Advice From A Creative Multitasker: How Jake Johnson of "New Girl" Sold a Pilot While Starring In a Hit Sitcom

Jake Johnson, who plays grouchy Nick Miller on the Fox hit New Girl, talks to Co.Create about how he was able to sell a pilot while working the grueling hours on his day job. Hint: He treats "show business" like it’s just that: a business.

It isn’t often that you hear about someone treating the second word of the phrase "show business" as seriously as the first. Jake Johnson is one of those people, and his approach has allowed him to sell a pilot to Fox while playing Nick Miller on the same network’s comedy hit New Girl.

The pilot, called The B-Team, is the fourth pilot idea Johnson has sold, the second with his current writing partner, television director Max Winkler (whose dad just happens to be Henry Winkler). The "soft pitch" for this idea, according to Johnson, is about a group of people who have been lied to and cheated on and otherwise wronged in life whose A-Team-like mission is to get revenge for others who have been equally screwed. But, they don’t have any special powers or skills. "So they’re not a powerful group," he says, "they’re just regular people that are just sick and tired of other people getting fucked over. And so they form a team and it’s not the A-Team, it’s the B-Team."

Johnson would define himself more as a writer than an actor, having studied creative writing at the University of Iowa, then at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. But from almost day one he realized that, in order to maintain control over how his writing is produced, he’d have to do something else in addition, which is when he turned to acting. He talked to Co.Create about how he’s able to make the time to write and generate ideas while spending the grueling days shooting the show, and how he tries to not get too high or too low in a business where there are usually nothing but highs and lows.

DIVERSIFY SO YOU CAN PURSUE YOUR PASSION IN THE WAY THAT YOU WANT

My transition happened in New York. I had a play produced at the Ensemble Studio Theater and I was I think 21 years old and I was writing a lot of plays at the time, and the director kind of took the play away from me a little bit because I was young and he was experienced and I guess that’s how it works. And he directed it in a way where I wasn’t at any of the rehearsals, and I went to opening night and I hated it. And I was very embarrassed by it because it was just not the kind of show that I liked, and so I decided that the stuff that I would write, the only rule would be that I would be in it and direct it.

And so an old writing partner and I started writing plays and performing them throughout New York City. And then we traveled around the country with them and did a bunch of festivals and fringe festivals.

FIND WHAT MAKES EACH JOB INTERESTING TO YOU

What I get out of writing is more the intellectual side of it, and I get to see the whole story, and I get to think of the whole arc. And I get to control what happens with everything and it’s more of almost like a mental exercise of it all. And what I get out of acting is the exact opposite and it’s just purely living in the moment and it’s more emotion based and physical based and I’m not thinking of anything greater than what’s right in front of me.

LET YOUR CURRENT JOB INFLUENCE YOUR WRITING

Well, when I first read the script of New Girl it was called Chicks and Dicks and it was a real ensemble piece. And then when they got Zooey Deschanel I think it was such a coup and they were so excited that the show went from Chicks and Dicks to New Girl. And they moved the story around a little bit to really put emphasis on the fact that we’ve got this great breakout character named Jess Day played by Zooey Deschanel who’s one of our best actresses. And then I think as the show went on and the way that I saw it as a writer was, it felt as if they had that and then they started realizing we don’t have enough life, because you just can’t do a series based on one person.

So they started really highlighting Schmidt and saying, "Can another character break through?" and, credit to the writers and Max Greenfield, they did. And then I think they thought now we’ve got this going, let’s see if we can push everybody through and they’ve now really given everybody ample opportunity. You know every script Jess has great stuff, Schmidt has great stuff, Nick has great stuff, Winston (Lamorne Morris) has great stuff, Cece’s (Hannah Simone) got great stuff. And so now we’re at a point where they’re giving us the looks and now we just all have to hit our shots.

When I went back to writing I realized two things. One, I need to build the model that potentially has five interesting characters. So I will not create something unless it has a built-in ensemble, but you need a star to anchor that ensemble. And so somebody in there has to be the Jess Day or the Sam Malone from Cheers; somebody’s got to be your leader who breaks you into the television world and shows the audience who we’re following first.

IDEAS IDEAS IDEAS

So what [Max and I] will do is we’ll talk on the phone throughout the day and a lot of it is how you and I are doing this right now like when I’m driving to work. Or you know he’s directing The New Normal these days and so while he’s at work or if we have a break we’ll just get on the phone really fast and talk things out. And this idea happened because we started scheduling times where we’ll sit and say Saturday we’re having lunch from twelve until three o’clock, and we’ll spend the first two hours just pitching each other TV show ideas. And so throughout the day something will happen and you’ll think, "Oh that’d be funny; what if we did a show about you know a young reporter blah, blah."

So I’ll think of like ten to fifteen different ideas and he’ll do the same and then we get together and we just basically pitch each other. And we pitch until we both feel like that is one that works for him and works for me and we both like it. And then we both think about it on our own and then we just start emailing and texting and calling each other and both of us obsessing on the idea. So that I’ll be in my trailer, I’ll be at work, and I’ll finish shooting and I’ll come back and they’ll be three emails about the idea, and I’ll just respond to that. And then we save all those emails and then when we get together on the weekend we have all these documents about it. And so then we just keep forming it and keep forming it and then in terms of our writing process we write it individually.

So we’ll say, "All right, you take the first stab at the first act," and then he’ll take two days and write it, and then I’ll have the pages and in between scenes or on weekends I’ll block off all of Saturday and spend 10 hours and do a rewrite on it and so we just kind of tag team it.

KEEP UP THE SAME PACE YOU HAD BEFORE YOU GOT THE STEADY GIG

When I moved out to Los Angeles I had eight hundred bucks to my name and I was working as a caterer and at a casino and just really scared of going to zero and having to leave town. And I was working constantly like so many actors and writers out here who aren’t working yet do. Every night I was on a different stage performing, during the day crashing commercial auditions to try to get in and writing whenever I wasn’t catering a wedding or working a day job. So I would work an eight-hour shift, get off, go perform, come home and write, and be sleeping five or six hours like everybody else out here who’s struggling.

When I started actually working and making a living as an actor my pace didn’t stop because that’s just how I do this business. And so now the fact that the things I am pitching are selling, well it doesn’t change the fact when I was just performing on improv stages five nights a week I had a bunch of TV ideas. You know I’ve written probably 15 screenplays and I’ve outlined 15 to 20 different TV shows, but nobody has heard of them. And so now the fact that I’m getting the opportunity, I’m not actually doing anything that different so it’s not as if I’m like very disciplined, I just don’t know how to do this business any other way.

[Now] I’m working on a television show instead of being a waiter. Otherwise, it’s the same process. In this business if you don’t obsess over stuff nothing gets done. So rather than working for an eight-hour shift and then going to do a live show that takes two hours, well I’m just at FOX dressed in a flannel and jeans playing Nick.

DON’T GET TOO HIGH OR TOO LOW ABOUT A PROJECT OR IDEA

I don’t think there’s time in this business to mourn losses. So if we find out that The B-Team is dead the next day we schedule a lunch and we sit together and we start re-pitching. And I think that the likelihood of things getting on TV are so rare, the likelihood of one going from idea to pitch to script to pilot to being on air to being successful is such the lottery that you’ve just got to keep trying.

That’s being in the business. That is auditioning for three hundred commercials and missing them all, and being on stages night after night and not getting things, and you keep going and then all of a sudden things start coming. There are just so many people trying in this game.

My approach to it is less emotional than a lot of people I know. I think a lot of people when they get rejected they take it very personally. And so if they have a TV show and they’re pitching it and they sell it, and then the network doesn’t shoot a pilot, or they shoot a pilot and they test it and it tests poorly and it dies, people allow that to crush them and then they have to build themselves back up and I don’t believe in that. I’ll put my heart and soul in a project but I understand that the likelihood of it still going is so rare that a bad review or a failed project doesn’t emotionally have that big an effect on me.

I think I’ve missed so many fucking times that to get hurt every time I miss it’s just not realistic. It’s too exhausting. Because I’m on a nice streak right now people will talk about the successes that I’m having, but even now if people saw the amount of rejection and the amount of fails I’ve had on a weekly basis professionally…if I was a batter I’m not hitting a thousand. This business is like baseball, if you hit three out of ten you’re a great hitter.

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2 Comments

  • Brian Sounalath

    What a great article and interview. Myself, being an actor hyphen everything else in Los Angeles, it's really inspiring to read about Johnson's perspective and journey. He's got a great head on his shoulders. This makes me want to work harder. Thank you.

  • stevp

    I know how he feels. I've tried to break into writing with screenplays and novels for over a decade now and the rejections are so numerous that if you let it get to you you'd just give up after a while. I've had some minor successes but they are not steady, so now I've turned to writing education books. The money is not always great but it is there and the demand for non-fiction is always there. For any writer struggling to break into movies or who writes books, try your hand at some non-fiction and it helps pay the bills.