Robert Carlock believes he's found the secret to success in Hollywood. "The one thing I've learned," he says of his 25 years in the industry, "is hitch your wagon to Tna Fey."
The writer and executive producer of 30 Rock, Great News, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the new Mr. Mayor, Girls5Eva and Mulligan — more on those later — is referring to his long creative partnership with writer, executive producer and performer Tina Fey. They've collaborated on all those shows, as well as the feature Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (starring Fey) and many a "Weekend Update" segment on Saturday Night Live, where they first met.
"I love being on set; I love working with actors," Carlock says of the production process. "But those moments when you feel like you're having that connection of a sense of humor — of a brain — it's why I love working with Tina."
So it's no surprise that, when explaining their shared comedic sensibility, he chooses the same 30 Rock joke that Fey uses to demonstrate his wit in her 2011 book Bossypants (in which she says his writerly strengths include "erudite references, absurd joke constructions, and White Male Malaise in a multicultural world").
In the bit, Dr. Leo Spaceman (Chris Parnell) enters a hospital waiting room to give an update about a patient. To the horror of those standing by, his lab coat is covered in blood. "What, this ?" he says. "No, no, I was at a costume party earlier this evening.... The hostess' dog attacked me, so I had to stab it."
"Pitching that joke was a real back-and-forth with Tina," Carlock remembers. "Like every other word. There were moments like that from go."
Expressing her admiration for Carlock as a showrunner, Fey cites his commitment to detail and excellence, adding, "He wants to make sure every character is well served and that the story, no matter how silly, is well built." And as a friend? "He is so firmly on your side — like a World War I trench buddy."
Into the trenches they leaped — producing three series across one broadcast network and two streamers, all during a pandemic.
The first: NBC's Mr. Mayor (also available on Peacock and Hulu). Cocreated by Carlock and Fey, the series stars Ted Danson as a former businessman who becomes the mayor of Los Angeles, and Holly Hunter as his deputy. It has already earned a second-season renewal.
One challenge they faced was making their main character funny in an increasingly unfunny world. They decided to imagine a post-Covid existence that deals with the actual minutiae of political office life — partially informed by contacts in the L.A. mayor's office and on the L.A. City Council.
Of course, the ace up their sleeve was a celebrated comedy veteran. "[Ted] makes such a connection to everyone around him," Carlock says. "He does this in person, and it comes through on camera. And he doesn't give himself enough credit as an actor. We accuse him of trolling for compliments, which he admits is exactly what he's doing."
Danson, equally laudatory, says he signed on because of Carlock and Fey. "I've admired them for a very long time, so I didn't even think twice," he reports. "With Robert, you get an amazing script that everybody wants to be part of. That's a given. But he's also a really smart producer. He hires talented people and then lets them do their job, so people love working for him."
In Girls5Eva, a Peacock original, Carlock and Fey do one of the things they do best: writing for strong female characters — four of them, in this case.
The series stars Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Paula Pell and Busy Philipps as the members of a one-hit-wonder '90s pop group that experiences a career resurgence. "I just wanted to do whatever I could to keep working with Meredith Scardino," Carlock says of the show's creator, who was a writer and coexecutive producer on Kimmy Schmidt.
And then there's Mulligan for Netflix, likely premiering next year. Its novel medium — animation — and far-out premise — a society is forced to rebuild after an alien attack — mark a departure for Carlock and Fey.
"I'm really enjoying the additional freedom animation allows," he says. "Not just in terms of being able to have the characters go places or do things that physical production would make impossible or prohibitively expensive, but also the general elasticity that animation allows. You can bend characters and jokes and situations a little more before they break."
Every episode of Girls5Eva and Mulligan, and a few of Mr. Mayor, went through the table-read process over Zoom. This interview is being conducted over Zoom, too, with Carlock speaking from an apartment he keeps in the same building as his main residence.
If the now-ubiquitous bookshelf is supposed to convey a person's interests, Carlock's background — a screen and a projector — has the same effect. At one point his doorbell buzzes. He returns with a plate of food and a tumbler. "Sorry, I'm hiding downstairs in the office. They must have noticed I didn't come up for lunch."
Like many, Carlock and Fey relied on technology to make their juggling act possible during the pandemic. "On the Mr. Mayor set there was a dedicated device — and a very dedicated PA — that would serve as my and Tina's faces on set," Carlock notes. "We could ask for an actor or the director to come talk to us and vice-versa. On our end, we could also see the quad-split [monitor] in a separate window so we could watch rehearsals and takes.
"There were days when Mr. Mayor, Mulligan and Girls5Eva were all doing different things, and I would have three computers running between the room, sets, casting, et cetera. I can't say that I was at my most effective on days like that, but at least the plate-spinning was possible."
The spinning officially started back on September 21, 1972 (that's Carlock's birthdate, and he wants you to know the date that's been posted on Wikipedia is incorrect). He was raised in Weston, Massachusetts, the youngest of four boys (three of whom are writers). His father worked for an investment firm and his mother was a journalist and art critic.
His childhood was an education in comedy. His father, who was largely responsible for those lessons, introduced the young Carlock to such performers as the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks and Bob Newhart, as well as episodes of Saturday Night Live. "And 'Must See TV' — which we're returning," he adds cheekily.
His formal education in comedy began at Harvard, where he wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. Going into the famed university, his plan was to be a student athlete. "I tried to play soccer there but was a bit out of my depth," he says. "And I tried to be a scholar there but was a bit out of my depth. Then I found a bunch of really funny, smart, weird people, and to my horror, realized those were my people."
Yet he didn't think of comedy as a viable career choice until, he says somewhat jokingly, he realized that — as a history and literature major — he hadn't prepared himself for anything else.
"One of the hard things about getting into this business is, unlike getting into law school, there's no set way to do it," he observes. But during his senior year, he visited some friends who had gone on to SNL. "[Model] Elle Macpherson was hanging out in the writers' room," he remembers, "and I thought, 'I could do this.'"
The path to SNL wasn't direct, however. David Letterman's office would reach out every year and ask seniors to submit writing packets. Carlock did, and got an interview, but didn't land the job. So he set his sights on L.A., where he couch-surfed, took meetings and eventually secured an agent.
After six months, he became the last writer hired on The Dana Carvey Show, a sketch- comedy series starring the recent SNL alum. Back to the East Coast he went.
The show was stacked with writing talent, including Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Robert Smigel, Louis C.K., Jon Glaser and Carlock's officemate, Charlie Kaufman — who at the time was crafting the screenplay for Being John Malkovic , the 1999 film that became a cult classic.
"I remember being very aware of how talented everyone around me was and thinking, 'If this is what every staff is like, this is going to be a long road to haul.' Fortunately, most staffs are a lot worse," he quips.
Despite the promising roster, only eight episodes were produced — seven of which aired — a perplexing flop later chronicled in the 2017 Hulu documentary Too Funny to Fail: The Life & Death of The Dana Carvey Show.
"It makes you ask yourself what was missing," Carlock says. "Or what did we do wrong?" That wasn't the only lesson he gleaned from his time on the show. "I remember Dana saying, 'Just give me one good thing.' And I thought, 'Oh, right, this isn't about me. You're going to be on television.'"
Carvey recounts by email: "I have no recollection of this happening, but I know I liked him immediately." Now, in a happy reunion, the comedian is voicing a character on Mulligan. "I record in a small bedroom with a heavy blanket over my head, literally sweating as Robert directs me from 3,000 miles away. We have even acquired a shorthand. Robert: 'Maybe more dastardly?' Me: 'Yes!'"
How best to serve the actor was a lesson that, by his own admission, Carlock took a while to learn. "I was coming from such a writing standpoint, even during SNL," he says of his five years at the famed sketch show, which would prove to be some of his most auspicious. There, he met Fey and learned the mechanics of production.
"SNL allows you to sink or swim on your own," he says. "You can choose your path — some people team up with actors, some do topical things, some really go for written pieces — and I tried to learn all of it." (During that time, he wrote one of SNL's best-known holiday sketches, "NPR's Delicious Dish: Schweddy Balls.")
Neither Carlock nor Fey remember their first meeting, but Carlock does remember when he first saw Fey perform her two-woman sketch show with fellow Second City alum and future SNL cast member Rachel Dratch — it changed his view of Fey from writer to writer-performer. Soon thereafter, she and Jimmy Fallon were moved to the "Weekend Update" desk, with Carlock producing.
"It bonds you," Carlock says, "working late Friday, being back in early Saturday, then the adrenaline of putting on the show."
Their bond survived the next five years, which he spent in L.A. on Friends and its spinoff, Joey, learning how to write story and character arcs.
"I sat at the knee of a lot of people who know story structure," he says. "And I tried to think, 'What would my version of this be? And my voice?' But I really liked writing for Friends. It was an apprenticeship, and I tried to see it that way. And I try to run shows the way those EPs ran that show."
That training was ideal for what came next: Fey called him back to New York to serve as coshowrunner of 30 Rock. "I guess Mike Schur turned her down," he says, laughing.
The NBC show-within-a-show, which followed the head writer (Fey) of a sketch comedy, went on to garner Carlock three consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series and eight more nominations. (He has 21 career nominations in all, for his work on 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Saturday Night Live and the Golden Globes.)
Despite praise from critics ("Tina reads a lot and gives me the summary," he says. "I don't even enjoy good reviews — it's all torture"), 30 Rock was not an immediate ratings success and spent many of its early days on the bubble. "There was this feeling of, let's just pack everything we can into every episode," he says of the show's rapid-fire style, adding that his parents had to watch with closed captioning.
When 30 Rock came to a close after seven seasons, Carlock and Fey agreed informally to continue their creative partnership. Their thinking at the time was, he says, "I guess we're doing this together now, because I can't imagine doing it without you."
So they did, collaborating on two series, four television movies and one feature film in five years — including Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Great News. During this time, Carlock also served as an executive producer of comedian John Mulaney's sitcom, Mulaney, and hung out his own production shingle, Bevel Gears.
"I think SNL trains you wonderfully for feeling like a success one minute and an abject failure the next," Fey writes. "It's been a pleasure riding that rollercoaster with Robert for 20 years now."
By the end of 30 Rock, Carlock says he and Fey were better friends. They had had more kids with their respective spouses, their kids had become friends and, he jokes, they didn't know anyone else, because they'd been underground laboring over the show. "We're lucky it was a success," he says. "Success makes friendship easy."
Executive producers for Mr. Mayor are Carlock, Fey, David Miner and Jeff Richmond; executive producers for Girls5Eva are Carlock, Fey, Scardino, Richmond, Miner and Eric Gurian; executive producers for Mulligan are Carlock, Fey, Gurian, Miner, Sam Means, Scott D. Greenberg and Joel Kuwahara.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2021