Jenn Engels is an award winning writer and producer, writing for a variety of networks including TMN, HBO Canada, CBC, CTV, Space, Rogers, Hulu, Teletoon, the CW, and SyFy. With a background in acting and stand-up comedy, Jenn has contributed to many of Canada’s top comedies, most notably all four seasons of the critically acclaimed Less Than Kind, Seed, Satisfaction, InSecurity, Dan for Mayor and Mother Up! for Rogers/Hulu. This season marks her debut in both the one-hour and genre worlds, serving as a Writer/Consulting Producer on Bitten for Space/SyFy. Jenn is a born and bred Montrealer but pays taxes in Toronto.
I was so excited to connect with Jenn Engels because I was eager to hear from a female voice working in television comedy. Not to mention, I’m a big fan of Less Than Kind. We corresponded over email.
What TV and film did you watch growing up and who are your major comedy influences?
M*A*S*H* was on in syndication forever when I was a kid, so I watched it at least twice a day for years. In Grade 5 I announced, to my parents’ delight, that I wanted to be a surgeon. I only later realized I just wanted to be Hawkeye Pierce. My other major influence was Steve Martin. I had most of his albums as a teenager and would listen to them ad nauseum. I loved, and still love, his brand of comedy from the seventies: intelligent and very witty, but unabashedly silly.Was there a moment when you realized you wanted to be a writer or comedian?
I was part of a sketch troupe for a couple of years around 2000-2002. We did a monthly show and it was kind of a hot mess but lots of fun. We put on a new show every month and my favourite part was writing it together. That was before I even understood how TV writing rooms worked; this was just me and my friends sitting around writing stuff down that made us laugh and trying to top each other. That, I think, was the first glimmer of “what if I could do this as a day job?”
How did you find the transition from acting and standup comedy to writing for TV?
It was perfect for me. I had a great time doing standup. I was an actor for a number of years so I’m comfortable on stage, in front of audiences. I also love to write, and edit, and fine tune a joke. What I’m less good at is thinking on my feet, and responding to the demands of the moment which is crucial for a good standup. So in perfect conditions, with an obliging audience who was picking up what I was putting down, so to speak, I did OK as a comic. Flying by the seat of my pants, trying to cajole an ornery audience, dealing with hecklers, that is the stuff of nightmare for me. So I was very very very happy to become a sit-down comic.
How did you originally get into writing for TV?
I had always been trying to find my niche in writing. It wasn’t fiction, it wasn’t poetry, and it all began to gel when I found screenwriting. While I was doing standup and sketch, I took a couple of screenwriting classes at George Brown, and then took one in TV writing. I applied to the Canadian Film Centre with a spec script I wrote for the TV class, and the CFC really helped me to get started as a bona fide TV writer.
How did you navigate the professional side of the industry at first?
I was so fortunate to secure an agent right at the end of my time at the Canadian Film Centre. They (Meridian Artists) really act like US style managers, helping to shape a career. They certainly put me through my paces, especially at first, and there’s always a friendly poke to keep developing original material, but that’s what good agents/managers do.
Do you think that having a degree in English Literature has had an impact on your writing?
I went to Concordia and ended up doing an Honours degree, so roughly 70% of my degree was Literature. I loved it. It’s hard for me to pinpoint how it’s affected my writing. If you are a lover of books, as I am, I don’t think you can read, think and write about great works of literature without it transforming you, especially as a young adult just getting to know the larger world.
What has your experience been as a female comedy writer?
Much better than I expected to be honest. I definitely feel that women in standup have an extra hard row to hoe, as it were. There are certainly fewer women in comedy writing rooms, but it’s been my experience more often than not that I’m not the only woman in the room. There is a fundamental fairness of “funniest idea wins” or more generally “best idea wins” that guides every room I’ve been in. We have a long way to go in terms of making more female centric comedy shows a la 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, which appeal to both men and women but with a clearly female energy at the core of them. That’s up to content creators, and networks to trust the creators’ authentic voices and visions.
How do you think Canadian comedy differs from American comedy? Or British?
In terms of standup? TV? Film? Web? There is extra blurring with franchises. Two of my favourite comedies of recent years, The Office and Veep, were both British franchises to begin with. A lot of people might be surprised to learn that Veep is helmed by a Brit (Armando Iannucci) and the writers’ room is in London. It feels very “American,” and yet that extremely dry, deadpan delivery — is it not British? Possibly, but delivered by an incredible American cast. Is Schitt’s Creek Canadian? Technically, yes, it’s funded by the CBC, but it’s also on an American network and many of the principals are American. Or at least dual citizens, and I believe the writers’ room was in LA for a while. When I think of the funniest standups I’ve seen, Mike Wilmot, Louis CK, Eddie Izzard (Canadian, American, British), what is the commonality? Fearless, relentless, authentic. Same with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. I think the distinctions are really meaningless. Best joke wins.
I think a lot of people envision writing as a very solitary existence. Does writing for TV differ from these expectations? What does a typical day look like for you?
Yes, mercifully, TV writing is a group effort. A typical day in a writers room is something like: arrive at the start of the day, chit chat over coffee while everyone gets their technology up and running, and then launch in to the business of the day. We usually sit around one large table with a whiteboard or a bare wall with large sticky notes or index cards or some other way to record ideas. Then it depends what the priority is. If it’s early in the season, it’s about pitching ideas – either episode ideas or storylines for a serialized show. If episodes ideas/storylines have been chosen, then the room goes about
breaking the episode from start to finish so a writer can take away that blueprint and turn it into an outline, or probably a pitch document to run by the network first. If it’s later in the season it might be tackling a group edit of a written script — that again is
totally room dependent; some showrunners keep their notes between themselves and the writer, others open it up to the whole room for discussion. It could be the group, or a part of the group jumping on a script that isn’t working for whatever reason. But the basic ideas is a few people, behind their computers, around a table, lobbing ideas, musings, solutions, jokes, and sharing their favourite YouTube findings.
How does writing for live action differ from writing for animation?
Live action tends to have more of a room construct, whereas animation has worked more with “story summits” – a day or two of freelancers pitching ideas to the showrunner and group, and then working independently with the guidance of the showrunner. That’s beginning to change, especially in adult animation. We had a room for Mother Up!, but it wasn’t Monday – Friday 9-5, more like 2-3 days a week for a few months. A room is so helpful to keep momentum going and keep everyone apprised of the organic development of a series.
What are you working on at the moment?
I just finished working on season 2 of Bitten, my first genre, action, and 1 hour show. It was a blast. And while it was a deliberate choice to step away from comedy, I ended up working with some of the funniest people I’ve ever had the privilege of collaborating with.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Complacency is death. You’re only as good as your last script, and original scripts always carry more weight than something you wrote for someone else’s show. Without being self-flagellating, keep honest tabs on your own areas that need improvement, and work on them. Read lots of scripts. It’s amazing what you learn, and metabolize, from reading
professional scripts. Ask other writers about their process, especially ones that are good at something you flagged for yourself requiring improvement. Identify what you’re hungry to tackle next, and go for it, no matter how daunting/scary it might be.
What is your favourite TV show at the moment?
I’m so horribly behind in watching. The last 18 months have been about having my second daughter, returning to work, then buying a house, selling our old one, and now moving. I can’t wait to set up my new office, start sticking ideas to the wall, and start on my “To Watch” list, which includes: Togetherness, Girls Seasons 3 and 4, Homeland Season 3 & 4, Boardwalk Empire Seasons 4 & 5. Then there’s The Fall, The Americans, Top of the Lake, the list goes on. Not quite sure how I’m going to find those hours, but what a nice first world problem to have.
Deborah Vogt is an emerging writer and dramaturg from Vancouver, BC with a strong interest in writing for television. In the past, her plays have been performed at the Cultch and CBC Studios through various youth playwriting competitions. She has completed a dramaturgy internship at the Arts Club Theatre Company and a scripted development mentorship at Omnifilm Entertainment. She is currently working as the production dramaturg for the Vancouver Opera production of Sweeney Todd and is writing and directing for UBC’s Brave New Play Rites festival. She finds inspiration from her friends, family and Larry David.