Why the Writers’ Strike Is Integral to TV Not Sucking, According to Michael Schur

The sitcom savant behind ‘Parks and Rec’ and ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ says that the next generation of showrunners are going to be awful if the WGA doesn’t win
Why the Writers’ Strike Is Integral to TV Not Sucking, According to Michael Schur

According to Michael Schur, the ongoing WGA writers strike isn’t just about snarky picket signs and photo ops for Jay Leno and his donuts — it’s about making TV shows that don’t suck, a field in which Schur has some experience.

The television savant behind the success of The Office, Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the rest of the 20th century’s best sitcoms sat down with Matthew Belloni on the podcast The Town to talk about the preposterously public and ongoing clash between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and Writers Guild of America (WGA), a union for which Schur sits on the negotiating committee. During the episode, TV comedy’s most accomplished showrunner explained one of the fundamental issues in the dispute that he sees as an existential threat to the future of the medium: Nobody’s learning how to run a show.

As studios use the dawn of streaming to push the occupation of screenwriting further toward the gig economy of the food delivery and driving-people-around industries, TV writers are no longer learning the dozens of other skills beyond simply typing a script that are integral to the job of showrunning. Schur argues that fewer and fewer people will actually be qualified to helm a series if producers don’t treat writers as employees and keep them around during shooting and post-production, and, soon, every TV show will be run by someone who has absolutely no idea what they’re doing. Basically, every show will become the latter half of Heroes.

“My first job was on The Office, and Greg Daniels took three completely inexperienced writers — me, Mindy Kaling, BJ Novak — none of us had ever written anything for episodic television. (Daniels) taught us every part of the job,” Schur explained, detailing how Daniels showed Schur and his co-writers everything involved in the responsibilities of the show’s creator, executive producer and showrunner from dealing with actors to editing to color correction — literally, how to make a TV show. “Now, the entire system has been compartmentalized.”

Schur was 25 years old and fresh off a sketch-writing gig on Saturday Night Live when Daniels scheduled his date with destiny, and Schur put himself in a young writer’s position in 2023, saying, “Their entire job is being in a writers’ room for maybe 10 weeks and writing scripts. That’s not the job of showrunning, at all. It’s nothing close, it’s one-fifth of the job of showrunning.”

“My great fear is that the folks who are the next generation of showrunners … they’re just not learning how to do the job,” Schur continued. Ahead of the release of his newest project, a sitcom about a Mexican-American family with five uncles called Primo, Schur revealed that he’s been putting his money where his mouth is — Schur flew the Primo writing staff out to Albuquerque where the show was being filmed on his own dime, just to ensure that his own proteges will learn the skills that made him a mogul.

Addressing his adversaries at the AMPTP, Schur said, “There is a system that has been mutually beneficial for 50, 60 years now which is: You order a TV show, the people who know what they’re doing teach the younger people on the TV show how to make TV shows and then those people go on to make other TV shows. That is the system that has made them billions and billions and billions of dollars.”

Though producers claim that the changes to the occupation have been necessary financial adjustments as the entire model for the TV industry undergoes drastic shifts, Schur maintained that they’re missing the point: “They are scrimping in the margins. This is pennywise and pound foolish because it makes their balance sheets and quarterly reports very slightly better and what they’re losing is a massive amount of institutional knowledge.” He explained of the WGA’s demands, “We’re not asking for enormous amounts of money for writers to be on the set or for writers to be around in post, it’s a rounding error.”

More importantly, Schur argued, is the point that the industry can’t afford not to develop new showrunning talent, saying, “What’s coming down the pipe is a bunch of first-time showrunners who simply don’t know how to do the job. You think it’s expensive to pay Writers Guild minimum to be on the set? Wait until show after show after show is breaking down and falling apart and having to take production pauses because people just aren’t prepared to actually do the job that they were hired to do.”

If anyone needs convincing that replacing able showrunners with unqualified amateurs will lead to disaster, they can take note of Schur’s former neighbor on NBC Thursday Night — imagine if every studio fired their Dan Harmon and all of TV became Community Season Four.That’s the future that the WGA is trying to prevent.

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