How to Win Your First TV Writers’ Room, According to an Assistant

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Photo Source: Courtesy HBO Max

It’s a fact: Assistants keep Hollywood running. That’s true of TV writers’ rooms, too—just ask Modupe Thompson, a writers’ assistant on Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble’s “The Sex Lives of College Girls.” Ahead of the series’s Nov. 18 premiere on HBO Max, Thompson spoke about what she’s learned from her two prolific bosses and the one thing she wants all aspiring writers to know. 

What is the role of a writers’ assistant?

“Your main job is to take notes for the room,” explains Thompson. “You’re going through so many ideas and so many pitches in a day that it can get jumbled. The assistant is really there to make sure every joke pitch, or every new plot point, is down in the note—so later on, if the writers or the showrunners or whoever needs to see what changes we’re doing to the show, they have something to look back at and reference.” Thompson notes that a writers’ assistant is also the point person in the Zoom room. “Because it’s a virtual board, things can get even more jumbled. [Usually] the writer is really good about remembering it themselves, but if they need a little extra help, you’re there for that.”

How does a writers’ assistant keep everything straight in the room?

Thompson credits a table of contents for helping her keep everything organized. “Typically, the showrunner will lead the discussion and bring up a topic, like: ‘We’re going to talk about Whitney in [Episode] 107 today.’ You can take your notes in different chunks regarding different characters, different story points. At the end of the day, you clean up your notes, and organize each bit by what area was covered during the day.” Thompson explains that she likes to go through and move things around to make sure each topic is in the right place in the table of contents. “I also underline or bold things that the room really loved, or if Justin or Mindy really loved something, I’ll write ‘MK’ or ‘JN’ so that they can go back later and be reminded.”

How does pitching work in the writer’s room?

Thompson says every room works differently when it comes to pitching. “In some rooms, they adhere more to hierarchies; in some rooms, you can truly pitch whatever. The first couple of weeks, I’ll just sit there and watch and see how different writers pitch. Different writers have different strengths—some people have really good stories; some people are really good at jokes,” says the writers’ assistant. “By watching all of these talented writers do their thing, you can kind of figure out what your own style will be. I have been lucky enough to be in rooms where the showrunners and the people higher up are really welcoming of ideas from support staff. I’ve been able to practice pitching, practice saying an idea as my heart is pounding, and wondering if it’s going to get picked up. If the idea doesn’t get picked up, you know, it’s kind of just ‘ouch’ and move forward and figure out how you can pitch another idea that might stick. It’s nice to have the practice as an assistant.” 

What was it really like being in Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble’s room?

“Being in that room was truly a master class in comedy for me. Obviously, growing up, and I think for a lot of girls my age, ‘The Mindy Project,’ and ‘Never Have I Ever’—these are things we watch and things we’ve just admired Mindy for. And Justin, too, with ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine.’ A big thing I’ve learned is: No idea is too big. I love that they gave the writers and all of us the freedom to pitch anything no matter how absurd, and we could always make it smaller or pull back; but really funny, big ideas were welcome. You never felt like an idiot for saying something really outlandish.”

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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