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Is ‘Great News’ the Next ‘30 Rock’? What Creator Tracey Wigfield Learned From Tina Fey
Ex-‘30 Rock’ writer Tracey Wigfield got the opportunity of a lifetime and nailed it with her sharp new comedy ‘Great News.’
“What do you think?” Tracey Wigfield asks when I tell her I’ve seen half the first season of her new show Great News. “I feel like I’m being pathetic, like, ‘Did you like it?’” she jokes, an air of comic desperation in her voice. “No one’s seen it yet so it feels like I’ve been making a show for myself in my basement.”
It’s a sunny Los Angeles day in Larchmont Village, Wigfield’s last living in the neighborhood before moving to the Valley. After writing for 30 Rock and later The Mindy Project, the 33-year-old writer is anxious for people to start watching her own show Great News, which will premiere its first two episodes on NBC this Tuesday, April 25.
“I feel like if you liked 30 Rock, you’ll like this show,” Wigfield says, adding that she “owes” her career to Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who created 30 Rock and serve as producers on Great News. The pair took her on as a writer’s assistant when she was just 24 years old. “They didn’t have to take a chance on me and give me as a job as writer when I’d never done anything,” she says.
Her star has only risen since then. After two seasons as a writer’s assistant at 30 Rock, Wigfield made the bold move of submitting a spec script ahead of the show’s fourth season and landed a job as a staff writer on the show through its series finale, which she co-wrote with Tina Fey. They shared an Emmy Award for that episode; Wigfield’s first, Fey’s eighth.
“Tracey was quick and funny,” Fey tells me by email of the early impression Wigfield made on her. “Writer's room assistants are allowed to pitch jokes after a while and Tracey pitched jokes that we used. That doesn't go unnoticed. Once she became a staff writer, her learning curve was incredible.”
The influence of 30 Rock’s Fey and Carlock is all over Great News. It’s in the impressive velocity of the jokes and the non-stop commentary on both pop culture and office politics. But while the relationship at the center of 30 Rock was between Fey’s Liz Lemon and her boss Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin, Great News is at its heart a mother-daughter story.
When Wigfield set out to pitch a show of her own, she started with the idea of writing a story about her mother. “She’s not a crazy person, but I think a lot of ladies in their 60s are like, ‘Eh, who cares anymore?’” she says. Wigfield liked the idea of a young woman whose mother infiltrates her workplace, in this case by becoming an intern at The Breakdown, the nightly news show that serves the same function as the Saturday Night Live-esque TGS did on 30 Rock. Fey and Carlock got the idea right away, Wigfield says, because they had personal experience with her mother, who had a habit of dropping by on set unannounced.
“She wasn’t like, insane, but she would come visit I would say more than anyone else’s mother would,” Wigfield says, laughing. As she told reporters at a Television Critics’ Association presentation for the show earlier this year, “she talks to everyone, whether it’s the lady at the grocery store or Alec Baldwin.”
“I knew it was based on her hilariously diseased relationship with her own mother Kathy,” Fey adds of the initial pitch. “The thing that is great about their relationship is that while it is completely devoid of healthy boundaries, it is full of love, not resentment. I like seeing loving mother/daughter relationships in comedies. Maybe because I have daughters.”
Wigfield could not have found a better comedic actress to play the part of her mother than the legendary Andrea Martin, perhaps best known for her work with Canada’s Second City sketch troupe, who at 70 years old is finally getting the lead role she deserves on a network sitcom.
“She’s obviously had an illustrious career,” Wigfield says, “but it’s crazy that she hasn’t been the star of a show.” As much as Briga Heelan, who plays Wigfield’s alter-ego Katie, is the ostensible lead of Great News, Martin steals every scene she’s in, always working just a little bit harder to get a laugh than everyone around her.
“Why isn’t she famous like Martin Short?” Wigfield asks, referring to Martin’s former SCTV castmate. “Because she is so funny. And so skilled, all her instincts are so funny, that I’m excited people will get to see her really going for it.”
Like 30 Rock, Great News is a tightly-scripted comedy with little room for improvisation. But Martin, using her face alone, makes every take different with her unexpected choices. “It’s always funnier than how you wrote it,” Wigfield says.
As an example, she teases a moment late in the season when Martin’s character is in an elevator with her fellow intern, a 20-year-old kid who has already been offered a P.A. job even though he started after she did. “They’re in the elevator together and she says, ‘Congratulations on all your success,’ and then he leaves and she makes the funniest face. She’s so jealous and mad,” Wigfield says, laughing as she tries to imitate Martin’s scowl.
After watching a few episodes of the show, Wigfield’s mother gave her some very positive feedback. “I really like this, you like all the characters, it’s like Frasier,” she told Tracey, who explained, “That’s a high compliment coming from her.”
Wigfield has a small part in the series as a climate change-obsessed meteorologist named Beth, but says she never really considered playing the lead character of Katie, despite her experience playing Dr. Lauren Neustadter on The Mindy Project. “That was not really on the table, I don’t think NBC was super interested in that,” Wigfield says. “I worked on two shows where the boss was the lead,” she says, referring to Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling, “and I don’t know how they did it.”
Instead, they decided to cast the relatively unknown Heelan, who previously starred in the little-seen TBS comedy Ground Floor before stealing some scenes of her own as Heidi in Judd Apatow’s Netflix show Love. “It’s a hard part,” Wigfield says of Katie. “Not that it’s not funny, but she is the center of the show and the grounded straight person in the middle of all this chaos. You really have to have a delicate hand with it.” But as soon as they put Heelan and Martin together, Wigfield says they knew right away that they had the mother-daughter chemistry to make the show work.
Filling out the main cast of Great News is Adam Campbell as Greg, executive producer and possible love interest for Katie and SNL alum Horatio Sanz as video editor Justin. Then there are the co-anchors of The Breakdown: An old-school newsman named Chuck in the mold of a Dan Rather or Brian Williams played by John Michael Higgins (Best in Show) and a hip, young anchor named Portia brought to life by none other than Nicole Richie.
“You didn’t know how that was going to turn out, did you?” Wigfield asks me when I remark how unexpectedly funny and assured Richie is on the show. Portia was originally conceived as an older Real Housewives-type figure, but the former reality television star was suggested by the show’s casting director after the network said they wanted a “millennial” foil for Higgins’ character instead.
“Is Blac Chyna doing anything? Maybe it can be her!” Wigfield remembers thinking. When Richie came in to audition, Wigfield thought, “I feel like she’s too good for us, why is she coming in?”
“[Nicole] was good, but everyone was kind of like, is she an actress?” Wigfield continues. “But she was precise and had really good comic timing.”
Fey says she “always thought” Richie was “funny” on The Simple Life, her infamous reality show with Paris Hilton. Wigfield adds, “When she comes in, there’s something that’s just so right for the character, because she herself is so naturally high-status. There’s just something about her where you’re like, ‘Whoa, a cool person’s here.” John Michael Higgins is not “that old and uncool,” she says, but when you put him next to Nicole Richie, the contrast is remarkable.
“It almost felt like it came out of nowhere,” Richie said of her part on the show during a recent chat with her friend Rashida Jones for Refinery29. “My manager called me and he told me about this script, and he said, ‘I want you to read it, I want you to read it in a very real way.’ I did and I was obsessed with the writing and the comedy and just the rhythm of it. So I went to audition. I auditioned for it three times. And then I got it, and we were shooting about six days later. It was very, very fast.”
That “rhythm” is very reminiscent of Fey’s 30 Rock, making Great News feel like almost a throwback of sorts to a time when comedies on television were more joke-driven. Today, Wigfield notes, the half-hour comedies and dramedies that dominate awards shows are mostly devoid of actual jokes. “But they look beautiful,” she says, laughing.
“I’m not cool. I’m not going to direct an indie movie about my friends having a dinner party in L.A.,” she says. “I love Girls and Insecure and I watch these shows and think they look beautiful and are funny and are very entertaining and poignant, but the shows that the 12-year-old in me loved are Friends and Seinfeld and stuff that was broad and stupid.”
Even growing up, she says she had a “network sensibility,” partly because the options for comedy were relatively limited compared to the never-ending stream of content available today. Learning on the job at 30 Rock only strengthened her dedication to the art of the well-crafted joke.
“I’d always be jealous when I’d hear about Lena Dunham,” she says, who would get to write all ten episodes of a season of Girls before they started shooting. On shows like 30 Rock, which had up to 23 episodes a season, they did not have that luxury. “If you do a million episodes like that, then you have to write them and start shooting and editing them at the same time in order to make it to air.” She’s thankful NBC only ordered 10 episodes of Great News.
“I don’t know, maybe I’ll mature and make a Transparent or, what’s the other Duplass brothers one?” she asks me. “One day I’ll make a Togetherness.”
But for now, she’s taking everything she learned working under Fey and Kaling and throwing it into Great News. “Tina is very calm and soft spoken. I’ve never seen her get mad or yell or freak out about something, she’s very even-keeled,” Wigfield says of Fey’s showrunning style. “Obviously she’s passionate about things and can go on rants, but she’s very kind, a good leader, compassionate to her staff.”
“It never felt like things were out of control at 30 Rock,” she adds. “There were adults taking care of things. So I tried to emulate that.”
“Mindy has a different style than Tina,” Wigfield says of Kaling. “Mindy’s less soft-spoken. But she is very decisive in a way that I really respect and that is incredibly helpful when you’re running a show. There are so many decisions to make when you’re a showrunner that you’re first thought is, oh, I don’t care.” The thing that’s “great about Mindy,” Wigfield says, is that she “knows exactly what she wants and will go after it. And she’s not just being a diva.” If you can be decisive, it means you’re “showing respect” to everyone on the crew whose job it is to get those details right.
During the development process for Great News, Wigfield says that nine times out of 10 she would happily take any note Fey gave her, but there were times when she said no and stood her ground on a decision. “And almost every time afterwards, I was like, ‘Fuck.’”
For instance, there was one episode where Fey suggested a character should succeed instead of fail at the end, as Wigfield had written it. Wigfield thought it was funnier her way but as soon as they shot the final scene, she knew Fey was right. They ended up reshooting the scene Fey’s way.
“You can try to assert your independence, but she’s always right,” Wigfield says. At this point, for Great News to have a culture-shifting run like 30 Rock’s is beyond her wildest dreams, but she says she just wants it to succeed so “Mommy’s proud of me.”
In almost any other scenario Wigfield could be talking about her real mother, but this time, the “mommy” she’s talking about is Tina Fey.