Great News: How Tracey Wigfield made her own mark after 30 Rock
A Tina Fey fan is a fan of Tina Fey, and that’s perfectly fine. A hardcore Tina Fey fan, on the other hand, recognizes the comic inheritance of Fey’s protégées — namely, writers like 33-year-old Tracey Wigfield, who steps into her own as creator of her first solo sitcom, NBC’s Great News.
Wigfield began her tenure on 30 Rock as a green assistant with no credit to her name, and ended the show’s run years later with an Emmy in hand, having co-written the series finale with Fey. In Los Angeles, she rose to co-executive producer on The Mindy Project, furthering the experience of writing the adventures of fearless, funny women and the eccentric ensembles that surround them.
It’s that same comedic sensibility that Wigfield now brings to her first original series, an idiosyncratic sitcom about an aspiring news producer (Briga Heelan) disarmed by her mother’s decision to intern at the network. While it’s no secret who serves as the inspiration for Andrea Martin’s overreaching maternal figure, it’s also no fluke of creative imagination that Wigfield drew heavily from her own life. Experiences inform writing — hardly a groundbreaking truth — but Wigfield is frank and fond in her recollections of the important moments that led to Great News, and while certain touchstones ring familiar — home movie hobbies, or distant admiration of Seinfeld and SNL — others are wholly unique to Wigfield and have helped amplify her voice as one of comedy’s most exciting new ones.
As Great News heads to air (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET), Wigfield revisits the benchmarks of her career, which seems to be reaching new heights and simultaneously just getting started.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the shift for you between growing up enjoying your mother’s personality, and looking at her through the lens of writer and thinking, ‘Oh, she could actually be a TV character?’
TRACEY WIGFIELD: I’ve always thought she was really funny, and I’ve always felt funny when telling stories about her. Her personality cracks me up. She has no filter, she has no sense of boundaries. She loves Hollywood and entertainment and would come visit 30 Rock sometimes, and everyone there got a kick out of her. In fact, a couple of years ago, Tina and her family were going on vacation to Disney World, and I don’t know how it came about — I’m sure my mom was like, “Ooh, you’re going to Disney World” and Tina was like, “Yeah, you should come, Kathy” — and then, like, we actually went with them. Tina Fey brought my mother and sister and I with her on her family vacation. [Laughs] To answer your question, everyone thinks their mom is funny and their family is funny, but I guess I just started noticing other people thought she was funny, too. And since this is my first time developing a show, it’s not like I have a giant array of life experiences from which I could draw. I wasn’t in the military or, like, used to work on an oil rig. So I was thinking about, well, what do I know? What do I like talking about? What do I think is funny? And my mom just seemed like kind of a perfect pre-made character.
Had you ever written her into a sketch before, or was this the first time you put her on paper?
Not at UCB, necessarily, or even in college. I know on The Mindy Project, I wrote the episode that introduced the character of Danny Castellano’s mom, who’s played by Rhea Perlman. That had a little bit of [my mom] but she’s a different character. She’s this very Catholic, Staten Island woman who’s easily offended and makes Mindy come over to have a guilt dinner where she just talks to her crucifix the whole time about how bad Mindy is. She was a different kind of character but I had a lot of fun writing that, so that was another thing where I was like, “Oh, if I had my own show, this would maybe be at the center.”
Were you raised religious?
I was raised Catholic. It’s funny — a lot of the people I’ve talked to who have seen the show always say, “Oh my God, you wrote a show about my mom.” It seems to fall along, like, Jewish, Catholic, Italian lines. My mom’s Italian and I was raised Catholic. Not super religious, but I went to Catholic school from kindergarten to college…so, wait, I guess that’s religious, now that I think about it.
When you told your mom the show was happening, was there anything off limits?
In a weird way, she was like, weirdly not phased by it. I think for a lot of moms who deeply believe in their children more than they believe in themselves, it’s not surprising to her that I am making a TV show and she kind of always thought I would. It would have been a disappointment if I hadn’t. And the fact that it’s about her, I think she thinks is flattering and she’s excited about it. She rolls with things. Maybe it’s just being older but she just rolls with things in a way that I don’t know if a lot of people would.
What about your sister and dad?
My sister is a writer on the show, so that was really helpful having her there. She’s someone that you could be like, “Wait, what’s that thing mom always said? What would she do in this situation?” I was a little worried about my dad because his real name is Dave [like the character in the show] and he is a wonderful man. He’s supported my sister and me and my mom our whole lives, and he’s just the sweetest, smartest guy. And how he’s portrayed on the show is more just a joke about how he’s treated by Carol and his daughter, that he sort of just does all the housework and makes all the money and drives them everywhere, which I think is something that certainly my dad has felt throughout the years, and something I also think any dad in a house full of women just becomes resigned to. My dad hasn’t seen all of the episodes, but I asked him a couple times, “You’re not offended, right? You know I love you and think you’re a perfect father.” But he has a good sense of humor. I think he thinks it’s funny. I hope he does!
Whatever Twitter is to budding comedians right now, what tool did young Tracey use that helped you explore comedy?
My best friend from when I was little, my friend Renata and I, used to make comedy videos, and this was way before YouTube. When we were like 11 or 12 years old, we had a little Sony camcorder and we would make sketches, basically, and be super dedicated to it. We would write these scripts and act in them and make our parents watch them over and over again. I remember saving money to buy a wig. Like, we loved doing that. And in a way, it’s really cool how that’s basically what my job turned out to be.
What was your VHS masterpiece?
Our most ambitious one was a parody of Sense & Sensibility called Stupid & Stupidity. It was a period piece, which was very hard because we didn’t have access to the costumes we felt like we needed. Or men. [Laughs] That was always really hard. My dad would have to be in it, and my sister would have to be a boy in a wig. It was really ambitious but I think that one came out really good.
Leaping ahead a decade, what was your first formative career touchstone after college?
A huge game-changer in my life was getting hired as an assistant at 30 Rock. I had just gotten out of college a year or so before, and I worked as a page at David Letterman and as a PA on another show that got canceled. I was about to turn 24 and I had given my résumé in at 30 Rock, because my boss called in a recommendation for me. I got that job and it felt huge at the time, but it really has been, even to this moment, the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me. Even now, I’m working with the same people who gave me my first shot, and now they’re supporting me in this very different way on Great News. Ten years later, I feel like I’m not at the end of that story but in a new chapter of it. It’s really cool and gratifying that Tina and Robert [Carlock] took this chance on me when I never had a job before, and when do you ever get an opportunity to… not pay back, but sort of make them proud in this way?
Do you remember the first time you made Tina laugh out loud?
[Laughs] No, but I remember more times when I didn’t. I was obviously a huge fan of hers, and I was so scared of her when I first started. God, I remember it so vividly. As an assistant, your job is to type notes of the jokes people are saying, but if you have a good joke, you can pitch it, and that was how I eventually got hired. One of the first times, when I was first getting my bearings doing that…Tina was in the room, and I had some joke about brown M&Ms and I kept going back and forth in my head like, “Do you say it? Don’t say it, it’s not funny. You should say it.” And then finally I said it and no one laughed and Tina said, “Oh yeah, I said that, two minutes ago.” So it was both a) not a funny joke, and b) I was clearly not paying attention and doing my job typing up what she was saying. I was mortified. Obviously, she’s incredibly nice and I’m sure she forgot about it, but I remember it to this day and I’m still trying to make her proud.
In joining and helping launch The Mindy Project, how different was your headspace as opposed to starting at 30 Rock?
At 30 Rock, I was starting knowing nothing. I had never written at all, but I was a big fan of Tina and I was learning everything about how to write jokes and craft episodes, like it was my graduate school in comedy writing. And when the show ended, I was a producer but I wasn’t one of the people in charge. On Mindy, I got that experience. Not running a show, but maybe being a person or two under the person running the show. I got more experience editing, being on set, going to production meetings, pitching episodes to the network. All these other skills that they didn’t trust me with on 30 Rock, I got to do on Mindy. And I also got very close to Mindy. She’s a good friend of mine. Like with Tina, I think it was just even subconsciously good for me to work for so long on shows where the boss was a woman who was really competent and good.
As the boss now, do you have a soft spot for people rising up the way you did?
Yeah. Especially women writers’ assistants. With girls coming up, I think you just have an affinity for helping them, because there are still less women doing this than men. When you’re a female showrunner, I think it’s a priority for you to make things as equal as possible in your own small, little way. Also, men do that kind of cronyism all the time, so I feel like I’m allowed a little bit of cronyism like that.
What kind of writers’ room did you want to assemble?
It was very important that I not, and you can’t always guard against this, but that I not hire any assholes. Especially in a writers’ room. I wanted a room of people who were real collaborators and really funny obviously but also really interested in building episodes together. You don’t want a rotten apple.
What do you recall of your Letterman page days?
I’m sure you feel the same way, but every job you take, you take something from it, even if it’s a bad experience. And not that any of mine were, but I think the thing that was most impactful to me when I was working at Letterman was the aspirational dreaminess of working in entertainment. My job was so bad — I was paid $10 an hour. If you were the highest level page, you got to give a speech about telling people to turn off their cell phones. That was the thing you aspired to. Your job sucked and you made $10 an hour and I think you’re only allowed to work, like, 20 hours a week. I was poor, taking the bus in from my parents’ house, and it wasn’t glamorous. But every day at 3:30, you get to stand in the back of this auditorium and watch David Letterman do a whole show. It was almost emotional sometimes, to watch this guy who’s a legend do a tour de force in comedy every single night. It inspired me to be like, “Oh my gosh, this is what I want to do and it doesn’t matter how hard it is or how long it takes to get there.” I think it’s good to have experiences like that, because so much in the first years of your career being a comedy writer or an actor or a director is just like, demoralizing. Running errands and getting treated like garbage. So I think experiences like that are very helpful to get your eye on the prize.
You had done an internship at CNN prior to Letterman. It seems like this was very much a big “nope” to ever going back there.
Yeah. That’s the truth. That’s me living my truth. [Laughs] Like, the special thing I have to give to the world is that I’m funny, and I like to write funny things, so I think Letterman sort of crystallized that.
Did you ever meet him?
Nope. Literally, never. Nothing. He does that run through the studio… one of my jobs as a page was to, like, guard a door and make sure no one came through it when he was doing his run. So I’ve seen him run by me, but we never interacted.
As a kid, what TV show spoke to you on your most creative level?
This might be an over-said answer, but Seinfeld. That show appealed to me in a specific way. It was comedy done like math, in a way. It was so funny and I loved the dovetails of it and how everything connected and it was just so satisfying to watch. As a kid, I remember there was something about Seinfeld that just felt like such pure comedy. And I also loved SNL, always. Will Ferrell and Tina were like right in the sweet spot when I was like 13 and really getting into comedy.
Was SNL ever an option for you? You’re in the NBC family.
Yeah. I feel like there was a time I could have. I knew people and I knew when they were doing auditions to be a cast member, and I feel like there were times when I was actually like, “Oh, maybe!” But I got in on 30 Rock so early, and… I don’t know, maybe I was just chicken and didn’t want to stay up all night. But it never felt like a better deal than what I had, just because I loved working at 30 Rock.
I have to ask about current events, the ‘fake news’ of it all. What are you being asked the most about this?
A lot of people are asking, “So, in 2017, you chose to set a television show at a cable news station. That feels loaded! What’s your message?” And the thing that’s a little interesting is, when I first pitched this idea to Robert and Tina, it was like two years ago. It was a less loaded workplace than it is where we’re standing now. And I picked it because it’s why a lot of people pitch television shows at news stations — it’s high stakes and it’s exciting and the work they’re doing matters and I wanted an aspirational job for Carol to aspire to. But I was also excited to kind of talk about cable news and I felt like there was comedy to mine there.
It couldn’t have been a more different workplace to examine two years ago.
Did you read that New York Times Magazine article the other day? It was talking about how pre-Trump, CNN was floundering a little bit and running three weeks of reporting on the Malaysian plane crash and Don Lemon was interviewing a llama on primetime. When I pitched this show, that was the comedy I was planning on mining from it. And we shot the whole show before the election. So there’s no Trump jokes or anything, and somewhat by design. The show will always be about the characters and the dynamic between them. It’s not going to be like John Oliver, skewering politics. That’s not how it’s built. But I do hope, if we got a second season, I think it’ll give even more opportunities to talk about missed jokes about the state of the news and current events and stuff. We hit on it a little bit in the Chuck and Portia relationship and their points of view about where the news is headed. I’d love to do more stuff about that. I just think there’s so much to say.
Great News airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.