Let me introduce my former student Tracey Wigfield, who is now a writer for the television program 30 Rock. I am so happy for Tracey that I am now weeping inconsolably.
Readers of this occasional column will, I hope, have discerned that one of the great pleasures of teaching is seeing your former students – upon whom you lavished so many earnest and mostly ignored critiques – go on to make a name for themselves in the world of letters.
This pleasure is only partly compromised by the creeping sense that certain former students are now far more successful than you, and, in fact, hold a job for which you would trade your left testicle. (A maneuver known in Adjunct Professorial circles as the Hitler Swap).
In this spirit, let me introduce my former student Tracey Wigfield, who is now a writer for the television program 30 Rock. I am so happy for Tracey that I am now weeping inconsolably.
(Interestingly, even though several hours have passed and I am still locked in the basement and my wife – having found me some time ago, slumped over a pile of my remaindered books – is now on the phone with Dr. Pivnick, my psychopharmacologist, I am still weeping inconsolably.)
Ah, the creative life! It is so mysterious.
Moving on to the interview portion of the competition…
The Rumpus: Tracey, welcome to the Rumpus! Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions for a website that doesn’t pay any of its contributors.
Tracey Wigfield: (hopeful) But gives its interview subjects fifty-dollar gift cards to Chili’s?
Rumpus: Can you talk about how pathetic your life might have been if you hadn’t enrolled in my humor writing class at Boston College?
Wigfield: If it weren’t for that class I probably wouldn’t have gone into writing and would’ve focused instead on getting a rich husband. I could be day-drunk in a beautiful Connecticut home right now.
Your class was great. I always liked comedy, but spent a lot of college writing shitty, melodramatic short stories. Your class was the first time I started writing things that I liked and that weren’t lame.
Rumpus: Was there a kind of “eureka moment” during that class when you realized you were being taught by a genius?
Wigfield: When I saw that weird, hand-painted briefcase you always carried around. I figured you were either a genius or mentally incompetent and this class was fulfillment of a Make-A-Wish sort of thing for you.
One genius thing I remember you saying was that if you want something to write about, just wait until you see something that annoys you. That seemed very easy, because a lot of things annoy me. Like tattoos or people who know too much about wine.
Rumpus: Actually, ok, can you go into a little greater detail?
Wigfield: Ultimately it’s just a drink. And I prefer iced tea.
Rumpus: One of the best pieces you wrote for the class – and they were all nearly as amazing as my own pieces – was a press conference delivered by Barbie (the doll). I remember reading that piece aloud several times to friends, though I’m not sure I identified the author as being someone other than me. When did you realize comic writing was your calling?
Wigfield: I always liked making fun of things. When I was little my friend and I used to make comedy videos and I did writing and performing stuff all through school. But I always thought that once I graduated college I would get serious and choose a non-embarrassing job. It wasn’t until I started working that I realized being a nerdy weirdo who really likes TV and making fun of people can be a marketable thing.
Rumpus: Part of what I loved about your work in class was that you had an exquisite bullshit detector. You were on to the pathologies of our popular culture. But I sometimes wonder if comedians in a certain sick way depend on this pathology. In other words, what would happen to Stewart and Colbert and Fey and Wigfield if the politicians and the demagogues and celebrities and NBC executives stopped behaving like such total douchebags?
Wigfield: That’s probably true. We are very fortunate to have such a great well of stupidity to draw upon, but I don’t think we need to worry about it drying up anytime soon. On The Hills this season Spencer Pratt keeps talking about the healing power of crystals. I think we’ll be fine.
Rumpus: Okay, practically speaking: how did you get a job at 30 Rock?
Wigfield: When I graduated from Boston College, I got a job as a page at The Late Show with David Letterman. I wore a little uniform and for the first couple months my only job was to stand in the basement and say, “The ladies’ room is to the left.” One of the executive producers at Late Show created a sitcom for ABC and was kind enough to offer me a job as a production assistant in the writers’ office. It filmed in the same studio where 30 Rock filmed and when they were looking for a writers’ assistant for their second season, I applied. I worked as a writers’ assistant for two years, during which I would try to pitch jokes and endear myself to everyone around me. That part didn’t work, but they did offer me a staff writer job for Season 4.
Rumpus: Wait, I’m sorry. I misread my question. How can I get a job at 30 Rock?
Wigfield: Just start directing people to the ladies’ room, the rest will fall into place.
Rumpus: I should mention that I don’t own a TV. You might recall from class that I mention this fact once every three sentences. Nonetheless, my wife and I are both addicted to 30 Rock, which is to network sitcoms like what penicillin is to gonorrhea. What’s the show’s real “writer’s room” like?
Wigfield: Compared to the writers’ room on the show, the only similarity is that it’s a bunch of weird-looking people sitting around a table. We work pretty hard and there isn’t all that much goofing around. Sometimes we’ll watch movie trailers or that YouTube video of the monkey raping the frog (if you haven’t seen it, stop reading this interview immediately and do so), but it’s mostly serious business. The hours are long and the standards are very high, so it can be intimidating and stressful at times.
Rumpus: How much are you able to shape the show’s characters or plotlines as a writer?
Wigfield: It’s a very collaborative room. We spend all day in there, breaking stories and pitching jokes and rewriting scripts on a big projected screen. When it comes to larger story arcs or a character’s movement throughout a season, Tina Fey and the head writer, Robert Carlock, usually have specific ideas of what they want. And their brains are 100 times more powerful than everyone else’s, so that’s probably the way it should be.
Rumpus: What’s the best line of yours that made it onto the show?
Wigfield: In an episode I co-wrote, Liz is trying to convince her “settling soulmate” Wesley that true love does exist and as an example points to an old couple passing by hand-in-hand. The old woman says: “You wouldn’t be complaining if you wore the shoes I bought you.” And the man says, “You’re an old bitch.” That made me laugh when we filmed it.
Rumpus: What’s the best line that didn’t?
Wigfield: In season three, I pitched that Liz enters to find Kenneth wearing a shower cap and brushing a wig on a wig block that looks exactly like his hair. It made it to a table read, but was cut for being “insane.”
Rumpus: Writing funny in literary circles can sometimes get you written off as lacking depth. As someone who actually does lack depth, I’ve always found this deeply offensive. Do the people in your life recognize how hard you work, or do they think you just goof around all day?
Wigfield: The hours on 30 Rock can be brutal. I think friends realize how hard I work because, one, they haven’t seen me in four years and, two, they can note the physical toll the job has taken. If you remember, I used to be very beautiful. Now I am a spindly, grey-haired hag.
Rumpus: Final question, which is more like an observation. I’m pretty sure Jenna Maroney is the greatest character ever invented. Is there any chance she’s going to star in a spin-off with the second greatest character ever invented, Liz’s former boyfriend Dennis? If so, how do I get a job on that show?
Wigfield: That is a terrific idea. They should own a bed and breakfast in Vermont. You can send me your resume when you send the Chili’s gift card.