'Great News' Showrunner on Finding a Creative Muse in her Mother (Guest Column)

Emmy-winning scribe Tracey Wigfield pens an appreciation for her mother, Kathy — and her onscreen translation, Andrea Martin, eligible for this year's supporting race.
Angela Weiss (Wigield); Courtesy of NBC (Great News)
Briga Heelen and Andrea Martin in 'Great News' with Tracey Wigfield

It’s a common tactic when pitching a pilot to choose a world and characters that are loosely based on the creator’s own experience. A pitch about a “werewolf adjusting to life after divorce” may get a “no thank you,” but if “that actually happened to my uncle!” suddenly you have a 22 episode pick-up. Basing a show on real life gives it instant credibility and assures executives that the creator will never run out of episode ideas. (“Like the time my uncle finally got a date, but it was the night of a full moon!”)

However, this was not the reason I chose to pitch a show about my mother. The reason was that my mother is a hilarious, fully formed sitcom character, and it would have been insane to try to come up with something new when I could just plagiarize Kathy Wigfield’s words, deeds and signature Chico capri pants.

My show, Great News, is the story of a very close mother-daughter relationship like ours that is put to the test when the mother (Andrea Martin) gets an internship at the cable news show where her daughter (Briga Heelen) is a producer. It was really important to me that the relationship wasn’t just about a perpetually eye-rolling daughter dealing with her nuisance of a mom. Now, that’s not to say my mother (nor her TV persona, Carol) is not a nuisance. She called me today to tell me my windows look dirty in a picture I posted on Instagram. But beyond that, she and I share a deep, unbreakable bond. On Great News, Katie isn’t just putting up with her mom; she is as obsessed with Carol as Carol is with Katie. Like Kathy and me, Carol and Katie’s relationship is intertwined and boundary-less in both directions. And at its core, there is a lot of love.

The hardest part about pitching a show with a real, larger-than-life person at the center is finding the right actress to play her. My mom joked that she was available but understood that of course we probably should get a real actress. (If you ever meet her, please never mention Aziz’s parents in Master of None.) When I pitched Great News to Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, they both agreed that the show would only work if we could find a genius comic actress who also had the warmth and authentic positivity to bring Carol to life.

We met with Andrea Martin before I wrote the pilot, and I instantly knew we had found The One. Andrea is the funniest human being on the planet. Plus, she comes from the world of sketch, so she is up for anything. She wants to wear a stupid wig and mom jeans. She doesn’t complain when she has to slap a young male co-worker on the butt or play an emotional scene against a Madame Tussauds wax figure. Even though Carol is a pretty big character, I am always wowed by how real Andrea makes each moment. She plays Carol with such authenticity and heart that you really root for her. You want this hilariously unhinged woman to make it as an intern and embark on a giant new career at an age when most women are packing it in and moving to Boca.

Andrea is a comedy legend. She has been a beloved, multi-talented working actress for almost 50 years, winning two Emmys and racking up more Tony and Drama Desk nominations for featured actress in a musical than any performer in Broadway history. And yet, despite all that, she’s never been the star of her own show. So it feels appropriate that Andrea should be having this moment now, at 70, on a sitcom about chasing your dreams at any age. Andrea could play any role, but only she could play this role, and I’m so grateful she did.

I would love to see Andrea win an Emmy for playing Carol. Not only because she deserves it, but because if anyone else wins, my mother will almost certainly be rushing the stage and Kanye-ing Judith Light.