‘What We Do in the Shadows’ Showrunners Reveal How They Blend Comedy and Horror in the Emmy-Nominated Sitcom

‘What We Do in the Shadows’ Showrunners Reveal How They Blend Comedy and Horror in the Emmy-Nominated Sitcom

FX’s What We Do in the Shadows might be the bloodiest sitcom on television. A trio of ancient vampires — Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), Laszlo Cravensworth (Matt Berry) and his wife, Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) — bunk together in a spooky Staten Island manse with an annoying pedant who feeds off others’ energy (Colin Robinson, the energy vampire played by Mark Proksch) and their human familiar (Harvey Guillén as Guillermo de la Cruz). The vampires have lived here for more than a century, yet the bumblers have yet to fulfill the mission they set out to achieve upon their arrival from the Old World: to take over America and turn its citizens into bloodsuckers. Showrunners Paul Simms and Stefani Robinson spoke to THR about the Emmy-nominated third season of the comedy series and how they balance humor with vampire frights.

What were the stories you were most excited to dive into for season three?

PAUL SIMMS For me, the biggest excitement was having Laszlo and Colin Robinson become buddies. In a perverse way, the excitement was waiting for the internet to go, “This makes no sense! They’ve obviously run out of ideas. There’s no reason why the meanest, most sarcastic, irascible vampire would be friends with the most annoying one.” And we were satisfied to see people on the internet saying that, knowing the whole way that we had a secret reason why Laszlo was trying to show Colin a few good months — knowing that Colin was about to die. It’s just also funny seeing those two together, because they hadn’t done much together for that very reason: Laszlo would have such a short fuse with Colin.

STEFANI ROBINSON Diving more into Nandor’s backstory and psyche and actually giving him a more fleshed-out arc was something we were looking forward to. It’s hard, when you have a show with so many characters, to give them all equal attention. It was actually really exciting to give Kayvan the actor more opportunities to figure out who this character was.

SIMMS That story was very heavy — he has an existential crisis about his place in the universe — and came out of the silliest thing possible, which was him getting into The Big Bang Theory slot machine [in Atlantic City] and then realizing that was [not just] a TV show, but the theory of the universe’s origins. Depending on how you describe it, it’s either heavy drama or the silliest thing ever.

How does something like that originate? Is it just a pitch that snowballs into a bigger story?

ROBINSON We just come up with a bunch of silly ideas and stories that don’t necessarily feel like they’re a bigger thing. Sometimes you feel like they have an opportunity to be a bigger thing, but it’s really just things that seem funny and interesting to us, things that make us laugh. Once we actually start shaping the season and figuring out what stories we want to tell, those pitches emerge victorious, in the way that we can build a more emotional arc around them. 

SIMMS It’s a constant challenge. These characters have lived for hundreds of years — they don’t need to do anything. The hardest part is finding jeopardy and things that they want. They’ve had, basically, zero goals for 200 years.

ROBINSON It would be an easier show to write if they started out as a vampires on day one.

Paul Simms (L) and Stefani Robinson

Robby Klein/Getty Images

And yet they are all emotionally on the same level despite their different ages. 

ROBINSON In a philosophical way, maybe we’re making a commentary on the nature of being human. Do we ever really change? If we were all given the opportunity to live for thousands of years, would we ever be enlightened and smarter and more adjusted? Or would we just be who we are in cycles over and over and over again?

SIMMS They’ve changed much more over these three seasons than I thought they would. I mean, particularly Nandor and Guillermo’s relationship. Guillermo is a peon, but Nandor has grown to have some affection for him — but he doesn’t want to admit that he needs Guillermo. Guillermo has gone from being very obsequious to realizing that he has much more power than he thinks he does. That’s also the fun of the current season, having Colin Robinson [who has been reborn as a baby] become a blank slate all of a sudden.

Were there any creatures you were excited to introduce in season three? And how do you decide on the rules for each supernatural being?

SIMMS The rules come out of a lot of arguments in the writers room that end up with us going, “What are we arguing about? This is all fake!” From the beginning, there were two things that Jemaine [Clement] learned on the [What We Do in the Shadows] movie that really helped. One was always stick to the documentary [conceit] and never break that rule, no matter how tempted you are. Second, establish some vampire rules and stick with them. The biggest new character was The Sire, the original vampire, which [was a prosthetic suit designed by] our creature creators. Some internet reviewer was like, “That was obviously CGI.” Are you kidding? The one thing that was not CGI? That entire character was fun. We always talk about the show being funny, but we also want parts to be scary and action-packed. 

How do you balance the humor and the horror?

ROBINSON I remember being frustrated with True Blood, which I loved. The characters started off the series super strong; they’re killing everybody and the vampires are these all-powerful immortals. And then, four seasons in, they’re not killing people as much as they’re crying about their emotions. It’s incredibly important that these characters are funny, but I try to remind everybody that they are vampires — they need to drink blood and kill people, and they have killed lots of people.

SIMMS As sweet and cuddly as Guillermo is, he has literally murdered people to feed his masters and has probably buried even more bodies.

Harvey Guillén as Guillermo, Kayvan Novak as Nandor.

Courtesy of Russ Martin/FX

This is your second Emmy nomination for comedy series. But your ensemble has been snubbed for the second time.

SIMMS It’s baffling to me, because they are just so good. We tightly script the show and use a lot of improv — and it’s real improv, not a writer offscreen feeding new jokes to the actors. People who are being more dramatic within comedic structures tend to get noticed more. I don’t want to sound like sour grapes. Maybe if there were a category for best ensemble, we’d get it.

ROBINSON There’s maybe the assumption that because someone’s funny they’re not artful, that it’s almost easy to be broad and put on a funny voice. Our cast are world-class actors. There’s improvisation, sure, but even how they carry themselves, listening to one another, understanding their lines, asking questions. The technicality that they bring to their performances is some of the most masterful things I’ve seen.

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.