EXCLUSIVE: Inside writing comedy drama Carter with show creator Garry Campbell

Carter is a comedy crime drama starring Jerry O'Connell as Harley Carter, a star actor famed for playing a detective on a hit TV show. Describe by critics as "cheeky", "sardonic" and "epically clever" Carter has gone down a treat with fans too. Here the two-time Emmy-nominated show creator Garry Campbell tells Mandy News how he started out, what his screenwriting process is like and what aspiring screenwriters can do to succeed.

5th September 2018
/ By James Collins

garry campbell carter creator screenwriter GARRYCAMPBELL

Please introduce yourself and tell us how you got involved in writing and producing for TV?
I guess you could say I got my start in television shortly after high school when I first met Mark Mckinney and Bruce McCulloch who would later go on to become two members of the sketch troupe, Kids in the Hall. We did shows together in Calgary for a few years in the early '80s before moving to Toronto. When they got their TV show that turned into my first writing job for television. It spoiled me a bit because Kids in the Hall was a bunch of friends putting on a show together whereas my next job – and my first Hollywood job – was a short-lived labour of lunacy called Saturday Night Special. It was a six-episode, late night sketch show starring Rosanne. The show was – conservatively – a flaming mess but I learned a lot about how not to do a TV show. From there I went straight to MadTV and I've worked pretty steadily since then.

***** Read our interview with Modern Life Is Rubbish screenwriter *****

For those who haven't seen the show, tell us a little bit about Carter?
Carter is the story of an uber famous actor named Harley Carter who – in the pilot – has just realised how burnt out he is playing a detective on his hit TV show, 'Call Carter'. He comes home to his small town in Canada but finds out pretty quickly that people aren't going to let him walk away from detecting that easily. And he kinda doesn't want to anyway. He also realises that he may have spent his last few years playing a version of what he might actually be. Now he just has to prove it to everybody else. Especially his two best friends, Sam Shaw and Dave Leigh.

The mystery-of-the-week aspect of the show is how it was sold so that has to be there in every episode but the heart of the show for me is the relationship between the three leads. It's a show about leaving home and losing part of yourself in the process. About how – for some of us – people and places are far more important than fame and fortune. The mysteries are fun and challenging but digging into the stories of three old friends rediscovering why they need each other is what I really love about this show.

What was the process like for writing and creating Carter?
At the end of the day – for me – creating a TV show is a collaborative process. I surround myself with talented and like-minded folks and then give them room to do what they do. I've always thought that the collective brain of a well-functioning writer's room should be smarter than any individual brain on the staff. Dialogue, jokes, character beats – those are all things I can happily knock off in my sleep but the hard work of actually figuring out what the show IS from week to week? And especially the initial work of figuring out the pilot from the ground up? That was an immense collaboration between myself, my trusted partners at Amaze Productions, a couple of merely-brilliant writers and the lovely folks at Sony International.

Once a draft of a script exists then we have to go through it and make sure the 'moments' are all there. A story can be functional, it can have the shape of a TV show but if the moments don't shine (or don't exist) your script doesn't come to life. I've seen too many TV shows that seemed to be constructed entirely of moments and lines of dialogue that I have literally seen/heard a thousand times. I guess that's comfort food for some viewers but I have no interest in making "night-light" TV. Every cliché has to either be removed or acknowledged and then gently subverted. Audiences are extremely sophisticated these days so be aware of that and construct your moments with that in mind.

Are you involved on set with your creations or do you try to keep the two processes separate?
To me, it's all part of the same process. Writing an episode of TV may start in the writer's room but it doesn't end until the last day of post. You have to be open to discover and change things at every step of the process or you're going to miss some magic. Having said that, because so much of this show is about my voice in the scripts, I don't get to spend as much time on set as I'd like to. In an ideal world, all the typey part of the writing process would be done before you start shooting but I've been on very few shows where that's been the case.

What are you currently working on now, and for the rest of 2018?
Helping an old friend out with a show he has in development, writing a six-part Sci-Fi comedy on spec and waiting for word on a pick-up for Carter season two. And fixing the gate that keeps the goats from driving the donkeys crazy. That's not a metaphor.

***** Read our interview with The X-Files screenwriter Benjamin Van Allen *****

What advice do you have for writers wanting to get involved in television?
The short answer is 'write' but you also have to put yourself out there. Be part of the world. Writing a masterpiece is great but if you haven't developed the relationships or the pathways you need to help get that masterpiece seen then your job is much harder than it needs to be. I'm a terrible networker and suck at selling myself but I also recognise that I've worked steadily for going on 30 years now because I somehow threw myself into the world of sketch comedy and improv when I was fresh out of high school. 

I still work regularly with the friends I made back then. I was a shy and socially awkward nerd (and always will be) but making myself step out of my self imposed shadows and into the bizarre and beautiful light of this business we call 'show' was the hardest but most rewarding move I've ever made. I have never looked back.

Sign up to Mandy.com for free to see writing jobs.