Alex Casey talks to TV writer and author Steve Hely ahead of his appearance this weekend in the WORD Christchurch festival.
Steve Hely has written for some of the most iconic television comedies of the golden TV era, so it was only fitting that I give him a call whilst wearing a Liz Lemon-style slanket on a Saturday morning. I was hungover, he was just finishing up a day writing for Veep. Different strokes for different folks.
Having penned words for 30 Rock, The Office US, The Late Show With David Letterman and American Dad!, Hely has also written several books and recently witnessed Trump warbling a tonne of nonsense at the RNC convention. We chatted about working in the comedy factory, Oscar’s origami, and why Trump might be the horror movie of the century.
So, you started your career on late night talk show TV, right?
Yes, I was a writer for The Late Show With David Letterman.
I can’t believe the sheer volume of late night shows in America that are all vaguely on at the same time. Did you see the genre evolve when you were working there?
It was already broadening because there was cable TV. When I was young, you pretty much had to watch Letterman and Conan and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Those shows were really important to me growing up, and I can’t imagine a kid doing that these days – they’d go on YouTube and get their comedy that way. But I didn’t have that – if I wanted to see interesting comedians, that’s what I’d do, I’d watch those shows late at night.
These late night shows are definitely not what they used to be, and the ratings are down across the board so I don’t even know who is watching anymore. There are a lot of people who are crazy insomniacs who have to watch something at night and there are old people who just turn their TV on and want to see some familiar, satisfying faces every night.
What’s it like working under pressure in one of those writers rooms, were you constantly churning out newsy jokes?
It was like working at a factory. I’d sit in front of a computer and a guy would come in and hand me a piece of paper with the assignment on it and I’d have an hour to work on it before I had to turn it in. If you had something going on the air, you’d have to round up the video tape for it, or go shoot something, and that felt more exciting. Mostly, it was just sitting at a computer cranking out jokes. It was really hard actually.
What happens if there were just no jokes in your head that day?
Then you’re screwed. There’s always gonna be a show record at 5.30 that day. Whether or not you’ve done anything, it didn’t matter. The funny thing is that, on Letterman, he would often throw out all the comedy we’d written and spend the segment pretending to talk on the phone or something. He was in a period where he was interested in weird little things like that.
There’s definitely a trend in those shows where the hosts are all of a particular age, gender and ethnicity. Why do you think there are still hardly any women hosting late night shows?
I don’t know why that is. I think a lot of these places are run by other, old white guys – that’s still the head of every major network unfortunately. It’s hard to put your finger on what’s causing that, other than long-term institutional bias. But it’s starting to change. Like with Samantha Bee, she’s really cool. I don’t know, it probably comes down to the same reason why the US Senate is 80% men, there’s still that unfortunate societal bias.
What TV do you sit down to after a hard day of TV writing?
I’ve been watching a lot of the Olympics. I love the Olympics. That’s the best TV there is for me. I’ve also been watching Broad City, Stranger Things, and The Night Of on HBO.
I don’t watch a tonne of comedy when I get home. I like to watch intense drama because I’m in comedy all day. I’m also really competitive, so I don’t like to see anyone else making good comedy because it makes me feel bad.
That’s great. Healthy jealousy.
Hey so shout out to 30 Rock and The Office – two of my personal favourite shows. Do you have favourite episodes or moments?
I only worked on one season of 30 Rock, but I was a huge fan of it before I started working there. It was my favourite show on TV, I just loved it. The best moment I think is in the first season, where Paul Reubens played a messed-up prince. Do you remember that?
Oh my god, yeah.
I remember watching that on TV and I couldn’t believe something that fantastic was happening. It was so funny, weird and stupid and crazy.
Does he have a tiny hand? Or am I thinking of that guy in Scary Movie?
Yeah, he does have tiny hands, and at one point he makes an awful noise – like AWWWRRHHHH – and goes, ‘aah, it feels good to laugh’. Amazing.
What about The Office?
I was a huge fan of the British version. When I heard we were going to make an American version, I thought it was so stupid. I was just like, ‘I can’t believe we’re ripping off these British people who made this perfect show and we’re going to make a garbage version of it’. But then a friend of mine got some early episodes and sent them to me.
I remember one of the first episodes that stood out. They were doing racial sensitivity training, and they have to put cards on their head to say what race they are. It’s like a party game. And they all hated it and were really uncomfortable. And I thought, ‘okay, maybe this is kinda cool’.
What’s it like, coming into a show that you love, at the other end as a writer? Is it daunting and horrifying? Does it demystify the show?
Yeah it’s daunting, but the writers are really appreciative. They’re tired and need some help, so they’re happy to have a new person who’s full of energy and enthusiasm for the show. They’re often really proud of what they’ve achieved and are reluctant to share it with you, which is fair enough.
The Office guys were great – they’d been going for a long time and needed some new blood. I knew some people there, so it was a good experience, it was fun.
What lines or moments are you the most proud of writing?
There’s one bit in The Office finale where Oscar is making a little origami bird. There’s a line of dialogue like, ‘you know, we’re working in a paper company, and you take something ordinary like paper and make it into something special’.
Then he looks at the camera and goes ‘you guys have been making this documentary for eight years and you didn’t say one thing about my origami’. I wrote that and I was proud of it.
I also played a small role in an episode of 30 Rock – that’s probably my claim to fame. I played a character named Jerem, who was in an episode where Tina Fey and Julianne Moore are going to some singles meet-ups, and only one guy shows up.
He’s a super weirdo wearing a white turtleneck and a red jacket. And Jenna’s stuffing cheese in her mouth – trying to impress him. He just goes ‘that’s not that much cheese’. I didn’t write that character but I did play the part. You can always find it if you look up Jerem.
You mentioned being hesitant about the American adaptation of The Office, and ruining that show. I wonder if you’ve had a chance to look at the David Brent film yet?
There’s a film? I didn’t know. You know what I like a lot, that doesn’t get much respect? Extras.
Great show. I hold it up as highly as The Office to be honest.
I was just thinking today about how Andy gives that speech in the Big Brother room, about how he’d have loved to have been a doctor but it was too hard. It was so real and raw, that admission that ‘it’s not that I love performing, it’s that everything else is scary and hard’. I loved it.
Steve Hely is in New Zealand this weekend for the WORD Christchurch festival, click here for more information on the event.
Is it different writing comedy for cartoons? I imagine there’d be a bit more freedom in terms of the confines of reality.
Yeah that’s exactly right, you can do whatever you want, and you can record it different ways. The actors on a show like The Office are really knowledgable about their character. They’re thinking about them all day, so they will have questions and thoughts.
You have to convince them that what they’re doing makes sense and is good. In an animated series, it’s just like, ‘bang this line out eight ways’ and we’ll put it in the show. It’s a bit more satisfying. I liked writing for American Dad because I liked the people there and the freedom of the show. But it’s still fun to be on the set and talk to the actors too.
We ran a piece on our website last week asking if Jack Donaghy would be a Trump supporter, what do you think?
I saw that, and I don’t think so. I think Donaghy is a lot smarter than Trump and he would look down on him.
That’s somehow comforting to me. I know it doesn’t change anything.
It’s disgraceful how other Republicans haven’t spoken about what a clown Donald Trump is. It’s embarrassing. There’s this one senator named Lindsay Graham from South Carolina and he’s strange and jolly. He’s also one of the bluntest Republican candidates in calling out other Republican candidates. He talks about how crazy Trump is, and what a jerk Ted Cruz is. I’ve been refreshed by his honesty.
You recently went to the RNC, what’s it like being there in the flesh?
It was so ridiculous, even in the lead up to Trump speaking. There was a plaza outside with mediocre country bands, the people are drunk, and the calibre of people that Trump got to speak was so low. It was just all these schlubby losers giving speeches in support of Donald Trump.
It was seeing him speak that was the most unsettling. So corny and bad, the stuff he’s saying makes him sound like a tinpot third world dictator. It’s the craziest nonsense I’ve ever heard. I’m quite susceptible to being swept up in stuff. I love and voted for Obama, but when I watched Mitt Romney beating John McCain, I could see how you’d get on board with those guys.
Trump is awful. A friend had a good line that Trump is barf, and Americans are so sick of their political system that they barfed up Donald Trump. That’s also why he’s orange.
How does someone like that, who’s so far beyond even fictional Jack Donaghy, even exist?
Have you ever read Tim Ferriss? He started the four hour workweek movement. He had this revelation after he went to the Chinese Judo competition, and they had no rules about pushing the other guy out of the ring. If you push him out, he loses. But, you know, they’re all trying to do judo so they don’t just push each other out. He figured that little loophole in the rules, pushed everyone over, and he won the tournament.
That’s basically like what Trump did. You’re not supposed to insult people in the middle of the debate and talk about your penis and make up crazy lies. It’s so out of the mainstream that nobody had thought to do it. Because of that loophole, he won the Republican primary.
The best explanation for his success is that there are a lot of people in the States who are totally disgusted by the political system and don’t know how to express it without the equivalent of a shout or throwing shit at the wall. That’s what Trump is: he’s an expression of frustration and disgust.
… but is he going to win?
I don’t think he’s going to win. There’s a quote from Winston Churchill where he says ‘the American people always do the right thing after exhausting every other possibility’. I think we’ll ultimately make the right call, but we’ll just scare ourselves for a while first.
Need a break from Trump? See Steve Hely’s fine work in 30 Rock on Lightbox today
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