‘This is Us’ Writer Tells Students to Put in the Work

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — With 20 Emmy Award nominations and two wins in its first three seasons — three of the nominations were for Outstanding Drama Series — “This Is Us” is one of the most critically acclaimed and well written shows on television.

It takes a lot of work to get there. It takes about eight 12-hour days to shoot a single episode of the emotional series. But for Vera Herbert, writer and co-executive producer, it’s worth the effort.

On Friday, the Boardman native addressed students at Ursuline High School, where she graduated in 2007 as valedictorian, and Youngstown State University. She urged the students to put in long hours if they want to succeed in the field.

“I used to [say to myself] ‘probably in college you could have gone to a few more parties … but now you get to go the Emmys, and that’s a better party’,” she said.

Herbert joined the staff of “This Is Us” in 2016. Despite the long hours working on the NBC drama, which airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m., she still makes time to work on her own film and TV projects, she said.

Shaping the story of each episode is a team effort, with each of the show’s 14 writers taking turns actually writing the script. Herbert’s 2016 episode “The Trip” won the Writers Guild Award for Outstanding Writing for episodic drama and her 2017 episode “Still Here” was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series.

Born in South Africa, Herbert and her parents moved to Boardman when she was in her early teens. Both of her parents worked at Youngstown State University – her father as provost and her mother as an English professor. Her father, Robert, died in an accident in 2007.

At least four of Herbert’s former teachers from Ursuline High attended her appearance at YSU’s Williamson Hall, and joined with students in peppering her with questions.

Herbert’s career as a screenwriter began when she was a senior at the University of North Carolina, when she landed an internship on MTV’s “Awkward.” She spent three seasons with the show as an assistant and a writer, leaving in 2012. She also created a pilot, “Blink,” for which The CW has obtained the rights.

She has since sold pilots to Fox and NBC, as well as several movie scripts. While none have been produced, a few are in various stages of the TV and film-making pipelines.

The scripts Herbert creates to pitch to studios tend to be family drama-comedies or romantic comedies, she said. Not surprisingly, Herbert always wanted to be a writer, but narrowed her focus to screenwriting as a teenager, she said.

“It started when I took a film studies class when I was in high school,” Herbert said. “I had always wanted to write. I remember being 5 years old and saying I want to be an author. When I took that film studies class, then it kind of coalesced.”

Herbert would take more film and writing classes in high school, and a summer intensive in film studies at UNC when she was 16 or 17.

“This Is Us” explores the relationships and life circumstances of an ensemble of characters through several intertwined plotlines. Its timelines occur in the present, past and future as it reveals their stories.

Herbert was hired on to the writing staff shortly after the show, created by Dan Fogelman, had gotten picked up by NBC. But she knew she wanted to write for it as soon as she read the pilot script.

“I love getting to tell real family stories on TV that … people can relate to and that show formative moments,” Herbert said, adding she also enjoys capturing nostalgia in the flashback scenes.

The writing process, she said, begins with the writing team kicking around ideas to fill out each episode and propel the story. One writer is then assigned to write the script, and also produce the episode in conjunction with the director and other creative team members.

Grief and loss are a major theme of “This Is Us,” and Herbert said the collaborative writing process is like group therapy. “A couple of other people on the staff also lost a parent and it’s a nice outlet to be able to talk about my dad. We’re able to put our life experience, good or bad, to a greater purpose.”

Herbert, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Brandon, will have at least three more years on “This Is Us.” The series, now in its fourth season, was recently extended for three more.

Pictured: In 2016, Vera Herbert won the Writers Guild Award for Outstanding Writing for episodic drama for her “This Is Us” episode “The Trip.”

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.