The Writers of HBO’s Somebody, Somewhere on Collaborating as Best Friends

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.

S2: And. We are nine out of 10 times looking at the same document at the same moment. We’re looking at the blinking cursor together.

S3: You can’t even separate it. Like it, right? This line? Did Paul write this line? It’s like every word of the line we’ve come up with together in some weird way.

S1: Welcome back to working. I’m your host. June Thomas

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S4: and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler

S1: Isaac, whose voices did we hear at the top of the show?

S4: June we heard the voices of Hanna Bos and Paul Thureen. They’re incredibly great actors and writers. And I guess full disclosure this can be slightly different than normal working episode because I’ve actually known them a long time. We went to college together. I first saw them act in a play. Tony Kushner’s a bright room called Day. The first semester of my freshman year and I’ve I’ve actually been, you know, friendly with them ever since.

S1: Wow. So why did you want to speak with them right now?

S4: Well, Hannah and Paul created and were the showrunners of the recent HBO show Somebody Somewhere, which I don’t know if you’ve seen it’s a really beautiful show. It stars Bridget Everett. It’s about life in Manhattan, Kansas, and I’ve never known someone who’s written an HBO show before. I thought that was really cool. And also, it’s like a really beautiful and special show, and it was written specifically for the lead for Bridget Everett. And I just wanted to learn more about, you know, what was that process like?

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S1: Is somebody somewhere their first TV show and what other kinds of work have they made?

S4: No, they’ve made a lot of work. I mean, in theater, Hannah and Paul are two thirds of the theater company The Debate Society. The third part of that triangle is a guy named Oliver Butler, who is no relation. Although he did officiate my wedding and they’ve made many plays with that company and almost always starring themselves. I mean, they wrote, they began as writers writing for themselves, as actors. They also wrote the wonderful independent film Driveways starring Hong Chow, which was Brian Dennehy’s final film, actually. And they have written for some TV, including probably most prominently high maintenance. Wow.

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S1: Well, I cannot wait to hear this interview. But first, I believe you have an extra segment for Slate Plus members. What will Slate Plus members here?

S4: Yeah, we’re going to talk a bit about the pandemic and the show, and that’s a question we’ve talked about a lot here on working, but this was a little bit different. I wanted to know why a show that’s set in the present day and made during the pandemic did not have the pandemic in it. You know, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether TV shows and movies set in the present day. Should people be wearing masks in them, should they be talking about vaccines? You know, there’s none of that in the show, but I still feel like to some extent, the thematic content of life during the pandemic has made its way into the show. So I wanted to talk about how did they make those decisions in what was the thought process? How did they come down on it the way that they did? I think their answers are really fascinating, actually.

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S1: Yes. And you know what? People need to hear them and they can do that if they join Slate.

S4: Plus what slate question?

S1: It’s our membership program, and for a very reasonable fee, you’ll get no ads on any of our podcasts. A limited reading on the slate site and member exclusive episodes and segments from us, and from other shows like the culture, gabfest and the Waves. To learn more about becoming a Slate Plus member, all you have to do is go to Slate.com Slush Working Plus. All right. Let’s hear Isaac’s conversation with Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen.

S4: Paul Thureen, Hannah Bos, thank you so much for joining us this week on working.

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S2: Thanks for having us.

S3: Thanks for having us. Isaac Butler, I

S4: think we should probably let the listeners know. Not not a typical episode in that. Like sometimes I do interview people I know, but I’ve never interviewed people I’ve known for 25 years before you. We all went to college together. I think I’ve known you all since. Paul, you were in a bright room called Day. My freshman year.

S2: I was also in a bright room yesterday.

S4: Yes, exactly. Sorry, I didn’t mean to didn’t mean to erase you, Hannah. I’ve been on the board of your theater company. My wife is currently on the board of your theater company. So we do go way back. But as I was preparing for this interview, I realized I know like nothing about your process somehow in that quarter of a century. I haven’t known about it, so this will be fun. But one reason why why that’s true is actually, I feel like they’re for a period of time anyway. A certain amount of privacy and secrecy and protectiveness around your process was actually part of your process. So could you talk a little bit about that, about sort of the private element of it and why keeping it a secret has kind of been important to you?

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S2: Yeah, I think, you know, Paul and I are best friends and we’ve known each other for a very long time and we sort of started our process by not knowing what the heck we were doing. And I think we tried to sort of keep it private because we were sort of doing a lot of risk taking and failing and throwing things against the wall, the wall together. And we didn’t really know what our process was at the beginning because we were kind of making it up as we were going along. So we kept it private. And I think we also we didn’t want our process to define us because I think in the theater sort of world that we came out of, you know, people were very quick to look at collaborations and put them sort of in a box like with, you know, using the word collaboration or using the word devised. And I think that because we were sort of making up our process, we didn’t really want to have to explain how we made things. And we also wanted to have the ability to change how we made things.

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S3: I think that’s really true. And I think also when Tenet said we were figuring it out, we started out very intuitive and then we just sort of followed that for so long. And then when we started working with Oliver Butler, the third member of our theater company, we sort of developed this way of working. And I think it felt like very special and homemade, and I think we were a little bit scared of if we talked about it. It would fall apart. Or, you know, there’s always imposter syndrome. Thing of being like is this is the way that we do a good enough. And so I think that we ended up sort of being really, really crazy to a fault secretive about what we did. And then actually, when we started teaching more and sort of teaching students the values of collaboration, and we had to sort of like articulate what we do and why. And we realized that it was more about the values of creation sometimes than like a specific method. And I think that was a really a real opening up for us that we sort of learned how to define our work and talk about our work through teaching. And that actually ended up sort of like feeding back on itself and helping our process that like when we were stuck with something, we would go back to the things that we told students about how we worked and we were like, Oh yeah, there are things that we can rely on and sort of tips and tricks and that we do have a process. And being a little open about it, actually, I think sort of helped us sort of grow the way we work.

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S2: And I think even looking at the very beginning of us working, even thinking about our theater company when our third collaborator Oliver came in, I remember he, you know, we wrote this play. I thought about Riot in college and we performed it in a squash court. And then Oliver saw reading of it and he was really into the play and we decided to have this trial period with him and he sort of watched our process. And if you look back on that process, we didn’t talk much and I think he was he. I remember he always says, he says, you know, are you guys fucking with me? And what we were actually doing was just not really talking much and just sort of like doing this weird twin talk when we were sort of like just looking at each other a lot to see if we were in agreement.

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S3: And he would give us a note and we would look at each other and he’d be like, What just happened there? What did you do? Because we would be like communicating wordlessly. And so for somebody coming new into the process, it can feel sort of exclusionary and scary.

S4: That’s so funny. I remember one time when we were on the subway platform, catching a train home after rehearsal because I’ve also directed both of you and both of you and Paul, you whipped out a cell phone and it, like, immediately broke. It was like a clamshell phone in the top fell off or something. And then you both looked at each other and maybe even simultaneously said it’s the Cadillac of phones and started laughing hysterically. And I was like, What is going on here? So I mean, like, you know? How did you develop that, you know, psychic connection as twins was, or is it just as a result of your long friendship? Has it always been like that to you? You know, read the same books or, you know, you know, what do you do to to create that mind meld?

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S2: I think part of that came from a shared taste or a shared space. So. So we like some of the same things or we don’t, but we like figuring out what we what the other person likes about something. And the challenge of figuring out what works better. So like as we got older and as we got sort of better at arguing with each other, but in the most like holistic, healthy way, which is actually sometimes we’ve talked to other writers, it’s the same conversation maybe a writer might have in their brain when they have two things on the table, but we’re doing it with each other.

S3: I do think there is something about when we started working together and when we were in college together that there was something that existed before. That was a connection that we found in each other that just felt like it was sort of like meant to be that like when we would see plays together, when we, you know, for class afterwards in the discussion, it would always be that hand. And I had always, like really zeroed in on the weird thing in the corner that was going on. That wasn’t maybe necessarily like the point of the play or whatever other people were talking about. We’d be like bedroom or what that guy like through the ashtray, out the window or something like that. We were sort of interested in the things that were like to the left and the right of the actual story and those details. And so I think when we started working together, we were like, Well, what if we just started with those details? What if we just did a play of those details and see what happens and the collisions between those things? And so I think there was sort of like a shared interest in something that we couldn’t quite articulate, but that felt very physical and special and mysterious and something that was just to the side of what stories should be told about or characters and people that are the people that, like, maybe don’t feel worthy of having stories told about. And we wanted to, like, tell those stories. And I think then over time, that sort of evolved.

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S4: And it sounds like to some extent that, you know, bringing in a third collaborator who is Oliver Butler, who we should say is no relation to me whatsoever. Although he and I are also friends that bringing Oliver in really forced you to figure out a way to discursive. We have a process to have a hundred percent Gwich’in in what could could welcome other people in, even if that circle of other people’s relatively small.

S2: Yeah. And that was like our first step of trying to explain why we like something or explain why we didn’t like something or, you know, put into words how to start making a play or why we want to tell a story in a specific way. And I feel like it was like a great, like slow lesson in another way of healthy arguments, which Paul and I talk about, and also the debate society of this theater company we talk about like we got we all got so much better at arguing. At the beginning we were pretty emotional and something that has just worked in every relationship, every collaboration we learned with the debate society. When you’re having these artistic conversations, early 20s arguments about something you care about passionately. We learned through healthy arguments to separate ego from the argument, and that was like a come to Jesus moment where we were like, Oh my God, we can have passionate feelings about something artistic with each other. But if we take away our egos from the conversation, we’re not fighting with each other. Then we’re just fighting about an idea. And that gave us so much freedom to make better stuff.

S3: And I think as people who did have that talk and were so secretive through such a kind of good because it would never be like two against two, it’s like you had to keep on discussing until we came to something that we all agreed on. And then at that point, we were writing for ourselves. We were actors writing for ourselves, and our first three plays were just the two of us. And so when we started writing for a third actor, Michael Crichton, and then slowly adding more actors writing for other people, I think that’s when you felt sort of comfortable calling ourselves writers. But it sort of like it was a big relief to be like, OK, we’re going to bring another person in and then another person. And now it’s like, the more the merrier. Like the the collaboration is like the most fun part of it. But it was it took us like a decade to be able to, like, share the basketball.

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S4: Yeah. I mean, one thing that I hear there is that you’ve always had kind of a complicated, maybe conflicted relationship to the name devised work. And so for our listeners who don’t know what that is, can you explain what devised work is and why you have a kind of complicated relationship to that term,

S3: to device theatre movement and you, Isaac, would be able to speak to the history of it better than we could. But just that idea that it’s, you know, I think it can look a bunch of ways and it’s just something outside of, you know, the quote unquote traditional like playwright, director relationship. And then you bring in actors and you give them the play, the ideas that you have a group of people who are devising something together, who are creating something together. And that can be done many different ways. And especially in sort of like the early 2000s, it was sort of like a golden age of the devised theater movement in New York, which we were sort of a part of. With all these other companies, and I think for us, I think that people sort of then took the idea of device theaters being like a bunch of people get together and they improv a bunch of stuff and then somebody writes down what they do because that’s how some companies did it. And so for us, that complex relationship, it’s exactly that because we were like, we don’t want to tell anybody about our process. And then when people would assume things about a process, we’re like, How dare you think that that’s what we that’s what we do. You know, and so it was a thing where it just sort of the assumptions that people made about the way we create we sort of like took really personally.

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S4: It’s also funny to me because, you know, actually the traditional thing in theater in many ways is for a writer to write for a specific group of actors who they know, you know, like, that’s not that’s not our tradition now, but like, that’s what Shakespeare did. You know what I mean? Like, yeah, like that’s what all sorts of writers have done throughout. I mean, Chekhov, you know, first couple plays it. Yeah, yeah. And so there’s a weird way in which not that your work is traditional, but you’re returning to an old tradition of actor, writer, direct sort of relationship.

S2: We did etudes. I mean, we would literally just how would you sit in this chair, which is like is like a basic sort of Stanislavski type thing. And you know, that came before text. But then it was kind of this weird mishmash combo where we wanted like these really realized super hyper realistic, grounded characters in our worlds. But then we also really cared about the text. So it was sort of this weird sort of juxtaposition of these two things. And the same thing is like, it was just stuff we liked and what we thought was working. And it was this weird hybrid of loving a certain kind of acting and loving a certain kind of style. And then also really caring about the words of the plays.

S4: Do you think about the audience’s experience within that? Because like, give an example, it’s like lots of the plays of the debates cited put on have been like, fairly strange and also have a real thank you. Yes. No. And I liked that about them and also have like a real there’s something there’s still an accessible angle in. There is still something they’re not. They’re not completely divorced from, kind of. Entertainment and spectacle and all sorts of other old fashioned values of theater. Is that something that you think very deliberately about or are you just sort of trying to satisfy, you know, each other as collaborators in all our and your designers and actors?

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S2: I’m glad you said strange because I think our plays are strange. We didn’t want them to be like anything else, but we’ve always been on the side of the audience. We never wanted to have like a fuck you attitude towards the audience, which I feel like, you know, coming out of the experimental world, there is a lot of F-you, you know, and that’s part of what I think people ride on or get high on. But we really wanted to bring people in and have them lean forward and notice the little things because that’s what we love.

S3: We think about it a lot, especially for theater. And like I said, it’s just like the whole experience from the moment they walk in the door. We want to make sure that it’s sort of the right experience in a way that doesn’t feel like oppressive, but in a way that sort of welcomes people in. And so, you know, there is a way that sort of sometimes our plays, especially, it’s sort of like the story was told through like an accumulation of details and that, you know, you need the audience to sort of like, lean in. And so you sort of figure out the way to sort of like almost like a lens to to bring them into focus on something and then the story would happen without them knowing it. And that we were playing was sort of, you know, sometimes experimental structure or unexpected things. But we wanted to do it in a way that would bring people in. And if people didn’t want to go on that ride, our take was always, well, at least it’s going to be beautifully done and funny and interesting. And so people could be like, Well, I didn’t. I didn’t like that, but like it was. But I laughed and I was pretty, and that other people would get really taken by sort of the structure and the surprise and being taken along on this ride that like until, you know, three quarters of the way through, they’re like, Oh, I didn’t realize the story that I was being told. And now all of a sudden, it’s sort of like seemingly magically appearing. And so we wanted to make sure that we could sort of take those chances, but in a way that wasn’t excluding anybody.

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S4: Hmm. You mentioned earlier, you know that there’s some games and exercises that you do as part of your process. Could you could you would you be willing to share just like what a couple of those are, what some of the things are that you sometimes do as you’re developing work?

S2: We just do a lot of listing. We do a lot of short burst exercises.

S4: We is a short burst exercise like you give yourself a prompt and you have like five minutes to write whatever.

S2: And yes, sometimes that are at our most stuck moments. We’ll think of the worst idea because sometimes it’s close to the best idea, or it’s still the horrible idea. But we got it out of our system, right?

S4: And at least you have something you can then look at and talk about, right? Like when you’re really stuck, you’ve really got to just, like, produce something so that you can then be like, OK, well, now I have something to respond to.

S3: That’s exactly it’s like a game of creative telephone. And if at the end of the day you’re like, we had one really great line and then the next day you start with that and that and that when we were stuck, we just decided we’re not going to sit around staring at the page. We’re going to give each other assignment. So just the idea of like, let’s come up with assignments for each other is sort of like the assignment and then doing it really quickly and generating a mass of stuff and stripping it down and sort of another one that we used to always do. We called it Christmas, not Christmas, which was that we came up with during Buddy Cop too, which was, you know, which feels like a Christmas play set in Christmas. And then halfway through you realize that it’s July and then you realize that this town is celebrating Christmas early for this girl who has cancer, who loves Christmas and might not love to to see December. And so we wanted it to be like the Christmas Easter play, but in a weird way, so we would do less of things that feel like Christmas that aren’t Christmas. So like a glass 7up bottle, something that like had like the essence and the feeling of it without being the on the nose thing.

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S2: And so and that’s sort of like a vibe that’s like, that was a quick assignment to force you to figure out something. It’s a tone, a detail, a vibe of something so that you’re not in your head and overthinking things, but you’re able to tap in things on a more sort of things you could actually touch in this world. And I feel like sometimes those are good. Finding like details to ground you to reality are often really helpful, and these are all sort of parts of sort of our creative problem solving. So when we’re screwed and fucked, we kind of find these like these like creative, optimistic ways to not be stuck in the escape room together, you know?

S3: Another thing we did with our plays was the other one that we do is what it is, what it isn’t, and we would do that many times. Often we do it like the first week we started working on a play and we just the three of us would like write down. We take five minutes and write down what the play is and what the play isn’t. And it could be like as simple as like, it isn’t boring. It is a musical, and often at the end of the time, we would look at it and like what we said it isn’t at the start is what it being. But we wanted it. We were always sort of responding to the thing that we did before and we wanted to do something. I think just to keep it interesting. We wanted to do something different. And so we’d keep on doing that just to be like, Where are we? And we can totally agree or disagree of what it is. But let’s just keep on checking in and sort of in a black and white way when we’re working in a way that’s. Always Gray, every once in a while, we check in with some sort of like black and white things, just as a just as a tool. Hmm.

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S1: We’ll be back with more of ICIS conversation with Hannah Bos and Paul Therrien. Listeners, we want to hear from you, whether it’s to ask us for advice on a creative problem. Tell us a guess you’d like to hear on the show or share your own creative triumphs. Drop us a line at working at Slate.com. Or even better, maybe give us a ring at three or four nine three three w o r k. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. Now, let’s return to Isaac’s conversation with Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen.

S4: So when you’re writing actual dialogue, are you writing that separately or are you writing that together, you improv lines back and forth across the table, like in Nicole Holofcener? Friends with money like like how does dialogue tend to evolve in your work?

S2: We are nine out of 10 times looking at the same document. At the same moment, we’re looking at the blinking cursor together. And that would probably connect to our old days of not talking and tapping into that just to talk and see in both things fully in it and figuring out what’s needed to be said. And we’re both sort of throwing ideas out, trying different things. And then when we’re stuck, we might divide and conquer. So if we’re stuck in a moment, we’ll both take a stab at what this moment is, what the scene is, and we’ll go off and then we’ll bring it back together and there’ll be a merge or an argument, or we’ll take one thing of gold that we found from it or were like, This does not work yet. Let’s go back to this later. So it’s constantly sort of seeing what in our toolbox we can use to find the best dialogue.

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S3: And the dividing and conquering is never separate things like we’re never like, you write this scene, I’ll write this scene. It’s always dividing and conquering and doing the same scene and oh, well together. And I think we do that less and less. We’re almost always just together at the same time, and I think you can’t even separate it. Like, did Hannah write this line? Did Paul write this line? It’s like every word of the line we’ve come up with together in some weird way. And if we are stuck, we will do the thing. But rarely now we’re like, OK, let’s go off and 15 minutes and each do a version of the scene, and then we’ll come together and see what inspired us. And always, it’s always been the case that we’re like, it doesn’t matter whose idea it is. If it’s like Atlanta comes up with a good idea, it’s just as good as if I do. But it is. I think there’s a lot of ways to write together and splitting scenes being characters. I think that works. But for us, it’s always like we’re literally writing every line together at the same time.

S4: Right? So let’s talk about somebody somewhere your your show. That’s on HBO right now. Delightful show. It’s not your first screen project, right? I mean, there’s there’s the wonderful film driveways. There’s there’s other things you’ve done high maintenance, you know, things like that. So where did this project begin? Because it was it did not actually begin with the two of you, unlike most of your projects, right?

S3: It kind of starts in a weird way in our the way that we started working for TV and that we were invited to a Sundance Theater lab where we were developing the light years. And it was just, you know, weeks of rehearsal space and dramaturgical support. And we were sort of making our wall where we had all this stuff on the wall. And Keri Putnam, who at the time was the head of Sundance Institute, came into our room and was like, You guys are this looks like a TV writers’ room you guys should work for for TV. After she saw the reading of our play and she introduced us to Carolyn Strauss, who is the smartest, most amazing person we know and and a producer and created Game of Thrones. And you know all the best things on HBO from that era, from the air before that and geneticists to Carolyn Strauss. And we worked with her to develop our played buddy cop too into a TV pilot that we pitched to HBO, sold to HBO and then nothing happened of it. But anyway, we had this great year sort of working with Carolyn Strauss and sort of learning those sort of our grad school and TV writing. And then years later, Carolyn was working with Bridget Everett and and the Duplass Brothers and to come up with what the project for four Bridget. And I think Caroline thought of us because of the experience working with us and also because we’re from the Midwest and Bridget is from Kansas. And so they were sort of like looking for writers and people to sort of like pitch an idea for what Bridget HBO show would be. And so Caroline came to us and we sort of it was a dream because we love Bridget and we love Caroline. And so we sort of spent some time to figure out what our version of a Bridget Everett show would be. And and we pitched it to them, and that was sort of the start of it.

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S4: How close was that idea to the show that we are watching now?

S2: Pretty close. You know, the pilot was pretty close to that pilot and that idea and that world. But then, you know, as soon as we kind of pitched it and started working on it immediately, you know, Bridget was involved in helping us create, you know, and added so much personal stuff to it. And, you know, but there was, you know, Paul and I have always been obsessed with dying malls in America and our sort of prairie backgrounds and things we love about the Midwest and sort of high school embarrassing things and all these little things that sort of were in our sort of zeitgeist. And, you know, so we just created this pilot and it really spoke to Bridget. And that’s sort of how that came to be.

S4: What was your research process like besides talking to Bridget because it’s set in her hometown, right? I mean, that’s her real hometown, and she has, I’m sure, a lot of her own experiences. But but what was the rest of the research process like for you?

S2: Well, we we got to go to Manhattan, Kansas and Emporia, Kansas with Bridget and meet her whole family. And this is even before we had sort of locked down where we were going to shoot it because we went to Kansas first, then we went to Illinois and we got to meet her mom, Freddie, and we got to go look at her, you know, her childhood picture albums and meet her brother and sort of walk Main Street with her. So we really got to sort of take in her town and we got to sort of do this beautiful long drive from Emporia to Manhattan, Kansas. And that was sort of this epic, beautiful prairie ride. And I think that was really important for us sort of figuring out the world of this show. I can’t describe it, but it was so specific and it felt so just a specific kind of Midwest where you don’t see anything but this certain kind of landscape. And so, you know, all these textures, we kind of took to Illinois and then we did this big 15 hour, literally 15 hours. We had done the math. If we had left our house in Brooklyn or apartments in Brooklyn and then driven to Chicago, it would’ve been the same amount of time that we did driving around Illinois looking to sort of capture the limestone of Manhattan, Kansas that that really sort of stood out.

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S4: One of the things that I like talking about on this show and they prevail upon about my students is, you know, research isn’t just going to the library and checking out a bunch of books, right? It’s all sorts of other experiences.

S3: Yeah, we did that with all of our plays, too. We would try to do research trips, a group trip somewhere that that was connected to the work. And so in this, it was really important. And the idea of like seeing, you know, having Bridget mom show us her scrapbook where we said that Bridget qualified for state and seven different distances and strokes for swimming. But you can only each person could only do four. So she qualified for seven different events and she did four events. And like seeing seeing that in these pictures of like high school Bridget swimming and through that experience was just invaluable. And I think that going to places feeling the place and also talking to people, I think especially in this one. Talking to people, you know, the idea for this very early on was like, what if somebody like Bridget? You know, there’s always the stories about the person who goes from the small town in the Midwest, in New York or L.A. and like, what if that person stayed where they were and how would they find their community? And talking to people who who live there and just talking to people from my my hometown in rural Minnesota and sort of, you know, these great art communities and sometimes sort of underground our communities, that idea of sort of talking to people and I think hearing about, you know, wanting to handle that in a layered way and like with full people and hearing about like people who you wouldn’t expect to be happy in Manhattan, Kansas, like what they love about it and what’s beautiful about it. And so so I think going to a place feeling it and then having those conversations with people, I think is was really key for this.

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S4: Yet because, you know, it strikes me that one of the things the show avoids really well, that’s an obvious pitfall. Is condescension, right? US East Coast elites, you know, condescending to the heartland or, you know, whatever it is or that you would just portray it as, you know, miserable, you know, and while it’s not like at the end of an episode, I think I’m going to move to Manhattan, Kansas, like it’s not a life that I would particularly one. You really do fill it with like an understanding for why it’s a life that some people want with why those people might want it.

S2: We really wanted to be again on the side of the audience. And and if you’re going to write something about the Midwest, it was important to not be making fun of the Midwest, not be making fun of these characters. This is not a quirky world, were not. The jokes are not on the expense of these characters. We’re trying to keep it super grounded, even though it is a very funny show. You know, there’s a lot of sort of heart in the drama and the comedy. We’re trying to just keep it really real, and sometimes that’s a little bonkers. But you know, it has to come from a place of truth, and we don’t want to be making fun of anyone.

S3: And I think we would never speak for Bridget, but I know that this is on the record in her hometown newspaper where she’s like, I mean, you know, there’s a reason I left, but there’s a reason I love coming back, you know, and that that idea and that I think that, you know, when you grow up in places like we grew up, you’re not used to having people tell stories about you. And so I think there can be sort of a wallop. And I think that all of us cared so much about the details and in the world and what people are eating. And you know, Bridget would talk a lot about the fact that like, you know, if there was a scene that was just sort of like to, you know, people were talking about their feelings and like to clear away or anything that felt like a TV line, we pulled that out and I think that we really cared and and I think that people feel that people from there feel it. I know that Bridget has heard so much from her hometown and people from my hometown. I’ve gotten a lot of messages from. From my high school who were like, thank you for, you know, all across the spectrum and relatives who were like, Thank you for the way that you depict rural people. I grew up on a farm and like that was part of the research was talking to my dad about questions unlike what the door handle on the inside of a grain bin is like because Sam’s dad gets stuck in a grain bin and right, right, that’s something that I’ve never seen in a TV show. And it meant so much to be able to, like, write something for that world. And you’re exactly right. And I do it in a way that’s like condescending or that’s a caricature, or that’s like putting this like spiritual glow on it. That’s not quite real. You know, we really wanted to be real and grounded.

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S4: And you know, one thing that Bridget Everett is, of course, known for is her incredible stage performance as her incredible concerts are kind of, you know, these way larger than life musical performances, which it seems you are deliberately somewhat parsimonious with how much of that material you include in the in the show itself. She does. She sings a fairly slow song and soulful song in the first episode in this problem, and we grew up strong. We were wanted all along, she sings a more electric one in in the in the second. I gather she doesn’t actually do a lot more performing, you know, in the next few episodes. How did you figure out how to kind of pace that because you could see a version of the show that’s totally built around? You know, we have this genius level cabaret performer. We just got to make sure she’s doing that every episode because that’s what’s going to hook people.

S2: I think the Bridget to zation of real life New York Bridget versus Sam was like a huge sort of question mark we all had over this long period of developing the first season. And I think that we kind of it was a big struggle, you know, because we don’t want to make a show where somebody moves to a coast. That’s this Midwest show, and I feel like there’s a lot of ways that the show could have. You know, she’d have this success is singing and then her life changes. And I feel like because we wanted to keep it as real as we could, we really were looking at how just singing activates her. And it doesn’t have to always be on a stage. It could be in a car, it could be in a private moment.

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S1: Fred Rikako is here. Hallelujah. Better, Coco is here. Actually, I’m laughing, but the acoustics are good. Yeah.

S2: Well, there are other ways we wanted to use her singing in a really sort of grounded way. And then it gives us more sort of growth for future seasons, I think.

S3: And also, like, you know, talking to Bridget to sort of hearing how she talks about sort of what music does for her and how that’s really her way of engaging in the world and the idea of like telling the story of somebody who’s really shut down and has been sleepwalking. The idea that, you know, for Sam, music is something that sort of helps her feel again, and that’s good, but that also sort of activates the bad emotions as well. And so it’s something it’s the thing that she loves the most. But the more she does it, the more she has to invite in feelings that don’t always feel good. And so I think that idea of we’re sitting on this thing and we know what she has, but she doesn’t feel ready to share that with anybody and really sort of slow playing that and giving up little doses of it. We still see that she’s funny and dirty and filthy early on, but she’s just not, you know, she she keeps that with people that she feels safe with. And so seeing little doses of that and sort of deciding when we’re going to give them a little bit more is fun and I think a little bit unexpected. And also just part of Bridget is a, you know, a complex, interesting, fascinating person in her shows are big in body. But then also we end up finding ourselves in tears because of, you know, the Christmas Carol that she sings at the end of the story that she tells. And I think that existing in that space, you know where you’re crying because you’re laughing and laughing, because you’re crying. I think it’s really a fun place to play with her. And she is, I think, an incredible and incredible performer and what she brings to sort of, you know, the deeper, darker parts of the characters, it’s pretty amazing.

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S4: Paul Thureen, Hannah Bos, thank you so much for joining us and talking about your process here. I’m working.

S1: Thanks for having us. Thank you. Isaac, that was incredibly interesting. It’s always fascinating to hear old friends discover new things about each other by simply asking questions. Obviously, journalistic questions are different from what you’d ask an old pal over dinner, all while taking a hike. So I’m curious, did this conversation reveal anything new about people that you’ve known since the last century?

S4: Yeah, as I said a little bit in the episode, I didn’t know that much about their creative process prior to this, despite like, you know, being a board member of their theater or whatever. So they talk about like, Oh, we’re going to go work on the play. And I just had no idea what that was. You know, as they said, they’re very private about their process. They used to be very secretive of it and very protective of it. That’s something that’s changed over the last decade. And they valued that secrecy so much, and I respect them so deeply that I just decided not to pry into it, you know? And so I would say almost everything we talked about in this episode was as much a revelation for me as hopefully it was for the listeners.

S1: That’s always a weird thing. I have quite a few friends who write books, some of whom write, you know, non-fiction sort of memoir or memoir, adjacent kind of work. And it’s weird the first time you learn something about somebody you’re pretty close to or you see pretty often in a book like, how come you never told me about this? But it also makes sense because, you know, you don’t really necessarily talk about your work while you’re in the middle of it. You know you don’t want to jinx it. You don’t. You’re still working things out. And then it gets weird. And now I’ve become used to it, and I’m not freaked out by it. But that was a strange thing to get used to knowing writers.

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S4: Yeah, I have a friend who among his books is a memoir and when we were becoming friends, so I didn’t know him that well, he gave me it because it was the latest book of his that had come out and had all sorts of personal stuff about him in there. Very intimate things that would take you years to learn about him. And I had known him for about three weeks at this point, and I remember we were having lunch and I said, I feel like there’s a weird imbalance in our relationship, like IOUs, some secrets. And I asked him, You know, when you were on book tour for this, would people come and sort of bare their souls to you? And he said, Yes, actually, you know, I think it’s because they need to right that ship. You know, they need it to be an equal relationship. It’s like osmosis has to occur to create equilibrium. So I totally understand that it’s a very weird place to be in, and some people are just very private about their creative process. It makes our lives as hosts of a show about the creative process more frustrating. But, you know, some people want to be secretive about it, and that’s OK.

S1: Indeed. I loved all the exercises that Hannah and Paul described, especially what it is, what it isn’t, which I will now be using from here on out. I think they should set up a creative hotline. You know, one 900 play therapy where they set an assignment for anyone who needs one. I would definitely call that number. And I wonder, do you use techniques like that in your own writing?

S4: I should. I, as you know, I struggle a lot with things like exercises and doing them. There’s just a part of me that but but I do give them to my students, you know, and I don’t know. I just feel like exercises would be really useful, particularly when I’m stuck as opposed to my go-to strategy of intense self-loathing. But you know, I think what it is, what it is, is great. You know, when I think of working what it is about the creative process, what it’s not about people’s personal lives, you know, we sort of did our own version of that when we were developing the show with Gabe. But it’s also particularly a good idea for a collaboration. A lot of their exercises, and I’ve heard about a couple of others, you know, outside of the show are really great for collaboration because you’re going to come up with different stuff and the frisson or something between those two is going to be productive. So like my list of what it is and what it isn’t of our collaborative process is going to be different. You’re going to be like, Wait, you said it’s a grilled cheese sandwich and not a Caesar salad, but I said it is a Caesar salad and not a grilled cheese sandwich. What’s going on there, you know?

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S1: Yeah, indeed. What is going on? Another thing that really struck me was how a lot of their exercises were like, Let’s take five minutes for this or spend 50 minutes doing that. The speed of that was really appealing, maybe because I often kind of just get stuck in my seat and I really have these marathon sessions that are often like marathon head holding. But certainly those short sprints felt really appealing.

S4: Do you want me to give you a short sprint writing exercise that I actually have used and taught that I think is very useful for nonfiction? So, OK, try this. It’s called five minute life story, so set a timer for five minutes and in that time, write your life story. Hmm. And then when you’re done, read what you’ve written and think about what you left out and why. And then, right?

S1: Oh, my God.

S4: Yeah, wow. Yeah. Isn’t that a good one?

S1: I got to take the rest of the day off. Sorry. Sorry, sorry. Go to

S4: next. That’s a really good one. Another one is take five minutes and describe a photograph. That one’s always that one’s really, you know, like the thing that’s really useful about that stuff. And I used to do more of that in grad school. Now I tell people to do it as a teacher. But you know, what’s really useful about this stuff is that the stakes could not be lower. You are not trying to create the whole thing, you’re just writing a little thing. You know, I think a lot of the big struggle of the generative process is not to get too stuck in your head and because the solutions to creative problems are not usually cognitive. Actually, you have to do something and then react to the thing that you’ve done, you know what I mean? You got to get it out of yourself and into the world in writing, you know, the term we use for that. A lot of shitty first drafts, which is a term that comes from an and LaMotte essay that you know, you just have to be OK with the fact that your first draft is going to be bad. That’s how you’re going to know how to make it better. You can’t figure out how to make it better until you’ve done it badly. But I think that’s really true in any creative endeavor. So if you can create these low stakes way to just generate, then you can move into revising and revising might look like, you know, you might have written five pages in 15 minutes, and there’s one line of it that’s useful or interesting. Yeah. Who gives a shit? It’s just 15 minutes. How much of your life did you lose? You didn’t, really. It’s not new. You’re not performing Carnegie Hall. You’re just writing in a journal for 15 minutes. Like, like, what’s the big deal? Just do it. And then you’ll have something.

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S1: Yeah, you got a line that you didn’t have before.

S4: Yeah. What’s the worst thing that happens? Your wrist hurts, you know, from handwriting and then but you didn’t come up with something great. Who cares?

S1: Yeah, exactly. Hannah and Paul spoke about gaining insights into their craft and techniques from teaching, and I’m very aware that teaching is part of a lot of creative professionals work portfolio these days, including yours. Has teaching had any effect on your creative process?

S4: Well, there’s a positive effect and a negative effect. I’ll start with the negative effect, which is that it takes time. Yeah, and a lot of emotional energy. And that’s time and emotional energy that is not being spent on my actual creative projects, right? Yeah. The good thing, there’s all sorts of good things that come out of it, though a paycheck being one of them. But creatively, one of the good things is is that it forces one or me. It’s forced me to put my ideas about creativity and how it works and craft and how craft works into concrete language that can be easily communicated to other people. That’s something this podcast does as well. You know that I have to answer your questions, and I have to come up with ways of describing what I want to talk about, and that’s very useful. And so that is really great. And when you feel like you’ve done it well and you’ve ignited something in the youth of today or whatever, and they’ve done something interesting and they’ve discovered something new as a result of something you’ve said, you know, that’s very gratifying indeed.

S1: Hannah and Paul’s determination to have the character of Sam be shaped by Bridget Everett but not be her was really great to hear. I love that they parceled out her singing to sort of maintain the show’s integrity. But I admit that I’m torn about this. I love hearing great musical theater artists, the most talented performers in America, singing on television. Nevertheless, I almost always roll my eyes because it’s never quite believable. You know, Madame Secretary had a ton of really, really great Broadway performers in the cast, and I’m sorry. But presidential aides do not go to karaoke or spontaneously burst into song whenever they see a piano. And the same thing happened with Sara Ramirez doing a big number with backup singers and a very well arranged band. And just like that?

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S5: We. Happening for now. I wish they all could be. Do you know what’s happened?

S2: OK.

S1: I absolutely loved it. But come on, it doesn’t really it’s not believable.

S4: Yeah. I mean, I thought their answer there really was revelatory about their approaches, artists and their taste because so look, if you haven’t seen the show, part of it’s about grief. Bridget Everett’s character, Sam, is in deep mourning after the death of her sister, who she was living with and taking care of. And and it’s really about someone who sort of given up on her life and singing is the sort of symbolic representation of that that she doesn’t sing anymore. And a co-worker of hers who went to high school with her and loved her singing in high school convinces her to come out of her shell and start singing again. That’s just the pilot. I’ve only described the pilot actually write what happens in that pilot. But you can understand from what I’ve just said, what you expect that show to be is that every episode at the end, she’s going to sing publicly in some way that allow those Vonda Shepard songs in Ally McBeal, you know, comments on the action or reveals something about her character. And it’s very moving and exciting to watch. Yeah, what a cliché choice that would have been. And that but that clichéd thing if you’ve ever seen Bridget ever perform that cliche thing would work because she would be able to sell it because she is an incredible performer. And they knew that. But instead of making that sort of easy, very satisfying, obvious choice, they went a different celular way. Bridget Everett does sing in every episode, but she isn’t performing in every episode. And structurally, all those different varieties of singing build towards the season finale where they all come together in the season finale. She’s singing throughout that episode in all sorts of different ways. You know, some of which are performative, some of which are the personal. Everything kind of comes together there. So structurally the songs are actually doing something in her relationship to them is telling you something about the character, and that’s more satisfying than if they had taken the more obvious route.

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S1: Oh my god, I cannot believe that I have not watched the show yet, but I am going to do that soon as I’ve done two five minute life story. June, you’ve

S4: got to watch it.

S1: I’m going to watch it.

S4: Murray Hills in it.

S1: I know. Love Murray Hill. We hope you’ve enjoyed the show if you have. Remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, then you’ll never miss an episode and just a reminder that by joining Slate Plus, you’ll get a free podcasts, extra segments on shows like the Waves and Culture Gabfest, and you’ll never hit a paywall on the slate site. To learn more, go to Slate.com Swash working plus

S4: thank you to Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen and to our fabulous producer Cameron Drews. We’ll be back next week with Karen’s conversation with game designer John Shim. Until then, get back to work. Hey, Slate, plus, listeners, Isaac Butler here, thank you so much, as always, for your support. Now we’re going to play you a little bit extra from my interview with Hannibal, said Paul Thureen. Hope you enjoy it? So one thing that I feel like I read people talking about all the time is is the relationship of the dramatic art that we are making that takes place today and the COVID pandemic and obviously the COVID pandemic greatly affected how your show was made when it was made, I’m sure. Well, how the set ran and stuff like that. And yet it, of course, as almost all TV shows do, takes place in a world in which the pandemic is not present. Was that a conversation you all had, or was it always going to be like, This is just too much? We don’t want to deal with it? Or, you know, how did you make the decision to kind of avoid that as a subject matter?

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S3: What set it set in Manhattan, Kansas? So it’s clearly in the thick of COVID,

S4: but did you start wearing masks?

S3: And no one can just say, Well,

S2: I remember there is a point when the beginning of the pandemic and we had shot in that in the previous October, I was like, Oh my god, oh my God, this isn’t going to make sense. And then it was like, Oh my God, people are going to think that her sister died of COVID. And then I was thinking, I just I mean, I also was thinking this would be like a three three week period, but brought on a little bit longer. I don’t think we ever were going to put the pandemic in the show. I think we were going to sort of not do that. But I think that, you know, there are a lot of thematic things going on in the world that sort of align with the world we’re in now compared to where we were and when we shot this pilot, you know, just in a small way, you know, loss and sort of being stuck and looking at your surroundings. I mean, we’ve all been just sort of stuck with our neighbors and and I feel like there’s a lot of just like gentle themes of the show that resonate a little bit more now after what we’re all still going through as a hopeful show. So I hope it’s like, I hope it’s sort of a warm hug to sort of the loneliness. And it’s it is a show about loneliness and loss and grief, but it’s it’s hopefully something that will make you feel better.

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S4: Have you found your own perspectives on those things changing as a result of having written the show during, you know, a period of such profound loss and loneliness and grief?

S3: I think so. I I also it is funny when you think about the process of it that it’s just like, you know, how we talk about how time works so differently. But it is also just thinking about like especially like the first two months of COVID where we really didn’t know what was going to happen and it was really scary. And we were sort of like holding on to each other in the room and I think probably being like more vulnerable than we would have been. And then, you know, I think everybody is dealing with so many things. I my dad was ill and I did post-production from my parents condo in Minneapolis. So like for three months, I was in there and their house and everybody there who was working on it was like in their parents basement or other places. And so I think that sort of like the borderline between like work and like and and home life, you know, when you’re like on Zoom with an editor and you’re like, got your dad in a hospital bed over here and he’s in his basement with his baby and his son, Rocket is running in like in a lot of ways, those sort of like everybody was sort of dealing with their families and stuck at home. And and, you know, I think that we made sure to be like humane and like set boundaries and be like, we need to figure out how people can take care of themselves and take care of their families. And I think that and a lot of ways it made, you know, on the set in the writers room and doing post-production. I think people felt really connected to it and we felt really connected to it because we were sort of literally in each other’s, you know, living rooms and homes and being like, How’s your kid doing? How is it, you know, having those conversations? And I think that that sort of it fits very, very much with sort of like the the deeply personal sort of part of the show. And I think that that all sort of like soaked in together.

S4: Hey, that’s it for our Slate Plus bonus segment for this week. We hope you enjoyed it and we’ll catch you next time right here on working.