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 life I’ve always had ideas across the medium so for me there isn’t a transition. I would come home from working at the Soup and start writing chapters for Recipes for Disaster. At any given time, I can be working on an essay for Dame and a new half hour sample and maybe also writing something that I want to perform. I think it keeps me interested in all of it. When I get stuck or bored with one, I move on to the other. It’s like alternating weight days at the gym: I can give one set of muscles a rest and exercise something else. It also keeps me from getting discouraged, because there’s always something new to be excited about or to finish and feel a sense of accomplishment.
I was inspired to write Recipes for Disaster because I had developed a real passion for cooking and food and wine. But I didn’t know what I could bring to the conversation; I wasn’t a professional cook. But then I realized that’s exactly what I could bring to it. People who buy these books aren’t professionals either. And they’re going to get discouraged and make mistakes and take it too seriously, just like I did. But if they can be encouraged to shake it off, they can learn to appreciate the pleasure of sharing meals in others’ company like I did, too. And like everything I do, I wanted to do it while making people laugh.
Under the Tuscan Gun had a similar genesis. A friend saw a picture of my husband and I in Italy and joked that we were one high society murder away from being Nick & Nora Charles. (From The Thin Man series) And I thought, “Why aren’t I writing this?” I devour murder mysteries like they’re pie the day after Thanksgiving and I’m obsessed with Italy.
It’s fun to do something different with your writing. And I like the autonomy of writing a book. It’s just me in my house with my cats. The dress code is caftan casual. And of course, Happy Hour comes whenever you want.
Aftermath was such a power viral video; can you talk about the process of writing it and watching it go viral? (Watch the video HERE in case you haven’t seen it.)
So much of what I write, I hear parts of in my head, write it down, hear more, scribble that somewhere. Aftermath was the same. I got off easy the day after the election because I had a fever of 103, so I spent much of the day in bed, asleep. But in between napping, the reality of the situation would start to set in and I would hear parts of what became the video. After a day and a half of this I wrote it up and posted it on Facebook, because what else was I going to do with it?
People I knew liked it and wanted to share it so I knew it resonated with people, but it was friends, people who tended to think like me. Then, Steve Cohen, a friend and director, read it and said, “I want to film it.” At the time I was like, “How? Am I just going to read it for eight minutes? Who wants to see that?” But we were all at loose ends: I didn’t have anything else to do. And I love working with Steve so I was like, “Sure!”
What’s funny about having something go viral is that as a writer and performer, you spend years putting stuff online, whether it’s something you did on a TV show or something you did just to put out there. And no matter how much you like it, it never gets as big as you would like. And then one morning you wake up and you know something is weird immediately because your inbox is fuller than normal and your social media has all these notifications and mentions and you’re like, “What happened?” And you see “Oh, Ashley Judd retweeted me. How did that happen?” Then the death and rape threats start.
But the one thing I learned watching it happen and reading all of the emails – the good ones that is – is that as creative people we take for granted the ability to express ourselves. And not only can we express ourselves, but we’re surrounded by creative people who can, too. So, it’s easy to forget that not everyone can. And what I heard a lot was that I was able to take all of the thoughts and feelings people were experiencing and put it into words, put it into some cogent form that helped them to express it. We forget the power we have, but really isn’t that what art is for? To make sense of the world and create an expression of a common experience.
What are you working on now?
I just created a substack – it’s like a newsletter subscription – called Recipes for Resistance. Cooking helps me relax; it’s a really good escape for me. Like writing, it’s a process where you’re creating something but unlike writing, you don’t need anyone to sell it when you’re done, you can just enjoy it. So, I decided to create a place where I can share that with others and hopefully inspire them to feed themselves and others every week. I share the story of what I made and the recipe and try to write it with humor but also with an eye to what’s happening in the world.