When Bob Daily, AM’86, began writing for television in the late 1990s, he didn’t know he was arriving at the dawn of what some have called “peak TV,” a period when the medium began to enjoy newfound prestige and popularity. In fact, he worried the opposite might be true: “At any time in Hollywood, people think they just missed out on the golden era,” Daily says.

Golden era or not, Daily knew right away he was where he wanted to be. Daily’s first job in television was not the height of glamour; he wrote several episodes of the short-lived UPN series Hitz, starring comedian Andrew Dice Clay. “Even though I knew the show was doomed to failure, I was grateful for the job, and I loved the experience,” he says. “I remember the thrill of being on the floor when we filmed my first episode and hearing actors bring it to life.”

Before long, Daily graduated from Hitz to a bona fide hit—Frasier—where he spent five years as a writer and producer. He’s gone on to write for and produce shows including Desperate Housewives, The Odd Couple, and Superior Donuts, which he cocreated; today, he’s a writer and executive producer for ABC’s reboot of the beloved hit show The Wonder Years.

It was not the path Daily imagined for himself when he arrived at UChicago to study English. At the time, his goal was to become an academic and teach at a school like his alma mater, Carleton College. Though he’s grateful for the experience, “I very quickly realized that grad school and I were not a great match.” When a professor described Daily’s writing as “too conversational,” he took it as a sign.

After several years as an entertainment journalist in Chicago—his work ranged from profiling David Mamet to covering an Elvis impersonator convention—Daily was persuaded by friends to move to Los Angeles and take a shot at screenwriting. For a reporter, the freedom to dispense with the truth was enticing. “I thought it would be fun to write and not have to do the research—to just make it all up,” he says. “So, I started pointing myself toward fiction.”

Writing for television felt like a natural transition. He’d fallen in love with the medium as a child by watching nightly reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show on WGN. “It was really funny but grounded, which is something I’ve always aspired to in comedy,” Daily says. “That was probably my biggest influence as a kid.”

Daily had no formal screenwriting training, so before moving to LA he gave himself a crash course. The first season of Frasier had just come out on VHS; Daily would watch each episode, pen and legal pad in hand, outlining the story structure. “I sat in my apartment in Wrigleyville and taught myself how to write a half-hour comedy,” he says.

Getting hired on Frasier was a full-circle moment for Daily, although it was not without its anxieties. Learning to pitch jokes in a room full of legends—the very people whose work he had studied—took time. “I came home pretty much every day and said to my wife, ‘I think I’m going to get fired,’” he says.

After his first episode was filmed, he could finally exhale. “I’ve written that episode of Frasier and no one can ever take that away from me. It will always be on my IMDb page. Always,” he remembers thinking. “If I have to go back to Chicago with my tail between my legs in failure, I can at least be in a bar somewhere telling people I wrote an episode of Frasier.” That thought was soon followed by another: “I want this to go on forever.”

Of course, in television, nothing does. Daily has learned to weather the highs and lows of pickups and cancellations. Before Frasier he worked on a show that ended after two episodes (not a record, he says, but close). In 2018, CBS canceled Superior Donuts after two seasons. “There’s a bar near the CBS Radford studios, and every time I drive by it, I think ‘That’s the bar where we went after this show was canceled, and after that show was canceled,’” he says. Often what’s saddest is the thought of parting ways with other writers: “There’s a real foxhole mentality in a writers’ room, and you get really close.”

Still, Daily feels fortunate for the relative stability of his career. In network television, where he got his start, seasons are long, and a successful show can lead to several years of steady work—as well as the opportunity to learn how to produce and lead a series.

The streaming era, in which 8- or 10-episode seasons are the norm and the writers’ room disbands within weeks, has changed all that. “I feel bad for writers coming into the industry now. … It’s more of a gig economy than it used to be,” Daily says. “And because of that writers are just not getting the opportunity to learn, to get a 360-degree view of the job.”

Writers have recently fought back against what they say are other unfair conditions—and even technological threats—in their current work environment. The Writers Guild of America strike, which kicked off in May and resulted in a tentative agreement in late September, has been focused on increasing the residuals owed to writers from streaming media and limiting the role of AI in screenwriting.

The upside of the streaming boom, though, has been a willingness to take a chance on new shows and creators. “A streamer can afford to be a little more niche, which can lead to more interesting ideas,” Daily says. “It’s a great thing for writers not to feel like ‘I have to turn this into 100 episodes, or 200 episodes.’ It expands the scope of storytelling.”

Because he knows the challenges new writers face, Daily has tried to support them however he can. He’s served as a visiting screenwriter-in-residence at Carleton, spoken at UChicago’s GRADUCon career conference, and mentored—and occasionally hired—students from both institutions. “Because I was self-trained, I didn’t have anyone to pave the way for me. It feels great to be able to do that for other people,” he says. “One of the most fun things you can possibly do in the entertainment business is to give people their first job.”

Photo Creds: 
Photo courtesy Bob Daily