Are Millennials Actually ‘F**ked’? Ask Matt Williams

A veteran TV writer-producer and "old white guy" explains his new play -- about Millennials.

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Playwright Matt Williams. Screenshot: Cherry Lane Theatre.

Over-population, cataclysmic climate change, terrorism, water shortages, mass migration and tribalism: These daily topics of doom and gloom will soon flood more than just your feeds, screens and inboxes. They are now also fodder for a new play entitled Actually, We’re F**ked. Penned by veteran sitcom writer-producer and playwright Matt Williams, Actually, We’re F**ked is a four-hander that shines a spotlight on the generation du jour — Millennials — as two Gen-Y couples argue about how to unfuck the planet while they struggle to live up to their ideals closer to home. Actually, We’re F**ked begins its world premiere, limited Off-Broadway engagement Feb. 26 at The Cherry Lane Theatre.

I caught up with Williams to discuss his career and what prompted him to write a play about Millennials. And what kind of journalist would I be if I didn’t probe him about “the Roseanne thing”?

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Robin Rothstein: How and where did your writing career begin?

Matt Williams: When I first came to NYC, I was working — struggling —  as an actor and director. I wanted to direct plays, but I couldn’t afford to pay royalties, so I started writing in order to have something to direct.

The first play that I wrote, Between Daylight and Boonville, was performed at the Wonder Horse Theater in the East Village. It later played the Kennedy Center and was eventually published. It took me three years to write that play. I had training as an actor and director, but not as a writer. I realized that if I was serious about playwriting, I needed to learn my craft. So, I read every book I could find about dramaturgy, story structure and character development, and started writing one-act plays. For whatever reason, the plays were all comedic. I never intended for those one-acts to be performed. They were exercises, so I stuck them away in a drawer.

RR: How did you get your first breaks in TV and film?

MW: Susann Brinkley, a director who had seen Between Daylight and Boonville at the Kennedy Center, hunted me down in NYC and said, “I want to see your other plays.” I told her I didn’t have any. She basically said I was lying and had me dig the plays out of the drawer. She directed and produced the one-acts Off-Off-Broadway. One of the plays, Jason and The Nun, won the Double Image Playwriting Award and was published. Those one-acts attracted the attention of a producer who wanted to produce them for HBO. I flew to LA and had my first Hollywood meeting with Jay Sandrich, the legendary director of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Phyllis and other hit TV programs. The HBO thing never materialized, but Jay held onto those one-acts.

RR: And that led to your gig on The Cosby Show?

MW: The week The Cosby Show premiered, I got a call from [executive producer] Tom Werner asking if I could come to the studio for an interview. Jay, who was directing The Cosby Show, had given Tom and Marcy Carsey my one acts. They fired most of the staff writers, and the producers were desperate. Tom liked the plays and thought I might be able to write for the show. I had no experience writing TV, but I had spent three years studying and writing and honing my craft. They hired me for six weeks, a trial run. I ended up staying for three years, co-developing the “Cosby” spinoff, A Different World, before creating Roseanne.

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RR: How does your creative process differ between writing a TV script and a play?

MW: For me, writing always starts with character. I get obsessed with a character, so I start writing to discover who is this person, why are they doing such-and-such, what lives inside the soul of this individual? I’ve learned to not judge an idea too quickly, but allow it to gestate, let the characters and the theme emerge before I decide if an idea is better suited for the stage or screen.

TV is faster, and the narrative tends to move at a quicker pace. Films are more visual, less dependent on dialogue. But a good story is a good story. The building blocks of dramaturgy — the DNA of storytelling, if you will — are basically the same for stage and screen.

RR: You created Roseanne and then left the show as a result of tensions with its star. After the challenges you encountered with Barr and the industry, how did you remain resilient, optimistic and creative?

MW: I was surprised — and continue to be surprised — by how much attention is given to the Roseanne thing. The press, especially the Hollywood press, spins the Roseanne struggle into some epic battle between two bloodied gladiators fighting to the death for control of a half-hour situation comedy. Come on, really?

The reality is Roseanne was an egomaniacal, troubled individual who was obsessed with getting all the credit and determined to take control of the show. The show hit number one in the ratings and she insisted I leave — and I did. When I left the show, I was emotionally drained, completely spent. But, inside, I knew I was going to continue to tell stories.

Leaving the show was a blessing. I signed a deal with Disney, created Home Improvement, and expanded my production company, which allowed me create and produce other TV programs as well as write, direct and produce feature films.

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RR: What was your impetus to write a play about Millennials? What’s the tone?

MW: I started writing AWF two years ago. The germinal idea for the play began around the kitchen table. My wife, Angelina, and I have a 30-year-old daughter and a 28-year-old son. One night after dinner, they and a number of their friends (all Millennials) were talking about careers, relationships, politics and all the pressing global issues we face. The conversation moved into a discussion about having children. When to have kids? Should you have kids? And, if so, how do you raise them? Do you raise them in the same belief system you were raised? How do you instill values?

Then the conversation took a very strange turn: Is it even ethical to have children? Should we bring children into a world that is dying because of over-population, cataclysmic climate change, terrorism, a shortage of food and water, mass migration and tribalism. This conversation lasted three hours. I didn’t say a word. I simply listened and went to bed.

Around 2am, I woke up — wide-awake, mind reeling — and went to my writing desk and filled a yellow pad with ideas, snippets of dialogue and character sketches. I wrote all night and put the pad away. The next night the same thing occurred, I woke up at 2am and wrote all night, filing another yellow pad. I put the pads away and forgot about them. Then, about two weeks later, characters appeared and conversations started swirling in my imagination — it was like being at a noisy dinner party — everyone talking at once. So, I went to my desk pulled out the pads and started reading. I realized: Oh, this is a play. Now, no play “writes itself” but the first draft of this one poured out fairly quickly. I then did multiple rewrites, had a number of readings, and continued to rewrite and hone.

The tone is definitely comedic. I wanted to write a very funny play about some very serious issues.

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RR: What research did you need to do?

MW: I did a lot of research about the future and the major issues we face today — global warming, terrorism, sustainable seafood etc., and I read articles, blogs and novels by Millennials about Millennials. But truly, this play came about by listening, asking questions and having long discussions. Fortunately, our house is the gathering place for our daughter and son and all of their friends. I spent hours asking these young professionals — some incredibly successful, others still struggling — about their work, relationships, hopes and dreams and greatest fears. The more I listened, the more I empathized. I identified with their struggles.

RR: Given the current upheavals in our world that the play addresses, do you think Millennials are, like your title says, “f**ked”?

MW: This play is for everyone and the struggles we face are not just Millennial problems. Boomers have handed the Millennials a pretty messed-up world. But I do have hope. The Millennials I know are intelligent, educated, socially aware and incredibly altruistic. I don’t pretend to have answers. That is not the playwright’s job to provide answers. The playwright reflects the world and asks questions.

RR: Which conversations do you hope the play ignites?

MW: First, I want people to laugh. We all need to laugh, release a few endorphins. Then, when people leave the theater, and discuss the play, I hope it triggers discussions about how we can begin to “unf**k” the world. We are facing an existential crisis. According to some scientists, we have already entered the extinction phase of the planet. The human tribe must find a way to put our differences aside and work together if there is going to be a future.

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RR: As someone who has had an extensive creative career, what advice do you have for “older” writers who feel discouraged by the theater and Hollywood systems, which both seem to focus on hiring and celebrating younger writers?

MW: Is that a polite way of asking, “What is an old white guy doing writing about Millennials”?

Ageism exists, no doubt. In Hollywood, it is rampant. But, as an aging writer, you can whine and complain about the situation or do something about it. The thing to do is to stay curious; stay informed; stay engaged. Don’t judge; never stop exploring; never stop examining the human condition. The great joy of being a writer is that you never stop learning. As I get older, I grow more curious, I read more and I genuinely seek out points of view that are different from mine. I write in order to learn and grow and understand what it means to be human — at this particular time in history.

Also, age gives one perspective. I don’t think I could have written AWF in my thirties. I would have been too close to the world and the characters, and I wouldn’t have the perspective I needed to tell this story. It’s like going to a museum and standing close to a Seurat painting: All you see are dots. But step back, get some distance, and you see the entire picture.

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RR: How do you define leadership?

MW: In my experience, leaders either inspire or intimidate. I suppose the best leaders do both. But the truly effective leaders that I have encountered in the entertainment industry were the ones that inspired. They lead by example, set a tone that generates an atmosphere of respect and trust where creatively can flourish. The great leaders make each member of the team feel valued and appreciated.

After the tumultuous experience on Roseanne, I swore I would never allow an “us-them” dynamic to exist on any film, TV program or play that I wrote, directed or produced. In production, I make it a point to learn every crew member’s name in the first couple of days. This is not just being a nice guy, but genuinely understanding that every aspect of production, every department, every individual is important and everyone must work together to bring the project to fruition, to take the printed page and bring the story to life.

I guess that has been the theme of this interview: We better find a way to work together if we want the story to continue.