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For Gemma Baker, working in comedy was always the plan. After making a go at acting, and realizing (with some guidance) that her talents would be best focused on writing, she spent years juggling that passion with an office managerial job.
It took a chance meeting with uber-producer Chuck Lorre at a party to change Baker’s life. And from that, she went from a staff writer on Two and a Half Men to co-creating Mom with Lorre and Eddie Gorodetsky.
With Mom entering its third season this November — and star Allison Janney up for an Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series (after taking home the gold in the same category last year) — Baker opened up about her journey to get here.
I’ve loved television and comedy forever. My plan was to be on Saturday Night Live. My parents would always watch Saturday Night Live, and they wouldn’t let me watch it with them. When I was little, I’d drink a lot of water before bed, so I’d have to go to the bathroom, and it would wake me up around that time. And then I would sneak into the living room and try and watch it behind them. I just loved that show. That’s what I wanted to do, that was the plan, from a pretty young age.
The plan was to be an actor, and that didn’t work out. I definitely tried. I went to NYU for acting, and I did the whole audition/waitress thing for a very long time. I eventually moved out to LA to pursue acting, and I studied at The Groundlings, which was an incredible training. It was sort of there that it was pointed out to me that my writing was really strong, and I might want to focus on that. And it was actually very good advice.
I started doing stand-up in college, and then when I moved to LA, I fell into performing personal essays. That was great, because my writing has always been funny, but a little sad. And when you try to do that in a stand-up situation, especially in the shows I was doing, it doesn’t go over really well. And so in performing essays, I was able to go to deeper places. I really enjoyed that, and I want to get back to do that sometime, because I had such a great experience doing that.
[Chuck Lorre] and I had a mutual friend, I didn’t realize. I was at a party, it wasn’t an industry thing, and I talked to him. I didn’t recognize him, and I’m so glad I didn’t, because I wouldn’t be in the position I am in now — I wouldn’t have been able to complete a sentence. I’m very shy, and I would have been very intimidated. And at the end of the night, a friend mentioned I had talked with someone that night who wanted to help me in my career.
At that point, I had just had a baby. I was an office manager, and I had been in that job for a long time. And I was losing hope a little bit. I was performing as much as I could, but at work, during the day, I was Googling the best places to live with a family — that this [writing career] maybe wasn’t going to happen, and it was time to do something else. And of course, that was very upsetting to me, but I thought maybe it was the best thing. It’s that thing of knowing when to keep trying, and knowing when, maybe, it’s not going to work. It’s that really hard question, and I was just starting to ask that.
So when [my friend] said, “You met someone who wants to help you with your writing,” I was like, “Great!” And then he gave me Chuck’s card. And I couldn’t believe it. Wow. I called him the next day, and he liked how I told a story. And he asked if I ever considered writing for television. Of course I had considered it many times in my mind, but I didn’t know if I could do it. So, I sent him my writing, and we went back and forth for a while.
[Months later,] I was at CVS with my two-year-old at this point, and it’s Chuck’s assistant, and she says, “I have Chuck Lorre on the phone for you.” And I’m in CVS with a two-year-old, and at that moment, my son goes over and picks up a soccer ball, and runs into the liquor aisle. I’m on hold, and trying to deal with that — my son was meltdown adjacent, and I’m looking around CVS like, “Who can hold my baby?” And she gets back on the phone, and the call had dropped on his end, and I said, “Can he call me tomorrow?” I couldn’t believe those words were coming out of my mouth; here is the call I’ve been waiting for, for like a year, and I don’t think she could believe it either. But that’s the thing about having a kid: it puts things in perspective in this crazy way. And so he did, he called the next day, and I was at my job that I had been at for eight years, and he offered me a job as a staff writer on Two and a Half Men. I had taken the call in a conference room, and I walked out of the conference room in a daze, and I gave two and a half days notice. The people I worked with were so supportive, because they knew I had been trying for so long to make this happen. They had gone to all of my performances and all my shows. They had a special staff meeting where they announced I was leaving, and everyone was in tears and so happy. Those phone calls to my family that day: calling my mom, my husband, and telling them what was happening — those were some of the [best] phone calls I’ve had to make.
That [call] happened around 10 o’clock in the morning, and at 1 o’clock, I was at lunch with Bob Broder, who was going to be my agent, and it felt like my life changed overnight. But it also felt like 13 years of work just sort of caught up to me in one day. I was so excited, I couldn’t believe this was happening, and Bob mentioned my contract would be for 13 weeks. And all of a sudden, I had this moment of panic, because I was leaving this job I had been at for eight years, and all of our health insurance was through my job. I got really nervous, because I was like, “I’m giving up stability and health insurance to do something I don’t know if I can do. I don’t know if I can do this.” It felt crazy. But, of course, it felt much more crazy not to try. What had served me well was just showing up to stuff, so I left that job, and I was scared to do it. Eight weeks into working on Two and a Half Men, they did layoffs at my “very stable” [former] job — and I would have been laid off. So it’s been a good lesson to me that doing the thing that felt risky was actually the safer play. It was a bit of a Sliding Doors situation — I don’t know what would have happened if it wasn’t for Chuck.
My first day [at Two and a Half Men], someone asked me, “Oh, what show were you on before this?” I sort of mumbled, “I was an office manager.” And she was like, “I’m not familiar with that show.” The writers on Two and a Half Men were so supportive and kind to me. They answered all my questions and gave me incredible advice. I think being in a room with all of these people who had worked so long, I was just grateful for every second of it, and continue to be, and just pinching myself that I was there. I’m so grateful to those people for helping me so much in the beginning.
Writing in a group was great because I got to learn and I got to observe, and I got to see how the whole process worked. I was quiet for a while, and I got to just watch how it was done from the best. It was great.
There aren’t words to say how grateful I am to Chuck. He changed my life twice, which is very nice of him. Chuck and Eddie were working on [Mom], and Eddie suggested bringing me in, because it was about a mom, and I was one, and they gave me the opportunity to create the show with them… we just started talking about the show right then and there. That conversation became what the show was about. It happened very quickly.
I just have moments — and my husband and I will have moments — where we’re like, “What?!” Our lives have changed so much in the past four years. I’m surprised Chuck was able to see something in me that I didn’t realize was there. I love my job. I love my job so much. I’m excited to go to work every day, and I didn’t know that would ever get to be the case for me; I’m just so grateful it is.
I hope one day I get to give someone the opportunity Chuck gave me. I think one of the things I’ve learned from my story is anything is possible. I think the thing I offer my friends and other writers is if you keep working at it, eventually, you will hopefully get an opportunity and a chance [to prove yourself] — and to do what you can to be ready for that when it happens. And to just show up for everything you can, and say yes. Because you never know if showing up for a party will change your life.
Personal: She lives in LA with her husband and son.
Hot Project: Mom returns Thursday, Nov. 5 at 9 p.m. on CBS.
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