Rob Ulin graduated from Harvard College in 1984, where he was an editor of the Harvard Lampoon. He got his first job in show business writing for TV producer Norman Lear. He went on to write for the Jim Henson-produced TV show Dinosaurs. and was later head writer and executive producer for the hit comedy Roseanne. He has also been a co-executive producer on Malcolm in the Middle and The Middle.
When I was five, I travelled to Los Angeles with my family to visit Rob Ulin—my Uncle Rob, who at that time was working on Malcolm in the Middle. Too young to understand the complicated machine that was a full-scale production, my most distinctive memory of that visit is of the famous “candy cupboard”: a room brimming with every candy bar in the known universe and reserved for the writing team on Malcolm. I was immediately convinced that writing was a worthy career.
Only years later would my passion for screenwriting grow beyond my love for skittles, and the questions I want to ask my Uncle Rob are no longer limited to “how many of these Starbursts can I take home with me?”
Based on your years of experience, what top five (or two or ten) pieces of advice would you have for someone looking to make a go of it as a screenwriter?
Look for valid, constructive criticism of your writing, and then don’t take it personally or be hurt by it. Don’t give your screenplay to someone hoping they will just tell you how wonderful it is. Give it with the hope that they will see something wrong that you didn’t notice that will open up your mind to new possibilities.
Always be nice to people.
Learn everyone’s name.
Read your favourite screenplays or TV scripts and try to figure out why you like them so much. It’s not just that they have the best jokes. Map out the structure of your favourite scripts or shows. Write scene-by-scene outlines of them. You will be surprised at the ingenuity of the structure when it is laid out in front of you.
How do you handle the peripheral aspects of your career: accounting, legal, managerial, etc? Do you handle that yourself, or hire professionals?
I have an agent and a lawyer. I hire an expert to help me with investments. My wife pays all the bills and handles bookkeeping.
What practical life skills does one need to make it as a screenwriter?
If you are incredibly talented, you can probably get away with being an asshole. Most of us have to be nice and relaxed and good to hang with if you want to keep getting work.
If you are someone who likes to hear the sound of your own voice, you have to learn to listen and not try to dominate every conversation. It’s not necessarily the best idea just because you thought of it.
If you don’t understand the direction or the notes you are being given, you have to learn to insist on clarity so that you know what is being asked of you.
As it’s not your typical 9-5 job, what tricks do you have for managing your time during the creative process?
It’s really hard. Someone said that it’s unfortunate that the greatest device ever invented for writing a screenplay (a computer) is also the greatest device ever created for procrastinating. You just have to push yourself. Sometimes if I am stuck on something (usually it’s one joke), I will set a time limit and say, “If I can’t beat this joke in ten minutes, I’ll move on and come back to it later.” I then set a timer. This focuses my mind a little. Sometimes it helps to get out of the house to write.
What individuals or organizations have been key to building your career? How would an emerging screenwriter get access to the key people in that network?
In TV writing the most important connection is other working writers. Other people that you worked with in the past are the most likely to want to hire you. It’s also good to be liked by executives at the networks and studios. But the head writer is usually able to hire whom he/she wants, so his/her opinion is the most important.
When you are young and adorable, certain older people in the business will get a kick out of helping you. Everyone likes to feel useful and wise and appreciated. If you politely approach certain veteran writers whom you sincerely admire, you may be able to get some mentoring.
You’ve worked in multiple writing rooms over the years. Do you have any personal rules for getting along with your fellow writers?
Keep in mind that whoever is running the room (the head writer or showrunner) has a very hard job. Your job is to make his/her job easier. You can goof around with everyone else a little to keep the mood light, but ultimately you will keep your job and move up if you make the showrunner’s job easier. Don’t wait for your boss to tell you to focus. Stay focused on the job at hand.
The rest of it is a lot like any social situation. If you like the people you are with, they will probably like you.
How does working in a writing room affect your individual writing style and voice?
Being in a writing room can dilute your individual voice for a while, and it can temporarily make it hard to find a quiet space in your head to think and create on your own. However, it can also sharpen your joke skills a lot and train you not to settle for the first thing you think of. Joke-writing is kind of like a muscle. When you’ve been doing it in a strong writing room for a while, you definitely feel yourself improve.
What originally drew you towards writing for comedy, and what challenges did you face in starting out in that genre?
I always loved comedy as a kid. My college had a humour magazine that introduced me to the idea that comedy-writing could be a career.
Have you ever made a big career mistake? Is there any advice you can give to avoid it?
I never should have given away all my secrets in this interview.
Is there any other topic you’d like to address?
I think Bill Cosby is a rapist.
Chloe Rose is a full-time Creative Writing BFA student at UBC. She graduated with a diploma in Film Production from Dawson College in Montreal (2011) and continues to work in cinema. She has multiple writing credits on productions in both Montreal and Vancouver. One of her long-term goals is to eventually find herself working in a television writing room.