‘Game of Thrones’: ‘Modern Family,’ ‘Parks and Rec’ Writers on Why They Love the HBO Drama
Game of Thrones is beloved by viewers and critics alike. But the Emmy-nominated HBO fantasy drama is also a surprising favorite in the writers’ rooms of TV comedies around Hollywood. Jace Lacob talks to sitcom writers about why they’re obsessed with the sex-and-magic-laden drama, and how the show informs their own narratives.
Fox’s upcoming sitcom The Mindy Project, created by and starring Mindy Kaling, deconstructs the romantic comedy fantasies of its lead character, an ob-gyn whose disappointment in the dating world stems from her obsessive viewing of Nora Ephron films.
At the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in July, Kaling was candid about the role that When Harry Met Sally and other rom-coms would play on the show, but also revealed the show might feature shoutouts to HBO’s Game of Thrones, which is nominated for an Emmy Award for Best Drama.
“My writing staff, they are just obsessed with Game of Thrones,” Kaling said. “The show could just have Game of Thrones references: dragons, stealing eggs of dragon babies… You might see a lot—more than your average show—of Game of Thrones references.”
Yet the writers of The Mindy Project are not the only scribes who have fallen under the spell of the ferocious Game of Thrones, which depicts the struggle for control of the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.
“It’s a violent, strange show with lots of sex in it,” Kaling went on to say.
Writers’ rooms—where the plots of television shows are “broken,” in industry parlance—often revolve around discussions of other shows, particularly ones that have a significant hold on the cultural conversation, whether it be Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or Homeland.
“A comedy writers’ room is like a really great dinner party with the smartest and funniest people you’ve ever met,” Parks and Recreation co-executive producer Alexandra Rushfield wrote in an email. Their typical conversations? “The presidential campaign. Whatever articles or books people are reading. Taking wagers on crazy statistics, like how much all the casts in the world combined might weigh. General heckling of co-workers.”
And TV shows such as Game of Thrones that viewers can debate endlessly. Modern Family executive producer Danny Zuker likened Game of Thrones to Lost in terms of the volume of discussion and passionate debate that the show engenders. It’s certainly immersive: five massive novels, two seasons of television, maps, online forums, family trees. Game of Thrones is a show that provokes—or even forces—viewer evaluation, deconstruction, and discussion.
“Many writers that I know are into it,” said Zuker over lunch on the Fox lot. “The setting of the world probably appeals to that nerd that is in most writers… I never played Dungeons & Dragons, but I get why the most disaffected kids who are intelligent and creative did, because in that world you could be powerful…. I basically just described comedy writers.”
Rushfield agreed. “The comedy writer audience is actually an obvious one,” she wrote. “These guys (almost exclusively) are huge nerds. Nerds are into fantasy stuff. Game of Thrones is a huge fantasy show. It all comes back to the nerds.”
Zuker admitted to tweeting:
He’s become evangelical about the show, attempting to get Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan hooked. (“He knows he has to watch them now,” said Zuker.)
But while Zuker is more or less alone in the Modern Family writers’ room with his Game of Thrones obsession, other rooms are teeming with those who know the difference between Westeros and Winterfell.
“Game of Thrones definitely took over our writers' room,” wrote Parks and Recreation co-producer Aisha Muharrar in an email. “I started watching the show just so I wouldn’t be left out of the conversation. As soon as I heard my first Game of Thrones spoiler in the room, I decided if I were ever going to watch, it would have to be now. I caught up on about five or six episodes in one weekend just so I could be on the same page as everyone else in the room. And it was worth it.”
Rushfield also came to Game of Thrones late. “I felt left out because I had no idea what the word ‘khaleesi’ meant,” she wrote. “I was swayed when I realized how isolating it was to have a topic that everyone I worked with could relate to, but I couldn’t.”
Rushfield watched the first two seasons over a two-week period and quickly became obsessed. “I could not at any given time tell you exactly what is happening or why it is happening, but I do know when someone does something very, very good or very, very bad and this sustains me,” wrote Rushfield. “The show has won me over and I am now a devout fan though, as I said, I still couldn’t for the life of me tell you what actually happened in it.”
But the show has won its adherents for more than just the neck-snapping plot twists that liberally pepper the narrative. Season 2 featured climactic battles, character deaths, and surprising heroes. (“Dinklage is the new Drogo,” wrote Muharrar.) A Season 1 reveal—that lead character Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) wasn’t making it out of the season alive—proved just how willing Martin, and the show, are willing to go against the grain of audience expectations.
“[It’s] so cool when a show can change its own rules,” said Community co-executive producer Andy Bobrow, pointing toward the Eddard Stark beheading twist and the rise of Emilia Clarke’s khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryen. “We definitely aspire to that here.”
That sort of maverick plotting and subversion of audience anticipation has become a cornerstone of Community and other comedies like Parks and Recreation, which are willing to shake up their foundations. (Not everyone approaches Game of Thrones’ narrative lessons with as much seriousness as Bobrow: “If you think you’ve included enough boobs in one episode,” joked Muharrar, “that’s exactly when you should add more boobs.”)
Parks has proven itself to be a friend of the Starks, integrating Game of Thrones references in the show. “The actors are just as big fans as the writers,” Muharrar wrote. “There was a Parks/Game of Thrones hashtag going on Twitter for a bit that started after I tweeted at [creator] Mike Schur that I had a dream about our worlds colliding.”
The devotion to Game of Thrones goes beyond mere in-jokes, however. The show is an extraordinary adaptation of Martin’s sprawling book series, brought to life with cinematic sweep and a painstaking attention to detail. Beyond the bloody battles and betrayals, could the stories of loss, ambition, love, jealousy, and rage even be … relatable?
“This is not a slam on the show Girls, because I think it is a really well-done show, and I admire it immensely,” said Zuker. “But sometimes that world is more alien to me than the world in Game of Thrones, [whose] strength is that it is telling uniquely human, down-to-earth stories against this insane backdrop.”
“Westeros is more real than the sex lives of 20-something women to me,” he said, laughing. “I’m more likely to fight a dragon than to have sex with these young women.”