Michaela Watkins has a knack for crossing entertainment dimensions and coming out on the other side. She went from imitating Joan Rivers on Saturday Night Live to being interviewed by her one-time hero on Rivers’ web series. She starred in a parody of the HBO show Hung, which she made with Diablo Cody and Jill Soloway, only to be cast on the actual show the following year. Now she’s gone from stand-out roles in series like Trophy Wife to co-creating a TV show of her own for other people to stand out in.
That show, Benched tells the story of a corporate lawyer named Nina (played by Eliza Coupe of Happy Endings fame) who has something of a meltdown after being passed over for a promotion, and is forced to take a job in the public defender’s office. The series premiered on the USA network October 28th, to promising ratings, and it’s backed by a supporting cast that includes Maria Bamford and The Office‘s Oscar Nunez. Watkins has been working for years with Damon Jones, her writing partner and fellow member of improv and sketch company The Groundlings, to get the show off the ground–thus completing a journey that began when she originally joined The Groundlings to learn how to write her own material.
As Benched rolls out, Watkins speaks with Co.Create about what she learned from wearing many show business hats, playing characters who are hard to love, and channeling her experience of being let go from Saturday Night Live into the creation of her new show.
After Watkins spent five years after college working in regional theater, she moved to Los Angeles. From almost the moment she arrived, she started getting commercial work. A lot of it was due to a trick she learned which would later affect her approach to serious acting auditions.
“The key to auditioning for commercials is not being shinier than the product you’re supposed to be promoting,” she says. “If I was going in for a commercial for some household cleaning item, I’d dress like a really dowdy Midwestern woman who doesn’t wear makeup but has this little smirk. Everyone around me was so sparkly and pretty, but I would almost always get callbacks. I don’t know how I figured out to do that originally, but it ended up helping me with acting roles later too. It kind of taught me to go in and just be more myself and not have any vanity about it whatsoever.”
One of Watkins’ jobs at the time she was hired for Saturday Night Live may have given a certain group of people wildly unrealistic expectations.
“I was shooting an episode of The New Adventures Of Old Christine. It was just before the taping, and I got a call from a 212 number, and there’s no message,” Watkins recalls. “I thought maybe it was my sister calling from New York because she lives there, but it was the NBC switchboard. There was some phone tag and my phone was dying, but it turned out it was Lorne Michaels’ office and they wanted me to fly to New York for the table read the very next night. Julia Louis-Drefus [the star of Old Christine and a former SNL cast member] took me out for a drink and she talked to me about her experience on the show. Then I went home and packed up my bags and that was it. The funny thing is, I had to get someone to cover the Basic Improv class I was teaching for the next night. I was always drilling my students, “This is not your ticket to SNL. Just be here to learn about improv.” I mean, I’d given them that speech the very last class I taught and then they had to hear I wasn’t there because I was actually on the show.”
Once Watkins officially made it on to Saturday Night Live, she found that one way to get noticed was to say yes to everything.
“One of the things I did on my SNL audition tape was an impression of Arianna Huffington. She was someone I used to do at the bar I was working at back then, just to make people drinking there laugh. So on the tape, I did Arianna Huffington waking up in a frat house. And then, during my first week there, the first thing they asked me to do was Arianna. I guess they just assumed I could do a bunch of other impressions. One day one of the writers, Emily Spivey, asked if I could do Hoda Kotb. I said sure, and then Emily left and I asked Abby Elliott, ‘Who’s Hoda Kotb?’ I wasn’t going to say no, though–it was more airtime–so I watched The Today Show. All I saw were these two crazy women screaming at each other and then one would calm the other one down. I did Hoda, though, and I was pretty much open to doing whatever impression anybody needed.”
After Watkins’ exit from Saturday Night Live came a slow, but steady stream of roles in movies and shows. She had become more visible than ever. Many of the characters Watkins began portraying, however, were people who might be labeled “difficult.” Apparently, there’s something liberating about playing not-so-nice.
“I don’t like to think of myself as being like Janice [from Enlightened] or some of the other characters I’ve played. I’m still drawn to these types, though,” Watkins says. “I think maybe I’m impressed by people who say what’s on their mind, and don’t play into the passive-aggressive bullshit. Maybe it’s because part of me wants to be that way. When I’ve played some of those roles, it’s like I have the chance to tap into things I think about doing sometimes but I’d never really do.”
Throwing herself fully into a creative project not only helped Watkins get through a tough time, it also changed the path of her career and her future.
“Benched is about a person rebuilding from a place of professional and emotional turmoil, which was a personal subject for me, since I was just let go from SNL and coming out of a breakup,” Watkins says. “But I went back to the Groundlings and within two weeks I was back at Salvation Army again, buying costumes for shows. The important thing, though, is that I decided I wasn’t just going to be this person who used to be on SNL. I was going to do something else. So I got together with my writing partner Damon [Jones] and we started writing scripts. It felt great to be working on something, and it also taught me that you have to just write whatever you want to create. Write it all out. By the time Damon and I went to a pitch meeting, they said, ‘Oh, we’ve been wanting to do a legal comedy for years, but we couldn’t figure out how to make it work.’ We’d written so many scripts already and knew so much about this show, though, that we were able to say, ‘Well, we figured out how to make it work.'”