Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Molly Beer

Brothers John and Dave Chernin started their television careers as writers for the hit comedy IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA (FXX). The duo co-wrote 10 episodes while on the ALWAYS SUNNY writing staff, and departed after six seasons with the show in order to spearhead their own creative project, THE MICK (FOX).

THE MICK, which was recently renewed for a second season, chronicles the life of habitually irresponsible and perpetually down-on-her luck Mackenzie “Mickey” Murphy (Kaitlin Olson), who is saddled with full guardianship of her spoiled niece (Sofia Black-D’Elia) and nephews (Thomas Barbusca and Jack Stanton) after her sister and brother-in-law flee the country to avoid federal fraud charges. With the help of housekeeper Alba (Carla Jiminez) and pseudo-boyfriend Jimmy (Scott MacArthur), Mickey must navigate the ins and outs of caring for three unruly children and their luxurious mansion, all while getting her own crash course in responsibility and functional adulthood.

OnWriting spoke with Dave and John about the transition from Staff Writers to running their own writers room, writing dark humor for wide audiences and the current state of the family sitcom.

Advice on writing from the gallows

  • Know the rules before you break them
  • Write the shows you’d want to see
  • Keep doing whatever makes you laugh

An interview with John and Dave Chernin

How did you get your start as writers?

Dave: John and I were living together after we graduated college. We decided to write a movie together. At the time, John was working as an assistant to the Farrelly brothers and then with Ridley Scott’s commercial production company.

I knew an agent. I wasn’t comfortable giving him any of the feature stuff I’d written, because I didn’t think it was good enough. He asked me to write an episode of my favorite TV show. IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA was just starting up at the time, so I wrote a spec for SUNNY. A few months later, I got a call from [SUNNY creator] Rob McElhenney, and I started working for him as a Writer’s Assistant.

John and I continued to write together on the side and then McElhenney promoted us both to writers on the show.

What was your experience like as a Writer’s Assistant on IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY?

Dave: I was such a fan of the show and I felt like I knew it front to back, but the moment I got in the room with these guys, I learned that they were on a different level. I kept my mouth shut and my ears open. It’s a great place to learn the ropes because Rob, Charlie [Day] and Glenn [Howerton] are so talented. They were great about shepherding young, inexperienced writers into the business and teaching us the do’s and don’ts of sitcom writing. That was our film school.

John: We spent a lot of our first season waiting to get fired because we thought everyone there was so much better than us. I remember when we went in on our first day as staff writers. We were both really excited and feeling confident because we were doing better than most of our peers, and we had a great writing gig. Then, two minutes into our first day, we realized “Oh my god. You guys are unbelievable and we’re not ready for this.”

What was the first episode you worked on as writing partners?

Dave: When I was still a Writer’s Assistant on the show they gave me a script called “The Gang Reignites the Rivalry.” John and I were living together, so I would go home every day after work and talk it out with him. John’s not credited, but that was probably the first SUNNY episode that we worked on together. That ended up becoming a real hit over there. The first episode where they did actually credit John was called “Dennis Gets Divorced.” I feel like we did not do a great job on that. I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t our best work.

John: When we worked on that first episode, we were so excited that people were willing to give us the opportunity. When we did “Dennis Gets Divorced” we were actually on staff, and we were so nervous and so afraid of messing up that I don’t think we had as much fun with it. They were kind enough to stick with us and help us get the script into a good place. From then on, we were more confident in our own abilities and we started having more fun with it.

I’ve always seen IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY as an alternative, depraved version of Seinfeld. THE MICK is more in the vein of ROSEANNE or MARRIED WITH CHILDREN. Can you tell me about the creation of THE MICK and how you transitioned to this sort of show from IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY?

John: All those shows that you just mentioned actually came up in our pitch. THE MICK was an idea we had for a while and we had pitched it to some other people. To us, it always felt like it was a little too soft for cable and a little hard for network and we weren’t sure what to do with it. We ultimately thought, “Since we’re coming off a pretty dark, twisted show like ALWAYS SUNNY, let’s see if we can’t translate that to network TV and try to do one of the dysfunctional family sitcoms that we loved growing up.” We didn’t feel like we were reinventing the wheel in any way. We felt like these shows that had this ballsy kind of edge to them had just disappeared from network TV for a while, and we really wanted to do a show within that vein.

Dave: The idea behind THE MICK was to start with this really familiar sitcom concept which on its own is so traditional and digestible to an audience. We used that concept as our foundation, but then we wrote Mickey in a way that was very tonally separated from it. That kind of deconstruction of the more traditional sitcom concept is definitely something that we took from SUNNY.

Is there a scene in THE MICK that you feel translated particularly well from the page to the screen?

Dave: There’s a scene with Mickey [Kaitlin Olson] and Alba [Carla Jiminez] in episode two that wasn’t supposed to be a scene in THE MICK at all. We needed something to audition Alba, because she didn’t have many lines in the pilot, so we pulled this scene out of one of the first scripts we wrote together. Carla was the first one to come in and audition and it was the first time we heard that scene come to life. Immediately we thought, “We’ve got to put this in the show.” It came across exactly as we saw it on the page and it ended up making it into the second episode. It established the dynamic between those two characters and it helped us as writers moving forward.

John: I also really like the first Mickey/Sabrina [Sofia Black-D’Elia] scene in the pilot. The first time they meet each other. We set up this really brash character in Mickey and she went toe-to-toe with a 17-year old and the 17-year old crushes her. Everything Mickey says, Sabrina has a reaction for. It’s one of those scenes that doesn’t really have jokes in it, but it’s fun and moving. More than anything, Sophia and Kaitilin are such talented actresses that you don’t need to give them that much for them to be funny. The two of them knocked that scene out of the park.

Where are you now in the process of writing Season Two?

Dave: We finished editing the finale of Season One this week. So, you’ll see when you watch that, that there are questions that will need answering in Season Two.

John: Especially as it relates to Ben’s [Jack Stanton] character.

Dave: As well as Chip [Thomas Barbusca]. There are some cliffhangers for those two. I won’t spoil anything, but we wrote ourselves into corners and we’re excited to write ourselves out of them.

“The humor is frankly the last thing we think about.”

Speaking of Ben, how do you handle writing a character that young into THE MICK?

Dave: I don’t think that we’re considering that we write for children. We kind of look at an actor and try to figure out the best thing we can give them to proceed in any given scene. More than anything, he’s the emotional grounding in our show. For most of the season, we’ve mostly used Ben as a prop. We always laughed at looking at it like, “How can we put these people in crazy stories where they’re so wrapped up in their own world that they completely forget there’s an impressionable seven- year-old running around?”

John: Yeah, I also think that the character is at a perfect age where you can put this kid in these incredibly dark, fucked up, dangerous situations and he’s too naïve to really understand it. He’s oblivious to the dangers. That makes the audience squirm a little bit, because they understand it, but you also get a laugh because he doesn’t have the wherewithal to know how close he is to being in real trouble. We have a limited window to take advantage of that and we have every intention of putting him through the ringer while we can.

Dave: But you have to credit Jack Stanton, the actor playing that character, as much as us. He’s never really acted before and we’ve been so pleasantly surprised every step of the way. We can give him stuff and he doesn’t balk at any of it and he’s really brought that character into life in ways that we didn’t see. We’ve learned so much just from watching that kid act. We’re excited to go further with him.

How do you run your writer’s room? Do you have a specific structure or any particular approaches that you use?

John: We go with whatever is working on any given day. We came in for Season One with a few ideas, but for the most part we wanted to hit the ground running. Dave and I certainly believe that a good writers room is the greatest job in the world. You get to sit around the table with really funny people and try to make each other laugh. We try to keep things fun and light and we really try to impress on everyone that we have to come out with a good story or a good, clean break.

Dave: It’s very collaborative, up until the point that someone goes off and writes a script. We had a staff of seven talented, funny writers. For a week or two, we started by blue-skying it and throwing out random kernels of ideas. We put them on note cards, posted them up on a corkboard, and from there we started whittling them down to the ones that we liked. We start pairing ideas together, and then we go through it as a room and break the story out beat-by-beat.

If we’ve done our job well, by the time they go off to write that script they have a breakdown of each scene with the ins and outs of the scene and a strong motivation and point of view for each character. It starts there and like John said, we find if we have that then the funny comes pretty naturally.

Is there any sort of formula that the two of you like to work with when you’re writing jokes?

Dave: We get a lot of chuckles in our show from the dialogue, but our biggest laughs come from story turns and character motivations. The humor is frankly the last thing we think about. We think our show’s really funny, but we also don’t think of it as a joke-heavy show. It all starts with a strong character point of view, and we find that that’s really the thrust of every episode. We can always make it funnier, but if the breaks don’t work, then that becomes much more difficult.

John: We don’t gravitate to shows that are throwing out zingers every other line. I also don’t know that Dave and I have the joke writing chops to pull off one of those shows. We’re much more into story and character and we try to earn really big moments that’ll make somebody laugh out loud.

What attracts you to the dark humor that runs through THE MICK?

Dave: We’re sick, demented individuals trying to fill the void inside our souls.

John: Truthfully, while I don’t think we always hit the mark, the goal is to find a clever way to do something funny. Now that we have a writing staff at our disposal, while we’re not going for the dark humor thing necessarily, we’re always sitting across from at least one person who knows a lot about comedy and we’re always trying to make him or her laugh. I don’t think we start out and say “How can we make this darker?” Nothing makes me happier than making another writer groan and laugh. We’re chasing that more than anything.

Dave: It comes down to the fact that that’s our sense of humor, and what people are used to on network television is the opposite of that, where everybody’s happy and everything’s so pretty and bright. That feels dated to us now.

Maybe we’ll go a little bit dark, but we certainly don’t set out to write anything dark or screwed up or controversial. We recognize that it’s a network family sitcom, but we also try to make it realistic, and the reality is, that kids are drinking in high school. And while that may not be okay for a lot of network TV shows, it’s how we write ours.

John: In general, though, we don’t really believe in anything categorically “too far” or something categorically “off limits.” That’s one of the coolest things about comedy: There, in theory, should be a way to make anything funny. That doesn’t mean it’s always possible, but we believe everything’s on the table.

Dave: Yeah, there’s nothing more rewarding from a writing standpoint than getting audiences to laugh at an area that they don’t think is funny. That means we’ve done our job. If something comes up in the writers room that feels a little too messed up, if anything, we see that as a challenge to dig harder and find a way to make it relatable and to get people on board and find the fun in it.

John: And if we can’t, we’ll move on. We’re not interested in doing something controversial or outrageous just for the sake of doing it.

Have you ever gotten notes from the network telling you, “You guys have gone too far?”

John: Actually, almost everything that we pitched to them, we’ve gotten on TV. The things that came close to getting thrown away are the grandma slaps in episode two. That was our first big fight with the network, but we got it on TV. The one other thing that they were also very squeamish about was peeling the rabbits, which got cut back significantly. We were able to keep it in the show, but there was a whole montage of bunny carcasses being thrown into the trashcan that we had to cut.

There’s one thing that comes to mind that they wouldn’t let us do that I won’t repeat because I’m determined to get it into season two. We never say we can’t do anything. Everything is a conversation. While it’s challenging at times and it’s difficult to get these things through, you have to look at our show to know that they’re taking real chances and they’re behind us.

What kind of advice would you give to writers that are coming up now and trying to sell a script that is outside of what
many people would consider mainstream humor?

Dave: I would say know the rules of writing. John and I took a lot of time when we were younger to study the craft and understandstructure and all these things. Not to say that we stick with these rules, but when you know the rules, it’s easier to break them. You know when you’re coloring outside the lines and you can always fall back on that structure.

John: I still feel weird calling myself a writer. It never has fully sunk in for me that I get to do this for a living. Dave and I have found success just by writing the show or writing the scripts that we want to see as fans. I don’t think you can shoot the moving target and all we care about is whether we can make one another laugh. Whenever we’ve fallen back on that we’ve usually been successful.

Dave: There’s so much out there now that it’s getting harder and harder to really separate yourself from the pack, so all you can do is write for yourself. You don’t get any fulfillment out of writing for other people. And at the end of the day, if you fail, you’ve got to fail on your own terms.

John: Yeah. Keep at it and do whatever makes you laugh. If it makes you laugh, there’s a good chance there are others out there who share your sensibilities.

Follow John Chernin on Twitter at @JohnChernin. Follow Dave Chernin at @Dave_Chernin. Follow THE MICK at @TheMickFOX.

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