HitFix Interview: Mike White talks ‘Enlightened’ and more

There’s a lot of Mike White that goes into HBO’s “Enlightened.”
The “School of Rock” and “Chuck & Buck” scribe co-created “Enlightened” with series star Laura Dern and he wrote all 10 first season episodes. White has also been a regular director on the series and he plays Tyler, one of the variably desperate Data Processing denizens who find themselves working with Dern’s Amy Jellicoe following her breakdown and subsequent in-progress recovery. 
“Enlightened” hasn’t been a hit for HBO, but it has attracted a passionate pocket of fans and critical supporters, though even its devotees have a wildly varied reactions to an ostensible comedy that seems to strike every viewer in a different way.
In a wide-ranging interview, White talks about making viewers uncomfortable, his working relationship with HBO, past TV projects like “Freaks & Geeks” and “Pasadena” and the two-time “Amazing Race” veteran also talks about why Non-Elimination Legs are better at the beginning of the Race than at the end. [Like I said, it’s far-reaching.]
Click through…
HitFix: I know you’ve done the network TV thing where everybody’s always freaking out and holding their breath about the Nielsens each morning. How has it been different being at HBO and viewing how “Enlightened” is doing on a weekly basis?
Mike White: I’ve been stoked about the relationship with HBO at different periods throughout the whole thing, because they are very artist-friendly, for lack of a better expression, but right now I’m having this thing where I’m like, “This is the best place to work, period.” The first week, our numbers were bad. And in a way, it was because they put us on Monday night and that whole night kinda tanked as part of basic numbers, but I felt like  after that experience, I was like “Well, maybe this show is too challenging” and maybe some of the decisions about pacing, or whatever it was that I was going for, I was kinda neurotic, because I’ve been through it. I’m a junkyard dog when it comes to the business. And they’re just like, “Relax. The show is great. We don’t care.” And I was like, “What?” They were like, “We love the show. We’re behind the show. We know that people will come to the show over time, because it’s distinctive and we’re happy with the reviews.” Just to have the network or the studio or whatever be more bullish and confident about the weird thing you created even than you are is… I don’t ever want to work anywhere else. Know what I mean? Usually when you have numbers like we had on Monday, everybody’s trying to assess blame on everybody else and there was just none of that. I think they do care about numbers in the sense that they do want to build the viewership, but they’re not about to abandon something that they believe in, just because of that initial whatever. 
HitFix: How do you sense they view success for a show like “Enlightened” at HBO?
Mike White: My sense is that because of the subscription model, that what they want is to have distinctive programming, programming you can only find on HBO, so that you have to subscribe in order to see it or get it or be a part of the HBO thing. So I think success for them, sometimes it’s measured in Emmys or Golden Globes or whatever, but it’s also measured in good reviews and it’s also measured in just a passionate viewership, even if that viewership isn’t millions and millions of people, if it’s just stuff where the people who do connect with it are talking about it and devoted.

HitFix: Looking at how people connect with the show or respond to it, I know people who find “Enlightened” to be hilarious, but I also know people who find the show almost tragic. I assume that’s almost exactly the split you were hoping for?

Mike White: That’s certainly been kinda a part of the stuff that I’ve done in features, often. I’ve done just out-and-out comedies, but the stuff that’s more voice-y, I’ve had that experience where people’d come out and be “That was so funny!” and some are just crying and like, “That killed me.” It’s funny, because when you’re younger and you’re in English class, in college or something, the works that you feel like are exciting are the ones that are open to multiple interpretations and can allow a lot of different kinds of responses. And when you’re writing in Hollywood, it’s a lot more challenging, because people will go to the dark places, certainly if there’s sex or violence in it, but to play in the margins of tone is something that makes studios or networks very anxious, because it’s hard to sell it, it’s hard to talk about it and it’s hard to get a galvanizing reaction, because it insists on kinda a divided reaction. 
As a viewer, when I see those kinds of things done in a sure-footed way, or if I feel like I’m getting a variety of responses to something, it just excites me. Some of my favorite movies are movies that I saw and I’d be like, “That is the dumbest comedy” and then I’d see it again and I’d be like, “Oh my God, that’s genius,” depending where you are in your life or depending on what mood you’re in, you can have a completely different experience of the material. So sometimes you have to take more hits because a lot of people don’t get it or because if you’re not successfully walking the line you can fall to your death or whatever, but it is something that as a writer I get more excited about.
HitFix: With “Enlightened” do you have any sense of what governs where people are falling on the hilarious/tragic spectrum?
Mike White: With this one, I think it’s clear that it’s not a straight-up comedy. I mean, people do find it funny, but I think that they find it more generally anxiety-enducing, though there are laughs. With this one, I think it’s more about how people respond to Amy. I’ve definitely had that with other characters. The first movie I ever made was “Chuck & Buck,” which had such a wide spectrum of reactions, so I’m used to it. But some people really find her just the most annoying bloviator and obliviously earnest, but it seems like some people really connect with her. Somebody just sent me something from Twitter and it’s funny how some people feel like it’s the story of their lives and completely relate to her and then some people just cannot stomach her. That, I think, sometimes just says more about who the person is than anything about the actual show.
HitFix: When you’re working with this tonal discomfort, is that because you’re personally comfortable within it, or because you like making yourself uncomfortable and you hope viewers will respond similarly?
Mike White: Maybe I just feel alienated a lot of the time but, for example, there’s the episode where she’s sent down to the basement and she has to work with all of these people… The second episode of the season is really the closest to kinda a comedy of alienation, which I’ve done before. I just find some of that funny. I’m not purposely trying to be sadistic towards the viewer. I just find some of that stuff very relatable to me, where you are at a office lunch with a bunch of people and you’re just like, “Am I really having this conversation? Am I really going to be spending the next couple months with these people?” That sense of not-connecting and the seeking out of somebody to connect with and then failing is something that I think is just a scene from my own personal life, I guess.
HitFix: You have the main character who people are going to have these polarizing responses to, but like you just said, the stuff that’s happening down in Data Processing *almost* feels like a workplace comedy, not conventional, but maybe more straight-forward. Do you have a different approach to those particular scenes?
Mike White: It’s tricky, because the show continues and it keeps shedding its skin, so it starts off that way down there, but I don’t think it stays there. So yeah, in the beginning, even with HBO, even thought they were kinda on-board for whatever, I think there was more of a sense that this is a half-hour show and stuff needs to be recognizably comic and so the earlier episodes had an eye toward that as far as “There are going to be some eccentric people and she’s going to work with them,” but by the time you get to the seventh or eighth episode, it’s still kinda comic, but the teeth of it, the fangs of it, will start to show themselves. For me, that’s an exciting part of unveiling a show. It’s fun for me to read some of the critical response now, because in my sense of just having done the 10 episodes, the signature characteristic of the show is its slipperiness and it will continue to be more… And as far as my approach to those scenes, I just wanted it to feel as authentic and not-goofy as possible. There was a lot of stuff that we shot that was actually really funny, but when we put it in there, I was like, “This is too funny” or “That improv was too funny.” I just didn’t want it to feel too recognizably one thing.
HitFix: In those instances, does it feel too much like a sitcom to you?
Mike White: There’s a time when this kind of thing was a little bit more fresh, the office stuff, and I feel like it needed to be set there, but some of it starts to feel a little too familiar to me. We need to set up these characters, because this is where the plot continues and she’s going to inhabit this space, but part of what happens, as you’ll see as the show goes on, some of the funny characters get less funny and… I dunno… It continues to shape-shift, I guess.
HitFix: With the shape-shifting and the careful balance that you had to maintain, how important or essential was it that you wrote all 10 of these episodes yourself?
Mike White: If I was going to be excited about the show, to me the exciting part of it, and if we have another season that there’s more to it, is that when you have one voice, it’s easier then to be inconsistent, because it’s all you. When you’re writing a show with other writers, so much of it is about trying to push everyone into the same voice. Because it’s just me, these first 10 episodes, each one is kinda its own little tone poem and they’re all a little bit different and so I just think that comes from being able to really have creative ownership of the show. To me, if we have another season, I’d really want to write them all, even if it was more work. It won’t be for everybody and some people are never gonna be into it,  but I just feel like if you’re going to do something that’s, hopefully from a narrative point of view, kind of unique, I think it’s helpful when you have just a singular voice behind it.
HitFix: Following up on the tone poem idea… The second episode to me felt very different from the first episode and the fourth episode, with them out on the rive, it felt very different as well. How do you view separating episodes into different tones and spaces?
Mike White: It does change over time, but the truth is that I feel like what drives my inspiration or my interest in this show is that each episode is kinda a meditation on some sort of idea, so I’m using the show as kinda an illustrative embodiment of a meditation I’m going through, my own personal meditation. I’m sure this comes across as totally self-indulgent, but part of me feels like something interesting can come of that. Like Episode 4, it’s this kinda melancholy reverie and I wanted the whole show to have that feeling. And the first one has this manic sense of her, so it has a little bit more mania. But then there’s another episode that’s kinda all told from the mother’s point of view and either people will want to go on that kind of unique trip, or… 
But I guess it’s kinda more novelistic approach, I guess, to a TV show, as opposed to where it’s each week and something happens and it’s a serialized thing, or where you go to something like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and you know it’s going to have this kinda sense of comedy and sense of tone and every week you’re going to get your fix of that, or you’re going to latch onto characters and want to see what happens next week. And for me, I just kinda wanted to do something that broke those rules a little bit and it’s kinda more the way a modern novel — think of a Dostoevsky novel — where sometimes it’s philosophical, sometimes it’s more based on character, sometimes it’s plot, but it just continues to shape-shift.
HitFix: You know as well as anyone that if you’d gone into a network with this, they would have told you something like, “You can’t break the rules til you’ve set the rules. Do this conventionally for a while and if it’s successful, you can play around.” Could you have done the conventional version of “Enlightened”?
Mike White: It would have been a totally different show. The show is called “Enlightened” and it really was… You know, I haven’t said this to even Laura or HBO, but it really was born out of reading a lot of books about meditation and in those experiences having a lot of thoughts about it, whether it’s “compassion” or “loss” or just different things and going “This is inspiring to me and I want to write about these things, let’s figure out the best vehicle in which to express these things.” And that’s a pretty hard thing to go into a network office with and say, “This is what I’m pitching.” So you pitch something else, but it’s kinda the excuse to get at what you’re really doing. So yeah, if I were doing this as a network thing, it wouldn’t have been this. This actually lives because of these weird, secret, personal interests of my own. I don’t know how else to put it.
HitFix: Looking at your other TV credits, the thing that this obviously, to me at least, feels most similar to, at least in its challenging tone and approach is “Freaks & Geeks.” That’s a show that didn’t succeed by the network mathematics, but in quality, it succeeded in a way few network shows ever have. Do you have a sense of how that show was able to, just for the episodes that it had, do what it did?
Mike White: I think that “Freaks & Geeks” was… this is only my personal opinion… But Judd [Apatow] came from half-hours and from sketch comedy and he’d never done an hour-long show before and his staff was people he knew from half-hour and from sketch comedy. And Paul [Feig] had never even done a show before or written anything. They didn’t know the rules of the hour-long form. They didn’t know the structure of an hour-long TV form. I was from “Dawson’s Creek” and it wasn’t like I was incredibly experienced either. I just think they broke the rules because they didn’t know the rules. I think that Judd had had a lot of critical success and cared about that and cared more about that, in a sense, than about the network giving him a thumbs up. So he was a fighter and whatever that combination of different things led to something that was very unique.
HitFix: You said earlier that having done the HBO thing, you don’t want to go back. Have you given up, to some degree, on the idea that a “Freaks & Geeks”-type show could work on the networks today?
Mike White: It’s not about the networks. I think it’s about people. It’s frustrating because it’s just a hard reality for a creator like me, but I just don’t think there are big audiences for stuff that challenges the audience. I fall into this category a lot myself as a viewer, but people want their guilty pleasures and that’s kinda all that they want. And for stuff that really is challenging in some of the ways that “Freaks & Geeks” might have been or “Enlightened” is, it’s hard to get big numbers around that kind of thing unless you have a ballsy, ballsy place that just consistently stands by the material. I think on networks, it’s really difficult. 
If “Enlightened” had gotten the numbers that we got on a network, we wouldn’t have survived the half-hour. They would have pulled the plug before we got through the first commercial. It’s hard. I think why some of the cable shows have succeeded that have gotten people galvanized around them that are more groundbreaking, it’s because they’re at a flagship cable network that just doesn’t have a lot of material and just continues to… It’s all kinda flukish. In the end, it’s because something has stayed around long enough to get an audience and I think that on a network, it’s just really difficult. I think there are so many gatekeepers along the way that those things get ironed out before they ever come to life.
HitFix: It almost sounds depressing when you talk about it like that.
Mike White: It depends. Everybody’s fans of different things and I’m sure people love different network shows. But for the kind of thing that interests me, it’s hard. If you don’t want to make a comedy that’s knee-slapping and you don’t necessarily want to do a drama that’s about sex or violence or forensics or whatever, that fits in… And if the way you get your kicks is by challenging the audience’s expectations, it’s difficult to find the places that will be in the trenches with you. It just is.
HitFix: But you’re a subversive guy. Is there a part of you that says, “What would happen if I tried writing a forensic procedural?”
Mike White: Well, I did a show that I’m actually as proud of as anything I’ve done called “Pasadena,” which was a FOX soap opera that aired on FOX on Friday nights and we premiered the week of September 11. We were able to do 13 episodes of the show and it’s the kind of show that I wish people had seen, because by the time it was done, I think it fulfilled the genre, but it also was really playing with it and I think it was a successfully interesting show from my point of view because it was a genre, but it was also an implosion of it, in a weird way. At the same time, it’s just depressing to go through that and not have the show air beyond five episodes and just have it die on the vine when you feel like there’s good work in it. Just like I was a junkyard dog with HBO because I just didn’t believe that it could be this way, in a sense. So every time they would have a note about something, I’d be like, “Oh. They don’t believe in it” or whatever, but that wasn’t really the case, I’ve just had these experiences where you kill yourself and you feel like you’re doing something that’s cool and they just dump you and it’s over that’s depressing. Like with “Freaks & Geeks,” you couldn’t have had a more excited critical response and passionate viewership and it didn’t matter. Now it’s cool, because of the DVDs or whatever and now it matters to have another life, but a the time it felt like a big fail.

HitFix: When do conversations have to get concrete about a second season of “Enlightened” with HBO?
Mike White: They’re happening in the sense that I think that we’ll know soon. If they want us for fall next year, since I’m the only writer ostensibly, I need to get going. Soon.
HitFix: And since we’re talking, I’ve gotta ask: Have you been watching this season of “The Amazing Race”?
Mike White: Yes. I watch it every week.
HitFix: And what have you thought of the season?
Mike White: Well, for me, it’s hard to watch the show without the pangs of… I don’t know… It creates a sense memory of panic. It’s such a cool thing to get to do, but at the same time you’re just… But I do like this season. Our season, it’s hard when people have run it before. I think we had more high-concept teams and it becomes more cartoony. I like it when you feel like you’re just watching real people thrown into something, even if they’re not the most entertaining, but you just feel like, “OK. These are people who are just desperate to stay in the Race.” I think they’ve had some good last-minute races to the mat where people who were running in first end up last and the last are first. They’ve done some funny last minute shuffling of the deck that make it kinda exciting. I’ve thought it was a good season.
HitFix: But what have you thought about having three Non-Elimination Legs already this season?
Mike White: Yeah, Non-Eliminations, no matter when they come… Our season, they all came toward the end, right when we’d gone out, so I was sorta like, “F***. Why didn’t they put them more toward the beginning?” I feel like it’s better when the Non-Eliminations come when there’s more teams, because if there are just five team and if the same teams suck, the last couple episodes, you’re like, “God, all I’ve seen are these same five f***ing teams.”
“Enlightened” airs on Monday nights at 9:30 p.m. on HBO.