“Goofy Cult Comedy Grounded In Silliness” Stefani Robinson On ‘What We Do In The Shadows’ & ‘Atlanta’
Writer/ Producer Stefani Robinson is best known for her TV comedy work on shows like Man Seeking Woman, Atlanta, and her latest TV show What We Do In The Shadows. Her work on Atlanta garnered her a slew of awards for TV writing. She spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about writing kooky, offbeat TV comedy.
On joining the writing staff of What We Do In The Shadows, she felt it was a perfect fit rather than a ‘see how it goes’ affair. “It was very on brand for me. After I saw the movie [of What We Do In The Shadows] I was really attracted to that brand of comedy,” said Robinson.
It was her fellow TV writer Paul Simms, whom she met on Atlanta who introduced her the show. They had a meeting with Jermaine Clement, the creator of the What We Do In The Shadows, and rest fell into place.
Shadows is a goofy TV show about vampire shenanigans as they try to be part of the real world. It’s a story of marginalized folks trying to fit in.
Growing up, I watched a lot of British comedy and American weird comedies. “I watched Austin Powers once a month. It’s the perfect film,” she joked. “I’m attracted to light-hearted, goofy comedies that are grounded in silliness.” If Austin Powers married a vampire, their baby might look like Nandor.
Despite the zany antics, Stefani insists that writing TV comedy is serious business. “The characters must believe the rules of the world they inhabit. There’s a silly vulnerability to that which makes the show funny.”
Robinson sees no conflict in writing for vastly different comedy shows like Atlanta and What We Do In The Shadows. “They are both different parts of the same comedic brain,” she declared. Part of the comedy she writes is observational and part is writing laugh out loud jokes. The best comedy writers can alternate between these different styles of comedy.
“So much of the comedy in Atlanta is observational and relies on tone and the characters being uncomfortable. There is so much discomfort in Atlanta that all you can do is laugh at how ironic or serendipitous the situations are.”
Robinson generally slotted into Jermaine Clements’ idiosyncratic taste in comedy. “There were definitely cultural differences since Jermaine is from New Zealand,” she recalled. “There were times we had to explain things to each other and why they were or weren’t funny.” This was especially true with culturally sensitive and topical matters.
The Writers’ Room
Stefani described it as “a fun, low-pressure writers’ room.” There was a core staff of about seven writers trying to make each other laugh. Occasionally, additional writers were brought in to punch up jokes. “We had Iain Morris who created The Inbetweeners come in for a week and Marika Sawyer who wrote for Saturday Night Live and Man Seeking Woman,” added Robinson.
Jokes aside, the TV writers had a series to plan. It all starts with general ideas which are massaged into specific scenes. A scenario might include “what if a vampire went to a Manhattan nightclub? What if they have to talk to City Council? Or what if a vampire wants to become an American Citizen?” she stated.
Episodes were built on the most mundane everyday situations with supernatural reactions from vampires. The writers would then flesh out what such situations might look like in the confines of the show. Jermaine Clement would also bring in specific episode ideas.
Since What We Do In The Shadows doesn’t have a strict series arc, the writers’ room had a lot of latitude for generating story ideas. Every idea is documented and freely available to the writers. Then the writers decide on their favorite ones and how they might interact with each other to form an episode.
“We start with broad ideas and then we get more specific. What is the story in each broad idea and where does it go?” They determine if an idea is either too big or too small. Whether it deserves fleshing out or whether it should be abandoned.
Not all ideas make it to the show. Robinson recalls instances of extended family and friends coming to stay with the vampires. There were ideas about Nandor’s life outside the vampire family which also didn’t make the cut. In one discussion, Nandor’s sibling overstays his welcome and has to attend a Halloween party. Is a vampire costume offensive to vampires? Basically, any idea which shifted the spotlight away from the main characters for too long or wasn’t workable was rejected.
Robinson relates to Guillermo’s character the most, especially in the Manhattan Nightclub episode. “We all felt like a Guillermo at some point… low status, trying to make a difference and getting little affirmation. Feeling like an outsider was also very personal to me. You’re weird, different and trying to fit in.”
She recalls that the City Council episode where the vampires have to attend a meeting felt like a DGA (Directors Guild Of America) meeting Jermaine once attended. He felt he was being interrogated and investigated by the long-standing DGA committee members.
Writing vs Producing
Stefani Robinson served as both writer and co-executive producer on What We Do In The Shadows and Atlanta. When asked about her preferences between the two she replied, “I love jumping between the creative and non-creative problem-solving aspects of the show.” Being a TV writer means that jokes need to be punched up, stories broken and ensuring scenes make sense, whereas a producer is all about getting the show to the screen.
There are also production, technical, mechanical and corporate considerations in producing such as ensuring stunts run smoothly or the color grading is matched in the edit. Her mantra is “what can I do to make sure the train keeps running? They’re very different jobs which engage very different parts of your brain.”
Robinson doesn’t have a preference. Working on one allows the other part of her brain to rest and rejuvenate. “It’s a very pleasant marriage of both.”
The TV writer loves working on What We Do In The Shadows because it takes place in a low-stakes world. “It’s so refreshing because you don’t have to go home and think. It’s purely entertainment and you don’t have to change the world. Cult comedy is art and there’s a beauty to making people laugh differently.”
Stefani’s comedic tastes hark back to an era when comedies made you smile and laugh. She feels TV comedy has taken a darker turn lately.
“These days comedies aren’t really comedies. There’s a heavy dramatic undercurrent in many of them,” declared Stefani. There’s a distinct darkness and glib realism to TV comedies now. Comedic tone isn’t the only thing that’s changed. It’s also the writing process.
“Comedy writers are taking their time with the characters and they’re letting the story breathe in current TV comedies, almost sending the comedy to the backburner. The unspoken words and the drama are really at the forefront now rather than the gags.”
Robinson doesn’t offer aspiring TV comedy writers specific advice on breaking in because everyone’s path is different. She tried improv where she met future writing collaborators. Traveling and meeting people of all different backgrounds is also helpful to stimulate your creativity. Read novels, memoirs, articles are all “food for creativity.”
“Meet people you love and want to work with. Keep working and show your work. At the end of the day, people will start looking you up.”
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