By Tracey Wigfield, Co-Exec Producer on The Mindy Project
I am in no way qualified to write about health and fitness.
I am a TV writer who derives her brainpower from sour straws and this particular bacon ranch flavored popcorn that they only sell at certain bodegas. And I’ve always been pretty inconsistent when it comes to exercise. For a while I tried yoga, then running. Most recently, I got into Pop Physique (which if I’m to believe their American Apparel-style ads, is just Bar Method for hot girls.) But eventually, I always get bored and quit.
The one thing that I have been consistently practicing for almost ten years now is improv comedy. When fit, cool women are like “I’ve been running for years. I don’t feel like myself if I don’t do it. It’s my meditation,” I’m like, “Shut up, stop making everyone else feel bad!” But I do sort of feel that way about doing improv.
I didn’t really know what improv was in college. I was an English and Theater major, and when I graduated I wanted to get a job in television. Hopefully writing and being on television, but at the time those dreams felt too big to say out loud.
At the start of my career I was constantly fighting two dueling terrors:
1. I would never get a job or an opportunity to prove how amazing I was.
2. If I did get a job, it would be revealed that I was, in fact, not amazing at all. And I would fail.
The first terror was a practical problem. Sure, I didn’t have a lot of connections starting out. But you can always make connections. You can email your mom’s cousin’s wife’s cousin who used to work at The Late Show with David Letterman. Which after months of unemployment, I did. I was hired as a page, which meant my job was to seat the audience and show them where the bathroom was. It was a great first job in Hollywood! (It was also where I met The Sweat Life founder, Aly Teich.)
However, the second terror was more worrisome. There was a real chance that I could work really hard, do a bunch of foot-in-the-door jobs, show all these people where the bathroom was, only to figure out that it was for nothing. That I was bad at the thing I wanted to do. Not everybody gets to do everything. I never saw all of “Rudy,” but I feel like it’s a dangerous message.
After working as a page and then a production assistant for a while, I got a really lucky break. The show I was on ended, and it happened to shoot in the same building as “30 Rock.” They were looking for a new writers’ assistant and hired me. My job was to sit in the corner of the writers’ room and take notes, while the writers pitched story ideas and jokes. I was thrilled.
I had overcome problem 1, but problem 2 soon reared its ugly head. Writers’ assistant jobs are highly coveted positions among want-to-be TV writers. It’s very rare to get an opportunity to sit in a writers’ room, and often there will be chances for the writers’ assistant to pitch jokes themselves. If I could prove that I was smart and funny, maybe they would hire me to write. But for some reason, that felt impossible. I felt so funny when I was with my friends, but at my little computer in the corner I completely clammed up. And when Tina Fey was in the room, forget it. I was Mr. Bean — totally mute, constantly knocking over my cup of pencils.
And it wasn’t because Tina wasn’t encouraging and kind and lovely, because she was. So were all the writers. It was 100% due to the fact that I had a non-stop monologue of self-flagellation running in my head. I would come up with a joke and then I would spend twenty minutes thinking, “That isn’t funny. If you say that no one will laugh. WHY CAN’T YOU EVER THINK OF ANYTHING GOOD?!” And if I ever did get up the courage to pitch something, I’d spend the next twenty minutes agonizing, "Why did you say that? Nobody laughed. NOW YOU’RE RUINED!"
I knew I needed to do something to silence that nagging, doubting voice in my head. Right around then, is when I started doing improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) in New York. Tina, as well as a bunch of the other writers had come from an improv background. And they encouraged me to take a class.
So I took one, and then another, and then I got on a team that performed there every week. It was so freeing, in a way that (although I didn’t know it then) I desperately needed. At work, I was paralyzed by a fear of making mistakes, of saying things that people didn’t think were funny. Improv fixed that. In longform improv, the kind they do at UCB, you make up funny scenes on the spot. There’s no time for second guessing or being in your head, because it’s happening RIGHT NOW. I learned to listen and trust myself and feel okay if no one laughs, because often they won’t.
As soon as that clicked for me, work became a lot easier. I gave myself a break. I learned to let go and had fun. I was hired as a staff writer for the fourth season of “30 Rock.” I wrote there until the final season and when the show ended I moved to LA. I now write, produce, and act on “The Mindy Project.” The whole time, I kept doing improv. There were times when work got too busy and I took a break, but I always came back to it. Not just because it’s fun, because I know it’s good for me.
I actually have an improv show tonight. And this is not just a cute lie because I couldn’t think of a good way to end this post. It’s literally tonight (and every Sunday) at 11 PM at UCB Franklin. Do I want to do it? Of course not. I’m tired. I want to watch “The Jinx” finale on HBO and eat Thai food. But I’ll be there. Because I’ve been doing it for years. I don’t feel like myself if I don’t do it. And because it’s my meditation. I’m kidding about the last part. That’s lame, people need to stop saying that.
Tracey Wigfield is a writer, actress, and Co-Executive Producer on the FOX sitcom, “The Mindy Project.” She is also an occasional co-host on ABC’s “The View.” In 2013, she and Tina Fey received an Emmy Award for writing the series finale of “30 Rock,” making her the fourth woman in Emmy history to win that award. Tracey also received a Writers Guild award for her work on the show, and was named one of Glamour magazine's "35 Under 35 Women in Hollywood." She performs improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York and Los Angeles.