From Indiana to Amherst to New York City to Los Angeles, John Timothy life is a map documenting the steps needed to become a Hollywood writer. As a lover of stories since his childhood, John – who is part of the Muscogee (Creek) tribe – has been publishing content and refining his storytelling skills since high school. On top of that, John is one of many who have been trained by the Upright Citizens Brigade. Over his short career, John has gone from writing for CollegeHumor and UCB Comedy Originals, to Leverage: Redemption and now Ghosts. Wanting to learn more about his career and his work on CBS’s Ghosts, I was able to interview John for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some comedies you loved? Are there any that you still enjoy as an adult?
John Timothy: I grew up on Steve Martin. His zany physicality, his highbrow jokes, THAT WHITE SUIT– wow. Still amazing today. Truly timeless. To date, if somebody put a gun to my head, I could still probably quote all of Three Amigos by heart. I also have a special place in my heart for the Steven Spielberg’s Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures cartoons. They felt like they were written for adults and I was getting away with something by watching them.
Yanes: When did you decide to pursue a career in entertainment? Was there a moment this goal crystalized for you?
John: Growing up, I loved comedy but it wasn’t entirely clear to me that it could actually be someone’s job. Being a child of the Midwest, it almost seemed like too much fun to be a job. When I got to high school, I started doing plays and that was such a great experience. I was also very fortunate that my high school had a program called “Junior Spectacular,” where groups of students from the Junior Class put on short, self-written plays to help fund Junior Prom. The show I helped write won (Off Da Hook, a tale of wayward Canadian pirates) and that might have been the first time I legitimately thought “Hey, I might be okay at this.”
Yanes: You have a degree in Asian Languages and Civilizations. A common defense of humanities degrees is that they teach critical thinking (however one defines it) that you can use for the rest of your life. So, do you think this education has helped you? If you could go back, would you major in this again?
John: That I do! I focused on Japanese and Japanese literature. While I daydream about one day getting the call that someone is putting together a TV comedy based on Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji and they desperately need my help, I’ve made my peace that that’s probably not happening. I don’t really have any regrets about studying what I wanted to study. The critical thinking skills I developed pursuing the humanities are invaluable, even if the specifics of study aren’t wildly practical to my everyday life.
Yanes: You are part of the Upright Citizens Brigade, which is one of the best comedy training organizations in the country. How do you think being part of UCB helped you become better at comedy? Are there specific lessons that really impacted you?
John: UCB was the best training to be a creative professional I could have ever asked for. I learned how to develop and explore comedic ideas by putting up and trying out literally thousands of improvised scenes. Then, there’s the communication skills you develop by being forced to work with other talented, driven, and, uh, temperamental comedians. In some ways, learning how to manage competing dispositions, styles and desires between artists in a collaborative setting was maybe the most practical takeaway from my time there.
I think one of the most important comedy lessons from my time at UCB was the power of finding your way to yes. Writers are sensitive, and everybody, in their heart of hearts, believes that their idea is the right one. An easy bad habit to fall into is when other people are pitching their ideas, you’ll just be half listening but really just waiting for your chance to pitch your idea. Great ideas come from collaboration. So, if you can find a way to leave your ego at the door and really listen and help build on ideas that aren’t “yours,” you’ll be a bigger asset as a writer.
Yanes: Much of your work has been writing or performing in skits for websites. How do you approach crafting a comedic story when you only have a few minutes to play with?
John: Quickly. There’s this Mark Twain quote where he says ‘I apologize for such a long letter – I did not have time to write a short one” and it strikes me as one of the truer things ever said about writing, especially comedy writing. Sketch writing is hard because it’s so short. You have to have a very clear idea of what you think is funny and you have to get in and get out. Every line has to earn its keep. It really makes you approach writing comedy like an engineer, in some ways. “What are the minimum specs I need to make my comedic point clear?”
Yanes: Your latest gig is being a staff writer on CBS’s Ghosts. What is the process of getting a job like that? Is it largely networking or do you have to also create unique content just for this opening?
John: I heard about Ghosts through the Native American and Indigenous Writers Committee of the WGA. The showrunners of Ghosts were searching for lower-level writers (check), who were Native (check), and had a strong comedy background (check). I asked my agent to submit a sample of my writing to the show and then asked a mentor of mine who had worked with the Ghosts showrunners before to put in a good word for me.
The old “This guy won’t bug the hell out of you in a writer’s room. He’s also funny.” kind of vouching goes a long way. The showrunners liked my sample enough to bring me in for an interview and then a few weeks later, I learned I had the job and we started in three days!
Yanes: American versions of BBC shows tend to fail quite a bit. When did you realize that CBS’s Ghosts would work?
John: I knew it would be good as soon as I met the cast. They are such amazing performers individually, but together, they’re a real force. Even if it never found an audience, at that point I knew the show would, at a minimum, be very funny and be something I could be proud of. I felt it was gaining traction when I started seeing people’s fan art online. That’s when you can tell that the characters are starting to speak to people out of your little bubble who are paid to think about these characters. If people take time out of their day to create art based on your work, something you’re doing is working! It’s really been amazing to see!
Yanes: Though only a few episodes of Ghosts have been released, is there a joke or scene that you are particularly proud of?
John: This is tiny, but in the episode where Sam goes to visit her mother who died in a theme restaurant, I named the restaurant Mojitown and it tickles me to this day. It’s not a good name for a restaurant. That said, I’d eat at a Mojitown in a second.
Yanes: When people finish watching episodes of Ghosts, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
John: We really strive to create a kind, funny show with a lot of heart. Things are pretty grim out there at the moment, so I think people are drawn to this sweet, caring little show we’re making. The characters on our show might occasionally fight, but they’re all genuinely decent people trying their best. And I think people are drawn to that. It’s a show about people trying to make the best of their (after)lives and how much richer it is to do it together.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
John: Ghosts-wise, after the break, people can look forward to an episode I co-wrote with Josh Malmuth that focuses on Sasappis and his past as a storyteller. That’s an exciting one because we got Román‘s actual father to play Sasappis’ father in the show!
Non-Ghosts-wise, I am playing a character in an upcoming animated children’s show on Netflix that I’m very excited about. It focuses on a Native family and the children’s amazing adventures. That is a fun project because it’s the kind of thing my niece will be able to enjoy when it comes out later this year. She’s 4, and I think the cartoon with talking animals is a little more her speed than the show about the walking, talking dead.