Writers’ Room Host Jim Rash Explains How Popular TV Shows Are Made

The collaborative nature of writing


Who Jim Rash

Age 43

New gigs Host of The Writers’ Room on Sundance; co-writer, co-director of Fox Searchlight’s The Way, Way Back

Continuing gig Oscar-winning co-writer of The Descendants; Dean Pelton on NBC’s Community

So when you’re talking to guests on The Writers’ Room, how do you approach these guys who run some of the most popular shows on TV?

I love discussing the ins and outs of the collaborative nature of writing. It’s not a story we hear when we hear about people talking about their favorite shows. We’ll get into the complicated stuff and the broken stories, and who got mad at who and why you killed that person off.

I hear that phrase a lot—“break a story”—what does that mean?

Everyone has their different ways of working out the act structure, the breaks, the storyline. I’ve had the privilege of working that way; I’ve been involved in the writers’ room of Community. We chatted [on The Writers’ Room] for an hour and a half—which you’ve got to edit down to a 30-minute show—and we’d throw out a story idea and try to break the story and pitch it just for fun.

How do you get these guys to talk about the process?

With American Horror Story, we asked them to imagine 11 seasons from now—let’s just embrace the idea that it’s time for you to jump the shark.

What was it like talking to Vince Gilligan about Breaking Bad just as it’s about to end?

He’s amazing and approachable. Where Breaking Bad came from, I don’t know.

Could you come at it from the perspective of a fellow writer?

It was getting to the heart of what their process was. I wanted it to feel free-form, and I told the people on the panel to just jump in rather than have a really serious map.

Were your own experiences working on The Way, Way Back with Nat Faxon similar to what you heard from writers on the show?

Obviously, it’s a little bit different writing with just two guys sitting in the room. There’s something nice when there are a bunch of people sitting there, throwing ideas out, than it is when it’s two guys, probably arguing, sitting in a coffee shop. You can definitely see the camaraderie and the family that gets created in the room.

How much of The Way, Way Back came from your own experiences?

There’s one autobiographical element from my own life, which is the first scene of the movie, where Steve Carell, who plays [the main character} Trent, asks [his son] what he thinks he is on a scale of one to 10. He says he’s a six and Trent says he’s a three. That actually happened to me when I was 14 with my stepdad.

It seems so strange to have Steve Carell, who’s a famously nice guy, play such a creep.

We knew we wanted to go against type, and Steve came to mind because he has this innate likability. And he’s not just a demon, but sort of a fully realized, tragic male character who doesn’t know how to change.

What do you think about Dan Harmon coming back to Community this … whenever they decide to put it on?

I’m very excited about it. Speaking to these showrunners—it’s your baby, you know, and Dan’s a very intelligent and great writer and it’s just nice to have him back. Community is always on the bubble, and if we’re just doing this season’s 13, it’s great to have a little bookend with the creator who can close the whole chapter. Or continue, if need be. If we’re so lucky that it keeps going.