From Assistant to Sitcom Creator: Writing for Tweens, An Interview with Ron Rappaport By Jeane Wong

Ron Rappaport is the Co-Creator of I’M IN THE BAND, which debuted on Disney XD in January 2010 with its second season set to debut in January 2011. Ron Rappaport discusses how he made the transition from being an assistant (when I had met him) to having a show on the air that is both musically charged as in the vein of GLEE or HANNAH MONTANA and is geared towards the tween demographic. Here is a closer look at what this Economics and Psychology major from UC Berkeley, and now full time writer/producer, has to say:

JW: At what point did you want to write? Were you ever close to almost doing something else?

RR: I graduated [Berkeley] wanting to be a writer but I didn’t have the guts to starve for it back then. So I became an Analyst in Silicon Valley for a few years and then helped start up a company called Epinions for a few years until I realized life was too short. So I moved back down to LA where I grew up [in Studio City].

Within a year, I got a job working as an assistant to a partner at Broder Webb Chervin Silberman, a lit agency, which later merged with ICM. I worked for Ted Chervin there for a year. I’m eternally grateful for that opportunity. It allowed me to understand how the industry works from the inside while interacting with veteran writers on different shows. I got to read their scripts as they were coming in, which helped me in my own writing. I got to learn about the development process while listening in on conversations between executives and agents. And I got to understand a side of the business many writers rarely get to see. It was the hardest job I’ve had, but arguably my most important one.

Off of that desk, I landed a job working for a writer/producer – Bob Kushell – who had an overall deal. Working for Bob was great as I got to experience the sitcom writing environment on shows he was working on. I also got to learn from his experiences while he was developing.

While working for Kushell, I got offered my first writing job as a creative consultant at MTV. I worked there for 2-3 years on shows including DATE MY MOM and NEXT. Kushell was really cool about letting me work at MTV as a writer a few days a week and developing projects on my own while still working for him. Working for MTV got me writing pages and pages of jokes, which was invaluable experience that I later put to use in pitching jokes in the writers room and on stage when a joke didn’t land in front of an audience. The pressure of coming up with 20 jokes in two minutes in front of my producer/director at MTV really prepared me for what I do on a daily basis now. My work at MTV ended with the writer’s strike.

Coming out of the writer’s strike, which was a tough few months, I realized that budgets were shrinking and staff writer jobs were getting harder to come by. So I decided I was going to skip that brutal step and sell my own show. As soon as the writer’s strike was over, I took out seven different pitches spanning animation, half-hour, reality, etc. Disney had read one of my specs, responded to my writing and brought me in to pitch.

JW: What was that writing sample that you had that got this attention?

RR: It was actually one of the first things I had written. I wanted to write something that would stand out in a pile of scripts and get passed around by executives. So I wrote a very traditional multi-camera sitcom about a family… of terrorists.

JW: Wait, did I hear that correctly? Terrorists?

RR: Yes, you heard correctly. [laughs] It’s called GROWING UP JIHAD. It was very polarizing. Half the executives who read it were offended and never wanted to meet with me and the other half wanted to meet with me immediately.

Ironically enough, the place that responded the most was Disney. They told me that a lot of the family-oriented scripts they received were very saccharine and sweet, whereas GROWING UP JIHAD was an edgy family comedy. I didn’t put anything in there that was religiously offensive or graphically offensive -- no beheadings or anything! If you think about what EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND was, this was in the same genre, except that instead of a sports writer in the suburbs, it was about a single father with three kids who wanted to be martyrs living in a cave 500 feet underground somewhere in Asia. He had all the problems of being a single father while trying to run a global terrorist network.

JW: Going back, even though you didn’t major in writing, did you pursue the industry in school?

RR: Sort of. When I was in college, I thought I wanted to get into the industry on the music side. I interned for post-production music editors on the film HOCUS POCUS. It was a wonderful experience but watching the process of scoring a film ruined its magic for me. I knew if I pursued that career, I’d never be able to watch a film without analyzing its score. So I realized that I didn’t want to be in post-production, as I love a good film score and didn’t want to poison that experience for myself.

I realized I wanted to be a writer in my11th grade English class. Nothing matched the high I got from writing something great, and I still get that high when I finish a script I’m proud of today. Slowly, over my early career out of college, I was engaged in aspects of writing at my jobs but they weren’t actual writing jobs. Eventually, I was just hungry enough to write full time. And I was ready to starve for it, which is an important moment for every writer – realizing it all may not work out and you literally may not be able to put food on your plate while you pursue it.

JW: Speaking of your interest in music early on and writing, how did the idea of I’M IN THE BAND come about?

RR: I have a huge passion for music, I play piano by ear and grew up in concert bands and marching bands. Disney was looking for edgy, boy friendly comedy and I came in to pitch for a new channel called Disney XD. I knew they wanted an aspirational boy friendly show. I had been watching my nieces and nephews and friends’ kids playing GUITAR HERO and ROCK BAND and saw the look in their eyes when they were playing and I realized “what could be more boy friendly aspirational than being the lead guitarist in your favorite rock band?” I threw together two paragraphs in an email and sent it to Michael McGahey, Disney XD’s Executive Director of Development. He brought me in to pitch it during the summer of 2008 and they bought the pitch.

JW: I read in a Variety article that THIS IS SPINAL TAP and ALMOST FAMOUS were inspirations, elaborate on that.

RR: THIS IS SPINAL TAP is a definite comedic inspiration for the ridiculous comedic tone of our band members. It was a brilliant film and we really try to capture the same irreverent tone of our show that is in SPINAL TAP of “rocker idiots who don’t think they’re idiots.” The characters I love the most on TV are the ones who are hilarious without realizing they are hilarious, the guys who think people are laughing with them while we’re laughing at them, like Michael Scott and Homer Simpson. We try to deliver “smart dumb” comedy on our show, and have learned boys love that kind of humor.

JW: I saw the show was co-created even though it seems you came in as the sole creator. How is Michael B. Kaplan involved?

RR: Michael is our showrunner. We aren’t a writing team, but we were paired up early on. I had never run a show before and Disney had a feeling even from the pitch stage that this could be a show they could potentially order to series and as this was the first show I created, they wanted a veteran eye at the top. I was totally open to that as I wanted somebody I could learn from during my first time out as a show creator.

But one of the conditions I had when I was looking for a showrunner was that I would be involved in all high level decisions and could help run the show. There are a lot of people out there who wouldn’t have been cool with that, but Michael was. He’s definitely in charge but we run the show together along with another Executive Producer, Richard Gurman, who spent many years on MARRIED WITH CHILDREN. We have a nice triumvirate of power that balances out in hiring and editing and production and all decisions in between. And when we disagree we’re very fond of saying, “That’s why there’s three of us.” It’s a fun group. They are great guys and they are wonderful mentors for me.

I’ve learned a ton working with [Michael]. I’m okay if he thinks we should go in one direction and I think we should go in another. It gives me a chance to evaluate my opinion in the context of somebody who has had far more experience than I have and learn and grow in that process. Ultimately, we talk it out and always do what’s best for the show, egos aside.

My agent at ICM paired Michael and I up. He was the first and only showrunner meeting I took. He’s a smart, strategic and efficient producer, a very funny writer and a great guy. I’m lucky to have him on the show.

JW: Speaking of your agent, was he the same agent you had worked for as an assistant?

RR: No. Interestingly enough, my agent Mark Gordon and I were assistants together at Broder. I got signed at the agency around the same time he became a coordinator and he took me on as he became a coordinator on his way to becoming an agent. Now he’s made a real name for himself over there.

We laugh all the time, because in our heads, we’re still just two assistants having fun on other people’s dimes.

JW: After seeing the show, I noticed, as opposed to other shows in the Disney brand, your show seems to come up with these crazy, fanciful names like Iron Weasel, Sushi, Hip Hop or Jazz? I have to know, why the name “Iron Weasel?” Or the other names?

RR: Iron Weasel was not the original name of the band. The band name went through 3-4 iterations from the time I pitched it to the time it got on the air. Part of that process was coming up with an original name whose domain wasn’t taken and was kid friendly. We ended up with Iron Weasel after a conference call between ourselves and Disney, who had a few tweens in the room to bounce ideas off of. They liked it, we liked it and it has a hard rock sound to it with a little bit of a wink and a smile with the word “weasel” in it. As for Sushi, Hip Hop, etc., those were episode specific names we came up with in the moment, every writer will find those.

JW: Peter Murrieta on another Disney show, WIZARDS OF WAVERLY PLACE said running a show is like running a 7 Eleven. What are your thoughts on that?

RR: Every show is different, but I think the 7 Eleven reference speaks to how many things you have to deal with at once each day. I can tell you what running our show is like. It feels like a marathon. If you’re ahead when you’re in a race, you can coast a bit later; if you coast early you have to use all your energy in the end, which sucks when you’re burned out en route to shooting 22 episodes. That may work for some people but I’ve learned that the farther ahead you get earlier in the process, the easier and happier your life gets later. I think we started production this year with eight scripts done and nearly a dozen stories broken. We try to get far ahead in pre-production because inevitably something will slow you down in production. We’re a very production-heavy show, with big gags, lots of physical comedy and concert performances with pyro, lights, etc. We keep our stunt coordinator very busy. It’s tons of fun, but it requires planning and getting ahead early, which we’ve been able to do. Everyone on the show, from our writers to our actors to our production staff, is very happy. And that’s rare.

JW: In terms of your writing staff, how many people are on staff? What did you look for in hiring writers?

RR: We have seven writers. We really looked for “silver bullets” at every level and found them. At the end of the day, you’re really looking for writers who write scripts you love and who you can spend 15 hours in the writers room with.

JW: How many of those on your show have you worked with before?

RR: None.

JW: Oh wow, that’s interesting.

RR: We have a unique sensibility on our show and had a high bar in staffing. We asked for references from friends for writers who could write hard, multicam friendly jokes, versus more single cam, subtle irony and adult innuendo. We really wanted hard joke writers who were joke machines, as kids don’t understand irony, or so we we’re told.

JW: Back to the writing staff, in terms of actual writing samples when you were staffing, were they kid friendly or not? Or outrageous like your Jihad sample [laughs]?

RR: I always say, prior to I’M IN THE BAND, I had never written a kids’ show and I don’t plan to start writing one now. We don’t want kids’ show writers or kids show oriented specs. We want to read the funniest scripts out there because we basically take every joke pitched as if we were writing for a network sitcom and we adjust it to fit the show we’re on. We never want to write DOWN for kids. Kids are very smart and savvy and I personally do think kids get irony. They like being challenged.

JW: True.

RR: And you don’t want to dumb down jokes that are so simple that kids get bored. They are going to be on their ipads, laptops and iphones, playing games and watching your show anyways. Give them something fun that they can be challenged by. Also, we wanted a show that parents could watch and wonder “why isn’t this show on Friday nights at ABC?”

JW: What do you think of other musically minded shows like GLEE or HANNAH MONTANA?

RR: I love music centered shows. They are not hard to do; they are hard to do well. We put a lot of effort into music on the show. Michael and I co-write many of the songs and I help produce all the songs on the show with our fantastic writer/music partners – Stacy and Dave Wilde at Wilde West -- who have done an amazing job with the songs on the show.

When music shows are done right, they are some of the best entertainment on TV. There’s a reason that GLEE is hitting, they are tapping into something in the zeitgeist and using music to deliver comedy while having fun with universally relatable emotions and experiences.

There are days where I enjoy writing songs for our show more than writing for the show itself.

JW: Disney XD’s brand is geared towards a young male demographic. How do you see your show if it wasn’t on Disney XD. Would it be anywhere else?

RR: This was what I called a “sniper shot pitch” – targeted for one network -- versus other “machine gun pitches” which can be pitched in various places and you hope you hit any target across many networks. I had pitched Disney XD 1-2 ideas before. By the time I came to pitch I’M IN THE BAND, I knew what they wanted and tailored my pitch to exactly their needs. I was very lucky we saw eye to eye, and they had some great notes during the development process that really helped the show.

But could it work somewhere else? We do feel this show could live in what used to be TGIF evenings on ABC. Because unlike many kids shows on Disney or Nickelodeon, we have four adults as series regulars. That’s a risk Disney took and it’s rare. Our actors are really fantastic comedic adult actors, including Logan Miller, who is 18 playing 15, and I do think this show could live and be successful in a primetime ABC block targeted at families. We try to push for the edge, but it’s challenging doing a show about sex, drugs and rock and roll without the sex and drugs.

JW: Jane Espenson’s blog posted an entry on how very different the Sesame Street room ran. When a draft is done, clean copies are distributed to the Research department who all have Master's degrees and PhD's in education, child psychology, etc and give their comments to the head writer. Does your show do something like this especially dealing with kids?

RR: Not on a weekly basis but at the series level on an annual basis, yes. Disney does focus group testing with kids to see what works, what doesn’t work, etc. We, the producers, get invited to these focus groups and sit in on one side of a two-way mirror as kids either rave about or tear apart various aspects of the show. It’s a sobering experience hearing that brutal feedback -- some kids you shake your head at, some you want to adopt -- but we incorporate it all into our upcoming season’s direction and the show is ultimately better for it.

On a week-to-week basis, the challenge for us is dealing with Standards and Practices who have strong guidelines for what a Disney show should be. There’s a back and forth with that as we try to push for edgier content and they try to protect the brand. They know what parents will tolerate. We know what kids will laugh at. We meet somewhere in the middle.

JW: Were there edgy jokes you wrote and surprised you got away with?

RR: Absolutely. (But if Disney’s S&P group is reading this, then no, none at all.) We got away with things in season 1 we can’t do in season 2. Standard and Practices moves the goal line occasionally. But again, they’re just protecting the Disney brand, and I can understand and appreciate that as that’s their job.

JW: That’s interesting, because I watch a lot of ABC FAMILY shows like PRETTY LITTLE LIARS and SECRET LIFE OF AN AMERICAN TEENAGER are very much pushing the envelope. On PRETTY LITTLE LIARS, there was a long make out scene of a lesbian teenage couple and it feels like this isn’t even been seen on a network show?

RR: I had actually pitched other ideas to ABC FAMILY prior to pitching I’M IN THE BAND and they said the word “family” in their name was misleading because they were trying to edge up the brand. When you have the word “family” in your name, you think of wholesome content like LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and so forth. I don’t want to say that has been a hindrance for them, because they have been ridiculously successful. But their name doesn’t match their brand, which is one of the reasons why I think Disney launched Disney XD to target boys. It’s edgier than Disney Channel.

JW: With the recent move of Steve McPherson and now Paul Lee from ABC FAMILY to ABC, are there any programming hopes you have or even what you predict will happen?

RR: I don’t know if I can predict. But historically multi-camera sitcoms have been among the most successful programs, especially with recent syndication sales like BIG BANG THEORY. They’re cheaper to produce and are comfort comedy food that Middle America gets. I watch sitcom reruns late at night all the time and they’re gems. There’s just something wonderful about an audience laughing along with you. I would love to see ABC put on more multi-cams.

That’s part of the reason I was excited to work at Disney. When I was pitching a few years ago, there weren’t a lot of multi-camera shows at the networks. Disney and Nickelodeon were largely the ones developing them, and giving big orders. So that’s where I went to pitch a multicam show.

JW: And also CBS has a lot of traditional multi-camera shows.

RR: The funny thing about the word “traditional” is that as recently as of 2004/2005, shows like FRIENDS and WILL AND GRACE were “traditional” multicams and those shows were wildly successful. When I was at MTV, I asked the teenagers I worked with what they watched on TV. So many of them would say KING OF QUEENS reruns or similar sitcoms in syndication. We have a whole generation of viewers being raised on multicam sitcoms at Disney and Nickelodeon. They are primed for watching this format. And they’re catching it in reruns on cable. We’re not past the point of enjoying multicams; we’re breeding a new generation of multicam viewers. I’m hopeful that networks decide to develop multi-cams that are smart and savvy in the spirit of many single camera shows that have been developed recently.

JW: Stepping outside of what we’ve talked about, what are your favorite shows?

RR: ANDY RICHTER CONTROLS THE UNIVERSE was one of the reasons I became a writer. It was quirky and irreverent and more recently and 30 ROCK has captured that same quirky brilliance. COMMUNITY’s writing has such great cadence and is always good for a smart laugh. On the non-scripted side, I love TOSH.0 on Comedy Central. I’m laughing my butt off at that show. Notice that there no multicams on this list. Not enough on the air right now to choose from.

JW: Are there any of these shows you mentioned or didn’t, Emmy-wise that you’re rooting for? Or even shows that you wish were nominated?

RR: A huge omission was I’M IN THE BAND for a kids’ show nomination! [laughs] I would have loved to have seen COMMUNITY nominated. But they’re a first year show, they’ll hopefully earn it next season. 30 Rock is just genius. You could shoot that show in front of a live audience and the jokes would get huge laughs.

But one of my biggest gripes about the Emmy nomination process is that many dramedies are being considered as comedies. I would love to see half hour comedies, dramas and dramedies in their own categories.

JW: What about half hour comedy blends? Like NURSE JACKIE, WEEDS or HUNG?

RR: I’d have to watch those shows more closely but I’ll say half-hour comedies are half-hour comedies. If a half-hour show’s primary goal is to make people laugh, they belong in the comedy category. Otherwise, I think these half-comedy/half-drama one-hour submissions just muddy the process of selecting a best comedy. There are some great one-hour shows that fall into that category, and they deserve their own “Dramedy” category to be nominated in.

JW: Any last words? Or anything else about your show?

RR: Thanks for taking the time to interview me, I appreciate it. As Ash on our show would say, “All good questions, bro. All good questions.”