Steve Hely is a comedic writer from the USA. He has written for many great TV shows, and his TV writing and how he got into this was the focus of the first part of this talk. First up, Hely apologises to all those in the audience who thought this was about how to be a writer, and takes the blame for the odd title (it was meant to be named after his novel How I Became a Famous Novelist.’
I’ll admit I was struggling by this point of the day. I really ought to have had a coffee before going into this session, but due to a quick turn-around, that was too hard. My miasma of tiredness wasn’t helped by the in-crowd angle Toby Manhire took during part of this interview. I have been enjoying each of the USA writers’ views on Trump and American politics however, and I’d recommend going along to The State Of America at 12.30pm here at The Piano.
Hely’s writing credits include the David Letterman Show, American Dad, 30 Rock, and Veep. He has also published the title named earlier, plus travel book The Wonder Trail. He wanted to be a TV writer from very young, and deliberately went to Harvard (after some of his favourite writers) so he could work at the Harvard Lampoon magazine. After college, he pitched his writing to Letterman, didn’t hear anything for months, moved to LA in the meantime, then to New York when he got the job.
The writing process for Letterman: “You got there and were told what the pitch was for that day. You’d pick a topic then you’d write jokes for it, then write some skits for the opening set piece. You were in a box writing on your typewriter.” When he moved to comedy writing though, it became more collaborative – TV writers are aware that 1 + 1 = more than 2.The style of the writing room depends on the personality of the show-runner. “Sometimes they touch everything themselves, sometimes they delegate and let others deal with it.”
Hely was dubious about the idea of a US version of The Office, but by the time he came in as a writer it was through to its 7th season: there ended up being around 250 episodes of US The Office, compared to about 12 in the UK. In this writing group, writers were often transitioned to become actors, quite deliberately – to give them a sense of what they are doing.
They moved on then to talk about his books. Hely says, “It is helpful as a writer to be able to split your personality into different characters.” One of the reasons he wanted to be a novelist was to be invited to literary festivals. The theme of How I became a famous novelist was how much you could get away with, when pretending to be a writer. “I wanted to explore the line between being genuine and being a poser.” Hely also wanted to explore the difference between mass-market and literary fiction – he is interested in who we give literary awards to, and why.
While on hiatus from TV writing, he took a trip around Central and South America. He had pitched this to publishers before leaving, and when he was part-way through his agent sold the book: so then he had to write it. “I like to break my routine by travelling, and talking to strangers, and working out a new country. New Zealand has a culture of this, but I have encountered a lot of Americans who have never considered travelling. “
Hely attended the Republican Convention: “It was so tin pot, cheap, dictatorial, fascist and I hated to see it in the United States. Donald Trump is barf – US got so disgusted with the political system that they threw Trump up. Those who weren’t part of the the machine threw this up.” The only funny part of it was when Ted Cruz – “another despicable individual” – refused to endorse Trump. But as soon as Trump started talking he thought “No. We need to shut this down.”
One of the audience members asked whether it was getting harder to write political satire, given Trump is doing this himself? “The fact satire is being outpaced by reality is a problem.” It is, he says, hard to make fun of this guy who changes his mind at every turn. “I don’t subscribe to the idea that comedy’s job is to change people’s minds. The real value of it is making you feel less insane. It’s helpful to make people understand they aren’t alone.”
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
Steve Hely is also at:
The State of America, Sun 28 Aug, 12.30pm