Emily Spivey has an impressive comedy writing résumé that encompasses sketch (Saturday Night Live, Mad TV), animation (King of the Hill) and sitcoms (Parks and Recreation). Before that, she performed with The Groundlings, an improv company in Los Angeles, where she met Maya Rudolph who became her writing partner. After working with Rudolph at Saturday Night Live for nearly a decade, the two paired up again on Spivey’s new NBC series Up All Night.
On Up All Night, Spivey takes on the roles of creator, writer and Executive Producer. The series is based on Spivey’s own experience of returning to SNL after her son was born. She had to learn how to balance a hectic life of career and marriage demands, not to mention a new baby. The series stars Christina Applegate as Reagan Brinkley, a successful TV producer of “Ava,” the talk show hosted by her best friend, the self-obsessive former popstar Ava Alexander (Maya Rudolph). Chris (Will Arnett) is her husband, a former lawyer who chose to become a stay-at-home dad, and is supportive of Reagan’s determination to not compromise her career for the sake of motherhood.
Up All Night has wonderful and honest portrayals, with the writers allowing their characters to be flawed without becoming caricatures and letting them be funny in utterly relatable ways. It passes The Bechdel Test with the flying colors, when many sitcoms and dramas fail. (The Bechdel Test having such difficult qualifications as: it includes at least two women who have at least one conversation about something other than a man or men.) The friendship between Reagan and Ava is just as important and strong as the relationship Reagan has with Chris. It’s one of this season’s most DVR’d shows for good reason.
Spivey talks about Up All Night, SNL and the importance of self-assured ladies, especially in the writer’s room.
First things first, I have to ask you, what is going on with Kevin (Jason Lee) on Up All Night?!
He and Ava (Maya Rudolph) were fine and now they’re broken up? It was a little jarring watching “New Boss” last week — I went back and checked the episode list to see if I’d missed an episode.
Oh my god. I felt so bad. Honestly it was a scheduling thing. I was reading the comments [that] night and everyone was like, “What happened to Kevin?” But it was honestly a crazy scheduling thing that we couldn’t work out.
We had a whole thing written and then we had to scrap it just because it couldn’t happen. So that’s what that was about. I’m sorry! But he’s coming back.
That’s good to know! Will their relationship be resolved or at least resolve the issue?
He’s coming back in the last episode and things will be known and resolved.
And you’ve got a really impressive string of guest stars coming as well.
We’ve been lucky in that way, just based on just who we know. I strong-armed Fred Armisen into coming. And Stevie Nicks is coming, which was amazing for me to get to meet Stevie. I thought I was gonna start crying ’cause I love her so much.
That’s where it helps with Lorne [Michaels as the] big boss, because he can sort of help you get good people. He knows everyone in the world. Lorne’s always helpful in that way.
How did Lorne get involved in Up All Night?
I pitched it through Broadway Video, which is his company. As it got rolling, he, my producers, Erin David and Andrew Singer, and I started really flushing it out together. He’s been amazing through this whole process.
To be honest, I came into Up All Night a few episodes late. But I had so many people from completely different parts of my life selling me on the show – most of which don’t have any kids at all. I had one guy friend who was pitching the show to me very hard – he kept saying that it was one of most honest and real representations about how people are in life, in relationships, in friendships.
That’s always kind of our goal is to make it as real as possible. We wanted to write a modern couple on television that you sort of haven’t seen in a while. And so, thank you for telling me that ’cause it’s nice to hear that somebody’s taking note. I always wanted the show to be not about a baby but about just how this life change impacted the couple.
One of the most hilarious storylines was about cheating on your partner by watching your favorite show with somebody else. Have there been other things like that that the writers wanted to address that because this is such a huge thing that no one really talks about?
Basic things that we wanted to address initially were the first night out, the first weekend away and flying with the baby. The idea of getting too sloppy at home, which was an issue for me and my husband, Scott, said, “I’d like for you to throw away that pair of pants.”
Now that we know the characters a little bit better, it’s becoming more just about those people as their personalities present themselves. It’s probably going be just more about their personalities and their interactions. But we’re still grappling with these [relationship] issues. There’s an issue where someone at Reagan’s office has a crush on her and everyone can see it but her, and how that impacts her marriage. And it’s all things that have happened to all of us.
You mentioned reading the post-show commentary. Do you often go online and read what people are saying?
I get my toe in the water. I learned a long time ago if you want to feel bad about yourself, go online and read comments. I always look at The AV Club [and this time,] I just happened to see it when I scrolled down to a couple of the comments.
With Up All Night, it’s usually pretty positive, but some people don’t always go in the comment section of internet pages to be nice. Coming from years of SNL where everyone online just seems to loathe everything, even though they all seem to be watching every minute of it — but they’ll get on and talk about how they could’ve done it better.
With SNL, people love to complain that the best years are over. But they complain about that every year, you know.
Because everybody has their own generation of SNL that was “good,” and it’s usually about the time you’re in high school, college. And so since the show’s been on 40 years everyone has ownership of it in that way.
True, there’s really no other show like that where fans take such ownership of it and has been on for that long that it’s covered so many different generations of both actors and fans.
Everyone’s grown up with it for two generations almost, so it’s an unusual situation.
Well, it really was because of Maya Rudolph. I was in The Groundlings with Maya, and the producers of SNL had come out and seen a couple of our shows. They hired Maya a season before I got there.
At the time, I was working at King of the Hill and Maya would call me every Tuesday, every writing night. I would be on the phone writing with her because I just grew up wanting to write for that show. And then Fox was nice enough to say well, you’re insane but go ahead. So I went out there in 2001 and start writing for them.
So you went out in the fall of 2001?
Yeah, right after 9/11 we flew out.
That had to be a really rough adjustment. I know both Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have talked about what it was like to be doing comedy right after 9/11. What was it like in the writer’s room?
You know, it was so scary. There was a lot of gallows humor obviously, but I think everyone was ready to get back to normalcy and start laughing about something. But it was a great time to be in New York. It was just so horrible but wonderful at the same time, like the spirit of that city, you really saw how wonderful that city truly is after 9/11. I remember there was no honking. Everyone was in the spirit of camaraderie and it was just a really, really amazing time to be there and to do that show.
My very first show was the one where the firemen and the policemen were [in the audience].
Yes. The Donatella sketches where Maya would do Donatella Versace was the first sketch I got on. It got on the last five minutes of the show and I was so excited.
That’s great. Did you would write all of the Donatella sketches?
Yes, me, Maya and [SNL] writer James Anderson would write those.
I actually pitched a Donatella sketch at MAD TV, and they [said that] no one really knows who she is. So when I got to SNL it’s one of the first things I pitched to Maya and she was like, oh my god, we have to do that. And then it just became its own thing. You didn’t have to know who Donatella was — it just became this crazy diva character.
What was the difference between writing for MAD TV and SNL?
On MAD TV you spend a lot more time on your pitches. You would go in and spend the first few days just pitching your ideas and then they would sort of tell you to go and try to do that one, try to do this one. At SNL, it’s the opposite. You have to pitch on Monday, which is kind of just to make the host comfortable, but nine times out of ten, you don’t write any of those ideas you actually pitch. Then Tuesday night, you just sit down and pretty much write whatever you want and hope for the best.
Has there been anybody that was really intimidating to pitch to?
Mostly everyone is, but mainly the big film actors that you you felt intimidated by — like Christopher Walken and Robert DeNiro. Then there’s the people that have hosted a bunch – like Alec Baldwin who’d hosted a million times by the time even I got there. You’re just sitting there going, “he can see through all of this, he knows this is the fakest pitch of all time.”
You’ve said that when you were at SNL, it was a great time of great ladies. You knew Maya ahead of time, but how did you partner with Amy as well? How were you all drawn together?
Well, in those years we were really like a gang. Maya basically had just gotten there and then I started the same week as Seth and Amy. We did everything together, we were just like a gang walking around New York. We ate together, went out drinking. And then pretty soon you’re friends with people and then you’re writing together. Rachel Dratch and Will Ferrell [were there too], we just had a great, great time.
I just can’t imagine how mind-blowing that must’ve been, especially to such great talent to speak your words.
My mind never stops being blown. Even the day I left, after being there almost ten years, I would still get a charge out of it. It never ever got old for me — walking into that building was just amazing.
You came back for the show that Maya hosted last month.
Yes. It was really, really fun. We were both super nervous but it ended up being so much fun because Amy came back and Paula Pell was there. It made everyone very nostalgic for the old days.
You went from sketch writing with a stop-off with animation with King of the Hill, and now you’re executive producing your own show. What was that journey like?
Oh my god. I was writing supervisor at SNL but it’s just nothing like breaking the arc of the season of sitcom. Well, I thank god that I had the season at Parks and Recreation because they’re so good and meticulous in that show about breaking stories and [other] things that I hadn’t had as much experience in. I really learned from Mike Schur, Greg Daniels, Dan Goor and Norm Hiscock how to really, really examine a story. I can write dialogue ’til the cows come home but eventually you have to shape it into something. And so I learned that from them.
Running a show is like a whole other set of [skills], it’s like climbing Mount Everest every day. But my show runner Jon Pollack is amazing and a godsend. I’ve learned a lot from him as well — so together we sort of like held hands and jumped into the icy waters together.
What advice would you have for aspiring comedy writers, especially aspiring lady writers?
The biggest advice I can give is to do improve and perform. Improv really helps inform your writing in terms of getting to joke quick, getting the “people, place and thing,” getting to the heart of it. It also builds your confidence. And it’s a unique way for people to see you other than just handing a script, which also works as well.
My first job was Mad TV and I got hired because they saw me perform — that’s why they brought me in. So if you have an inclination to do that, that’s such a good way to get your foot in the door. Also, if you’re a good lady comedy writer, you can really go far because just everyone likes a good lady in the room. Even still today, a lot more dudes [are writing] than ladies. So if you’re a lady with a strong comedy voice, a unique point of view, people will want to have you in the room plugging away.
What are the shows and movies, that you will always stop on when flipping channels, even to watch for five minutes?
The Graduate, Spinal Tap, Tootsie. Mary Tyler Moore I’m obsessed with. WKRP in Cincinnati, I’m obsessed with. SNL, even still. Overboard, I love. I will always watch Overboard with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.
Reese Witherspoon declared Overboard to be her all-time favorite movie on the Academy Awards this year. I thought that was really funny.
Love it, it’s such a comfort movie for me. And I’ll watch any Sex in the City, no matter what. I’ll watch any of the shows, both the movies always.
Really? You’ll watch the movies too?
Always. It’s like I love to hate them, I hate to love them. I just love everything about them.
And did you find that your life living in New York was just like their lives?
Oh, exactly. Are you kidding me? I always see them wearing those outfits walking down the streets of New York and I’m like, are you kidding? You would be like – people would tear you apart if you walked down the street in some of the outfits. Tube top, leg warmers, jog shorts from 1972 and stilettos? Really?
My issue is that nobody ever wants to identify as “The Miranda” of their group of friends. Miranda was always my favorite.
Well, no one wants to be the smart girl. Everyone wants to be just the hottie or something. Even though I agree with you, she was always my favorite as well.
That’s a good question. I don’t know because I always write self-deprecating characters — with [Up All Night], obviously Christina Applegate is gorgeous. There’s no getting around it. But we write her very confident but she doesn’t strut around like the hottie. She’s good at her job and smart.
I don’t know, I don’t ever want to write sexy girls. I guess ’cause I’m really not one. I always just try to write self-assured, self-deprecating girls.
Like Miranda. Yeah, Miranda.
I feel like Christina’s character, Regan, is a fantastic role model, much like Miranda. Strangely enough, growing up my role models were Kate (Susan St. James) and Allie (Jane Curtain). They were these smart women, and like you said, were self-assured and self-deprecating but they weren’t flaky and stupid. And they were actually pretty confident in what they did, be it a homemaker or travel agent.
It seems that television went through a phase of these women that were either harpies or terribly insecure. It’s really nice to see women like Reagan and Leslie Knope that are just very self-assured still a little neurotic. But they’re really good at what they do and they’re really relatable.
I’m glad you’re picking up on that. ‘Cause that’s been a goal of everyone at the show. And I know it’s a goal over at Parks. But we’re really just writing to those lady’s strengths, which is they are those ladies. They are so smart and so self-assured and great at what they do. And so it’s easy to write for a great lady. Both of those ladies are great ladies.
What has been the best compliment you’ve heard about Up All Night?
Honestly, what you just said, just about it being relatable and feeling real. Because that’s really been the goal of the show — to be funny and then real so that normal people can look at the show and think, “I recognize that in myself or we went through that.”
Up All Night airs Thursdays at 9:30p/8:30c on NBC.