Creative Minds: Emily Kapnek, mayor of ‘Suburgatory’
“Suburgatory” is the newest neighbor on ABC’s block of family-centric sitcoms, which includes "Modern Family." Series creator Emily Kapnek talks about the challenges of running a show while also writing for it, and why she chose to focus on a father-daughter dynamic.
What was your journey to becoming a showrunner?
My first job was for an animated series which I created for Nickelodeon when I was 25. I was living in New York and they posted a screenwriting competition. This was the year that “Welcome to the Dollhouse” came out and I thought about doing an animated version of junior high school hell. So I came up with the idea for a pilot called “As Told by Ginger.” I wound up coming in first place and we ended up making 65 episodes. We had three Emmy nominations. That was my first job, running that show.
Then I made the leap to writing live-action TV when that show went away. I worked on ‘Hung,” “Parks and Recreation,” Aliens in America” … and sort of learned from watching and doing. Mike Schur (“Parks and Recreation”) is probably one of the best showrunners I’ve ever seen. He’s who I look to as a template.
What are the biggest challenges of running a sitcom?
You start off as a writer, that’s your creative role. But then you have to deal with all the other elements involved with keeping a show on track: being on time and on budget. The hiring and firing of people. For me, what’s been challenging is that I have wanted to continue to write for the show. For our first season, I wrote four episodes — five, if you count the pilot. That’s a lot. What also makes us unique is we have one of the tiniest writing rooms out there. We have four people on staff.
You’ve said the show is semi-based on your own experience living in suburbia. What makes suburbia a good sitcom backdrop?
I grew up in New York initially. My mom moved us to the suburbs for better schools. We had this culture shock moving. On its own, it’s not that groundbreaking of an idea. We thought looking at a single dad with his daughter felt kind of cool, especially because we wanted to focus on that element of suburbia being the land of the moms.
The other thing I think is cool that I really identified with is being a single parent. My older son — I’m married now — is 12. I was in my 20s when I had him and I wound up being a single mom — and I wanted to look at growing up alongside your kid. I always wanted to tell those stories but whenever I developed shows for single moms, I was always so shocked by what networks wanted.
Perfection. Basically a mom who’s doing it all. And I didn’t understand it. Can’t she forget to pick up her kid? Or make mistakes — the way it really is? It’s much harder to portray women in that way because networks don’t want them to be unlikable — yet you can do a movie like “Big Daddy” with Adam Sandler and be like, ‘Aw, he’s hilarious!’ I think in letting [“Suburgatory’s” Jeremy Sisto] be a single dad we can explore some of that.
Do you think so much of what people think of as suburbia now comes from what they might see on shows like “The Real Housewives”? We even get a little bit of that "Housewife" attitude from Dallas Royce (Cheryl Hines).
I do feel like that kind of “Housewives’ culture has sort of permeated — you see it everywhere now. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Los Angeles, women are emulating it everywhere. Dallas isn’t the only mom on the block, though. Sheila’s character (played by Ana Gasteyer) is much more of the June Cleaver kind of mom. I think what we really wanted to do is create this ensemble of characters that have a different take and have Tessa (Jane Levy) get to interact with them and basically sample the different types of moms.
We have a really great finale that we’re working towards — the end of Season 1 is a Mother’s Day episode.
Are we going to be seeing Tessa’s mom?
I’m not saying we’re seeing Tessa’s mom. It’s swirling out there. She’s becoming more aware of this thing she’s been denying. She’s sort of given this impression that she’s fine without her mom. This whole idea that you don’t miss what you don’t know, that’s kind of her mantra. She really convinced George — and herself — that it’s a non-issue. But we have a great holiday episode centered on Mother’s Day — in a town like Chatswain where moms are so revered, some of that has to bubble to the surface. It’s a very poignant finale.
What do you make of the new comedies this season?
There’s been a lot of focus on female-driven shows. Raw, off-center women’s voices. I think just doing that for the sake of doing that isn’t necessarily the best formula.If you’re coming at it from a place that’s organic, it shows. If you’re trying to capitalize on a wave of loud-mouth female humor, it won’t resonate. I’d like to think the cream rises to the top.
Do you think there are enough female showrunners?
It seems like it now, huh? But no, it’s usually not the case. And the same can be said in writers rooms. It’s a nice shift, but I do think there are cycles and seasons. I’m sure it won’t be long till we say television is too female-skewing, and “Where are all the men’s shows?” You can’t win.
What do you make of the new relationship showrunners have with viewers, thanks to social media?
It freaks me out. I was not on Twitter for the longest time. My biggest concern was creating a direct line of contact with the people who post on say, oh, I don’t know, the Deadline Hollywood message boards. Really? Do I really want to be told how ugly and untalented I am every day of my life?
But what I really didn’t anticipate was the fan part of communication would be so awesome. I see people tweet about the show as they’re watching it. The stuff with the critics is harder.... You want to set the record straight on your choices. But once you do that it creates this war. But getting to hear from the fans is nice. And you know, I have a small Twitter following and I can chitchat with almost everyone who reaches out. It’s important to me, though, that we don’t steer story lines based on reactions from there. You can’t start catering to a handful of viewers. You have to stick with your vision for the show.
Photo: Emily Kapnek, left, at the 2012 Winter TCA Tour in Pasadena, and a scene from "Suburgatory." Credit: Frederick M. Brown / Getty.