Shruti Saran on Her Original Web Series, Gym Buddies

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Shruti Saran is an Austin-based television comedy writer and breakfast taco aficionado. She wrote and created the comedic web series Gym Buddies, which we discuss here.

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Your comedic web series, Gym Buddies, just came out. First of all, congrats! How’d you get into screenwriting, and what made you want to create this particular series?

Thank you!

I got into screenwriting relatively late, when I was about 25. I realized that, when I was watching a great TV show or movie, I would feel this overwhelming sensation of jealousy which I’m guessing is not what most people feel when they are watching something. Eventually, I realized that I wanted to participate in crafting the moments I was watching, and the most accessible way for me to start the process of doing that was by writing.

I was particularly interested in television, so I read The TV Writer’s Workbook by Ellen Sandler and wrote a spec for Community over two weeks. Finishing that first script was kind of painful. I jumped in without an outline or a real understanding of what I was doing, and after I was done I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it again. But I did do it again, and now I write a lot and I love it!

I write comedy, but I love science and technology, and ideas from those arenas often serve as inspiration for my stories. As a result, I end up writing a lot of high-concept science-inspired comedies that would be prohibitively expensive for me to film. For example, my last pilot was a Mars One satire about a bunch of nerds in a space training program. Totally unfilmable for me.

But I knew I wanted to take something from script to screen, so Gym Buddies, which is a comedy about two ladies who decide to start lifting, was the first time I wrote something with a real eye towards budget and production costs. I also wanted to write a series that was fun and that people would want to partake in, so I wrote a very Crazy Ex-Girlfriend-inspired musical episode and created parts that I felt actors would enjoy playing.

And I wanted to create something that I could write about forever and speak to really specifically. I love weight training and feel like there is endless material for comedy in gym culture and fitness culture. I also haven’t really seen a fitness satire and felt there was a place for it, especially as nutrition, fitness, and women building muscle becomes a larger part of the mainstream cultural zeitgeist, so I wrote it.

Though I love lifting, the culture is mostly insane, so it’s a great comedic target. You also wrote a really funny screenplay, The Love Lab, that mixes dating, psychology, and technology. It made me laugh but it also made me think about how well we know ourselves and what makes us happy. When it gets produced, what do you want the audience to take away?

Thank you! I hadn’t even considered a lot of those thematic elements until you pointed them out in our writer’s group, and now I’m working really hard to draw them out in the rewrite.

The Love Lab was partly inspired by a chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink where he talks about a relationship researcher named Dr. John Gottman who, after years of studying and collecting data on couples, can tell with remarkable accuracy whether a couple is going to get divorced or not just by observing them. The book, in general, is about the powerful intuitions and skills that we develop that allow us to draw conclusions or execute on things in a way that feels remarkable even to us. People in Blink can’t explain how they do things or how they know things. They just do them or know that they know.

That chapter got me thinking about human intuition and dating, especially online dating, and whether our ability to judge people with the blink-like intuition we’ve honed through years of social interactions is being obfuscated by dating platforms or our ability to gather information on people before we even meet them.

That was what I tried to explore while writing the screenplay. So the takeaway from the movie is probably a feel-good romcom-y message about learning to listen to yourself in the age of information. I also kinda missed out on the whole online dating thing because I’ve been dating the same guy for a long time. As a result, I’m super intrigued by the whole online dating process and live vicariously through all my friend’s Tinder profiles and don’t believe anyone when they tell me I’m not missing anything! So perhaps this script is just my way of working through some major FOMO!

That’s definitely a way to work through it. Who’s your favorite writer, and what question do you want to ask them? 

I love George Saunders. The way he consistently manages to string words together that describe thoughts I’ve had but have been unable to articulate blows my mind. I’d love to talk to him about his process. 

How about an underrated writer you enjoy?

I’m kind of obsessed with Charla Lauriston. She’s a writer and a New York stand up who created a web series called Clench & Release. The first season of Clench got her a writing job on season 1 of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, after which she created another season of Clench, which is just incredible. Better production value, better story. Everything.

I’m not a big re-watcher, but I watched the second season of Clench multiple times and it inspired me to make Gym Buddies even though the two are completely different. She’s not totally underrated, obviously, because she’s working in TV and doing comedy in New York, but she is someone who I will randomly Google every once in a while and then be disappointed when I can’t find any new links to stuff she’s done. I need her to get famous already.

Do you have any habits or beliefs that other writers might consider “unusual”? 

Yeah…I think what I do to maintain the discipline of writing might be a bit crazy. 

I use Toggl to track the time I spend on projects, but I also use a digital pomodoro timer for sprints. So at any given moment, I have two timers running on my computer. I also use Omnifocus to maintain a master list of everything I have to do in life, but I find it overwhelming so I’ve taken to distilling my Omnifocus tasks into a shortlist of the most important things I need to do that day. I write those down in a notebook I keep on my desk. Then, when I finish a pomodoro sprint I usually write down the pomodoro number and what I did during the sprint on a completely separate legal pad. I also keep a running list of distractions so I can get them off my mind or attend to them on breaks, and I put the hours I’ve worked into my calendar retroactively so I have a visual representation of it. 

This whole process evolved over time and I recognize that it is totally nuts and makes me sound like a crazy productivity hack junkie who will kill you while you sleep, but it works for me and helps me push forward on multiple creative projects at the same time, which is something I wasn’t really able to do until recently. Of course, when I get into it or I’m working with others I no longer need the pomodoros and time disappears and it’s wonderful. Still, my system probably needs to be consolidated and I don’t recommend it to anyone. I’ll also add that I’m very embarrassed by this answer and don’t know if you should publish it!

Okay, I love nerding out about this. It sounds like your system balances a few things: removing distractions from your head, tracking projects, chunking things and writing in bursts, and staying accountable with a visual representation of what you’ve done. Is that right?

If I had understood at the beginning that chunking, time tracking, shortlists and visualization were going to be key for me, I probably would have found a neater solution. I just tried those things randomly and then adopted them because they worked for me and addressed some problem I was having.

My process has also changed as my needs have changed. That’s why my system is so messy, I think. Like, when I started writing, I’d work on one script until it was done, and then I’d move on to the next script. So the work was pretty linear and I just had to chip away at one thing until I was satisfied with it. Now I have various projects at various stages and am doing more than just writing, so I need to be a bit more organized. 

What’s something that you’ve changed your mind about recently regarding your creative process?

Needing to be a super portable and lean writer.  

When I first started writing, it was very important to me that I could write easily anywhere. I kept all my notes digitized in Scrivener so I wouldn’t have to carry around any paper or notebooks. I had a tiny 11-inch MacBook Air that I could work on even if I was on a super cramped airplane and the person in front of me was reclined all the way back. I had this notion that writers write and I didn’t want to tie the habit of writing to a bunch of things I “needed” to start writing.

But I hate working on planes and I’m not a coffee shop writer. I get so much more work done in my home at my desk with my large monitor, and the easiest way for me to overcome a block is with a notebook and a pen because it allows me to think non-linearly in a way that I just can’t do on my computer.

Recently I decided to embrace this and I upgraded some of my equipment and bought some nice notebooks and project binders. I still have a laptop, but I’m much more analog and far less portable. I’ve found it doesn’t matter, and when I’m working from my home office and have all my shit I feel really happy, so it’s been worth it.

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Watch Gym Buddies here: www.gymbuddies.tv. Learn more about Shruti Saran at her website, and follow her on Twitter.

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Alex Baia is a humor writer and contributor to McSweeney’s and Slackjaw. He lives in Austin, TX.