There is nothing I appreciate more than a decent human being. Even more than that, there is nothing I appreciate more than a decent human being who shares my fresh perspective on life (my perspective is that you should try to hug the bear before running from it, and I don't want to debate it further). I'm here to say I've found someone on this floating ball of land and water who has my exact same passions (show tunes, smiling, YouTube videos of sleeping koalas probably) AND is just generally positive and pleasant to be around.
I'm talking about comedy writer, Rachel Axler, who can be found reminiscing about her experiences writing for shows like How I Met Your Mother, Parks & Recreation, The Daily Show and New Girl (there are more, but she likes things listed in even numbers, so I'm keeping the list to four). She just spent some time writing for Mozart in the Jungle and wrote for Wet Hot American Summer right before that. This week she starts Season 7 of Adult Swim's Children's Hospital. If I somehow didn't list a show you live and breathe for, you can follow her on Twitter at @rachelaxler or check out her Instagram account, @thingface, for pictures of objects that look like faces. No need to sell you on this.
Speaking of faces, here's ten of hers:
Rachel, I think you’re really funny. Lauren, I don’t want to rush things, but I’m pretty sure we should have babies together.
Can we name it Idina Menzel? Such an under-utilized name and very easy to pronounce. Anyway, I also think you’re incredibly nice, and the brief conversations I’ve had with you have been delightful. What’s it like being so cheerful? I spend my nights googling rare diseases and unsolved crimes against females.
We have that in common! Among, like, 37 other things. Before the interview, I asked you to send me a few facts about yourself that people might not know, and the results were chilling. We are the exact same person, I think? My 23andMe results said “you are Lauren Colantoni.”
ALWAYS trust an at-home DNA test to reveal your true identity. Tell me about your love of comedy writing and where you got your start. My first writing job was The Daily Show, because I am the luckiest person on the planet. But I’ve loved reading and writing funny stuff for my entire life. When I was about 13, my friend Deborah and I wrote and recorded radio plays together, and every line I wrote was Woody-Allen-derivative non-sequitur humor. Then in college, I wrote a play and tried to be Christopher Durang. I learned by copying the joke structures I loved, and built from there.
Do you have a mentor or peer who has helped guide you through the peaks and valleys in the industry? First, oh my god, you are the BEST for using the right “peaks” there. Seriously. Not really, because I think we all forge our own paths, but Jim Shepard was the first teacher to tell me “you are a writer,” and JR Havlan was the person who pulled me aside and said, “yeah, you should be doing this for a living,” and then in 2005 gave me the amazing gift of an email saying: we’re hiring at The Daily Show. Can you write a packet by next Friday?
Your resume is chock full of esteemed comedy series for which you’ve written, including Parks & Rec, How I Met Your Mother, New Girl, The Daily Show, Childrens Hospital, and the list goes on. I can tell you right now, I might have trouble keeping this interview brief. The list doesn’t go on thaaaat far beyond those, but thank you. I’ll keep my “that”s to fewer than 5 a’s.
Which came first, writing or producing? So, actually, it’s all one thing, and that thing is writing. “Producer” becomes part of your title as you move up the TV-writing ladder. It goes: staff writer, story editor, executive story editor, co-producer, producer, supervising producer, co-executive producer, executive producer, king, master of television, red dwarf, co-god, god, and then you circle back to staff writer but with the ability to fly.
I could never aspire past co-god; I need the other god to help me decide which sandals look better with my holy robes. It’s time to dig up the memories, Rach. You wrote for the final season of How I Met Your Mother. What was it like being a part of a show that had such a massive, loyal audience? Thrilling, genuinely. I’d been a fan for years, and was so honored to get to be part of it before it ended.
Do you refer to your HIMYM team as your “fam”? Do you still hang out? I do, and that means they’re your fam, too!
Because we're the same! For real, I do still get together with HIMYM people now and then. Of course! You spend that much time with a group of humans, you wind up making some real friends. And that was a particularly great, smart, cool group of humans.
Tell me something unexpected about the cast. For three seasons, Josh Radnor played Lily. Cobie Smulders is the President of Ecuador. Neil Patrick Harris is actually a stack of pancakes.
I love pancakes and could spend the entire interview discussing the topic. But I'm a professional, you know? The series finale was a highly anticipated moment. How was the finale approached? Did the writers truly know how they were going to end it from the beginning, or were there kinks that needed to be carefully worked out as the process unfolded? As far as I know, Carter Bays & Craig Thomas, who created the show, had that ending in mind by the end of season two, which is when they filmed the actors who played the kids saying those lines…. EIGHT YEARS before they turned the camera around and filmed the other half of the scene. How’s that for thinking ahead?
I think there were times when they were unsure if the show would have another season, so there were contingency plans, but ultimately they were able to create the finale that they had dreamt up years before.
Was there ever any doubt on production’s end about how the final episode would be received by fans? I think there’s still doubt about that.
How do writers navigate their differences around what direction a story line should take? Well, the showrunners -- often but not always the creators of a show -- tend to have final say about story direction, in the room. But it’s actually the writers’ job to pitch numerous possible directions for character arcs, stories, scenes, dialogue, jokes…. It’s the reason to have varied voices in a room: different brains and backgrounds mean different writers will think in different directions, which means a more interesting show. Ultimately, you want a unified voice, but varied stories and structures.
Damn -- I’m re-reading this and thinking I should’ve just said “rap battle.”
I think it’s easy for fans to forget why they loved the show to begin with, despite an ending that might not have been what they expected. Let’s break out the nostalgia. Do you have a favorite moment from the series? Season One, when Ted made it rain.
Parks & Rec is another massively successful show that recently aired its final episode. I’m still feeling the aftershock of the emotional goodbye. What should fans know about the show that might give them some comfort in its absence? It’s going to be rebooted on Zlarpvox in 2023.
I have to admit, I had never seen Newsreaders until this week, but I’m so glad I did. Tell me about the writing process and how these absurd news segments come together. I’ve done two roundtables, pre-season, for them -- where people sit around for a few hours and lob segment ideas, jokes, etc, at each other. After that, each season, my friend and former co-worker from The Daily Show, Jim Margolis, has contacted me and given me a segment to write. It’s unique in that there’s no writers’ room (at least, that I’m a part of) -- it’s done freelance, and they put them all together and shoot ‘em. Little jokes or segments that I’ve written (like an Andy Rooney-esque rant for Ray Wise) have aired sorta piecemeal, in separate episodes.
What’s been your most gratifying experience in your career? This interview.
How sad! But I'll take it. What are you most proud of? That I get to do what I absolutely friggin’ love, for a living.
Have you ever been disappointed by a writing or producing experience? Huh. I actually stared at this question for a few minutes, and couldn’t come up with anything. So I guess not! Man. I feel even luckier now.
What do you want people to know about writing for TV that they might assume to be the opposite? I don’t know about opposite, but I know (from conversations with my dad, a lot) that there are common misconceptions -- like, for instance, that writers each write for a certain character on a show. We all write entire scripts, so we all write for everyone.
Or that we spend all day sitting on piles of money, eating sushi and burning other piles of money. We’re only on the money piles for like half the day.
What’s your favorite show on TV right now? Fave on TV: Inside Amy Schumer. Fave off TV: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I like shows with titles that are a word and then a female first name and then a last name that begins with s-c-h.
(Really, I love shows that are female-protagonist-ed and bitingly pointed and brilliantly funny. That underpin their hilariousness with heart, but also something dark and real. And the writing on those two shows is just so incredibly smart.)
I watched the entire season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in less than two days, and I can't tell if that's a brag or a realization that I need to prioritize my time more effectively. Let’s acknowledge the fact that you’re human and you have passions outside of work. Whaaaaaat? Noooooo.
What do you like to do in your free time? Karaoke. Eating. Visiting puppy and kitten adoptions and petting the heck out of some animals.
Let’s close out the interview with a little game of “Would You Rather”.
Would you rather…
Have no memory or no cell phone? No cell phone memory.
Never be able to smile or always be smiling? “ABS. A-always. B-be. S-smiling.” -Mamet, Glengarry Glen Wheeeeeeee!
Live in the Full House house or the Father of the Bride house? Steve Martin 4eva.
End up on a remote island for the rest of your life with Kris Kardashian or Bruce Jenner? ...or what? I choose the other thing, maybe.
Be the richest person on the planet or immortal? Immortal, no contest.
Okay, your turn! Would you rather…
Hear good news or bad news first? We're all going to die eventually.
Wear heels to breakfast or go barefoot to a formal event? Heels to breakfast. I don't trust people who don't wear shoes. They're there to protect your feet! Why do you hate your feet so much?
Hear just one song for the rest of your life, or eat just one food for the rest of your life? For me, music is a better form of therapy than food. Plus, I'm totally cool with a fluffy stack of Neil Patrick Harrises for every meal.
Be reincarnated as a computer or a tree? Definitely a computer. I'd be loaded with knowledge and could eventually take over the world probably. As long as I don't come back as my own computer because I'd be spilled on and dropped a lot.
Ask these questions or answer ‘em? I live for asking questions. I failed the SAT because I answered the multiple choice questions with "but what happens after you die?"