Movies + TV

Why Can’t I Be You: Liz Meriwether

The creator of New Girl on breaking into TV writing, and emotional swimming pools.

Illustration by Ruby A., using a photograph by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

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. ♦

New Girl airs Tuesdays at 9/8 Central on Fox. In the U.S., can also watch full episodes here or here.

23 Comments

  • Libby November 26th, 2012 3:25 PM

    You guys don’t have Green Wing? Life suxs in America. Also watch Friday Night Dinner, the IT Crowd, the Inbetweeners, and all our awesome panel shows. British comedy is outstanding.
    Also Liz Meriwether is so awesome. I never really paid that much attention to the writers, but I have started reading more plays recently (Blood Wedding!!!) and it’s such an art, to be able to write a decent script.

    • marineo November 27th, 2012 1:31 AM

      Friday Night Dinner is so great and so is The Inbetweeners.
      go watch them

      british comedy is the bomb, basically.

    • amysusanne November 27th, 2012 11:11 AM

      Fortunately, we did get it on BBCA a few years back. Unfortunately, they only aired it through once. I don’t even remember if they ran the special. But, like she said, Hulu has it and has had it for awhile. It’s just a matter of spreading the word.

    • missblack November 28th, 2012 1:06 AM

      British comedy is just so BEYOND American comedy. Like 1000000x better.

      Thank God for the internet and Hulu is all I can say.

  • purrr November 26th, 2012 3:26 PM

    is my computer acting up or are the comments not previewed anymore? remember when they used to preview and they had some red text saying “we’re gonna moderate this stuff soon”?
    (this fishiness happened to me on the sartorialist yesterday too and my comment didnt get posted in the end.)

    i left a comment and i want it posted :’(

    sanctifiedyouth.blogspot.com

  • jenaimarley November 26th, 2012 3:28 PM

    Aww this is so good! Liz is SO cool!
    When she talks about acting vs. writing, I thought about Portia de Rossi’s book, Unbearable Lightness, which I just read and loved but which really made me less drawn to acting. Portia is so awesome (Arrested Deveopment is wicked great and I just started Better Off Ted!)
    Anyway, New Girl and Zooey D (and Liz W obviously) are the best!

  • Mary the freak November 26th, 2012 3:52 PM

    This Interview is so hilarious! Liz is officially THE BEST. <3
    I lovelovelove New Girl, it's so much fun!

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

    • Mary the freak November 27th, 2012 12:38 PM

      Oh my gosh. I just realized there are only like three days left in the invention month! HOW AWFUL! I loved this month!

  • purrr November 26th, 2012 4:02 PM

    “and was I kind of a feminist”

    this line needs a bit of fixing! I think you mismatched the “was” and the “I”

    I wrote her a very long, emotional, and possibly embarrassing email about how much I loved her. And she said yes! It was amazing.
    This sounds like a dream come true. Sometimes I get discouraged from work because these things don’t happen often :/ I should probably make some stickers of inspirational people’s faces and stick them all over my stationary and workplace, ha.

    http://sanctifiedyouth.blogspot.com

    • Anaheed November 26th, 2012 4:13 PM

      Thank you, purrr!

      • purrr November 26th, 2012 4:45 PM

        I wish everyone purred when they said thank you :) I know you were reffereing to me as my username but it’s like you went all feline haha

  • thirsty-pretzels November 26th, 2012 4:10 PM

    GUYS could we try and have Max Greenfield for Ask A Grown Man? pretty pleaaaase ? :) <3

  • Laura Lemon November 26th, 2012 4:28 PM

    I am seriously convinced Liz Meriwether is some sort of angelic genius.

    <3 <3 <3 NEW GIRL <3 <3 <3

    Now all we need is a Zooey interview. and a Max Greenfield Ask a Grown Man. (I think I would die, if that were to happen).

  • Emma S. November 26th, 2012 6:06 PM

    Yes yes yes to Max Greenfield for AAGM!

  • Faith November 26th, 2012 7:45 PM

    Love this interview!

    http://vintagereverie.blogspot.com

  • litchick November 26th, 2012 7:50 PM

    “Keep writing, and don’t be precious about what you write- just continue to write.”
    Love it!

    P.S. Max Greenfield for AAGM would be seriously wonderful.

  • Gabby November 26th, 2012 8:22 PM

    OMG LIZ MERIWETHER YES
    I became really obsessed with the “fempire” of screenwriters after Diablo Cody won the oscar for Juno and I think my secret motivation for studying film right now is that I want to be a part of it.

  • spudzine November 26th, 2012 8:23 PM

    This is a really cool interview! I really admire women in the film industry because women are not admired particularly in this field, and that saddens me. Kuddos to you, Liz Meriwether!

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com

  • eireann November 26th, 2012 10:29 PM

    This is so great! I love New Girl and No Strings Attached…she’s an inspiration!

  • Frannie Lou November 27th, 2012 1:00 AM

    This is so great! New Girl is my favorite show ever, and Liz Meriwether is clearly the queen of cool.

    Also, YES to Max Greenfield being on the next Ask-A-Grown-Man segment! That would be too wonderful for words. Or Jake Johnson (the actor who plays Nick in New Girl)? I love him, too. Either one (or both?!) for AAGM would be absolutely LEGENDARY. Pleeease. <3

  • Idlywriterly December 2nd, 2012 8:15 PM

    Is anyone lse a little supicious of the whole, “LOL back in those days when I was *kind of a feminist*” bit? Like aren’t you SUPPOSED to say something when you think someone’s being sexist? I’m sure a lot of that quote was tonal and contextual, but lest we equate feminism with unpopularity and unattractiveness, I thought it was worth commenting.