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‘What We Do in the Shadows’ Writer Stefani Robinson’s Secret to Success: ‘Charming Stupidity’

TheWrap Emmy magazine: “I was aware of the fact that the premise is absurd, and there were a couple of moments when I thought it might be too stupid,” the Emmy-nominated writer says

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A version of this story about Stefani Robinson and “What We Do in the Shadows” first appeared in the Emmy Hot List issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

Of the eight nominees in the Outstanding Comedy Series category, there’s no question which one came as the biggest surprise. The FX series “What We Do in the Shadows,” based on the 2014 horror comedy film from Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, might be a deliciously twisted story about a group of vampires living more-or-less quietly on Staten Island in New York, but it was hardly considered likely to nudge out “Ramy,” “black-ish,” “Better Things” or five-time winner “Modern Family” in Emmy voting.

“I don’t think we were on anybody’s radar,” said Stefani Robinson, an executive producer on the show and one of a remarkable three writers who were nominated for individual episodes of the show. (“Schitt’s Creek” has two nominations in the category, “The Good Place” and “The Great” one each.) “The people working on the show didn’t think this was something that would happen. My phone started blowing up that morning, and I didn’t know what was happening.

“It’s a really silly show, and we’ve always been a dark horse with a cult following,” added Robinson, 28, who came to the show after being the youngest writer and the only woman on the “Atlanta” writing staff. “It’s a very specific type of show that only very specific people spark to.”

Stefani Robinson

Stefani Robinson (Getty Images)

The show’s silliness is on full display in “On the Run,” the episode for which Robinson was nominated. It came from a writers’ room idea from Clement, who liked the idea of the vampire Laszlo (Matt Berry) on the run and in hiding.

“We loved the idea that he hides in a small town – but instead of moving on, he never leaves the town and the episode turns into something completely different,” she said of “On the Run,” in which Laszlo takes over a small-town bar and coaches a girls’ volleyball team. “It’s more of a 1980s TV-movie feel of a guy living in a small town and trying to make it better. It felt so silly and stupid and unexpected.”

The silliness extends to lots of the small details in the episode: Laszlo, for instance, disguises himself as the thoroughly human “Jackie Daytona” simply by putting on a pair of blue jeans and sticking a toothpick in his mouth, and the show doubles down on that ridiculousness as one person after another is fooled.

“I was aware of the fact that the premise is absurd, and there were a couple of moments when I thought it might be too stupid,” Robinson admitted. “But there’s something very charming about the stupidity.”

Laszlo is on the run because he’s being chased by another vampire, Jim, who’s never forgotten that Laszlo stiffed him on a month’s rent for a room 167 years earlier. And Jim is played by a rather notable figure in the world of genre and sci-fi, Mark Hamill.

“It wasn’t written with Mark in mind, but we knew that he was a fan of the show,” Robinson said. “So we reached out to casting, and it was one of those things that worked out perfectly. I don’t know who else would have played that so campy and big and theatrical, but also sweet.”

Read more of the Emmy Hot List issue here.

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