Carrie Kemper, Screen Writer and JBS Alum

Carrie Kemper reflects on her time at JBS and how it impacted her--including her work on one of JBS students favorite show, The Office.

Ann Zhang, Reporter

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When did you become interested in comedy writing? How did Burroughs shape your interest in writing?

I became interested in comedy writing in college when an upperclassman handed out an issue of the campus humor magazine during my freshman orientation. One of the pieces in the issue was a cover for a fake publication called Sadness Magazine; the cover photo was a man sitting sadly by a toilet and one of the featured articles was “Putting Your Dog to Sleep” That really made me laugh. At Burroughs, I was interested in comedy, but more performative comedy. (The only reason I ran for student body president was because I wanted to give a funny speech. Then I was elected and had to run an entire dance marathon; it was horrible.) Writing-wise at Burroughs, I don’t think it was until I wrote my college essay senior year that I started paying attention to how funny words can be on a page. In the essay, I wrote about playing a non-speaking horse and tree in a JBS production of Tom Jones. That is not a joke. How did I get into college?

When you were in high school, how did you feel about writing assignments, in-class essays, etc.?

I actually preferred term papers to more creative writing assignments. I liked the tidy structure of thesis, topic sentence, supporting evidence, conclusion. Loved getting to that last paragraph and writing, “In conclusion.” It felt like paint by numbers. The hard part, of course, was actually coming up with a decent thesis. I’m pretty sure my ninth grade history term paper’s thesis was, “The French peasants revolted in the French Revolution because they were hungry.” So that wasn’t very good.

How did you get started on screenwriting? How did you enter the screenwriting sphere?

One of my friends on the Stanford humor magazine had interned for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and he helped get me a job there after my sophomore year. Later, I interned at the Late Show with David Letterman, and while there, wrote my first “spec script,” an episode of The Sarah Silverman Program. After graduating, I worked for a friend writing, directing, and editing a web series in Buenos Aires, then moved to Los Angeles. In LA, I wrote a one-act play about a couple dealing with the suicide of their dog, which got me hired as a staff writer on The Office.

Have you based any of your stories/scenes off your experiences at Burroughs?

That first season at The Office, I vaguely remember pitching that Michael gets hit in the head by a steel beam while representing Dunder Mifflin at a Habitat for Humanity construction site. That happened to me during my Senior Project and I blacked out. I remember telling my friend Claire Shapleigh ‘02 that I couldn’t see, and she screamed, “Carrie’s Blind!” Anyway, that was one of probably thousands of pitches that were never used.

What’s the writing process like? Can you take us into the writer’s room?

The process varies significantly from show to show, but the basic idea of a writers’ room is for a group of writers to come up with a season-long arc for the show, and then break that arc up into episodes. When I say “arc,” I mean the overall dramatic story of the season. (Some sitcoms have more of a season arc than others.) So in the first few weeks of a writers’ room, the staff will agree on a general sense of where the season is headed, landing on certain story “tentpoles” (for instance, “Michael proposes to Holly,” or at Silicon Valley, “Richard is fired as CEO of Pied Piper”). Those first few weeks are also usually when each writer gets a chance to pitch story ideas that may have nothing to do with the dramatic arc of the season but are funny enough to be stand-alone episodes.

Once an individual episode’s story has been successfully “broken” by the group, it is assigned to a writer, who is given several days to go off and fill in the dialogue blanks. The writer then brings the episode back to the group for rewrites. (In the meantime, the group is busy figuring out the story for the next episode/rewriting the previous episode.)

You’ve written on network television shows and on HBO. How does the writing process compare? How are the audiences different?

Speaking very generally, at a network show, the writing staff writes around 22 episodes of television in nine months (The Office was more like 25 or 26 episodes). After the first two or three months of writing, you start shooting the show. And then after four months, you start airing it. So whereas in the first couple of months, the showrunner can be in the writers’ room making decisions on stories, after the show starts shooting and airing, he/she usually has to spend a lot of time on set and in the edit bay. Things get logjammed and there isn’t as much time to obsess over stories or jokes because often you have to shoot the episode the next day. At Silicon Valley on HBO, the writing staff writes 10 episodes in about six months. So at a place like NBC, you are averaging writing two and a half episodes a month, whereas at HBO, you’re averaging one and a half. Plus, production at Silicon Valley usually doesn’t start for four months, and the show won’t air for almost a year. The showrunner isn’t as preoccupied with production and editing. There’s a lot more time to try to get things right.

Audience-wise, you aren’t reaching nearly as many people on HBO as you would on NBC. A decent-sized audience for a network sitcom these days would be around four million people, whereas Silicon Valley is lucky to get a million. (Our ratings took a big hit after we stopped airing after Game of Thrones season four!)

Creatively, I definitely prefer working at HBO. Again, very generally speaking, I think the schedule allows for a higher quality product. And that’s not to say network shows can’t be excellent. Seinfeld is my favorite show of all time.

What’s your favorite book? Movie? Ice cream flavor?

Jane Eyre, “A League of their Own,” McConnell’s Salted Caramel Chip but only when it’s on sale.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I like raising my son Johnny, who is one and a half!

What’s something you miss about Burroughs? (Or something you don’t miss… like finals)

Look, call me a dork, but I miss the holiday program bad. That was by far my absolute favorite thing to do all year. I even loved those rehearsals we had to sit through during finals week when all of us had little study sheets on top of our music. What was that song we sang in Latin at the end of the program? I still remember the words. Personent hodie. What does that mean? Who were we singing about? Oh no, was it the devil? Were we worshipping the devil? Oh well, still the thing I miss most about Burroughs.

If you could give any advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Get over your dumb thing where you faint at the sight of blood and be a doctor, Carrie! Doctors save people’s lives! TV writers don’t do anything.

And yet, it is evident that Kemper has done plenty of justice to the art of TV writing. We can’t wait to see what she has planned next!

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