On "Parks and Recreation," Retta plays Donna Meagle, the brook-no-BS, boy-crazy, commanding office worker who, occasionally, likes to treat herself. In real life, Retta — a Duke graduate and stand-up comic — has become one of the most prolific and satisfying of celebrity tweeters, hilariously tweet-capping a dozen shows, including "Breaking Bad," "True Blood," "Homeland," "Downton Abbey" and whatever else she happens to be watching. Retta gamely agreed to speak with me all about her tweeting routine, before fielding questions about "Parks," how she got the gig, all the things Donna doesn't say, and the craziness of having a catchphrase.
So you’re best known for being on “Parks and Recreation,” which I’m going to ask you about, but I want to start by talking about your Twitter account, because I love it. You're a really wonderful tweet-capper. Tell me how you got started doing that.
When I first started tweeting I was just doing it because I was watching “Breaking Bad” in my trailer and I was so scared by the assassinating cousins. And when people started responding to me I realized it was like I wasn’t watching it alone. In my first apartment after college, which was my first time living alone, I had a TV with an antenna, and I remember I would sit in front of it, and hold the antenna with my feet, and sometimes just blurt things out to the TV. And Twitter is like watching with people. And when people started telling me, “Oh, I can’t wait for Retta’s recap,” I was like, “People expect me to do this.” Somebody asked me on Twitter, “What else do you watch.” And I was telling them and they were like, “You don’t have ‘Homeland’?” And I was like, “I don’t.” And Showtime P.R. was like, “Well, give me your address, I’ll send it to you.” And I watched that in two, maybe three days.
And now you do a lot of shows. Does it take a lot of time?
I have to set up time for it, because I have to pause the show before I send my tweets and get my head together. That’s why I don’t do it live. I always do it a few days after, sometimes a week after, because I need to have the time. Especially if it’s an HBO show. It’s an hour long, so I need to put aside at least an hour and 45 minutes to do it. And I’m not quick enough to limit stuff to 140 characters. Even when I write my stand-up I have to learn to cut down the unnecessary, so Twitter has taught me to be a little more precise. And it’s also ruined my college-educated English. But I do need the time.
And you just tweet from your phone?
It depends. I usually tweet on my phone, but I either have my iPad or my computer up just in case I have to check spelling or I have it open to the IMDB page of the show so that I know the actor’s names or the correct spellings of the characters’ name.
Ha, you have a command center. How much of your tweeting is about telling jokes, and how much is just stress relief?
Well, there’s funny stuff in “Breaking Bad.” “Homeland” was just stress, pins-and-needles, edge-of-your-seat stress. The best shows to tweet about are the ones that are hilarious, but they might not necessarily be trying to be hilarious. Those are the easiest and the funniest because you’re like “come onnnn.” I don’t do reality TV because to me the joke is already there. Everyone keeps asking me to do the “Honey Boo Boo” show. And I saw an ad for it and I said, “No, absolutely not.” It’s on because it’s ridiculous, so I’m not saying anything that someone hasn’t thought, you know? And I don’t like to support reality TV as an actor because it takes away from our work. I’m not that interested in it, but I am the personality to mainline it. My body is like, “You don’t need this, but it tastes good.” If it's Sunday and I catch a “My Super Sweet 16,” I’m in and I’m in for the day. So I won’t even let myself get a taste. And me talking about it is encouraging it, and encouraging people to do crazier shit so they can get on TV. And it’s just like, really, this is what we’re watching? “Homeland” is on.
What shows do you most like tweeting about?
“True Blood.” “Glee” is very easy to clown because I feel like it’s just crumbling. “Smash”! “Smash” is the ultimate. I love it because I’m all about theater. I did plays in high school and college and it totally brings me back to that feeling: how excited you get on opening night, how it sucks when you’re not learning the dance moves. All of that, I get it, I relate to it. And at first it was great, it didn’t seem “Grease 2,” but then it started falling into that “Grease 2” space. It’s complete comedy to me, and I love tweeting about that.
What’s your relationship to other people on Twitter. Do you respond if they get mad about, say, spoilers?
I don’t want to spoil things, that’s why I do it a little bit later. And if I do spoil something, I mean, you know, I tweet about TV, so don’t read my feed. I had a guy go off on me because he said, “Who do you think you are, America’s not the only country, and we don’t get ‘True Blood’ in Brazil yet.” Are you kidding me?
Did you engage?
Whenever some crazy says something to me, I go to respond and then I’m like, “You know what? Let it go. Just let it go.” So I’m getting a little bit better at it. At first I wanted my point made and heard. But if you’re trying to make your point heard one person at a time, I don’t have that kind of time. Especially when I click on their page and they have 13 followers. I’m like, you don’t even have friends!
But even someone with 13 followers, if they say something mean, sometimes you feel it.
I’m not a machine! I’m always like, this is a crazy person. If they were saying it to me on the street I’d just be like, “Oh, you’re crazy,” but on Twitter I feel like they know my name, so they’re saying it specifically to me. And for me, they know what I look like, they’ve seen pictures of me, so they know exactly who they’re saying whatever vicious or ridiculous thing about. Whereas when I click on their page I see a flower as their profile picture and I don’t even know who I’m angry at.
It sounds pretty labor-intensive all the tweeting you do.
Well, if this acting thing doesn’t work out, maybe I could be a blogger.
I don't think it's going to come to that.
That’s the thing, I’ve loved TV since I was a kid. I was obsessed with TV, and not even thinking that I’d be on it. When I was younger, I was an avid science girl. I was all about, “I’m going to be a doctor.” Even when I graduated I was like, “I’m going to be a doctor.” Even though I did acting and I was in plays and drama clubs in high school and college, I still didn’t think I was going to take it on as a career. I’ve always loved television, but I never had someone to watch it with. People don’t have that kind of time to sit with you and watch TV. But with Twitter I have all these friends to talk about it to. Friends or idiots.
That seems as good a segue as any, so let’s switch to “Parks and Rec.” Donna is more circumspect than you.
People always ask me what Donna and I have in common, and I’m like, our dress size. For sure, she’s only quieter because she has writers and I don’t. Otherwise she’d be talking shit all day long. Trust me, were I allowed to, Donna would have so much to say about so much.
Like about what?
All the foolishness that takes place! First of all, she would probably read Ron a lot more than she does, be like, “I’m a big girl and you need to relax on the bacon.” She would have comments about all of that. Obviously that’s Retta, but because I sit in Donna, I assume that’s what Donna would say. But once you watch Donna, you get the vibe that she chooses her words wisely, that she’s like, “I don’t have time for this craziness. What’s the point?” On Twitter, Donna would be blocking people left and right. Whereas Retta’s like, “What did you fucking say?!”
How did you get cast in “Parks”?
I got called in for an audition. Essentially, my manager said, “It’s glorified background. Do you want to do that? You’re going to be out for pilot season.” And I’m like, “I’m not doing anything, I don’t care, and I’m going to get paid for it, so that’s fine.” The part didn’t have dialogue in the pilot, so they wrote a scene based on a story line that they hoped or expected to put into the show. The scene was, there was a new guy in the office, and he was trying to make friends, and he knew Donna had a favorite author — I can’t remember who it was — so he had bought her a book and was trying to get in using the, “Oh, I like that author” route. So I read for it. And I’m a paranoid auditioner, it makes me so nervous. But I’m great at the meet and greet and the go-see. Once you just start chatting with me, I’m cool. So after I read the part, I remember I was wearing a new watch and Mike Schur [“Parks” showrunner] said, “Oh that’s a cool watch.” And I had just gotten it from the Gilt Group, which at the time was a new website, and I remember just talking and talking and talking about, “Oh my god you have to get invited to the site and I’d be more than happy to invite you because they have really great prices and blah blah blah.” And when I left the room, I was like, “Seriously, that’s what you just talked about, 10 minutes about a frickin' watch?” And I still think that’s why I got the part, because he was just like, “Holy crap … she has a lot to say!” And knowing Greg Daniels [co-creator of “Parks” and the showrunner of the American “Office”] now, he must have been like, “Jesus,” just watching in awe about how much I had to say about this one watch.
Because Greg is quiet?
Greg is a man of few words. He’s super-smart and obviously he’s really talented, but he doesn’t waste words.
So knowing what you know now, you would be embarrassed to talk about a watch for 10 minutes in front of him.
Are you kidding me? I never talk in front of Greg. I try to be as reserved as I can because I don’t want him to think I’m a fucking idiot.
But he must like the talking. He cast you.
Who knows? For all I know, he might have been like, “Do whatever you want to do, she’s crazy."
Have you gotten less nervous around him?
The hunting trip episode, when Donna’s car got shot, I was really paranoid because Greg was directing. I was really scared of Greg. I was totally intimidated by him; this is the guy who created the American “Office” and "King of the Hill.” This is a guy who knows what he’s doing. So when he was directing the episode I didn’t want to screw anything up, I didn’t want to flub any lines. So when it came to the part where we had to do the freaking out about the car, I just went bananas. The stuff that made it into the episode was nothing compared to what I was doing in the rehearsal. I was screaming and crying — like crying. They didn’t show my face because I was leaning toward the car, but I was bawling, bawling about this car. It was to the point where people — like the crew, hair and makeup, the craft team — they just heard screaming and were freaking out like, “What is going on?” And Greg cracked up: “Oh my god, please do that.” And that’s when I stopped being afraid of Greg. I thought, if I can make him laugh, I’ll be able to make it in this show.
And the nervousness probably helped with the losing it.
You know, it had been a very stressful shoot. I have a bad ankle, a bad back, bad knees, and we were out in a field, and they had given me these boots that I couldn’t wear. It was painful. We were out in the woods forever. I remember Rashida [Jones] had gotten hit in the mouth by a car door during a take. We got really scared when that happened. It was just a stressful, stressful shoot. So by that scene, every nerve was exposed. When they were like, lose it, I was all, fuck it, I am about to go bananas. Like screaming, screaming almost in a fetal position on the ground, crying about the car, and Greg cracked up. I didn’t have to be that crazy, I was just doing it because it was rehearsal. It was kind of a release. But also when I’m afraid to do things, I just go balls out. And if they’re like, “Bring it in,” then OK, I’ll bring it in.
Are you working on anything else?
I want to do acting as much as I can. When you’re on contract with a show you can’t really do other shows. It’s hard to do film. I haven’t had the opportunity to even audition much for films because I don’t have an agent.
Why don’t you have an agent? That seems crazy.
I didn’t have an agent before “Parks,” and once you’re on a show they’re not going to make money off of you. So if you’ve already booked something without an agent, unless they really want to hustle during the downtime, there’s seven months when they’re not going to make money off of you.
Did you want to have an agent before "Parks"?
Well, it was hard to find someone who saw me as doing more than just rolling my neck. All the sassy large black girls, I can do, but it’s not the only thing I can do. That’s one of the things that we’re working on — because I do have a manager — to look outside the proverbial box. I did a play a couple of summers ago where I was funny, but I also had a sex scene onstage and I had to cry and break down, and I’m not gonna lie, I was pretty good. And my manager was like, “Wow, I didn’t realize you had that in you.” And I was like, “Yeah, buddy! So feel free to submit me for those things.”
“Parks” has given you, and Aziz Ansari, a catchphrase: “Treat yo self.” There is a lot of "Treat yo self" stuff around on the Internet.
It’s crazy. There was a point where if you were to search “treat yo self” on Twitter the longest amount of time that you could find without it being tweeted was six minutes. I would play this game with my friends, when I go out to eat, I would bet if they searched “treat yo self,” someone had said it within the last six minutes. And if it had been longer than six minutes I’d pay for lunch, and if it had been less then they’d pay. And sure enough I got a lot of free lunches. For Christmas I do gift bags for my friends and the cast, and I put “treat yo self” key chains in there. And people send me pictures of “treat yo self” all the time.
Do you like that?
It’s hilarious to me. People send me pictures of ads that say “treat yourself” and I’m like, “enh, that’s fine.” If they say “treat yo self,” all right. “Treat yourself,” I’m like I know it’s out there, it was a saying before we did it. But I’m always amused by “treat yo self.” Whole Foods did chalk drawings of Aziz in his spa robe and it said “treat yo self” and it was like a special on lotion and things on a chalkboard. I was like, really? And then Trader Joe's did drawings of Ron Swanson when they had a special on bacon. That’s the stuff that’s so amazing to me. I’ve seen two “treat yo self” tattoos, where I’m like, “Yeah, you really need to settle down.”
And this was like maybe two weeks after the episode. It hadn’t gotten to where it is now, where people are saying it all the time, it was when it was like, “Oh, that was a funny episode. Time to go get a tattoo of it.” The first one I got was a girl saying, “You will not believe what my friend got,” and sending a picture. That was on a guy’s calf. And then some guy had one on his arm, and I was like, is that real? Because the one on the calf you could see the red and the swelling and all that. On the arm, I don’t know if I believe that was real.
Is it fun to have a catchphrase?
It is and it isn’t. I don’t mind it yet. It’s still new to me. I keep saying it’s going to be my “Dyn-O-Mite.” JJ Walker! I remember when I was in North Carolina, he came to do stand-up and people were still saying, “Dyn-o-mite,” and this is 20 or 30 years after the fact. And I'm like, “Uhh, I don’t know how that’s going to feel.”
Internet culture has a way of amping these things up. There’s so much supporting material — posters and gifs and inside jokes and, like you said, key chains — for a show like “Parks and Rec” and a phrase like "treat yo self."
This is work, but people enjoy it so much they’re willing to wear it on their T-shirt. If you’re not in it, and you see, like, a “Pedro for President” T-shirt, you think, “Aw cool, that’s from that movie. That was funny. That’s awesome.” But if you’re the guy who was playing Pedro, you’re like, “Holy shit, people are wearing my shit on their chest. They thought it was interesting enough to go buy it and rock it.” It’s the coolest thing.