Last Laugh: Dave Finkel

Take it from New Girl executive producer Dave Finkel—creating razor-sharp comedy week after week is no joke.

 

 

Photo credit: Ray Mickshaw/FOXPhoto credit: Ray Mickshaw/FOXComedy is all fun and games until your contract calls for 25 episodes per season. For Dave Finkel, current New Girl executive producer, it can be sleepless, frustrating work. But the labor of love is what keeps approximately 4.7 million viewers in the chuckles and Finkel returning to the writers’ room with fellow executive producers Elizabeth “Liz” Meriwether and Brett Baer, who keep the Fox series running.

Finkel is all too familiar with the breakneck business of producing comedy. Getting his start as a writer on the ‘90s cartoon series Animaniacs, Finkel took writing jobs on shows like Pinky and the Brain, Norm, and Just Shoot Me! before moving over to the production side of the show in the early 2000s. From there, he escalated to executive production roles on Joey, Center of the Universe, 30 Rock, United States of Tara, and finally New Girl in 2011. The secret, he says, is to stay honest, be ready to put in some serious hours, and don’t fret when page after page hits the cutting room floor.

Get In Media: With network television, there’s such a push to make a main character universally likeable and that does not seem to be the case for [New Girl]. Did you receive any [network] pushback?

Dave Finkel: Never. No. The only thing they said early on was for some reason they wanted to make sure [lead character Jess] was good at her job because it gave [the show] some sort of context to make it seem like she wasn’t a complete whack job. In the pilot, as it was written, we knew that Jess was going to be a mess and that they all were going to be a mess. The one that was trickiest was finding Schmidt’s sort of second layer because it’s very easy for a character like that to be a two-dimensional character. It could have just been the loveable idiot or the dumb guy. We wanted to make sure that he was intelligent, that they were all intelligent, that he was real, that there was a reason why he was the way he was and we wanted to see what that was. By putting fat Schmidt together, it helped give it some dimensionality. 

Look, a show doesn’t work unless there are tons of flaws. You need conflicts, and the thing about the Jess/Nick of it all is that thing has life because those two characters are not ready for each other. I think we’ll have some longevity for those characters because we need to watch them either grow towards each other or realize they can’t be together. I don’t know the answer to how that’s going to play out, but it’s exciting as a writer. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. 

GIM: [New Girl creator and executive producer] Elizabeth Meriwether has said that there has been a number of things on the show that have resulted from happy accidents in the writers’ room.

DF: Every episode is a happy accident.

GIM: Really?

DF: In a positive way. We did 25 episodes last year, which is horrifying. It’s so hard, so you end up in a place where you’re having to throw together an episode in a couple of days. I would say we’ve had a success rate that’s pretty high just because we’ve just trusted our instincts. Once you hit the ground running, we’ve had to trust ourselves that the show will dictate what it needs to be and we just have to listen. The key to this show has always been be honest, tell the truth, and let the characters dictate their terms and they do. I think we’ve held tight to that, so it’s been fortunate.

GIM: What kind of hours are you pulling for this show?

DF: 24/7. The first season was worse. [Executive producer and co-showrunner] Brett [Baer] and I and Liz [Meriwether] were almost always at the office. We had inflatable beds in our offices. Liz sleeps on her couch. We saw each other in the worst possible light. There are many stages to the show. There’s first draft, where we’re still trying to figure it out. There’s the second draft, where we’re still kind of working out the kinks. The table draft, we’re working it out. We keep shuffling the deck every episode to make sure it’s right and it isn’t until we get into the editing room and start putting pieces together, pulling pieces out of different scenes and mashing them together.

We have one of the best editing crews of all time. Our [editor/associate producer] Steve Welch has been with us since the beginning, a master of making something out of nothing. It’s like, “We need a moment between the two of them.” “Oh I can pull this piece, put it before this action and pair it with this and now we’ve got a thing.” There’s a little bit of magic behind the scenes. Every episode feels like, “Oh my god, are we going to pull it off?” And then we do.

GIM: In a given episode, how much writing gets cut?

DF: Tons. Oh yeah, I think we re-write every script.

GIM: Beginning to end?

DF: For the most part. Every now and then we’ll get one that we didn’t do a ton of re-writing on, but they all get the treatment. It’s sort of the case on every show, but I think this gets a little bit more. We go to stage with a packet of jokes, like hundreds and hundreds of jokes, so that when we’re doing a scene, we’ll just shout out to the actor, “Try this! Try this! Try this! Try this!” They’re such good improvisers that they’ll take our joke and they’ll spin it and make it even better than we could and then the scene becomes completely different. The dynamic shifts. There’s a bunch of trust and give and take between us and the actors.

GIM: You guys are always pushing the borders in terms of language.

DF: My conversations with broadcast standards have been fantastic. We have this woman [representative from broadcast standards] and she’s hilarious. Every time we make the filthiest joke known to man, she giggles as hard as we do. She gets it, but obviously there’s a limitation to what we can say. We’ll keep pushing.

GIM: What’s been thrown out? What have you pushed for but not been able to get?

DF: Every episode has its moment where we’re like, “Well, why can’t he say that?” We’ll have a fundamental disagreement from an intelligent point of view of why we should use a joke and they’re like, “Yeah, but you can’t talk about a woman’s genitals like that or a man’s genitals like that.” It’s always a fascinating series of emails about why we can or can’t use things. They’re hilarious and I’d like to one day just do a reading of our notes. They’re really funny.

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GIM: Every writer feels like they’re not going to reach the same status as their heroes and you’ve stated that you strive to create what Carroll O’Connor did, but you haven’t been able to reach that. How do you overcome that feeling?

DF: You just keep trying. I would imagine that in those first four seasons of All in the Family, as an example, I don’t think they knew they were a zeitgeist thing. They were just being a show. You just keep doing what you do and hope that it grows into that thing. We’ll never be All in the Family. That’s the best show probably ever recorded, but having Rob Reiner on was a huge moment for me. Rob loves telling stories about those days.

We just keep striving to be more honest, push the envelope more, try to do more and achieve more. I think there’s no limitation, not just the filthy stuff, but also the emotional stuff. I think in that first season, doing that cancer episode felt real because I don’t think I know a single person in their mid to late 20s who hasn’t gone through some, maybe it isn’t cancer, but had some sort of moment where they realize, “I’m not immortal.” I think it was an important milestone for us because we wanted to make sure we could pull it off and I think we did. I personally love those episodes where we play drama against comedy.

GIM: What advice do you have for someone who wants to follow in your career footsteps?

DF: My thing is, as a showrunner, when I’m reading scripts and I read hundreds of scripts every day in case we need more writers or whatever, I don’t want to read something that you think I want to read. I want to read your original voice because that’s what I want on my staff, someone who’s got their own thing to bring to the table. We tend to read a lot of short stories, a lot of plays. I enjoy that because reading scripts is a burden. Out of 200 scripts, it’s so hard to find an original voice in a pile like that, so the thing I always tell people is write from something deep inside of you and be honest because I can smell bullshit a mile away. Not I, but any reader can smell bullshit a mile away. If it’s honest and you feel it and you’re connecting with it, it’s going to be good.

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