Jim Rash talks writing, writers — and “Community”

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Jim Rash in the Sundance Channel original series Writers' Room. (Mark Peterson)

Jim Rash is a familiar face on television, where he plays Dean Pelton on NBC’s Community and memorably mimicked Angelina Jolie’s extended-leg stance at the 2012 Academy Awards.

But the reason he was on the Oscars at all is that Rash is also a well-regarded screenwriter. He and writing partner Nat Faxon had a share of the best adapted screenplay Oscar for The Descendants. Rash has also written for Community and is co-writer (and co-director) with Faxon of the acclaimed new film The Way Way Back. And he and Faxon have a couple of other scripts in the works, one a small film, the other an action comedy for Kristen Wiig.

The combination of performing and verbal skills explains why Rash is hosting The Writers’ Room, a series premiering at 10 p.m. Monday on Sundance Channel. Each half-hour installment brings together writers from TV series — starting with Breaking Bad — to talk about the process of writing, including the collaborations among writers, producers and actors (some of whom are also in the discussion). Later installments will look at Parks and Recreation, New Girl, Dexter, Game of Thrones and American Horror Story.

“That world of writers and writers’ staffs in the room is something that is not often heard from,” Rash said in a recent telephone interview. “We often hear from the actor or show-runner, maybe a director — rarely from the people who sort of do the day-to-day. I was in from the beginning.”

The three episodes I have seen were laden with amusing tales, from Parks and Rec’s realizing that a major character was being misunderstood, to New Girl creator Elizabeth Meriwether’s never have been in a TV show writers’ room before that series, to Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston describing his end-of-the-series tattoo. Parks star Amy Poehler explains how a line of dialogue came from a chat with Quincy Jones in Monte Carlo. (Quincy’s daughter Rashida Jones is a Parks regular.) Breaking Bad mastermind Vince Gilligan recalls how the show’s pitch was “we’re gonna take Mr. Chips and we’re gonna turn him into Scarface.”

But the thing to take in from the discussions is that, however much you may admire actors, someone has to write their words.

The specific process may vary, and the shows on the Sundance series are in different places — both Dexter and Breaking Bad had readied their last runs, while the other shows have seasons ahead to sort out. Still, on The Writers’ Room, you just have to see Cranston describe the rush he got from the first page of the first Breaking script to know what words can do. And the series even finds TV ideas flying during the discussion, including the possible birth of a New Girl script.

“They all had a different tone,” Rash said of the discussions. “There was great conversation that seemed more introspective and casual, and ones where we had a lot of fun. Parks and Rec was a lot of fun, as was New Girl. But I really enjoyed when it was just David [Benioff] and D.B. [Weiss] and me for Game of Thrones. It was an intimate sort of discussion,”

At the same time, Rash said: “I went into [the series] thinking, OK, I might have to pull stuff out of them, I might have to encourage each writer to speak up. But once we got the ball rolling, they were all pretty open.”

While the episodes include about 22 minutes of discussion once you take out the commercials, Rash said the actual conversations were up to 90 minutes. “There was a lot of material to whittle down,” he said — and each episode will have additional footage on Sundance’s website, www.sundancechannel.com.

More Writing. I asked Rash how his and Faxon’s writing works. He said that, because they worked with improv group the Groundlings, their own work draws on that ensemble’s emphasis on both improv and character.

Unlike TV show staffs that can have as many as a dozen writers working on scripts on their own and then bringing them to the group, Faxon and Rash are a two-person unit and often write in the room together, Rash said. “I may go off by myself a few times, mainly ‘cause he’s got kids, I don’t, so I have some time to sort of get obsessed with [the writing].”

At the same time, he saw the benefit of a writers’ room, especially on a weekly series doing 22 episodes a season.

“There is something to be said for having that support — that person who can maybe shed a light when your brain has shut down. And a writing staff I think is a big American thing because we do 22 episodes of shows. It does make it more conducive to have a staff, a collective, that is going to be able to get you through a whole season.”

To be sure, some writers — Aaron Sorkin and David Milch come immediately to mind — seem to have a hand in every script on their shows. But collaboration works, too.

“Vince Gilligan is very quick to give props to his whole staff for being able to take on his vision and carry it,” Rash said. “Liz Meriwether, obviously, mentioned that in her mind she was going to write all the episodes — and realized the power of staff. But then I sat down with Game of Thrones, and it’s primarily D.B. and David who are attached to a lot of those scripts.”

More Room? Rash is also thinking about who’d be interesting for the next batch of shows if the series is renewed.. “The wish list would be wide,” he said. Mad Men is on it, and The Walking Dead almost fit into the first season.

“I’d love to go back and do some shows that aren’t on the air anymore, like Lost, because I was a fan from beginning to end,” he said. “And I’d love to go even further back, and do some classic television, and hear the differences for writers of M*A*S*H, or Cheers, or dramas as well. ... There’s so much in the changing of television that would be interesting to see.”

Community’s Course.. Rash was part of the recent, triumphant appearance by the Community team at San Diego Comic-Con’s famous Hall H, the largest most prestigious of its venues,

“It was quite a scene. It was pretty cool,” he said. The new season, the series’ fifth, is already of note because creator Dan Harmon has returned a year after getting fired after his replacements proved lacking.

“So far, so good,” Rash said. “We start production Aug. 19. Dan, and obviously all the writers, have been back at work. I’m eager. Except for some little things he mentioned at Comic-Con, we’re pretty much in the dark about the upcoming season — but in a great way. I love the show, and I admire Dan, so I’m very happy.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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