Amy Sherman-Palladino: TV's funniest woman

The creator of "Gilmore Girls" talks about her new show, "Bunheads" -- and that zany paper or plastic dance

Published July 29, 2012 10:00PM (EDT)

Sutton Foster (L) and Amy Sherman-Palladino       (Abc Family)
Sutton Foster (L) and Amy Sherman-Palladino (Abc Family)

"Bunheads," currently in the middle of its first season on ABC Family, is one of the best new shows of the summer, and certainly the strangest. It's the story of Michelle, a Vegas dancer played by Sutton Foster, who married a man she barely knew and moved into the house he shared with his dance-instructor mother, Fanny (Kelly Bishop) -- only to have the man die in a car accident soon after.

Michelle has spent five episodes very, very slowly figuring out what she's going to do with her life while navigating her mother-in-law (and her mother-in-law's dance students) and tossing off page upon page of lightning-fast, reference-laden dialogue. Such dialogue is a specialty of "Bunheads" creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, a pretty terrific talker herself, who previously created "Gilmore Girls" and has, in "Bunheads," made a show with the most delightfully unbalanced dialogue-to-plot ratio I've ever seen.

I spoke with Sherman-Palladino about the series, her preference for character over plot, her love of obscure references, her failed series "The Return of Jezebel James," and those wacky dance scenes.

So, the most distinct things about “Bunheads” is its pacing. It is very slowly meandering along, with not much concern for plot. Are you not that interested in plot?

We were actually very plot-stingy on “Gilmore,” too. My thing is characters. I like characters. My first gig was “Roseanne,” in Year 3, and the mantra on “Roseanne” was "make the small big, make the big small"; that's how we were taught to write stories and it stuck. It took four years for Luke and Lorelai to get together, and after four years people were like, "Oh my god, pleeeease, let them get together," whereas if I'd done it in Episode 2 it would've been a juicy moment, but, oh the story themes and the emotional ups and downs we would've missed. So this is the way I've always done stories. And the characters on “Bunheads” are dealing with big life changes. And it is a TV show, we all get that; you've got to get 'em in and get 'em going, but you're talking about people reinventing their lives and starting from scratch and trying to figure out who they are and where they want to be and realizing that all the plans they had for themselves didn't happen. I wanted the journey to be slow and I didn't want Michelle to just immediately become a dance teacher because it was convenient. If you thought you were going to be one thing, to suddenly just shift to something else takes time. And even when you shift to it, there's going to be second thoughts, and why did I do that, and did I give up too soon, and is there still a chance for me to do what it is I wanted to do? So I want to make sure that I hit all those moments, that I don't rush past. And I like hearing people talk to each other. I know everybody is different and everybody likes different things, but I tire of shows where every scene is so goddamn short it feels like they're just about to talk about something, and “Ohhhh” something comes up.

It’s funny, though, because for all your characters' talking, when they're just about to talk about something that's really important, they usually don’t. Fanny and Michelle aren't as dysfunctional as Lorelai and Emily, but they also have this sort of WASPy, "we'll talk, we'll talk, but let's not talk about our feelings" thing going on.

Well, I think that's not just WASPy; I think it's very human. I think it's very human that people talk around what's going on. And this is for no mandate, like nobody's told me to do this, but when you're dealing with a lot of girls and a lot of women, the last thing I want is a lot of treacle, a lot of hugs and kisses, a lot of puppies and unicorns and a lot of, like, big strings in the background. I like to keep it how I feel like it might be in real life, where you're talking around something, something is underneath it, and then at times it bursts through. Fanny had her moment in Episode 2, where she had her emotional outburst, but it wasn't four scenes of it and it wasn't 20 minutes of it. It was potent and it was powerful and it was a hit -- and then it was over. It’s strategic strikes.

Between “Bunheads” and “Gilmore” and even “Jezebel James” your shows have all been about female relationships. Why are you so interested in that?

Why? [Laughing] Well, I have no time for therapy. Honestly it's all on the page. I don't know, it's a fun thing to write, you know? Family stuff is always fun because family will be fucked up ‘til the end of time and it doesn't matter how close people think they are to their family, there's rifts and baggage and undercurrents and that Christmas they'll never forgive you for, and that stuff just never goes away. And that's gold-mine storytelling. “Gilmore” was a family show. This in its own weird way is a family show. It's about Michelle trying to find a family, trying to construct a family. And then “Jezebel” was about two sisters who maybe never, ever would have known each other except for this one circumstance in life.

The thing about “Jezebel” is that though it failed on many, many fronts, including shooting in New York and realizing there are no cameramen who know how to shoot multi-camera in New York at the time, so there would be whole scenes where literally there was not an actor on camera, but a lot of footage of the plants and sofas. But at its core, had it worked — I think the pilot worked, the show never quite gelled — but at the core it's still a theme I'm interested in, which is, family is so important and you feel like, "No matter what, you have your family, no matter what you love your family" and yet, it's like, "Do you?" Families can be the most detrimental things to have in your life. They are sometimes the most poisonous relationships that people have. Sometimes family is the thing that keeps you from ever achieving what you want to achieve, and yet people hold it and hold it and grab it and try to fix it and twist it and turn it. And I just find that fascinating; I just find it fascinating.

When I started writing, I started writing on a very strong female-voiced show. And I will always sort of feel like the women still lag behind the men in terms of good roles, good, juicy roles that they can fight and be mean and be mad and be flawed and fuck up, and still be women, and love men, and want to be with men, and yet have no skills to be with men. Sutton is the first character that I've written that doesn't want to be a mother; it's not in her DNA. So she's going to fulfill that side of herself some other way, but the idea of having kids to her is like, “No.” I've always said the cycle must end with me. There's a magic to that. I have an android power to end the madness. I will end this madness. And Michelle is that sort of extension of my ending the madness. So that's an interesting women character because, originally it was like “Oh, you're going to leave your children and go work, wow!” And then it became, "Oh, you're staying home with your children and you don't work? Wow!" And now it's sort of, “You work and you don't have children at the same time? Wow!" The judgment of women and children shifts constantly and it’s all mental and it's all fun, good stuff to deal with.

How do you write your dialogue?

A lot of it is, when we sit in the writers' room, I will get on tangents and I will pitch sometimes, verbally, the whole scene out.

You’ll actually dictate most of the dialogue?

Yeah, sometimes it's like some sort of aneurysm has happened. A lot of it is the constant yammering of me. And then when I sit down to write, we've gone through the stories, we've gone through these outlines, we've fleshed them out so that by the time I sit at a computer to write, I've got a really good idea of what's going down on paper, and it’s just like let me go.

How much of the dialogue is planned ahead then, like, "I'd like her to talk about this topic in this episode,” and how much is just organic, “here’s the random subject that poured out of me in the writers' room”?

Well, look, story points are story points. Where we veer off into tangents, that's usually just organic, that's usually just sort of where the sad mind takes you. I don’t set out to put a bunch of references in it, and a lot of times I will be pulling references out because there are so many that it's like, "Enough, enough, we get it, you read a newspaper, let's move on." The tangents aren't planned to be ultra-referencey, ultra-quippy. It's my style, it's how I write. And when you've got actors who can do it so well, you write for them because it's fun to write for them. There’s always the time, where like, I want to talk about “Snapped.” And you’re looking for the right time to do it.


It’s this show about women who snap and kill their husbands. It's one of my favorite shows because literally it's almost the same story every single time and at some point they're in love and everything's great and then she snaps and she, like, gets her young son to dismember his body and pour concrete over it. To me it's the most hilarious show on television. So there’ll be references like that. And then there’ll be arguments I have with people, or discussions that I have with people. On “Gilmore” arguments would go straight from happening to the page, constantly. It's just fun with words.

Do you ever take out pop culture references because they’re too obtuse? It doesn’t seem like you’re much concerned about that.

No, I don’t give a shit about that. In “Gilmore” they once tried to get me to take out an Oscar Levant joke, saying nobody knows who Oscar Levant is. And I said, “You know what, there's two or three gay boys watching this show who know who Oscar Levant is and this is for them. And for all those who don't, I talk about Justin Timberlake on the next page, so we’re good.” I actually do not give a shit. I sort of feel like the references are fun and it's almost just as fun if people don't know who they are, and have to ask who they are, than if they do.

On the most recent episode of “Bunheads,” Sasha was being fresh and Michelle said, like, if you keep being so snarky you’re going to get your own dirty girl show on NBC. What do you make of that trend, the dirty girl sitcom trend?

I think it's a weird trend! I always find it funny that people take the wrong message from any success. Like “Bridesmaids” comes out and people go, "Oh, women are funny, they shit in the street. Let's make sure now everybody shits in the street!” Not like, “OK, but it's a well-constructed script with very good characters and the core of it is actually about female relationships,” nothing about that. They take the one shitting in the street thing and then for months you're going to have every actress that you love shitting in the street. Until they realize, “Oh, it doesn't work that way, I guess, so now women aren't funny." No, no, no! It's not that women aren't funny, it's just that all of them don't have to shit in the street!

I feel the same way with these sitcoms. It felt like dirty girl sitcoms, that’s the way to go, and NBC especially made these giant deals with like Whitney Cummings, and Chelsea Handler, and Sarah Silverman and all these women whose stand-up acts are so filthy they will never translate to television because they can't! Sarah Silverman cannot do her act on TV, it’s not allowed! I'm not saying that her sitcom won't be great — or I don’t know if they picked her up or not — but it's like this trend of like “OK, so that's how every woman is going to be now.”

When you’re casting someone, you must have to make sure they can handle the rhythm of your dialogue. Obviously Foster can. How did you guys decide to work together?

I didn't know Sutton personally at all. I'd seen her in some things, but I went to see “Anything Goes” because I like to see everything that's out there. Because if it's going to be nominated for a Tony, I want to know about it, so then when what I really liked doesn't win I can be really mad about it. So I was watching “Anything Goes,” and it’s an old show, it's very [“Guys n’ Dolls" accent] "Hiya, heya folks, how are you doll?” But there was something about Sutton. She's very tall and she's wearing this bleached blond wig and she's very glamorous and has this phenomenal voice, but she also has this really vulnerable side that came out in odd moments in a show that's such a slip on the banana peel kind of show. So I called ABC Family, and I said, “Well, I'm basing this on absolutely nothing but I feel like she is our girl.”

We needed somebody who could legitimately dance and do comedy and act. I always write these uncastable parts, these parts that are like, “Good luck with that one!” And it'll all come down to, like, there was one Lauren Graham, there was one Kelly Bishop.  So ABC Family was like, great, and I said let me meet her to make sure that she doesn't eat kittens and she's not batshit crazy. So I called Creative Artists Agency, who either handles everybody or will kidnap them for you, and Sutton and I sat down and we had lunch. And this glamorous, blond-haired glamazon that I had seen onstage before had her hair in a ponytail and no makeup on, and she’s eating chicken fingers and she looks 14 years old. And she was just so kind and very like tomboy girl next door and there were already so many levels to her and so many chameleon-like aspects to her that I was thinking, “Oh, this girl's really, really, super interesting.”

It literally was a feeling, a gut thing. It was like, if this works it's going to be genius. And if it doesn't work, well, who cares? I have failed with Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose, so, if I could fuck it up with those two talents, you know, what the hell, I can fuck it up at anything. But from day one it was just a match made in heaven. I almost can't imagine writing for anyone but Sutton Foster ever again in my life. Literally, I kid you not, there's nothing she cannot do. It’s like I'm still looking for what is the thing that she cannot do.

Someone pointed out to me that Michelle, where she is in her life, is sort of where Lorelai was when she was 16, completely starting over.

Well, Michelle is a cagey character. The thing about Lorelai and Rory is they were complete open books to each other. Everything was on the table for them, and because of that, that was their special dynamic. Michelle's a lot more guarded about who she gives her affection to. This is a woman who – in the pilot she says, "I've never been in love" — and she has never been in love. And the lovely thing about that for me is she can now fall in love for the first time. And I get to see that. Nobody else gets to see that. It's like, if she'd fallen in love 10 years ago we would've had a good scene like, “When Timmy came over that one day and he bought me a nice turtle, and then I fell in love with Timmy and his turtle,” but it's a back story, it's exposition, we don't get to see it. Now we can see it.

When you were creating the show was it initially about Michelle’s experience, and then you added in the four girls to make it more appropriate for ABC Family?

Well, I took ballet for many, many years, so my whole childhood really revolved around dance class. I grew up around dance, my mother was a dancer. So I was actually working on a play about four little ballerinas and then their mother's on the other side of the glass. And when I talked to Kate Juergens —  who's head of ABC Family, who I had worked with for years on “Gilmore, and we started to talk about “hey, how can we annoy each other some more?” Like “Let’s get the crazy team back together again”—  she really wanted something to attract a certain actress who was interested in performing, in having a character that danced. That was before we all knew that Sutton Foster is the moon and the stars. So originally they'd developed something about a drill team or something like that at a high school, and I said, “Well, I really don't want to do that cause it feels very 'Glee'-ish and there is 'Glee,' and I watch it, and Ryan Murphy made a lot of money off of it.” But, I said I was working on this other thing, so let me noodle, let me go home, let me have five cocktails and see if I can figure out something that would work for you, and that's really how it came together. That kind of character is right up my alley. And then I had these four little girls in my back pocket anyhow so I figured why don't I just sort of do a little mashup and it worked out beautifully.

Thus far, the girls have been a lot less developed than Michelle and Fanny.

Well, Sutton Foster is the star of the show. The center of the show will always, always be Sutton Foster. That's my love, that's my girl, that's my favorite character in the world. And the Fanny-Michelle stuff was, I got Kelly Bishop back into my life again. It's like Christmas every goddamn day. And the thing about my four little girls is, they were very green. And when you've got four green girls, it takes a while for them to find their footing and it takes a while for you to really learn what their strengths are. Look, I've worked with Kelly for years and years and years; I knew her inside and out. I knew that this character was actually a lot more like who Kelly really is. Kelly's really a broad. She’s not refined, not elegant, or severe.  She's a girl who knocks back a couple of martinis and, you know, can dish it. And then Sutton Foster there's literally nothing she cannot do. I believe she was built by Apple, because I just don't know why she can do everything.

But the girls are different, they're young. Some of them have done a little job here and there. My little Sasha has never done any acting at all, ever, she was strictly ballet. And I was asking a lot of these girls. I'm asking them to not only act, but they've got to dance — they do all their own dancing — they've got to stay in shape, they've got to be on point. I knew it was going to take a bit of time to let them be comfortable and let me find out who they are. I mean, Boo and Sasha were always from the get-go very specific. I knew who Boo was because I was Boo. That was me in ballet class. I was the girl with the big ass who could jump and turn and wear a skimpy leotard, but who really wanted to have a nice sandwich afterward. And it took me many years to realize, "Oh, Jews aren't usually ballerinas. They like a sandwich." So that didn’t quite work out for me that way, but it was one of the most wonderful times of my life. And Sasha I knew also, I knew exactly how she was going to be. And Ginny and Melanie are now really coming into focus because those girls themselves are crackerjack now. This little Ginny, she's like a dry wit that sneaks up on you and you realize, “Shit, that girl has hit three jokes out of the ballpark, we gotta give her some more jokes.” And Melanie is a very specific personality. It's all starting to come to fruition.

And, again, that's what's fun about doing a new show. Now the crazy thing abut doing that is how long are they going to let you explore, before they yank your ass off the air. And this network, I love them because they creatively just completely left me alone. And their shows tend to be a little bit more plot-driven or high-concept. Nothing against their other shows, they're lovely shows, but they have different kind of structure than mine.

To be fair, almost every single show on TV is a little more high-concept and has a little different structure than yours.

The thing about network television is this. You go into network TV today and they want to know what the series is in the teaser. Like there's no more premise-pilot world, they want quick, quick, quick. I think that they probably think that Americans have a short attention span, which maybe they do. I think it's also something they're very used to, like get to the plot, get to the plot, get to the plot. It's more unsettling to base scenes on dialogue because then it's totally execution driven. A) It has to be good dialogue; B) it has to be directed well; and C) it has to be performed top-notch, high-caliber or everybody’s going to sleep. So I think it's a scarier tightrope to walk when there's not like “Well, at least we know the bomb's going off here." Or at least you know her heart's going to explode here and someone's going to sew it back together.

Did ABC Family have any pause about your pilot, just because it ends on this beat — where Michelle’s brand-new husband dies — that turns the show into something completely different from what it seemed to be?

I wrote the [husband] part for Alan Ruck, because there is no one more lovable on the face of this world than Alan Ruck. He is Cameron. He's a delicious actor and he's a delicious human being. I wrote it for him because I wanted everybody to be so in love with him that him dying was like a giant hit to the gut. And the bottom line is you want to feel the loss. You want to feel that what Michelle lost was the guy she could've fallen in love with for the first time, the guy who was going to treat her right, with kindness and respect. And the loss for Fanny, who was clearly so connected and intertwined with her son. And yet there's nowhere for the show to go if Michelle’s in a happy marriage. There’s nowhere to go. So to me it was a no-brainer. It was more about, was ABC Family going to try to make me kill him earlier in the pilot, as opposed to at the end of the pilot. And god love 'em, if there was concern expressed among themselves, they kept it from me, because all I got from them was that they were shocked and surprised that he died, which was a little weird because I pitched them the pilot ahead of time. There was nothing but support. They have been nothing but supportive of the creative aspect of the show.

Of course, with the first few shows there was a lot of like, "Oh, seeing the show with the girls would be awfully cool!  We’d love to see the show with girls!” but it was a little harder to put Michelle with the girls at that point because she didn't know the girls, you know? They were just four chicks she spent an hour with and she's got life issues she's dealing with. But now she's starting to teach the girls, now they're starting to intertwine. So now it's more organic. But at the beginning it was a lot of like, “I want to give you what you want, but I've got to remain true to the journey that we're on.” I have to, because that’s the point of the show, for me, is to do this quirky, little — I mean I hate to use the word "quirky" because that makes it seem cutesy and I don't want the show to be cutesy — but just sort of a show that's got its own ebb and flow to it and its own rhythm and rhyme.

Do you worry about ratings? Do you pay attention to ratings?

I only worry about it because they can take you off. I don't go on the Internet. I never go on the Internet. I don’t go on Twitter. I'm not on Facebook. I've seen friends go into dark, dark holes of sadness because of that. Frankly, I don’t have the time or the attention span for it. I would rather go to a movie with my free time than be on the Internet. To me the computer is still where I type my script and that's it. My whole thing about Facebook is I don't understand, you have email. Friends are like, "Yeah, but I want to send you pictures of my kids." And I'm like, “I don't want pictures of your kids! I don't want to see what your children look like, ever.” I don't care about that. I just want to send you a nice message saying, “Hey, want to have dinner on Friday?” and I would like you to respond. That's all I want! My life is very simple.

The thing is, if you go into those Internet worlds, if you’re going to believe the good feedback, you have to believe the bad feedback, and that will drive you off your rocker. If you don't internally have a feel for the show and have a feel for what you like and where you want to go, then you shouldn't be doing the show. You can't look for people to vindicate you, or then when the people go, “You actually suck,” you're going to sit there and go, “Yeah, I actually suck.” And I'm really not emotionally stable enough for that. I cannot hang with that. So, I’m not on the Internet, but I worry about ratings because I want to be able to do the show, I love the show, I love Sutton, I love my girls, I love hanging with them, I just like being with them, and it's a great, fun creative place to work.

Last thing, talk to me about the dances.

We've got this awesome choreographer named Marguerite Derricks. I'll say to her like, "Uhm, so I want to do the rat ballet from 'Nutcracker,' but I want them to be Wall Street corporate guys and I want it to be done around a conference table." And she’s like, OK, and she comes back to me with this dance that's so great. I call her up again and I say, "I want to do like a ballet that's called paper or plastic and it's a war between the checkout cashier and the canvas totes and nature dies at the end." And she's like, OK, and she comes back with this ballet that's phenomenal.

Where does an idea like the paper or plastic dance come from? It’s so zany.

I don’t know. I always knew there was going to be some ballet at the end of that show. And I was thinking it should have some sort of theme to it. And then I just thought it would be really funny if it was paper or plastic and that the canvas tote was the hero and the cashier was kind of the bad guy. It just made me laugh.

And what about the one on the most recent episode, the one with Sasha dancing to “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”

Well, that poor little show was such a good story on paper, but my father died right before that show, like the day before we started. And so I really got behind on that show, it was really surreal and creepy and awful, but my writers' room pulled together and we wrote what I thought was a 77-page script. And then they shot it, and it was five minutes short. And I was like, "How the fuck do you shoot 77 pages and you're that short?! How! How!" And I was like, I can't throw the actors any more material than that, like that's the max I can throw at them. So again, I called my girl Marguerite, and I said you know the They Might be Giants song  “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)"?  I want to do a dance to that with Sasha and two girls. I want you to dress them all in black, black turtlenecks, long sleeves, black tights, smoky makeup, hair down, and I want you to do Sasha's angry dance. And that's literally what happened. That’s what came out of it. And it's a little surreal, it's a little strange, but it warms my heart.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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