Q&A: Jason Katims on ‘About a Boy,’ ‘Parenthood,’ ‘Friday Night Lights,’ and Weeping in the Writers’ Room
Jason Katims has made you cry. First he did it with Friday Night Lights, which he wrote and ran for five glorious seasons, and of which never enough can be said (TEXAS FOREVER, etc.). Then he did it with Parenthood, which got off the football field without sacrificing any of that emotional instability we love so much. Now, with NBC’s adaptation of About a Boy, he’s trying something brand new. Not only is it a light half-hour sitcom, but it doesn’t sprawl: The show revolves primarily around the unlikely friendship between a raffish San Francisco cool dude (played by the always welcome David Walton) and the dweeby kid next door. But don’t worry: As Katims suggested in a phone conversation last week — which he seemed to have just barely squeezed into his bonkers schedule; NBC keeps our dude busy! — About will, hopefully, eventually, also make you cry.
Do you have any rules in a writers’ room?
Not really. The environment in a writer’s room, I’ve really come to feel, should be some form of democracy. Have it be more of a conversation. Never come in with “Here’s the story I wanna tell, here’s what we need to do.” My approach is: “I have access to all of these great minds.” Try to discover what the best story is together. Try to create an environment that is open. Similarly, I feel the same with any phase of production and shooting — I really want people to bring their talents. I try to set up an environment to do that.
We’re pretty focused in the room. We tend to, um, you know, like a lot of writer’s rooms, work through lunch and to try and get as much work done as possible. We always kind of get to a place where, even in the room, it feels like watching the episode. Is it funny where it’s supposed to be funny? Am I feeling something where I’m supposed to be feeling something? I tend to go with my gut [to know when] it’s ready.
How about demographics when you’re assembling the room? Do you try to get a range of ages, or anything like that?
I don’t think there are any rules in term of age or that kind of thing. You want people who you feel are great writers. But in addition, because the process is television — you know, you’re not just people sitting in front of a computer writing — you need to work collaboratively. When I’m staffing a show, I want it to be with people who are open, and [who] don’t feel like they have the right answer coming in. I don’t do that, and I’m the showrunner!
I want that from everybody. I think it’s really important. Any show I’m working on, I want the stories to always be about something, and to have the potential to be emotional. That’s the kind of story that I like. When we’re working on the seeds of these stories, the environment needs to be one where people can open up — to feel like it’s a place where if they throw an idea out that they’re taking a chance on, that they’re not gonna be trampled on. Because those ideas that you take a chance on, that seem crazy, those can be the best ideas. Sometimes they’re not! [Laughs.] But sometimes they are.
I’ve read that crying is not uncommon in the Parenthood writer’s room.
The stories in Parenthood are so much the stories of of our lives. And the people who have worked on the show feel very connected to these characters. And so much of the writers — and the actors and the directors — are in these characters. It’s that kind of show. It feels very personal. So absolutely, when people are pitching stories in the room — including myself! — you know, it’s not atypical for someone to get emotional. And when that does happen, I think those tend to be stories that I gravitate to.
By the way, it also happens in the About a Boy room. Obviously, About a Boy tonally is different. But people get emotional. There’s a ton of laughter, but we want to find the emotion and the heart in these stories. I want the stories for About a Boy to always be relatable and about something, even though it’s totally in a different world than Parenthood. It’s something that we aspire to, to find these stories that people connect to. And, inevitably, that happens when writers connect to them, too.
You, smartly, are not on Twitter. In what way does fan reaction get back to you?
I’m not somebody who goes online after every episode airs because that would be, for me, getting too much feedback, and too much information. It’s also something to tease apart — are people upset with it because they didn’t want the character to do something, or are they upset because they can’t respond to the story creatively? And it’s hard to tease that apart. And it’s hard for viewers to tease that apart.
But even though I don’t seek out a ton of information, obviously a lot of it gets filtered back to me. There’s people that I know responding to it, and I definitely get a sense from people who are working on the show, who are paying more attention to it than I do, of what stories are getting the most support or the most lack of support. Generally, I think, on the Parenthood side of it, I feel like people are positive about the show, and they connect to these characters, and they sometimes feel like they own these characters. But even a negative feeling I actually take sometimes as a compliment — I feel like, “Oh, it’s because they’re so invested that they care so much. Otherwise they wouldn’t get so upset.”
[Parenthood] is a very serialized show, and it’s the kind of thing where story lines go on for multiple episodes, and multiple seasons. It’s like the weather: If you don’t like it, wait awhile, it’ll change.
After all this time, is it still strange at all when when people react so strongly? When viewers basically consider these characters real people?
Absolutely, it’s one of the most flattering things that people say. I love hearing that. “Oh, these characters are like a part of our family.” That’s incredibly meaningful to me. It’s a great compliment to the show, and to the actors and the writers and everybody involved with doing the show.
I love when people say they watch the show with their son or their daughter, or they watch it as a family. It’s nice to know. It’s a funny thing with TV: Every once in a while you’ll do a screening of the show for an audience or the crew, but 99 percent of the time you watch the show alone in an editing room. It’s not like a movie, where you can sneak into the theater so that you can hear people laugh and stuff. So to get that response, to hear how they feel so intimately connected to these characters — it’s a great compliment.
Has there ever been a moment with a fan where you’re at all worried that, like, they really do think Riggins is a real person that they might one day date?
[Laughs.] Yes, people can get … I’ve seen that a little bit. What’s funny, I don’t engage a ton of people about the shows. Even my friends. People wanna talk about it, I’m happy to talk about it, but the truth is, all day I’m inundated with writing the script, watching the cuts, breaking stories, and all that. And when I come home, I wanna not talk about the show. I wanna live. And then hopefully that gives me something to write about. But people do … they can get … they have this whole reaction to it. I can’t think of a particular case, but yes, they do.
One thing that’s remarkable to me is how you seem to just continuously be able to make everybody cry on command.
[Laughs.] I guess that’s a good thing. Friday Night Lights and Parenthood are very different shows, but there’s a similarity to the shows in ways of the storytelling. They’re sort of small, intimate stories about these characters’ lives. And it allows you time to get in and connect with them. I’m lucky to be working on these type of shows. There aren’t that many of them.
My first job was My So-Called Life, which was produced by Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz and written by Winnie Holzman. [Ed and Marshall] created thirtysomething and I remember, before I got into TV, watching thirtysomething and having a similar reaction: getting very emotional, getting really connected to these characters. There were many important things that I learned from My So-Called Life, but one of them was [not to tell] too much story. One of the things we always talked about was, rather than try to do these big, provocative story lines, how little story can we tell?
Because that leaves room to really, really play up the nuances of what’s going on with these characters, really examine these stories and where these people are at. I think Friday Night Lights and Parenthood share that type of sensibility in terms of approach to telling stories.
I know it’s been awhile, but I gotta bother you about my all-time favorite moment from Friday Night Lights: Smash making the team at Texas A&M, and then coming to Coach’s house to let him know. What do you remember from writing that story line?
When we started Friday Night Lights, there was a feeling of “OK, this is a great show — how many episodes are they gonna do? Six? Eight? Ten?” We didn’t know how long it would last! We really didn’t know. It got to a certain point where we had to make a decision — we had a long enough life where we had to deal with the fact that some of these characters have to graduate from high school. Really, everything that we had going for us was “This show feels authentic.” We had to make this really hard decision at some point to commit to saying things like “Smash is a senior now, Riggins is gonna be a senior next season,” and all that stuff.
Smash was one of the first characters that we did that with. I really made this kind of commitment to the show, to the fans of the show and, frankly to Gaius Charles, the actor who played Smash: If we’re going to write him off the show, we gotta give him a great story. It wasn’t going to feel like “Oh, he’s just leaving.” So Smash was the first of them, and then Street followed shortly afterwards, and at the end of the season a bunch of others. And we loved these characters so much and we wanted to, in each case, give them a story that had as much depth as any of the story lines leading up to it.
When people ask for advice about getting started in TV writing, what do you tend to say?
I think at any level with your writing, you have to distinguish yourself. There’s great television being made, and in more quantity than there’s ever been made. And that’s the challenge to somebody who works in TV: If you want to get your voice heard as a writer, write something that only you could have written. I think it’s less about doing a real good spec script of the show. I think it’s about having a voice that is unique to you, and perhaps even a subject matter that’s personal to you.
It’s not like you have to write, you know, seven good scripts in order to get a job as a writer. You really only need one great thing. It doesn’t have to be a script. It could be a short play or a short story or a short film. Really, it happens in all different ways. You’ll be surprised at how open the community of television producers is. Network executives are looking for something that feels genuine. So, what makes your voice as a writer unique?