From the outside, Greg Daniels has one of those careers an aspiring TV writer hopes for. Starting as a sketch comedy writer for Not Necessarily the News and Saturday Night Live, he went on to further develop his chops on The Simpsons and King of the Hill, freelancing along the way on Seinfeld and elsewhere, before becoming executive producer of the U.S. version of The Office, now in its fifth season. On résumé alone, he's an obvious, and worthy, recipient for the Outstanding Television Writer Award at this year's Austin Film Festival.
For all those budding writers attending AFF for what it touts as "unparalleled access to some of the industry's most important writers," they might do well to follow Daniels' lead: Decide what is good work, and pursue it.
"You know Sylar from Heroes? I'm like him," Daniels said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles office. "When I found someone who I thought was a superhero of comedy writing, I sought them out." It's unlikely an encounter with Daniels was as painful. By phone, Daniels is measured and calming. The evil Sylar hunts down and steals the superpowers of others by presumably eating their brains and leaving them for dead. Word would get around. Besides, most of the shows Daniels has worked on (and their creators) are very much alive, something that makes his career especially notable: Most of the shows he's worked on are still airing and are milestones on the TV landscape.
"At the time, I'm not sure I thought any of those shows were bigger than what they are now," Daniels says. "I feel like I tried to do good work. Tried to make the stuff that I liked be successful enough to be on the air."
Daniels is the last to label himself a trailblazer. "I don't know how 'maverick' it is to bring a movie comedy sensibility to TV," he said, pointing out that movie comedies do not have a laugh track. "I feel like the kind of stuff I like was around before me," he said, pointing to the work of Albert Brooks, movies such as This Is Spinal Tap, and the British comedies of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (creators of the original The Office from the BBC). The most Daniels is willing to concede is that he knows what makes him laugh and that he wants to make other people laugh, too.
The death knell for the TV sitcom has been tolling for some time now, but it's attached to the kind of setup-and-delivery-style sitcom that Daniels is not especially attracted to. "I remember very strongly, in an early part of my career, talking to other writers and thinking, 'How can I be a comedy writer and not write for sitcoms?'" He agrees his comedic sensibility is less about the snappy retort and more about humor culled from good intentions paired with pathetic choices. Viewers are rewarded for paying attention.
"It's a sense of humor thing, how you tell a joke or a funny story," he said, referring to Mark Twain's essay "How to Tell a Story." "There are those who are laughing as they tell the story and those who tell it with a completely straight face." The latter, he said, "was more my temperament." That aspiring TV writers (and viewers) might count him among their "writing superheroes" for that very approach would probably startle him.
"It looks really perfect, doesn't it?" Daniels says without arrogance when examining his career from the outside. "There are plenty of jobs I really wanted that I didn't get – I really wanted to work on The Larry Sanders Show; didn't get that. There are jobs I turned down [including Family Guy] that I kicked myself for afterward. I've worked with a lot of great comedy writers. ... I'm grateful for the different people I've gotten to work with. There are a lot of different paths my career could have run, but I'm happy with how it turned out."
Greg Daniels will accept the Outstanding Television Writer Award at the AFF Awards Luncheon on Oct. 18.
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