How to make TV’s funniest show during a pandemic

When the Emmy nominations were announced in July, nothing made me happier than the eight surprising nods (including Best Comedy Series) for FX’s deliriously funny vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, based on the film of the same name.

The deeply silly TV show turned out a second season that is one of the funniest TV seasons I’ve seen in ages, featuring riffs on whether vampires have ghosts of themselves because they’re already dead and an entire episode that largely abandons the show’s usual format as one vampire goes on the run and finds a small town where he fits in a little too well.

One reason the series is so good is that it’s a product of two great comedy minds from very different generations, working together as executive producers. Paul Simms has worked on everything from The Larry Sanders Show to Girls, but I will always love him most for creating the ’90s sitcom NewsRadio, one of my favorite TV shows ever made. Stefani Robinson, meanwhile, broke through as a writer on Atlanta (where she first worked with Simms) and is now one of the rising comedy wunderkinds of the TV world.

I recently sat down with Simms and Robinson via Zoom to talk about what they’ve learned from working with each other, how they evolved What We Do in the Shadows to turn a pretty good first season into a great second season, and the many ways Covid-19 has affected pre-production and impending production of both their show and TV as a whole.

Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, follows.

Paul Simms and Stefani Robinson pose at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, shortly before season one of What We Do in the Shadows debuted.
Robby Klein/Getty Images

You two have such an interesting partnership, and you’ve taken really different paths through the TV industry. What was it like forming that partnership?

Paul Simms: I don’t think it’s anything that I could duplicate with someone else. There’s some something we have in common. Saying I feel a little bit like Stefani is so arrogant on my part. But she reminds me of me when I was that age at Larry Sanders, moving up quickly and having a lot of responsibility at a younger age than usually happens.

Stefani Robinson: And I see a lot of myself in Paul, which makes probably little to no sense, but I feel like his perspective on the world and writing very much aligns with mine. I probably am fifty-something in my soul.

Paul Simms: Getting to know Stefani on Atlanta, I was like, “Oh, she’s really funny.” And then within the first two days of actually working together really closely in the Shadows writers’ room, I was like, “Oh, she’s really, really good.” I knew she was good, but I didn’t know she had a real talent for story structure and asking the right questions and not getting bogged down in the wrong questions. The wrong questions being, like, “Logically, [this plot point] doesn’t make sense.”

It is a show about vampires. You can get away with a lot.

Paul Simms: You would be surprised how much debate goes on in this show as if vampires are a real thing. What do vampires do? What don’t they do? What are the rules of vampires, even though there are many different rules?

What’s the most pointless, longest argument you’ve had about that sort of thing?

Paul Simms: It’s one that I lost with Jemaine [Clement, creator] about whether a golem from Jewish folklore would exist in this world of vampires. We had it originally in the episode where the vampires and werewolves are fighting. They were going to have an old-fashioned mafia sitdown. The golem was going to be the mediator who was very slow-talking and deliberative. And Jemaine feels like a golem doesn’t exist in the same world as vampires. So vampires exist, werewolves exist, ghosts exist, but God doesn’t exist. Which actually, when I think about it, that’s fair. The solution we came up with was better anyway.

Stefanie Robinson: There are also the magical herbs that you and I loved so much. We liked the idea of there being some kind of herbal medicine ritual that allows the vampires to walk out in daylight for one day. We had like a two-day debate about, “Nope! That wouldn’t happen! They would die immediately!” Like it’s a magical herb! C’mon!

What’s something you’ve each learned from the other in making this show?

Stefani Robinson: I know the answer very quickly: Just fucking chill out, man. Maybe it’s a consequence of being in your 20s, but it’s like everything feels so managed and important and dire. “If this doesn’t work out the right way, everything’s gonna explode.” But one of the most important things I’ve learned from Paul is that it’s all gonna be fine. When you start internalizing that, everything else becomes better. Then you’re just on for the ride, here in the moment.

Paul Simms: What I’ve learned from Stefani is that when I’m completely panicking, I just have to pretend that everything’s fine so that she’ll think everything’s fine. [both laugh]

Stefani is a great reminder about the importance of story. On a show like this, it’s easy to skate through, navigating from this funny thing to this other funny thing. But she’s a constant reminder that if you don’t have a story you’re telling across those 30 minutes, none of those funny things are going to feel that funny. Now I’m doing the exact thing that when I read interviews with other comedy writers talking, I’m like, “This blowhard should shut up about the craft of story,” but it’s really true. If you have a solid story, you can get as crazy as you want with the details.

The vampires are cursed by an email forward.

The costumes in What We Do in the Shadows are elaborate enough that it makes producing the show in the era of Covid-19 more difficult.
FX

I assume you’ve been in some sort of Zoom writers’ room, and I’m wondering how that works. I like Zoom. I use Zoom a lot. I’m not sure I could handle being on Zoom for eight hours at a time.

Paul Simms: We don’t do eight hours a day! The positives are that the people writing season three are all the same people who wrote season two, so we all know each other. So it’s not like you’re trying to get to know someone over Zoom. The other positive is during this uncertain time, it’s nice to see everyone every day, even if we aren’t getting much work done on certain days, to talk about things that aren’t related to sickness and death tolls. It’s nice to talk about just vampires murdering people and draining their blood. What a relief!

The negative part is that including me and Stefani, we have about 10 writers. And the maximum for Zoom that really feels like you can hear everyone and everything is probably about four or five. We’ve always debated splitting into separate rooms, but this season, we did a lot more writing separately. We would discuss what we needed to figure out, and then we would break. The next morning, we would go through and hear everyone’s ideas instead of the usual freeform back-and-forth. The worst thing is when someone is saying something funny, everyone starts laughing, and then it cuts off the second half of the funny thing being said.

Stefani Robinson: Or if people are talking all at once and someone is saying something funny, then a person’s trying to piggyback to build on what is funny about [what the first person said], and then it’s, “Oh, sorry, no, sorry, you go ahead,” and they just don’t say anything they might have said.

Paul Simms: Stefani and I have both talked about, like, someone will be saying something, and I’ll look at her to make eye contact, as we do when we’re together. But I’m just looking at a square of her, and she can’t tell I’m looking at her. I don’t think we ever solved that particular rhythm problem.

Stefani Robinson: Whenever we were speaking about something specific or a story beat or we had “homework” the night before, Paul did go out of his way to be, like, “Okay, so-and-so talk. Now so-and-so talk.” So everyone got a chance to speak, and everyone got to contribute in ways that were more pointed. But other than that, it’s whoever jumps in there.

I assume you’re typically in production during the winter, just from how much snow there is on the show. So your shooting dates are still several months away, but what kinds of conversations are you having about going back into production, getting actors to set, that sort of thing?

Paul Simms: We’re trying to figure out when and how is the right time to do it safely. Our big plan pre-Covid was to start shooting season three much earlier, at the end of summer, so that we would have at least a few months that would be nice weather, because it is brutal shooting conditions when you get toward November, December, in Toronto [where the show is filmed]. But we’ve pushed that, and now we’re just doing what everyone else is doing, which is trying to figure out what the best safety protocols are and then how to even go beyond those.

For actors, especially on a show like this where there’s so much improv, they have to be free enough to just improvise and live in those characters. And our show has some different hurdles to overcome than other shows. Stefani always points out that the Covid protocols would be easier if it was a show like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where people wear normal 2020 clothes, and their hair looks like whatever their hair looks like. But the cast members [on our show] have to have a team to actually get them into their clothes, and then there’s no way they could do their own hair and makeup. And then with stunt rigging and all that stuff, there’s a lot of complicating things that we still don’t have the answer for. Or a start date yet.

How does that affect you as producers to have double or triple the number of production headaches than in a typical season? How do you focus on writing when you have to be thinking about that?

Paul Simms: We have such good people who proved themselves with the challenges of season one that it doesn’t affect the writing that much. Our stunt people are great. Our special effects people are great. Our production designer is great. When I’m writing, I also have my producer hat on in the back of my mind, going, “Oh, I don’t want to write a car scene because those are impossible to shoot. I don’t want to write a scene with a bunch of background actors, because the continuity is hard.” But when I wrote the ghost episode this year, I was just going to write something funny that feels almost impossible to figure out and trust that we have a team and a fantastic director named Kyle Newacheck, who really knows how to figure things out.

Stefani Robinson: Pandemic aside, on our show, Paul and I and Sam Johnson, who also produces the show, are all so flexible all the time. We go to Canada with a certain number of scripts, but by the time we shoot, a third of those scripts have changed in significant ways, because we’re constantly shifting things and making adjustments of the production, whether that’s because we can’t find a location or a costume doesn’t make sense or we don’t have enough time. We are constantly rewriting while producing at the same time. Even in the middle of a pandemic, where things are much harder, I feel like we are well-versed enough to figure out creative solutions.

Maybe you can’t answer this without a start date, but do you have to worry at all about crossing the Canadian border?

Paul Simms: That’s one of the issues we’re trying to figure out. Once we do figure out our start date, it’s going to be two weeks of quarantine for everyone who crosses the border before they can start working. The thing that weighs heavily for both Stefani and me is not being able to see our families or significant others. In seasons one and two, I would sometimes fly back to New York on the weekends or my family would come visit. But whenever we get up there this time, we’re going to be there and isolated until it’s done.

Stefani Robinson: That question isn’t even just for us. We have actors who have families and department heads with significant others and children. At any other time, it’s easy to fly in and out. But now the question becomes, do we have to hire our own immigration lawyers to get them into the country? Or are we just saying goodbye to them, and then the worst case scenario is if any one of us gets sick, is our family going to be able to get there in time to be there? Or god forbid the reverse, where someone in our family gets sick and we have trouble getting back into the country. It’s a lot.

Paul Simms: We also worry about guest actors. If Mark Hamill [who played a one-episode role in season two] had had to come two weeks early and sit in the hotel room for two weeks, I’m not sure if he would have been so accommodating about doing it. Are we not going to be able to bring in guest cast? So basically, our answer to all those questions is we have no idea.

Laszlo escapes to the middle of nowhere and hides out as Jackie Daytona

Jackie Daytona: the man, the myth, the legend
FX

I liked season one of What We Do in the Shadows, but I loved season two. It was one of the funniest seasons of a comedy I’ve seen in ages. What shifted or changed between seasons, even if they were tiny tweaks?

Stefani Robinson: We had different writers. That’s no disrespect to the writers in season one, who were all funny and great, but in season one, there was a lot more movement. There were people coming in and out of the room more frequently. They would come in for maybe a week or two weeks at a time, and then they would leave. So you had all these very funny writers, some of whom were there the entire time, but some of whom were coming in and out. It was a little chaotic. One of the things that is more helpful is having writers there from beginning to end, working on their own rewrites and outlines and seeing the process through from beginning to end.

Paul Simms: Season one, at least the first half of the writing process, was just about figuring it all out. Even though the movie existed, the issue was how is this going to be the same as the movie, how is it gonna be different from the movie? And in season two, we were more willing to take a chance on scenes that were more about the relationships between the vampires, where it didn’t necessarily have a big stunt or a huge supernatural thing. Some of my favorite parts of season two were things where the characters and their conflicts could be a little more trivial in a way.

You worked together on Atlanta. That show is very funny, but its core is inherently serious. The core of What We Do in the Shadows is inherently silly, but you have some more serious and grounded relationship moments. What was the challenge of building out those genuine friendships and romances in this group while remaining very goofy?

Stefani Robinson: I always feel that a story is more satisfying when it has stakes and is emotional. I’m thinking about the club episode in season one, which I love and which is so funny, asking what a vampire nightclub would be like. But in the back of my mind, when we do deal with things like that, it’s like, what’s at stake here really? What’s going to make this story feel more compelling? How can we have the actors play something? That always goes back to emotion and relationships. And no matter what you’re working on, that’s going to be the most resonant thing to your audience. It’s easier to write when you know what’s at stake emotionally.

Paul Simms: What on this show counts as a more serious or grounded moment is still so ridiculously far away from what counts as that in most half-hour comedies these days. But part of it is also not trying to force those more serious moments too early. In the first season, every story had a spine and an emotional subtext. But there are things we did in season two that we couldn’t have done in season one because it would have been, like, “Are you guys high on yourselves? Doing a show about vampires, and now you think you’re gonna get us to care about them or something?”

Stefani, I need to know the complete history of Jackie Daytona.

Stefani Robinson: The idea came from Jemaine, who came into the season with the idea that he wanted someone to be pursuing Laszlo [one of the main vampires on the show, played by Matt Berry]. He was speaking of it more in terms of The Fugitive. He wanted more of a cat-and-mouse thing, bopping all around America or the world. So initially, it was broader in scope. But what was funny to me was this idea that maybe we build it up to make it seem like it’s going to be something like that, but then it takes a left turn and becomes a totally different story.

Paul Simms: When Stefani first described the idea in the room, what was so funny about it was she was, like, without even signaling it to the viewers, within five minutes, you realize you’re in a completely different documentary. [What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary.] Our show has veered off course.

Stefani Robinson: The thing I was thinking of was the mockumentary 7 Days in Hell with Andy Samberg playing a tennis player. The whole thing’s about tennis, and then there are three minutes where it’s suddenly about the different artistic styles of courtroom sketch artists. You’re in that for a while, and everyone they interview is suddenly an expert in courtroom sketches. But it’s in the language of our show, so we’re doing what we do and slowly there are new people we’re interviewing and having talking heads.

Paul Simms: When Stefani started describing it, I immediately pictured one of those old documentaries about a depressed town where things are hard but the people are still getting by, like Harlan County, USA. But a lot of the stuff that was funny about it wasn’t even talked about in the room. It was in Stefani’s first script. I laughed so hard when she came up with the idea that blue jeans and a toothpick was Laszlo’s disguise [to fit in in the small town].

Paul, you know how much I love NewsRadio. A lot of the writers from that show are now on this show. What’s it been like getting to work with those people again?

Paul Simms: I love it. It’s almost like we all went to college together and we’re all still hanging out. They’re still some of my closest friends, and it’s great to bring them all in, even though I have to be sparing about it. I keep forgetting we’re all so much older now. Like this is now, “The old guy’s bringing in another old guy!”

Stefani Robinson: I will say, as a young person, who watches you be able to connect with younger friends, you do get a sense of what it must have felt like however many years ago when you guys were funny and young and talked about video games and cigarettes.

Paul Simms: Now we’re funny and old and talk about video games and vaping.

What We Do in the Shadows’ first two seasons are streaming on Hulu. Season three will go into production … sometime.

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