Comedy writer and producer Emily Spivey ’93 has been a highly successful – and hilarious – creative force in American television for nearly two decades.
The High Point native, UNC Greensboro alumna, and Emmy-award winning writer has kept us doubled-over laughing with her work on “Saturday Night Live,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “Modern Family” – just to name a few.
On Friday, May 10, she’ll celebrate the premiere of “Wine Country,” a Netflix original film that she stars in and co-wrote.
“Wine Country” boasts an all-star cast of some of the funniest women in TV and film, including Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Maya Rudolph, who are longtime friends and colleagues of Spivey.
Spivey, a graduate of what is now the Department of Media Studies, recently caught up with her alma mater to share more about her experience in comedy, the new film “Wine Country,” and her animated show for Fox that will premiere this fall.
You knew from an early age that you wanted to do comedy. How did your love for comedy begin, and how did it evolve over time?
I became obsessed with SNL at a really early age when I first saw Gilda Radner do “Roseanne Roseannadanna.” I think that’s a pretty standard story for a lot of women in comedy. SNL was like church for me. After I graduated from UNCG, I came out to Los Angeles to go to graduate school to get my MFA in screenwriting because I wanted to teach. While I was out in LA, I started doing the Groundlings, which is an improvisational comedy theater, and after that I sort of got sucked in. I was fortunate enough to be in the same group as Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Jim Rash. I came up with a really, really good group, and then it was just onward from there.
You went from watching “Saturday Night Live” as a kid to writing for the show for nearly a decade – what was that experience like?
It was fantastic. It was the best period of my entire life. I treasure that time so, so much. The lows were terrible. The lows are a waking nightmare, but the highs are the most fun, best times you’ll ever experience. The highs make it all worth it. Getting to meet all the friends that I met there that are still close friends of mine, and just being a part of SNL, is an honor and a pleasure. I’m just lucky that my dream came true.
How would you describe the week-to-week process of writing for SNL?
You’re writing and rewriting up until the show goes live. That’s the craziest thing about it. You are creating an entire 90 minutes of the show in one week, and you don’t really start writing until Tuesday night. It’s just the craziest process, but it makes for a very electric show. I think you can tell how fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants it is when you watch it, and that’s what’s exciting about it.
Tell me more about your new Netflix film “Wine Country” – what was it like to not only co-write the screenplay, but to star in the film?
It was such a great experience. I feel so fortunate to call these ladies friends and coworkers. But it really all came about because it was Rachel Dratch’s 50th birthday. We’re all on a text chain together, so we talk every day, all day, but a lot of times the East Coast gals don’t get to see the West Coast gals as much as we like. So for Rachel’s 50th birthday, we decided to do a trip to Wine Country, to Sonoma County. That’s sort of where the movie was born. We had such a fabulous time, and so many funny things happened. [Amy] Poehler and I just kind of looked at each other and we’re like, “If Adam Sandler can take a big group of his friends to Hawaii and do a movie, why can’t we?” Luckily the planets aligned, and everyone’s schedules worked, so we could get it done. We shot it last year this time – we were just wrapping up almost a year ago today.
We laughed nonstop. It’s insane. We’re a very hyperactive group when it comes to spontaneous singing and doing weird bits and dishing the dirt and all that stuff. It was really, really fun.
You’re also working on an upcoming animated series for Fox called “Bless the Harts.” Tell me more about that.
It’s like a “King of the Hill” type of show, but the lead is a woman, a single mom. It takes place in an imaginary town called “Greenpoint,” which is basically just an amalgamation of High Point and Greensboro. It’s really, really High Point and Greensboro specific, down to the street names and restaurants. We did an episode on barbecue, and a lot of it is church-oriented. I wanted to have a good family show that took place in Greensboro-High Point. I hope that it has the patina of the Triad. We’re really writing toward that – I really had to school people on the Triad. I hope you’ll watch it and be like, “Oh my lord, I know these people.” That’s my goal.
What’s been your experience writing shows and films with strong female leads?
I don’t ever set out to write a female-driven movie – it’s just what I write. I think I’ve been lucky to come along in a time when people are more receptive to female-driven things. I think my cartoon is the first female-lead animated comedy on Fox ever. In this era, people are coming around to the fact that there’s no such thing as a “chick flick” or a “guy’s story” – it’s a human’s story. I hope that we can start enjoying stories with a genderless eye. I think I’ve just been lucky that my stories have spoken to people in some way.
If you think back to your time at UNCG, are there skills or life lessons you learned here that you still remember and think back on today?
I think back on UNCG every day. It was just the best university experience I could have had. I think about Tony Fragola, who was really, really instrumental in my career and giving me the confidence and the tools that I needed to become the writer that I am today … Frank Donaldson, there were so many wonderful professors, and not just in film and television. Just top to bottom, it gave me a little stew of things to pull from. It was just the greatest education I could have ever asked for. I can’t say enough good things about UNCG. I get emotional thinking about it – it was just such a wonderful time. Every professor there opened my mind in a different way. It’s just invaluable.
Have you made it back to campus recently?
I drive through campus nostalgically, but of course it looks completely different from when I was there. I’ll drive the long way to be able to go by College Avenue and go down Tate Street. It’s just a lot of good memories.
You met your husband, Scott Philbrook, at UNCG, right?
We met in Larry Etling’s TV production class – that was another fun, great class.
How has the industry evolved? What skills do up-and-coming writers and comedians need today that maybe they didn’t need back then?
The thing that you always need, and I do think it’s more celebrated now than it was back then, is you need to really develop your point of view as an artist – a very specific point of view. You have to make yourself vulnerable and be open to new ideas and experiences, so that then you can look inside of yourself and come up with what your creative voice is. I really credit UNCG, specifically Tony Fragola, and the Groundlings, for helping me develop that point of view. That’s like money in the bank. If you have a specific point of view, it’s not going to bump up against anything that anyone else does. I think particularly today – with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and all this content – what’s going to set you apart is your own unique perspective on things. And I think people are hungry for those interesting storytellers in a way that has never been before. My biggest advice would be to be true to yourself and develop the strongest point of view you can.
Interview by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Communications
Photography courtesy of Emily Spivey