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Make ’em laugh
Writer, producer, brain surgeon—when it comes to comedy on TV, Tracey Wigfield ’05 has been doing it all
Tracey Wigfield is wearing a bright pink sweatshirt and driving an electric golf cart through Mexico. The Emmy-winning television writer, who has written for both 30 Rock (from 2009 to 2013) and The Mindy Project (from 2013 to the present), is navigating the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles, passing a series of adobe facades that have served as backdrops in films such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and ¡Three Amigos!. “There’s one part of Mexico where there’s a flash flood, so you have to be careful,” she says as she maneuvers the cart uphill before making a sharp turn left onto Wisteria Lane (“Colonial Street” on the lot map), where the Desperate Housewives series was shot.
“I never got to work on a lot when I was on 30 Rock because we filmed in a big warehouse,” she says, gathering her long brown hair along the nape of her neck with one hand as she steers with the other. “I’m shocked I haven’t gotten in a golf cart crash.”
She cruises back toward her office, past the set of a zombie apocalypse, taking a detour into a New York City streetscape to show off Mindy Lahiri’s apartment.
As a writer and supervising producer of The Mindy Project, the Fox sitcom of three seasons, Wigfield is part of the team responsible for concocting the dialogue and storylines for Dr. Mindy Lahiri, the smart, sassy gynecologist and the show’s namesake, played by actress Mindy Kaling. This past season, she’s not only been writing scripts but has been performing them as well, playing the role of Dr. Lauren Neustadter, a brain surgeon who’s been the love interest of a couple of the show’s characters.
Writing and acting in combination takes ambition and dexterity, two qualities Wigfield has demonstrated throughout her life, whether as a child juggling professional acting and homework in grade school, or as a double major in theater and English at Boston College. Since graduating in 2005, she has worked on two television comedies created by their female stars. She watched Tina Fey write and produce 30 Rock and play the lead as Liz Lemon—and, in 2013, she shared an Emmy with Fey for cowriting the series’ finale. Kaling, her present boss, started as a writer, too, on The Office, before joining that show’s cast as the irrepressible gossip Kelly Kapoor; then Kaling created her own show.
Colleagues say they see a similar trajectory playing out in Wigfield’s future, and that it’s only a matter of time before she creates, and perhaps stars, in her own sitcom. “She’s a great actress,” says Kaling, “she’s just such a star.” And she adds, “Her ability to be funny and potentially to make a fool of herself has been very useful to our show.”
Wigfield steers through the New York City streetscape, pulling up alongside the brick front that stands in for Lahiri’s apartment building.
“I would have been so excited if I’d told myself as a kid that I would get to work here,” she says. “It’s like working in an amusement park.”
Wigfield, whose official title on the show is co-executive producer, is in some ways a product of television. As she was growing up in Wayne, New Jersey, her family bonded over the popular comedies of the day—Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, Cheers—and watched The Late Show with David Letterman together each night. Wigfield began writing and filming sketches in the style of Saturday Night Live when she was in grade school, tackling Jane Austen parodies and other, more adult subjects; she created a talk show in which the host was transitioning from male to female.
“I was 11! I had TV in my room way too young,” she said over dinner one night last fall in Beverly Hills. She’d picked a restaurant described by the Los Angeles Times as “neo-Vietnamese-turned-neo-Nordic,” because she was in the midst of eating her way through a list of top restaurants. “I feel like when this list is done I’m going to have to make a major life change,” she said.
Wigfield’s father, Dave, is an attorney with a sharp wit, and her mother, Kathy, has always been a fan of show business (the name Tracey comes from Tracey Quartermaine, a longtime character on General Hospital). Wigfield’s mother encouraged her daughters (Wigfield’s sister, Ashley, is younger by three years) to gain confidence through dance performances and gymnastics routines, which is how the family first encountered a talent scout.
Wigfield claims her sister—whose blonde hair, blue eyes, and cherubic looks were commanding even at a young age—attracted the scout’s attention. “A manager came to our dance school and saw my beautiful little sister and said, ‘We’ll represent you,'” Wigfield said. “And my mom was like, ‘And her too.’ I had the same length arms and legs as I do now, I was a gawky child.”
Auditions for commercials and theater productions in New York City followed, and Tracey and Ashley were eventually represented by Shirley Grant, a talent manager who helped launch the careers of the singing Jonas Brothers, Christina Ricci (who played Wednesday Addams in the film The Addams Family), and Keshia Knight Pulliam (Rudy Huxtable in The Cosby Show).
The Wigfield girls found modest success. Tracey acted in several commercials, including one for the Glitterator, a toy that affixed sparkles to plastic jewelry (the ad can still be viewed on YouTube). Acting offered the girls “something that they felt they were meant to do,” says their mother. “And it brought the three of us together, it bonded us so close that we were like the Three Musketeers.”
Today, Wigfield’s Emmy sits on the family mantle in New Jersey. Her mother, says Wigfield, was the inspiration for Rhea Perlman’s character in this season of The Mindy Project (Annette Castellano, the mother of Mindy’s boyfriend). And since Wigfield and her sister Ashley, who is still acting, now live together in Los Angeles, their mother frequently visits.
“My mom has a crazy amount of confidence, and so do I,” says Wigfield. “It’s the sense that ‘You’re going to love to meet me.’ That’s the greatest gift she’s given me.”
Still, by the time Wigfield was ready to begin college, she began to feel that she had outgrown her desire to audition. “I remember thinking, I don’t want to do that again,” she says. “I don’t know if it was the rejection of it, but I really wanted to do something that felt creatively satisfying. . . . And I liked to write.” So Wigfield decided against pursuing an acting degree at New York University, and instead undertook her dual majors at Boston College.
“Tracey always had an unusual, I would say a unique sensibility,” associate professor of theater Scott Cummings recalls. “It was a particularly oblique sense of humor. . . . She would make observations that were amusing and also kind of insightful, sometimes with a little bit of a barbed edge, and oftentimes very self-deprecating.”
“When I find someone like that as a student,” he continues, “somebody who has their own point of view, own perspective, own voice, I get them to keep talking, or keep writing. And for Tracey it was a little bit of both.”
Wigfield performed often on Boston College’s Robsham Theater and Bonn Studio stages (though never, as it happened, opposite classmate Bryce Pinkham ’05, who would go on to be nominated in 2014 for a Tony Award for best actor in a musical on the basis of his role in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder). “With the utmost purpose and humor,” wrote a Heights reviewer, she played the hardened, cheated-on wife Charlotte in A Little Night Music; in a showcase of one-acts that included two Molière comedies, she took the serious route, playing a troubled young woman in a modern drama.
And she worked at her writing. In the spring of 2014, Wigfield told a packed auditorium of Boston College students that the comedy-writing class she took with English lecturer Steve Almond taught her a valuable secret of the craft: “Writing funny” doesn’t have to stem from pure amusement. Anger can help.
“It’s the things that get in your craw a bit and that you’re passionate about that make the best subjects,” she said. She echoed that sentiment in the restaurant, as she picked at a plate of what the menu called biodynamic leeks.
“That’s kind of the beauty of comedy,” she said. “It’s a perspective that’s adjacent to the normal.”
Wigfield is not a standup type comedian, looking to work a room, constantly coveting the crowd’s attention. Her humor is wry, full of candor, very self-aware, and always teetering on the slightly bizarre.
“Have you ever done an interview where someone puts their makeup on?” she asked a reporter the following day, as she sat at her desk in The Mindy Project offices, applying mascara to her lashes.
This scene, as it turns out, was not unique. Wigfield routinely brings her entire makeup regimen to the office, says Matt Warburton, the showrunner. “She’s famous for doing a certain amount of her personal grooming in the writers’ room. It’s freed us all up to bring our home rituals in,” he said. “It’s like a giant bedroom in there.”
The writers’ room is perhaps the second most famous aspect of the television production experience, particularly in the case of comedy writers, where it’s essentially a joke foundry. Each funny idea is infinitely malleable, and writers can spend 12-to-14-hour days sculpting and shaping a comedic narrative until it gleams. Inside the room at The Mindy Project, which is closed to visitors when work is in progress, Wigfield has a reputation for telling stories, and for “always trying to improve the product,” says her colleague Jeremy Bronson, a supervising producer on the show. “Tracey is also a big laugher,” he adds “and that makes writers’ rooms not only more fun, but I think they yield better material when people give it up and laugh. And she is definitely one of those people.”
There is something in Wigfield’s high level of comfort in the writers’ room that points to her experience as a student at the all-girls Immaculate Heart Academy in Washington, New Jersey, an experience she has said “prepared me to be the only girl in the room.”
In a commencement address she gave in June 2014, Wigfield described for an Immaculate Heart audience the extent to which women are underrepresented in her field. “Only 30 percent of television writers are women—and when you talk about comedy television, that number drops to 10 percent,” she said. She has, on occasion, “spent time in writers’ rooms filled with men”—although not at The Mindy Project, where the female to male ratio is four to six, nor in the final days of 30 Rock when the ratio there was five to seven.
Partly, she said, the problem is that “not that many women are attempting to become writers . . . maybe because comedy writing is scary. You have to be bold, and loud, and not care when you confidently say a joke and no one laughs.” “Being in a community of all women [at Immaculate Heart],” she said, “I always felt free to speak my mind and make mistakes. I never felt like because I am a girl, I shouldn’t be allowed to be gross or weird or loud.”
After graduating from Boston College, Wigfield moved back in with her parents and launched an offensive on New York City television, applying for any starting job that she thought might give her an entrée into the industry. Eventually, she secured a coveted gig as a page on the David Letterman show. (“My job was to say ‘The ladies room is there,'” she says, gesticulating toward an invisible door. “A sign could say that.” She adds, “Or they could just find it.”)
It was through the show that she first encountered Rob Burnett, an executive producer, past head writer, and former intern at Letterman (the ladies room was near the control room, it turned out). Burnett took a liking to her, and offered her a job as production assistant (a.k.a. “gofer”) on a comedy series he was developing called The Knights of Prosperity (2007). Soon she had the job of the writers’ production assistant (writers’ gofer). “Rob was my first mentor,” Wigfield told Cosmopolitan in October 2014, “and I think he saw something in me. He would give me opportunities to write content for the show’s website and pitch little jokes here and there.”
The short-lived Knights was filmed in Silvercup Studios, the Long Island City production site where both The Sopranos and 30 Rock were filmed. After the show was cancelled, Burnett passed along Wigfield’s resume to friends at 30 Rock. Wigfield was asked to temporarily fill in as the writers’ assistant—the person who takes notes in the writers’ room, keeping track of potential storylines and jokes—until the person hired for the job arrived from California. She started working during the second season and stayed through the series’ end—the seventh.
“30 Rock was so labor intensive and so hard, I was just there taking notes and I think they just forgot to tell me to stop coming in,” she jokes now. “Or they forgot to call and tell this guy he didn’t have the job.”
In truth, the writers had begun to notice her promise. “She’s one of the most talented and special writers I’ve ever been around,” says Jack Burditt, a television writer and producer with five Emmys who met Wigfield when she began working alongside him on 30 Rock. “Her brain is weird in a fantastic way.”
Wigfield says that despite being paralyzed at the prospect of bombing in front of Tina Fey, she eventually found the confidence to begin piping up with her own joke ideas in the meetings. Before long, she was helping to shape the backstories of the series’ sincerely bizarre characters and authoring an NBC web series called Kenneth the Web Page. It starred Jack McBrayer, who played the page on 30 Rock, and the series’ short videos provided an opportunity for his hokey farm-boy character to host a late night talk show, offer tips on how to exercise “and still give your job 100 percent,” and retell the history of Thanksgiving. In less than two years, Wigfield was asked to submit a spec script and was invited to become a 30 Rock staff writer contributing two full episodes a year (out of a standard 22) in addition to the collaborative work of the writers’ room.
“I’ve written scripts before with staff writers, a lot of time you have to do the heavy lifting,” says Burditt, “but everything she’d send in was fully formed. She became one of my favorite writers of all time.”
One of her standouts, during season five, was “Queen of Jordan,” a spoof on reality series that mocked the Real Housewives franchise. It caught the attention of Mindy Kaling, who tweeted about it while she was still filming The Office. As 30 Rock drew to a close, Wigfield was one of four writers selected to map out the final episode. She and Fey wrote the two-part finale together, and took home the Emmy for it on September 22, 2013.
As 30 Rock was finishing up (the last episode aired January 31, 2013), Kaling invited Jack Burditt to join the staff of The Mindy Project, which had premiered in September 2012 and was still getting off the ground. He said he’d bring Wigfield as well. “We wrapped 30 Rock December 20th and on January 1st we moved to L.A.,” he says. “She lived with me and my family for three weeks while she looked for an apartment.”
Mindy showrunner Warburton sums up Wigfield’s contribution since, saying, “Tracey brings a certain kind of sharp confidence to the character of Mindy in particular that I think is definitely influenced by her own personality.”
Wigfield finished her makeup just as she got a signal from an assistant: Mindy was free to chat.
Mindy Kaling’s office is lined with Bridget Jones posters and a rack of Spanx. The actress was eating a Pop Tart, and had wrapped herself in a Tartan blanket despite the balmy fall weather. Wigfield, obviously at ease, sat across from her on the couch, her legs curled up beneath her. They bantered about their first Twitter exchange, shortly after the “Queen of Jordan” episode aired in 2011, and how Kaling had been mystified by Wigfield’s lack of an Internet presence—the only photo of Wigfield online at that time was a headshot she had posed for six years earlier, at 22.
“I knew that she worked at 30 Rock and was very funny and that she ate at McDonald’s fairly regularly,” Kaling said (Wigfield follows the chain on Twitter). In two years of working together, Kaling said, she became aware of Wigfield’s acting history and pushed her into the role of Lauren this season. “My favorite people to work with on [The Office] were the writer-performers,” she said, a reference to executive producers Paul Lieberstein, who played Toby, and B.J. Novak, who played Ryan. “My favorite thing is to take unwilling writers and make them performers.”
At that, Wigfield hops up and makes a quick exit, seemingly a tad uncomfortable being at the center of the limelight. But Kaling continues. “Tracey is so talented that she can do whatever she wants,” she says. “Obviously, creating her own show will definitely happen if she wants that. But also I can see her writing amazing movies too. I think she enjoys acting, and she’s such a funny actress that if she wanted to be the star of her own show, I really think she can do anything.”
In the downtime between episodes, Wigfield has been rewriting an animated screenplay for Sony, crafting jokes for Golden Globes hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler ’93, and developing potential show ideas of her own. (She says that when she does decide to write a sitcom pilot, it will almost certainly center on a relationship that resembles the one that she shares with her mother.) And in January of this year she spent several days guest hosting on The View, the coffee-klatch daytime talk show that typically features an all-female panel. A good listener on her first day as others clamored for the camera (“They don’t really prepare you,” she noted later, “and I was worried I’d offend a protected class”), she chose for her initial foray into the conversation an account of shopping with her mother the previous weekend, then offered wry observations on a Twitter spat between actor Charlie Sheen and reality TV personality Kim Kardashian.
“Tracey once wrote a line for my character that went ‘I’m going to hell,'” Kaling recalls. “The other character says ‘Why are you going to hell?’ and my character goes, ‘Because I love gossip and I don’t care about the environment’. . . . When my character says something that’s really dark and a truthful observation but it’s also hilarious, especially when it’s a single woman in her thirties,” she said, “Tracey has written it.”
At press time, Fox announced it was not renewing The Mindy Project. Hulu, the online video service, announced on May 15 that they had reached an agreement with Universal TV, the show’s producer, to host season four. —Ed.
Janelle Nanos ’02 is the editor of BetaBoston, a Boston Globe website reporting on “technology, innovation, and startups.” She is also a visiting lecturer at Boston College, teaching “Magazine Journalism.”