What’s A Writers’ Room Without Junk Food?

A few days before most of America’s workplaces shut down, Mark Levin had the prescient notion that maybe it was time for him and his colleagues to stop sharing plates of charcuterie. The next day, the “Big Mouth” room had been disbanded, replaced by a Zoom grid.

TV and film productions all around Los Angeles have come to a halt, but cartoons can still get made in quarantine. Early in the pandemic, when the producers of “The Simpsons” moved their writers’ room online, the “Big Mouth” staff felt that they were overreacting, akin to Y2K preppers. 

The “Big Mouth” staff was working on two seasons at once: post-production for Season 4, which, conveniently, had an anxiety theme—“We thought everyone was going to be so anxious."

In writers’ rooms, staff members regularly trot out humiliating details from their childhoods and their sex lives for inspiration. But looking around the insides of one another’s houses was a new level of intimacy. “You get to see everybody’s baby or cat or dog,” Nick Kroll, an actor and a co-creator, said.

The first challenge was pulling off the table read, during which the actors read the script aloud for the first time.

“Comedies need audiences, to hear where the laughs are,” Levin added.

The following Tuesday, forty-five writers, showrunners, production staff, Netflix executives, and actors (including Kroll, John Mulaney, Jenny Slate, Jason Mantzoukas, Richard Kind, and Lena Waithe) logged on to Zoom for the table read.

“We are so glad that you are all in this room with us,” Levin said from his bedroom. He sat slumped in a polo shirt and an orange ball cap, clasping his hands like a coach at halftime. “We are in the third day of our Zoom writers’ room,” he said. “It’s given us incredible solace and company and distraction and laughter. And that’s what we’re all going to give to each other today, O.K.?”

Motivational speech complete, he turned to logistics. “If you’re reading, it’s good to have your camera turned on,” he said, seeing some black squares.

“Cool!” Mulaney shouted. He was the only other person who had spoken so far.

Andrew Goldberg, another co-creator, who was seated in front of a bookshelf with no books in it, began, reading: “ ‘Thanksgiving,’ written by Brandon Kyle Goodman.”

Cheers rang out. “Yay!” Jenny Slate said. It was a Thanksgiving episode, inspired by the time that Goldberg’s father ferried a cooked turkey to a relative’s house in the trunk of his car, and Goldberg refused to eat it. Goldberg continued, reading the stage directions: “The door of the oven flies open and through the screen we see Marty’s face.”

Are you golden brown yet, you lazy son of a bitch?” he shouted at the cartoon turkey. Kroll laughed.

A few barks interrupted the session, and Lena Waithe (“Sorry!”) could be seen scooping up a squirming dog. At one point, Mulaney’s feed cut out and Goldberg read his lines for him. Halfway through, the unscripted voice of a toddler screamed “Dad!”

Victor Quinaz, a writer with tortoiseshell glasses and a quarantine beard, was subbing for the absent actor Zach Galifianakis, who was to play a new character. “Happy Thanksgiving, Connie!” he read in a booming voice. “I’m grateful for your ample bosom! Permission to motorboat you?”

“Maybe not as clear as an in-person read,” he said. “But it was actually pretty useful.” Kroll liked what he called “the human connection and community” of the event.

“I think we’ve found it comforting to have each other, and to still be making each other laugh,” Goldberg said. “If we lost that, I think that would be really depressing.”

Kroll admitted that he has started dreaming in Zoomscapes—“Rotating screens of people interacting with each other,” he said. “It’s amusing right now, but, long term, I would rather be dreaming of actual interactions, with human contact.”