by Diana Peterson
I met Kirill when I was working as an assistant to a TV Packaging Agent at CAA. He was working in the mailroom. Kirill told me he graduated from UCLA. I felt an instant sense of alumni camaraderie. Later, he would tell me that he hadn’t attended UCLA. He’d been telling people that he went to different prestigious schools...USC, NYU...to prove a point: “If it’s a good story, it doesn’t matter. If it’s a good story, it doesn’t matter where you graduated.”
Kirill Baru and his writing partner Eric Zimmerman recently completed their first Staff Writing job on Comedy Central’s “Secret Girlfriend.”
DIANA PETERSON: How did you first get started in Hollywood?
KIRILL BARU: I was born in the Ukraine, but grew up in Chicago. When I was eighteen I moved out to LA to study screenwriting at Chapman University. It was a good school, but I wasn’t challenged at the time. I really wanted to be in the thick of things. I dropped out of Chapman after freshman year and started taking classes at Santa Monica College. I applied to USC, but didn’t get in. So I started moonlighting, going to SMC for classes during the day, and going to USC at night to take film classes, pretending to be a screenwriting student.
DP: Was this USC extension, or were you literally pretending to be a USC Screenwriting student?
KB: I was literally going to classes pretending to be a student. The teachers were asking for my ID number and I was making one up. They would say the ID number didn’t go through and I was like I’ll look into it. I met a lot of the friends that I have now from the screenwriting program. There were twelve people in the program and I was lucky number 13. So I did that for a year, going to USC and SMC...not paying for tuition but getting the education, and after that I decided to go to U of I and graduate for real before going back out to LA.
DP: How did your parents feel about all that?
KB: They’ve been very supportive of everything that I’ve done from day one and I don’t know what else I could ask for. So they let me go back to U of I and I was there for a year and a half. One of my best friends from high school was Eric Zimmerman and we decided that we were going to graduate U of I, come back to CA, me for the second time and him for the first, and try writing something together.
DP: From what I see now, it has worked out. How did your break happen?
KB: We were in love with the show “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.” The show covers every taboo and we thought, man, they really haven’t touched on AIDS. So we wrote the AIDS script and sent out query letters to managers and agents, getting back no response. Then one day, our third roommate at the time, Jake, got an email that the “It’s Always Sunny...” guys were doing a panel at USC. At this time I was working in the CAA mailroom. That day I was supposed to give our spec to my coworker Spencer. Only Spencer was sick that day, so I went to the USC panel with our script in my bag. At the panel, someone asked them if they were looking for new writers for season five and they said, “Yeah we are. We’re sick of writing everything ourselves. We’re overwhelmed by how much content we have to write.” So Eric and I turn to each other and we think, okay this is it. So we did what we’ve been told from day one at Chapman, USC...everywhere: “Do not just go up to a celebrity and give him a script.”
We put it in a manila envelope and walked up to Rob McElhenney. I said, “Hi Rob, we have a gift for you.” The teacher yelled at us. [We were going to get reprimanded, he thought we were USC students.] We thought Rob was going to throw it out, but either way the most that we’ve lost is thirty pages. The day that the writers’ strike ended I got a call from Rob. He said “We looked at your script and we loved it.” I had kind of a heart attack at this point. This is our favorite show on TV and we’re going in to interview.
So we went in for the “Sunny” interview, walked out and immediately got the call that they wanted another spec from us. Eric and I didn’t have another spec, but we said had an “Office” spec. “We have to go back to work right now, but can we email you something in six hours?” So we called in sick to work, and we did the best six hour office spec that you can think of. It’s not very good, but we sent it in to 3 Arts. And we got the call a week later. Rob said, Look guys, how old are you? And we say, we’re twenty-two. Look guys, you are young, you don’t have any experience and you’re funny, but we can’t hire you to be writers on the show. We already have a writers’ assistant, but if you want to just come in and be executive assistants to us, it’s a one man job but both of you can have it. We’ll pay you guys double what we’re willing to pay to have you guys around, learning how to run a show, and in the meantime all you’re going to do is get lunch for us. Other than that you’re going to write eight hours a day. So Eric and I were thought, “Hell yeah.” We got our own office and we started writing our own stuff and working on “Sunny.” We were on that for about a year and we were coming up with pilots. At the time, they were looking to get us to stay another year as their assistants, but we were hoping to get a show. At this point we had gotten an agent because someone at FX had given it to someone at Paradigm. At our one year mark, we got a call from Comedy Central, and so Eric and I weighed our options. Stay another year working on our favorite show with our favorite people, or go to this comedy central show where we would be staff writers. So we decided for the second time, to just dive into it, go for it and we went onto this comedy central show – “Secret Girlfriend,” which premieres in October.
DP: Did you get a script in at “Secret Girlfriend”?
KB: Yes. We even got a cameo in an episode. It was a great first job.
DP: I’m really impressed with your ability to put yourself out there. It’s something that I’ve struggled with a lot with in the past. How did you gain that skill?
KB: First time I ever put myself out there, I was interning at Adam Herz’s Universal shingle, Terra Firma Films. While I was there they started an emerging writers program. The way that you got into the program was you submit the first fifteen pages of the script and they decide if they like it or not. They even put up an ad in Variety that they were looking for script submissions. I was nervous about submitting, so I submitted under a fake name. A couple of weeks later, I asked the main assistant, “Have you made any decisions about the emerging writers program?” She said, “You know, everything we got sucks, except we got this one script by Michael Bloom.” Michael Bloom was my fake name. So Adam throws the script on my desk and says read this, tell me what you think. He put my own script on my desk and I’m sitting there sweating bullets. I went up to Adam’s office and admitted that I was the one who had submitted under the fake name. And he said, “That’s what you’ve got to do. Congratulations you’re in the writers program.” That was my first attempt. Doing stuff that could get you fired is really the stuff that helps you succeed. And if you get fired, they weren’t going to promote you to writer anyway.
It’s a matter of being assertive and knowing that you’re either valuable or expendable. There really is no grey area. It’s about gauging which you are, and if you’re expendable, it’s time to move on. And if you’re valuable, make the most of your situation.
DP: You have a background in improv and stand up comedy. How does this help you when working in a comedy writers’ room?
KB: One of the rules in improv is no matter what idea someone brings to the table, you must say yes and keep adding on top of that idea. I think there’s a lot of that there in television writing. In terms of standup, I feel I haven’t really conquered it yet. The difficulty in stand up is this – standup is really about finding your own voice. For me it’s been much easier to find my voice in other characters, than my own voice in myself. I think that has to do with conviction. If you’re a standup comic you have to be very confident in your persona, and what your view of the world is. I don’t know if it’s my age or my maturity, but I’m still questioning way too many things to have any concrete opinion on life.
DP: What’s it like working with a writing partner?
KB: I’ve known Eric since I was fourteen years old. We have a level of trust that is unparalleled. Anything can be said. No hard feelings. In terms of process, we sit down and start with: what kind of stories do we want to tell, where are we at in our lives? Eric and I are 24-year-olds. The big thing in our lives is that we chose a creative path in our lives. A lot of our friends that we grew up with did not. Who made the right choice? Trying to figure out world ideas. Do we believe in love? Do we believe in relationships? We have a big whiteboard. We write everything down and do an outline. When it comes to writing we write together. Most writing partners split everything up. I own a projector so I project onto the wall in my bedroom and one of us sits at the keyboard while the other paces. Every single word is discussed.
DP: What advice do you have for aspiring writers thinking about moving to Los Angeles?
KB: It’s hard, but the prospect of succeeding is exciting. If that overwhelms your fear then you should be here. There’s always fear. There’s fear now. We’re not professors. We don’t have tenure. My best advice is to just come out here. Taking classes is always a good idea. Go to UCLA extension, UCB, Groundlings. Surround yourself with people who you think you can learn from, like-minded people, not people that are going to drag you down.
DP: What final words do you have for your career so far?
KB: I should have listened to my mom and just become a doctor.