Taking on TV Comedy From the Outside In
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because her life could be the plot of TV’s next hit.
By Libby Coleman
For Colleen McGuinness, it’s an almost obligatory punch line to every introduction: joking about the cultural confusion her name can cause. “People expect a leprechaun to show up,” says the 38-year-old comedy writer, who in fact is half-Irish by descent, but favors her Korean mom. Growing up in suburban Long Island surrounded by a sea of blond friends made her an outsider — and damn funny.
Funny enough to get writing gigs with 30 Rock, Love Bites and About a Boy, among other TV series, and to partner on projects backed by boldface names like Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. Now she’s leveraging lessons from her life story for a new show in development with ABC, The Homefront. Drawing on her own experience is a savvy move at a time when “outsider” comedies like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat — not to mention the gay couple on Modern Family — are bringing nontraditional stories set in suburban neighborhoods into view. It’s all part of a trend of embracing new perspectives on television, says Wenhong Chen, assistant professor of Radio-TV-Film at the University of Texas, one fueled by changes to TV distribution and new content providers like Netflix and Hulu.
It’s a very rare thing to read funny, strong girls that aren’t stupid.
Actress Taylor Schilling
Ten years ago, TV’s outsiders were women in comedy. Things are better today, but you wouldn’t call it parity. According to UCLA’s 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, women were outnumbered as leads and TV creators a whopping 2 to 1 for all shows in 2014. “I read a lot of scripts,” says Taylor Schilling, star of Orange Is the New Black, who worked with McGuinness on NBC’s Mercy. “It’s a very rare thing to read funny, strong girls that aren’t stupid.” McGuinness’ best writing quality, Schilling says, is that she tackles exactly that issue. Maybe it comes from writing for TV’s premier female comedy character, Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, as McGuinness was part of a 30 Rock mafia that included Kay Cannon (screenwriter for the Pitch Perfect movies), Tracey Wigfield (The Mindy Project) and Donald Glover (Community).
McGuinness’ own ridiculously complicated backstory surely adds perspective. Her soldier father met her mom while he was stationed in Korea. The two split up, she went back to Korea and her father “didn’t know what to do with the kids,” she says. She ended up in New York with her grandfather and step-grandmother (she calls them her parents). Her dad was in and out of the picture, but eight years after last seeing her, he called wanting to visit her while she was pregnant with her (now born) son, James. Imagining her former Green Beret father with her baby in suburban LA switched on a lightbulb. “I realized — that’s the show,” she says, and The Homefront was born.
The personal’s always been present in McGuinness’ work. Back when she wrote for NBC’s Mercy, Schilling remembers, McGuinness would call her to explain her thinking about a script, sharing family stories while discussing plot points. “There was an intimacy that popped up out of nowhere,” Schilling says. That’s true again as McGuinness, in a purple dress and nerdy glasses, chats with me on the plush sofa in her Los Angeles home. She talks about anything and everything, telling stories that almost always end with a punch line. Like the time she worked at a production company, Castle Rock. One morning, the phone rang and a crazy-sounding guy threatened to come to the office to shoot Rob Reiner over his politics. She called HR. “If the guy arrives,” she says she was told, “just buzz up and tell us ‘Fed Ex is here.’” Don’t worry, he added: They’d be sure to get the stars out of the building.
Her life’s more valuable now to the entertainment gods, but that doesn’t mean every door’s open to her. The story of TV development is trying — and failing — a lot. So far, none of her projects in two years of development have panned out. In general, only a few scripts ever make it to pilots or series, so even while The Homefront is in development at ABC, she’s pitching another comedy series for cable. It’s a tricky business getting the sign-off on a show, TV producer and writer Kit Boss says, with networks weighing everything from cost to whether a program matches its brand to if it can get the right cast.
If her outsider credentials don’t do the trick, McGuinness has maybe the ultimate insider trait to call upon: a Harvard degree, something not so rare in writing and pitch rooms across Hollywood. And there’s that 30 Rock pedigree. It’s almost Halloween the day we meet, and ex-boss Tina Fey has sent McGuinness’ new baby a costume — the Very Hungry Caterpillar. Maybe a mini-metaphor for her own career.
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