Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #009 with Jeff Trammell.
Jeff is an animation writer, story editor and actor in the USA. He was a member of the Nickelodeon Writing Program and has written for some of the hottest cartoons around, including his current role as head writer on Cartoon Network’s Craig of the Creek. He’s an absolute hero.
When did you start writing?
I started writing back in 2008. I had just graduated high school and was looking for a career path with something I enjoyed doing. Luckily, I stumbled upon an episode of “30 Rock” and realized that people get paid to write comedy. (Liz Lemon runs a writing room for a TV show for anyone unfamiliar.) So I decided I wanted to become a writer.
I found all the books and scripts I could online and basically taught myself how to write and format scripts. Then I wrote my first spec script, an episode of The Office and began my journey to becoming a writer.
You were a member of the Nickelodeon Writing Program in 2015-16, where you were one of four winners out of 2000 submissions.
The program calls for submissions of scripts for existing shows. What was your entry and what advice would you give to people who are looking to apply in the future?
My Nick Writing submissions were a spec script of FX’s the League, and then once I made it to the second round I had to submit another script, that one was a spec for Bob’s Burgers.
My advice would be to do a spec script about a show you’re very passionate about because that passion shines through in your writing. If you know the characters well enough, you’ll be able to tell your jokes through them, in a way that feels like something the character would actually say and do.
Also, try to come up with a unique story. So often people come up with ideas that could be similar to something the show has done or another person submitting may do. Try to think outside of the box and come up with something that stands out against other specs.
Lastly, try out for any and every writing program you can find (especially the free ones), because you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s also a way to make sure you’re always writing and always updating your portfolio with new samples!
What was the most important lesson you learned from your time on the program?
I think I have two things that I would consider the most important actually.
The first was learning story structure. As a self taught writer I didn’t have the best grasp of story structure. Prior to joining the Nick Writing Program, I had never written an outline. I usually just wrote down a few beats and would start scripting, but outlining is extremely important when telling stories, it allows you to pre-plan scenes and really see if they’re working or not. That also allows you to easily change things at that stage, which is a lot easier than editing at the scripting phase. It’s also a very important part of working for board driven shows, like Craig of the Creek!
The other most important lesson I took away was to be confident. Like most writers, I’ve always had a case of imposter syndrome, especially once I entered the program. As a self-taught writer, I was worried that maybe they had made a mistake in bringing me in, as I was much less experienced than the other writers in the program. But I was able to gain confidence in my writing and myself as a writer, which is truly invaluable.
Were you working a day job at the same time as this was going on? If so, how did you manage to balance everything?
I worked many day jobs while trying to break into writing. I worked at the Detroit Metro Airport for four years loading luggage, I worked at an automobile plant as a security guard and I also worked at Target as a member of their Asset Protection team. I would try to find time to write after work, even though I was exhausted. If I had slow moments at work, I would take down notes for story ideas or fun characters I wanted to explore.
It was definitely hard to balance, but at a certain point I knew that if I was going to start my career, I had to basically work two jobs, my day job and my night job as a writer. But luckily I enjoyed writing, so while it was taxing and I was often tired from work, it was a nice escape. As long as I thought of it as a fun thing to do that could help me stop working jobs and begin a career, I could always find that second wind to keep me motivated.
Through Nickelodeon you picked up commissions to write for Harvey Beaks and from there you’ve been building a really strong list of credits. In an industry when people can go years without work, how have you managed to keep the momentum going?
I’ve been very fortunate. Through the program I was able to make a lot of friends and those friends have looked out for me a lot. I think they feel confident in my writing and trust that I’ll deliver, so they often recommend me for things and introduce me to people.
While in the Harvey room, Amalia Levari introduced me to her manager, Grace, who now represents me. Grace has really advocated for me and found me work as well. So because of this support system, I’ve been fortunate enough to get a lot of cool opportunities and work on a lot of cool shows, from Amphibia to Infinity Train to Rise of the TMNT.
Jump forward a few years and you’re the head writer and story editor on Craig of the Creek (legit, the best show around). What was it like making the move over to Cartoon Network and at what point did you become involved in the show?
Thank you for the flattering words about our show, haha.
So my year at the Nick Writing Program ended in October 2016. Around that time, my manager informed me that CN was staffing up for “Apple & Onion”, which I’m a big fan of. I’d seen the pilot and wanted to apply for that job, but they were fully staffed by the time they got my stuff. CN said they’d keep me on file though, and a few months later, they asked me to come in to watch the pilot for Craig of the Creek. I went in to watch it and fell in love with the show immediately. I decided then and there I had to work on it.
After that, I met the co-creators, Matt Burnett and Ben Levin and we got along really well. Craig was still in development at the time and hadn’t been officially greenlit. They had me write a freelance episode (Too Many Treasures) and they really liked working with me. They asked me to come in for some more meetings, and soon enough the show got greenlit. They offered me the Staff Writing job and I accepted, officially joining the crew in May 2017.
For me, Craig is the natural evolution of the shows I grew up with, like Doug, Hey Arnold and Recess but perfectly pitched for the modern audience. It captures the feeling of being a kid – the scale of the adventures, the stakes, the friendships – You’ve bottled childhood.
How have you and the team been able to produce such an authentic childhood experience? Are you pulling from real life experiences?
Thank you! When I started working on the show I’d always describe it as Hey Arnold meets Recess. Those were two of my favorite shows growing up so it always means a lot when we get that comparison.
Honestly, I don’t know how we do it. We have an extremely talented team. From writing to storyboard to design, editing, timing, everyone is incredible. I think that’s the magic of the crew just shining through more than anything. But to answer your question, we do pull from real life experiences and moments. Whether it’s games we used to play but blown up to a grand scale or stuff we experienced growing up but that isn’t always conveyed on TV, we put a lot of thought and emotion into our stories. We want to make sure that while they are fun, they can also resonate and help people connect with our characters.
Another thing to be admired about Craig is it’s authentic representation of the characters, their families and the communities which surround them. This can be as simple as the end credit scene of Craig and his family eating dinner – but it speaks to people. It feels real. You’re also working as a writer on Owl House which recently made headlines for having Disney’s first bisexual lead character. Representation matters.
What advice do you have for creatives who are fighting to make sure their characters can be truthful and not compromised in the process? And are there any particular details that fans of your work pick out and bring up with you all the time?
Yeah, I think that representation is extremely important because so many people don’t get to see themselves on television, in movies, in comics, in media and everyone deserves that chance. But the important thing is making sure that representation doesn’t just stop at one. You need more than one Black character, one Indigineous character, one Latinx character. Because then that character represents an entire race, and they either can’t have any faults because of that, which makes for a boring character, or any faults they have seem like a generalization.
You also should reach out for advice to the people you’re trying to represent, especially if you don’t fall within that group yourself. If you want to write a story about LGBTQIA+ characters but you’re a cis man, you may make leaps or fill in blanks that you think are harmless but could be very harmful or ignorant. You owe it to the people you’re trying to represent to listen to them, to get their input and make sure that this story is going to help more than harm, because while representation is extremely important and empowering, misrepresentation can be extremely damaging and help spread negative misconceptions.
I’m a big Jeff Rosenstock fan. His latest album ‘No Dream’ was the soundtrack of my lockdown. The first music I played in my car when I was finally able to go out was his recent live album… I always know when I’m feeling stressed or dealing with something because I automatically turn to his music.
Jeff obviously has had a creative mark on the show for some time but the musical event ‘In the Key of the Creek’ took things to crazy new heights. What was the process of writing it like?
I love Jeff Rosenstock, he’s a hell of a musician and one of the most talented yet humble people I know. Writing “In the Key of the Creek” with Jeff was a dream, no pun intended. He came in and hungout in the writing room for a week as we figured out the story. Once we solidified certain beats, Ben would pitch him song ideas and styles and Jeff would start taking notes and working on music in the room. It was like being at a six person concert.
Once our meetings ended, Jeff would head home and write music for like… four hours, then before our work day concluded he’d have sent us an email with a demo. Jeff actually wrote all the music for that episode in like a week or something, it was outrageous.
FYI – If you call the No Dream hotline at (469) No-Dream, you will hear a guy who sounds a LOT like the Story Editor for Craig of the Creek. (Although I’m not sure if it works internationally!)
I just watched ‘In The Key of the Creek’ again and with Craig stuck at home, Dad working out of the house, the physical absence of the gang, and the ‘Creek is everywhere’ message, it kinda feels like a pandemic/quarantine special. Was it already in production before everything kicked off and it’s a coincidence or is it the team’s response to Covid?
The theme of staying inside and the message of the Creek being everywhere was definitely a coincidence. We started working on that episode in… I wanna say mid-2019 or so, before we had any idea what was coming our way, but it definitely correlates with what’s going on now.
For a lot of writers starting out, a big dream is to make it into a writers room BUT the idea is also massively terrifying. What’s a room really like and what advice do you have for people who find themselves in a one for the first time?
Every room is different! Especially depending on the environment, whether it’s live action or animation. I’ve heard about live-action rooms with twelve writers, I’ve been in animation writing rooms with just three writers. Luckily, most of the rooms I’ve been in have been relaxed, welcoming and fun. I’d like to say that’s the norm but sadly it isn’t.
My advice would be to figure out your role in a room once you get there. Some people pitch a joke per second, some like to focus on what makes a story work and some people are good at both of those things. Once you know what kind of writer you are in the room as well as what the room needs, you can sometimes become that missing puzzle piece.
Craig is into Season Three now. How has the writing team changed over the years and if you bring in new staff, what’s the process?
The writing team is always growing and changing, we have been lucky enough to freelance with a lot of talented writers like Taneka Stotts, Cody Ziglar, Mia Resella, Christina Catucci and so many more. For Season 3 we decided to bring on Ashleigh Hairston as our Staff Writer and she’s been doing a phenomenal job and I’m really excited for people to see the stuff she’s been writing with us.
Our process has always been finding talented writers with unique stories and crafting stories that we all really enjoy and hoping the audience enjoys them just as much.
What’s your number one tip for writing dialogue?
Write believable dialogue for the character. Sometimes people come up with great jokes but they aren’t exactly something that feels true for the character. While the joke might be great, if it bumps too much with how the character acts, it may cause a disconnect with the reader, especially if they’re familiar with the characters.
An example I like to use is Bob’s Burgers. If Jimmy Pesto wants to antagonize the belchers and throws a slice of pizza at their window, Bob, Linda, Tina, Gene and Louise would each react in different ways. Finding those moments of realism for the characters really helps them each feel different and fleshed out as three dimensional.
Jumping back in time, can you tell us about your time with UCB? Is improv something you suggest all writers try?
I would absolutely recommend improv.
Before taking improv I was pretty shy and that class definitely helped me open up and become more outgoing. That really translates well to being in the room and wanting to pitch an idea. It sometimes feels like being in school and being worried about “asking a dumb question”, but even if a pitch doesn’t work, someone can always springboard off of it to get to something that does.
Improv helped me open up and not be afraid to pitch or try something that may not work, because I know my partners (the other writers) will be able to help turn it into gold. It also allowed me to think quick on my feet, which is an extremely important skill in a writing room when you sometimes have to pitch jokes on the fly.
If you could travel back to when you were first starting out as a writer, what advice would you give to yourself?
Be more confident! Like I mentioned earlier, a lot of self-doubt and imposter syndrome really hit me hard early in my career. But seeing how much I’ve been able to accomplish in the last five years would be very inspiring to past me.
Your early specs were all from adult sitcoms. If you were writing a new spec in 2020, which show would it be for?
It would either be for “What We Do In the Shadows” or “Pen15”. I think those are two of the funniest shows out right now and I would have a lot of fun delving into either. Oh, and “Atlanta” would be another really fun show to spec.
What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
There’s not enough time in the day to do everything I want to do and write all the characters I’d love to write. *cough* Static, Red Hood, Black Panther, TMNT, She-Hulk, Booster Gold, Spider-Man, Darkwing Duck. *cough*
What makes you laugh more than anything?
Hm… I laugh a lot so this is tough. I would say probably the Craig of the Creek voice records? We have a ton of extremely funny, talented people coming through all the time. Our main trio, Phil, Noelle and H, who voice Craig, Kelsey and JP are always cracking me up. But we also have a lot of really funny guest stars that come in, like Phil LaMarr, Kimberly Herbert Gregory, Jon Gabrus, Zeno Robsinson, Zehra Fazal, SungWon Cho. The records are usually one of the many highlights of my week.
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