Comedy Showrunners Week continues with Suburgatory’s Emily Kapnek

Comedy Showrunners Week continues with Suburgatory’s Emily Kapnek

Comedy is a more important part of the television landscape than ever before, thanks in part to a generation of highly visible creators, writers, and executive producers who balance the work of maintaining a show’s artistic vision while also overseeing its day-to-day operations. In anticipation of the new fall TV season, The A.V. Club spoke to a handful of the people who’ve made the industry term “showrunner” a household word. Today, we talk to Emily Kapnek, creator of ABC’s Suburgatory.

Emily Kapnek had a rich, varied career in television writing—including gigs on Parks And Recreation, Hung, and Aliens In America—before she created the ABC sitcom Suburgatory, but it’s that show that’s launched her into the upper ranks of TV’s comedic showrunners. The series, about a father and daughter from New York City who move to the suburbs, underwent a steep and rapid learning curve in its first season, going from an enjoyable, diverting satire, to one of the best comedies on TV over the course of just 22 episodes. What began as an occasionally too-broad satire of suburban codes and mores grew into a deeply felt, often emotional comedy about figuring out where your home is and what it means to be a family. The series also boasts one of the most talented ensembles on TV, headed up by the unlikely pairing of Jeremy Sisto as George, the father, and Jane Levy as Tessa, the daughter. Suburgatory now confronts the challenge of moving after Modern Family, where ABC hopes its promising first-season performance will get an additional boost. (The show's season premiere airs October 17th at 9:30 p.m. ET.) Kapnek sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about developing the characters in the series’ massive ensemble, the perils of reading everything people say about your show online, and the show’s changing visual focus in season two. 

Note: Some minor spoilers for season two follow, but all are clearly marked.

The A.V. Club: The challenge for any comedy in its first season is to fill in the characters. You had such a huge ensemble to work through, so how did you prioritize that? 

Emily Kapnek: It’s something we still struggle with in terms of [having] to decide which characters to focus on in which episodes, but we did have to inch everybody in every episode toward being a little more three-dimensional. I think it was probably most important for George and Tessa, that the biggest priority was realizing that where the show started was not where the show was going. 

From the beginning we knew that we didn’t want it to be about two New Yorkers looking down their noses at all of the suburbanites. So just gradually drawing everyone in and giving everyone their episodes. I remember often we would have table reads, and I would pull Alan Tudyk aside and be like, “Listen! We’ve got one coming for you! Trust me! We’ve got a story!” because Noah, I think, was probably the hardest one to budge, because he’s so comedic in the skin that he exists in, as that quintessential Chatswinite, but we knew we owed him. We owed him more. We owed him context with his marriage to Jill. It was just making sure that we got to everyone, to make the look we took, the glimpse into their world, just a little more telling. 

And of course, you have the people you love to write for and the things that really pop and that you can’t help but include in every episode. Like Lisa, which has wound up being such a huge character for us and her whole family and [Chris] Parnell coming on as a regular this season. He was just a guest initially that we kept going back to because the Shays were so great. We just wound up growing our already very large ensemble into something even bigger. I guess the biggest priority this season is telling stories that draw multiple characters into certain arcs and dynamics, so that we have an opportunity to service everyone without losing track. 

AVC: Is there something that’s really been a surprise to you about the development of the show that you turned into a benefit that you maybe weren’t expecting initially?

EK: I think that we knew going in where the comedy was supposed to come from, in that we had these great comedic characters, a lot of SNL vets, and just people who are known for their great comedy. I think that the funny that Jeremy [Sisto] and Jane [Levy] are capable of has turned into a little bit of a delight for us, in that we did initially conceive of it as, “These are the anchors. These are the straight men. These are the eyes in for the audience,” and when we write silly comedy stuff for George and for Tessa, it’s really delightful. It’s really fun to see. They’ve been so much more willing, even this season, going into it. I think Jane has always been willing, Jeremy a little less so, not that he didn’t want to do it, but just self-conscious about how far, and the mom-jeans thing took a big leap of faith. [Laughs.] He has become downright playful, and it is really fun to write for George and put George in situations where he gets a little caught up and drinks the Kool-Aid and, for a minute, loses himself. And Jane, too. That’s been a big priority this season is just to have more fun with Jane and not let her be the heavy or straight man to craziness, but to let her get caught up in it as they’re acclimating. 

We made a couple of changes even, from the production end. I was saying before that we hired a new DP, and I think we had a very bright, poppy look in season one and in my mind, I like to think that as they get adjusted and as they start to assimilate that their lens changes a little bit. I think you’ll see that there’s a little bit of change in palette this season, as they get used to the landscape. We’re trying to do more cinematic stuff and help mature the look of the show, too.

[Minor spoilers for the first episodes of season two are in the following answer.]

AVC: This is a show that has that very brightly colored, DayGlo look and some very broad satire. How do you know when something is pushing it in terms of being too broad, and have there been times where you thought it went too far?

EK: Yeah, I think it’s a very fine line that we’re walking all the time. How much is too much? There are certain characters that you can take more from and others where it’s harder to digest when it comes from a character who you expect to be more grounded. Cheryl [Hines], I think we’ve just pushed her to the limits, just the actress, of what we’ve asked her to do for Dallas. She’s always very concerned about it being too much, and in the episode I was telling you about now where she’s seducing George for the first time, her bedroom is essentially sexually booby-trapped to seduce him, and Cheryl, she thinks it’s super funny, and she’s always looking at me with one eye like, “You’re gonna protect, right? We’re not going to go…” and I think they’ve come to trust that in the end, in editing, we’ll always pull back if there’s something that feels like it goes too far. But there is a zaniness to Chatswin and there is a broadness and certainly the satirical stuff. We love those elements and that heightened sense of suburbia and don’t want to lose that, so it’s always just trying to walk the line. It’s an individual comfort thing. [Laughs.]

AVC: In the first season you really built the emotional throughlines in the background, with Tessa and her mother and the question of which of the Shay children was adopted. How do you go about layering in those moments of pathos or drama without letting them take over the tone? 

EK: It’s funny because it’s certainly not a formula in terms of what percentage we can have real life or real issues creep in, but we try to have at least the residue of it in every episode, where I think it helps. When you have a show that’s like ours where there is all that satire, and there can be broad humor, then grounding it, getting to hear Dallas well-up in the mattress store and talk about her relationship with Steven or the stuff with Tessa, I feel like it should always be just beneath the surface and the network has been so supportive. You’ll see even in the first episode back, there’s lot of heart. There’s lots of real-life issues coming up and some of the weightier stuff and they’ve [the network] been really supportive about it in terms that I never really anticipated. I thought it would be a battle for us as a half-hour comedy to get to tell those stories. They’ve been really supportive, and I think that they agree that it really adds something to the world and makes you care about the characters more. You have a better understanding of who they are, rather than telling tons of one-off stories. You get to grow their relationships and viewers get to know them and know what the issues are even before the characters have fully dealt with them. 

I read everything about the show that people write. I can’t help it. I’m addicted to the endless sea of information that’s out there. It’s funny because a lot of the issues that came up with George or criticisms of George as a parent, I remember talking last season about it and just saying, “We have to have flawed characters. We can’t cure him of every gripe that people have with his character. We’re using those flaws. We’re using those flaws as storylines.” I think this season George comes to terms with the fact that his daughter is going to be 17. She’s practically an adult, and he has to let go a little bit. Seeing him address that and begin to reshape the way he deals with her feels very real and human to me, and I really appreciate it in him as a character. Evolution, as opposed to just starting off with the character that you admire and want him to be. That to me is not as rewarding as watching a character slowly grow into the person they should be. It’s much more human and real life-like, so we always aim to hang on to our flaws, rather than shed them immediately.

AVC: Were those elements of backstory always present in the conception of the show or did they come up as the first season went along?

EK: They came up. I think I always thought that in order for our show to have longevity, we would need them. When you go in and pitch a show, there’s only so much you can tell. I think premise, especially in comedy, falls away relatively quickly. It has to become a show about the characters. It has to become a show about the relationships. Whatever the original concept of the show is—in a comedy, I think ultimately—is not going to be enough to sustain people forever and ever. You have to grow the relationships. So knowing that we have a show that could move into a show about co-parenting or move into a show about how do you deal with an estranged ex coming up, or how do you deal with a new girlfriend when you have a kid that’s never lived with you. The goal was to set the stage and have a very deep bench of things to draw from, and as we get the network and the studio comfortable with our show and where it is, to start adding in all these juicy elements that make it richer.

In the beginning of our show, in the beginning of season one, I think the marching orders where very different from the studio and the network in terms of what they expected and wanted out of Suburgatory. That’s why you have episodes like “The Barbecue” you know what I mean? The PTA [“The Chatterer”]. Just really, like, George landing on another planet and dealing with the typical suburbanite. Like, “I’m a New Yorker. I’m a fish out of water.” Those kind of storylines. Well, we’re talking about living in the suburbs of the city. They didn’t move from another country. It’s not that remarkable. So I think that ultimately you want to be able to shed that and tell stories about relationships and we got to that relatively quickly.

AVC: When do you think you moved beyond the premise?

EK: I think we were growing it as early as… I know people point to “Thanksgiving.” It was the first time George went back to New York, and we stumble on some of the bigger stuff and Tessa feeling like he’s a hypocrite. Prior to that, I think it was all, sweet 16, and what the town thinks a crime is, and the ritual of the barbecue, and all that. I think things started to change around that time of that first holiday episode. We got into the dynamic of the real father/daughter relationship that exists beyond “We moved somewhere that I didn’t want to live,” but really, “Why is it that I have to do what you say but you don’t have to do what you say?” and Tessa holding George up to some of the stuff that he’s been spouting and holding up the mirror a little bit for him, so yeah, around there.

AVC: You say that you see what people are saying online about the show. What were some things that you were taken aback by, and has it ever been more of a hindrance?

EK: I think it’s definitely a hindrance. 

It’s funny, all of the roundtable stuff I’ve done, all of the panels, all the showrunners say that they don’t read the Internet. They don’t look anymore; they can’t. And I wonder if that’s true. Maybe it is true. Maybe they know better. But for me it was new, and the idea that you can have this direct line of information and response and even message boards and all of it, it’s so fascinating to me. I do think that there’s a danger in, if you’re the kind of person that digests that stuff, if you’re the kind of person that is inclined to second-guess your decisions creatively, then I think there’s a real danger to it. It’s like a lot of the times when writers are working on specs or trying to break in, they get lots of people to give notes, and I never did that. I never was, “Oh, anyone who will read it, give me notes!” Because if you do that, if you start to dilute what your own vision is, then there’s an endless sea of opinions about anything that you’re doing creatively. You have to maintain some kind of vision. You have to maintain your own instincts. And I do think that reading a bunch of criticism about whatever your choices are creatively can get in your head and start to corrode your own confidence about stuff. I really try to compartmentalize it and look at it in a different way and not let it… We certainly don’t let it impact story-breaking. But it is informative. And it is interesting to me. 

The George and Tessa stuff [numerous online discussions centered on the exact nature of George and Tessa’s relationship, with some suggesting untoward possibilities —ed.] came up early on, and when I got on the phone with Joe Adalian, he brought it up to me. And it’s very interesting to me, because it’s not terrifying to me when people have feelings about the show, whatever they are. Like I was saying before, there was a lot of early criticism about George, it doesn’t terrify me. I find it interesting. In particular, the George and Tessa dynamic was a relationship that I always wanted their dynamic to feel different, and I wanted them to have a closeness and a playfulness. 

I have an older son who’s 12-and-a-half, and I had him when I was in my mid 20’s. I mean, that’s not that young, but I think when you’re young and you have a kid, you grow up alongside your kid and it’s a different relationship. It feels different. It moves different; you’re doing it by yourself. You’re not the same parent you are when you’re older, and you’re in a relationship and you have someone to bounce everything off of. The goal was that they feel almost more like siblings at times. You know, he bickers with her about stuff. “Because I said so,” whatever it is, there’s a maturity lacking because of him growing into his skin as a parent. I think that’s really interesting, and I’ve had other friends who had kids young, and it feels very real to me. So there’s that.

But the other stuff that comes up, I’m aware of. There’s certain people who love the Shays or love the side characters and don’t find the main characters as compelling as this person or that person. I hope our actors don’t do what I do. But I think it’s really interesting, what people respond to. And in the end I just hope we have enough of all of them to be appealing to a variety of people. People come to the show for different reasons, and there are certainly lots of entry points. 

One of the things, I’ve met with a couple of publicists recently because of Suburgatory being in a hammock spot [a spot on the half-hour, between two other comedies —ed.] and now going into another hammock spot, to just find a way to get the show out there a little more and promote the show a little bit more and hope we’re going to do well in our new spot. And one of the people I met with was saying that he thought it was really interesting that, if you didn’t know a whole lot about our show, there’s not a ton of information. You don’t see tons of ads for it, press and outdoor stuff. He said when he went looking prior to sitting down with me, he went online and looked at some of the stuff online, and he said, “If you didn’t know the show, you would think it’s a show for teenage girls.” You see Tessa, and she’s sort of the face of it and they do this journal thing for her online. You would really have the false impression that this was a show just about being a teenage girl. You don’t get a sense of how much of an ensemble show it is and the tone and the slightly skewed comedy we do and none of that necessarily comes through in the messaging stuff we’re doing for the show. So that’s sort of a goal for me is to try and get a little bit more attention to the kind of show we are, because I think that we’re missing a piece of our audience who would really enjoy our show, who maybe isn’t sampling it. Maybe at 9:30, we will. Maybe we’ll get a little spill over from Modern Family, and we’ll get to grow it. I think that’s been one of the slightly frustrating things. Just maybe not enough messaging and support in terms of representing the show as it is and getting all those viewers.

[The following exchange contains minor spoilers for season two.]

AVC: The show has a large ensemble so you can play with lots of different character pairings. What’s one that’s surprised you with its richness?

EK: We had a moment in season one, a very brief moment between Noah and Sheila and you don’t see them together very much, where there was just some sort of strange sexual tension [Laughs.] when they got into an argument outside George’s house. Loved that. We’re always trying to find the couple that we haven’t seen together yet. There are ones that naturally gravitate and make sense to each other. We haven’t seen George and Dahlia really spend time together yet. It was fun to see George and Ryan, in that episode where he tried to take Ryan under his wing. It really made me laugh. The pairings, as you said, are one of those gifts that keep on giving because the more unlikely the duo is, the more gratifying it is to tell stories where they’re lumped together. So Dahlia and George is one we haven’t seen. That’s definitely on the agenda for season two and I think George and Dallas even, for that matter. That’s one of the reasons we were so keen to jump in and do this relationship. I think that doing romantic stories between two people who really have no business dating together should hopefully lead to a lot of very funny storytelling.

AVC: When you ended season one, you did it in a way that left a lot of stories hanging, but also where you could do some kind of time jump. How did you approach that when you started breaking stories for season two?

EK: I wanted to pick up where we left off. I didn’t want to time jump. But we had to do two adjustments because then our première date got pushed back to October, and I do think there is a concern about coming back in the fall and doing a story that left off on Mother’s Day. Then you have a whole summer ahead of you, and so everyone agreed that it was just cleaner to just jump ahead, and it’s essentially fall, and Tessa’s had her summer, and we deal with a kind of flashback version of what happened after Tessa met her grandmother for the first time, what were the allowances that were made, how did she get to spend her summer. So essentially, in our first episode she’s returning home to Chatswin on a train from New York, and George decided to let her spend some time in the city with her grandmother. Over that period of time, she kind of unearthed, stumbled on, an interest that she didn’t necessarily think existed before in her mom. That’s kind of how we’ve dealt with it, is just jumping ahead. We have a few little pops of what happened in the summer.

The other thing that our first episode back got thrust upon it that was a burden in some ways was the idea that there should be some re-piloting involved, in that we’re moving to a new time slot, and there could be people watching the show that aren’t familiar with the show, and can we reset? So we worked really hard to try to do that in a way that didn’t feel like it robbed the integrity of the stories. Yeah. You let me know what you think. [Laughs.]

[Spoilers for season two’s Christmas episode are in the following answer.]

AVC: Do you have thoughts about what you’re going to do when these characters graduate from high school in a couple of seasons?

EK: It’s funny. We have a lot of cast members that would love to do this show in New York. I’m a big fan of characters accelerating and not keeping people in place, frozen in time. They’ll definitely graduate and senior year, I guess we’ll deal with where Tessa wants to go to school then. But I definitely imagine a version of the show where it moves, or she moves, and putting New York in the equation. What would Dallas be like if George and her were together? I think there’s a lot of legs there. I love the idea of the show evolving as they grow up. 

One of the things that happens in our Christmas episode is Tessa’s mom comes and [Tessa] has this experience in New York and she winds up feeling like Chatswin might be a little more home than she realized. It’s a nice episode because I think it galvanizes her relationships in Chatswin and really gets the feeling, the “be careful what you wish for” thing. I think it will be interesting to see if Tessa has the opportunity to go away to school and what she chooses and what becomes important. We’re working right now to really grow and firmly embed her roots in Chatswin just to make the move as difficult as it was when she first had to move there.  

AVC: What’s been the biggest surprise to you about this job, about being in charge and having to make all of these calls? 

EK: I just think the juggling of time. I’m sure everyone says that. It’s funny, when I was shooting the pilot and Mike Fresco directed the pilot, he was saying to me, “You gotta be on stage,” and then you get into editing, and all these post-producers are like, “You gotta be in editing. It’s gotta be you in editing,” and you get into the room, and it’s like, “You gotta be in the room. We need your voice in the room.” Every single one of these elements is a full-time job, and it really is hard to delegate. If you’re not willing to run yourself ragged and be in all of these different areas then you do lose a little bit of your control. I think in the beginning, for a new show, it’s really important that you are able to help it gel and help that vision stay solid and intact, so that the show knows what it is, and it doesn’t become up for grabs and morph into something that feels familiar or anything other than what it was intended to be. Stamina, I guess. And just working crazy hours and a number of different avenues. 

It’s really super-fun. I’m not complaining. I love my job. I love editing, and that was a big surprise to me, how much creativity is involved in editing a show and knowing that you only have this much time, and you shot all this stuff, and you can’t use everything, and how do you bridge the gaps with voice-over, and how much can you peel away and still have it stick together, what stays and what goes. Those are really interesting decisions to make and cherry-picking those moments creatively. That’s a really fun part of it that was new to me, but I really enjoy.