Writing sitcoms is serious business for University of Iowa alumnus Peter Dirksen, who has worked on TV shows for ABC, Netflix, Nickelodeon, and Disney Channel since graduating in 2000.
Sara Epstein Moninger
Courtesy of Peter Dirksen

Perhaps the best preparation for writing the TV show that E! News described as “like Modern Family mixed with A Christmas Story” is being a student at the University of Iowa.

Peter Dirksen, who earned a BA from Iowa in 2000, is co-executive producer and writer for the ABC sitcom The Goldbergs narrated by Patton Oswalt and starring Jeff Garlin and Wendy McClendon-Covey. He says the storytelling skills he developed in classes, coupled with the techniques he honed on campus working for Student Video Productions, set him up for a career in Los Angeles writing for television shows like Prince of Peoria on Netflix, Schooled on ABC, Wizards of Waverly Place on Disney Channel, and Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn on Nickelodeon.

“The writing classes I took at Iowa helped me learn how to organize my thoughts, to critique other people, and to take critique as well. And they exposed me to other points of view, something you might not necessarily get in other classes,” says Dirksen, who double-majored in communication studies and Asian languages and literature. “Although my production classes weren’t really geared toward Hollywood-style filmmaking—it was really art school material—we had very supportive teachers and got so much hands-on experience. We had the opportunity to get comfortable with the media used in film and television and get some idea what it’s like to be on a set.”

Because of COVID-19, Dirksen is not on the set of The Goldbergs, which currently is filming its eighth season. Instead, he logs into Zoom every morning from home and meets with a production team that includes showrunners, more than a dozen writers, and various assistants. The writers break into different rooms and work on assigned scenes until midday, regroup after lunch, and then divide up again to work more. Later in the evening, after his 2-year-old has gone to bed, Dirksen meets online with his writing partner of several years, Jonathan Howard, to further develop story ideas for The Goldbergs and kick around ideas for new projects

“Being interested in television and film, I saw that Iowa was a great place to study—one of the best in the Midwest.”

Peter Dirksen
TV writer and University of Iowa graduate

“When you are in this line of work, it’s a constant hustle. We’re always trying to figure out where the next paycheck’s going to come from,” Dirksen says. “I’ve been lucky enough to work on shows that haven’t gotten canceled midseason, but I’ve worked on plenty of shows when we didn’t know whether we would have a job after the season was over. So you write for the show you’re currently working on, but you’re always looking ahead and pitching ideas.”

Even with this uncertainty, Dirksen enjoys the work. The Goldbergs, he says, is based on creator Adam Goldberg’s family life growing up, but the stories it tells are relatable, with situations that many viewers have experienced.

“On the most basic level, I like trying to make people laugh, and it’s fun to work with funny people and get them to laugh still,” he says. “I also enjoy the process. Putting a story together is kind of like working on a puzzle—you might know where you’re starting from or where you’re going to end up, and the challenge is piecing together the story. Or sometimes you know you’re missing a scene and have to figure out what it is.”

Although interested in writing growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, Dirksen initially thought he’d pursue a career working with animals, perhaps in primatology or zoology. Then it was acting, computer science, and film editing that intrigued him. By his sophomore year at Iowa, he knew he wanted to write. In fact, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop helped draw his attention to Iowa City and the UI campus.

“I was really into watching Big Ten sports, and I wanted to go somewhere in the Big Ten that was close enough to get home, but not so close that I would be home every weekend,” he says. “Being interested in television and film, I saw that Iowa was a great place to study—one of the best in the Midwest.”

Did you know?

If you are interested in becoming a filmmaker, editor, camera assistant, screenwriter, producer, or casting agent, the University of Iowa offers degrees in cinema and in screenwriting arts. Students are instructed on the practical skills and knowledge needed in these industries and also learn about history and theory.

Dirksen took classes in film and TV production, screenwriting, sound design, and creative writing, and even in Japanese language and culture (“I think learning a new language and being exposed to other cultures is really valuable,” he says). The opportunity to work on projects by participating in a student organization called Student Video Productions allowed him to gain yet another perspective on storytelling.

“It was a chance to make narrative stories, and even satirical comedy,” he says. “We did a news-style show that was like The Onion with an audience, which wasn’t necessarily the focus of our classes. It was fun, and I think it was important to have a chance to stretch those muscles.”

When he first moved to Los Angeles after graduation, Dirksen worked in a string of assistant roles. He says his first television assistant position was a result of his Iowa connection.

“A friend from Iowa, who is a TV writer now too, got a job at Nickelodeon through someone he had known from the University of Iowa, and then he got me a job at Nickelodeon,” he says.

Though he mostly writes comedic content, Dirksen says he is able to address serious issues in his work. In fact, he and Howard recently wrote about racism and white privilege for a Goldbergs episode titled “Eracism.”

“With Jonathan being Black and my wife being Black, and both of us having biracial children, racism is a topic that often comes up in our discussions, especially over the past five years. We have written about it in our own projects, but this was the first time we got the chance to do it for a mass audience. We love to tackle difficult topics with our writing,” Dirksen says. “Ideally, anything we put on the page will both entertain and lead to a bit of introspection. If I describe a new project to my mom and her response is, ‘That doesn’t sound like a comedy,’ then I know we’re probably on the right track.”