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Robert Carlock ’95: Catching a “break” in the writers’ room

Robert Carlock '95 (right) with Tina Fey.

Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) runs the writers’ room for a sketch comedy program in the sitcom 30 Rock, but Robert Carlock ’95 runs the show behind the camera. As an executive producer of the Emmy-winning NBC comedy (as well as an Emmy winner himself), and writer for The Dana Carvey Show, Saturday Night Live, and Friends, Carlock will lead 12 students in a workshop of a simulated writers’ room during the OFA Wintersession JAMS. Carlock and I exchanged emails about choosing a profession based on facial hair, how Harvard helped shape his future and his plans for the workshop.

What drew you to screenwriting? How does it compare to other types of writing?
What drew me to screenwriting was the fact the you don’t have to shave every day. I have a kind of whorl-shaped hair pattern on my neck around my Adam’s apple that makes it impossible to shave in the right direction since there is no right direction. That makes for a lot of skin irritation and cuts to my neck. So I needed a job where I got to choose how often I would shave, instead of taking orders from some big corporate Shaving Committee. I think writing for dramatic (or comic) performance is most markedly different from other kinds of writing in that what is on the page is intended to be expressed in three dimensions. By people and light and objects. That means that there are both possibilities and limitations that other writers are not presented with.

What was the process of becoming a screenwriter?
I fell into this trade by coming into contact with some extremely funny and talented people while I was at Harvard and, in combination with my aforementioned depilatory requirements, I decided that I wanted to be around those kinds of people for as long as I could. I have been lucky enough to do just that for almost 20 years, and I have continued to learn from every person I work with and from every writing effort I make. Also, I watch a lot of old movies and then just steal their ideas because people have forgotten about them.

What advice do you have for aspiring comedy or screenwriters?
Write stuff and work up the courage to have other people see it in some form. On the page or, even better, as an on-line short or a staged sketch show or whatever. You have to put yourself out there one way or another. Also, don’t be a jerk.

What is the structure of your JAMS program? ?
The idea of the “writers’ room” is something that I think has permeated the culture a bit. People know that TV shows are written through what is largely a collaborative process. But very few people have experienced this specific kind of structured creative collaboration before they show up to work on a series for the first time. So I’m planning, in my smaller session, to run a writers’ room with about a dozen students and try to actually pitch out or “break” an episode of television with them. I expect it to be a failure filled with long periods of uncomfortable silence and intense self-loathing, which, since many of my work days are exactly that, will hopefully be illustrative anyway.

Greg Daniels ’85 and Carlock will hold an open discussion about their careers 10-11:30 a.m., Thursday, January 23 in the Thompson Room at the Barker Center for the Humanities on 12 Quincy Street. Register here.

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