Interview with Colleen McGuinness '99

As we pass through a "golden age" of television, it's easy to forget that each and every one of our most beloved programs was created by real, living, mortal people. And not just any people, but actual Signet alumni.
Below, in our second installment of Drone on Drone, comedian and erstwhile Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt intern Joey Longstreet '16 interviews Colleen McGuinness '99, a former writer for our favorite show, 30 Rock. 

JL: What are some of your favorite memories from the Signet Society? What's the weirdest thing that either happened to you or that you saw happen at the Hive? 

CM: I loved the lunches.  That apple cider.  And the Friday teas.  Talking to people you might not meet otherwise.  I remember bringing my English professor to a lunch and he got a real kick out of it.  People were playing the piano and listening to records.  We were pretending to be from another time.
The weirdest thing that ever happened to me was when I met Tommy Lee Jones at the Signet.  He was there for lunch.  I was about to graduate and was very fearful about moving out to Los Angeles without a job so I asked him if he had any advice for me.  He said, "Sure, I have advice.  My advice is for you to call me."  And he gave me his number!  It was so unbelievably nice of him.  So... I called him after I graduated but he was away shooting a movie.  I left my number, which was my parents' phone number, since I didn't have a cell phone yet.  I moved out to LA that August, and what do you know.  One day, my parents' phone rings, my mom answers, a man asks for me.  She says, "Who's calling?"  He says, "Tommy Lee Jones."  He actually called back!  What a kind man.  My mom dined out on that story for a while.  The ladies at King Kullen were all aflutter.
JL: How did you engage with the arts in your time as an undergraduate? 

CM: I was very involved with the arts as an undergraduate, particularly in the theater scene.  I started out performing, mostly in musicals, and then moved on to directing and producing.  I directed a production of Guys and Dolls that was the first co-ed production in ten years to be held in the Hasty Pudding Theater.  Our application to the Loeb Main Stage had been denied and since this show needed to be on a big stage, we went outside the HRDC umbrella and asked for help from Dean Archie Epps III.  My plea to him was that the arts scene was expanding but there weren't enough resources, and those needed to grow, too. He very kindly gave us some money.  I met the owner of the Hasty Pudding building and he rented us the space with those funds.  So, our rogue production made us the underdogs.  No one was sure if we could pull it off since we didn't have real support from HRDC.  It wound up being a very successful show and afterwards, Harvard renovated the Hasty Pudding theater and made it the beautiful Annenberg Theater [now Farkas Hall].  We took the left over money Guys and Dolls made and started a fund for other musical productions at Harvard.
JL: What advice do you have for current undergraduates pursuing comedy writing at Harvard? 

CM: Comp the Lampoon!  I never did.  My freshman year, I was on my way to the Lampoon open house or whatever, but some entryway mates stopped me and said, "No, no, don't comp the Lampoon.  Those guys are a bunch of assholes."  So I guess the second piece of advice is, don't listen to everything your entryway mates tell you!  But if you don't want to comp the Lampoon, that's okay, too.  Above all, you have to follow your own path.  
JL: What are some of your comedic influences? 
CM: I was raised by my grandparents and they were very strict about which shows and movies were "appropriate" so a lot of the comedy I loved as a kid was very clean, nothing too racy.  I Love Lucy.  The Muppets.  Old movies like The Out of Towners with Jack Lemmon.  Family Ties was my favorite comedy from second grade on.  Discovering SNL in middle school was a big deal and I've watched it ever since. Seinfeld was the big game changer for me.  I loved it so much and used to memorize scenes and act them out with my friends. 
JL: Who are your favorite comedians / what TV shows do you watch? 
CM: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Amy Schumer, Kristen Wiig, and of course Tina Fey.  I will always be interested in whatever Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are doing.  Louis CK and Chris Rock.  I  watch comedies like Veep and Silicon Valley and Inside Amy Schumer.  I'm sad that The Grinder just got cancelled.
JL: In an era of "peak TV", how does a TV show stand out? What to you makes a "good" TV show? 
CM: There are many things that have to fit into that crazy alchemy but one of the most important is that you have to love the characters and want to spend time with them.
JL: What was it like to work on 30 Rock? There are many undergraduate members who are religious fans of the show - do you have any fun stories or tidbits or gossip you wouldn't mind members knowing about? 
CM: It was crazy.  30 Rock was my favorite comedy before I got a job writing for it, so coming onto the show was very intimidating and totally surreal.  My first day of work there, Subhas the janitor came into my office and emptied my trash.  I was really confused.  I didn't know Subhas was a real janitor!  
I loved working on 30 Rock.  I learned so much there.  Everyone was funny and fast and smart.  It was a very complicated show.  There were always these insane guest stars showing up and like, three episodes shooting at once.  The writers did a lot of fun things, like we rented a party bus on Halloween and did a homemade Secret Santa.  The hours on that show were long so naturally you bond with each other in a very intense way. 
JL: What is your day-to-day life like when you're writing for a show? 
CM: You sit in the writers' room and talk and eat all day and, depending on who's in the room with you, it's wonderful or terrible or both.
JL: What projects are you working on right now? 
CM: I'm writing a comedy pilot for HBO -- an adaptation of the Curtis Sittenfeld book PREP.  I'm currently a co-executive producer on an upcoming Nick Stoller-Francesca Delbanco comedy for Netflix.
JL: Why is comedy important? 
CM: I don't know if it's important but there's so much sad stuff that happens in life, it's nice to laugh.  You know, I had to go to the ER last year for something and was feeling awful and then I found "Everybody Loves Raymond" on the TV and it made me feel better.  Sometimes you just need to feel better.  Comedy can do that for people.
JL: They always say there is no one "path" to working in entertainment - what advice do you have for graduating seniors who hope to make it in the biz? 
CM: Unless you want to write for late night, or you have a trust fund, it's much easier to start a writing career in Los Angeles.  So just move out here.  That's the advice I was given.  Start writing something original as soon as you can, so that when the opportunity arises, you can get your work read (or seen, if you're a performer).
Also, there's that quote that I will paraphrase:  "Keep your life simple so your art can be complicated."  Take good care of yourself.  Find a stable, sane partner who encourages you.  Finish your work instead of going to some dumb party.  Eat well.  Exercise.  Meditate.  Floss.  I'm serious!  If you're in it for thelong haul, you need to practice good self-care.  You need stamina.
JL: Are you a Liz, Jack, Tracy, Jenna, or Kenneth? 
CM: I was asked that question on a panel once and I had Scotch tape holding my bra together so I had to say Liz.  Like Liz Lemon, I love cheese and "Annie" and I was single for a long time.  Thank goodness for characters like Liz.  She made me feel like it was okay to be a true nerd, like it was okay to be myself.  A soon as you allow yourself to do that, life gets easier.