Interview: Theresa Mulligan Rosenthal

Theresa Mulligan Rosenthal (How I Met Your Mother, South Park, Whitney) is one of the funniest people I know — from her sketch comedy performances and appearances on shows like Seinfeld to watching episodes of How I Met Your Mother and knowing her as a person. She started her writing career in improv.

“The writers’ room is all improv. And writing is basically improvising on the page,” says Mulligan Rosenthal. “I’m now working with some stand-ups and they’re great joke writers and great writers in general,” she adds. She recommends that wannabe writers do both improv and stand-up to help sharpen their writing skills.

When asked if one is born funny, Mulligan Rosenthal says, “I never thought I was funny growing up, but my friends say I was. I think everybody’s friends think they’re funny, don’t they?”

Yet I wonder if “funny” can it be taught. “I think if you start out funny, you can hone it and develop it,” she responds. “Just like it would be hard for me to learn surgery, it’s tough for an unfunny person to pick it up. It’s either what you do or not.”

 

Background check…

TSL:  Did you always enjoy performing and writing?

TMR:  I did plays in high school and summer theatre during college. Not to brag, but I’ve been in Pippin twice. I wrote a little bit in college, but didn’t really start writing until I was at The Second City in Chicago.

 

Coming to L.A…

TSL:  Did you always know you wanted to come out to L.A.?

TMR:  I always said I would come out here if I had a job that brought me, then I moved out here for a boyfriend. And stayed here for the weather.

TSL:  Was your plan to work behind-the-scenes – in writers’ rooms – versus to pursue acting?

TMR:  I’m not a very good businesswoman. And I always thought I’d stay in acting, but I backed into writing through acting. Go figure… But I had been writing – first for The Second City and I also put sketch stuff up in small theaters.  

TSL:  And what about L.A.? Was breaking in more challenging than you had anticipated? 

TMR:  I was having a hard time getting acting work when some friends I did improv with were doing an MTV show and I submitted my writing packet.  Once I started my first writing job, I realized that was what I was supposed to be doing. When I switched from writing for MTV to sitcom writing I didn’t work for two years – that was a long two years. 

TSL:  I can relate — as I am sure several others can, as well.

 

Working in L.A…

TSL:  You have a great writing resume. Do you think it is harder for female writers to get into TV? Especially in comedy?

TMR:  I think it’s easier. There are less of us. If you’re a funny woman, you’re more likely to get hired. 

TSL:  Very good point. I never thought of it that way. Nonetheless, we all know most sitcoms have mostly male staffs (at least the ones my friends and I have worked on). What advice would you give females about not getting intimidated by working in a men’s world? 

TMR:  I grew up with brothers and did improv for years where each cast usually only had a few women in them, so I’m used to being around guys. I’d say that’s the best practice for being in the writers’ room – hang out with a lot of guys for 20 years. 

TSL:  Hah. What advice, in general, do you wish someone had given you sooner/at the beginning of your Hollywood writing career? 

TMR:  Don’t show people how insecure you are. I’m very insecure and I wish I hadn’t shown it at times. Like right now. I guess I could take this back.  Oh, well. It’s out there.

I’m also learning to speak up more when something doesn’t feel right creatively to me. If I don’t like something, I express it – I didn’t always do that. But I try to have a solution to whatever thread I’m pulling. 

TSL:  I’m sure our readers appreciate you not taking this back, so thank you. In addition to your television writing, you had a feature come out a few years ago. Do you ever want to do more screenwriting?

TMR:  I was part of a group that wrote Fired Up. It was very collaborative and very fun to do. I’ve recently written a feature on my own. I’m not sure yet about doing more screenwriting – I always say I’m going to do it, but then I get too busy with my day job. I’m not a great multi-career-tasker.

TSL:  I hear, though, that you were a great improv teacher…

 

Teaching, mentoring & discipline…

TSL:  How did teaching help your writing and life?

TMR:  I taught improv for seven years. Teaching taught me a lot. Mainly about how to communicate and how to break people out of their shell. It made me realize I knew more than I thought I did. And also that I could get back on stage and still make mistakes even though I knew better. Nerves are a powerful thing.

TSL:  Speaking of teaching, you also volunteer as a mentor with WriteGirl. I once read an article on their website about you and your mentee, Stephanie, where you said that hearing the suggestions you gave her helped you become more confident, too – “When I doubt my work, I think of how I wouldn’t want Stephanie to doubt hers.” You also mentioned that you learned from your mentee’s fresh outlook on writing. How does mentoring someone help you as a writer, too?

TMR:  Both of those things are true and are what stand out to me. Also, mentoring taught me to show up. That sounds corny, but I was so tired at the time from working 80-hour weeks and had to be there every Saturday, but I was always glad I showed up for Stephanie.

TSL:  When mentoring any writer, what advice would you give them about discipline and setting a writing schedule? And for writers not working on shows, is it okay to skip a day? 

TMR:  If you’re not on a deadline, I think you can skip a day – just don’t skip ten days. I’ve just recently figured out that it’s a worse feeling to put off writing than to just do the work. There’s such anxiety that comes with procrastination. I’m a born procrastinator, so when I started writing I would make “fake” deadlines with my roommate – first act: due next Tuesday, second act: the Tuesday after that, etc. Then I would treat those deadlines like my life depended on them. One time, I stayed up until 5:30 in the morning to meet a deadline to my roommate. But it worked. I got my specs done and then got jobs. It’s the only way I could have gotten it done.   

TSL:  How many specs do you think someone should write before they give up? Will they know when it’s time to give up? Or should they never? 

TMR:  I don’t know the answer to that. If it’s what you love to do, I would say don’t give up. You can always supplement your income in the meantime. 

TSL:  Oh, trust me, I agree…

TMR:  But on the other hand, if some other great career comes along that you love, too – do it. This business is so hard, if you have any other options, take them.  

 

In the room…

TSL:  What makes an ideal writers’ room?

TMR:  To me, an ideal writers’ room has people who get along and are talented and fun – no assholes. It’s the worst thing in the world to work long hours with an asshole. But I’ve probably been one on a bad day. You also need a great showrunner who’s a great decision-maker, so they get you out of there at a reasonable hour – especially if there’s an asshole in the room.

TSL:  You are so normal (I attribute it to Chicago again!). I imagine you would run a room very well. What would be the keys to its success? 

TMR:  No assholes. Other than that, I have no idea how I’ll be as a showrunner. We’ll see. 

TSL:  I know comedy rooms went through a period of time when it seemed they wanted a staff of writers under the age of thirty. I find this is less and less the case; the other week, I saw a popular TV show’s writing staff walking across a studio lot for lunch and it was several grey-haired men. Would you agree?

TMR:  People get older and then you get a more experienced, higher-level writer. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

TSL:  You are still working on Whitney. Congrats on getting picked up for a full season! But sorry for some of the harsh comments about the show that are out there. What would you tell our writer-readers about how they should interpret negative (media/fan) attention on a show they are working on?

TMR:  It’s hard to ignore it. If someone makes a good point in the criticism that we can fix, then we pay attention to it. But mostly, it’s just mean- spirited. I try to stay away from it completely. I don’t read reviews now. I just hear about them from the writers’ room. Which is easier to swallow. Luckily, I’m not on Twitter.

I used to seek that stuff out – I think my ego needed to hear that I was part of something good. But I’ll always remember the bad reviews even if there are five good ones with it. Once I see it, it haunts me. So I say don’t read them, you’ll hear every word of them from someone else… it stings less. 

 

In the (bed)room…

TSL:  I know I asked you to give us writing advice, not romantic… but you are married to a comedy writer. Many writers I know suggest pairing up with another writer, and many say the opposite. What do you think? 

TMR:  I think it’s a benefit. We get what each other does, so there’s a shorthand. He gets it when I’m super jokey after being in the writers’ room all day. 

 

Fade Out…

TSL:  Any final advice you would like to give?   

TMR:  Don’t compare yourself to the guy next to you. He has a different path than you.  

Whitney is on NBC, Thursdays at 9:30/8:30 (CST).