Published on June 12th, 2013 | by Melody Cade0
Courtney Lilly – Television Writer, Executive Producer
By Melody Cade
Courtney Lilly was Co-Executive Producer of Guys With Kids. He’s worked on The Cleveland Show, My Boys, and Arrested Development. He’s a great example of solid writing creating a success story.
Q: Tell me what got you interested in writing.
I always knew I wanted to write, but writing for tv wasn’t something I thought that much about. I didn’t know how to get in, or any of the other things that come with working in television. I guess I got lucky early on. I wasn’t very good at anything else, but I can tell a story. I’m not a math dude, I wasn’t a great science dude. Some of it was a process of elimination. I hate to say it’s something you kind of know, people say they know, but I don’t think it’s like that either. Most people like telling stories. I don’t like writing. I like having written.
Q: What did you go to school for?
I went to Columbia University as an American History major. At school I worked at the newspaper and I worked at the radio station there. I interned at a number of places. I worked for the ABC affiliate in Philadelphia and I worked for CBS as an intern. I had an extensive media background. It wasn’t like I studied journalism, but I was definitely involved in journalism. My first job was at Providence Journal bulletin.
Q: Why did You Move?
After Providence was done, I got an opportunity to work for a friends website in New York. I knew I had to figure out a way to be a writer. I didn’t know anybody in L.A. I didn’t know you moved out here and became a PA. I got lucky and somebody recommended the Nickelodeon Writing Program. I got into the first year of that. I got the animation writing fellowship. So, that moved me out here. I was fortunate, I moved out here with a job.
Q: Are you a comedy writer?
Yes. Absolutely. That’s what I’ve worked in exclusively.
Q: Do you have a curiosity about writing drama?
Drama is hard and I don’t necessarily get it. The Wire is arguably the greatest show that’s been on tv. Short of something like that, which is an impossible thing to ask for and impossible to duplicate, it’s not for me. Drama isn’t natural to me. I do watch drama, that’s what I watch on tv most often. Some people think it’s hard to write jokes. I think it’s difficult to have to mean every word, and you have to differentiate the characters in sucha way that is beyond humor. The prism I see the world through is humor.
Q: What’s it like being a minority writer?
It depends on the show. I worked on Everyone Hates Chris, half the show was black. So in that sense, it wasn’t a big deal. I have worked on shows where I was the only minority in the room, and it’s not that different on the day to day level. There are so many things going on in a tv show, it’s not really an issue. When you all get in the room, you’re all comedy writers. It’s not really about who you are or what you look like, all that is dealt with before you’re hired. I’ve never had anything negative happen because of race. It’s not because it’s hollywood and everyone is liberal, it’s just not how things work. When you’re thinking about prejudice, that’s the obstacle to surpass to get into the room. It’s about getting an opportunity. What I’d focus on is trying to maintain your career, being a person of color and getting opportunities. The thing is, you’re going to run into a ton of half steps and missteps. I’ve been fired from shows. How do you maintain your careers after something like that? Those are the things where opportunity becomes more difficult for minorities. Look at the shows that were once on UPN, the opportunities that were once in television for minorities aren’t there anymore.
Q: Talk about writing for film.
Writing is writing. There is a different skill set, structure wise. But writing is writing. It’s a different world, the film world. I know I’d like to work in tv forever, but writing for film was a great opportunity. There are many television writers who write for film. It was all independently financed. We sat down and got it done.
Q: How important is networking?
I’m not a networker. I don’t really do it well or that much. But, I got a fellowship. It was different for me. I do see the importance of it. Hollywood tends to hire people on security. They could be giving someone a million dollars for a tv episode. It’s better to know who you hire. I know people in the industry now, but its all through having work. I know how important it is, but less important than being really good. I’m not saying I’m really good, maybe really lucky. I think out here you work hard and the opportunities will present themselves. When I met my manager, he was willing to read what someone without experience had to show. Because I had a piece that was ready, and it was up to the level of what he was looking for, we could work together. It’s about being prepared for the right opportunity.
Q: Difference between writing for animation/live action?
It’s the schedule. It’s the pace. It’s a little more leisurely. There’s no rush of production, we meet deadlines, but it’s not nearly as hectic. Working till 4am is not uncommon in comedy. You don’t do that in animation. The lifestyle is the biggest difference. Also, a lot of animation shows are more joke heavy.
Q: What would be some advice for a writer trying to break in?
First step move to L.A. Don’t have a bad attitude about it. I love it here. I see the importance of being here. Say yes to a lot of things. It never hurts to say yes. Read everything, watch everything. You have to be a part of the conversation, be part of the culture. Get Good. You can go out for all of the drinks in the world, but understanding and getting better at your craft is the most important thing.