Long before he became an executive producer and writer for FOX’s sitcom “Surviving Jack,” Patrick Schumacker, ’98, was the secretary of the Priory Student Council, making videos for the group’s events.
“I remember one in particular we made where the premise was that we were sneaking into Coach Combs’ office to see how he was prepping for the homecoming game,” he says. “We went in and he was wearing a military helmet and crashing model planes into each other. We did all kinds of stuff like that.”
Patrick grew up in Chesterfield and attended Oak Hill before coming to Priory. He was elected to the Student Council in 8th Grade and was re-elected every year after.
“I enjoyed STUCO quite a bit. It was a great creative outlet that led into what I’m doing now,” he says. “We didn’t have an A/V club or a filmmaking or media class then, and I wasn’t ‘officially’ involved in the arts, so that was a way to do things with a comedic bent.”
He was also on the yearbook staff and played rugby and football. His passion, though, was in writing, and he cites the support of Priory’s faculty as a “crucial” part of his career path. “Teachers like Ms. Tumminia, Mr. Mohrmann and Father Laurence were supportive and inspiring, and they greatly contributed to my appreciation of writing,” he says.
Patrick’s parents both worked for Anheuser-Busch, which gave him the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles and visit sets for advertising shoots. Originally intending to pursue a career in directing TV commercials and music videos, he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin’s film school after Priory. His time at UT was also formative, he says.
“Their film school was really just coming into its own at that point. They were really well known for documentary film, but they were starting to branch out more,” he says. “Texas was completely different from Priory. It was massive. I went from a school of 400 students to a place where some of my classes had 400 students.”
While in college, he interned in Los Angeles for A Band Apart, a production company started by Quentin Tarantino. One of his fellow interns was Justin Halpern, who became his writing partner and co-creator of the sitcoms they’ve worked on.
After graduating from UT, he moved to LA and worked briefly as a production assistant before taking a job as a director’s assistant. The director he worked with was based in Seattle, and Patrick was his man on the ground in Los Angeles. That let him take on a lot of responsibilities, learn a lot about the industry, and travel all around the world. One thing in particular that he was able to excel at in the position was writing treatments — the director’s pitch to a studio or ad firm proposing a vision for a project.
“My background, especially from Priory, was a huge asset in that. I was able to articulate myself better than the average person. It was essentially writing a school paper or a thesis,” he says. As he got better at writing the treatments, he started freelancing and writing them for other directors, eventually doing that as a full-time job.
Freelancing opened up time for side projects, including working with Justin again on a film school project that won several festival awards. He also worked on web shorts, a movie/TV website, and a “terrible slasher horror movie” in 2005. In 2009, however, he and Justin got a big break.
Justin had started the “S*** My Dad Says” Twitter account, and it had gone viral. A book was in the works, and the publisher had ties to TV studios that were interested in working on a show based on the book and the Twitter account. He brought Patrick along to work on script writing. The show starred William Shatner, was produced with the creators of shows like “Will & Grace,” and ran on CBS for 18 episodes.
“CBS is kind of notorious for dropping their lowest-rated sitcom in a given season, and our ratings were ok but we had trouble competing against the other shows that debuted that season like ‘Mike and Molly’,” Patrick says. The end of “S*** My Dad Says” opened up a new opportunity for him and Justin, however. “’Surviving Jack’ is a do-over in a weird way,” he says. “We decided we’re going to tell this story the way we originally wanted to tell it.”
Fans of nostalgic shows on TV like “The Wonder Years,” they decided they wanted to write a show that did for the early 90’s what that show did for the late 60’s and early 70’s. “The show takes place in 1991, and right now there’s kind of a fervor for 90’s nostalgia. It’s weird to think the 90s were 20 years ago, and they warrant nostalgia,” he laughs.
The title character of “Surviving Jack” is a father, played by Christopher Meloni, whose wife goes back to school. He takes on the full-time parent role for their high school-age daughter and son, bringing his no-nonsense, ex-military approach.
“It’s a father-son story that takes place in a time when the Internet existed, but not in the same way it does today,” Patrick says. “Our tagline when we were pitching the show was ‘A boy becomes a man, and a man becomes a father, in a time before you could Google coming-of-age.’”
The initial run for “Surviving Jack” is 8 episodes, and the third episode airs tonight. Patrick said they’ll find out within the next couple weeks whether or not it will get picked up for a full season. He and Justin have already inked a 2-year development deal with Warner Brothers, though, and will be working on other projects in addition to continuing work on “Surviving Jack” if it gets picked up, giving them a measure of job security that can be hard to find in their industry.
Writing for a sitcom is a largely collaborative endeavor, he says. The initial brainstorming of story ideas and characters leads to individual writers writing scripts for episodes, but those scripts get refined by the team before they go into production. There are 10 writers on the team for “Surviving Jack”, he says. Justin and Patrick only wrote one of the first eight episodes, the pilot, and the rest of the time worked with the other writers and oversaw other elements of production. They’re working with one of their mentors, Bill Lawrence, who also serves as an executive producer and who has created shows like “Cougar Town”, “Spin City” and “Scrubs”.
For students who might be interested in getting into the TV writing business, Patrick has several pieces of advice.
There is no set path into a writing career. He says the most common way to break into it is to get to LA and get a job as close to writers as possible, as an intern, production assistant, writer’s assistant, or something similar.
It takes passion, ingenuity, and persistence. “It’s a tough job, and can be very stressful as you climb the ladder,” he says. “You really just have to be able to outlast the other guys who are trying to do the same thing.”
“Just keep writing, writing and writing,” he says. Always have fresh work samples ready to go. He suggests reading “On Writing,” by Stephen King, which he says is a great book about how to be a writer “even if you’re not getting paid to be a writer.”
So now, next time you turn on your TV, you’ll know there’s at least one Priory education at work in what you’re watching. “I really can’t say enough about how important my education at Priory was, how crucial it was, in getting me where I am today,” Patrick says. “I was prepared for the world coming out of Priory.”
“Surviving Jack” airs on Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. central time on FOX (KTVI/Channel 2 in St. Louis). It is also available on Hulu if you want to get caught up on the first two episodes. Alumni who were at Priory around the same time as Patrick might recognize something familiar about some characters. “A few people I knew then had really great last names, so I used them for characters,” he says.