Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Geri Cole

Promotional poster for ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING

Host Geri Cole talks to John Hoffman—co-creator and showrunner of ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING—about the art of putting together a compelling mystery in a writers’ room, how his own life experience shaped his connection to the series, and the creative value of staying in bed.

Spoiler Alert: This episode contains lots of big reveals. We recommend you watch the series before you listen.

John Hoffman is a writer, director, and actor who wrote and co-starred in the 1997 Disney Channel original movie NORTHERN LIGHTS before making his theatrical film debut (as both writer and director) with the 2003 MGM/Jim Henson Pictures comedy GOOD BOY!. Since then, his credits have included the 81st Academy Awards (for which he earned an Emmy nomination), the HBO series LOOKING, and the Netflix series GRACE AND FRANKIE.

Hoffman is currently the showrunner of ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING, which he co-created alongside Steve Martin. The mystery-comedy series follows three strangers (Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez) who share an obsession with true crime and suddenly find themselves wrapped up in one. When a grisly death occurs inside their exclusive Upper West Side apartment building, the trio suspects murder and employs their precise knowledge of true crime to investigate the truth. As they record a podcast of their own to document the case, the three unravel the complex secrets of the building which stretch back years, but the secrets they keep from one another might be even more explosive. Soon, the endangered trio comes to realize a killer might be living amongst them as they race to decipher the mounting clues before it’s too late.

The 10-episode first season is now streaming on Hulu, and the series was renewed for a second season in September 2021.

Seasons 7-10 of OnWriting are hosted by Geri Cole, a writer and performer based in New York City. She is currently a full-time staff and interactive writer for SESAME STREET, for which she has received a Writers Guild Award and two Daytime Emmys.

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OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. The series was created and produced by Jason Gordon. Associate Producer & Designer is Molly Beer. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Geri Cole: Hi, I’m Geri Cole and you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. In each episode, you’re going to hear from the people behind your favorite films and television series talking about their writing process, how they got their project from the page to the screen, and so much more. Today, I’m thrilled to welcome John Hoffman, the co-creator and showrunner of Only Murders in the Building. The 10-episode first season is now streaming on Hulu, and the series has been renewed for a second season.

In our conversation, John discusses the art of putting together a compelling mystery in a writers’ room, how his own life experience shaped his connection to the series, and the creative value of staying in bed. Spoiler alert, this episode contains lots of big reveals, we recommend you watch the series before you listen. Now let’s welcome John Hoffman. John, thank you so much for joining me, I’m so excited to talk to you today, I also really love the series. Congrats on the super fun first season and getting renewed for season two, which I’m not sure how much we can talk about that, but we’ll get into that in the end. Let’s talk about how this who came together. Are you a true crime enthusiast?

John Hoffman: Not exactly. It’s so nice to talk to you, Geri, thank you for asking me to talk to you. No, I knew a certain general more mainstream, I knew of Serial, I knew the podcasts that a lot of people knew, S-Town, and also true crime documentaries I would get into for many years, starting with Errol Morris and the Thin Blue Line and things like that, way back when and then up through the Jinx and things like that. Anyway, but no, not a deep diver, that was Steve Martin. Steve loves mystery and true crime mystery, he loves things like Case File and listening to his podcasts as he’s riding his bike. So it was his initial idea and so he had a real good basis for how to tell a mystery story, and so from there it sprang and I was just fortunate to be invited into the party by Dan Fogelman and Jess Rosenthal.

Geri Cole: Wow. So you were brought in as a part of the development team, it sounds like.

John Hoffman: Dan and Jess had lunch with Steve Martin and Steve presented this idea, just a sketch of an idea that he had been thinking about, about three people in New York living all in the same building who all love true crime, and then a murder happens in their building and they choose to investigate. So that was the premise that Dan and Jess brought me into and said, “We need someone to show-run and executive produce and write with Steve Martin.” You don’t say no to that when someone says that.

Geri Cole: No. No, you do not.

John Hoffman: Right. So you just hope the first dinner goes well, and I brought my own ideas to that dinner with Steve and I just was very intimidated at first, for all the reasons why I loved him throughout the years that I’d been watching him and admiring his work, but then what I was met with in five minutes I felt completely at ease. He was utterly generous, open and kind to all things we were talking about and has been that way from the get-go, and just very embracing of the stuff that I would bring and just the brilliant mind that he is, making it all the more better.

Geri Cole: Wow. Well, you’ve already answered my next question, which was what was it like working with Steve Martin? So that’s good, it sounds like it was a very open and easy and lovely partnership that developed.

John Hoffman: Yeah, absolutely. Also, I think because, I think he was reticent to act in the piece originally, and he’d never done a television series before or in many, many years, but never really as a known commodity to lead his own series like this. I know Martin Short became very central to, he said, “Well, if Marty does it, maybe I’ll do it.” Marty stepped up and so it became a bit of a family affair with him, and then matching him up with Selena was the big crazy leap we all took in certain ways. Not a leap meaning anything but she’s perfect in this way for this role, but I mean a leap of, “What does that combination look like?”

Geri Cole: Yes, it’s not a pairing anyone was going to guess.

John Hoffman: Yeah, yeah. This magical chemistry happened right off the bat between them that just took us all back and thought, “Oh, my god.” She came to play, A, she’s right there with him in some way that feels fresh and is balancing them out with this laser focused dry tone, but also emotionally resonant between them. I just found it the right balance of comedy and just very touching real, hopefully, connection.

Geri Cole: So let’s talk a little bit about the writers’ room. When you were looking to fill the room, what sort of writers or collaborators were you looking for? Then also, how much of the season was broken in the room?

John Hoffman: A great question. This writers’ room is the greatest gift, and we were writing all during the pandemic, so it was all a Zoom room. It was very strange to not be in a room with people you didn’t know and you were feeling immediately intimate with, and we had 10 episodes staring us in the face with a legendary group around the show. So a lot of responsibility and an immediate bonding as much as we could do. The other side of that, of course, is what we were all feeling during the pandemic, which was any connection that we could have was exciting. So even the Zoom, everyone was all in with a great focus and energy every day in a way that sometimes when you’re in the typical writers’ room, in the space itself, the ebb and flow of energy that you feel. This was very focused and right on it.

So picking the writers for this show, it was challenging in many ways. A couple of writers were brought to me that Dan knew, Dan Fogelman knew and loved, and I immediately met them and recognized them as kindred spirits. Kristin Newman and Kirker Butler, Dan had worked with them a lot, and I brought in some friends that I knew, that I worked with. But I wanted the real mix, we have a couple of people, the Zoom room allowed us to have two people living in New York, which I thought was important for the show, as New York is such a character in the show, we have a mix of playwrights, very experienced TV writers, we have two novelists in our room and mystery writers within that mix as well.

That whole thing, the culture and feel and vibe of New York needed, in my mind, to be expressed in the way we built our room. So we had people who grew up in New York, Thembi Banks was one of my favorites who was in the room, she grew up in Harlem and knew New York in all the ways that I didn’t. I had been born in New York and then came back to New York after college, but there was this gap, and so it was all about finding the people that could fill in the things that I felt like, “I don’t maybe have this part of the show, let’s find that person.” When we all came together, I had to do a fair amount of prep, we had to pitch this to Hulu and layout a season for them, so there was a good structural basis for a whole season of what we were going to do, and there was a pilot written by the time our writers’ room assembled, but there was still a big, big task.

Certainly in the world of comedy writing, this is a very unique show with all of the tones it’s balancing, but also a mystery. So that just made it a very different task, because writing a mystery, we found and I think most mystery writers might say the same thing is you have to jump to the end first, and then twist your way backwards so you’re hiding what you’re going to reveal, but you’re layering in and you have to really thread-by-thread clues and red herrings and other paths that might connect a bit but don’t lead to the ultimate central mystery. Things like that, and that just was a real task. The smarts of this room and the great minds we collected to write this show, they were the backbone throughout.

Geri Cole: Wow. So again, I’m going to say spoiler alert, so you did know from the start that Jan was the murderer?

John Hoffman: No, no. Surprise, the kicker, that’s a great question again. Yes. No, that was the one thing. Here’s what I knew, I knew where, spoiler, I knew the end of the season. When I pitched to Hulu, the ending of the pitch was, “So at the end of the season, our trio, who were on this path to investigating with their own connections and reasons why, this murder, are now the central suspects in a new murder and potentially the new subjects of a podcast being done by their hero.” So that was always the end, but the murderer themselves, I had a varied group in mind of who it could be, but then that character of Jan developed within the writers’ room.

Then it became like, “Okay, well now how …” We were really looking at her simply through the lens of developing Charles’ romantic storyline, his challenges to having a relationship and how do we do that? Then once we stepped back further from, at least in my mind, and looked at the bigger theme of the show about loneliness and connection and both sides of it, the challenges in connecting and the ways in which people feel isolated and then are drawn to each other, I thought you have the two sides of the coin, you have this trio that is coming together and finding this family of sorts together in this oddest of circumstances and this unexpected group being brought together, but that’s the positive side of it and on the negative side, out of this feeling of loneliness you can find yourselves connecting to maybe the wrong people. That’s what Tim Kono did in a certain way with Jan, that’s what Charles did in a certain way with Jan, Jan is challenging in many ways, but she is also drawn from the same stuff in a way, but just in a much darker way, to connect.

Geri Cole: Let’s talk about the Arconia, the building at the center of the story, because it is a very specific New York experience and it’s something that’s very fascinating to me, it almost feels like it hearkens back to a time where it’s like where artists could afford to live. They certainly make reference to that, of being like, “We couldn’t afford to live here now.” But also, it’s a fantastic set for a mystery. So talk a little bit about that play of neighbors and strangers and how you wanted to weave the connections that are made between the people that you see everyday.

John Hoffman: It’s so strange to me that sometimes things feel faded, and this one has felt that way for me honestly, because for the last 10 to 15 years I’ve been saying out loud, “I would kill, I would just die to do a show in New York City, to make a television show in New York City.” I really, really just wanted to. Then the other thing I was thinking genuinely was the love I have for these pre-war apartment buildings in New York, much like in one of my favorite movies, and it’s such an odd thing, but it’s one of my favorite films ever is Rosemary’s Baby. I know, call me crazy. But there is something atmospheric and true to New York, and it’s so created around that building that they were in.

It was really one of the last times I felt like that feeling, and I wanted to transfer my love of that into this project, because it deals with similar, “Who’s next door? Who’s coming? Who’s your friend in your building? Who do you not know?” And all of that. All of that started to, in my mind at least, transfer to this new idea, and how brilliantly I think that film creates this sense of paranoia, and yet who do you hold onto and who do you trust? All of those questions that we deal with a little bit, and so that all felt like, “Oh, on the comedy side of it, let’s swing there.” That’s where I think the Arconia, it’s such a cliché to say a building, a city is a character in your piece, but in this case I hope it feels that way, I really do.

The sets, the production design on the show, our brilliant designer Curt Beech, everybody involved it the show to make the show look the way it looks and create that atmosphere that feels … I was saying on the set all the time, like when we were building and putting this together, “I want to feel like, I want everyone to watch the show and think, ‘Oh, my god. I’d love to live in that building, even though there’s murderers every floor.'”

Geri Cole: Oh, my god. I’d love to live in that building.

John Hoffman: Right, right. Oh, good, I’m glad.

Geri Cole: It almost feels romantic, but it also feels so true to New York that it in a way feels like the great equalizer, because you’re right next to people that you maybe wouldn’t necessarily always be next to. Another thing that I’d really like to talk about is in this vein, we touched on it a little bit earlier, is the intergenerational friendships between Selena, or the three characters. I don’t want to use their real names, their character names. Which is a thing honestly, it reminded me that I’ve been wanting for myself, I’d like some older friends. You don’t see it represented much really anywhere, so let’s talk about how that decision came to be.

John Hoffman: It’s another great question. Geri, thank you. I think it was in the brilliant idea, Dan Fogelman had a brilliant idea, of his many brilliant ideas, to cast this part of this third person, when we had Steve and Marty, to cast this person as someone unexpected. In doing so, it made me rethink how I was looking at the show in a certain way, everything does, casting always does that, but you adjust yourself to what is the new dynamic here. I have to say, it was very great to feel, “Ah, this feels so right.”

The show is so much about a balance of classic meets modern, and so it makes perfect sense to me to get these two classic legendary comedians and put a very, very modern young woman with them, and that made everything open up. It made it feel like what it was missing in the show that could elevate it was a perspective, particularly of a young woman in New York and her relationship to true crime and to feeling vulnerable, to wanting to solve the things that are questions in her life that are needs to understand, and why she’s driven this way. I was interested to explore all of those questions. But the humor and the intergenerational stuff, I guess it comes …

I’ve always been, I relate to Mabel in many ways, but one of the ways comedically here is just I’ve always been drawn to older women. My grandmothers were everything to me growing up, my aunts, and then just older. When I met Steve Martin to write on this show, after our first dinner he invited me to New York to meet with me in his home in New York, in his beautiful pre-war apartment building, and again, I was nervous. I’m going up to Steve Martin’s home to work with him, what’s this going to be like? So he was in this gorgeous apartment building, old school, and I get in, I’m like, “Oh, boy. Here we go.” I’m nervous again, get in the elevator and immediately I was joined by two classic New York older women getting on with their big coats bundled up, it was winter, and they were talking amongst themselves and I was immediately comfortable. I’m with my people, that’s how I felt.

Then the door closed and I realized one of the women was Elaine May, who is one of my heroes, and I was like, “Oh, no. Now I’m nervous again.” But at least for that moment I felt this kinship, and with Mabel I just get excited at the idea of the ways in which we found the ways in which she plays it that make the intrigue about these guys feel very real, the way she can cut through the years and the way she can also find the humor and find the back and forth, the way they find the back and forth with each other. So it’s not just one-sided, they’re learning from each other, and that feels like one of the big bridges I was really excited to help build here.

Geri Cole: It’s so much fun. So let’s also talk about, there’s a fantastical element to the show that happens occasionally in Oliver’s casting sequence or Charles’ bugs and quirky hallucinations, was there a rule that you developed of when things would take this fantastical turn?

John Hoffman: It started, it was a really big leap and I knew, again, it was a really interesting process working on this show because I was throwing out some things and tossing some things out with a gentle, “What if we tried something like this?” I’d back away and go, “They’ll probably hate that idea.” It was more often than not almost across the board just welcomed, which the first time that happened I was with Dan Fogelman and Jess Rosenthal in their offices very early on talking about the show, and talking about particularly, we didn’t have Selena yet, but we were developing the pilot and Steve and Marty we had, and I just kept on thinking I wanted this to be unexpected for them too and for the audience who loves them.

I wanted to give the audience what they do best, be funny, have that great chemistry, let that fly, but I wanted it also to go a little deeper, I wanted it also to recognize the higher level they go to in comedy and true reaches that they’ve both made in their own careers. So great classic comedy ideas, what is the thing that feels elegant? They’re both elegant comedians in my mind. So that notion, I found this thing I had been obsessed with for about a year before that was this beautiful dance piece to the Clair de Lune that was online, and it was this floating bouncing thing on a trampoline that takes you up the staircase, and it became a central part of the pilot and it became a thematic way of showing what was underneath the characters, that they’re all dying to bounce back into their lives a little bit, feel alive again.

Again, to the great credit of Dan and being able to say, “Here’s this piece I found and I look at it and I want to use it, because it feels like somehow Marty and Steve feel like a part of this feeling of this piece.” And boom, we went with it. Dan said, “Yeah, we should. Let’s incorporate it. Let’s do it.” So now we have this lovely bouncing moment that feels, to me, just elevated storytelling at times, to connect you to the feeling underneath it. That’s really where all of that came from, and then it went into the subconscious and being able to break open and be a little bit, great word, fantastical.

Geri Cole: That also makes me think then about the last episode where we get a lot of physical comedy with Steve Martin, on the other side of that spectrum. Was it just like, “Oh, we need to work this in. We need some classic Steve Martin in this.”

John Hoffman: It was sublime, right?

Geri Cole: Yes.

John Hoffman: It’s the greatest thing. There were these tremendous lovely reactions to that episode for his performance particularly too, and it makes me so happy because I think he’s so beautiful in the show. He’s a slow-burn build throughout the show in certain ways, that way comedically, because he’s holding more of the center of the balance between Selena and Marty, and Mabel and Charles, Oliver. But there’s a question, he’s 75 years old and I was like, “Steve, we’re thinking of doing this with the last episode, and what do you think?” He was like, “Oh, I’m all in, I’m all in.”

Then he actually walked down the Arconia hallway for me doing a thing that felt like All of Me, and back in the day, I’m like, “Oh, god. He’s still got it in every way, this is going to be a killing.” Once he said he was in, then we really were like, “Okay, let’s rock it. Let’s find a way to let him roll.” It was just very exciting, and I liked that last episode, I hope, I very, very much was hoping and wanting that to come together in a way that all threads, or most all threads at least, were coming together story wise, but also tonally. The fact that this moment comes off a very, very, very different toned conversation between him and Jan and what’s going on in that scene, and then boom, there’s this switch into physical comedy for him that I just wish everyone could be a fly on the wall on the set for those days where’s he’s throwing suggestions out to say, “What if I did this? What if I did this?”

One of my favorite moments, just to say it, was the moment on set, we didn’t have this in the script, but it was where he comes upon his phone and he pulls the pillow off and he pulls his phone out to reveal that he’s been recording Jan, and then he pokes his nose down and he stops the recording, and he’s incapacitated and he sets his head down and we didn’t have the line, but we knew we wanted Fields of Gold to play, Sting’s song on that, and Siri to pick up his words. So we were standing on set with only three minutes before we were going to shoot like, “Okay, what are the words that sound like Fields of Gold?” I was going back and forth with him and I don’t know, if you please just re-watch it, his delivery is so innocent and real when he says, “Siri, I don’t feel good.”

I just will never forget him doing that, because I thought, “This is the moment of all the hundreds of thousands of moments.” I felt so lucky to have Steve Martin and all of these people on the show, but that moment particularly, I could not have come near that.

Geri Cole: Yeah. Wow, wow. I have a bunch of followup questions, but I want to also make sure to get to the cast, because you just mentioned that Sting song and Sting was also in your cast. So obviously Steve Martin, Martin Short, Selena, amazing, but also Tina Fey, Jane Lynch, Nathan Lane, Sting, this feels ridiculous. How did that happen?

John Hoffman: It gets more ridiculous in season two, spoiler alert. Yeah, it’s going to be amazing. But yeah, well, you learn you have Selena Gomez, Steve Martin and Martin Short in your show, you’re going to draw people to you, which is amazing, amazing. That was the gift here in a big way. Then it was the unfortunate time which we had to make this show and the world was living through, within the pandemic, but it also made everyone more available, sadly, but more than that it also, I think it was the most moving part of the whole experience for me was the fact that everyone came to play during this time when there were real risks involved.

Every day was a real tightrope walk for every production that was going during this time, and so I just felt so honored by everyone coming in and going through the protocols and putting themselves out there at a time when no one was doing that with real purpose. So I just thought it did things for the show in certain ways that made every moment matter, in a way maybe more than it would have. I know it’s how I felt, just palpably alive. To be in a space with each other and we get to do these things, while other people and while we’d been kept home and alone for so long, that energy underneath it was just thrilling. To watch people be funny on top of it, while all this was going on, it was just a real healing process I found for everybody.

Geri Cole: Yeah. It’s a very difficult time, but to make something that feels so, it’s such a great mix of grounded and it’s a murder mystery, but it’s also so silly and fun and all these things, is really fantastic. Let’s talk also a little bit about your process. If there’s any rituals you’d like to share, what practices that you feel like you’ve developed over time that have really served you, in terms of trying to be productive and/or be focused when you’re creating things.

John Hoffman: I love these questions so much, thank you.

Geri Cole: Thank you.

John Hoffman: No one asks that. It’s so funny, the writers’ room would immediately tell me to answer this way, and I will, because I talk about it a lot. It’s very strange, but my big ritual thing that I do every day that I’m writing the show, which is every day, is to not get out of bed when I wake up. I take 20 minutes, 15, 20 minutes just to lie there. There’s no pressure at that moment, you’re just waking up, you don’t really ask yourself to answer a question, you’re just in a space. For me, if I’ve gone to bed with questions, I wake up and somehow I can more easily find, “Oh, oh, oh.” In those first 20 minutes, than any other time of the day. So it’s become a thing.

If there’s a weird idea, usually it’s coming in those first 20 minutes of the day. Or if it’s a real linchpin struggle, what if we try this? For me, it’s a place of simplicity that my head has gotten to, that I’m not tied up with a bunch of other things that have been coming in throughout the day, and it’s your most private alone moment in a certain way before you start your day, and for me it’s like taking that time either way, whether that writing answer comes in those 20 minutes, somehow it feels like you’re grounding yourself. It’s a meditative space.

Geri Cole: That’s amazing, because as you were saying that, I was like, “Oh, my. Yes, I know that space.” I know those 20 minutes where sometimes I will be in those 20 minutes and be like, “Oh, it’s this, this is what …” Having just figured out the thing that I didn’t even realize I was trying to figure, but that the work that I needed to do or … Wow. Just trying to leave that space or recognize and appreciate that space, that you stay connected or are freer in that first consciousness space.

John Hoffman: Noiseless, a little noiseless. If you can have it, people with kids, people with dogs, it can be challenging.

Geri Cole: Yes.

John Hoffman: Grab what you can in those noiseless first moments, just for yourself and just to empty, on that empty mind. It’s a good place.

Geri Cole: Yeah. I always like to believe, and this is maybe going to get a little weird, but I refer to it as the ether, where there’s like groupthink cloud space where all the answers are, and it’s in that first waking space you’re pretty tethered to the ether, and so it’s like you can pull things down if you need to.

John Hoffman: Great way to think of it. I’m going to take that, that’s a great … No, I do believe in all of that. Any writer working knows the thing of the thrill of finding an answer or finding something that feels alive and kicking, or something maybe you might not have seen, at least not in this context, or maybe you have seen it but it fits here in this own new way for your story. But those light bulb-y moments, and however you get them, they’re the big thrill of the gifting that goes on around the writing that we all need, but we all wonder certainly at the beginning and throughout the process, are they ever going to come? So I just think it’s acknowledging that fear and then letting it go and opening up to whatever might come. Yeah.

Geri Cole: I think that’s a perfect lead into my next question, which is a question that I like to ask everyone who comes to the podcast, which is about the idea of success, because that sounds like success to me when you can trust that the answers will come and have the space and time to do so. So I like to ask everyone about success, because being in a creative profession it feels like an allusive animal, and so I’m always curious about how people define success for themselves and maybe how that’s evolved over time. Especially when they’re arguably experiencing success, do you feel successful in this moment?

John Hoffman: I love that question, I really do. I really mean it, it’s so central to what I’m feeling and what I’ve been talking about. I was just literally talking about this last night with a friend of mine, because I’m a writer who’s been working a really long time. Screenwriting first, segued into TV later than many people, and I care so much about the storytelling. All I really care about is telling the best story of this thing we’re working on, episode for episode. So that is really at the bottom of everything, and yet all those years of, we all go through lots of rollercoaster moments, and you have to hold in your head, always the hope of maybe, maybe, maybe my 10 or 15-year jaunt of a show in New York, wouldn’t that be something?

May not have happened, but here we are. But it’s that holding of the light, always there for yourself, because it really, anything is possible I think if you hold that up. But I also think now in this lovely moment of having the show come out, be watched in great numbers and received in a lovely way like this, to have people involved in it that you feel this great weight of responsibility, I hope they like it, I hope they want to do more of it, and to get over those hurdles, these are the steps along the way to feeling really good a bout what you’re doing. But it’s very interesting to me that in this moment of feeling like, “Oh, I’ve gotten to a place where here is the feeling that I’ve been thinking I was getting to or wanting to get to,” and it’s fascinating to me that it feels good, I don’t want to say that at all, but it’s not the thing.

There is no thing there, the thing is inside, and I’m still telling stories, so the thing I’m working on is the thing I’m working on, and the thrill I get every day is when a writer comes in with a great idea and I’m like, “Oh, my god. You’re the best.” There it is, and you’re working and you’re continually making the better thing. So the feeling of success, I don’t want to say is nothing, I feel thrilled, I feel so lucky and grateful to be where this who has brought me here right now, but I will say it’s been an interesting revelation to have it be in real context and feel like, “Oh, there’s no separate feeling. There’s no [crosstalk 00:32:18].” It’s all a part of a flow of everything.

Geri Cole: Wasn’t there going to be one big special thing?

John Hoffman: Where’s the crown? Where’s the crown of glory that you sit under and the sun’s always shining? It doesn’t happen that way. I still have my dumb hat on.

Geri Cole: Are we sure? I thought there was a crown.

John Hoffman: Exactly, exactly.

Geri Cole: No crown, no crown apparently.

John Hoffman: That’s a lesson any writer will tell you, it’s that thing of we’re always, I had in my head always of like, “Wouldn’t it be nice to get to a place where they were just offering you things? When do I get there? When do they just, you’re the guy they go to with all of their best things?” Any time I’ve gotten into that thinking, it’s always been that moment of like, “Oh, that really doesn’t happen and a lot of times it’s not where you want to be.” Because you really, I find the real success, as you were saying before, the real success is when you feel like you’ve been connected to something that means something to you and you get to share it with the world.

If you get to share it with six people who read your screenplay, you’re sharing it. If you get to read it with people all over the world and it becomes a television show that people like to watch, there’s a real even balance, I have to say. Because the feeling is just that, you’re connected in a personal way, has it moved people? Has it connected? That’s all that really matters to me.

Geri Cole: Yeah. I feel like connection being the success, it also feels like a lovely parallel to the show where it’s like just the connecting to folks that you, I guess, aren’t assumed that you would connect to, is what we’re all striving for?

John Hoffman: Yeah. You bring your own personality and your own life experiences, and I’ve said this before, but this show is also born of a bit, not a bit, a real tragedy in my own life, and I don’t want to say my own life, I was close to this person when I was growing up and a year before this show came to me, I heard that my friend who I’d been out of touch with for years was in a murder/suicide situation in Wisconsin. So that led to me doing something like I’d never done before, which is I had to know what happened. How did he end up here? I didn’t know anything about his life and I went on a year-long obsessive journey to understand.

I met his ex-wife who I’d never known he was married to, I met his two kids who didn’t know existed. I was in his world and trying to sort out what happened, and there were so many questions around this. From the injuries that were involved in this case, the first impulse when you hear the injuries was to believe that my friend had shot someone and then killed himself. I had known him when he was younger and were very, very close, but I could not get that in my head as something I understood. It actually, by the end of this investigation, it reversed itself and I did find out that he was murdered actually. So there was this gut impulse about this that felt in some way reaffirming through the tragedy, that I understood him in some way and I did know him in a way, and there were things I didn’t know.

It’s all a lot of Mabel’s journey that’s underneath Mabel’s journey in our show, but again, I think when you tell stories, they’re redemptive, but there’s always a lot, not always, but sometimes there can be really deeper things involved in your experience on working on some things. So that theme of connection, my connection to my deep friend that I felt had separated, and now I was trying to do that again, to understand things more. So that’s underneath the whole show as well, so it’s all of these experiences that can come together I think if you’re open to it, to make a part of something that might not feel like it fits. That’s a very tragic story that I was working through, but it found its way into this odd little comedy.

Geri Cole: Thank you for sharing that. Yeah, that I think also speaks to people being obsessed with murder mysteries, this wanting to understand and connect to how, going from the journey from themselves to how someone could end up in those situations, and that’s an endlessly fascinating question of just wanting to understand think journey a person could take to end up in that situation. Wow. We’re running a little bit out of time, I do want to ask as much as I can about season two. I know we ended on this cliffhanger and I also was like, “Wait, did Mabel stab …” She did have the knitting needle. I’m not sure how much you are allowed to share, but what can you tell us?

John Hoffman: It’s so good, we’re so deep in it right now, we start shooting in less than two weeks.

Geri Cole: Oh, wow.

John Hoffman: We’re very excited. At the end of last season, we had obviously our main characters really step in it, or be dropped into it, and we’ll find out more about that. I would say a little bit of a tee-up for it is that the three of them are balancing in season two both the good side and the bad side of being talked about in New York City, and having to navigate the balance between who they are and what’s being said about them, and how to grapple with trying to own your own story when stories are existing out in the world that are painting a very different picture.

Geri Cole: Oh, my goodness. That’s fantastic. It’s like a mirror within the mirror, mirror, mirror, mirror of the murder mystery where it’s like, “Who’s the subject?”

John Hoffman: Exactly, yeah. We get very meta in the show, but it’s a challenge to balance that in here this year.

Geri Cole: Well, that sounds super exciting, and I can’t wait to watch. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Again, folks, sorry if you listened to this before watching, we definitely spoiled some things.

John Hoffman: A little.

Geri Cole: We can still go back and watch, because it’s a really fantastic show.

John Hoffman: Thank you so much, it’s so nice to talk to you, really.

Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East and is hosted by me, Geri Cole. This series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Tech production and original music by Taylor Bradshaw at Stockboy Creative. Our associate producer and designer is Molly Beer. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America, East online at and you can follow the Guild on all social media platforms at WGAEast. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thank you for listening and write on.

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