In this month of INVENTION, we’re packing in some extra Why Can’t I Be Yous with women who use their brains to make things: discoveries, illustrations and fonts, and delightful half-hour comedies that bring Zooey Deschanel and Max Greenfield (sigh) into my living room every week.
The creator and showrunner (aka HBIC) of the aforementioned TV show, New Girl, is Liz Meriwether. She also writes movies and plays, so she’s basically living the dream. Liz’s message to the creators among us comes down to: don’t wait for someone to tell you to do something; do it yourself. Read more of her wisdom below, then write your own TV show—it’s what Liz would want you to do.
EMMA: What were you were like in high school? Were you watching TV and movies constantly?
LIZ MERIWETHER: The most important show for me in high school was My So-Called Life. I took all my fashion and everything from the Claire Danes character. I started dressing like her, and fell in love with a Jared Leto type who wore a gas station attendant jacket…
…and a choker?
Oh my god, he did! He did wear one of those black leather chokers! I guess I would divide high school between the years when I had braces and the years I didn’t. The first two years, I had braces and dressed exactly like Angela Chase and I was kind of a feminist and would always talk in class if I thought something someone said was sexist. Then I got my braces off, and a soccer player wanted to date me. I transitioned from flannels into baby tees. I sort of lost the flannel when I lost the braces. Mainly, though, I was a theater nerd in high school. I wasn’t a complete outcast, but I wasn’t in the popular crowd either. I just hung out with the kids who did theater. Then I continued to be a theater nerd throughout my life.
I know you wrote plays before writing for TV or movies. When did you start playwriting?
I wrote my first play during my sophomore year of college. It was a girl talking to a personification of cotton—I called it The Touch, the Feel. It was 10 minutes long and starred Zoe Kazan. It was super weird, but I loved it. When I went to college, I really wanted to be an actress. Then I started taking a bunch of writing classes, and I found that writing suited my personality better. I loved acting, but the life was really hard—going to auditions, having to think about your body, basically not eating.
That sounds like a bum deal.
Yeah. I love actors, and I love working with them, and I have so much respect for what they do. But I really love being able to write on my own time, and create my own world, and be in charge of what I’m doing artistically. As an actor, you’re just walking into someone else’s vision.
It seems so powerful to be the writer, to force other people to say the words you’ve written. I think the first time I heard about you was when I read a review of your play Heddatron—an adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, but with robots—in 2006. Were you still in college then?
No, I was out of college. When I was in college, I was writing these serial comic plays. One was about Nicky Hilton, called Nicky Goes Goth. It was like Romeo and Juliet, with Nicky Hilton escaping from Paris for a night and meeting a goth kid named Shithead, and they have a really crazy night together.
Do they both die at the end?
Honestly, I can’t remember! I think Shithead goes home alone at the end of the night. But we did it at the Fringe Festival right after I graduated. I’d won a $3,000 writing prize at college; I took that money and I put it all into this play. We did it with all of our friends. One night Alex Timbers, who would go on to do Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, came to see it. He had a theater company, and he commissioned me to write Heddatron. The way he pitched it to me was as an emo musical, which I was not so into for that project, but it was so awesome having a director ask me to write a play that he was going to direct, so I was like, “Yes, I’ll do it, anything.” The more I worked on it, and the more research I did about artificial intelligence and Ibsen’s life, the more it turned into a play about my childhood. It became a really personal thing. We put it up in New York and it sold out, and it ended up being a really great, fun play that we got some good feedback for.
I remember the New York Times was basically like, Liz, you’re a genius.
You know, the New York Times has not always said that about my work. It was the one time in my life when I’ve gotten a good review from them. So, I will hold on to that. The last play I put up in New York, [critic Charles] Isherwood said it was like drinking paint thinner mixed with Kool-Aid. I was like, oh, thank you for that.
So, Heddatron exploded. What happened next?
It was really an awesome time in my life. I had another play I had written, called The Mistakes Madeline Made, about a crazy assistant job I had right out of college, go up in New York within six months of Heddatron. Naked Angels, the theater company that put Mistakes up, had a partnership with Fox where they would bring playwrights over from New York to do 10-minute plays in L.A. in front of television executives who might want to make them into TV shows. The program was called Naked TV—I think it’s over now. So, I wrote a 10-minute-play and showed it in L.A., and that got me a pilot deal, which introduced me into the world of writing for TV and film. I really had no intention of doing that, but all of a sudden I had a pilot deal before I owned [the screenwriting program] Final Draft, or had even thought about screenwriting. It was a very odd chain of events.
What was that first pilot about?
It was called Sluts. I think it was an early Girls-esque type show, but obviously nowhere near as good. It was about three girls in New York, based on me and my roommates, just basically sleeping around and dealing with the ramifications of that. So much changed from when I wrote Sluts to when I wrote New Girl. Back then, people were like, “Who is going to watch a show with only girls in it?” I got so many notes from networks like “I don’t understand how [this character] could be smart and also like sex.” By the time I got to New Girl, it was a different environment, which was great.
People finally caught up to you and were like, “Oh, we can have a funny, weird girl as the star of this show! And it’s not going to put people off—in fact, people are going to love her.”
The first time I met Kevin Reilly, who is the chairman of Fox, we had this big meeting, and I walked in afraid that he was going to tell me that [Zooey Deschanel’s character, Jess] would have to be more normal, or that we needed to cast some bombshell who couldn’t act and isn’t funny. And the first thing he said to me was, I love this character, and your job is to protect her, and to make sure that she is unique, and to maintain your voice on this show. That was an amazing meeting, and I think it’s the reason that our show made it on the air. That kind of faith in the vision of the show is why it survived.
Zooey Deschanel is so perfect for that part, and you’re clearly writing for her now, but did you have her in mind to play Jess from the get-go?
No, not at first. You know how in movies there’s the main girl, who’s always thinking about weddings, and then there’s her best friend, who’s a mess, or slutty, or whatever? I wanted to write a show about the best-friend character. That’s how I thought about it going in. Then when the show was picked up [by the network], we started listing possible actresses, and I was driving home one day and returning phone calls and an agent dropped Zooey’s name, and I literally pulled over to the side of the road and said, “Yes, please, how can we make that happen?!” I never would have thought of her, because I didn’t know she wanted to do TV. We sent her the script and I wrote her a very long, emotional, and possibly embarrassing email about how much I loved her. And she said yes! It was amazing. As soon as she said yes, it felt like we really had something special.
She seems like so much fun, and so game.
She is! That’s what’s so special. There are so many actresses who are just thinking about what they look like; they don’t want to do something stupid. That will kill any comedy. Zooey wants to be funny; she wants to be doing crazy things. She doesn’t care about how she looks or anything like that.
When you see her cotton ads, do you have a little flashback to your cotton play?
You know, I never made that connection! There must be some cosmic thing where we were destined for each other.
From the outside, it seems like there are a lot more female show creators and writers right now. I like to imagine you, Mindy Kaling, and Tina Fey having slumber parties…
I like to imagine that too; that would be really fun…
Does it seem like a more female-friendly period in TV to you?
It seems so! The year that New Girl came out, there were a ton of comedies with women creators, and those were the shows that were working; and this current season they picked up a lot of shows with female creators. I think the same thing is happening next pilot season. Which is great! I’m also really happy that all the different shows have such different female protagonists. There are such different, flawed, interesting characters right now.
What else do you watch?
I work a lot, so I don’t get a chance to keep up on everything, but I love Homeland, Girls, Veep, Parks and Rec, The Office, 30 Rock. I love this British show [called] Green Wing that isn’t airing in the U.S., but is on Hulu. I watched every single episode of it back to back. It’s the actress and actor from Episodes.
I love them!
Green Wing is their earlier show. It’s so funny and great. [Tamsin Greig] is unbelievable. It’s a British thing where they can do slapstick and then turn on a dime and be really emotional. That’s what we want to do with New Girl—to be able to do tonal shifts, to have the characters be emotional while they’re in some crazy situation.
Like if they’re holding each other in some kind of emotionally healing swimming pool. It’s so creepy, and so funny, and yet charming.
That’s our sweet spot: charming and creepy.
Do you have any advice for girls who want to do what you do? What are the steps to becoming Liz Meriwether?
Oh god, I would wish a better fate on you, first of all. I think the thing to do is to make things. There was a writer who came to my high school and gave a lecture and said, “A lot of people say they’re writers, but not everybody is actually writing.” I always remembered that. Keep making things. Keep writing, and don’t be precious about what you write—just continue to write. Instead of sitting around and perfecting one play, or one story, just keep making more and more. Also, try to put stuff on its feet—if it’s a play, grab your friends and put it up. Do a reading or a full production of it. Work on someone else’s play—be an actor, or do the lights. Just be around people who are making things. Being surrounded by other people who are also doing theater is so important—when you see how actors work, and how directors work, and what dramatic writing looks and sounds like when it’s performed, you’ll start to become a better writer.
Right now is a great time, because you can just make things with your friends and put them on YouTube. It’s such a good way to develop your voice, and to get people’s attention. The internet is amazing that way—it lets you feel this whole community of people. Writing is a solitary thing, but you can also be part of a community. And when you watch or read other people’s writing, it helps with your own writing. It’s good to live in a community of artists, whether physically or, [as] on the internet, emotionally.
I want to emotionally live somewhere where I can have a swimming pool.
I have an emotional swimming pool, and you are invited over at any time. ♦