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Chicago’s Most Successful Screenwriter Takes to TV

Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness) shares the forces that molded his writing.

Steve Conrad
Photos: Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune; (Uncle Tupelo) Courtesy of Sony; (Chaplin) PD-1923; (Ball) © 1956 Young & Rubicam

For Steve Conrad, the small screen offers a new challenge. After a string of Hollywood writing credits—The Weather Man, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty—the Lincoln Park resident pivots to TV in a new Amazon series, Patriot, for which he serves as showrunner. Filmed locally, the black comedy follows a folk-singing intelligence officer whose boss (and father) sends him undercover to rig an Iranian election.

“Premium TV is a writer’s medium now,” says Conrad, 48. “I wanted to dig into long-form storytelling.”

Ahead of Patriot’s February 24 premiere, Conrad shares the forces that molded his writing.

George Carlin’s FM & AM

My mom raised us Catholic, but my dad expanded my universe by giving me FM & AM. I listened to Carlin make fun of all these things I was taught you can’t make fun of. I stopped asking for forgiveness every night. Carlin’s was the first voice I ever heard that said your parents aren’t the final word.

Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball

When I was young, we got shows like Miami Vice—depictions of beauty that limited people. Then I fell in love with Lucille Ball. I would race home to watch this beautiful lady not care about being beautiful, but about being funny. It seemed like such a better use of her soul.

The Kids in the Hall

When I was a teenager, I’d turn on Kids in the Hall and think, That’s all I do with my friends—just make up stupid stuff. It said to me if you throw yourself into that, it just might amount to something.

Rankin/Bass’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

I was too young to do acid, but those stop-motion holiday movies were like acid if you were raised in the 1980s. This little elf getting all his teeth pulled—it’s so much darker than “Rudolph” the song.

Uncle Tupelo

Uncle Tupelo

Their first record came out in 1990, when the music scene was kind of dismal—you were still hearing Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night.” Jeff Tweedy’s first [breakout] band made this brilliant music that wasn’t trying to get on the radio—like Kids in the Hall made a TV show that wasn’t trying to be on TV.

My older brother, Tim

My parents divorced when I was a teenager, and my brother became the man of the house. He wasn’t allowed to stay up till midnight watching Benny Hill and Monty Python—he was out working. That allowed me the luxury of playing music and watching movies.

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin

He made films before there were genres like horror, superhero, thriller, drama. He didn’t have to do one thing, so his movies did it all. His appetite wasn’t restricted by the rules.

Richard Ford’s Independence Day

I read this book after college, that long period of time when you’re ordered to read books. But Ford doesn’t write books to be studied in school. He writes books to keep you from falling asleep at night. He established for me the pleasure of getting lost in a book, that books will be things I’ll have relationships with.

George Saunders

His short stories make you love somebody you wouldn’t have given a second look to, somebody you’d take for granted.

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