Bringing home Loot
Showrunners Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard tell DQ about reuniting with star Maya Rudolph for Apple TV+ comedy Loot, their love of workplace dramas and why they never stop writing.
With credits including Parks & Recreation, 30 Rock and Superstore, writers Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard are no strangers to the demands of a workplace drama. Now for their latest project, they have returned to the genre and reunited with actor Maya Rudolph to tell the story of a divorced billionaire who embarks on a journey of self-discovery when she learns she has a charity foundation in her name and wants to get involved.
Loot, which debuts on Apple TV+ this Friday (June 24), sees Rudolph play Molly Novak, who has a dream life, complete with private jets, a sprawling mansion and a gigayacht. But when her husband of 20 years (played by Park & Rec’s Adam Scott) betrays her, she spirals publicly, becoming fuel for tabloid fodder.
Just as she reaches rock bottom, she is surprised to learn she has a charitable foundation and begins to learn that giving back to others might be what she needs to get back to herself.
Yang, Hubbard and Rudolph had previously collaborated on Forever, a comedy-drama in which the actor plays one half of a mundane, suburban couple who begin to question love and marriage.
Although the Prime Video series ran for only one season, the writers were keen to work with Rudolph again and were looking for the perfect vehicle she could star in.
“We started putting our heads together and thinking about premises and worlds and set-ups for a show, which is a really difficult thing,” Yang tells DQ. “Billionaires were in the news a lot around that time and I remember Matt texting me this idea of what if she [Rudolph] plays a woman who gets divorced from her husband, and she has nothing left except for the US$87bn she inherits. It seemed like that was a really funny idea, very richly layered and provided a lot of comedy and was also relevant. Maya loved the idea as well and then we were off to the races.”
But rather than looking for another workplace comedy to write, they say creating the character of Molly led them naturally to that set-up. Through the series – which is produced by Universal Television, 3 Arts Entertainment and Animal Pictures – she will have to adjust to working a nine-to-five job while all the quirks and eccentricities of modern office culture are shown up by her new colleagues.
“We were also very excited about the idea of it being the workplace of a charity, because they’re doing something that, at its base, is good, right? You’re trying to help people but people have a lot of flaws and mess up all the time,” Hubbard says. “It’s always so good to populate a show with people who aren’t perfect, even though they may be trying to do something that is good and can be perfect if it’s done well.
“I personally had moved away from workplace comedies for a couple of years, so it was like returning to something you really love. Those are the shows I loved writing on but also the shows I loved watching when I was a kid. That’s what made me want to be a TV writer, so we were very excited to take what we learned, do it with this new show and hopefully add an element of social responsibility or morality. That is the undercurrent of what this show is about in terms of inequality and the wealth gap and all those things that are very important to our lives now.”
At the outset, however, Molly isn’t the most likeable character. Instead, she is spoiled and entitled and the writers’ challenge was to present her in a way that audiences will still want to follow her on her personal journey across the 10-episode season.
“It’s a tightrope walk, I’ll tell you that,” Hubbard jokes. “You immediately start off with an obstacle, which is, ‘Why do I care about this person?’ She has US$87bn, she can solve any problem. The challenge for us as writers and creators was not only what makes her likeable but what makes her compelling, and if they’re not necessarily relatable, because no-one has that specific life, what is something you can empathise with?”
That relatability arrives in the form of Molly’s impending divorce, a break-up and the feeling of having invested years of your life in someone only to then be betrayed. On top of that, there’s Molly’s sense that she isn’t the person she wants to be, despite her privileged lifestyle.
“It is almost like part of the lesson is it’s not too late, you can make changes and find a purpose that fulfils you in your own life,” Hubbard adds. “That sounds very grand but over the course of 10 episodes, we feel like we’re getting at that and that’s part of the core of the show.”
But as with many workplace comedies, much of Loot’s humour and entertainment comes in the form of Molly’s eccentric new colleagues. The foundation is run by the no-nonsense Sofia Salinas (Michaela Jaé Rodriguez), who begs Molly to stop generating bad press with her wild behaviour triggered by her divorce. Then there’s her devoted assistant Nicholas (Joel Kim Booster), mild-mannered accountant Arthur (Nat Faxon) and her optimistic, pop-culture-loving cousin Howard (Ron Funches).
Hubbard says building an on-screen ensemble was one of the most difficult elements of developing the series, which has Molly at its centre.
“We need every other person to have an interesting relationship with her, but then they also need to have interesting relationships with each other,” he explains. “It’s almost like you want to draw it on the board and the lines should go between everybody. With every interaction you should be like, ‘Oh, I do want to see what these people are like together.’ That’s very difficult.”
They began with some archetypes, such as a family member and another character who had also been through a divorce. “Then you push and push on it, make sure they’re interesting enough and then you get to cast it – and we got very fortunate with our casting,” he continues. “We got all these incredible comedic actors, most of whom are writers in their own right, and they’re just so good, so solid and so experienced that they bring other stuff to the chatacters, which deepens them, enriches them and makes them seem more real. Our job is to lean into that and make sure that’s part of our writing process.
“It’s a process of discovery, certainly over the course of the first season. What works? But after we did our first table read, it was very clear that everyone was so funny and it was going to work.”
Yang and Hubbard both worked on Parks & Rec together, having risen through the ranks of the NBC comedy world over the past 15 years. As such, they have built a partnership together where they can rely on the other to tell them honestly whether an idea is good or not.
“I feel so lucky to have a partner like Hubbard because we both have a good work ethic, we both generate ideas and like pushing ourselves to a level where it’s actually good enough, and I think that’s really valuable,” Yang says. “There’s very little ego in terms of who’s idea [something is]. We don’t even know who’s idea is what at a certain point. It’s just, ‘Let’s get the best thing out there, let’s get the best, funniest version of the story.’ And coming up through that TV writers’ room system has taught us that as well.”
Like shows they have worked on previously, they got a head start on Loot by writing as many episodes as they could together before convening a writers’ room and leaning on additional voices and perspectives. Other writers on the show include Vicky Luu, Bridget Kyle, Yassir Lester, Zeke Nicholson, April Quioh, Lauren Tyler, Anna Salinas, Nick Lehmann and Maggie Sheridan.
“That serves two purposes. First of all, it gets you ahead of the rolling Indiana Jones ball that is production looming, but the second function of that is you can give the writers scripts,” Yang says. “On this show we had three or four scripts we gave to the writers’ room and we could then say, ‘OK, that’s generally the tone we’re looking for.’ Then once we’re in the room, we lean on the writers a lot.
“We want storylines from them, we want personal experience, we want viewpoints we might not have, given that we are of a certain age or race or gender or orientation, and then we lean on them for jokes. It’s all of that. Of course, on this show we had people go out and write drafts and episodes. Some of them we wrote ourselves but the writers’ room is fun. It’s a fun place and a chance to hang out with funny, smart people and that’s always great.”
In the room, Yang and Hubbard would also have their team act out the scripts to get a sense of whether a storyline or joke was working. This technique was just one of a number of “tripwires” the creators would use to make sure the show was where they wanted it to be.
“But by the way, we never stop writing,” Hubbard says. “They’ll be filming the scene, there will be one shot left and everyone wants to go home and if we think something is worth it, we’ll do it right then. Anything can always be better. That is why we don’t sleep a lot when we’re writing and shooting but as long as you just keep bearing down on it, taking it seriously and making it as good as it can be, hopefully you’ll find success.”
Yang also directed episodes of Loot alongside Angela Barnes, Miguel Arteta and Kevin Bray. As co-showrunners, he and Hubbard would never stray far from the monitors on set, but he says that working on the pilot together meant they were able to make a lot of decisions about the visual style of the show early on so they could then become embedded in the scripts.
“It’s valuable to know three months ahead of time, ‘Hey, we see this shot like this’ because I’m going to direct it and we know what it is,” Yang says. “We don’t have curveballs thrown at us on the day or later on in production. It all goes hand in hand.
“A lot of directing for me is setting a tone on set and providing an atmosphere that allows the actors to feel comfortable and loose and be able to joke around because it is a comedy. It shouldn’t feel super-tense. People should be having a good time and we try to do that as well.”
As television comedy has evolved from studio-based series filmed in front of live audiences to more dynamic single-camera productions, the number of shows in production now across an increasing number of platforms and channels means the genre has never been so eclectic, backed by diverse stories and new writing voices.
“It’s so healthy and so exciting,” Hubbard says. “I remember when I started out, there’d be 12 new shows coming out and if you didn’t get a job on one of those shows, see you next year. It was brutal when there were just those four networks.
“It’s changed so much, but not just in volume. It’s also changed in experimentation and tone. You can have a dark comedy, a wildly broad thing, something that’s in-between. It used to not be like that. It’s also opened it up to completely new voices in a way that the demand for content has given people who deserved a chance a chance. This door had been opened and I really want to see what’s on the other side of it.”
“Can you believe there’s two great Native American half-hour comedies on?” adds Yang, referring to Rutherford Falls and Reservation Dogs. “That’s unbelievable. You couldn’t have told me that five years ago, and certainly not 10 years ago. More doors are being opened. We’re not all the way there yet, of course, but I’ve really been heartened by the variety of shows we’re getting, the diversity of viewpoints, and some of them are great.”