Advanced Introduction to Finality
June 17, 2013 | by Rachel Reed
Megan Ganz (’06) has always loved comedy.
“My dad used to show me Marx Brothers movies, Letterman, and SNL. When I was 13, my mother bought me my first [comedy] book, and I was immediately hooked,” she says.
From then on, the Kalamazoo, Michigan, native dreamed of landing a gig as a writer for The Onion.
As a student in LSA, Ganz majored in English Literature, and wrote her Honors thesis on the joke constructions employed by David Sedaris in his essays about death. In her spare time, she served as a writer (and in her final year, editor-in-chief) of the Every Three Weekly, the University of Michigan’s answer to The Onion. Not coincidentally, after her final year, The Onion awarded her a writing fellowship in New York, which soon turned into a position as a full-time member of the staff. Barely out of college, she’d achieved her dream job, where she was responsible for such zingers as, “National Organization For Women Turns 39 Again,” and “This American Life Completes Documentation Of Liberal, Upper-Middle-Class Existence.”
For her next act, Ganz acquired an agent and landed jobs writing for some of the most buzzed-about comedy television shows of the last five years, including Community and Modern Family.
We talked to her about her recent foray into television, and asked her to dish some more about her time at U-M.
Did you start off hoping to become a comedy writer?
I never thought about being a TV writer when I was younger. Frankly, I’m not sure I knew it was a job. But when I was writing for The Onion, an agent in Los Angeles called me and asked me if I had any representation, and whether I had thought about writing for television. So then I started to think about it, and submit packets to various shows. Demetri [Martin] was the first person to hire me for his sketch show, Important Things with Demetri Martin. I moved to Los Angeles for that job, and I’ve been a full-time TV writer for four years now.
Now you’ve landed with Modern Family, which the Hollywood Reporter said has one of the “least conventional writers rooms in the business.” So tell us, is there an “average day” as a writer for Modern Family?
Typically, the writing staff is split into two rooms, working on two different episodes at once. I usually come in around 10 A.M., and we all sit around the same table just talking to each other. We have one big conversation that lasts until around 6 P.M. Hopefully by the end of the day, we have more of a story than we started the day with, but sometimes not. Once the story for the episode is outlined, one writer will go off and write a draft off that episode. Then they bring it back to the room and we all give notes, rewrite scenes, and add jokes before the table read. If it’s your episode, you sit on set and watch them shoot it, which is really fun because all of your writing is done and you just get to see the actors have fun with the script.
Before that, you were writing for Community. Did it function the same way?
Writing for Community was pretty similar, but the hours were much longer. Community was my favorite show when I was hired to the writing staff, and I had no experience, so my first two seasons there were pretty terrifying. I learned a lot.
It’s such a hilarious show. Did you have any funny—or even mortifying—moments working with such a talented cast/crew?
When I was on set with my first episode [of Community], “Cooperative Calligraphy,” there was a scene where the whole cast strips down to their underwear while searching for a pen. I asked the wardrobe department about what color [actor Joel McHale’s] underwear were going to be, because we needed to make sure a line in the script referenced the right color. They told me that Joel was going to bring his own special boxer brief things, and I’d have to ask him. So that’s what I had to do. My first day on set with my first episode, and I end up talking to Joel McHale about his underwear.
What was your experience like writing and serving as editor of the Every Three Weekly?
As soon as I got a copy of the E3W, I wanted to join. The staff was really funny, and the editors I wrote for were very encouraging. In my third year, they promoted me to editor-in-chief, and I got my first taste of running a room. I made some really good, really funny friends while working there, and sometimes we’d all gather in one place and hold beers and be anti-social together.
Did that experience help you get your job at The Onion?
Yes! The Onion contacted the E3W staff during my final year with information about a new writing fellowship program. I think they contacted a number of humor magazines at different colleges. I applied right around the time I was graduating, and included some headlines I had written for the E3W in my packet. The Onion selected me for the program, and I moved to New York. The internship lasted for three months, and shortly after it ended I was hired onto the writing staff full-time.
Could you tell me a bit about your favorite classes and professors in LSA?
I enjoyed my American Culture classes, especially the ones I took with Professor Bruce Conforth. I loved the science-fiction class I took with Professor Eric Rabkin, in which he forced me to write one-page papers and spare him the bull. And although the process was torture at the time, I am very thankful to my thesis advisor, Keith Taylor—the only professor on campus smart enough to take my humor study seriously.
What’s the proudest moment in your career so far?
The very first comedy piece I sold was a fold-in idea I came up with while interning at Mad Magazine during my junior year. I pitched the idea in the room and the editors liked it, so they bought it. Just like that I became a professional comedy writer. Al Jaffee illustrated the idea and it was published. They paid me $500, and I thought I was rich. But as it turns out, I have to eat every day so that money went quick.
Do you have any suggestions for students who might be interested in going into comedy writing?
Try to get a job as an intern or writer’s assistant for your favorite show or publication. This is a good way to meet people and learn about the industry. But if you do land an internship, BE A GOOD INTERN. Don’t walk around acting like you deserve a writing job before you’ve earned it, or they’ll only remember you as a terrible employee. I’ve seen plenty of assistants promoted to writers, but all of them were great assistants first.
Do you have any thoughts about being a woman in a male-dominated field (both television writing and comedy as a genre)?
Granted I haven’t been working in television for that long, but I’ve never experienced any prejudice based on my gender. In fact, Modern Family was specifically looking for a female writer when I applied. It feels more like a bonus feature than a hindrance. Most rooms appreciate the difference in perspective. I don’t believe anyone is out there is turning down talented writers because they’re women.
Is this interview an Advanced Introduction to Finality, or can you speak to what’s next? Do you hope to continue writing?
I don’t really know what the future holds. I’m sort of living my future plans now, since I never expected to be at this level so soon in my career. I’ll just try to learn as much as I can from the talented people around me, in case one day I’m lucky enough to run my own show.
Photos: (homepage) © Chuck Cook; (top) © Gage Skidmore