Comedy Showrunners Week: New Girl creator Elizabeth Meriwether laughs at her characters’ pain

Comedy Showrunners Week: New Girl creator Elizabeth Meriwether laughs at her characters’ pain

Comedy is a more important part of the television landscape than ever before, thanks in part to a generation of highly visible creators, writers, and executive producers who balance the work of maintaining a show’s artistic vision while also overseeing its day-to-day operations. In anticipation of the new fall TV season, The A.V. Club spoke to a handful of the people who’ve made the industry term “showrunner” a household word. Today, we talk to Elizabeth Meriwether, creator of the sitcom New Girl.

Nothing benefits a television comedy like a cast, writing staff, and producers being given time to find their feet. Few are the sitcoms that arrived fully formed and self-assured within their first 22 minutes. Take Fox’s New Girl: The pilot offered only the smallest of glances at the stellar ensemble comedy the show became by the end of its first season. In September 2011, New Girl appeared to be a weekly space for Zooey Deschanel to do the chicken dance and sing nonsense songs, but by the following May, the show had turned out plenty of grounded, emotional comedy for Deschanel’s Jess, while also birthing a minor online phenomenon—the inscrutable drinking game True American—and introducing the year’s breakout TV character, Max Greenfield’s douchebag with a heart of gold, Schmidt. Not too shabby for first-time showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether, who wrote for the big screen (No Strings Attached) and the stage (the bizarre Henrik Ibsen deconstruction—with robots!—Heddatron) before creating New Girl. On the eve of the show’s second season, Meriwether spoke to The A.V. Club about challenging her protagonist’s sunny disposition, learning to write with a room full of people, and why running a television show is like visiting a haunted house.

The A.V. Club: The show became more of an ensemble piece as the first season progressed. How much did that align with your original vision for New Girl?

Elizabeth Meriwether: I always thought of the show as an ensemble. It was a very “group of friends” type of show from the beginning, in my mind. I think we were so lucky and excited to get Zooey, and obviously it felt like in the marketing, it became her show—but in every conversation we had about the show, it was an ensemble kind of show with a group of friends. That’s an inarticulate answer to your question. [Laughs.] I wrote it, so it was coming from my perspective. I know I connected the most with the Jess character at first, and really was telling her story. Luckily, we have such an amazing writing staff and great, great actors playing the guys, and so over the course of the season, those characters really fleshed out and developed, and we found a lot of other ways of telling stories, and other stories we could tell. I think for a show to work, you really have to have a great ensemble. There are too many episodes to make to not be able to use every possible story you can, if that makes sense.

AVC: There were some hints of what was to come early on—the third episode, “Wedding,” had strong material for all four leads.

EM: I love that episode. I think that episode was really about, “Okay, so now we’re friends. Now we’re all friends.” That was an important moment for all of them, and for us to be able to say, “This show is not just about a weird girl who’s always being weird and three guys who are always like, ‘You’re being weird.’” We could move past that and let them all be weird.

AVC: Coming to a television show from writing features and plays, at what point during the first season did you feel like you had a grasp on running a TV show? 

EM: I’m still waiting for that moment, so I can call you when it happens. I don’t think anyone who runs a TV show would ever say to you, “I have a grasp on running a TV show.” Maybe that’s not true. Maybe there are people that do. I don’t know. The amazing thing about it is that things just pop up out of nowhere. I’m working on a Halloween episode, and we have a haunted house, so the metaphor that’s coming to my mind is a haunted house. [Laughs.] A really fun haunted house. There’s always some new challenge that you’re dealing with. But that also makes the job really great. You’re not going into work and the same thing is happening every day. You’re constantly doing different things. A lot of things, you’re like, “Wow, I’m totally not qualified to be giving notes on blueprints of sets.” You sort of make it up as you go along and hope that no one notices.

AVC: But in a way, you need to feel like you’re qualified, because this is your world—you created it, so you know what the blueprints should look like.

EM: Yes, I need to. [Laughs.] What has been great is that it is a world I created. Even when I don’t know exactly what is going on and I feel lost in all of it, I can always fall back on, “Oh I know these people. I know these characters.” I understand what the world is, which is great, because I think if I’d created a show with characters that were outside of my world of friends and just general life, it would have been really hard to navigate the challenges of communicating what the show should be.

AVC: Given the collaborative nature of writing a sitcom, what kind of adjustments did you have to make to your working process in order to operate within the New Girl writers’ room?

EM: It was hard at first to have to communicate what was going on in my head. I still struggle with that. It’s really hard to find the right words, in the right way, to explain to people how you see a scene. I think so much of writing is an instinct, or a feel for a scene, or a feel for a character. You have to put into words the word “tone,” which I think is thrown around a lot and can mean a hundred different things, but communicating that to other people is definitely a challenge. It’s also good because it forces you to define it. It forces you to think about it and talk about it. Sometimes the writers challenge you on things. That’s really good too. It’s good to question and have to defend yourself. I really have loved working with other writers on it. My writing staff is incredible, and they bring so much to the show. Really, so many details and interesting things about the characters come from the writing staff, which is great, because it becomes so much bigger than what it originally was, which is the only way I think a show can work.

AVC: Can you recall any specific character details that came out in the writers’ room?

EM: I love the episode early on last year [“Bells”]—not the whole episode, but the story in the episode about Nick and Schmidt “fancy fixing.” It was like whether they should call a plumber, and Nick didn’t want to spend the money. I might have had some vague notion that Nick was a little cheap or something, but it started out just being like, “Well Nick would think he could fix the toilet himself.” Then the story became so specific about those two guys, and that was a real turning point for all of us with who those guys were: Nick was really cheap, and Nick thinks he can fix things, and this idea that he “fancy fixes” things. Schmidt wants to always hire people to do things, and he is this person who doesn’t understand Nick’s point of view on money. That was a moment of, “Okay, we can tell stories that are fun between the two guys,” and that came out of the room, totally. The towel story from [“Jess & Julia”], about the damp towels and using the towels—that came out of the room. Schmidt’s bar-mitzvah theme came out of the room. [Laughs.] Very important.

AVC: Was there a feeling that you were treating the characters too well as the first season wrapped up? There were multiple breakups leading up to and during the finale, and Winston’s dream job turned out to have a nightmare boss. That downward trend continues in the second-season première.

EM: Winston still has his job, so that survived the season. I know for the Jess character, we definitely wanted to give her some obstacles this season and really challenge her point of view and her life philosophy of “everything is positive,” seeing the best in everybody, and being a force of goodness and positivity. We felt like it’d be funny if that philosophy went up against some of the worst that life has to offer. We purposefully wanted to challenge her this year, and that’s why we started the season with her getting laid off. We wanted to put her in a really low point in her life and see how she could dig out of that, and what it did for her character—how it challenges her to try something different. She has to try some different jobs. She has to pick herself back up from that. Or maybe we’re just a bunch of mean people in a room making our characters have bad breakups and stuff like that. [Laughs.] I guess there’s that option too. I think pain is funny, so I think putting the characters through some tough moments yields really good comedy.

AVC: So it’s important to you to keep challenging Jess’ worldview?

EM: That’s really important. She shines at that moment. Her version of being a hero is just the fact that she’s capable of seeing the good in even the worst situations. Those sorts of episodes are really important: It’s tough to have somebody who sees the good in people only hang out with good people, you know? I think the best comedy comes out of real emotional shit that happens to people. That’s a moment when you can really go there a little bit and get some really funny, real things to happen. It’s my favorite comedy: stuff that’s sad. [Laughs.]

AVC: Were episodes like “Jess & Julia”—where Jess’ sunny outlook comes up against the hardened, more “mature” perspective of Lizzy Caplan’s character—or “Injured”—where Nick tells Jess she doesn’t “know how to be real”—a response to the initial ad campaign for the show and its “adorkable” tagline?

EM: It wasn’t directly about that. I think it was probably more the New York magazine cover story. When we cast [Deschanel], I wasn’t even really aware that there was any conversation about her, who she is or anything like that. I just hadn’t been aware of that conversation. I read that article, and I was like, “This is really weird. This is a strange conversation to be having about being a woman.” But I was also like, “Well, it’s a really good episode area, because it’s a good conversation to dramatize.” And just being a writer who’s desperate for story ideas at all moments of her life, I’m like, “That’s good, that’s good. That’s real conflict. That’s an interesting story.” I do think that’s an interesting topic: What does being a woman today mean? Is there a right way of doing it? Is there a wrong way of doing it? Different kinds of women, female friendships: It’s all pretty funny, and worth making fun of.

AVC: Were you surprised at how warmly Schmidt was received by the viewers?

EM: I definitely was. But [Max Greenfield] was so good from moment one for us that in some ways, I wasn’t surprised. When he came to audition, I was just blown away by his work and what he was bringing to the part. It was something that once you start shooting, you’re like, “This is amazing. This is great.” By the time everyone was loving that character, I was ahead of it. [Laughs.] He’s just so fun to write for, and he’s just so funny. I think what connects him to people who watch the show, though, is all the emotional reality he brings to the character and the fact that you’re feeling for him while you’re laughing at the ridiculous things he does. Hopefully if we do our job right, you’re always understanding where it’s coming from, that it’s not just a joke for joke’s sake. Max is so good at playing those different levels. There must be something, though. A lot of people come up to me and are just like, “I know real-life Schmidt. I’m friends with a guy who’s Schmidt.” It seems to have touched on something that’s out there, a type of a guy or something.

AVC: It’s like how you said Jess is an example of a certain type of femininity—Schmidt himself is an example of this weird, singular type of masculinity. He and Ron Swanson on Parks And Recreation are like the new masculine ideals on television.

EM: I would prefer if men were somewhere between Schmidt and Ron Swanson. I think the sweet spot is definitely somewhere in between there. [Laughs.] It does feel like it’s an aggressively heterosexual guy. He feels a little more complicated than a metrosexual, or a little bit more needy or something, I don’t know.

AVC: Since Jess, Nick, and Schmidt felt so well-established by the end of the first season, can we expect the same type of development for Winston and Cece in the second season? Are we going to get some deep, emotional stuff for them?

EM: Definitely. We’re working through some stuff now. We’re really trying to jump in with all the characters and go deep with them and look at their childhoods and their families. In the second episode [of the season], we briefly meet Winston’s mother and his sister, who plays pro basketball. And Cece is dealing with a bunch of different things that happen later in the season that I don’t want to give away. Cece has a big year ahead of her, which we’re excited about. 

What’s fun about the second season is, we have an episode coming up where Nick and Cece become friends. What’s fun about it is just like, the first season, you’re sort of establishing all the characters and the main relationships, but you’re not making episodes that involve the characters that have never really had a scene together. What’s fun about the second season is that you can explore those other relationships. What’s a good Winston/Jess story? What’s a good Nick/Cece story? That’s really fun to think about. It helps you define those characters even more by putting them in stories with characters they’ve never been in stories with. We definitely are focusing on Cece and Winston this year, and we have some good stuff coming up for them. Winston is definitely on a good career track this year. He’s doing well at work, but that costs him some other stuff.

AVC: When will the True American drinking game make its triumphant return? And will it be any easier to comprehend this time around?

EM: It’s definitely coming back this season. I don’t know quite when yet. I don’t think it will be easier to comprehend. Our goal is the opposite, actually, to make it harder and harder and harder to understand. [Laughs.] We were going to do an election version of it, but we didn’t end up doing that. Maybe we’ll figure out something on the Internet, or something else. We should at some point reveal the rules, but it’s a work in progress, the rules. [Laughs.]

AVC: It’s much funnier if the rules make no sense.

EM: Exactly. The amazing thing is how many people have tried to play it, which cracks all of us up so much. Someone sent me a photo of their friends in the middle of the True American game, and they’re all standing on the furniture. What are they doing beyond just standing on the furniture and drinking? [Laughs.] I’m sure whatever game they’re playing is a lot better than True American—it seemed fun regardless. I’d love to do that.

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