Ian Brennan, co-creator of Glee
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In 2005, Ian Brennan was a New York City-based actor who decided to write a darkly comedic screenplay about a high school glee club. While he had trouble selling the project as a film, it landed in the lap of TV super-producer Ryan Murphy, at the time most famous for Nip/Tuck. Murphy liked the idea of the project so much that he and fellow Nip/Tuck writer Brad Falchuk teamed up with Brennan to turn the idea of a story about high school performers into a TV show. Glee debuted in the spring of 2009 after American Idol and quickly became one of television’s most buzzed-about shows, soon gaining the ratings to match its press. Now, Fox has given the show the much-coveted spot after the Super Bowl, where it’s all but guaranteed to bring in its biggest audience yet. Brennan talked with The A.V. Club about the process of writing Glee, his Super Bowl programming memories, and why he writes so much stuff for Sue Sylvester.
The A.V. Club: Do you have any memories of watching certain programs after the Super Bowl?
Ian Brennan: Well, I grew up in Chicago, and the ’85 Bears winning was about the most insane thing that had happened to that time. I remember that specifically. I remember the whole month leading up to it. I remember you could go to McDonald’s, and they had these weird square pressings of the Super Bowl Shuffle, on like 78s or whatever. Strangely, I did watch that ’85 Bears Super Bowl a while back; my friend Travis had it on VHS, he had the entire ’85 Bears season on VHS, and it’s crazy to look at how different the Super Bowl was then. Oddly enough, the ’85 Bears halftime show was literally Up With People. It is astonishing. Anyway, so that’s my big memory, and then after that, the Super Bowl has always been sort of a depressing time for Bears fans. … But as far as stuff following it, nothing rings a bell.
We were really flattered and surprised when Fox approached us with this because we thought it was an interesting combination and hilarious and a good opportunity for us. It’ll be by far our biggest audience tuning in. It’s just sort of the cream of the television crop, I suppose, so it’ll be interesting. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you shifting the show at all to accommodate people who’ve never watched it?
IB: Not really. It just sort of happened that the first frames of the show are of the Cheerios doing an outrageously overblown number, which should be really, really funny. And then we sort of commented after the fact, “Oh, that’s actually a really good way to lead into this.” But other than that, no, we sort of break every story the same. We mull things over a lot and this one we thought a lot about. We thought, you know, was it going to be a themed episode or whatever, and finally, we were just like, “No, let’s just write an episode the way we would write it and just make it big and funny.” I think we succeeded. I have to qualify this by saying I haven’t seen a frame of the final cut. I know what we shot, and I know what we wrote. Hopefully, in a couple days, I’ll be able to see a full cut. But yeah, it was the same process that we always use.
AVC: This show was originally based on a screenplay you wrote, correct?
IB: Yeah, essentially, I had the idea for a film. I had written a screenplay; it’s so different though from how it was conceived of, sort of as an independent film, as to how it is now. It’s just two sides of the same coin, I suppose. But yeah, I was in glee club in high school and then had always thought it was interesting, sort of a strange niche, a strange aspect of high school, and no one had told that story, and it was astonishing to me.
I was an actor in New York—I’m not trained as a writer at all—and I sat down. It was five years ago, almost exactly five-and-a-half now. It was in the summer of 2005. I bought Final Draft on the computer. I’d read a lot of screenplays, but I’d never written one. I’d written some plays and stuff, but I sort of joke that it’s easier to get a pilot on television than it is to get a play produced in New York.
Anyway, I figured I would spend that August writing this story that I had, and about a month later, it sort of popped out as a screenplay, and a couple of years later, it just randomly ended up in Ryan’s lap, and it just struck a chord with him. I went in and met with Ryan and Brad and just instantly hit it off. We just all laughed and that’s sort of the process now. We just sit in a room and try to make each other laugh. And it’s not easy. It’s a big task. It’s just the three of us. We haven’t hired a staff. We probably will soon. But it’s a lot. Twenty-two episodes is a lot in any circumstances, but then for just three people to do, it’s like a suicide mission in a lot of ways. [Laughs.] We’ve been hesitant to change the formula because it has sort of worked, and we really enjoy each other’s company and have been reticent to mess with that.
Anyway, for me it’s been a dream come true. To say it’s the opportunity of a lifetime is an understatement. This has been the opportunity of 10 lifetimes. [Laughs.] It’s just such a strange circumstance that I find myself here. It’s totally wonderful.
AVC: What were some of the biggest shifts you had to make to take it from something that was going to be a film to something that was going to be a TV show?
IB: It was essentially starting from square one. It was essentially taking just the idea and sort of the tone and being like, “Well now this has to be in our television show.” Initially, from an outsider’s point of view, with television, you have censors breathing down your back and network executives with notes and notes and notes. I’ve been really surprised, and I think it’s a credit to the way Fox works and to Ryan’s force of character that we’re actually spared a lot of that. It helps that the network are big fans of the show, and the studio, and that they’re sort of on our side and that they rarely raise a stink about anything, and when they do that’s usually stuff that they should be raising a stink about. Or they usually have a point. So that’s actually been a really pleasant surprise. I remember reading a blurb from Seth MacFarlane, who was talking about the process of Standards And Practices, and he was like, “You know, those people are your friends. They’re not the censors. They’re actually trying to protect you from the censors.”
And we have a great team. It’s been exciting. Just the way we the three of us write together, it’s just a fast process. It’s almost like writing a comic strip, in a way. You just continue, just always talking it out. For me, as compared to how it is writing by myself—and in particular, not being trained as a writer, writing for me was always a very solitary, very lonely, depressing process. It was just wrenching. And this is such the opposite of that. It’s sort of a joyous fountain that stuff shoots out. It’s just enjoyable to sit in a room with the two of them, and the three of us just entertain each other.
AVC: So you guys break all the stories together. What’s the writing process then from there?
IB: We essentially write to different characters. There are some characters that generally Brad will write, and some that I will write. It’s generally fast and loose. It’s not always the same; it depends, episode to episode. In the room, tonally, there’s certain characters each one of us will take the lead on. Which is actually—I hear multiple voices on the show, and I think that’s one of the things that’s unique. It bounces between tone, it bounces between voices. Some people might find that frustrating; that’s actually one of the most fun parts of it. That’s my greatest joy is just sitting down and seeing what Ryan and Brad write. Just the stuff that they can whip out is just really, really funny. It’s amazing to see what each of us can come up with when given the same sort of input.
It’s not a typical writing process. It’s my first go at it, so I actually have trouble envisioning doing it any other way. It’s become very, very efficient, and I, personally, like the process, and I like more and more what we’re doing. It’s interesting on TV, because as the story changes, the show changes, and the show tells you what it wants to be, it feels like.
AVC: Jane Lynch mentioned in her Golden Globes acceptance speech that you have written everything for her character. Do you have relationships with any other characters like that? Or do the other writers have particular characters they always write for?
IB: There is overlap. None of us can truly claim authorship to any character. We all write together, but the Sue character I tend to write. For instance, Brad writes most of the Burt/Kurt stuff, father/son stuff, which I find just remarkable. And then the character of Kurt in a lot of ways is Ryan, so there’s a lot of different voices in there. I’ve been recently writing a lot of Santana and Brittany stuff, and sometimes Brad does as well. It all sort of shifts and moves. It’s a little reductive, but early on in the process Ryan sort of remarked, “Well, I’m sort of the brain. Brad’s sort of the heart. Ian’s sort of the funny bone.” That is true in a lot of ways.
AVC: You just mentioned the comedy stuff, but are there particular types of scenes you enjoy writing the most?
IB: For me, personally, it gets really fun when the characters are allowed to get mean. That’s unexpected for me, as I’m generally a very jolly person. That may actually be the reason why I enjoy it so much. But there’s something about when you just allow characters to go at each other that that’s when it gets really fun for me.
It’s interesting. I was able to write a really emotional scene yesterday, and I’m not a big crier, and, God, it’s lame to cry as you’re writing something, but that’s sort of the joy of the show, is that it does flip between the two. And I credit a lot of that to the fact that it’s a musical. Those shifts in tone work, if at all, because of the music underneath them. It sort of buoys it in a way. You can just get away with a tiny bit more, and that’s really a surprise, and I think that’s something we stumbled on and found. I would have never guessed that to be true, and we didn’t really have a model, either. We didn’t know. There wasn’t really a formula to follow for a show like this because it didn’t really exist before. Or hadn’t existed for a while, if at all.
AVC: It seems like you guys kind of take episode credit in order, usually going Brennan, Murphy, Falchuk. Does that mean you’ve turned in the first draft or done the last pass at it, or does it essentially mean nothing?
IB: It varies. A lot of the times it’s who’s taken the lead in story breaking or who wrote a draft, but it is fast and loose, with the emphasis on fast. For a while, we’d been doing it in order, and now, actually, we’re out of order with the hope that it’ll all be even in the end.
AVC: You mentioned earlier that you guys had thought about taking on a writing staff. Do you think that will ever happen?
IB: Yes. Definitely. I think fairly soon. It’s, again, more just a function of the work load, and taking people right now would actually slow us down, I think. So we’ll just need a little bit of a break to then have a breather and get a staff up. Probably not a ton of people, but just some more brains to bounce off of, because right now it’s just the three of us. I look forward to that. It’ll be interesting. And it’ll be interesting to see how, if at all, it would alter the show tonally or story-wise. That’s going to be interesting to see. And quite frankly, we’ve been reticent about it because we have a very intense feeling of ownership for it, and it’s hard to hand over your baby, or let someone babysit it.
AVC: When you guys get the songs, are you figuring out story developments and then figuring out which songs will fit to that?
IB: It’s almost always the story first. I actually can’t think of an exception to that, though I’m sure there has been one. Something where we’re like, “Oh that’s an amazing song. That’s a song that should totally be on our show.” But I can’t actually think of the last time that happened. Usually in the room, we’ll talk through stuff, and that’s usually where Ryan is at his most astonishing. He has a really great ear for what will work on the show, and I feel like he has a really high success rate. He tends to pick most of the songs, and we throw our two cents in. I’ve joked before that, it’s true, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of two things, one of which is what people wore to the Oscars [Laughs.] dating back to whenever, and Top 40 songs from like, the 1960s on. He just knows. It’s sort of weird. And he just has a good ear for what people will like. It’s an interesting mix. There won’t be a song on the show, but we were actually talking about Joan Armatrading just last night, just like shit I’d never heard of, and chanteuses from the ’70s. For me it just works. It fits the tone of the show really well. I have to give mostly props to him.
AVC: It seems like some of your fellow writers and yourself will often let a lot of future story developments out into the press. Is this a show where you think spoilers can help it?
IB: I don’t know. It’s usually Ryan and Brad. I sort of leave that up to them. I don’t know whether it helps the show or hurts it. I think it helps. It keeps people interested and talking about it, I suppose, and we do get asked a lot. That’s the thing. It is a credit to the show being popular but there does seem to be a lot of hunger out there to know what’s happening, but I suppose that’s not unique to our show at all. There’s just stuff on Twitter and press events or any awards, and you’re constantly asked, so you always want to dole out tidbits to people to keep them interested and let them know that yes, that’s on our mind, we’re totally covering that. The trickiest part for me is, you want to spill the beans all the time. Whenever you hear, “You should bring back Brittany and Santana!” or “What was that with Sue?” and you want to be like, “No, we’re on it. Trust us.” [Laughs.] We get what you’re saying. We do have a cast of about 15 characters now, and every couple of episodes, some are going to disappear for a little bit. It’s on our mind. We’re trying to get back to it. It’s a fantastic problem to have, frankly.
AVC: This show has evolved a lot since it debuted. What has been a story development that worked better than you ever possibly could have imagined, and what’s been one that was worse?
IB: I would say at the beginning, the Will pregnancy storyline sort of, I think, people tired of. But we were still finding the show in and of itself, and it was funny. And also, it hadn’t aired. We filmed those first 13 episodes before any aired. I think a good example of a storyline taking flight was the storyline about Kurt and the bully and then him going to a different school. That somehow breathed life into itself. It just seemed to take flight, and it sort of became thematically a center for this whole season. Which is why it was so wonderful to see Chris [Colfer], along with Jane, at the Golden Globes. It was very affirming for what we spent a lot of time thinking about.
It’s interesting, for me, because I’m new to it, the sort of call-and-response aspect of TV. There is a lot of throwing stuff out there and then you see what people think. Particularly with a show like that where it is so out-there and in the zeitgeist, I think that we do have a sort of a responsibility in that sense, to take the temperature of the stuff we do. Sometimes we’re more successful; sometimes we’re less successful. What’s so wonderful is that there seems to be a joy and a loyalty to the show. That’s the wrong word. There’s something about the show, sort of an abiding joy to the show that’s an undercurrent beneath it that supersedes the rest, I think. It’s an enjoyable ride.