ABOVE: KATIE DIPPOLD. STYLING BY LISETTE MORA
As a staff writer on NBC’s Parks and Recreation—probably the biggest-hearted sitcom on TV, and possibly the funniest—Katie Dippold has, to hear her tell it, some of the best co-workers in the world. The show’s star and producer Amy Poehler is “so funny and smart, and also just a really nice, good person.” Its showrunner, Michael Schur, is “really great.” And Rob Lowe? He’s “such a good sport.”
Dippold also speaks highly of her colleagues at her first TV writing job, at MADtv (“I still miss those guys”) and of her old friends at the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York, where she used to write and perform before moving to Los Angeles five years ago (“I loved the people I was doing stuff with there”). Talk to her for a little while about her career, and a pattern emerges: either Dippold has been impossibly lucky, or she is the sort person who’s especially hard to come by in Hollywood: both talented and gracious.
Talk a little longer, and it becomes clear the answer is both. In conversation, Dippold is grounded and sincere. She also has the kind of career that becomes legend to those currently doing what she once did—writing and performing at the UCB at night while working as a temp and as a bank assistant during the day, which she did for three years before landing the job at MADtv and moving to LA. In the five years since, she’s been hired at Parks and written The Heat, a lady-cop comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock and directed by Bridesmaids‘ Paul Feig, which wrapped in the fall and is due out next April. She’s sold two other scripts, too—one stars Happy Endings‘ Adam Pally as a bartender set on proving his ex’s new boyfriend, played by Taran Killam, is a serial killer; the other is about babies attempting a breakout from their day-care center.
We caught up with Dippold while she was getting prepared for a flight—”I always want to come back to a perfectly clean apartment, so that part I get pretty OCD about,” she explained—and discussed her FBI disqualification, her worst sketches, and what’s so great about Bridesmaids.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: What did you think you wanted to do with your life when you were a little kid?
KATIE DIPPOLD: I know it’s a little crazy, but I always wanted to be in the FBI. And I just didn’t think I had a good shot at it, I wasn’t sure. But, I liked journalism and I really liked writing. So, sometimes my dream was to be a comedy writer. And journalism made sense and I really liked it, but I started interning at Conan and taking improv classes, that’s what led to comedy writing.
To be honest, the writing thing was there from the beginning too, because I would write a bunch of mystery stories and stuff like that. But I always had a bad attention span—you could tell I got tired of writing it, because then the stories would always end abruptly.
SYMONDS: [laughs] “And then everyone died.”
DIPPOLD: [laughs] Yeah. I have a few from when I was little. I put Saran Wrap around the front page and the back page to make it look like a book. And then I also ran a little newspaper, which would just be [written on] a typewriter, and I would have one thing. There was always some big scandalous story about my older sister, whenever she made me mad.
DIPPOLD: Yeah, exactly. So then the FBI thing was always just a weird—I guess I just realized that I would rather be reading about the FBI then being in the FBI. But, I also didn’t really have a choice. I applied after college, even though I started doing comedy and everything, I still thought, “I’ll just apply and see what happens.”
For the FBI, you had to apply online, and it was very dry. The first question was they asked me to list all of my full-time employment, and at the time I was just interning and had part-time jobs, so I had to write “No.” And then the next one was, “Are you fluent in any languages?,” and I was a Spanish minor but not fluent, so I had to just write “No.” The next one was, “Have you tried any drug more than three times?,” and I had to write “Yes.” And then I hit “Next” and it was like, “Thank you for your submission,” and that was it. That was the end of my FBI dream.
SYMONDS: Do you ever revisit early comedy writing you did that didn’t work out?
DIPPOLD: Oh, I have piles of terrible sketches. There are so many that, when I look back on it, I feel like, wow—it was pretty aggressive to keep pursuing this career when my writing was so terrible. It sort of blows my mind. But, you know a lot of it is practice, and you just keep doing it over and over again.
SYMONDS: Do you remember anything specific?
DIPPOLD: One of the first sketches I wrote in college was about some guy suing the Mafia for not him letting in because he wasn’t Italian, or something. And I was reading it, and it was just the worst. It read like a court transcript—nothing funny at all.
It’s so hard to get started creatively—it’s really hard to get those first ideas out. You just have to do it over and over again, and hopefully better ones start to come. Also, anytime a good idea comes up, for a long time I think, “Oh, my God, that was so lucky that I thought of that idea, whew, I hope that happens again.” The more you work at it, the more it happens, but it still feels lucky.
SYMONDS: So, you moved to LA five years ago—were you raring to go and totally excited, or were you one of the New York transplants who’s like, “Everything about this sucks”?
DIPPOLD: I was a mix. I was really nervous, because I love New York, and I still miss it. And I was enjoying New York so much; I was performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade all of the time. I felt like, usually people leave New York when they feel tired of it, or burnt out; but I wasn’t there yet, I needed four more years to feel like that. So I was scared of leaving it, but I was also coming here for my first writing job, so I was really excited. There are parts of LA that feel like old-timey Hollywood, which I really love.
SYMONDS: How did you get hired on MADtv?
DIPPOLD: Well, first, UCB had a showcase for actors, and I did that showcase and you had to have six original characters. So, I did it and they liked it, so they flew me out to test for [an acting job]. And then I didn’t get it. I was performing and writing; I felt stronger about writing, but I was still trying for both. So, then I didn’t get it, but then the next time they came around, I ended up auditioning again, and then again, they flew me out to test. It always seemed like they liked some of the ideas of what I was saying, just not how I was saying it. So, I gave them my writer’s packet the second time I went out; they ended up hiring me as a writer.
SYMONDS: Mike Schur, your boss on Parks and Rec, obviously has had such a crazy distinguished career already, and he’s still pretty young. How is he as a leader?
DIPPOLD: He’s really great. After MADtv, I wrote this pilot thinking we’d try to sell it. But then everyone was like, “Oh, this is a ridiculous sample—you would never try to make this, but it’s funny.” I was like, “That was not my intention, but okay.”
SYMONDS: What was it about?
DIPPOLD: It’s actually a horror comedy called Widows Bay. It’s about this Northeastern island town, the mayor. Everything that ever goes wrong in horror movies always goes wrong in this one town; [it’s about] the stress he deals with trying to get people to move there, since no one wants to live there.
SYMONDS: [laughs] Sounds funny to me.
DIPPOLD: Thank you. He read it and he really liked it, so he asked for a meeting. I ended up getting the job off of that. And he’s like the smartest person I know—he’s really great. I felt very lucky to be there, because I didn’t really know anything about writing that kind of television. So, when they would talk about character arcs and all of those terms, I didn’t know how to chime in or anything. I would feel panicked, and I felt like I was too quiet in the room and I wasn’t pitching enough, but he really took his time helping me learn these things rather then just getting frustrated and firing me, which was really nice.
When you’re writing something, you get nervous about things being changed or how it comes out or how it gets cut together. But when he adds something or changes it or rewrites it, it’s always so much better. It’s really nice to have someone in charge who’s that great.
SYMONDS: Parks and Rec has such a consistent vision. There are other comedies on TV that, from episode to episode, will be funny in very different ways, and I think that one thing that Parks and Rec does very well is to maintain the same tone throughout.
DIPPOLD: Yeah, that’s all him. We have a similar sense of humor—[though] I feel like he would disagree and then I would feel insulted—but he’s really good at keeping the heart and making it a kind show. I don’t think he just likes mean-spirited comedy. It’s really easy to just have it be all mean-spirited and stuff, but he doesn’t really want to do that. Except Jerry. All of the mean-spirited comedy is to make fun of Jerry.
SYMONDS: One thing I always wonder when I hear that a writer on a successful show has sold a movie is how they found the time to write it.
DIPPOLD: It was not easy; I was just writing on nights and weekends. It was brutal. Also, because I was writing it on spec, I was so scared that I was gonna look on some news site and see that another version of this movie was being made. So, that kind of fired me up, to just keep thinking, “I’ve already done this much work, I have to finish it soon.” I kept going faster and faster, because I was getting worried that all the work I had done would be for nothing.
SYMONDS: In The Heat, it seems like the relationship between Sandra’s character and Melissa’s character is key. And Parks and Rec handles female friendships in a really interesting and unique way, too. What do you think is missing from the way that female friendships are depicted on screen right now?
DIPPOLD: I just don’t really see it a lot in movies, and I’m sure you feel that way too. Sometimes, when you see females talking in movies, it just doesn’t feel like a conversation I’ve ever had with any of my friends. But, that’s why I love Bridesmaids—the way they would talk felt very real.
This particular one, their relationship, there was a girlfriend I had who is another comedian; she’s different than most female friends. I feel like when you make a new female friend, as adults especially, it’s almost hard to get comfortable, because it’s polite and awkward. For some reason, it’s harder when you’re older. But she wasn’t like that. If you would say something like, “Oh, I feel like this…,” a new female friend would say, “Oh no, no, no.” She would say, “Oh yeah, you’re right to feel that way,” or, “You’re kind of being an asshole right now.” I wasn’t used to that straight talk, and it was an interesting friendship. So, I kind of based a lot of their dynamic in the movie off of that. Because Melissa McCarthy’s character is jabbing at Sandra Bullock’s character the whole movie.
SYMONDS: I can’t wait to see it. How much has it been out of your hands since February? Did you go to set at all?
DIPPOLD: I was there the whole time. Luckily, Paul Feig is incredibly writer-friendly. I’ve always heard once you sell it’s kind of out of your hands, but I’ve had a very fortunate experience. I got to do all of the rewrites, and we were in Boston for three months and on set every day, because he likes having just like a constant stream of punch-ups and alts to jokes. So I would just sit in a chair and I would watch a scene and if I thought of an idea, I’d just hand him a piece of paper with a joke on it.
THE HEAT IS OUT APRIL 5, 2013. PARKS AND RECREATION AIRS THURSDAY NIGHTS AT 8:30 PM ON NBC.
To see more of our 13 Faces of 2013, click here.