“Writing Impactful Jokes For Satire” Says Megan Ganz, TV Comedy Writer.
“Writing Impactful Jokes For Satire” Says Megan Ganz, TV Comedy Writer On ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ & ‘Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet’:
Megan Ganz was introduced to comedy by her father, who would show her Marx Brothers movies and let her stay up late to watch David Letterman. Then, as she started to write as a teen, she fell in love with The Onion and the idea of satire.
In college, she did an internship with Mad Magazine and landed a job at The Onion soon after. “That got me into the wider world of comedy writing,” she said. “I like jumping into different voices. At The Onion, I would write an article as though it were a Dr. Suess book or from the perspective of a 16-year-old girl whose boyfriend just went to Six Flags with another girl.”
Ganz said the goal of satire is to try and “represent the voice of a different character that doesn’t realize how ridiculous he is.” She added, “You have to have them argue their point in such a way that you can believe that a person would believe this and not see the irony or the hypocrisy of what they’re saying. That’s what always pulls me in.”
Ganz’s TV writing credits include Important Things with Demetri Martin, Community, Modern Family, The Last Man on Earth, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Apple TV’s new series, Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet.
IMPORTANT THINGS WITH DEMETRI MARTIN
In 2010, Ganz landed a job on the series Important Things with Demetri Martin. Martin is known for his deadpan stand-up, but also for satirical cartoons and using “writerly” props on stage like large notepads.
“On Demetri Martin and Community there was someone at the forefront who had a strong comedic vision,” said Ganz. “That helped me hone my own sensibility by figuring out what I was more talented at doing.”
While working on Demetri Martin’s show, she realized she wasn’t the best sketch comedy writer because the format is too short to let her style of comedy properly land. But, with Dan Harmon’s comedy series Community, she had a longer runway to let the jokes land across thirty pages.
“They were both really great experiences and some of it was showing me what I loved and some of it was showing me what to steer away from.” That said, the most important aspect of long(er)-form comedy is character development.
“You can dig into who people are and that’s what narrative television has over sketch writing in general. You can develop characters to the point where audiences will start laughing once they know the setup, because they know the characters and how they will respond to something. It gives you more depth,” she said, “Unless you do recurring characters [in sketch].”
In sketch comedy, you have three to eight minutes to build a world, introduce characters, write jokes, and potentially have a twist, which is what makes it so difficult to do. “I like returning to characters over and over, and the flexibility of being able to tell a story with characters where nothing happens,”
Specifically, the screenwriter wrote a bottle episode of Community where they never left a single room. “But, then we would write episodes where the cast was engaged in warfare and running around the campus.”
Across the board, her biggest lesson from working on Community was how to break stories for television. She said, “On that show, it was like compressing a movie’s worth of story into twenty-two minutes, but it really made me realize that dialogue is the last thing you should be thinking about after you have a structure that makes people care about what the characters are going through.”
“I used to think mostly about individual jokes, but I realized you only appreciate jokes if you feel like they’re grounded within something, like character or a situation. But if it’s a joke that has no attachment to anything that’s happening, it can be funny, but you’re probably not going to get the deep belly laugh you’re looking for.”
The deep laugh comes from “people recognizing themselves in the character, with the things they’ve done. Those are the more impactful jokes when you have a good story and understand why the characters are making the decisions they’re making.”
This doesn’t mean you have to give the characters whatever they seek, but the audience should know the intention of the character. “I left [Community] realizing the jokes are the icing on the cake,” she said.
Among Ganz’s many credits, Modern Family somewhat sticks out as the least audacious of the TV comedies she’s written for, but here, she was able to focus on her real-life relationship with her sister. While working on Modern Family, she realized she had trouble relating to the main characters because she wasn’t married and didn’t have children.
“I most responded to the characters of Haley (Sarah Hyland) and Alex (Ariel Winter), because it reminded me of my sister and that was my closest relation in my mind to the show. It was the most professionally run TV show I had been on, in terms of people that had been in the industry for quite a while, and knew how to make quality television on a schedule.”
“The way they broke stories on that TV show, I really resounded to [and] that’s why that show was so successful. They really get into their characters and make the most of them.”
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH
“I was drawn to Last Man on Earth because it was like nothing I had ever seen before on television,” said Ganz of the Will Forte apocalyptic comedy. “I remember watching the pilot and thinking, ‘How did they possibly get this on network TV?’”
In the first episode of the television comedy, Will Forte explores the United States looking for another living soul, but finds no one. He ends up destroying a stack of aquariums with bowling balls, blowing up a car, falling in love with a mannequin, and hanging out with Wilson-like friends (a Cast Away reference) in a local bar, before contemplating suicide – all for the sake of dark comedy.
“One guy they’re mostly following around for most of the episode?” she asked herself. “It was thrilling, which is an exciting thing to feel when you’re watching network television.”
Ganz added, “I don’t know how I ‘sold myself’ necessarily, but the thing that has always guided me when looking for my next job is: what I’m obsessed with, whatever thing I’m watching, or a piece of comedy I think is really engaging, new, dynamic, and interesting.”
That said, she also remembers her interview with Will Forte where she made a corny joke in the interview that may or may not have sealed the deal to get her on the writing staff (“Boom, I still got it” as Tandy would say).
“I secretly love bad jokes,” she confessed. “But my general advice in any interview is to show the [interviewer] why you would be useful to them, meaning don’t try to sell your own specific comedic voice, but you need to write their show. Find the connection between yourself and the show they’re already making.”
Basically, you’re presenting the idea of, “I’m going to bring added value to your show and make your job easier.” Now that she’s on the other side of this as an interviewer, that’s also what she’s looking for.
“Pursue what you love and what you’re interested in, but try to figure out how you fit into the mechanics as they’re already working. I wanted to help them make [Last Man on Earth] because I already loved that show.”
IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA
Ganz fell in love with the comedy of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia while in college. “I actually wrote a spec script of a Sunny episode that I submitted to get the job at Community,” said Ganz.
Over time, she would reach out and check to see when and if the crew behind the FX comedy was hiring, but she never received much feedback from “the gang.” Eventually though, while developing a different show for FX (which fell through), she hired a former Sunny staff member named Scott Marder who eventually opened the door to her also writing for the TV series.
“I think [Marder] basically said to them, ‘There’s this woman who won’t shut up about your show,’” she joked. “So I got a call a couple of months later from Scott asking me if I wanted to interview for Season 12.” Not long after, her obsession paid off and she was made an Executive Producer.
“I was just fully [introduced] into the Sunny world and I feel like everything was leading me to that place, in terms of the knowledge and skills I was getting on different shows. It all connected in this way where it feels natural, effortless, but I am also proud of the work there.”
Eventually, this led to Mythic Quest, where Ganz partnered once more with Charlie Day and Rob McElhenney as co-creators for Apple TV. “They had this new project brought to them Ubisoft, the gaming company, about game development.”
“I really like their style,” she said. “They come in, get their work done, and live their lives. They’re with their families and I really appreciate that because it provides a certain balance.”
MYTHIC QUEST: RAVEN’S BANQUET
Mythic Quest is Ganz’s first time to come on to a TV series that’s being built from the ground up, as opposed to ones that are already up and running. That said, many of the characteristics from Sunny are also on Mythic Quest.
“I think it’s a show that resists empathy from characters in a way,” she said of Sunny, “because they are tools to satirize certain elements of our culture. In a way, they function almost like cartoon characters. They can’t die. They don’t learn lessons. They can be set on fire and the next day, it’s like that never happened.”
Regardless, when a show has been on the air for over a decade, audiences still empathize with characters. “It’s in a very interesting place because it’s on that line between fully satirical characters where we don’t see ourselves and characters where people do see themselves. That’s the way it’s designed, so you do think, ‘Oh God, I’ve done that.’”
In that regard, it’s very effective satire. “I think the show has evolved because they take risks. The show has evolved, especially with Mac’s character, for instance. He can have character development. He can come out, but just because he’s gay now doesn’t mean he’s not still a jerk. It is a quality. He’s still a monster. He’s not suddenly enlightened. The danger of that show is that some people will think these guys are cruel, but that’s not necessarily the intention.”
Beyond the morality of the shows, the gang behind these two series are incredibly driven people to get so much done and make time for family. “They like to work and they love what they’re making. They’re really proud of it and they enjoy it. They don’t overwork the material and keep it fresh so they stay interested in it and the audience is interested in it.”
On Sunny, they make about 22 episodes per season. On Mythic Quest, they make ten episodes per season (one season so far). “They’re able to pick up one, put it down, then pick up the other,” she said. Mythic Quest also requires emotional arcs where Sunny does not.
“We allowed for some flexibility of discovering what the show needed,” she said of the Apple TV series, where they went back and kept adding to the cold open until it highlighted the characters, but also the world of game creation, which dwarfs even the movie business in terms of monetary value. “Then, we could show how petty the characters actually are.”
BREAKING THE SERIES
“When you cast the show, things change because you bring in real people, which changes what you thought the characters were, which changes what you thought the story was going to be. We’ve made a lot of adjustments on the fly.”
As different as these two shows are, the bulk of the focus in the TV writers’ room remains on character development. “We always start with what are the dynamics of the characters? People are not going to stay interested in the success or failure of a fake video game, because what they care about is the relationships between characters.”
This might mean focusing on aspects the audience is familiar with, such as the workplace environment. In real life, the game Fortnite has made billions selling cosmetic items within the game, so the writers might think, how does that affect a character who creates something more valuable than a house, but doesn’t even exist? “Even our standalone episode (see “A Dark Quiet Death”), which was high-concept, we focused on the love story because that would draw people in.”
Beyond story, the crew from Ubisoft also suggested some big picture ideas to discuss the realities of the complex gaming world. “We research enough to make sure the world feels authentic, but then we bring it back to make sure it’s also something a wider audience can relate to, but we’ve had some reactions to those in the gaming community saying it does feel authentic.”
Ganz said the gaming community has a good sense of humor about the industry they’re in. “It’s a wonderful world to get an excuse to research.”
ADVICE FOR TELEVISION WRITERS
“I’ve had nothing but misconceptions about writing for television,” joked the TV writer. “I definitely went in thinking we were there to write for specific characters. I get this question a lot, like ‘Which character do you write for?’ so I think there’s a misconception that writers are hired to specifically deliver dialogue for one character on the show.”
Ganz was also unaware of how much socialization was involved with writing for a series. “The job attracts people who aren’t maybe good at socialization,” she mused, “in the sense that my job is to have a conversation that lasts all day.”
On a typical, non-quarantine day, Ganz comes in at 10 am at a table, where they talk until lunch, have lunch, then talk until 5 pm or 6 pm in the evening. “Sometimes you would have something on the board that felt like an episode. Sometimes you would go home and wonder, ‘Did we do anything besides talk about randomness?’”
Before television, she had a few jobs with little co-worker interaction, which isn’t true for writing television. “You become a tight-knit unit, and in order to write on staff, you have to be really good at swallowing your ego. Yes, you’re there because you had a comedic voice, but you also have a job, which is to get your showrunner what they need in order to make their show.”
She concluded, “That’s been good and humbling in a way, to figure out how to give my opinion, but also how to stop giving my opinion at some point and just go, ‘Well, this is their show and their vision and someday, I’ll get to be the person and I’ll make every call.’”
Master of Divinity, Harvard Divinity School 1994Bachelor of Science, Broadcasting and Film, Boston University COM, 1986Publishing agreement with Abbot PressOne optioned screenplay