Section: Features

This Shipley has sailed: Kenyon alum hits the small screen

by Claire Oxford

Justin Shipley ’11 is in the Caribbean, but not for a vacation. “I’m actually down in Puerto Rico shooting for the next two weeks and my days are pretty jam-packed,” he wrote in a Facebook message to the Collegian. A drama major while he was at Kenyon just four years ago, Shipley has already made remarkable strides in the television industry — he co-wrote the pilot for the upcoming television show Wrecked and is currently overseeing its production in sunny Puerto Rico.

“My brother [Jordan Shipley] and I are a writing team; we primarily write comedy for TV,” Shipley wrote in an email. “We sold a half-hour comedy pilot to TBS in early 2014, and this past fall we got [the] green light to go into production. We’re currently … shooting the pilot, which follows a group of survivors trying to survive on a deserted island after their plane crashes.”

In marketing this idea to potential buyers, Shipley highlighted its humor. “We basically sold it to the network as LOST with jokes,” he wrote.

Humor isn’t anything new to Shipley, according to his former professors. “He had a wacky streak, particularly in his playwriting,” Professor of Drama and Playwright-in-Residence Wendy MacLeod said.

Associate Professor of Anthropology Sam Pack, who had Shipley in his course “The Anthropology of Borat,” wrote in an email, “He quickly distinguished himself as somebody who understood and appreciated the power of satire. One of the course assignments involved the students producing their own Borat-esque mockumentaries. Justin decided to play the role of a renegade professor based not-so-loosely on me. It hit a little too close for comfort at the time, but I can laugh at the memory now.”

In addition to Shipley’s quick wit and distinct voice in his writing, Assistant Professor of Film Jonathan Sherman spoke to Shipley’s affability. “He’s just very personable, very charming, very funny and very talented,” he said. “I’m sure he’ll go into feature films eventually, but you could kind of tell that it was gonna be TV to start. Just based off his sense of humor and style of writing. … [It’s] kind of shorter, funnier.”

While there was not a film major for Shipley to choose during his time at Kenyon, he found that his drama courses, in particular, “Intro to Playwriting” with MacLeod, helped him refine his style of writing and gain a stronger appreciation for the structural aspects of storytelling. “It laid such a solid foundation for my writing,” he wrote. “Wendy’s a brilliant playwright in her own right, but she’s also so stupid talented at breaking down the mechanics of storytelling and conveying them to her students in a digestible way.”

After Shipley’s graduation, he landed a job as actor Josh Radnor’s ’96 assistant on the set of Liberal Arts, which was shot here on campus. There, he met Jesse Hara, one of the film’s producers. “After we wrapped on Liberal Arts, I started writing full-time and throwing scripts at [Hara],” Shipley wrote. “He finally saw the pure, unadulterated genius of my writing, and when I moved out to L.A., he took me and my brother on as clients.”

Shortly thereafter, he and his brother signed with TBS to produce their comedy, Wrecked. “We’re finishing up production this week and then we’ll go into edit for the next few weeks,” Shipley wrote. “If the pilot tests well and we get picked up to [do a] series, we’ll have a 10-episode run on TBS this summer/fall. To the credit of TBS, they’ve been incredibly cool and generous, and we’ve been executing our vision with a really phenomenal amount of creative control, especially for new writers. It’s a dream, really.”

Shipley credits his Kenyon education, and its emphasis on the structure of storytelling, with helping him succeed in the industry. “I’ll be the first to say this sounds pretentious,” Shipley wrote, “but having an Aristotelian understanding of the mechanics of storytelling, and a vocabulary in which to discuss those mechanics, is invaluable in this industry. Other film schools tend to focus on the skills of production, and while it’s important to have an understanding of that, things change so rapidly in this industry.”

At the end of the day, Shipley wrote, “story will always trump all.”


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