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Daughter of a still-active Borscht Belt-style comedian–to whom she attributes her distinctive ear for rapid-fire dialogue–Amy Sherman-Palladino landed her first job as a writer for ABC's groundbreaking sitcom Roseanne in 1991. As evidence of the show's willingness to break the rules, she and writing partner Jennifer Heath earned an Emmy nomination for "A Bitter Pill To Swallow," an episode about Roseanne's daughter asking for birth control. After four seasons, Sherman-Palladino left to pursue other opportunities, including a show that stalled at Fox (Love And Marriage) and a writing stint for NBC's Veronica's Closet. But she finally came into her own as creator and executive producer of Gilmore Girls, a witty, breathlessly paced slice of life that has quietly established a niche for itself on the WB. Set in an idealized small town in Connecticut, the show stars Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel as Lorelai and Rory, a close-knit mother and daughter who treat each other more like best friends than parent and child. As Gilmore Girls continues its fifth season, Sherman-Palladino talked to The Onion A.V. Club about life on Roseanne, quality control, and the prospect of moving on to something new.
The Onion: How did you first get involved in writing for Roseanne?
Amy Sherman-Palladino: I had a writing partner my first year and we wrote a couple of spec scripts, one for Roseanne, and one for Anything But Love. Roseanne had just fired everybody, so they were completely re-staffing and they had no chicks. And we were a team, and we were cheap, and our timing was perfect. It was a very quick and easy process, which is not the norm.
O: What season was this?
ASP: This was season three. I was there for seasons three, four, five, and six.
O: So by then the show had kind of found its–
ASP: The show was already a hit, but years one and two were very... Not that there were ever any totally smooth years on Roseanne, but years one and two were when she fired the creator, and then she fired the guy that took over, and that's when Tom [Arnold] came in. So it was a whole big drama for the first two years. And then the third year was when the show hit its stride. Not because I was there, but just because things calmed down and she and Tom were happy for about a minute and a half.
I got hired right after she sang the national anthem. The first time I ever met her in person, Tom and Roseanne invited the whole staff over to their beach house to say "hello," and the day before, she had sung the national anthem. They had taped every single newscast about it. So we just sat there and watched, like, four hours of people saying how Roseanne was a horrible person for singing the national anthem. That was my introduction to Roseanne and Tom.
O: One of the remarkable things about Gilmore Girls is that in the first episode, the tone, dialogue, and characters were immediately established.
ASP: Yes. The pilot told them what they were in for. It was like, "If you like this, then here it is. You've got all the pieces." We didn't replace anyone in our cast. Our cast was who our cast was, and our town was what our town was, and the relationships were who the relationships were. It was like, "Buy it, or we'll all just go back to pitching."
O: So where did the idea for the show come from?
ASP: The idea actually came from me just walking into the WB. I really wanted to work with Susanne Daniels, who was head of the WB at the time. I pitched her a bunch of ideas, quite a few that were actually a lot more worked-out than this one. I had been there about 45 minutes, and eyes were glazing over. Everybody was thinking about their lunch, and whether they had calls to return. At the very end, I threw in this one idea about a mother and daughter who are more like friends than mother and daughter, and they're like, "That's what we want!" [Laughs.] I didn't have a show, mind. I had a relationship. I left, and once I verified that they were actually going to pay me to write something, then I had to come up with something.
Okay, it's a mother and daughter, and they're best friends. I was going to put them in a city area, but then I went on vacation to Connecticut, because I wanted to see Mark Twain's house. I stayed at an inn, and it was very charming, in a tiny town, and everybody seemed to know each other, and there was a pumpkin patch across the street. I went to a diner, and people kept getting up to get their own coffee. No one was there to be waited on. It seemed like a fun environment to put [the characters] in. It happened over a two-day period, as far as place and where they would live. If they were going to live in a small town in Connecticut, the parents needed to be big-city, which–in Connecticut, Hartford is about as big as you're going to get. Hartford is the insurance capital of the world, so insurance... It all sort of fell into place over that two-day period.
O: How much is Stars Hollow sort of an individualist utopia, and how much does it resemble small-town America as you understand it?
ASP: I come from the Valley, so I don't know shit about small-town America. I grew up where my parents would literally shove me in the car rather than have to say hello to a neighbor. I grew up with that feeling of, "Gee, if you lived in a town where everyone knew who you were, wouldn't that be delightful?" Our few trips to smaller towns always fed into that. It fed into my psychotic version of the warmth and safety of a smaller environment, where people kind of gave a shit about each other. I also lived in Venice for a while, which is a funky, weird, closer community in the middle of a city. Stars Hollow actually had a lot in common with that experience, as far as I'm concerned. There were a lot of odd, slightly damaged people who found a place to hang out and support each other. I thought that if a 16- or 17-year-old kid with a brand new baby was going to run away from home and try and find a place to carve out a niche for herself, I wanted her to find a very safe place, an accepting place, where the kid could be raised in an environment that was completely different from where she came from, which was very cold and gray and judgmental, with a lot of rules and pearls and debutante balls and high heels and hairspray.
O: When you conceived of the show, how far ahead did you visualize it going? How far do you have to, as a creator, know where all these subplots are going to go?
ASP: When you start off every year, hopefully you've left yourself someplace to go at the end of the year before, so you know when you walk in where you're heading in the first half of the season. Then you get in there and give yourself some marks. So you have an idea. Right now, I know what the series-finale show should be. I don't know if I'll be here to do it. [Laughs.] But hopefully, whoever is writing the show at that point will give me a call, and I can fill them in. We see fairly far into the future for these characters. I'm not saying specifically we knew, like, Luke and Lorelai were going to kiss at the end of last year, but we knew it was going to happen. It was just a matter of when it felt right. When Rory got together with Dean in the first season, we wanted to take her through her first love and her first breakup, which I think is as important as the first love. You know she's going to graduate from college. We knew Lorelai was going to open this inn. We wanted to include [Lorelai's father] Richard getting ousted from his job. That was something we knew early in the series, but we didn't do it for a couple of years. There's a lot of stuff that we saw, and as we're going along, we figured out when it was going to be a good time to do it.
O: So why was now the right time for Luke and Lorelai?
ASP: I thought we had enough time invested in the relationship that people would care. We had a good four years, and in those four years, we saw Luke go through relationships, and we saw Lorelai go through three relationships. I felt like it was time, because we'd seen it and we cared. We wouldn't just be, "Let's get these two characters together just for the sake of it." It would be like, "Oh my God, just turn the fuck around, the person's right in back of you." When we started talking about it at the end of last year, I just wanted to make sure that I saw stories. Once we got into it, I saw so many stories, and I realized, "There's absolutely no reason to not do this. It's only going to make the show richer and better."
O: So you're not haunted by the whole "Where do we go from here?" aspect of the relationship?
ASP: Nah. Seriously, I'm haunted by enough things. I have enough fuckin' demons chasing me down the street. I really don't need to worry about that. I've actually never made a move on the show where I've felt like, "Boy, I'm really sorry I did that." At every turn, the story kind of pushed me there. I try to trust my instincts as much as possible. As a writer, all you do is have people tell you you're wrong and you suck 24 hours a day, so if you don't listen to yourself, you're just going to end up in a mental institution.
O: So your involvement in the show is going to taper off?
ASP: Well, eventually. To me, this show should go on at least until Rory graduates college. There's no reason to stop it. This cast is delightful and lovely, and we've only added more cast members and more stories that can go on and on. I see very little reason for it to end, especially because people are still tuning in and still care. However, as a writer, you eventually have to move on. You can't do the same thing over and over again. This is also a very hard job. This has been five years of 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I've loved every minute of it, but there's got to be something else out there at some point. Your life as a writer in this town is actually not very long. It's short-term. When your heat is good, and people think you can do something, you've got to do it. Otherwise, you're sitting in the motion-picture home later on and someone's feeding you spinach, and then you die. So I'm learning to like spinach, because I know it's coming, Eventually, it's going to be time to move on and do something else.
O: But given your heavy involvement in every aspect of the show, would it be hard to give that up and see the results?
ASP: Oh, it would be horrible! It would be a nightmare! I would throw up. I remember when Aaron Sorkin left West Wing, and he was on Charlie Rose, and he was so poised. Charlie Rose was saying, "Are you still going to watch it?" And he said, "Absolutely." I'm thinking, "Really?! How?! That's your baby!" Believe me, when I leave this show, I ain't watching. I'm sitting in a hole on Tuesday nights, sobbing and drunk for an hour. Jack Daniels. But hopefully, I'll be doing other things that I care about. Every pilot I've ever written, I've fallen deeply and madly in love with. It's the only way I work. So I'm hoping that whatever my next project is, I love just as deeply and passionately as I love this.
More thoughts on working on Roseanne:
O: What was the extent of Roseanne's involvement in the creative process? Was your voice as a writer able to come through, or did it have to come through her–or someone else's–idea of what the show was going to be?
Amy Sherman-Palladino: The thing about Roseanne is that her voice and her point of view is so incredibly laser-sharp that it was already in place by the time I got there. So there was no wondering "How would Roseanne act in this situation?", because you knew it. That just made the writing process very clean. When you write for a show that's not yours, your job is to hear the voices of the characters and write as best you can for those voices. My style of writing actually fit in very well with that show, and I've often said that if I'd gotten a different first job, I don't know that I would even be a writer today. It was not a profession I terribly enjoyed when I first got it. I didn't get it, the whole sitting around in a room, everybody wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt, being at work at 10:30... I didn't understand any of that. I never liked California Pizza Kitchen, and that's the only place we ate. It was a weird world to me. If I'd got on a different show, and it was more joke-driven, more "There are six people and they're trying to fuck each other, ha ha ha!" I don't know if I would still be writing. I'd be like, "Working at Denny's has got to be better than this." [Laughs.]
As far as Roseanne's actual input... When I was there, it was during the years when the show was run very smoothly. As a group of writers, we broke the stories, wrote the stories, and punched them up. She would say stuff at the table. Like when we had a table read, she would throw in her two cents on occasion. But she never dictated to us, and I believe she didn't have to, because we were very in tune with who she was and how she sounded. As the years went on and Roseanne started to discover her other 35 personalities, things got a little crazier. I had friends who stayed on after I left, and she became like, [Affects shrill Roseanne accent.] "Give me five options for every joke!", just because she could. But when I was there, she was actually quite lovely to work with.
O: Did you have to adhere to any particular sitcom conventions of the time? How constricted were you in terms of what you had to put into the show?
ASP: Roseanne was a very unusual show at that time, because it was not a joke-driven show. A lot of other shows, it's like, "Where are the three jokes on page one?" Roseanne was not like that. Roseanne was all about very small stories. The mantra was, "Make the big small, make the small big." So they didn't do big stories. They did tiny things, like Darlene getting her period. That's the story for an episode. So it was kind of a different experience for a sitcom. I was quite spoiled, and I learned zero about how a real sitcom works, because it was a show that was all story-driven, all character-driven. It set a very high bar as far as quality went, and the studio and network were banned from the set, because Roseanne had banned them. So I never saw the studio or network for four years. They didn't give notes on any of the scripts. I had no idea that the studio and network even came to the table. On my next job, I was left to wonder who all these fucking people were sitting around the table telling us what to do.
O: One of the small miracles of that show is that the domestic-goddess shtick was cut out. It wasn't a stand-up's show.
ASP: Not at all. The smart thing they did at the beginning was that they surrounded [Roseanne] with real actors. They went out and got Laurie Metcalf and John Goodman, who are not just funny people, but trained actors. These are theater people. They really know their shit. So they went out and found her the best of the best, so that she could learn what acting was, because she was a stand-up. It allowed her to find herself and be herself, because there was so much solid craftsmanship around her.
On the current state of television:
O: You've been working on network television for a long time now. How much do certain expectations–the ratings, the tone of the show, the need to appeal to a mass audience–constrain you as a writer? Does the amount of oversight from executives tend to vary from network to network and project to project?
ASP: I'm sure it does. I think the claustrophobic, too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen scenario is what's killed the sitcom. My husband [frequent Gilmore Girls writer and director Daniel Palladino] and I consider ourselves sitcom refugees. We'd love to return to sitcom, but I don't know where you go to do it. You simply cannot do a sitcom by committee. It will not work. You've got to have one or two clean, creative voices in charge, and there's got to be some faith by the studio and network in those people to make the right choices. When you're sitting in a room with 20 people giving you notes, there's no way what you're going to get is going to be any good. It's impossible. At the very least, it will be mediocre, because you can only compromise so much before you damage the goods.
As far as my kind of world, I'm very lucky here at Gilmore. I know it's going to be very different when I go out on the market, which I will probably be doing soon, but I know it's going to be a whole new ball game. I've created a bizarro little niche here where I kind of get to do whatever I want. When you're on network television, you've got advertisers and high expectations for ratings. I'm on the WB, and as long as they appeal to the demographics that mean the most to them, they're pretty happy. They're not as big as ABC. They're not even in as many markets as ABC. So they can't possibly compete on the same level that ABC does, because they're not even seen by as many people. It's not the same ball game. Now that there's so much cable, so many different outlets to go to–FX, Showtime, HBO–it's becoming a different world, because there are so many levels on which to compete. There's only one American Idol. That number is almost unheard of. You've got American Idol, you've got CSI, you've got a couple of those crazy, crazy numbers that everyone watches. But there aren't a lot of those anymore. It's really broken down into what demographic you serve, and if you hit your target. Every network varies slightly in what exactly they're looking for and what they need. It's kind of an interesting time to be in TV, because if you have an idea you love and it's not right for a network, there's actually a place to take it now, and there didn't used to be. You can go to cable, not just to say "fuck," but to do other things that the networks aren't as hip to do.
On working with the WB:
O: With Gilmore Girls, did the network resign itself at some point to the fact that the show was going to do well, and leave it at that? Or were there pressures at any point to tinker with it in some way?
ASP: To tinker with it creatively, no. I've had other issues with this show. I'm always begging for a billboard or a picture on the side of the bus. From the get-go, the network and the studio–well, mostly the network, because it was developed directly through them–was like, "Well, here's what it is. Let's put it on against Friends and see if it dies." That was sort of the mentality. And when we didn't die, when we stayed there and continued to build our tiny little audience... By that point, the show was what the show is. It was too late to go in and tinker with it. As far as I'm concerned, I always knew what the show was. It doesn't mean they have to like what I saw in my head. But I always knew what it was: It was just a matter of whether they were going to fight me on it, or just sort of let me fly with it. I was very lucky, because they really did just let me fly with it.
On Gilmore Girls' creative process:
O: In an interview, former Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls writer Jane Espenson suggested that the writers have a little bit more input on story construction than dialogue. Do you think that's true?
ASP: I think that winds up being true. Our outlines are very long and very specific, and we do that in a group. All the writers are involved in that. That's very important for a show like this, because it's the ins and outs of the scenes and the construction of the scenes that really make them pop. When it does come to the dialogue, I think because all the scripts pass through either my hands or Dan's hands, there are more changes once it gets to script form, but the story remains intact, because we've done all that work already. We've broken those stories down, so we know every little in and out before the dialogue is actually put on it.
O: How do you maintain a consistency of voice on the show? It seems like one of the dilemmas of being distinctive is that other writers can't duplicate it.
ASP: It's a lot of hammering, a lot of work, a lot of sitting in the writers' room, going, "No, no, no, Lorelai would do this." It's finding people with good ears. I'm very fortunate, because my husband came over the second year to help me out with the show, and between the two of us, every draft either I write, or it passes through my hands, or passes through my hands and his hands, so that there is a consistency of tone. It's very important that it feel like the same show every week, because it is so verbal. It's not about car crashes or vampires or monsters or suspense. It's really about people talking to each other and the way they talk to each other, which is very specific. It's a little bit more work.
O: Was directing something you had to learn how to do? How did that happen?
ASP: Oh yeah. [Laughs.] I think every writer has got to direct. If you don't direct, you can't protect your work. The only way to ensure that it's going to be as close as possible to what you put down on paper–and what you see and hear in your head–is to do it yourself. It doesn't matter how brilliant the director is, and we have some wonderful directors here, we really do. We've been very lucky, because it's a hard thing to find, people who can do comedy and drama. They're usually either comedy directors or dramatic directors, and to find people who can do both... Boy, that's the trick. And we found quite a few really good ones. But it doesn't matter, because there's going to come a point where they do something slightly different than what you saw in your head. Sometimes when you have a director who's not on your wavelength, it's like ripping your stomach out. I get physically ill when I go into the editing booth and I see a very specifically structured, written scene, and my stage directions have been ignored, and the dialogue is sloppy, and they didn't go enough times, and the paces are off. It makes me want to kill myself. So rather than killing myself, I give myself a couple of episodes a year where I know that if I don't get it, it wasn't going to work. It's not because somebody else fucked it up. I think that's really important. I think writers have got to do that. You know, Billy Wilder considered himself first and foremost a writer–not to compare myself to Billy Wilder–and one of his big things was that he was just sick of people fucking up his scripts.
O: In his case, and perhaps in yours as well, the direction isn't obtrusive in any way. It doesn't wave its hands and say "This is being directed." But there is a sense of rhythm. Is pace kind of the main issue with Gilmore Girls?
ASP: Pace is very important. Looseness is very important. My ideal show would have zero cuts in it. It would all be moving masters. There's an energy and style to our show that's very simple, in my mind. I think that sometimes directors err when they try to get to fancy. Like, "Nice shot of a tree, but who gives a fuck? You've just missed four jokes!" On our show, direction that works the best is direction that follows the shape of the scene, and then embellishes. Then get your pretty shot. Then get your fancy crane thing, or whatever the fuck you want to do. But make sure that people understand the story. I don't think that style works on every show. I mean, my God, do that on CSI, and who would watch CSI? CSI is a very stylish show, and it's all about your shots and your cuts and your angles and your lighting. There are quite a few shows like that, but this show's not that. This show almost needs to be shot like a play. That's how we get our pace, our energy, and our flow. Some directors love that, because it's something they don't get to do on other shows: Take a five, six, seven-page scene and try to do it without any cuts. That's a fun challenge. It's about choreography and movement. Our poor Steadicam guy goes home dead every night. He goes through four or five shirts a day. But to me, it's the way this show works, and I don't think it would work another way.