Like everything, the path to a comedy-writing career is tricky starting out, said Boston College alum Tracey Wigfield, a writer for 30 Rock and The Mindy Project and BC ’05. Wigfield spoke April 7 to a packed Devlin 008. Wigfield won an Emmy in 2013 for her work on 30 Rock.
Wigfield, who double majored in English and theatre, had trouble right after she graduated Boston College. She spent the summer applying for the page program at MSNBC, but was ultimately rejected. After five post-grad months applying for jobs, her mother’s cousin eventually helped her land a job as a page on the Late Night With David Letterman. While working as a page, which she described as more of an usher than anything else-she said her main job was pointing people to the bathroom-she met producer Rob Burnett who became a mentor to her.
Burnett helped her land a job on a short-lived TV show that shared a building with 30 Rock. From there, she submitted her resume to 30 Rock and worked her way up to be a writer and producer. The two years she spent on 30 Rock as a writer’s assistant-then script coordinator before becoming a staff writer-taught her how to make a television show, she said.
“Little by little, I started pitching jokes,” she said. “I would take all the writing jobs on that no one else wanted to do. I would write Twitter accounts for the characters. It was like I got to go to college for sitcom writing for two years.”
When 30 Rock ended, a friend of Wigfield’s recommended she go to work for The Mindy Project. She started writing with creator Mindy Kaling halfway through season one, wrote for Season Two, and will continue to write for Season Three.
The writing process for one episode is long, and writers and producers end up spending most of their time in the writers’ room, where they start the process by bouncing ideas off of one another, Wigfield said. The process ends with a table read and a round of rewriting based on which jokes worked during the table read. Despite this lengthy process, there is a lot of material that never makes it onto television. This tends to happen more often at the beginning of a series, when the story is just getting started, she said.
“For everything you see on TV, there are hundreds of pages of not just notes, but scenes, that we write and then will be thrown in the garbage,” she said. “You have stories like that all the time, especially in the first season of the show, that you think will work and then when you hear people reading it, you’re like ‘oh, no, this isn’t anything.’ That happens all the time to the joke and the storyline. We’ve thrown out whole scripts.”
While at BC, Wigfield acted in several productions. Starting in 2007, she studied improv and sketch at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City. This background in improv and acting has helped her write comedy. She will be guest starring on the second-to-last episode of this season of The Mindy Project-Kaling knows she is interested in acting, so they wrote in a part for her to try out. The audition was nerve-racking, Wigfield said.
“I spent all of my career as a writer, and even though that’s something I’m very passionate about and interested in, I was very excited for me to be able to do this,” she said. “And it’s interesting, in a weird thought experiment way, to be on the other side and not be the person giving notes, but the person getting notes.”
In addition to acting, her improv training helped her learn to collaborate with other people when writing for television. There are two parts to the kind of writing Wigfield does: The first part is the kind of solo writing a theatre student would do in a screenwriting class, but the larger part is sitting with other writers at a table and building ideas off of each other, she said.
“If you’re fantastic at writing drafts, but you can’t really collaborate with people, you shouldn’t be doing this,” she said. “So much of it is improv-based.”
There is a temptation to write an excess of jokes on these types of shows, but on The Mindy Project, Kaling avoids jokes that have nothing to do with the characters and insists that all the jokes in the show also work to move the plot forward, Wigfield said.
“You have to be very disciplined. I got into this because I like writing jokes and I love writing stories, and it’s something that I’m continuing to try to get better at, but the real fun of it is just cracking jokes,” she said. “It can be tricky sometimes. You have to make sure that you’re telling a coherent story that is satisfying and that your characters are behaving in a way that is how human beings behave and still making it funny.”