Equipped: Comedy writer-showrunner Michael Price
July 13, 2022
What makes a successful writer tick? How do they handle bad news? How have others changed their lives and how do they pay it forward? If you want to learn from the best, you’ve come to the right place.
Read on below for a glorious dive into the mind of:
WRITING HIGHLIGHTS: THE SIMPSONS, F IS FOR FAMILY
YEARS IN THE WGA: 25+
What was your introduction to the WGA like?
I joined the WGA in 1995. I got to join the Guild because I’d gotten hired on a show called Gladiators 2000. It was Saturday morning TV, and they needed to include educational content, so I got to write comedy sketches and had to work in the educational stuff. I remember going to my first meeting at the Writers Guild, and they took questions from the audience. This guy raises his hand, and he’s like, “Yeah, I wrote a feature film…” It was actually an early draft of The Cable Guy, so this guy had a question about this big Jim Carrey-starring feature film, and I’m just the guy who wrote for Nitro. It felt a little funny and out of place, but hey I was there.
To go from writing sketches for gladiators to the career you’ve had, how does it feel to have worked on The Simpsons and F Is For Family – these powerhouse shows, knowing that’s not common?
I feel incredibly fortunate. It’s been a lot of serendipity. You have to believe in yourself and believe you have talent, but to get that first step in the door, takes a lot of persistence. The first prime-time actual network show I got hired onto was called Home Boys in Outer Space on UPN. If you Google it, it will come up on the list of the worst shows ever, but I loved it.
It’s great to be on a list, though.
True. Working there as consulting producers were Al Jean and Mike Reiss from The Simpsons so I got to meet them, and they liked me, and then they hired me for a show they created called Teen Angel. And I worked with them again on a show called The PJs with Eddie Murphy, an animated show that was run with The Simpsons sensibility. A year or two later they went back to The Simpsons and Al was then running it, and a job became available, and he called me about it. So if I hadn’t worked on Home Boys in Outer Space, I never would have met Al and Mike. And who knows where I would have ended up?
There’s that saying, “Life always makes sense when you look at it backward, it’s too bad we have to live it forward.”
The Simpsons were the original meme. I remember quoting it all day long as a kid. Are there any specific episodes you’ve written that you see referenced the most?
The stuff that gets memed the most is from before I got there in season 13. But I was in the room when we worked on one that I know has become a big thing. I don’t remember the context, but I think Al Jean pitched it and then we saw it take off later. It was the newspaper showing Grandpa shaking his fist with the headline "Old Man Yells At Cloud."
That’s a classic! If you had to do a cross-country road trip with a fictional character that you've written for, would Abe Simpson be in the running? Who would you pick and why?
It wouldn’t be anyone from F Is For Family that’s for sure. Flanders would get on my nerves after a while… So I think I’d pick Krusty the Clown. He’d probably get us into all kinds of trouble. I’m a fan of old show business, so if we’re on a cross-country trip, I’d turn on my tape recorder and have him tell me stories about working in Vegas.
How would you say you got your creative start? What led you to screenwriting and comedy?
I was a huge fan of Saturday Night Live which was relatively new when I was in high school. During the Christmas of ‘76 or ’77, they came out with a companion book that had scripts of famous sketches and behind-the-scenes photos. I got that for Christmas, and I loved it. Over Christmas vacation, I wrote some sketches on my typewriter using the format I saw in the sketches in the book. The only sketch I remember writing was a parody of one of my favorite movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, called ‘Lunch Encounters of the Third Kind’ about aliens coming to a diner. Later on that year, Saturday Night Live had a bit where they mentioned ‘Lunch Encounters of the Third Kind,’ and I was thrilled because I’d made the same joke. So I got this moment of validation that something I thought was funny, was funny enough for SNL.
I was also a theater major in college, and one year we ended up doing Happy Birthday, Wanda June, the only play Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote. It was the first thing I ever directed, and it was an amazing experience. I loved every minute of it. Directing was really one of the first things I did where I was like “This is fun! I finally know what I’m doing!” It was also my first opportunity to be kind of like what a showrunner is because I had to direct the actors and meet with the designers and talk about what the set should look like and had to plot it all out and be the head guy in charge. I was the producer, director, etc. It was the most alive I’d ever felt in my life.
I got so into it, too. The stage was a black box theater, and I got a hold of an office chair on wheels, and I’d be scuttling around and looking at all the angles. So they’re trying to rehearse the play, and I’m rolling through on my chair. I loved it, but I’m sure I drove them crazy.
Do you have any writing rituals or traditions from then or now?
Yeah! I always marvel at writers that have these disciplined early morning writing habits, like they get up at 5 am and go write all day. I feel like I’ve got to sometimes trick myself into doing the work. So what I used to do, I’d be working on a notepad or an early draft of a script, and I would go to the movies. If I had a whole day to work, say it’s 2 pm, I’ll go buy a ticket for a movie that started at 2:45 and go sit in the empty theater and make my notes on my script. And then when the trailers would start, I’d watch those, and then I’d get up and leave and cross over to whatever’s showing across the hall in the theater and do that a couple of different times. It was this complicated game I’d play with myself. I’ve got maybe twenty minutes to write each time, so I really had to stay focused. And then I’d get to watch trailers and eat popcorn. And maybe at the end of the day, I’d finally watch a movie.
This is one of the most elaborate writing hacks I’ve heard of. That’s amazing.
I had a friend who’d go to Disneyland and he’d go wait in a line for Space Mountain and work on his script [while waiting] in line.
These are the hacks we need. Speaking of hacks, is there anything you know now that you wish you knew when you first stepped into a room?
You have to learn to be accommodating and listen to notes, but also hold onto what you need to. Be okay changing what you need to, but also know the heart of your show. It’s a bit like the serenity prayer in Alcoholics Anonymous. Accept the things you cannot change, have the courage to change what you can, and have the wisdom to know the difference.
Sometimes if I’m on a notes call, my instinct will be to say “Sure, sure, okay I can do that.” And then I’ll get off the phone and be like, oh shoot how am I gonna do that. So, I have to teach myself to say “OK, I’ll write that down, let me think about that” and then take time to form a fix that makes sense for them AND for me. So don’t give in too much.
Yeah, there’s a lot of fun and refreshing weirdness that new voices bring to the table that can get watered down in the development process.
Yeah, I was so excited to have my first pilot that I think I gave in too much and so the final script ended up being neither here nor there which I think is why it ended up not moving forward.
Can you say at all what that pilot was about?
Yeah! Actually, it was sort of based on my life and family – about a kid who idolized his father who was a frustrated guy, based on my dad a little bit. It was a gentle show, and it was meant to be a single camera, which, at the time back in 1999, was not the mode yet, and this was for CBS too and they only wanted a multi-cam. So we tried to make it multi-cam, but that meant the father had to become more of a jokey guy, and it never really came together.
Years later I was feeling bad that I gave up on the original idea of it, so as an exercise I rewrote it. Then a few years after that I ended up meeting with Bill Burr, and he said he wanted to do a show about a suburban family and a frustrated dad. And I realized there were a lot of similar themes that I’d worked with, so I ended up getting to use a lot of stuff from that idea in F Is For Family.
Speaking of the show not going the first time around, do you have a process for dealing with bad news when you get it?
No, the short answer is no, hah. But it helps to have something else. One of my heroes in the theater was Harold Prince. He would have a show opening on Broadway. Say it opens on a Tuesday night. He would always make sure he had a meeting set for Wednesday morning for the next show he wanted to work on. So whether Tuesday night was a huge triumph or a disaster, he’d always have the next thing.
Is there anything you can’t live without?
I’m a huge New York Mets fan. I really love baseball so much. My son who’s in college, we bond over that. Even though he’s a Los Angeleno, born and bred, I worked hard to make him a Mets fan. I really love that. What I love more than anything, aside from my wife, my dogs, and my work, is following the Mets and sharing that with my son.
Written by: Liz ThompsonLiz Thompson is a screenwriter and freelance development consultant. She has one show currently in development, is featured on The BitchList 2020, and won the 2019 Tracking Board Launch Pad Julian Silver mentorship. In between outlining and pitching she runs The Writer’s ARC group on Facebook, and can be found on Twitter at @howtoliz.