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Embracing Your Unique Writer's Voice with 'iCarly' Showrunner Ali Schouten

Script's Editor Sadie Dean interviews 'iCarly' showrunner and writer Ali Schouten about her career, leaning into her personal stories to find her voice as a writer and rebooting the beloved television show 'iCarly' for Paramount+.

It's no easy feat to reboot a once incredibly popular television show, like the original iCarly that ran for six seasons on Nickelodeon. Especially a show that a generation literally grew up side-by-side with its main characters. Cut to nearly a decade later and the beloved show and cast of characters from iCarly are back, and this time with a new leader at the helm. Ali Schouten is an admirable trailblazer in her own right. She's currently the youngest female showrunner at Paramount+, and she's paving the road for inclusion and diversity in storytelling for younger viewers, and laying the pipeline to shepherd in new and talented voices in her writer's room.

It goes without saying, I had the utmost delight speaking with Ali about her career, leaning into her personal stories to find her voice as a writer, and rebooting the beloved television show iCarly for Paramount+. 

[L-R] Laci Mosley, Ali Schouten and Miranda Cosgrove. Photo by Lisa Rose/Paramount+.

[L-R] Laci Mosley, Ali Schouten and Miranda Cosgrove. Photo by Lisa Rose/Paramount+.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: What piqued your interest in wanting to write for TV and why TV?

Ali Schouten: I started out thinking I would be a wonderful actor. [laughs] And I was an OK actor. I was told in high school that I needed a year of vocal work and this was pre-Emma Stone, who's like my voice twin winning an Oscar. [laughs] And so I took a break from acting and started doing sketch comedy at college and was like, I'm just going to take one semester off from auditioning for plays, because I wanted to do funny roles. I would audition for all different things and I would kind of be the girlfriend or nothing. [laughs] And so I started doing sketch comedy, and I loved it. And I really found that some of my sketches were going over better in rehearsal when someone else would read it. And then I was getting just as much joy from writing these parts for other people, as I was when I was the one performing the role on stage, and it felt like I was a better person as a writer than an actor - I was super competitive. I would get really upset and beat myself up. Whereas as a writer, I'm really collaborative. I'm just more of the person that I want to be. It was as creatively fulfilling. It also allowed me to just access parts of myself that I preferred. And then I did an internship during college in film, and kind of realized that this is a job - that you could write movies and TV. [laughs]

In terms of getting into TV specifically, I was in grad school at USC, and I was kind of focused on film. But it was during this era of like, Bridesmaids, and I remember the pilot for New Girl was a huge deal, and people were like, “oh, women are funny.” [laughs] Finally! And I think there was this sudden, at least slight desire, for voices like mine to be creators and not just be on staff. I ended up getting staffed off of a feature and kind of never looked back. My first job was Young and Hungry, there was just no more perfect show for me to jump in with. It was about a girl who's really good at her job and doubted her life. And I could relate to that. [laughs] And David Holden is amazing. He actually just worked on iCarly with us – we worked on three shows together, he and I just really clicked. It was really just that camaraderie of the room. And once I was there, I was like, “Oh, yeah, this is the thing. This feels like my sketch group in college.” This is a bunch of funny people just working on the same team. I luckily haven't been in rooms where it's super competitive. It's always been more collaborative. I just found a lot of joy in that. And then I didn't want to go back to writing features by myself, it's more fun to do it with other people. [laughs]

Sadie: I think that's so cool that from the beginning, you were told that you had to essentially change your voice, but in turn, you found your voice by becoming a writer and I think that's just so beautiful and poetic.

Ali: Thank you, my grad school essay was literally that. [laughs] I totally forgot about that. [laughs]

[PART I: What Is the Writer’s Voice, And Why Is It Important?]

Sadie: [laughs] Being a writer, it's such a lonely job. So having a TV writers’ room, I'm sure is very uplifting and makes you feel a lot less lonely in your head.

Ali: Yeah, and especially with multi-cam, you have the writers and you also have the actors who are really doing theater and sometimes even more toward sketch comedy in what they're doing. And this group, they always get it as scripted, and then they love to ad-lib, they love to improv. They love to surprise me on set, they're like, “OK, OK, watch this one!” And I'm like, “Don't tell me. I want to find out with everybody else.” [laughs] I think that teamwork is really special, especially in multi-cam.

Sadie: I read that you're the youngest female showrunner for Paramount+, that's awesome, kudos to you. I think that you're a trailblazer in that sense. Do you find that you have a responsibility or a duty to pave the way for writers who are working in the trenches who want to become showrunners?

Ali: It's not really a duty, because I feel like that implies it's like a slog. It's an opportunity. I've been given so many opportunities to learn on my feet. Starting out, I worked for Ed Solomon, for three years as his assistant. And he had me really pitching and reading books for him and reading scripts for him. And then AwesomenessTV gave me the opportunity on All Night to kind of basically run that show when I was an executive story editor, because my scripts were coming in well, and they're like, “yeah, she'll figure it out.” I've had such incredible opportunities and it's allowed me to grow. And what’s even better than learning on my feet is experience. So, every single writer had an episode, including all the assistants, everybody produced their episode on set, everybody was in editing. Everybody got to if they were interested in some aspect of production, whether that was costumes, casting, anything, I was like, “come on in, door is open,” because I think there's been a lot of talk about this broken pipeline that we have. And I think it's also about getting people into that pipeline. And we had people who didn't have writers room experience that I was like, I know they can do it, let's get them in at the assistant level, we had other people who are novelists who hadn't been in a room yet, but who sold pilots and had a best-selling novel. And just for some reason that wasn't enough and it's like, well, no, let's get the best writers that we can get. Let's get voices that are different from mine so that we can make a well-rounded show that's reflective of our cast and the show we want to make. I think it's been so great for me, really satisfying to be in that position where I can say “let's give people a shot,” because I was given a shot and I know I haven't done everything perfectly, but I've done it better than I even thought I could and I think that being able to share that opportunity with other people, it's really fantastic.

Sadie: I love how you frame it - having an opportunity to give others the opportunity. A lot of people don't have that access or the door open for them to go and see how the wardrobe is doing something or producing their own episode. I think that's very cool of you to do that. Also, they always say, your assistant 20 years from now is going to be your boss.

Ali: [laughs] Yeah, I definitely believe that one in this case. I was thinking about this last night like the original iCarly had this element where people would submit videos, and it created this inclusiveness with the audience. And now we have TikTok and Instagram and YouTube and all these platforms where people can do that, and they don't really need to do that. So, how can we have that spirit of inclusivity on the show now? And to me, that's really making sure that we have all different voices in front of it behind the camera.

[Chasing Love in Season 2 of ‘The L Word: Generation Q’ with Showrunner Marja-Lewis Ryan]

Sadie: And speaking of that, now with all the social media outlets and social justice and these social justice warriors out there, I remember watching the original iCarly with my kid sister and thinking it was ahead of the curve in terms of maturity as opposed to something on Disney where you know, nobody talks like this, kids aren't like this. With this revamp of iCarly, are there other topics that you're hoping to interweave with what the culture is now and give that to these younger viewers?

Ali: Absolutely. I think this show, it's always, in a good way felt like in three years, this will feel dated, it’s so now, like you're saying it was so mature, it didn't talk down to the audience. The goal with the new version has been let's grow up with the audience. It’s for the same people who watched the original who are now in their early to mid-20s. And so that has always been the focus, and what topics are they talking about? What stories would be entertaining to them? What's going to be relatable to them? And then we add that like, iCarly weirdness, right? [laughs] A lot of the stories just come from our own lives, or Miranda's life. She’s been really generous with that - the journey mirrors hers pretty closely returning to a show called iCarly. [laughs] And like I said, she's been really generous with her life experience and the writers, like in any writers room, are sharing a lot. So, it's really about meeting our audience where they're at now and thinking, what would be fun for them? All of us I think are little social justice warriors, like we want to not shy away from topics, but we always start with what's fun, what's relatable, and then it's like, oh, if there's an opportunity to say something, often by not saying something. I think Laci [Mosley] has talked about this a lot, but I'm glad that there's a lot of content about coming out, that it didn't feel like a necessary scene that we needed to have her character do. In this friend group already, when we come in the start of the show, we didn't need to have her be anything but existing as her authentic self. I think some of the places where I feel we've been most successful have been just being like, “Yeah, this is the world. This is the friend group.” They're just existing and that's what it is. I think there's space for this. We're not going to do the big weepy episode about a lot of things, but we hope by just allowing people to exist, that that's kind of its own statement.

Sadie: Normalize it, it's just everyday reality. Speaking of Miranda, do you find yourself and your writer's room, approaching the other actors who have these legacy characters, doing character development with them, and being like, “OK, this was you 10 years ago, what are we doing now? What's that big thing that changed your perspective? Are you now allergic to bees?”

Ali: [laughs] That's good, I'm writing that down. We did a lot of that work as we were developing the concept of the show. They had writer's pitch on it, but it was once they found us, they were like, “Alright, let's keep developing and let's kind of use a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” because I wrote the pilot with Jay Kogen, “and a little bit from your pitch and a little bit from his pitch,” and how can we combine that and so that was really evolving before there were scripts and that decision we talked about, should Carly want to be a journalist? Should she want to be an actor? Should she want to be a talk show host? And ultimately, we're like, kind of the magic is that she loves what she does. And that's great to see this woman thriving creatively. I think next season, we do want to get more into what that career looks like. That it's just a job people have. [laughs] But, figuring out where she could grow as a character kind of more on the personal side, there were a lot of conversations before we even began writing the script about, we already saw Spencer as this really enthusiastic, joyous artist who didn't care about fame. Let's reward that with fame and fortune. [laughs] Those are the conversations we had right off the bat. And we felt like for someone who's always been in these complicated love relationships, let's give him a complicated love relationship that looks totally different in the case of Freddie, which now has a child, so we just we wanted to not break from the characters, but take them in directions that felt natural, while still sometimes surprising.

Behind the scenes on iCarly Set. Photo by Lisa Rose/Paramount+.

Behind the scenes on iCarly Set. Photo by Lisa Rose/Paramount+.

Sadie: Hypothetical, let's say five years from now, what do you hope the TV landscape looks like and what kind of shows are available on either networks or streaming services for younger viewers?

Ali: Wow, that's a great question. I think that for young viewers, I think that there's just incredible work being done in that space. And again, it's that idea of not talking down to people - they can smell bullshit [laughs] even like a four-year-old like they don't want, they want to have real storytelling. And I think that's really happening. I think that's exciting. People complain about, ‘oh, there's so many streaming services, there's so many channels, there are so many places to get content now, you can just go to your phone,’ I actually think that's great. I think that's aided in the slight democratization and allowed people who haven't traditionally had access as creators to really show their voice. At a certain point, it's going to be so fragmented that I guess there will just be one show for each person, but wouldn’t that kind of be awesome, you have a show, just for you. [laughs] I hope that we continue down that road and just keep pushing that because I do think that's an area where I know a lot of my peers have found the kid's space and the animation space to be an area where there is more access.

[Entertaining and Engaging an Audience with TV Writer and Former Showrunner of CBS' 'S.W.A.T.' Aaron Rahsaan Thomas]

Ali Schouten on set of iCarly. Photo by Lisa Rose/Paramount+.

Ali Schouten on set of iCarly. Photo by Lisa Rose/Paramount+.

Sadie: Any advice for those young TV writers who are in the trenches, with hopes of someday becoming a showrunner like yourself?

Ali: Yeah, I think, first of all, be a nice person. I have been apparently very lucky in this, but I've only worked with nice showrunners, I just don't see any reason to make people feel bad about themselves. And it comes back around. Advice that Ed gave me when I was working for him that I always stick with is, write what brings you joy. If you try and chase the market, there's someone out there that that is their joy. And they're going to write a better script than you if you're like, “oh, horror is the thing now,” but you're like me, and you have to Wikipedia horror movies, because you want to know what happens, but you get too scared. [laughs] And then you end up scaring yourself by doing a bunch of reading of Wikipedia entries. [laughs] And I'm a total wimp, and I'm not going to write a good horror movie, I'm just not, it's not going to be good. I might write a very funny horror movie, like a nice emotional journey. [laughs] But it's not going to be very scary or exciting or new. And so, if you write what brings you joy, then even if nothing ever happens with that script, you had a good time writing it, and probably that's going be the thing that is your unique voice. People talk about voice and that was a confusing concept for me for a while. And it really clicked in when I started telling more personal stories, and even if, by draft 10 that story looks nothing like it, that that core of it helped me make it unique and make it my own. Even with something like coming into a huge property, people literally in the room often will say, “and then Ali says, oh, sorry, Carly says, blah, blah, blah.” I've just been able to put in a lot of myself because I relate to this character and I relate to this young creative woman who is trying to find her voice and make it in this tough industry that's very competitive. And not to say everything has to be that close, there's a lot of ways that we're not similar that I could go on and on about, but just finding what do you relate to about that character and then writing from that place and being open and honest from that place.

In the pilot, she talks about numbly eating frozen french fries straight from the bag. And that's my comfort food. [laughs] And people are like, “where did you think of that?” I'm like, “OK, give me a second.” [laughs] I can't buy them, because on the way home from the grocery store, I just eat them. [laughs] I think that finding whatever the assignment is, finding that thing you relate to that makes you happy to write about and even if you're on staff, you can always find something that can be yours in your script, or even in the show in general.

Sadie: I think that's awesome advice. I've seen a lot of writers struggling to find their voice and define that as well, and that’s a great way to approach finding it. Well, Ali, thank you so much, it was really a pleasure speaking with you, and best of luck with the show. I hope you get picked up for more seasons and that you go off and do other things that you enjoy writing about and there are more frozen french fries in your future.

Ali: [laughs] Awesome, thank you so much. 

Season one of iCarly is now streaming on Paramount+ and has been renewed for a second season.

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