Writer’s Corner is a place to get to know outstanding writers, talk about the craft of writing, career advice, share horror stories and find out more about compelling films, television shows, plays, etc. There’s so much great content out there being made by female creators, we should all be keeping an eye on these women.
Today we are featuring Tess Rafferty
Most recently, Tess developed Halfway House, an original half hour pilot at WBTV. Her original pilot, I Know Who You Really Are, Bitch, made the WeForShe 2017 WriteHer list. Tess has written for numerous comedy variety shows, including @Midnight, The Comedy Central Roast of Roseanne and she spent over 7 years on The Soup, as both a writer and a supervising producer. As an author, Tess made her debut with her memoir Recipes for Disaster, published by St. Martin’s Press in 2012, and has written her first novel, Under the Tuscan Gun, currently under option with WBTV. Tess is a featured blogger for Dame and Ms. Magazine. Tess’s video Aftermath, shot in the days following the 2016 election has received almost 50 million hits on Occupy Democrats.
How did you get started in the business?
I was originally an acting major but I hated the parts for women. I used to say the majority of them were playing someone’s mother, whore, maid or wife. So, I started writing my own stuff, that spoke to my own experiences and eventually this led me to stand-up comedy and LA. But I kept writing about my experiences, whether they were jokes, or scripts or essays. I sent samples out everywhere. I feel like most of my early work is still out there somewhere, holding up the legs of uneven desks all over town. I asked everyone I knew if they were hiring or knew someone who was. I took meetings that went nowhere. I started writing things for now defunct websites and radio shows and eventually I got the first gig that lasted for any length of time where the checks always cleared.
What is the process of writing for a comedy variety show? Do you think those skills translate to other styles of writing? Which show was your favorite to work on and why?
The process is really different per show. Every head writer does it differently. Plus, daily shows have a different schedule and pace than a weekly. If the show is topical, it involves knowing way too much about current events that you’d rather just forget about so you can make jokes about it. The latter part is a lot of fun. But it’s always nice to look back and realize you don’t know how many kids Kim Kardashian even has anymore and you don’t have to.
Joke writing is always an asset whether you’re working on a script, a book or a political essay. It helps to make things funny. And the pace of comedy variety, especially daily shows, made you a quick writer. You can’t be precious about every word you put down on paper when you have to write something that someone is going to be saying in a few hours, or maybe even right now. You learn to be quick and accurate and still be funny. I don’t fear writing. I don’t fear the blank page because it’s not blank for long.
Can you talk about the different experiences you had in writers’ rooms? What was your favorite one? Any tips for people staffing for the first time? Anything you learned the hard way?
Throughout most of my career I was fortunate enough to be in good writers’ rooms. There was the usual occasional disagreements or competitiveness but nothing out of the ordinary with creative people. Although there were a few isolated incidents like when an EP (Executive Producer) of a show said he thought my jokes were funny and asked if my husband had written them, I thought we had moved past so many of the horror stories I had heard from other woman. And then I got to one room where it was a toxic bro culture. It was the first time I had been in a situation where I would pitch an idea, no one would acknowledge it, and then five minutes later a guy would pitch the same thing and everyone would respond. I had no idea how common an experience that was for women, not just in film and TV, but across all businesses. I thought I was going crazy. Luckily there was another woman in the room who could confirm, “No. I saw that, too.” That was huge. Being a woman in some rooms is like being Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense. You’re talking but no one is acknowledging you and you start to think you’re dead.
The sad and complicated thing about it is that I don’t think men are even aware they’re doing it. So, if you say something, they think you’re crazy or imagining it. That’s why it’s so important that men be good allies in these situations. Sometimes it’s so simple. Really the bar is so low. One time I was working on an idea with a male writer and when the head writer (male) wanted it explained to the room of male producers, he asked the other writer about it. Didn’t mention me at all. Luckily the writer was a good guy and he immediately mentioned that we were both working on it and that it had originally been my idea. We need more guys like that.
Can you talk about the transition from comedy TV writer to novelist and memoir author? What inspired to write those books? What was the experience like?
Ideas are like shoes. You know looking at them which one is a boot and which one is a slingback with a kitten heel and I think about ideas the same way. You have one and think, “This is a joke. This is a script idea. This is a book.” Which isn’t to say they can’t be adapted from one to the other, but I’ve always started with the idea. And throughout my writing