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David E. Kelley Urges Writers to Focus on Work That ‘Matters’ at Variety Showrunners Dinner

The 11-time Emmy winner spoke from the heart after accepting this year's Creative Conscience Award

David E. Kelley urged his fellow showrunners and TV writers to be mindful of the privilege they have in the platform that television provides to reach millions of viewers as he accepted the 2022 Creative Conscience Award Thursday night at Variety’s Showrunners Dinner presented by A+E Studios.

The kudo was presented to Kelley for his decades-long career of socially conscious work, which includes such series as “The Practice,” “Boston Public,” “Boston Legal,” “Ally McBeal,” “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “Big Little Lies,” “Nine Perfect Strangers” and “Big Sky,” among others.

“If our work matters, even a little, then that’s something,” Kelley said.

Kelley spoke from the heart to a packed room of showrunners, including top Emmy nominees and producers featured in Variety’s 2022 Producers Impact Report, at the dinner, held at Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood. Attendees included “Abbott Elementary” creator and star Quinta Brunson; Liz Meriwether of “The Dropout”; “Rick and Morty” boss Dan Harmon; “Only Murders in the Building’s” John Hoffman; Julie Plec (“Roswell, N.M.”); “Dopesick’s” Danny Strong; “Winning Time’s” Max Borenstein and Rodney Barnes; the “Hacks” trio of Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs; “Pachinko” and “The Morning Show” EP Michael Ellenberg; Nikki Toscano of “The Offer”; “Severance’s” Dan Erickson; and Sierra Teller Ornelas of “Rutherford Falls.”

Kelley detailed his journey to find a new passion outside of law.

“It was challenging work, but I knew whatever this was, it wasn’t it. I practiced the law, when I sort of dug into my core, it just wasn’t it. And the hours are long,” Kelley said.

That search led him to Boston’s Colonial Theatre, where he would occasionally sneak into performances as he walked home from a late night at his law firm. At one point when he was distraught about his next move, Kelley went inside the theater when no one else was there, hoping to find inspiration from the venue itself about what path he was destined for.

It was shortly after that I began writing in earnest. And it was shortly after that I got a script option by Howard Baldwin. And then not too long after that, I got a call from the offices of Steven Bochco,” Kelley recalled.

It was his relationship with Bochco that would take him to new heights. After writing for “L.A. Law,” the two embarked on a work relationship that would lead to several collaborations, including the famous “Doogie Howser, M.D.”

At which point, Kelley decided to set off on his own. Bochco, however, remained a heavy influence in his future works –– along with 2019 Creative Conscience winner Norman Lear.

“Now, as a kid in Boston, I didn’t watch much television. You could have thrown out any name -– producer, writer, director, otherwise; I would not have known who they are, with the exception of two. The first one was Norman Lear,” he said. “Because I grew up watching all of his product, ‘All in the Family,’ ‘Maude,’ ‘The Jeffersons.'”

From watching television shows, I knew this was a man who brought his conscience to the office,” Kelley continued.

The second person he mentioned was mega-producer Bochco.

“From watching his work, I knew that he also brought his principles to the workplace and incorporated them into his shows,” Kelley added.

The lessons he learned from his mentors were “too many” to list, he told the audience. But he recognized all of the people he admired and who’d made a lasting impact on his life and career (his mother, sister and high school Latin teacher) were all kind people that had respect for those around them. These were the people he thought of when he started on a new script.

I had kind of a cheat sheet to guide when I was breaking stories or writing scripts, I would ask myself, ‘Does this live up to Steven Bochco standards? Would Norman Lear be proud? Would my Latin teacher approve? Would my sister? My mother?'” Kelley said.

“To have someone you admire, people you admire, values that you can aspire to –– that’s a gift. I know you all have people to admire. And I would encourage you to draw on them,” he continued. “And I would also remind you as showrunners, you have a platform that reaches millions of people. So be mindful of the opportunity you have. Because not everybody gets that.”

Variety's BreAnna Bell contributed to this post.

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