Tracey Wigfield burst onto the scene as a writer for 30 ROCK, penning such brilliant episodes as “Queen of Jordan” and “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching.” In addition to her incredible run at 30 ROCK, she wrote on four seasons of the amazing THE MINDY PROJECT.
Now, Tracey is at the helm of GREAT NEWS (NBC), one of the breakout sitcom’s of the Spring season. Recalling classic ensemble newsroom shows like NEWSRADIO and THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, GREAT NEWS centers on local news producer Katie Wendelson (Briga Heelan) and her helicopter mom Carol (Andrea Martin), who joins the news team as an intern. Katie and Carol report to Executive Producer Greg Walsh (Adam Campbell) and elder statesman co-anchor Chuck Pierce (John Michael Higgins), who finds himself constantly threatened by his young and savvy co-anchor Portia Scott-Griffith (Nicole Richie). The show was just renewed for a second second by NBC.
We spoke with Tracey about how she runs the writing room at GREAT NEWS, what lessons she learned at 30 ROCK and THE MINDY PROJECT, and her mom.
How did you got your start as a writer working in television?
I was hired as a writers’ assistant on the second season of 30 ROCK. I tried to pitch jokes as much as I could and in season 4, I heard they were looking to hire a new staff writer. The best spec I had was a 30 ROCK one, but they wouldn’t read it. So I lied and pretended I had an OFFICE spec that I needed a week or so “to punch up.” Then spent the next two weeks writing an OFFICE spec from scratch. They hired me off of that.
Can you tell me about the formation of GREAT NEWS?
I always knew when I developed my first show, I wanted it to be about my mom. My mom is very funny to me, and (hopefully) to my friends and co-workers. She used to come visit the 30 ROCK set a couple times a year and I was always amused by how comfortable she makes herself in every situation. She would come hang out and watch us film and sometimes bring like four of her girlfriends so they could see it too. She treated our set like it was her own personal Universal Studios Tour. And it was sort of embarrassing and nervous-making to me, but other people, like Tina [Fey] and Robert [Carlock], seemed to get a kick out of it. So the idea of a character like my mom in her daughter’s workplace seemed like fertile ground for comedy.
I was nervous to develop for the first time, but for better or worse, the way the pilot-making process is built, there are 700 steps along the way to change things and make adjustments. I first pitched the idea to Robert and Tina and then had another call or two further fleshing out the characters and getting my pitch ready. Then together we pitched it to Universal. Then about a year and a half ago we pitched it to NBC. After that, I wrote a three-page story document that got notes from Tina and Robert, then Universal, then NBC. The same thing with the outline and then the script. We did casting and hiring in L.A. and then the table read, shooting and editing in New York. It’s hard to write a pilot. There is so much to set up in 22 minutes and spending a year working on one episode of television is maybe too long.
How do you run the writers’ room at GREAT NEWS? Did you come into the first season with a narrative arc in place or was that something developed by the writers?
I run the room basically the same way it was run on 30 ROCK and THE MINDY PROJECT. We break stories as a group. When I feel like we’re zeroing in on an A story and basically know the scenes and the act breaks I will write each one on an index card and put it on the board. THE MINDY PROJECT was an index card room (because THE OFFICE was an index card room), while 30 ROCK was a white board room. I think Robert Carlock was genuinely disappointed in me that I did not carry on the tradition of white boards, but I do not have eerily consistent serial killer handwriting like he does. I make changes on outlines myself and send them to the studio/network. When scripts come in, we discuss them as a group and then do the rewrite together up on the screen. Same with the rewrite after the table read. Sometimes we would have a rewrite and a story room going at the same time, but we didn’t have that many writers, so if that was happening we would quickly realize no one was on set/in editing/at the production meeting and the story room would become two people on a date.
I came into season one with a lot of story ideas, but the arc of the season was something we developed together in the room. After working on the pilot for so long basically by myself, it was such a relief and joy to have other writers to collaborate with.
As a showrunner, what do you look for in a writer?
Someone who cares about and thinks about the show in the same way I do. Someone who can come in when we are all stuck on a story problem, diagnose it and give a (hopefully funny) solution. A joke machine who never stops pitching funny, usable jokes.
What’s a scene you wrote that translated well from the page to the screen and why?
There is a scene in the seventh episode of GREAT NEWS where Chuck and Carol are running up to the roof because Carol stored a Madame Tussaud’s wax figure of him up there, someone saw it from below, and now the entire office thinks Chuck is trying to kill himself (a common plot you’ve seen many times on network sitcoms). Chuck is mad at Carol for not getting rid of his statue like he had asked and she reveals that it was because she couldn’t bear to throw away something that represented an unrealized dream for Chuck. It becomes a discussion about whether dreams should have expiration dates. The scene came out so much better than I even imagined because of John Michael Higgins and Andrea Martin’s inspired performances. In the midst of a wonderfully stupid episode, Andrea Martin and John Michael Higgins have a real moment with real heart.
What workplace or family sitcoms did you grow up watching and how did they influence GREAT NEWS?
The family shows I loved growing up were ROSEANNE, FRASIER, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND and many others. What’s great about family shows is that the characters can get into screaming fights and bring up grudges from a lifetime of history without there ever being the peril of “Did they go too far? Will they end their relationship?” Things will always be okay at the end of the day, because you can’t get away from your family.