Anna Fields is an author and filmmaker who’s having a big year. Her book The Girl in the Show: Three Generations of Comedy, Culture and Feminism was released today, she’s developing a TV series based on the book and the first installment of the documentary series by the same name is in the finishing stages.
To put together the book and documentary at the same time, Fields interviewed comedians such as Molly Shannon, Abbi Jacobsen and Lizz Winstead to guide her exploration of the ways in which comedy and feminism have been intertwined throughout the years.
She spoke with Paste about writing the text and creating the documentary simultaneously, as well as diving into the act of creation without being exactly sure how you’re going to do it.
Seeing someone put out an exhaustively researched book like The Girl in the Show , I assumed that you had a background in journalism. But you actually don’t!
No! I went to Brown for undergrad and was a Cognitive Neuroscience major, of all things. I wrote a few articles for The Brown Daily Herald , but didn’t formally study writing. I went to LA after graduation and worked for Oxygen Network, then I ended up writing a play and getting into the MFA writing program at NYU to focus on TV writing.
I had an internship at As the World Turns and I showed that first play to a Creative Executive, and I ended up writing for Guiding Light until the Writer’s Strike happened in 2007. I couldn’t work for TV anymore, so I wrote a proposal for my first book Confessions of a Rebel Debutante and applied to law school at the same time. I figured one of those two things would work out—but they both did! I deferred law school to write the book, then took a semester off for the book tour, another semester off to write on One Life to Live , then I finished law school, wrote and produced two independent films (and a couple web series) and wrote briefly for Cartoon Network.
You were busy! So coming from that experience, what was the genesis of the idea for the book and documentary?
At the 2013 Austin Film Festival, I re-watched the pilot episode for Saturday Night Live . I knew I wanted to do something about Gilda Radnor being a feminist icon. The book title came from the way that Harold Ramis and John Belushi got butts into seats for the Not Ready for Prime Time Players—they would announce that there was “a girl in the show.” Having a woman perform, that was their novelty, their hook.
Why was including the angle of feminism alongside the history of female comedians so important to you?
Well, because feminism gave rise to women in comedy. The relationship is symbiotic. And because of this “chicken-or-the-egg” relationship, comedy itself is really an expression of feminism.
Since I had never directed a documentary before, I reached out to a few producers I knew (who all happened to be male) to get their advice and possibly work with them. They loved the idea but wanted to take feminism out of it and just do a documentary on Gilda.
I didn’t want to do that. One, that’s been done before, and two, that sucks. I didn’t want to do the project if it wasn’t about Gilda’s inherent feminism, so I decided to do it on my own.
Then how did you begin the process of finding people to interview, especially given that this was your first time producing a documentary?
I started shaking the tree, reaching out to anyone I knew in the field of comedy, and asking for them to refer me to comedians and writers they thought would be good for the project. I wrote an email pitch for the project, which my contacts were kind enough to send around, and ended up with WAY too many responses. I have so many amazing interviews—55, total—that the documentary is going to be split into three, possibly four films.
Once you had the list of people to contact, did you just start calling and emailing? Did you go through people’s press reps at all?
Going through any sort of rep is usually a waste of time. I was lucky enough to be contacted by most of the women I ultimately interviewed. They were enthusiastic and wonderful.
It seems like people were eager to do the project and get on board with the concept?
I found that the comedians I spoke with responded to a clear, interesting, well-written idea, followed up with a professional email and/or a call. I truly got lucky with the caliber of women who responded to the premise and wanted to be associated with it.
What stage are you at with editing the documentary right now?
I’m in post-production now and expect to submit to festivals in 2018.
And what are the next steps for both the book and the documentary?
Well, Bustle just named The Girl in the Show one of its top 13 books, and BUST Magazine will be reviewing it for its August/September issue. I’ll also chat about both the book and documentary with Mary Elizabeth Williams, one of my interviewees, during a live Salon Talk on August 9th.
On September 28th, I’ll be attending a work-in-progress screening at Aperture Cinema in Winston-Salem, NC, where I’ll answer questions from attendees who’ll also offer their feedback.
I’m currently working with an amazing development executive and producer, Patty Ivins of Bunim-Murray / PB&J Productions, who has optioned the rights to my book. We’re developing it as a series and reaching out to potential showrunners soon. I couldn’t feel luckier to be surrounded by so many supportive, talented and hardworking women!
Caitlin Kunkel is a comedy writer and satirist whose work has been featured on The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and The Second City. She is the co-founder of The Belladonna, a comedy and satire site for female writers.