Breaking In Interview: Alison (AKA Alie) Flierl
When, in November of 2016, I told my friends – writers, consultants, experts, and champions of all things screenwriting – about my upcoming Breaking In Initiative, one of the first people to reach out to me and express her enthusiasm was the incomparable Jeanne Bowerman, the talented writer and editor of the ever-popular Script Magazine online, who just so happens to be a good friend that I was lucky enough to bond with over steak, onion rings and a mysterious and amazing cornbread casserole one night in Nebraska (which is another story for another time). Jeanne, who describes herself as “a writer of things”, told me that I have to talk to her good friend Alison (Alie) Flierl, who started out in late night television, wrote for BOJACK HORSEMAN and is now staffed on my kid’s absolute favorite show, SCHOOL OF ROCK. Alie turned out to be an amazing interview: Specific, generous and hilarious. Below is our conversation spanning the world of late night television, web series, and the realities of pitching jokes in an already funny room.
Lee: Alie, can you tell me what brought you to writing?
Alie: Well, possibly being an only child and needing to entertain myself. But also, I’ve been a writer, I think, even before I could actually write. Ever since the age of five, I used to write a lot. When I was in elementary school, we got a computer, I kind of took it over and started writing stories on that. Because I have terrible handwriting. And at another point in my childhood my parents bought a video camera and didn’t know how to use it, and then that became mine and I started making movies with my friends when I was little. Then I ended up going to college and got a degree in film with a minor in scriptwriting. Learned a little more about what that world entails and did some internships during my summers at college, both in New York and in Los Angeles. LA was really helpful, especially in seeing how the business works and what it would be like to live out here. Once I graduated, I moved out. I think for me, writing was just something that I’d always done and I didn’t necessarily think it could be a career at first. My mom was a teacher and my dad worked in a non-profit. So I wasn’t exposed to entertainment in any way as a career path when I was young. But my parents were nice enough to say: “Sure, go to film school.” And then once I did the internships, I realized: Oh, you actually can have a career at this but it will take a while. Not the same thing as being a dentist or a lawyer.
Lee: What made you choose television?
Alie: I’ve more focused on TV because it’s sort of where I first started getting experience and where I first started learning and meeting contacts. And I was the kid who grew up watching a lot of TV and there is something fun about being in someone’s living room every week. Or, in the case of Netflix now, they just watch it for 10 hours straight. I like the storytelling of it and having a couple years to grow the character. But also the collaboration of a TV writing room is really fun. You get to be in a room where people are just cracking you up and you get to learn from them and they get to learn from you and it’s a fun process. Whereas features, I still am interested in them as well, but that’s a much more on your own, by yourself, furiously typing, versus TV writing can be more of a collaboration give-and-take kind of thing.
Lee: What would you say was your big break into the industry?
Alie: There’s so many things that lead up to that point. But I think getting to write my episode of BOJACK HORSEMAN for season 2, was a really big break. And Raphael (Bob-Waksberg) the creator of BOJACK, read two of our scripts and liked them and gave us (Alie and partner Scott Chernoff) the opportunity to write that episode, and it was a really fun, crazy kind of episode that then ended up getting a lot of press, and then was a lot of people’s favorite. But there were also a lot of little opportunities along the way that lead up to that. My first job in TV, I worked for Jonathan Groff who is an Executive Producer on BLACKISH now and has worked on many TV shows and I learned a lot from working from him. And when I worked at CONAN as a writers’ coordinator, and got to pitch some ideas and got some ideas on the show, that kind of helped me find my voice. Then my writing partner and I created this very silly web series called TV GUIDE LETTER THEATER. And that was something we made ourselves for like no money. And it ends up getting press and getting me an agent. And so these are like little opportunities that combined together over time and ended up leading all the way up until now.
Lee: What do you think helped you get those first opportunities and those first jobs? People talk about how competitive it is and how tough it is to get those jobs. Why do you think you were able to get them?
Alie: Well, my first TV job, a friend recommended me and I went in and interviewed and luckily the person who hired me saw that I seemed capable. I worked for a talent manager in my very first job in LA and I think if you can get one of those jobs, at either an agency or a management company, even if that’s not what you want to do, it’s a good way to show you can handle a busy desk which can help you get into production more. But also, let’s say, when you have one of the lower rung jobs, like when I was a showrunner’s assistant, I was always smiling and happy to help in whatever it was. Be it a small way. And I think people remember that attitude. And I think a lot of jobs that came after that, came from that. So, I think, whatever the job you are able to get, do it with a smile on your face. And make sure you are kind to everyone. And make sure you are responsible. Even if it’s not the thing you want to be doing yet. But in terms of writing, there are so many different paths. Like some of the writers I worked with at CONAN came from the world of Stand Up. Or they came from Improv. And then on some of the other scripted shows I moved up the ladder of being a writer’s assistant and a script coordinator. And that helped open some doors for me. But there isn’t just one path, which is why it’s different from being a dentist or a lawyer. So it’s about keeping making your own opportunities and also being prepared for when an opportunity comes along the way. Because with BOJACK, we happened to have two samples that worked for that show. We had a BOB’S BURGERS spec and we had an original pilot that was a wacky weird thing. And they were two samples that were very good for that type of show. You know, if we’d had some dramatic short zombie show then, that wouldn’t have been the right sample for that particular show. What’s really important is finding your voice. And generating samples that show your voice. And also work to say, hey I can write in someone else’s voice too.
Lee: How is writing for SCHOOL OF ROCK, for a show that’s targeted at a younger audience, different from doing a BOJACK HORSEMAN?
Alie: Well, it’s definitely not anywhere near as dark as BOJACK HORSEMAN. It’s very different but also very fun. It’s its own set of challenges. With BOJACK you are sort of trying to find a deeper level and explore this depression and this isolation. Whereas in SCHOOL OF ROCK you want to have fun with the kids and laugh with them but also teach a lesson. And then be positive about education and friendship and girl power. We are careful about how we portray the female characters. We always want little girls to feel empowered. And also working within what Nickelodeon is happy with. But it’s been it’s own fun — the 6-year old inside me is really enjoying it.
Lee: My son is 10-years old and he loves the show. My daughter who’s six loves the show. It’s one of the only things that they can both watch and be really excited by.
Alie: Oh, that’s so great to hear. Thank you. I don’t have kids yet but I feel like if I did it’s the kind of show I’d actually enjoy watching with them. It’s fun with the kids but we also get jokes in there that are fun for the adults too. The cast is so great. All the kids are so hard-working and so nice. Nickelodeon found a really great group of kids. I love them all. And Tony Cavalero who plays the teacher, I mean, he’s so great with them. And you know you can write any joke for him and he’s gonna delivery and he’s gonna do funny things. And we’re so lucky to have that group so that also makes it fun. I think it’s kind of about tapping into the big kid inside me, which isn’t that hard. I definitely have a child-like sense of wonder about the world. And I still love watching movies from my childhood, so for an episode I wrote for SCHOOL OF ROCK, I wanted to get in a kind of Halloween-mindset, so I rewatched HOCUS POCUS and some other old Halloween movies. And kind of got myself in that fun-kids-Halloween brain for writing that episode. So it’s different but it’s a fun set of parameters to write to.
Lee: And does SCHOOL OF ROCK have a traditional writers room? Or how do you guys work?
Alie: Yeah, we have a writers room. And we have 10 writers. We have three showrunners, Steve and Jim Armogida, who co-created the show. and there’s Jay Kogen who runs the show with them. So we always have a writers room running. And then two of the three showrunners will be on set, so that they’re making sure the actors have everything they need and they’re down there with whoever the writer’s episode it is that’s shooting. The writers room is running, we all generate ideas together, we all talk about the season and the arcs for the episodes and break the stories as a group. And then, once the story has been approved by the showrunners, then the writer, or writers go off and make an outline and write a first draft and you get notes along the way so you are writing to what they need and what they want.
Lee: How challenging is it to continuously pitch jokes? I know a lot of comedy writers are very intimidated by the idea of sitting around a table with a bunch of people who are ‘funnier than they are’, and pitching jokes until 1 or 2 in the morning. What is the true experience of writing on a show that is somewhat joke-driven?
Alie: I enjoy it. Right now with SCHOOL OF ROCK, there’s a lot people there who have a lot more experience than me but who are very supportive so you don’t feel like the new kid in town. And so you just pitch. And not everyone is going to laugh at every one of your jokes and that’s the same as stand-up, having a hard room one night. And so you just have to get comfortable in your pitching shoes, so to speak. And learn how to pitch. And learn how to do it confidently. And that can be a hard thing. You can’t be totally shy in a room. If you want to be totally shy and don’t want to talk to anyone, then it’s probably better to write features. But with TV you need to be able to pitch. You need to be able to communicate your ideas and talk out loud. I’ve been lucky that most of the rooms I’ve been in have been very supportive and very encouraging. And it’s really fun, sometimes you’re bouncing ideas off of each other and the perfect joke comes out of it. Or when people are pitching four different ideas that then merge into the perfect one. That’s so much fun. Also, being able to make all these professional ‘funny’ people laugh is always a huge high. It sucks when you can’t find a joke. But for the most part, we usually do. And just to share a story of someone, one of the people who worked on CONAN, Josh Comers who was one of the writers there, talked about how before he ever got hired in late night, he would still make sure to write a certain amount of topical jokes every day, because he wanted to have that muscle working for when he did get the chance to write. So don’t wait until you get the opportunity to practice. Practice now. Sort of the same thing as sports, which I’m terrible at but luckily I can write jokes. You have to flex that muscle on a regular basis. For other newer, younger writers: even if you’re not interested in performing, consider taking a stand-up or improv class, just to find a group of people who are similar-minded and to get more confident expressing yourself in the comedic manner.
Lee: Can you tell me a little more about your web series? What inspired you to do it? What kind of doors did it open for you?
Alie: Well, it’s very silly. Scott Chernoff (who’s my writing partner) and I were working at THE TONIGHT SHOW with Conan O’ Brien and the show happened to get a bunch of magazine subscriptions, which most late night shows do when you’re looking for topical stories. And one of the magazines they got was TV GUIDE. And so during rehearsals, when there was down time, Scott and I would read these letters in TV GUIDE and we thought they were hilarious. And so we thought: ‘Well, why do people still write letters when you can just goggle this?’ So, we thought they were really funny and thought we should do something about this. That’s actually how we started writing together. So when THE TONIGHT SHOW with Conan got cancelled and we had some time off, we made this little web series. I think we probably spent about a hundred bucks on the first season. Basically, we have “dramatic” readings of the letters to the TV GUIDE, which is what we used to do in rehearsal. We made sketches about what we thought the letter-writers’ lives were like. I think that originally we made 8 episodes for the first season. It was featured on FUNNY OR DIE and in TV Guide. TV Guide Magazine even featured us, which is awesome. And they invited us to some Hot List parties, which was fun. And then THE HUFFINGTON POST featured the second season. It wasn’t anything that made us any money but it was a great calling card and something that got us to a place where someone could see that we could write jokes and be funny. And also some of the episodes were ninety seconds to two minutes, so it’s a quick thing to show that, hey, I’m funny, versus making someone read an entire script. It was a good thing for us. It helped us get our agent. And then we started writing more half-hour pilots together, so that’s how that got started.
Lee: Can you talk to me a little about how you and your writing partner work together? What’s the distribution of labor? What makes the partnership work?
Alie: We are pretty 50/50. We’ll come up with ideas together. Some of the time we’ll write together at my house on the couch and have the screen up on the TV, hook up the computer to the TV, the same way a writers’ room is run. And work that way. In terms of when we are writing for someone else’s show, like SCHOOL OF ROCK or BOJACK, we often go to diners and work. We use Final Draft Collaboration, which is very convenient. So we can go sit in a diner and eat food and work and kind of pitch things to each other. And sometimes we go and each take a scene and then put it together and then do passes on each others’ scenes. So it’s really a 50/50 split. Usually when we are doing final passes and going through it with a toothcomb, we read it together because if a joke isn’t working then we can kind of hear it and then pitch off each other’s energy and find something better. And that usually works better than just working on our own. There are still some things I work with on my own, I produced a director’s movie last year called RANDOM TROPICAL PARADISE, which I think is going to be coming out in 2017. It’s a hilarious movie. What’s great though about a writing partner is it’s someone who forces you to have deadlines. It’s important to find someone who has the same work ethic as you. And someone who makes you laugh. And whose opinion you trust, which is really important. It is sort of a work marriage. I’m lucky that my writing partner is very nice and our families get along well, I love his wife, he loves my husband, so we’ve been lucky and it’s been fun. I always say: ‘Find your tribe’. And whether you want to work with a writing partner or not, finding other people who can at least give you good notes, people whose opinions you trust, is really important. Especially for writers who are just starting out. You may not be able to get a professional writer to give you notes right away because they are just so busy. So at least finding people where their opinions seem similar to yours and whose opinions you can trust. Finding those people, who can really give you good feedback and good criticism, is really important in the beginning.
Lee: Those are all really good tips. Is writing for late night as fun as everyone expects? And as difficult to get a job doing?
Alie: For me, I was the writers’ coordinator so I pitched ideas but it wasn’t like there was pressure on me to do that. But it is fun because you can have some crazy idea in the morning off some random news story and by like one in the afternoon in rehearsals you see it happening. Like at Conan they had such an amazing group of people putting everything together from wardrobe to set construction to everything, sometimes things happen that quickly and it was amazing to watch that. But when you are doing four shows a week, it is a lot of output. So it’s easy to get burnt out cause you’re just sort of generating jokes every day, and you can’t afford to be precious about writing only when you feel like it. But it’s also really fun. I remember doing a show in Chicago and for some reason there was a sketch with an ostrich in a G-string and so our wardrobe guy had make a G-string for an ostrich. And then it got cut. And I was, like, well that’s just show business for you.
Lee: It certainly teaches you to kill your darlings.
Alie: Yeah. That’s the process. The same thing with SCHOOL OF ROCK. You have run-throughs and you see which jokes are working and which aren’t. And so you can’t be precious about things. In terms of jobs, there are a lot more late night shows than there were fifteen years ago, so there are more jobs. But it’s not easy to get submitted for them. It’s usually about knowing someone who’s already on the show. A lot of the writers who come along, came from improv in Chicago and stand up people from New York. Cause that’s who had been hired before and then when an opening would happen they’d recommend someone they knew. Like with Conan people didn’t move around a lot. Because he was a very loyal boss and so were those who worked for him. So on that show there weren’t a lot of openings for writers. So it’s not easy to break into but it’s not impossible either.
Lee: Alright. Last question. What advice do you have for writers who are trying to break in?
Alie: I think if you can afford it, LA or NYC are the better places to be. You’ll meet more people, you’ll just be that much closer to opportunities. Finding people who can give you real criticism on your writing. And just writing a lot. Just keep writing. You know, it’s not about having one great script. It’s about being able to continually write great scripts. Finding your voice. Anyone you can meet who can at least give you advice – do it. And any job, just remember, can lead to five other jobs, so even if it’s not exactly what you want to be doing yet – do it with a smile. And just keep writing.
ALISON FLIERL is a Writer/Director/Performer living in Los Angeles. She co-created and co-stars in the hit comedy web series “TV Guide Letter Theater. ”Ali
She’s also written and performed in sketches on “Conan” on TBS. Her work has been featured in Cannes International Film Festival, the LA Comedy Festival, the Austin Film Festival, FilmColumbia Film Festival, the LA Comedy Shorts Festival and Interactive Day San Diego. Alison also hosts and produces the podcast 2 Degrees of Alie where she interviews people working in Hollywood about their stories of breaking into the business. The podcast has been downloaded in 82 countries.
This interview is a part of Lee Jessup’s Breaking In Initiative. Want to learn more about The Breaking In Initiative? Check out the introductory blog post, or pick up Lee’s upcoming book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES.