When I met Robert Carlock at his hotel just south of Central Park, he had a face that read, “Yeah, I know, I’ve heard this before,” when I mentioned that the trailer for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which depicts almost a “zany comedy,” doesn’t really match up with the final product, which is a little more somber and serious. Granted, as Carlock pointed out about the movie he wrote (based off of Kim Barker’s memoir), it’s a tough movie to sell. But, as we got deeper and deeper into this interview, it becomes apparent: Carlock has been here many, many times before.
In the late ‘90s, Carlock was part of an almost superteam of future comedy giants that included Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Robert Smigel, Charlie Kaufman, and Louis C.K. on the primetime network show, The Dana Carvey Show, which lasted a grand total of seven episodes. (Carlock and I have discussed this show before at length a few years ago.) After his stint on SNL, he and Tina Fey created 30 Rock, which initially lived in the cultural shadow of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and wasn’t given much of a chance. Of course, Studio 60 lasted one season, while 30 Rock lasted seven. And then there’s Carlock and Fey’s 30 Rock follow-up Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a show that looked D.O.A. when it left NBC’s schedule, only to be picked up by Netflix. Now Carlock and Fey are starting to write its third season. So, yeah, Carlock has experience with this kind of thing.
In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Tina Fey plays Kim Baker, a reporter who takes an assignment embedded in Kabul to cover the war in Afghanistan. And no matter what the trailers say, this isn’t “wacky.” It’s more a look at what happens to a person who is surrounded by war for so long that it starts to become “normal.” Ahead, Carlock explains his writing process and takes us through the tribulations of getting both 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt off the ground. Carlock also reflects on writing for Joey, the short-lived Friends spinoff that taught him a lesson that he still asks about his main characters today.
The trailer for this movie is nothing like the actual movie.
It’s a tough thing to sell. You know, credit to Paramount for making it. Not a lot of movies like this get made.
You adapted this from Kim Barker’s book about her experiences. That’s a little different for you.
Yeah, it was daunting until I met Kim. At our first meeting, she said, “I know you’re going to have to cut stuff. I know you’re going to have to add stuff. I know you have to give it a plot and combine characters.” And I’m like, “Oh, thank God.” So, she gave me the liberty to take this crazy period in her life and give it the form a movie requires.
In lesser hands, this movie could have easily been one of those “they are not like us” movies.
It’s a delicate thing, tonally. And we didn’t want it to be “screwball.” And even though it has real comic elements, those comic elements come from a real place and are often real stories.
You mentioned you’ve heard “this is better than I thought it would be” a few times. Is that annoying to hear?
It’s better than the opposite.
“The trailer made this look awesome. What happened?”
I think everyone’s been open during the process: “How do we sell this thing?”
And I’ll admit, it’s not like I think I have an answer.
I think they are hoping to get Tina Fey’s core in, then it will be a word-of-mouth movie. People seem to like it … if they see it.
This is a great role for Tina Fey. It’s not the type of thing we are used to seeing her do.
Isn’t she great? I have, obviously, incredible faith in her. And she’s fearless and so talented, but you never know until you do it. And, boy, she’s so good in it.
I feel you’ve been through this before, “Oh, there’s no way this will work.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, it does seem to be kind of a pattern. Yeah, that’s funny, it keeps happening. “No, Studio 60, that’s the behind the scenes show.”
About that, I think Tina Fey said the truth is comedy sketch writers just want to make funny fart jokes, not try to save the world with every sketch, like on Aaron Sorkin’s show.
God love him, he came on the show eventually and he was great. Yeah, why do we keep doing that? I think Tina and I like to care about what we’re doing? And it can be really painful, but thanks to her, we’ve kind of found this place where people let us do it. But it does mean, yeah, it does mean you’re not doing the standard thing. I mean, look at our Netflix show…
Is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt a miracle?
We are used to a series being on Netflix now. But when this went from NBC to Netflix, it seemed like a really odd thing…
It was. And I agree that it has changed completely.
The best thing to happen is that NBC didn’t air it, right?
To be fair, and this is a perception most people have, NBC was going to air it.
Right, but the rating wouldn’t have been good…
And it would have went away. It allowed the show to have a different meta narrative, or whatever the right term is. That show, in particular, I think, “Oh, okay, I’ll watch another. They pulled that off.” To get to settle into the tone of what that show is – you know, I love the pilot, but if that airs on a Tuesday night or something, you have a different experience.
What’s your opinion of binge watching?
I think it’s great.
Is this the way it’s going to be?
When I grew up, it was, “Oh, it’s another week until another Cheers?” [Laughs.] And I think that built character.
Another week to find out if Sam and Diane kiss.
Another week until Twin Peaks? It would kill me. But so I worry about our national fiber, our moral fiber.
Now a whole season is one weekend.
Exactly, to glut ourselves. But, as a viewer, I think it’s great. And for that show, it’s great. But you watch something you like in one week and then it’s a year until you get more of it. That always makes me mad.
So, there was a time you assumed there would never be a second season of Kimmy Schmidt?
Oh yeah. Definitely. I think NBC was trying to do their best by us, but then they agreed there was a better place for it. Now here we are writing the third season.
In a few years, is network television still important?
I still want to develop for network television…
But it doesn’t seem to matter when something airs now.
Yeah, unless it’s sports.
Live events do well.
And live events, yeah.
Which you did on 30 Rock.
We did. That was fun. That changed how we had to write the show. It’s weird: It’s so different to do single-camera versus multi-camera versus live. And you have to ask such different things of the actors and the writing.
Can you tell when something is working or not when you’re in the middle of it? Like when you’re making Kimmy Schmidt or 30 Rock versus when you were working on something like Joey?
Yeah, you have to try to be able to tell. And you don’t know everything until you let other people see it – and even then you don’t know everything. I remember going into 30 Rock with this cast and the freedom that Tina created in that pilot, we’re going to do really funny episodes. Whether anyone will watch it? Whether this can be interesting? Whether we can make people care about these characters? I think Tina succeeded in doing all of that, but you don’t know.
Can you look at things that happened on Joey and say, “We are not going down this road?” Or is that an odd example because it was a spinoff?
Well, everything is an odd example. Hmm, what lessons did I learn from Joey?
What an odd question once you say it out loud back to me. But I do find that show interesting. Why it didn’t work and something like Frasier did.
Because Matt LeBlanc is really, really good.
And people like Episodes.
He’s really, really good. And we had a really good writing staff. I think, maybe, Matt had a breakout year on Friends the year before, as an actor and as a character. And he went to emotional places that the character hadn’t been before. And I think that’s what gave people the confidence to spin him off and maybe that’s not what people wanted day in and day out from that character. That character was always so aspirational happy and everything kind of went his way. So, seeing him struggle is maybe not what they wanted.
Joey struggled as an actor on Friends, but it was a fun struggle. Chandler was always there to bail him out.
Asking him day in and day out to be the emotional center? I don’t know; this is foggy hindsight. This is 20/50 hindsight. But it has been something I always try to keep in mind – just checking in periodically saying, “Is our main character having fun?” Even though they have to go through stuff, is it balanced with enough fun? Maybe that’s a takeaway there, but it’s also the same takeaway I probably told you about The Dana Carvey Show. Which is, oh, this can all be lined up and seem like you have all the pieces and not work.
Right. You had a murderers’ row of comedy talent – Carvey, Robert Smigel, Colbert, Carell, Louis C.K., Charlie Kaufman – and it lasted eight episodes.
Yeah. My God, it’s terrifying. And it speaks to how delicate that stuff is.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.