BAD TEACHER showrunner Hilary Winston previews the series
Hilary Winston is a familiar name to TV fans like me – writer and Co-EP on COMMUNITY, writer for HAPPY ENDINGS (one of the best shows that ever was and ever will be), member of the writing staff on all four seasons of MY NAME IS EARL. The lady is, in a word, hilarious (maybe you also read her amazing book “My Boyfriend Wrote a Book About Me“). Tonight, she’s bringing her talents to CBS as show runner of their latest comedy, BAD TEACHER, based very loosely on the movie of the same name (that starred Cameron Diaz; this stars Ari Graynor).
I spent some time chatting with Hilary about how she took over adapting the show from two good friends, what advice Greg Garcia has given her over the years, and what other CBS show she enjoys watching in reruns.
At what point in the planning stages did you get involved – was it your idea to adapt it or did someone approach you asking you to do so?
Gene (Stupnitsky) and Lee (Eisenberg), who are both good friends of mine, Lee is like one of my best friends, you know, kept talking me over a couple month period – he said, we’re thinking about turning this into a TV show. I was like, oh that’s a great idea, but I think there’s a lot of things about the movie that don’t work for a TV show, so I kind of like gave him my opinion, and then every time I saw him, for lunch or a dinner, I would say, oh by the way, I’ve been thinking about it, you know, I think that this doesn’t work, and maybe you should do this [laughs] and finally, he was just like, do you want to write this? [laughs]. He was like, it seems like you have more ideas about it than we do. Once you work on something for many years, you’re burnt out on it. It’s such a great concept – everybody relates to that idea of a bad teacher. Everybody’s had one. It was so fun for me to take that concept, and take some of the archetypes of the movie, which were cool – having the hot gym coach, things like that, and making it deeper, more of an ensemble, something that had more legs for a series.
As you sit down to really write this series, did you have people in mind as you wrote the characters? Was Ari always Meredith, and did you know you wanted Ryan?
I didn’t write for anybody in particular. I had been interested, the year before, I had a pilot at NBC and really interested in Ari, and Ari wasn’t doing TV at that time. She’s such a scene stealer in everything she does, and she has a perfect combination of that she’s hilarious but also a dramatic actress; she’s hot, but she’s not intimidatingly hot, you know. She’s sexy, and I don’t mean that in the wrong way. She’s hot, you know what I mean [laughs]. She’s the hot girl you grew up, not the hot girl who is in a movie that doesn’t seem real. That’s what I love about her so much. I think she was so perfect for this part that I was writing for her and I didn’t even know it.
Is it difficult to adapt a movie into TV?
It is hard, and I’ve worked for a long time on TV shows that have been around for a long time – MY NAME IS EARL for four years, and COMMUNITY, which hopefully is still on for [laughs] 6 seasons and a movie. And HAPPY ENDINGS which was on for three seasons. You start to realize that you have to create deep wells, which is advice I got from Victor Fresco, who created ANDY RICHTER CONTROLS THE UNIVERSE, which I just thought was an amazing show. You have to have these deep relationships to go to, and this deep background. I think in a movie, you’ve got 90 minutes and you really don’t have to get that far. In a series, you’ve really got to create, like in COMMUNITY, deep dysfunction that come out that can carry a show in 22 episodes.
It’s weird these days – people aren’t getting 13 episodes, people aren’t getting 5 episodes to make a stand. I’d imagine it’s even a different approach than those shows you mentioned these days because so much has to hit so quickly now. Does that weigh on your mind?
Yeah, absolutey! That’s such a good point – when you set out to write a pilot, and every year, I was doing it for a lot of years – you set out to do it, and it’s such a fool’s errand. Historically, pilots are the worst episodes of the series. I happen to like our pilot, but you know pilots have so much work to do, and it can be really frustrating, so I really tried to think hard about how do you show that there is more to come? How do say you’re going to want to see Sara Gilbert’s character Irene interact with Ari’s character Meredith? You’re going to want to see David Alan Grier’s Principal Carl. It’s like, how do you have this lingering “you’re going to want to come back.” That to me was the pressure on the pilot – you do have to tell a complete story, but it really has to be a teaser for a series now.
What are you saying to people about why this a show people will gravitate towards?
There’s something about school – having spent all this time on the set of our fictional Richard Nixon Middle School. It brings back this feeling – everybody, no matter what age you are, knows that feeling of sitting in a little chair in a room and you were always so curious about what was happening with your teachers. What’s so fun about this is that it is that show that gets to show you behind the teacher’s lounge door. The thing is – they were teaching us stuff, but they were also going home and having lives. They were having breakups and divorces. Going through just regular life stuff. If we have a bad day, what, we go, push some papers around and return some emails. [laughs] A teacher is there and has to be in front of a full room of students. I remember a teacher having a breakdown in high school in front of all of us. To me, that’s the real fun of the show. Everybody has a connection to that world.
Talking about teachers that have breakdowns – is there a lot of drawing on stories from your time in high school?
Not necessarily exact stories, but inspirations for sure. I know that the first week, we talked about different teachers we had. When you’re a kid, you take something, like, this is just the way it is. Oh well, a teacher cries, but as an adult, you’re like, oh that’s not appropriate, that’s weird! [laughs] So I think that I had one teacher who used to leave all the time because she was always having relationship drama and it was pre-cell phone so she had to go use the pay phone. You think back, and you realize, she was just 25 years old and trying to have a life!
As a show runner on the show, how is it different than being just a member of the writing or producing teams?
I don’t know what show runner said this, but it’s such a great metaphor. Your job as a show runner is to keep monkeys off your desk, but everyone keeps coming in and putting monkeys on your desk. Such a great qutoe and I really wish I knew who said it. When you’re a writer, even if you’re a Co-EP, like I did on COMMUNITY, you have a lot of responsibilities, so they’re all related to writing and producing. The script you just wrote or whatever it is, and maybe you deal with some costume things. As show runner, you’re the CEO of this little company – you’re dealing with every department, every situation that comes up. From people’s personal lives to all sorts of things. There are times where it’s like, I just spent three hours talking about color correction [laughs], which I didn’t know anything about a year ago, and all of a sudden you’re super passionate about it. It’s interesting because you start to really get into the mechanics of how a show works. You can no longer be blissfully ignorant about all of that stuff [laughs].
You’ve had the chance to work with some really smart show runners from Greg Garcia to David Caspe – have they given you advice, have you talked to them about your world now?
Greg Garcia has been a mentor to me, and luckily THE MILLERS offices were right next door to our offices, and I so sometimes I would just go over there [laughs]. I would just like, lurk around the writers’ room, and he would see me, and I would be like, do you have a few minutes? And he would say no [laughs] but he would still come talk to me! He gave me a lot of great advice when I started. Some of the best advice that you can give somebody is that you’re not going to do everything right. It’s impossible to do that. You just have to constantly be correcting. Luckily, I surrounded myself with an incredible writing staff, which I know Greg always said was the secret to everything. Really being able to walk in every morning, no matter what is thrown at you or what is thrown out [laughs] you know you have people that you know are going to get you across the finish line, and are going to not just help you make something good, but make something great.
As a writer being involved a comedy show, do you watch other shows as “research” – is it hard to keep it fresh and different?
When we were in production, I didn’t have any time to watch anything. I also got married and got pregnant while I was making the show [laughs]. I decided to have every life experience as possible at one time. Definitely before I started, you look at shows, and you might take like a really graphic sex joke, and you’re like “why does it work on this show and not on this show?” I think that’s what is always interesting and what got me into comedy in the first place. You think, why can one thing be hilarious on one show and be terrible on another show? One character, one actor really work in one setting, not work in another. And I think you have to be – I think COMMUNITY is such a great example of this – willing to evolve and let the characters evolve. You can’t start off with what was in my head in the pilot. The best thing that can happen to you is that a writer on your staff has an idea that takes a character in a different direction. Something that you weren’t thinking of, and take them in an awesome direction, and you have to be willing to let that happen, I think!
What can you tease for us about what we will see in this season of BAD TEACHER?
We have Ken Marino that’s going to be in the second episode – I just think he’s hilarious. I don’t think there’s anything that he’s done that I haven’t enjoyed. [laughs] So that was a lot of fun to work with him. We also have Colin Hanks, who is hilarious. We kind of are able to have our fun ensemble who is getting to know each other. Ari’s character Meredith comes in in a time of her life where there’s a lot of change going on, and she always instigates a lot of change in these characters’ lives. So that’s the kind of fun – seeing that happen in a school setting. So we have a lock-in episode – growing up we had lock-ins. A 6th grade lock-in – you have all of this amazing drama happening between Ari and Ryan Hansen’s character, and the backdrop is a pizza party with these 12-year-olds. To me, that’s such a fun backdrop to have these real life dramas, with real life stakes and stuff happening in this world of little chairs and quarter pizzas.
What do you relax and watch on TV when you find a minute?
I watch a lot of dramas – I just got caught up on THE AMERICANS. I am a huge GAME OF THRONES fan. I’m a really late-comer to BIG BANG THEORY. I’ve been watching a lot of BIG BANG THEORY reruns – it’s one of those things where I think that the rest of the world caught onto it before industry people did [laughs]. It’s such a bummer. I feel like I missed out on the opportunity to be a fan all along!
BAD TEACHER premieres April 24 at 9:30/8:30c on CBS.
Hilary can be found at www.hilarywinston.com.