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Alumni Profile: Billy Kimball AB '82 (writer, producer, executive)

by Laura Frustaci

Billy Kimball AB '82 is a writer, producer, and executive with 35 years of experience in television, film, and digital media. He received two Emmy Awards, a WGA Award, a Peabody Award, and an AFI Award for his work as a writer and co-executive producer on VEEP. Other credits include nine episodes of THE SIMPSONS and the 88th and 89th Academy Awards. Starting this January, he will be teaching the comedy writing class at the USC Film School. He graduated from Harvard College in 1982 where he was on the HARVARD LAMPOON.



When asked about his career journey as a comedy writer from Harvard to HBO’s widely acclaimed VEEP, Billy Kimball (AB 1981-2) says: “There’ve been a lot of directions to my career and I think I may have had one of the strangest trajectories in the entire business. Things came my way by chance just as often as by planning.” Billy graduated from Harvard College in 1982 with the idea that he wanted to be a writer, whether in publishing, or journalism, or television and film. Feeling adrift postgrad, Billy returned to New York, where he’s from, and began freelance work as a reader for READERS DIGEST which he describes as “several steps removed from any sort of a job that exists today.” He also worked as a photo editor for Gamma Liaison, “which was kind of adjacent to magazines, so I thought maybe it would sort of lead somewhere.” Billy recalls. “And I tried to write little freelance articles back when a career in magazines was a potential option.”


After a year in NYC with little progress in his writing career, he was hired to write on a show in Los Angeles called NOT NECESSARILY THE NEWS on the basis of material he’d written during college while on the Harvard Lampoon. “I landed in LA without a car or a driver’s license,” Billy remembers. “I got in on a Saturday and started work on a Monday, and I had to walk to work.” After working at the show for the next two and half years, Billy felt he had learned more about Hollywood but hadn’t really taken any of the obligatory “pre-professional steps” that other early career writers were taking. So he ended up back in New York working at a bookshop.


“It was a while before I strung together other things,” Billy explains. Those things ended up being as varied as writing the 1989 Miss Universe pageant to being a gameshow host to working with his longtime collaborator Al Franken (AB '73) on coverage of the 1992 Presidential Election for Comedy Central. Billy also spent a year living in Ukraine working for the United States Agency for International Development. “I wasn’t saying no to anything that sounded interesting.”


Upon returning from Ukraine, Billy got a job as EP and the original showrunner of THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH CRAIG KILBORN. Faced with a host of new responsibilities far greater than just writing, he had to learn about spreadsheets and contracts and union work rules . “I knew about writing,” Billy says, “but there was certainly a period when I really had to fake it when reviewing budget actuals and approving expenditures on equipment I’d never heard of. I was able to fall back on common sense, not panic, and remind myself that other people doing this weren’t necessarily smarter or more hardworking than I was.”


He then went on to produce Harvard alumnus Franken’s radio show for AIR AMERICA and do a whole host of other things including writing nine episodes of THE SIMPSONS. “In around 2003 I wound up being hired as head of programming for a new network called Fusion that was a joint venture of Disney and Univision and moved to Miami to do that, and when I eventually got fired, I went on very happily to VEEP.” Billy was hired by another Harvard grad and Lampoon member, David Mandel (AB '92), to work on the wildly popular sitcom starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. They worked together on VEEP for three seasons, with Billy continuing to develop his own projects on the side including writing the Oscars telecast in 2016 and 2017 all while commuting back and forth from LA to Miami, where his family remained settled. Now, after such a wonderful variety of writing experiences, Billy works on developing, pitching, and selling shows as well as teaching television comedy writing at the University of Southern California.


One question Billy continues to consider as both a professor and writer is the idea of influential media through the years. “I’m a little dubious of the canon,” Billy admits. “I’m not sure how much material is obligatory… I watch old shows and movies with my kids and a lot of times it doesn’t hold up.” So perhaps there is no universal guiding media that we all must revere when entering the entertainment industry. “People can have both high and low media consumption,” Billy muses. “I like deadpan and underplaying. I’m content with lean forward television. I’m stuck with the habit of paying attention.”


When comparing live TV to late night to sitcoms like VEEP, Billy notes that they’re all incredibly different to write for. But the most important thing? Just be a good writer. “If you’re a good writer, you can figure it out and transcend genres more easily than people think. You only have to look around you to see how the genre boundaries are blurrier than ever,” Billy explains. And quite frequently, a roomful of good writers will arrive at the same ideas about the plot or the character’s next move nearly simultaneously. But most importantly, Billy notes, “Being able to write jokes is the more commonplace skill, and aspiring writers have to learn about the importance of story and character.” You need to know both where your character came from and where they’re going to find success in a writer’s room.


And once you learn who your character is, the challenge becomes keeping audiences engaged with them. “Television is full of characters that you’ve seen something like before and stories that are highly predictable, so avoiding stereotypes and clichés without doing something perverse and weird, surprising people and getting their attention, is crucial.” Billy explains: “On VEEP, we felt we had the kind of fanbase that knew the show, knew Julia, really liked her and the show, and was with us, so we felt we could try to guess what they thought we were going to do next or set up a situation where the comedy outcome appears to be obvious, and then discuss how you can do something completely unexpected but still earned. You always want a show to be funny, to have real laughs and real jokes, but those [subversive] moments add a lot for shows with loyal audiences. As much as they feel disappointed that they didn’t guess correctly, they feel seen [because] you were thinking about their expectations and attempting to defy them in an interesting way.”


In Billy’s multi-decade career in the entertainment industry, he has, of course, picked up a number of nuggets of wisdom. One is from a lesson he learned early on in his work. “You can learn a lot from bad experiences," Billy laughs. “Things in show business don’t last forever, so when you’re feeling frustrated or drained, often you can learn something from what the people running the show are doing that you think is bad just as much as you can learn a lot from good producers. Make a little lemonade out of your career lemons.”


And on that note of career lemonade, when first entering the industry, Billy says it’s key for young writers to remember that, “a lot of times your first audience is an agent, producer, or actor as a writer. Think about how you’re going to get their attention and surprise them.” And finally, he leaves us with: “What you do in TV and movies is attempt to please an audience. It’s not as private and self-evaluative as writing a novel or poem. So, it’s always good to put yourself in the shoes of the audience. Assume the best about your audience and you’ll have that north star to guide you as you begin your work.”

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