TV MAY 10, 2013
Liz Meriwether is trying to figure out the best way to make a funeral funny.
The 31-year-old showrunner of Fox’s “New Girl” is in deep writing mode, clad in leggings and an actual, slender scrunchie, chewing on licorice that has replaced the “gross” tempeh salad she’d ordered in a failed bid to avoid the junk food that fills the writers’ room. Meriwether didn’t intend it in homage, but when the series began, her heroine, like that of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” was a 30-year-old woman fresh out of a calamitous breakup. Except that, for Jess, played as sweetly kooky by Zooey Deschanel, the fresh start involves not a studio apartment and a new job, but three male roommates she meets on the Internet and who reside, naturally, in a dubiously capacious loft. Meriwether and her staff are at work on one of the more emotionally fraught episodes of the show’s second season, which ends on May 14.1 One of the loft-mates, Nick, has just lost his father. A second, Schmidt, is having trouble processing his own feelings about the death.
Meriwether once dressed up as a slutty Woody Allen for Halloween—a gag worthy of Allen himself—and Schmidt can be read as another Allen type: He is a proud Jew as well as the self-identified douchebag of the bunch, whose cartoonish obsession with alpha-maleness barely disguises how neurotic he is about his libidinousness, his fastidiousness, his just about every- thingness. Sitting with her legs tucked under her, Meriwether pulls at her cardigan and grabs her face while she ponders. Her voice can sound deceptively unconfident; she says “like” a lot and tends to introduce her good ideas with, “This is probably a bad pitch, but...” It all contributes to what one friend calls Meriwether’s “dumb-blonde uppercut.”
“We can’t have this be an intellectual, philosophical crisis,” she tells the room. They decide Schmidt will grapple with mortality by grappling with the dead body itself.
Meriwether starts the riff, imagining how the given-to-extremes character would react to an encounter with the corpse. “Now I can’t look away!” she says. “Now I want to be an undertaker!”
“He bangs the body,” suggests another writer. “Ohhhh. Didn’t see that comin’!”
“Guys,” says a third. “He just bangs a body?”
Meriwether ups the ante: “I’m only gay with dead men!”
“Next week on ‘New Girl’: I can’t stop dating a dead body,” parries yet another writer.
Meriwether expertly edits the teaser, putting on a chipper voiceover tone: “Schmidt’s gay for dead guys!”
Ignore, for a moment, the poor harassed corpse. Those were not jokes about necrophilia or homosexuality—though Meriwether doesn’t shy from topics that skirt the line of taste. They were jokes about the constraints of network television, which in 2013 is a highly embattled medium. At the 2012 Television Critics Association conference, Fox Entertainment Chairman Kevin Reilly summarized the state of affairs: “Our shows weren’t rejected,” he said of the network’s most recent failures. “They weren’t really sampled.” It’s not just that there are ever more ways to get free entertainment that don’t involve flicking the remote. The collective attention has also increasingly shifted to cable, where boundary-pushing comedies like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” regard jokes about screwing dead people as amuse-bouche. The show “30 Rock,” one of the few network sitcoms to get the kind of critical praise heaped upon cable in recent years, spun seven seasons of underwhelming ratings out of a meta joke about the limpness of network television.
Writing for a broadcast series, the producer Jenni Konner has said, is like making piss pie. You start out making something else, and the suits ask you to put a drop of piss in, then a drop more, then suddenly you’re serving up something that smells like the bleachers bathroom at Yankee Stadium. As it happens, Konner is Lena Dunham’s co-executive producer on the HBO hit “Girls.” (She first learned about Dunham when Meriwether told her she had to see Dunham’s movie Tiny Furniture.) No show better exemplifies cable’s disproportionate influence. It has become virtually impossible, at least on vast swaths of the Internet, to talk about being a young woman, or American young adulthood in general, without referencing Dunham’s almost sadistic vision of the difficulty of post-collegiate life. And yet the show’s second-season finale drew just 632,000 viewers. (There were almost as many blog posts about it.) Saying that you like “Girls” shows that you’re sophisticated, and maybe even believe that the only way to make worthwhile television these days is to be free from commercial concerns.
“If there’s a rape joke, if there’s an incest joke, any type of taboo, she’s like, I’m going to get in there,”
Meanwhile, “New Girl” averaged 6.4 million viewers this season, making it the third-most watched sitcom among 18- to 34-year-olds and number one among young women. It’s not piss pie that’s bringing in those ratings: The show has plenty of nuanced character development, cinematic tone, generational insight, and comic modernity to call its own. Meriwether could have gone the Dunham route. But instead, she is applying her talents to a very uncool task: restoring the virtue of the network sitcom.
There are girls who wear overalls, or the equivalent, to high school because they don’t want to conform. There are girls who date cute athletes. It is an unfortunate fact of American teenage life that rarely do the two categories intersect. Growing up in Ann Arbor, the daughter of a newspaper publisher and an artist who taught in prisons, Meriwether managed that balancing act. She was a star actress—but played Gollum in The Hobbit.
It was at Yale that Meriwether developed her penchant for subversive shock humor, without ever quite leaving the AP-student trajectory. She worked as an assistant to superstar English Professor Harold Bloom, but attended the Harvard-Yale football game in a shirt that read “Harvard Sucks ... And so will I if you have crack.” Her first stab at playwriting, sophomore year, featured now-star Zoe Kazan talking to a personification of cotton. It was called The Touch, the Feel.
After graduation, Meriwether moved to New York. She was still acting, but hid under tables after readings, so crippled was she by her fear of criticism. (These days, she avoids the Internet for the same reason.) Her breaking point was during a reading of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, when she failed to cry on cue. The director, who happened to have a voice box that rendered his intonations especially oracular, told her she just wasn’t committed enough. “I was like, well maybe I should be, like, losing weight or trying to be prettier. And I was immediately bored by it,” she remembers. “I was just like, fuck it, I’m writing.”
In 2004, her first year out of college, Meriwether showed a play she’d written called Nicky Goes Goth—the plot imagined the adventures of Nicky Hilton if unshackled from her celebutante sister—at the Fringe Festival. R. J. Tolan, who co-runs Youngblood, a prestigious playwriting group to which Meriwether was admitted, says it “was the kind of piece that would be easy to blow off until you actually read it and realize what sort of smart stuff is going on there.” He describes her style of writing as “hyperobservation.” Another word for the sensibility Meriwether was settling into would be “dirty.” “If there’s a rape joke, if there’s an incest joke, any type of taboo, she’s like, I’m going to get in there,” says her friend and fellow TV writer Dana Fox. Adds director Jake Kasdan, who works with her on “New Girl”: “She’s never met a dick joke she didn’t go running across the room to create.” Nicky Goes Goth got the attention of Alex Timbers, best known for directing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. He asked Meriwether to write a play updating Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, but with robots. The New York Times gave Heddatron a rave.
“Sluts,” the first TV pilot Meriwether wrote, sounds an awful lot like Dunham’s “Girls.” A raunchy, honest look at the messy dating lives of twentysomething women, it was based on Meriwether’s post-grad life in New York, where she lived in Manhattan with three roommates but “woke up a lot in Brooklyn.” But it was 2006, and she was pitching network television. “There was a lot of desire to put the characters in boxes,” says Meriwether. “This woman is slutty, this woman is smart, and those two things can’t be together.” Dana Walden, the chairman of Fox Television, has a slightly different take. “There was a carelessness in the way the characters in ‘Sluts’ lived their lives,” she says. While Fox deemed the pilot unmarketable, it established Meriwether as a distinctive commodity. Ivan Reitman, famous for megahits like Ghostbusters, gave her a rom-com idea to run with. The working title was Fuckbuddies.
The resulting script featured a career-oriented doctor (Natalie Portman) and her TV writer friend-with-benefits (Ashton Kutcher) who wants them to be more. “It was me,” says Meriwether of Portman’s character. “I’d kind of always been the guy in relationships,” she says, citing one six-year-long off-and-on situation as the main inspiration. “I’d always been the one who’s always sort of pulling away, which is not a good thing, and I’m not proud of it, but I just wanted to write about that experience.” Paramount bought the script, and the tinkering began. The studio, says Meriwether, had some questions about her protagonist. “Are women gonna relate to her? Is she gonna seem, like, cold, and, I don’t know, damaged?” The resulting, somewhat neutered movie—directed by Reitman—became 2011’s No Strings Attached. Instead of Hedda Gabler with robots, it was something like if Harry and Sally had booty-texted.
Dana Fox, who has also written romantic comedies and a Fox sitcom, makes the case that the massive expense that goes into a studio movie has a way of bringing out executives’ paternal sides. “People need a captain of a ship. They want to feel like they have a daddy,” she says. “All these analogies are inherently masculine.” In television, the financial stakes are lower, at least to make a pilot and a first season or two. The result is that its decision-makers take more chances, often affording showrunners (of both genders) more creative freedom. Or, as Fox puts it: “I think it’s safe to say that it’s easier to be a powerful ambitious boss lady in television than features. In TV, you don’t have to be shy about ambition.”
During the three years it took for No Strings Attached to get made, Meriwether kept a toehold in the New York theater world. She wasn’t happy in L.A. at first, say old friends, despite being part of a close-knit “fempire” of female screenwriters detailed in a much-circulated New York Times Style section piece. She bounced from Craigslist sublet to Craigslist sublet. But professionally, it was New York that proved less welcoming than the West Coast. In 2010, her play Oliver Parker! was viciously panned by the Times. “Elizabeth Meriwether’s comedy combines the crass vulgarity that passes for wit in teen-aimed Hollywood movies with a well-worn stage cliché, the scabrously dark story of family dysfunction,” wrote Charles Isherwood. The headline called it “sitcomish.”
Meriwether wrote another sitcom. In the script, Schmidt was already Schmidt—he takes off his shirt twice to prove his manliness—and Jess was already Jess: Entirely missing the point of stripper names, she declares that her stripper name would be Rebecca Johnson. The three men are initially worried that having a pretty woman living with them will disturb their apartment’s equilibrium, establishing the premium that the series puts on friendship. “This one was more well-rounded. They all feel like real people,” said Walden. This time, the network bit, signaling its enthusiasm by pursuing Deschanel for the role. It also replaced Meriwether’s working title for the show, rechristening “Chicks and Dicks” as “New Girl.”
The year Meriwether got the green light for the series, 2011, happened to be the year of Bridesmaids, the Kristen Wiig–Judd Apatow production that spawned an acre of think pieces about the new generation of funny women. More important, the movie demonstrated the serious money that kind of entertainment could make. The film grossed nearly $170 million domestically, making it the biggest financial hit of Apatow’s career.
In television, the audience for broadcast sitcoms is more than half female, but in the wake of Bridesmaids, the networks seemed determined to chase young women specifically—and with mixed results. At one end of the spectrum, Whitney Cummings’s “2 Broke Girls” and “Whitney,” on CBS and NBC, respectively, reached for stereotypes hard (and are still on the air, offering little for smart viewers to like).* Nahnatchka Khan’s sparklingly funny and diamond-cruel “Don’t Trust the B* in Apartment 23” was at the opposite end.2 It featured James Van Der Beek playing himself in a series of plots that revolved around “Dawson’s Creek” and reality TV show references (and was inevitably canceled). The influx of these shows did not go unnoticed elsewhere in the industry. “We are approaching peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation,” Lee Aronsohn, executive producer of “Two and a Half Men,” told an interviewer last year. “Enough, ladies. I get it. You have periods.”3
It is a rule of thumb in Hollywood that women will watch shows about men, but men won’t watch shows about women. From the beginning, “New Girl” did not do much to challenge that accepted wisdom. Meriwether bristles at interviewers who put too much focus on her gender or on whatever it is that Deschanel’s character means for modern womanhood.4 “You don’t want it to be a symbol of, like, women moving forward,” she told me. “I mean, that is the least funny thing you could think of. ... What’s funny is when women have problems. When anyone has problems, it’s funny.” Meriwether also, it is worth noting, wrote an entire second-season episode, “Menzies,” around a menstruation joke, one that winked at what it would be like if men got periods.5 Winston, one of the loft-mates, believes that he is experiencing a kind of sympathy PMS with Jess. Anything that makes people uncomfortable is worth doing, Meriwether told me. But, mostly: “Fluids are funny.”
In 2008, Meriwether volunteered for the Obama campaign in Ohio. During her self-deployment, she wrote a very funny, obscenity-laden e-mail urging her friends to help get out the vote. The missive was passed around until it found its way back to the campaign, which told her she could keep her post if she admitted the message wasn’t funny and shouldn’t have been sent. She refused.
Fox has not made Meriwether choose so starkly between her jokes and her job. “The first thing [Kevin Reilly, Fox’s top boss] 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,’ ” Meriwether has said. Still, Reilly had good reason to know she’d need to protect Jess. As the head of a national network, he runs a well-oiled muddling machine.
When Meriwether got the go-ahead from Fox, she more or less cold-e-mailed Kasdan, whose work she’d admired from the beloved short-lived Apatow sitcom “Freaks and Geeks,” to ask if he’d shoot the pilot. Known as an especially visually oriented director, he has directed many subsequent episodes and helped develop the feel of the show, which is lit more darkly and cinematically than the average sitcom. Meriwether also signed up Brett Baer and David Finkel, two TV veterans, as her co-showrunners. There are alumni of “The Simpsons” and “30 Rock” churning out jokes. It’s not an easy show to write for. There has been more-than-average turnover. But everyone agrees that the voice of “New Girl” has remained Meriwether’s own. “I can always tell reading the script how much she’s gotten her hands on it,” Kasdan says.
Part of what Meriwether set out to do was write characters who are not “TV together,” as she puts it, but who are shuffling into adulthood at what is, these days, a realistic pace. “As flawed as we could get away with on network” is how she describes her goal. “Their lives are moving forward, [but] they’re still trying to hang on to some kind of crazy youth.” At the same time, she says, “I don’t want them ever to seem pathetic.” Meriwether likes her characters, and they like each other. Such pleasant company is an oddly undervalued asset in the “Breaking Bad” / “Real Housewives” era. It’s also the key distinction between “New Girl” and “Girls,” which work with not dissimilar emotional grist. One first-season “New Girl” episode, for example, features Jess, post-breakup, trying to figure out what sex with someone new will be like. Worried she’ll be boring in bed, she winds up choking a character played by Justin Long while, at her behest, he does a seductive Jimmy Stewart voice—a scene that, in its own absurd way, says just as much about sexual anxiety as any of the ballyhooed bad sex written by Dunham.
A big turning point for “New Girl” came midway through this season, during which Jess and Nick share one of the more enjoyable- looking kisses I’ve seen on any kind of screen recently. By the next episode, the two had regressed back into awkwardness. “To me, [a kiss] is not the beginning of a relationship in any way in modern days,” says Meriwether. “That’s actually just something that happened that’s confusing.” Confusing, and highly relatable for viewers. But if maintaining that kind of emotional authenticity is harder amid the Victorianism of broadcast, where women have sex while wearing bras, Meriwether—for all her bawdiness—is well-suited to the challenge. When asked to list her all-time favorite sex scenes, she names two that turn out to not to involve actual sex: Grace Kelly’s necklace-based tease of Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief and Henry Fonda putting a shoe on Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve. During an episode this season full of sexual tension between Jess and Nick, things reach a tipping point when he tenderly removes an eyelash from her face. Because this is Meriwether, though, that moment is followed by a pun-filled trip to the hardware store for “hard caulk.”
“Hard caulk” had to make it through a lot before reaching the airwaves. On cable, showrunners are often treated like something closer to auteurs, and the “Louis C. K. deal”—wherein the comic extracted a promise from FX that they wouldn’t interfere with “Louie”— provides the dream every button-pushing writer aspires to. For episodes of “New Girl,” the creative process includes a pitch page, an outline, a final draft, and cuts of the episodes, each of which is approved not only by Meriwether and her co-showrunners but also by Chernin (the production company); then Fox, the studio; and Fox, the network. At each step, someone can pull rank. “Liz is in this tap dance of keeping hundreds of people happy, and being able to do that and stay popular and be weird is a real feat,” says one person who has worked at both HBO and Fox.
“You have to have a vision to have success in this business,” Walden says.“You can’t be open to the input of the huge number of people who get involved in our process.” Meriwether listens to feedback, but never too much. “Liz is strong,” she says.
Part of Meriwether’s personal appeal is that she is not, precisely, “TV together” herself, despite being very much in charge of a TV show. She recently bought Selma Blair’s old house in West Hollywood, where, says Dana Fox, “she has fancy nice things, but next to a picture of a unicorn in front of a waterfall.” When Meriwether was pulled over for a speeding ticket not long ago, a friend says, the cop wrote her up for a number of additional violations, like expired license plates, that suggested a person not quite keeping up with the administrative details of her life. In Meriwether’s office at Fox, she keeps toiletries and a purple sleeping bag for frequent all-nighters. The space is guarded by a giant stuffed bear wearing striped underwear yanked slightly askew and surrounded by wadded-up tissues. She has gotten good at making compromises fun.
The beauty of writing for network is that there are so many things you can’t do.
“Some of the beauty of writing for network is that there are so many things you can’t do, but that sort of pushes you to do things you didn’t even think you could do to get around that,” says Meriwether. “I do miss going there, I really do, and I hope—I want—in the future to write something that gets a little bit dirtier and goes there a little more. But it has been a really good exercise for me in learning not to rely on that, in learning, like: OK, so we can’t show boobs, we can’t say the word ‘dick,’ we can’t just say the most shocking thing. We have to come up with a way around it.”
One way around the obstacles was to anchor the show in a character who is a bit of a prude. Jess’s girlishness was something critics initially found off-putting about the show, but Meriwether wasn’t creating a symbol, after all. She was looking for things she found funny, then finding means for getting them across. And so there was a whole episode in the first season during which Jess is afraid to say “penis.” As Meriwether delights in recounting, in that context, standards and practices allowed five instances of the word. This year, she and her writers tried to get seven penises into an episode; that was too much.
*Update: "Whitney" was cancelled after this article went to press.
Corrections: This article originally stated that Meriwether wore a shirt that said "I Blow for Coke" to the Harvard-Yale game. In fact, that was a paraphrase of the sentiment, not the actual wording. In addition, this article originally described a key love scene in The Lady Eve as involving Henry Fonda putting a stocking on Barbara Stanwyck. In fact, that scene features a shoe. We regret the errors.
Noreen Malone is a staff writer at The New Republic.