Talking to Tracey Wigfield About Writing for ‘The Mindy Project’ and ’30 Rock’
When 30 Rock finished shooting in December of 2012, Tracey Wigfield had 10 days to decide to move to LA to work on The Mindy Project. She made a great choice. After joining the show midseason and writing the episodes “Santa Fe” and “Frat Party,” she was named one of Glamour’s 35 Under 35: Top Women in Movies and TV. Most impressive of all, in September she won an Emmy for co-writing the 30 Rock finale with Tina Fey.
Now in the middle of The Mindy Project’s second season, I got the chance to talk to Wigfield about starting as a writer’s assistant, improv, and why Christmas episodes are so fun.
To start, congratulations on winning an Emmy for writing “Last Lunch.”
Oh, thank you! Thanks very much.
That must have been such a great way to end your time working on 30 Rock.
Oh my gosh, it was the best. I worked at 30 Rock for 6 years, and I started there as a writer’s assistant and worked my way up to writing. The whole experience was so meaningful and great to me anyway, just working there, that this didn’t have to happen. This was just a cherry on top. It was great.
How did you initially get hired as a writer’s assistant?
I was a PA on a show called Knights of Prosperity that was on ABC that got canceled. I think we did like 13 [episodes]. And it filmed in the same building as 30 Rock, in Silvercup Studios. My boss at the time knew a couple people on 30 Rock, knew [executive producer] Marci Klein and the Unit Production Manager, and just sent my resume over with the recommendation. They were looking for a writer’s assistant and hired me.
How did the writer’s assistant position become a job on the writing staff?
I was a writer’s assistant and then a script coordinator the next year. A lot of what the job is is sitting in the room taking notes while the writers are breaking stories and doing the typing – the script is on a screen and you type what all the writers are pitching for jokes and stuff. I would pitch jokes whenever I had them and try to contribute a little bit. It’s a little bit tricky because you’re really there to do a different job – you’re there to just take notes and organize things and be like a liaison to different departments. Fortunately, the people at 30 Rock were very nice and were not annoyed by the person in the corner piping up every so often.
I would do any sort of writing job that the writers didn’t want to do. Like I would write Twitter accounts for the characters, I wrote webisodes, I would write weird speeches that Tracy [Morgan] would have to give at charity events and stuff. I would just do any kind of bullshit that nobody else had time to do. And Tina [Fey] and Robert Carlock, the head writer, were very kind and very encouraging of people starting out. When Season 4 came around, they were looking for staff writers, and they wanted me to submit a spec. I submitted a spec script of The Office that I had written, and I got hired off of that.
How did you start working on The Mindy Project?
30 Rock finished shooting [in 2012], like December 20th, and then I started on Mindy on January 2nd, out in LA. Jack Burditt, who was a writer and EP on 30 Rock, was going to start on Mindy midseason to sort of help them out because they had a small staff. He asked me if I wanted to come with him, like a month before we finished at 30 Rock. I never talked to Mindy [Kaling], I mean I was a fan of hers, but I had never spoken with her. I never interviewed with anyone. I think Burditt just kind of told Mindy, “Oh, Tracey would be good to come too,” and Mindy was like, “Sure, whatever you want.” And I think I was so fatigued at the end of 30 Rock, that Burditt was like, “Just come with me and we can work together on this other show.” And I was like, “Okay sure, whatever you want.” Then 30 Rock ended, and I was like, “Wait, what are we doing now?” And I had to move to LA in like 10 days. I had nowhere to live, no car or anything, and started up again on this new show. And it ended up being great, I love the show and the staff is fantastic, but it was really a decision made by like an adult brain. I think I just agreed to it and then I woke up and I was in Los Angeles.
How has coming into The Mindy Project on the first season as a writer as opposed to working on 30 Rock for a couple of seasons before being on the writing staff caused your experiences on those shows to differ?
It’s different because by the time I actually started writing on 30 Rock, it was sort of a working machine. You were able to contribute a lot, but by Season 4, they already knew exactly who the characters were, what stories we could tell with them that would work and which ones wouldn’t. So much had been figured out already. I had never written on a first season of a show, so it was pretty exciting to be there on Mindy for that. And I think it was true of 30 Rock, and it’s true of every show: in your first season, you just really don’t know what the show is and a lot of it is trial and error and seeing like, can we do a story with these two characters? Is it funny? What sort of thing can they do? What is in their wheelhouse? And sometimes on Mindy, you’d write a B-story and you’d be like, “Oh, wait, no. This isn’t what the show is or this isn’t the kind of story we can tell.” You just were able to be there for the figuring out of the show, which is kind of exciting for me.
Your episode, “Christmas Party Sex Trap,” recently premiered. The Christmas episode on The Mindy Project last season was great too and 30 Rock always had especially funny Christmas episodes. What is it about the holidays that is so perfect for comedy?
I’ve always loved Christmas episodes of every show. I remember Frasier always had particularly fantastic Christmas episodes that I always would look forward to seeing. There’s so much attached to it is part of why it’s easy and fun. People have an association with the holidays and there’s so much built in drama to it because family comes home and you spend so much time with your family. Also, there’s all this romantic pressure to it too. I wrote a 30 Rock Christmas episode similarly titled that was called “Christmas Attack Zone.” I’m sort of just doing a bunch of variations on a theme. Everybody brings all these feelings to Christmas. And also, it’s beautiful – being in LA, it was so fun to shoot on New York Street. They put up snow and put up lights and make it look like it’s freezing cold in New York City even though it’s 70 degrees in Studio City.
The show feels strongest when the sincere emotional moments and crazier stuff come together, like in the dance Danny does for Mindy as a present.
Yeah, I felt that way on 30 Rock, and I feel that way on this show too. It’s like, when the show is working at it’s best, it’s exactly what you said. It’s a combination of funny sort of wackadoo bananas comedy, but at the same time it has some real emotional through-line. It has something going on with the characters that sort of tethers us to the story and makes us care about it more than just Jeremy’s eating a gingerbread house and there’s a taxidermist at the party. That’s the stuff that I love writing: stupid funny nonsense. But people aren’t going to be invested in it unless it has something to do with the emotional life of the character.
30 Rock and The Mindy Project have joke-packed episodes but they still have strong storylines. What’s it like balancing those two elements?
I think 30 Rock more than The Mindy Project was really a show that was so much about joke writing. Almost to the point that it would be so packed with jokes that my grandmother would be like, “I really enjoy the show, I don’t understand a word of it.” It was impossible for grandparents to watch. It was just all so quick, and that was just the tone of the show. It was just so fast paced and people talking these giant paragraphs of jokes so quickly. Mindy I feel like is still – we try to make jokes as funny as possible, but Mindy coming from an Office background, I think her sensibility is a little more grounded and she’s a little more on the alert of “Is that something a human being would say in regular life?” which is a good thing to monitor. So it’s a little different in that way. But I loved writing for 30 Rock, and you just don’t have a character like Tracy Jordan on very many shows who’s just saying crazy nonsense.
There were some changes to the cast over the course of The Mindy Project, but the characters’ relationships are coming together really nicely this season. How has it been writing those relationships?
I came in the middle of last season so I wasn’t there for a lot of the shuffle, but I think what’s been great about this year is – aside from the addition of Adam Pally who is fantastic and just adds another big comedy character to our world – I think this year in a nice way, we’ve been trying to focus on the relationships between a few people, especially Mindy and Danny. Really focusing on them because they’re the heart of the show. I think we’ve gotten to do more stuff with Ed Weeks who I think is really funny and develop him a little more and give him more to do and more storylines where he gets to score comedically.
What can we expect in the future of The Mindy Project?
I don’t really know, [laughs] we haven’t written any more episodes from the one you just saw. We’ve just been hanging out in the room and playing Candy Crush. Not really. I think the thing that’s always going to be the most interesting to viewers and personally what’s most interesting to me as a writer is seeing how Mindy and Danny’s relationship develops because they’re such strong, interesting characters, and seeing what will happen with them. Will they get together or will they try to get together and it will go disastrously wrong? I think that’s the thing that most people are following. Morgan will probably win the lottery and then lose it immediately.
You were a performer at UCB in New York. Have you found that your improv background influences your writing?
Oh, totally. I started doing improv when I first started at 30 Rock as an assistant because a lot of the writers – well, Tina, and Donald Glover was a writer and Kay Cannon and Tami Sagher – a bunch of them came from Second City or UCB backgrounds. It just helped me so much and in a couple ways. Part of your job as a writer isn’t just sitting in your office and typing on a computer, most of your job is being in a room with other people and sort of pitching ideas and building on other people’s ideas, which is the foundation of improv.
And also, it helped me in a larger way of just like, I was so timid when I first started at 30 Rock and so scared to contribute – that what I would say would be wrong or stupid or not funny. When you do improv, that fear goes away because of course that’s gonna happen. When you’re onstage and you just have to think of things in the moment, like yeah at least five times during a show you’re going to say something thinking that it’s going to be a huge laugh, and just nobody laughs and it’s not funny. Or you say something wrong or stupid or make a mistake. And the only way to get over that fear is to do it a million times, and improv really helped me with that. And it’s the same thing in the writer’s room, you have to be willing to pitch constantly and not everything you say is going to be a homerun. A lot of what you say no one’s going to laugh at, and it’s going to be crickets.
Are you going to continue doing improv now that you’re in LA?
Yeah, I would like to. I haven’t really been able to with my schedule, but I’ve done a couple UCB things. On my hiatus, I might go back to New York. I’m on an improv team in New York that they nicely include my name on every week but I haven’t been in the show in months. [Laughs.] But I might go back to New York, and I would want to keep doing shows with them. But yeah, it’s just a fun thing to do. It’s a fun muscle to exercise, and I miss it.
Does anything specific inspire your writing?
Like the beauty of nature? [Laughs.] I would say two things. One, I feel like because I’ve been lucky to work on two really fantastic staffs of writers who are super funny and so much more experienced than me, I feel like that just elevates your work a thousand times, if you’re around people who are funny. And that’s not just true of being on a great writing staff, it’s like your friends. I have so many funny girlfriends who are in the business and who are not, who are just hilariously funny and kind of challenge you to be funnier. But I also watch a ton of television, just so much TV and movies. I feel like right now is a great time to be inspired. There’s just so many funny, fantastic shows on TV that I feel like I watch a lot of TV shows just as a fan and that inspires you to be better at your job.
What are your favorite jokes that you’ve written?
One of my favorite Mindy jokes I wrote was Mindy making a very conservative version of the Varsity Blues whipped cream bikini for her boyfriend. And then later getting a UTI from it. On 30 Rock, one of my favorites was in the finale, Liz says she shops at Blazer Barn, “Manhattan’s Largest Out of Business Blazer Dump.”
Any advice for aspiring comedy writers?
I would do improv, and not only because it’s a good skill to have but because it puts you in a community of other likeminded people who are interested in doing the same thing and that can only help you. I would also try to get an entry-level job, as hard as it is, on a television show. And say “yes” to everything, no matter how shitty the job seems or how adjacent to what the thing you eventually want to be doing it is, like if you’re writing the Twitter account for American Airlines or if you’re picking up dry cleaning for someone. There’s no one way to get to the job you want. I’ve found, for me, it never hurt to – just any opportunity that came my way – to just say “yes” to and to try it because the worst thing that happens is you learn, “Oh, this is not something I want to be doing.” And write all the time. Also, don’t say “yes” to opportunities like Girls Gone Wild. Just write as much as you possibly can because you can only get good at something by doing it a lot.