyday part of people’s lives. It’s a place where women and men are going for basic healthcare. When I worked there, that was something I saw first hand. We wanted to represent a variety of things that Planned Parenthood does.”
Emily Altman’s Sketchy Background
In addition to her insider knowledge of the facilities, her sketch background – through Upright Citizens Brigade and Inside Amy Schumer – paid off, as the episode in question was broken up, more like short-form sketches, rather than a focus on a longer, linear story.
“The immediacy of theater is like a drug, but when writing for TV, I write thinking people may watch it more than once. It has a longer life in it. A sketch is a firework, but an episode of Big Mouth lives much longer than that. We all make an effort that it’s narratively-sound, which is less true of a sketch.”
“I think the writing on this episode is the same as all of the other episodes, in terms of tone and spirit. It has my name on it, but it’s a collaboration. It’s called ‘The Planned Parenthood Show’ episode, so people having an issue with that may tune out. But it’s also a bottle episode, which is a deviation from our normal form. Some people are going to be excited by that, but some people don’t like when you try something different.” There currently seems to be a connection between stand-alone episodes of TV shows which slightly detract from the main season arc and being nominated for major awards.
Writing a show like Big Mouth that covers so many truths can obviously be quite difficult. “There’s an episode coming out in the upcoming season Of Big Mouth about girls and orgasms. That was challenging because we’re writing about young women, so we want to represent things honestly and openly, but I’m aware that we’re writing about 12 and 13-year-olds, not adults. There’s a tightrope we’re walking to make sure we can stand behind what we’re doing.”
We asked Emily how she brought authenticity to the conversations teens have about these sensitive matters.
“I haven’t seen 12 and 13-year-olds talking about this, so I really had to think about how they might speak. It’s graphic stuff, but we need to make sure the dialogue is truthful and the tone and spirit is the same as what we’ve been trying to do. I had to think a lot about how I wanted these characters to come off, Jessi (Jessi Klein) in particular. Hopefully, I pulled it off.”
Creating An Authentic Voice On Big Mouth
To make the dialogue more authentic, the TV writers think back on their own experiences, but they also talked to high schoolers in the Northern California area through a sexual education teacher. “Occasionally, we would Skype with her class. We asked questions, but mainly they talked and we listened. We do that a couple of times a season. We’re pulling off what we think is a universal experience, but they keep us on track. With dialogue, we also don’t want the characters to sound brilliant beyond their years, but they might make sophisticated jokes beyond their age level.”
In the TV writers’ room, there’s a great deal of outlining before the actual writing process begins. “We have a broad discussion at the beginning of the season. Nick Kroll and Adam Goldberg then zero-in on each subject. They take the areas – Planned Parenthood, testing or whatever – and then we talk about the key scenes as a group, along with what has to happen [plot wise], so the individual writer can go and write an outline. Then we get notes. Once the outline is confirmed, the TV writer brings it back to ten other TV writers to go through the script line-by-line to make it better.”
This mindset got started with sketch comedy. “Writing is a sketch is a weird little skill. I have that in my back pocket, but it’s a strange genre. I do think it helps with jokes and conceptualizing why an idea can be funny. On Kimmy Schmidt, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock are joke machines, so you’re required to put jokes everywhere.”
“Working on Kimmy Schmidt made me look at every page and ask, ‘Is this as funny as it can be?’ If not, I knew we would have to work on again as a group to put more jokes in there. I got a lot of discipline on that show, self-regulating and just making sure that when I write, I can give as many jokes as possible to the script.”
A growing discipline has somewhat changed the writing process for Altman. Over time, while working within self-regulated scrutiny, she feels a little on edge, but this has led to increased confidence. “You’re always a little nervous. As a TV writer, I now feel okay when a joke doesn’t work. We all fail. I’ve worked with some of the funniest people I’ve ever met and I’ve seen them all pitch jokes that don’t work. But there’s freedom in making mistakes and putting yourself out there. It’s the most important thing you can do. You don’t have to punish yourself if something doesn’t work. It’s not always perfect, but it is experience.”
The Magic Of Comedy
Comedy is a tricky genre because it relies on the audience and the execution of the jokes to make it funny.
“I think what makes good comedy exceptional is the same stuff you respond to in any good art,” mused Altman. “It’s some sort of truth and authenticity that you’re responding to. When I recognize something about being a person in it, that’s what makes me laugh or makes me feel things.”
“It’s representing being a human in a real and creative way. It’s about showing a realistic person, in a creative way. You have to have a personal love for your work because it’s going to be challenged, but that’s what writing does. The writing is everything.”
To write meaningful comedy, the Altman looks for a place of joy and play. “I’m not a dry, methodical comedy writer. I talk out loud. I laugh a lot. It’s very experiential for me. What gets my creative juices flowing is being around other comedy writers who inspire me, and it feels like a playground.”
“When I’m alone writing, it feels like I’m entertaining myself. It’s still a drudgery to get started, but when I can trick my brain to thinking that I’m just playing, it works. It’s like coaxing this interesting, elusive thing out of yourself. It’s hit or miss, but that’s the magic of comedy.”
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