Gemma Baker, co-creator of the new CBS sitcom Mom, talks about the challenge of trying to make addiction funny and what she’s learned from über-showrunner Chuck Lorre.
Written by Rob Feld
(October 18, 2013)
Gemma Baker was four the first time she made someone laugh. She decided immediately that was how she wanted to make a living. That said, her father was a therapist and her mother an actress who had become an Episcopal priest, and eventually a Bishop, so truthfully it was probably written in the stars. Her parents were supportive when she said she wanted to be an actor and sent her to Tisch School of the Arts for a degree in theater. At Tisch she took a class on the history of comedy in New York, which boasted as part of the class an optional night of standup.
“I was hooked,” she says. “That’s when I started writing.”
After Tisch she acted in commercials and moved to L.A., where she could afford to live by herself, almost on a whim when an apartment was offered to her. Like many comedy writers, Baker found the Groundlings, which is also where she found her husband. She studied there, writing and performing standup, improv, and even wrote essays as much as she could, while working a job as an office manager.
“Eight years later I was still at it,” Baker recalls, “and was starting to wish that my parents hadn’t been so encouraging. Around that time, my friend introduced me to his friend, a guy named Chuck. It was only after speaking with him that I found out who he was. If I had realized who I was talking to I might not be where I am today because I wouldn’t have been able to form sentences. Anyway, he asked to read my material and saw a couple performances. Ten months later he offered me a job as a staff writer at Two and a Half Men. My parents are very proud of themselves.”
Photo: © 2013 CBS Broadcasting, Inc.
Anna Faris and Allison Janney in Mom.
Mom, the situation comedy she co-created with über-showrunner Chuck Lorre and Eddie Gorodetsky off a premise the other two were kicking around while working on Two and a Half Men, follows three generations of women and their interconnected dysfunctions. Christy (Anna Faris) plays a newly sober single mom; a waitress in a Napa Valley restaurant who is doing her best to raise a 16-year-old daughter and make better decisions for herself. This effort is made all the more difficult when her estranged and socially inappropriate mother, Bonnie (Allison Janney), also newly in recovery, reappears and inserts herself into her granddaughter Violet’s life.
Tell me how the Mom story germinated?
I was working on Two and a Half Men and one day I got called into Chuck’s office. I remember walking down the hall to his office wondering why I was getting fired. But when I got there, he told me about this pilot idea that he and Eddie Gorodetsky were working on. It was about a single mother who was extremely flawed, an atypical TV mom with a sordid past, maybe an addiction problem, and did I think that I could make that funny. I said honestly that I didn’t think so; that in order for it to be funny I felt like her struggles would have to be in the past. So we talked about what would happen if that same character was in recovery and trying to repair her relationship with her family. We all connected to the story of redemption, of trying to be a better person than the person you are now. We felt like people would want to root for a character like that. So the three of us got together and wrote the pilot fairly quickly. Warner Bros. and CBS were interested. Then Anna [Faris] got the script and wanted to do it, and then it was real. It’s been a crazy year, and I’m so grateful to Chuck and Eddie for the opportunity.
Can you describe the collaborative process on the show in the writer’s room? What’s the room like?
Mom is gang-written like all of Chuck’s shows. So it’s a very collaborative process because we write the entire script, from “FADE IN” to “FADE OUT,” in a group. Chuck runs the room and when he’s busy, Eddie Gorodetsky takes over. Writing with them is like taking a master class in comedy. One of the things I’ve learned from them is that the best stories come from an emotional place. Even if the episode is about something big and silly, at the core there is always something deeper going on. Also, our room is predominately women and that comes in handy when you’re writing about mothers and daughters. We spend a lot of time sharing our personal experiences of having and being moms. Comedy rooms can be pretty testosterone-driven places. "Tell me more about this particular experience." I had the most incredible experience on Two and a Half Men. I worked with fantastic, talented, funny men, but I am an only child, and I have never been teased so much in my whole life! I got used to it, and in fact, learned to love it. But I was still careful not to call attention to myself. I mean, I wouldn’t wear bold colors let alone reveal my embarrassing moments. Of course, you spend a lot of time together, and they all came out eventually anyway. Now I find myself volunteering a lot of my personal experiences right away. That’s also the nature of the show we’re writing.
Does the joke-pitching process feel different? Is it a less competitive?
It’s definitely still competitive. Maybe we say things like “after you” more frequently. Although, I’m honestly not sure if that’s because we’re women or just new to each other. The process in the room is actually very similar. But there’s less talk about hockey.
The jokes are timed very tightly in the pilot episode, which is entirely a function of delivery. I’m wondering how you think about your actors as partners?
Our cast is so incredible. They all have phenomenal timing and instincts. Whenever we leave a table read or run-through the writers always talk about the unexpected laughs we got on lines that were totally not meant as jokes. For example, “Hello” has killed more than once. Another thing that happens a lot is that the actors will deliver a line in a completely different way than what we intended and their take is absolutely hilarious. And then when we are rewriting, we find that they’ve opened up an entirely different path for us to explore. So yeah, there’s a lot of give-and-take that happens. I remember a few weeks before the pilot we were talking to Anna about the challenging relationship between her character, Christy, and her teenage daughter, Violet. Anna said that she felt like, “Come on, like me!” We all laughed and that line went into the script immediately. Actually, it’s one of my favorite moments of the pilot because it’s so real. I’m a mom and I know that feeling well. Too well. And my kid’s only four so I’m screwed. Anyway, like any new show we are challenged with trying to find the voice of these characters and our cast is making that much easier.
There are a good number of sight gags in the pilot. An actual fire burns on stage, which isn’t something you see often in a sitcom setup. There is a great deal of physical comedy. Is that something you saw as the initial voice or did it come out of the experience?
None of the physical comedy was in the original script. That element is something we found as we were rehearsing the pilot. As soon as we discovered how good our cast was at it, we started to look for opportunities for them to fall out of windows and catch on fire. We deal with some serious themes on this show, and the physical comedy lightens it up well.
Can you tell me more about how you tighten and workshop jokes?
We’re always working on the script, even when we’re shooting. We look for areas that could be made tighter or funnier, or make the story clearer. I’m glad that we don’t turn in a script and that’s exactly how it ends up on TV. It’s a process. I love that we get the opportunity to hear the lines spoken and make changes. We are so lucky that we work with such talented actors who can handle changes on the fly. Show night is my favorite part of working on a multi-cam. Of course, you have to stop working on it eventually. I was in editing the other day and I thought of a joke. Too late.
How does having a studio audience add to the process? How do you use it?
The studio audience is a huge part of the show because they let us know how we’re doing. I mean, we can think that something is funny all week, and they will tell us otherwise. It’s great to have a chance to make the show better. Plus, they give so much energy to the actors, which brings out the best performances. I know for myself, I enjoy the pressure of coming up with lines when you know the audience is waiting. It’s exciting.
So, if something bombs you all run in and pitch new lines?
Yeah, we huddle up and pitch new lines anytime we feel we can make something better. It’s quiet and dark, and I usually feel mildly nauseous. We just keep throwing things out there until something makes us laugh. It’s thrilling when someone is able to come up with something funny under that kind of pressure. When I was a kid I always wanted to play a sport but couldn’t because I’m painfully uncoordinated – so tape nights are the closest I’ve gotten to a game day. I love it.
It’s like the idea of improv. Back to the Groundlings.
Exactly, that definitely helps!