When you get some of the top comedy showunners in a room together, it's only fitting that discussion would devolve rather quickly into a candid dissertation about F-bombs, condoms, what censors won't let you say in a scene inside a gynecologist's office and why NBC's 1980s sitcom Empty Nest might just be one of the medium's great underrated classics. Such was the case on an April afternoon in Hollywood when six Emmy contenders -- Matthew Carnahan, 52 (Showtime's House of Lies); Greg Daniels, 49 (NBC's The Office); Bruce Helford, 61 (FX's Anger Management); Liz Meriwether, 31 (Fox's New Girl); Steve Molaro, 45 (CBS' The Big Bang Theory); and Mike Schur, 37 (NBC's Parks and Recreation) -- gathered to talk about their craft. Although their series vary wildly in format and ratio of laughs per episode, the writer-producers agreed on plenty, including the urgent need to repair a broken ratings system and why it's more than OK to make a show not everyone will love.
The Hollywood Reporter: The Big Bang Theory notwithstanding, it's been a very tough year for network comedies. Why do you think this is the case?
Liz Meriwether: Oh my God.
Mike Schur: Well …
Greg Daniels: Steve, you answer so it feels real combative and judgmental about the rest of us.
Steve Molaro: I'm not saying anything. I'm doing as I'm told!
Schur: He should just take a nap on the table as we're talking about this. My wife [J.J. Philbin] writes for New Girl, the show Liz created and runs, and every week there's a story: "New Girl got like a 2.7 this week." What does that mean? And then three weeks later, "Well, when you factor in the people who watch it on DVRs, it gets a 41.6 or something." So, people are not watching less television; they're watching more television. They're just not watching it at the exact time that counts for that stupid number that comes out at 8 a.m. And until the entire town agrees, which we need to do, to ignore that number, it's going to seem like people are suddenly walking outside and enjoying the fresh air. This is America. They're inside watching television!
Matthew Carnahan: There's a binge factor, too, that's changed the way people consume television. This is a relatively new thing, but you have to factor it in. The old system of counting is broken.
Schur: Binging also gives people the option of waiting to see if shows stick around, right? You don't want to invest time in something if it is going to disappear, so you wait until season three or four and then watch 80 episodes of a show in a week.
Bruce Helford: But why would they have a fourth season when everybody waited till season four to watch? (Laughter.)
THR: Do the broadcast networks have the patience to wait and see today? Big Bang Theory didn't come out of the gate superstrong. Parks also needed time to grow, and you got it.
Schur: Yes, we did. They've been incredibly patient with us, which is great. But I don't think they have a choice. I don't think anyone has a choice. You can't force people to watch TV at exactly the moment that you want them to, and so the question isn't whether they should be patient. It's whether we can figure out how to make the current reality of the landscape work.
Helford Anger Management isn't on Netflix, so you catch it in reruns, and FX will re-air it, but a lot of cable shows you can catch later on. I go to my kid's college campus, and there's no TV set to be found. It's all laptops. It's all going to Netflix, it's all going to iTunes. When I get our overnights, I know they're absolutely meaningless. Anyone who's actually reporting the next day is doing a disservice to the shows, and to themselves. You see jumps on average I was told was something like a 20 [via DVR]. I know New Girl gets a huge jump. We ended up like an 80 percent or 90 percent jump in DVR-plus-7. No one can really gauge anything until those numbers are in. But the broadcast guys seem to still function on, "Who's watching live?" But you don't get all the advertising dollars when you had the DVR numbers. People who watch the DVR and watch the commercials is a surprisingly high number.
Meriwether: That blew my mind. I found out that they don't count DVR if you [don't watch the commercials]. It's like, who's actually doing that?
Helford: A shocking number of people actually are sitting there watching commercials. They don't have to. I don't know if they know they don't have to.
Daniels: Don't tell them. (Laughter.)
Meriwether: I know, I know. I heard that in some parts of the country, Nielsen ratings are still pencil and paper, people are still having to write down what [they're watching]. It feels so foreign to the actual reality of how people watch television. And we're totally kicking ass on DVR. I just want to make that clear, we're doing, like, Dallas numbers.
Daniels: But Hulu, you have to watch the commercials, right?
Meriwether: Yeah, and Hulu isn't counted, or iTunes.
Daniels: Right, but I assume that at some point, you'll be getting your NBC in a way that's similar to how people get Hulu, and you won't be able to zip through the commercials. At least I would hope that they will do that eventually.
Schur: I think you could make an argument that scanning through commercials is a more effective way to advertise. In the old system, when you were watching a show live, and a commercial came on, you would just get up and get a sandwich, and listen for the show to come back on. If I were Coca-Cola, I would make a 30-second ad that just said "Coca-Cola," and add a can. So even if you're scanning through it, you get like, eight seconds of a can.
Meriwether: We had to do product placement this year, and that was like a whole, I mean …
Schur: That's a whole other thing.
Meriwether: Kind of painful.
Molaro: We actually haven't had too much of it, at least that I'm aware of.
Daniels: Nice to have you with us, Steve!
Carnahan: I was just going to say that we haven't had to do that much of it.
Helford: We will whore ourselves out to anyone who wants to, I mean, we've got everybody. What's really going on is everybody's just putting their product in the thing. Somebody walks in a room with a bucket of KFC chicken or whatever, it's paid for, it's acknowledged, it's nothing under the table. When I was doing George Lopez, we were really insulted that they only wanted to put in Taco Bell, stuff like that.
Carnahan: We've rejected some, and we made some big deals to get a decent, sizable amount of money to show a phone through the whole course of the season. But yeah, we turned down some cheesy [products]. Our show in particular is about upscale people, and so there were certain …
Meriwether: Del Taco?
Carnahan: Del Taco we didn't reject. I'd be willing to talk to Del Taco! No, there were some products that would have been cheesy.
Meriwether: Well, we just made a mistake because we were like, "You know, if we're going to do product placement, we're really going to lean into it and put it front and center," which is not the way to do it. The way to do it is like, have somebody walk in with a bucket of KFC, and we were like, "No, we're going to, like, have her say Ford." We wanted to do it in a cool way, like 30 Rock sort of did it, but that's not our show, and so we tried and then everybody was just mad at us.
Helford: At least you can control it. For a while there, there was a digitally inserted thing, so you'd watch your show and all of a sudden there was a huge, huge box of Ritz Crackers double the size of a normal box sitting right in the middle of the table.
THR: On the creative side, Liz, how did you know it was the right time for your lead characters, Nick and Jess, to start a sexual relationship?
Meriwether: We got a product placement deal for condoms, so we were just building up to that big product placement. (Laughs.) No, it felt like holding it off any longer was going to feel like we were playing with the audience. I don't really believe in, "If they kiss, then the spark of the show is gone." I think that when people come together, it actually creates so many more opportunities for story, conflict, things to go wrong. We found that it really helped our show, kind of gave it focus. They were really good at kissing, too; it's fun to watch them make out.
Daniels: I really liked what you guys did this season.
Meriwether: He will not stop tweeting me about it! He's like, "Oh my God, LOL!"
Daniels: I think that you have a window, and you can miss your window, and then people get too invested in the characters who aren't supposed to be the ones whom they end up with. I've seen shows where in the beginning of the show, you're like, "Well, these two have some sparks," and then they're so worried about bringing them together that they give each of them another partner, and then after a little while the audience kind of gets more invested in the new partner, and they never get back to it. So I think you're totally right to be doing it when you're doing it.
Meriwether: Thank God.
THR: Steve, Big Bang fans are very engaged in social media. How much attention do you pay to what they want your characters to do and not do?
Molaro: I am affected by social media, but I try not to read too much of that. I think if we acted on a large number of tweets that were sent to me, Sheldon and Penny would have sex every week.
Schur: Which could be a good show.
THR: What's been the most difficult or surprising part of taking over all the showrunner duties from Bill Prady this year?
Molaro: It's really easy -- Bill was just skating! Actually, Bill and I co-ran it for the last three years, so it really wasn't that much of a shock when he stepped back. The writing staff has just really stepped up, and I'm proud of the season that we did, and people seem to be happy with it so far. But writing jokes is hard. So I get to delegate that now!
Schur: I think I've delegated everything that I can without being fired for incompetence.
THR: What about notes? What's the funniest or most absurd one you've gotten in the past year?
Meriwether: We have a special relationship with our standards and practices department. We were doing a scene inside a gynecologist's office, and the e-mails back and forth were really outstanding. I have a couple framed in my office.
Helford: We started an arc where Charlie and his therapist-slash-girlfriend are doing a sex study a la Kinsey or Masters and Johnson, and so they have a room where they observe, through a two-way mirror, people having sex who are hooked to electrodes. And the note was, "Can you not have the sexual people being studied move up and down?" So I thought if they move horizontally, it's not considered a sexual act.
Meriwether: Like if the bed's going to move, it can't be rhythmic.
Molaro: I think last year, Amy [Mayim Bialik's character] was doing a nicotine addiction study, and we had a monkey that was smoking, and there was a joke -- Sheldon asked, "What have you learned so far in the study?" And [she said] "So far, the monkey looks so much cooler than all the other monkeys," and we were told, "You can't say that smoking makes you look cooler," even though it was about a monkey. So Chuck Lorre told the network that he will personally respond to all the letters from monkeys that get addicted to smoking because of our show. I think that joke stayed in and then was followed up with a monkey masturbating joke on top of it. It was like, "Do you have any other notes that you'd like us to reject?"
Helford: Sometimes you just pile in extra stuff [to distract them]. You give them a few you didn't want anyway.
Schur: That was the Saturday Night Live move. If you wanted to say a certain word that was borderline, you would just load up the rest of the sketch with the stuff that was absolutely not OK.
Helford: I can remember trading. "We're trading three 'damns' and an 'ass' for …"
Carnahan: We did that a lot when I had a show at FX.
Schur: It's like, "Look, we took 11 F-bombs out of that sketch, what do you want us to do?" They're like, "All right, fine, just …" At a certain point, you just wear them down.
Daniels: You know what's funny is that you said F-bomb instead of …
Schur: 'Cause I don't know if we're allowed to curse here!
Daniels: Right. I mean, we all know what he's saying, right? But the networks would have a problem with the character saying the word "F-bomb."
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Daniels: Or bleeping. We would bleep things, and then they'd go, "Come on, guys, stop bleeping." But the bleeping's good, right? You're supposed to like the bleeping because it means that they didn't swear.
Schur: We found a creative way around that. We have the character whom we wanted to say, "What the F is going on here?" And they had a problem with that. So the line that we gave her was like, "What the mother-effing C-ing S-ing K-ing G-ing L-ing F is going on here?" And then our response is like she's insane. Those aren't swear words, she's just a crazy person. And they let us do it.
Meriwether: That's smart!
THR: Matthew, your show is more of a dramedy. In fact, most comedies today have a lot of dramatic elements, including New Girl, which had a very serious episode this year about Nick's father's death. Is this where the genre is heading?
Meriwether: Maybe that's why our ratings are going down. I'm joking, they're not!
Carnahan: I don't know. I think the last dramedy to win an Emmy was Ally McBeal, and that was a while ago, and it was an hour format. But that's not so much my concern. I see what my son watches. He's 15, and he likes funny, he likes jokes. I don't know if there's a trend toward dramedy. What do you guys think?
Helford: Some of it is just a perception of the visual look of something. Roseanne was a dramedy, and it was a multicam. I think when people see a single camera, they think it's going to be more dramatic, more like a film.
Daniels: You don't hear anybody laughing.
Helford: They're just seeing now the single-camera comedies, which God knows so many of us were trying to get started years ago and no one wanted to even think about doing it until the multicams went down for a while.
Molaro: I don't think my dad knows the difference!
Schur: I think it's all vestiges, too. When TV started, there was I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke, and shows that looked like I Love Lucy were comedies, and shows that looked like Gunsmoke were dramas. Today it's gone from four channels to 1,000, and there are 300 million people. Emmy classification is problematic. What do you do? Do you start adding more categories? What's Nurse Jackie? What's Californication? They're half-hour shows, which makes people think about I Love Lucy; but they don't have laugh tracks, and that makes people think about Gunsmoke. It's really about, what do people like? Its gets a little dicey when you start trying to classify any show.
Meriwether: Don't you think there is more emphasis on the emotional side of all comedies that are on the air right now? There's more emotional stuff [on TV] than I remember when I was growing up.
Helford: There was a really superficial period of sitcoms after Roseanne went down and some of the other shows that had a lot more substantive stuff.
Daniels: But Seinfeld was so dominant, and it was so unemotional.
Helford: Very true.
Carnahan: I will say that in terms of a trend, comedies are much "voicier" than they used to be. I feel like there is much more a sense of the voice of the person at the helm of the show, which I like. I like to turn on your show and hear your voice.
Schur: They feel more specific or something.
Carnahan: They feel specific to the voice of the person who thought them up, or who is running them.
Meriwether: And the networks actually want that.
Carnahan: I think so.
Meriwether: Which is surprising.
THR: Bruce, before Anger Management launched, you said if the 10/90 model was successful, it could fundamentally change the way TV gets made. Do you feel now, well over 40 episodes in, you're there? And do the rest of you look at what he's doing and think that sounds appealing or terrifying?
Helford: It already is changing the business. George Lopez, Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence are all doing them now because it's simple economics: The show costs half the money, and if you lay it out properly, you're strong in your organizational skills and you have a good writing staff, you can do the same quality of show for half the money and in half the time. It took me five years to get to 100 Drew Careys; it will take me two years to get to 100 Anger Managements. That's also good for the actors because they don't have to spend as long getting typecast in the role, they get to re-create themselves sooner and not be on the air for six to nine years. For the creators, you get to move to a new project after that, it moves to syndication faster, and the truth is, the process is actually, in many ways, easier, except for the writing staff. So it will change. But because we're shooting so many in advance -- we have probably 20 shows that haven't aired yet -- I have to anticipate when the audience will want certain things, or when we feel right to change the dynamic of the characters. We've had conversations with FX about: When will the writers get bored and decide to change things? Can the audience go longer with the same dynamic and love it and not want it to change? It's tricky to have to decide way in advance.
THR: Lionsgate keeps turning to veteran showrunners to run these 10/90 projects, but each time they seem to be people who haven't done a lot of recent TV work. Why do you think that is?
Helford: It's organizational skills or their kids are now in college and they want to come back. In my case, my kid was off to college, and I was like, "OK, let's try a challenge, I know this will be a challenge." At one point, I did 100 episodes in one season when I had four shows going.
Daniels: You're 300 years old.
Helford: Yeah, I'm approaching 800 episodes of television, half-hour television.
Meriwether: Oh my God.
Helford: [Writer-director] Sam Simon recently pointed out to me, "You're shooting 25 pages a day, and you're writing about seven. You need to pick it up." So we broke into two writing rooms, and did all the things that you wouldn't have to normally do when you have a full week to do one episode.
Meriwether: So you shoot 25 pages a day of one episode?
Helford: We shoot two shows a week. We're on the air for 90 weeks in a row, so I have to deliver the episodes consistently. We're only off for holidays, so it's the opposite of the cable model.
THR: So, any takers for a 10/90 deal here?
Meriwether: As you were talking, my entire body was tensing up!
Carnahan: I was loosening my bowels.
Daniels: Do you have arcs on the show or is it more episodic?
Helford: For syndication, they always say they want it as episodic as possible. But you can't get a show to go 100 episodes without good, strong arcs, and you can't get the audience involved [without arcs]. So we have arcs where two characters may be having a relationship, they'll break up for a bit then they'll get back together. We plan arcs for all the different characters like we used to, but I did that every show because it made life easier when you had some string to follow, and you got a skeleton you could put the flesh on as you went.
THR: Greg and Mike, one of the things that came up this year among NBC execs was this desire to broaden its comedy brand. Was this a mandate that each of you received, and what did you think of it?
Schur: I think that quote got a lot of play because it sounded very sinister. It was Bob Greenblatt who said it at TCA, and I very strongly believe that what he meant was, "We would like more people to watch our network." And the word "broad" means something in the comedy world that it doesn't mean in the [real] world, and so it was like, "Oh, you want people slipping on banana peels." That's not what he meant. Also it should be noted that at no point has anything like that been communicated to me at all about the way we do our show. They give us notes and are mostly hands-off. At no point do they ever say, "You need more banana peels."
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Daniels: No. And I think as of [March] The Office and Parks were the No. 1 and 2 show on the network.
Helford: I think the conundrum now is shows having individual voices. I go back to Family Ties, and there was a time when the shows were more cookie-cutter, but the point was that everyone took the idea of being a broadcaster and that you would reach a larger audience more seriously. That's why the shows felt somewhat homogenous -- there were so many family shows, but that's universal, and so almost everyone in America could watch that and understand immediately what that meant. It started changing with Seinfeld, which took four years to grab the audience. Now you hear the voice of the author more in shows; there's more of an audience that's specific to that niche or that view that that author has.
Daniels: Do you think if you were to recreate a show with the tone and sense of humor of those broadcasting tent shows from the '80s or '70s today, it would mean that the ratings would flock to it, or people would stop watching all the cable channels?
Helford: If it was contemporary. Modern Family did a great job of kind of getting a bigger tent going. But there's really not much now for the average audience. When I'm sitting on a train looking at all these houses in the Midwest, I'm thinking, "Are they really watching all these shows that I love?" There really isn't much being written to them. Nobody really kind of has their finger on the American pulse, and maybe the American pulse just changed that much.
Schur: When I was a kid, I watched Empty Nest. I was an 11-year-old in Connecticut, and I watched Empty Nest every week.
Daniels: You're always talking about Empty Nest.
Meriwether: What is that?
Schur: Empty Nest was a show about a retired doctor in Florida who lived next door to The Golden Girls.
Schur: It starred Richard Mulligan, who was excellent. He had two grown daughters living with him, stuff that was the opposite of an 11-year-old suburban Connecticut kid's [interests]. But I watched it every week. If I were 11 now, I wouldn't know that Empty Nest existed because every baseball game is available to me on my TV. There are 45 cartoons on my computer, on-demand, any moment I want. There are certain shows, like Big Bang and Modern Family, that were presented as these perfect whole, immensely appealing entities and that massive numbers of people watch them religiously every week.
Daniels: Great shows, but what's the rating for Modern Family? 4.7?
Schur: On the night, yeah, probably. I remember when the Lost finale aired, everyone I knew was captivated -- talking about what we liked, what we didn't like. Then I saw the rating for the finale of Lost, and it was like the 83rd-highest-rated finale. And No. 82 was Mr. Belvedere. Lost had dominated the conversation in American TV for the last seven years and Mr. Belvedere got more people!
Helford: Your parents were also controlling the TV when you were young. You didn't have the option of going to all these other places.
Daniels: I think we shouldn't feel bad about ourselves. There are still very talented people -- maybe not as talented as the staff of Mr. Belvedere! -- but a lot of good people in the industry now, and I don't think we should feel bad about the fact that our shows are not getting those huge numbers.
Schur: This fall you can see my pilot, Full Nest, which is a continuation of the character.
Carnahan: Is it a prequel?
Schur: It's a post-quel, and I did not get the rights to the original, which I don't think will be a problem.
Helford: The quality of the writing is every bit as good as it was. The broader audience just isn't there right now.
Daniels: You're making us feel bad again.
Meriwether: I'm from the Midwest, and I don't know if people in the Midwest are watching my show. I don't know what that would be to, like, to set out to try to reach a broader audience.
Helford: It'd be something blander. I always hold Roseanne up as a great example because it was taking a look at blue-collar people as a point of nobility as opposed to making fun of them, which is the current trend. You still never see people on TV paying their bills. I think that it was a little bit more of a job for a lot of the writers in those days, and it was like, "OK, what's your job? My job is to turn out a show that everybody will love. And so I'm not going to be offensive here, and I'm going to make sure this character does this right." It was all pretty politically correct. Except for Norman Lear's stuff.
Carnahan: I was just going to say …
Helford: He was able to break through with All in the Family -- again, so relatable, everybody knew those people. You just don't see as much of that now.
Schur: But the question that I would have is: Is anyone complaining in America about television? Yes, it's bad if you're on the business side of things, and that shows don't capture giant audiences the way they used to. But no matter where you live, there are 1,000 shows that are great for you.
THR: That seems to be the problem. There's actually too much to watch.
Schur: There's too much. I was complaining about this recently to my wife. I'd read a review of Bates Motel that said, "This show is amazing." And Carlton Cuse from Lost is running it? I'm going to die from starvation because I have too much TV to watch! Wherever you are in the world, and whatever kind of person you are, there's 50 shows that are great for you. No one's complaining because …
Meriwether: They don't have time.
Schur: They don't have time, and Bates Motel is backing up on the DVR.
THR: In your opinion, why is there so much showrunner turnover now? Is it pressures that are on the network executives? A lack of patience? Audience fragmentation?
Helford: When the power shifted to the networks, away from the creators, when numbers went down, you couldn't break people out. If somebody's getting a great number, you can't break those people out, and everybody's doing relatively well.
Daniels: Yeah, except with Roseanne, right? Weren't there wholesale changes of the writing staff every year?
Helford: But that wasn't the networks changing showrunners -- that was her. I don't think anybody spent over a year there, but that was, yeah, that was a different thing. Showrunners have been changing forever. It's just easier now for the networks to do it is because the power, right now, is still in the hands of the networks and not in the hands of the creators.
Daniels: I don't remember when the power was in the hands of the creators.
Helford: Gary David Goldberg and Norman Lear -- you could not have moved them out. They had failures at the same time, but no one ever would say boo to them.
Schur: Is it really happening more or is it that there are 7,000 websites reporting on every single thing that happens in show business? My mom, who works in Boston, will send me a text: "So Glenn Mazzara is out at Walking Dead, what do you think?" And I'm like, "Why do you even care about him?" And everyone in the world knows that, like, Oblivion made $37 million at the box office. Why does everyone know this? And the question I would have, and it could be that it's happening more now, but it also could be that people just pounce on every little piece of information. And obviously when it's a show like Walking Dead, which is like the highest-rated show in the world, it's a story, but other times, it's like, well, that's just show business. It happens, people leave their jobs, they get fired, they get other jobs, and it's just that every tiny scrap of information is reported on by, quite literally, 20 websites. So I don't know that it's happening at a higher rate right now.
Helford: I would say it was less often the creators and more often that they would just grab an executive producer on the show and throw him off, and that's how they would say, "Well, that was the guy, that was the problem, we're changing it now, we'll take care of that," and the creators wouldn't leave.
Schur: And look at Big Bang. It's the most popular show on TV (to Molaro) and you're the third showrunner?
Molaro: Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady created it. … They were writing it, and …
Daniels: What happened to them?
Molaro: Chuck's a little busy!
Schur: Chuck's a miserable failure. No one knows where he is.
Molaro: And then Bill took a step back. He's there part-time.
Schur: Right, and so it's this perfect, like, peaceful, democratic transfer of power that has led to nothing but great and greater success.
Molaro: And your mom did not e-mail you that week?
Schur: No. You guys have to be a little crazier, and my mom will be all over it.
THR: If you could serve as an executive producer or write for any other show on television, what would it be? Comedy or drama.
Molaro: I want to say Louie, but he's so good at doing it, I would just ruin it.
Schur: You would screw it up, yeah.
Molaro: I would be honored to be offered a position at Louie, and then I would respectfully pass.
Schur: Game of Thrones, in a walk. I have read enough of the books, and I'm a big enough nerd, I feel like I could step in there and screw that one up instead.
THR: So when those showrunners get kicked off, you're right there.
Schur: Yeah. They won't, but if they do, call me!
Carnahan: I would like to go to Louie. Through a magical lightning-touching-the-metal-table-at-the-same-time type thing -- I would become Louis C.K. and run the show.
Schur: Oh, you'd actually become Louis C.K.?
Carnahan: I would like to, just for a season. He's got a van with all his gear in it. It sounds like fun.
Schur: Can I say that if you did do like an old-timey body-switch thing, it would be really funny to watch Louis C.K. run [House of Lies] for a year.
Meriwether: I think I would want to live inside the Justified world. I don't want to run it. I just want to put [Raylan's] hat on and date that character. That wasn't the question, but that's how I chose to answer it. I feel like he's a really good guy. He's really going to take care of me.
Carnahan: Good choice!
Helford: I love working with Charlie Sheen, so I would not switch with anything, but maybe write for Workaholics? I would love to work with that cast.
THR: Finally, Greg, you've just wrapped The Office for good after nine seasons. Do you have any advice or lessons you learned in saying goodbye that you can share with your peers here?
Daniels: I didn't know if I was going to like that we had an end date, but I would recommend it. I have a very happy feeling about how the final season went, wrapping up everything, having the crew know that this was the last time. So I recommend, if you can do it, calling your own ending. It keeps feeling like some kind of euthanasia; the terms always feel like an "end of life" discussion. But yeah, I think death with dignity.