Welcome to Influencers!
Today, we have with us Mark. For those of you who were listening last week, there were several hints to suggest who Mark is. He was born and raised in Houston, Texas. He worked so long on a show about con artists. And as a hint, for the last year he’s been working on a CBS show and that’s no bull.
Then, the second interview is anonymous. If you can figure out who it is before we reveal it in the following podcast, you could win a coveted invitation to the Influencer Salon.
Listen To The Podcast Here:
Being A Showrunner And Writer – Find Your Expertise With Mark Goffman
Welcome back, listeners. I’m super excited to be hosting a very good friend of mine, a person that I couldn’t admire more. Mark Goffman, legendary showrunner and writer, thank you so much for joining us today.
I’m really happy to be here. Thanks.
Mark, could you share a little bit about all the cool things you’ve worked on over the past few years?
I’ve had a lot of fun. On my big break, I worked on The West Wing. Then I got to work on a show called White Collar, then Sleepy Hollow, which was on Fox, and did it this season on Limitless for CBS, and most recently Bull on CBS.
I like how you say you worked on; you were the showrunner for a bunch of these shows, which is a little bit more than working on. You’re the person that makes sure that it actually gets created.
Basically there’s the creator of the show and there’s the showrunner. Sometimes they’re the same and sometimes they’re not. For Bull, the creator was Paul Attanasio and Dr. Phil. They brought me on right after they finished the pilot. Then we did 22 more episodes. The fun thing about being a showrunner is you’re the final decision point. In television, unlike film, it tends to be a writer’s medium. The writer has most of the authority and final decision-making power which is a nice place to be.
They actually bring in different directors for different episodes, right?
Yeah. We did 23 episodes of Bull. We had a producing director, a fantastic guy, Doug Aarniokoski. He did four episodes. We had one other director who did four but then everything else is up for grabs. There’s a new director every week.
When people discover what you’ve accomplished, what’s their most common question?
A lot of times it’s, “How did you get started?” Very often it’s, “What the hell’s a showrunner?”
We know the story of how you got started. You were deciding between being a speechwriter or writing for The West Wing, which is just incredible considering the level of appreciation the fans have for that show. In fact, from what I understand, a lot of your shows had really strong fan followings. People loved White Collar. People I know are obsessed with Sleepy Hollow. Now, Bull is the new number one something show.
It was the number one new series on television for this year.
You must be really, really proud of yourself, or at least I hope you are.
I don’t know. I don’t really think of it that way because there’s always so much more to do and achieve and write about. There are so many shows out there. It’s really the golden age of television and frankly just creativity, but there are so many great shows that I find myself envious like, “I want to do that show next. I’d like to do this type of show.” There is always cool stuff to write about.
For people who want to succeed in your industry, what advice would you give them?
Pick one thing that’s your expertise that you can really know better than anybody else and that gives you the competitive edge. I don’t know if I would ever have gotten hired on The West Wing if I didn’t have a Master’s in Public Policy and experienced doing war games and working in government. That really gave me some knowledge and authenticity in the writing that I could add getting started. It doesn’t have to be a graduate degree. Anything in your life, you’re the only person who’s lived it and you know it better than anybody else. Bring that authenticity to the page and that’s what people recognize.
There is a lot of romanticizing in the idea of making television or film or anything along those lines. I’m assuming there are a whole bunch of pitfalls, things that people don’t tend to talk about or know about before entering the industry. What kinds of things have you found?
Lots, lots, lots. Even as a showrunner, in television, it’s an incredibly collaborative art form. If you really want a singular vision, something that is unchangeable for every word, write a novel. For Bull, my guess is there are probably some 500 people that work on the show in total. Everyone from the marketing departments to the people who costume the show and create the set designs and all of the casts and crew and casting directors and the team of writers, there are a lot of people. Your job, they liken it much more to being a CEO than being a singular writer in television just because there are so many people you’re managing and communicating with in order to bring that vision to life.
The business of it, I assume, can really occupy a huge portion of operations.
The catch-22 is that you’ve got to be very aware of the business side, particularly for broadcast television because it’s all ratings based. You have to be able to deliver the numbers but yet you have to forget all of that when you’re writing and you’re working with the actors and you’re creating and just have fun and make it something that people actually want to see because it’s very easy to get stressed out or think of the focus groups, “That would be too risky.” You have to throw all that away when you’re sitting behind the desk writing or you’re sitting on set working with the actors.
Are there any major highlights? Were there few moments throughout your career that you literally step back and you’re like, “This is completely ridiculous. I can’t believe I’m experiencing this.”
Some of the first times on The West Wing, the first time when an episode aired, it had some writing that I did in it. I came from a speechwriting background so I never really cared about credit. I got to write and a lot of stuff that I wrote was in other people’s episodes. I had this little game with Lindsay, my wife, where I would pinch her thigh every time a line or something that I wrote came on screen. I actually worked her birthdate into a House Bill number, which makes no sense because it’s 0118 and you would never name a bill that, but I just wanted to use her birthdate. Just to keep the writing fun for me, I work in friends’ names so that I can think of them fondly as I’m writing characters. One of my best friends from college, I made him a murdering rapist on Law and Order SVU. He was so proud. I could not believe. He murdered and raped my wife’s sister, obviously by name only. Both of them were joyous when the episode aired. I was like, “I can’t believe this.”
I really, really hope that if you use my full name for something, it’s a little bit of a different context.
Most people are more proud when I use their name to be the Secretary of State or something.
That’s a super fun little bonus from being a writer, I guess.
One moment on set that was probably one of my favorite ones to write, for the season two finale of Sleepy Hollow, one of the main characters played by Nicole Beharie gets to go back in time to 1781 during the revolutionary war. She brings her cell phone with her. There’s a moment where Ichabod Crane discovers her cell phone. It’s the moment he realizes she’s been telling the truth. There was this one really simple joke that I wrote which was it said, “Slide to open.” First we were reading it and rehearsing it on set. Tom Mison, he looks at it and he moves the phone, he slides the phone across his table. The way he delivered it was so brilliant. He’s just playing with this phone trying to get it to work, trying to understand. We know eventually he’s going to be able to open it and see this video file. That moment, it always just made me laugh. Entertainment Tonight actually commented on it.
Considering you’re a writer, are there certain books that have really inspired you or quotes?
Yeah. I read a book about one of the first government shutdowns. It was a battle in Ronald Reagan’s term, his first term. That always stuck with me, this idea of brinkmanship. When I was pitching episodes for The West Wing, I pitched that one to John Wells and talked about one of the first shutdowns and how Ronald Reagan walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, from the White House to Congress, to show he’s willing to work with them. From that moment, we arched the first half of season five. Then I’ve got to write this episode called Shutdown. It was one of my first big solo scripts. It was also something I was really passionate about at the time because it had this real showdown of ideologies between the Republicans and the Democrats on The West Wing. We’ve got to write this great moment.
In fact, a little sidebar, The West Wing would take two to three trips to DC every year to shoot. Not every episode could have an actual Washington DC location in it. This episode was not going to be shot during the time that we were in DC. I really wanted President Bartlet to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. I wrote a three-page scene of him doing that without any other part of the episode really known. I just knew that was going to be a big moment in it. I tried to sketch out the rest of the outline. This was two or three months before the episode was written. Thank God it worked because they scheduled the day and we made that scene and then I crafted the episode around that scene, which I’d never written that way before. Usually, I really like to have everything worked out beforehand. That was the only way to get it in. I’m really proud of that moment. I’ve heard that it’s referred to, unfortunately there are a lot of near shutdowns or shutdowns still to this day and I feel they’ve discussed a lot of the same things that just came up in that episode.
Who’s your hero?
Aaron Sorkin looms very large for me. I’ve got to work very closely with him. He’s one of the greatest screenwriters alive or writers, period. Because I got to know him and know his style and he mentored me, and I got to work on a lot of different projects with him, he really, really has heavily influenced me. I think about his style and the way he writes and his process a lot as I write. It often gives me courage because he always has confidence that he can land the plane, that he can get to a point in the episode that moves you. Generally speaking, I like to have things worked out far in advance. That heat of the moment passion in the way that he writes is really exciting and transcends the page onto the screen.
I can absolutely see why he would have a speechwriter as part of the team considering the incredible monologues that have taken place across his shows. I could see why you’d be such a valuable member to the team.
He does pretty well without me too, with or without me anyway. It was fun to contribute.
I’m sure you get approached all the time; people asking you to sit down for coffee and asking you for your advice. What would actually have you accept an invitation? You get a random invitation from a person to meet them. What would they have said in that message that would actually have you agree?
I really believe in paying it forward. There were a lot of people who took a chance on me and there were a lot of people who were strangers that opened up and met with me and gave me some opportunities just based on that. First if they can figure out how to get to me and not be annoying, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll either write them back, which is the easiest thing to do. To get a meeting is pretty hard just because I don’t have a lot of time right now. I believe in answering pretty much anybody who asks me. The more specific the question is and the more specific in terms of what they want, if somebody’s, “I want to be a writer. I want to write, direct, produce,” I can’t really help you. But if you’re like, “I love this genre of writing,” and if you can tell me something specific about yourself and about why and your passion, I can help direct you into people who do that, who can be helpful, or if it’s something specific that I have in my history, I’m happy to help. I tend to help people from Emory because I went there and will answer pretty much any call that they have.
I had this incredible pleasure of hopping on Skype a bunch of months back with the writing team at Bull. Months later, I’m in a cab going home. I had been out with a group of people. I had met this lovely lady and we were in the cab. I’m about to get dropped off and she goes, “I’m not sure if I should break up with the guy I’ve been dating. Sometimes I like him. Sometimes I just can’t stand him.” I said, “You should break up with him. You’re suffering from the IKEA effect.” She goes, “Really?” I go, “Yeah. Do you know what the IKEA effect is?” She goes, “Yeah. You disproportionately like your IKEA furniture because you had to assemble it. Anytime you invest effort into something, you care about it more.” I said, “How did you know that?” She goes, “It’s obvious. The IKEA furniture you assemble it.” I’m like, “First of all, it’s not obvious. Nobody knows that. Did you read Dan Ariely’s book?” She goes, “No.””Did you read my book?” She goes, “No, I just know it.” I think for a few minutes and then I asked her, “Have you ever seen the show Bull?” She goes, “I love Bull. I’ve never missed a single episode. I love that show.” I go, “You do know it because of me.” She goes, “What are you talking about?” I go, “Who do you think told the writers of the show about the IKEA effect?” She goes, “That’s the greatest show. I never miss an episode,” and so on and so forth.
That’s when I realized the power of television. I had hopped on Skype for half an hour, 45 minutes with a bunch of your writers and I shared a bunch of ideas from Behavioral Science world. I guess you put it in an episode. Now there’s probably hundreds of thousands of people who know what it is and it’s because of your writing and your team and that you create such compelling writing that people pay attention. That’s far more people that I would have ever reached writing an article or a book.
It’s crazy when you think some 10 to 15 million people are watching on average every episode. I take that seriously. That’s live. Then there are how many other millions you get in DVR and ultimately syndication and everything else. That means you have a really special responsibility and opportunity. This is an hour of people’s time, don’t waste it. You’ve got to entertain them but give them some insight. I love finding out new information. That’s what was so much fun about talking to you that day and subsequent conversations, is being able to work in real insight into human behavior into our shows and give people something that’s fun to learn. Tell me something I don’t know. That’s another way frankly to get to talk to writers. If you have some expertise that you can share, we’re hungry for stories and anything that we can share. I go to conferences whether it’s TED or a dialogue or Aspen Institute, all kinds of stuff, just to meet people in totally different fields that have nothing to do with entertainment to see what’s going on in the world. What are other people thinking about? What’s in the zeitgeist? What are some of the breakthrough things we’re learning about in terms of human behavior and just how to think about the world? How can I take that and build it into stories that people are going to enjoy?
I’m not sure if we’ve ever discussed this, but do you know the story of how the popularization of Designated Drivers occurred?
In the ‘90s every cause was trying to get an episode dedicated to it like gun control or drug use or whatever, for all the major shows. Instead, the people behind Designated Drivers, from what I’ve heard, went and asked shows, “Instead of an entire episode about it, we just want that when they’re going to a party, you add the lines, “I’ll be the designated driver.” Take one of the characters that do it and make it already an assumption that this is something that everybody does.” It’s an easy addition for any writing team to do and all of a sudden it got written into so many storylines, it was in Beverly Hills and this and that, that people just started accepting it as a thing. It became part of the zeitgeist. It’s one of my favorite stories about the implicit power of entertainment that when it’s already an assumption across shows then it becomes a socially accepted part of our culture.
I remember when I was working with John Wells on The West Wing, he talked about how med school applications skyrocketed after ER. In fact, I went back to Harvard Kennedy School one time to speak and they told me that Kennedy School applications had skyrocketed or gone up measurably 10% during The West Wing years. That’s a really powerful effect and something you can take seriously and do a lot of good.
Is there a cause you’re passionate about, a non-profit organization or organization in general?
Yes. Special needs, I am really passionate about how to help children with special needs. They have so many abilities that we don’t fully understand yet. Children have such a pliable brain. There’s so much opportunity for them that is wasted. The more you can do at a young age is so proven will benefit multiple times over. A real passion of mine is getting education and getting help for anyone with special needs at a young age because it will mean the difference between a lifetime of dependency and a lifetime of independence and somebody being fully productive and realizing their dreams.
What’s a very human secret that you’d feel comfortable sharing? Some people talk about anxiety and failure and all these different things that they’ve gone through. My reason for asking is that there’s often this perception that once you’ve reached a certain level of success, life is easy. I’m offered to spelling that rumor or that perception.
I remember somebody once said that to a showrunner that I was working with who had received a number of high awards. I was like, “It’s so easy for you.” He’s like, “No, the pressure is so much harder at that level, I can’t fail. There’s no room for error. If I do, everybody’s looking for that.” You definitely feel more pressure. The time you experiment and play is over. I firmly believe that it takes failure and you should be. I don’t even really call it failure, I think of it more as experimentation. Not every experiment is going to work. If you don’t allow yourself the ability to experiment, then your material becomes safe and bad and old and nothing interesting. You have to know that some percentage is not going to work and be okay with that.
A big other thing that I would share for a long time I was burdened with regret. It took me a long time to realize and accept I can’t change anything that I’ve done already. I can’t change any stupid decision I’ve made in the past. If I flip it and realize what I’ve learned from it and all those bad decisions led me to where I am today, I haven’t made any future bad decisions. I will make them but not yet. There’s a really funny saying about how it’s a new day to make really bad decisions. I do feel that’s something that I used to look back a lot more like, “Why didn’t I kick myself over things I didn’t do or things that I would see some job or some opportunity that I thought was great and I didn’t take it.” That’s no way to live. It actually inspired a TV show concept that I’m working on. I try to channel a lot of my own anxieties and neurosis into material.
Last two questions. If you could be any comic book hero, who would you be?
Superman is the first that comes to mind. He has got it all. He’s an outsider. He comes from another planet. He never completely fits in but yet he has got the ability to fly, which I love. Actually, vision is not bad but it’s really the flying thing that I would most enjoy.
If you could eat dinner with anybody living, it could be more than one person, who would it be?
If I could eat dinner with anybody living, it would be with Elon Musk.
That one we might actually be able to do. Mark, this has been an absolute treat. Thank you so much for joining us, for sharing your wisdom and your stories.
Can I share one last really quick thing about Elon Musk though that you may or may not know.
I did this documentary in 2011 called Dumbstruck which was inspired by my wife whose mother is incredibly shy and a ventriloquist. I wound up going down a road, into a rabbit hole I should say, that I’d never thought I would go down in my life. During that time, I had met and become friendly with Elon. If you look on the credits, he is an Executive Producer of this documentary, which actually released in 2011. I have some funny stories to tell about that. He will go down I don’t know if he’ll be known for SpaceX Tesla and Dumbstruck but certainly to me he will be.
I can’t wait to meet him and be like, “Elon, I’m such a huge fan. I cannot even express how much I enjoyed Dumbstruck.” Would he know what I’m talking about?
Yeah. I have him to thank for the film. I really do.
Mark, if people want to follow you on Insta, Tweet, book or something, where can they find you?
Twitter is just @MarkGoffman. That’s generally where you’ll find me tweeting, saying stuff, talking about my bad decisions, talking about other people’s bad decisions.
Thank you so much for your time. Listeners, stay tuned for the anonymous interview coming up next.
About Mark Goffman
Mark Goffman is an acclaimed showrunner, producer and writer in Los Angeles. From 2013 – 2015, he served as executive producer and showrunner for Fox’s hit TV series, SLEEPY HOLLOW. Previously, Goffman was executive producer of USA’s WHITE COLLAR, and from 2002 – 2005, Mark wrote for THE WEST WING. Mark also ran the writers room for NBC’s STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP.
Goffman’s feature directorial debut is Dumbstruck, a documentary about ventriloquists released by Magnolia Pictures. Goffman began his career as a writer in Brussels, for the magazine Commerce in Belgium. He has a masters in public policy from Harvard, wrote speeches for state and federally elected officials, consulted to the U.S. Department of State and the White House. Goffman has a B.A. from Emory University in Economics and Philosophy and served as a Masters Thesis Adviser, Fiction Writing Program, at Johns Hopkins University. Goffman’s first and only play to date, ME TOO, has run in Los Angeles and Indianapolis.
Goffman has worked on more than 150 hours of prime time television, been nominated for two Writers Guild Awards, won a SET Award for highlighting Science Technology on television for an episode of ELEMENTARY, and one of his episodes of LAW & ORDER: SVU garnered Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for Marishka Hargitay. In 2013, The Hollywood Reporter listed Goffman as one of ten showrunners to watch, and one of the 50 most influential showrunners in 2014-2015.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Listeners, now is my favorite part. We’re going to have an anonymous interview with an absolutely incredible person; someone who I’ve had the amazing pleasure of strolling around New York City in trying to track down Isaiah Thomas one time over an absolutely ridiculous day. Martin, thank you so much for joining us.
It’s nice to be here.
Let’s give the listeners some hints about who you are and some background. Where did you grow up?
I grew up around Chicago.
Was there a certain incident or a teacher or experience that inspired you to go down your field?
Not really. I had good teachers and everything. I had one Chemistry teacher in high school who let us run wild in the class. I think that was quite enjoyable.
Did you guys blow anything up? Was it a weird science-esque?
No. We didn’t. There was this ammonium dichromate, it was always nice to take that and make little miniature volcanoes. We never actually blew up anything in the class.
Is there a certain accomplishment in your career that you’re most proud of?
I’m a Biologist but I’ve got a very nice award in Chemistry.
If memory serves, your work in Biology is some of the most referenced work in the entire scientific field, isn’t that right?
It has been useful for many, many people. The last time I checked since we’ve published, there’s been an estimate that at least 160,000 scientific papers have been based on the work.
It must be pretty nice to know that you’ve had such a profound impact on an entire field.
Actually, it’s really nice to see how people take ideas and then change them into their own ideas and do things that I’m astonished that they’ve been able to do.
If there’s ever a movie about your life that you’re included in, who would play you and why?
I have no answer to that. I never thought of that question. Obviously, it has to be a very attractive, very vivacious person. Any number of leading men, that would be perfectly fine.
Is there a song or movie that represents your life?
Not really. Although there was a surprisingly similar reference to aspects of my life in a wonderful book by the Brazilian author, Jorge Amado, called Tent of Miracles.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done on a dare or a bet or a stunt that caused your success?
The work that I’ve been recognized for actually came about because it was a crazy idea and I just was able to do it. Although I think probably the silliest thing I’ve ever done was during my post-talk. I made a big pretence of knowing what I was doing. I went to look at a bunch of electron micrographs and realized that I had no clue as to what I should do. I looked at the pictures of the cells that I was studying and could not think of anything to do but count components of the cells. When I finished counting the components, I decided to make a graph of that because that’s the only thing I could figure out to do with the numbers. When I did, I fortunately went and talked to a friend. I showed him all of my work from the hour before and he asked me the right questions. He said, “Is that what it’s supposed to do?” I said, “Sorry, I don’t have any idea. I’ll find out.” With a little bit of digging, I realized that I had evidence that completely contradicted what was at the literature. That turned out to be my first paper of my post-talk. All based on the ability to count to 50.
You literally showed up, had no idea what to do, just started counting and graphing things. Then, were able to publish a paper and disqualify previously believed fact.
Basically. Although, there were a bunch of experiments in between the counting and the actual publication.
It’s incredible how the process of scientific knowledge and discovery. Was there a moment or experience that made you feel that you had arrived to some degree?
I think it was the first time I had an experiment work. I had previous experiences in laboratories and had convinced myself I was a completely idiot, I could never do the work because the experiments always fail. No one had actually told me that most experiments fail and you have to just keep going. I had a second chance to work in a laboratory a couple of years after college. I had an idea when I went into that lab and I tried it out. To my great joy and amazement, the experiment worked. The feeling that I could have ideas, that I could investigate those ideas and come up with something that would be interesting and useful, convinced me that I should go into science or stay into science.
That’s incredibly fortunate because if it was just slightly different than the entire field that you work in could look amazingly different.
Or somebody else would have done the same thing I did.
Do you have a hint or riddle that you want to give people to figure out who you are?
The hint would be: Glowing helps see things.
Listeners, now it’s your turn to go out there and figure out who Martin is. You have until we release the next episode. I can’t wait for somebody to figure it out and get invited to The Salon.