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Passing The Barf Test: How Kay Cannon Went From Improv To Pitch Perfect

Former 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon talks about her transition to the big screen and how opportunities tend to make her feel ill.

During the first season of 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s former NBC show-within-a-show sitcom, a joke is made about the character Toofer–a pretentious Harvard grad, who never lets anyone forget his credentials–and how he’d been in his college a capella group. When Kay Cannon, a writer on the show, read the line, she stopped short. “I was like, ‘Who wrote that line? It’s so funny!,’ Cannon recalls.

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Kay CannonPhoto: Flickr user Rubenstein

“And Robert Carlock”–the showrunner along with Fey–“was like, ‘That’s a real thing. There’s a bunch of groups that are really popular and they compete and stuff.’ And I turned to the group and was like, ‘Somebody needs to write a movie about that!'”

In the end, Cannon herself wrote the movie, Pitch Perfect, the 2012 comedy about a group of misfit college women who come together in the name of instrument-free crooning. The film, which starred Anna Kendrick as the group’s cynically grounded center and comedian Rebel Wilson as its show-stealing sidekick, became something of a cult classic with tweens (and their boyfriends), and unsurprisingly, Universal asked Cannon to write a sequel. The new movie, which is bigger and broader–Kendrick and her team, The Barden Bellas, now compete on an international level–debuts May 15, in the thick of blockbuster movie kickoff season. As a result, Cannon has been catapulted into the ranks of top female screenwriters in Hollywood, though she says it’s a pressure she doesn’t necessarily enjoy.

“Don’t make me want to throw up,” she says, when it’s suggested that Universal may ask her to deliver a third installment.

The impulse to “barf,” Cannon says, is actually a recurring theme in her fast-rising career. She says that she knows something will end up being worthwhile only if it makes her feel nauseous. For instance, the time she pulled an all-nighter in order to deliver a spec script to Fey when she was auditioning to be a writer on 30 Rock. Her script ended up being Cannon’s ticket out of a nascent improv career into a job on one of TV’s hottest sitcoms. She recently spoke with Co.Create about how she’s made a series of such crucial transitions–from performing to writing; from improv to TV; and from television to the big screen–and how almost all of them, inevitably, made her feel sick.


Seeing Comedy as a Real Job

Cannon grew up outside of Chicago always knowing she wanted to perform. She got a theater degree in college (“I did a ton of plays”), but afterwards pursued a masters in education, not thinking the arts would actually translate into a career. That changed when she saw her first Second City show.

“Rachel Dratch was in that show and I was like, ‘That’s what I want to be. That’s what I want to do.’ I didn’t know how you could make a living necessarily by doing this, but I enrolled in classes at Second City. When I finished grad school I moved to Chicago proper and I was at all the different improv schools, taking classes or interning. And I was temping at a publishing company called Everyday Learning, a publishing company for textbooks for school. I was crazy poor, but I was learning and putting myself out there and getting hired to do whatever gig I could, and auditioning.”

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Soon, Cannon started landing real jobs, such as one with Boom Chicago, an American comedy troupe in Amsterdam where Cannon met (and ran a marathon with) Seth Meyers. And then Second City, which hired Cannon for the company’s Las Vegas act at the Flamingo Hotel. (It has since shut down.)

“Second City Las Vegas is very different from Second City in Chicago on the main stage, where they do improv sets. That’s how they kind of hone material, kind of work up to new material. In Vegas it’s a transient town. People want to see a show real quick and then go back to gambling. So we didn’t have that third act where you try things out. We wrote an original show. So that was the first time where I had to sit down and write a sketch. We would kind of do some improv in the middle of the show to try and help us, but it really was, you had to sit down and bring in stuff and write. And I did that show with Jason Sudeikis (whom she married; they have since divorced) and Joe Kelly, who wrote for Saturday Night Live and How I Met Your Mother. And Joe was the guy who would bring in three to five sketches. And I looked at him and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what you’ve got to to. That’s the kind of work ethic you need to have. Churning out ideas.’ He’s the one that really lit a fire under my butt in terms of writing.”


Tweaking A Dream

Even though Cannon was gaining experience as a comedy writer, her dream was to make it as a performer. So she moved to Los Angeles “with stars in my eyes” and began auditioning for sitcoms. She got call back’s, but she wasn’t booking gigs, and so she decided to starting writing her own material. “I felt like the only way I could really showcase what I can do is if I wrote it for myself,” she says. Then, through Sudeikis, who’d become a writer on SNL, she met and became friends with Tina Fey. When Fey left SNL and began staffing up on her new show on NBC, she asked Cannon if she could see a writing sample.

“I was in a writing class, a spec writing class of Michael McCarthy’s. This was at a time when people were really writing specs of other shows. You don’t see it as much now, but I needed to have one in order to get the job because they wanted to see that I could write for other characters that weren’t my own. So I was in week five of the class, and I was writing a spec of The Office. And Tina was like, ‘We need that spec.’

“I thought I had a week to write it and then a week became a day, and then a night. I stayed up all night and I felt like I was going to barf the whole time. That’s how I knew something good was going to come of this. It’s like, when the producers called for the sequel to Pitch Perfect, I immediately thought I was going to barf–so it was like, okay, I guess I gotta do it! Something good is going to come of this. So I felt like that the whole time.

“I could have made the choice to bet on myself as a performer or an actor and not spent all night writing, and been like, I just need to find the right material. But I really did make the choice. I had watched the pilot (of 30 Rock), and I loved the pilot. I loved all the people involved with 30 Rock. And I was like, I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna work really hard to make this something wonderful and good.”

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After staying up all night writing, “I had a flight the next morning back to L.A. And I remember being in the airport, sending the script in at like 9:29 before my 9:30 flight. And then I got off the plane in L.A. and I had a voice mail message saying they wanted to meet with me.”


Learning to Bring It

30 Rock “for me was like going to college for writing, for sit-coms especially,” Cannon says.

“Tina and Robert Carlock are both from SNL, so they bring that kind of energy to 30 Rock, where the bar is very high, the work has to be great every day. We’ve got to push ourselves and work super hard and fast and be as great as we can be. And it’s never gonna be–it can always be better. And it’s very competitive. Lorne Michaels fosters that sort of competitive atmosphere at SNL. Meaning that it was this loving, nurturing room, you just laugh all day long, but you had to be bringing it. Because the best joke got in. At this point, around the second or third season, everyone wanted to write on 30 Rock. It was the gig to have.

“It wasn’t harsh in that other people made you feel like you weren’t bringing it. You just knew yourself. I think people are harder on themselves and wanted to do great work for Tina. For whatever reason, I think we all felt like she was an underdog, and she wasn’t. But I think you just wanted to do good by her, you just wanted to do good work.”


Cramming a Passion Project into Spare Time

After hearing the line about Toofer and his a cappella past, Cannon spent her lunch hour looking up a cappella groups online. “At that point, I was like, ‘I want to write a movie about collegiate a capella,’ but I didn’t have any time to do any kind of real research. And so basically I just kept telling my agents and friends, This is the idea I have!, with no real idea of what the story could be.”

One of those friends was the actress and filmmaker Elizabeth Banks, who, a year and a half after Cannon shared her idea with her, called Cannon up and said there was a book called Pitch Perfect: The Quest for A Capella Glory by Mickey Rapkin that could serve as her source material. Cannon read the book immediately, then got on a plane from New York to L.A. to meet with Banks and her husband and producing partner Max Handelman. The trio came up with a movie pitch based on Rapkin’s book and sold it to Universal.

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But even as she started writing the script, she was working on 30 Rock, meaning that script writing was delegated to spare moments.

“I would be writing on the subway ride into work, during my lunch hour, on the weekends. I look back and I sort of don’t know how I did it except that I was extremely disciplined and I think that goes back to, I was an athlete growing up and I have that kind of mentality. I can go many hours without fatiguing in terms of working. I sort of thrive on it. And really, it was something I really wanted. I really wanted to write a film and write a funny movie and kind of branch out on my own. Because at 30 Rock you’re working with the best, and I kind of wanted to prove to myself that I could do something else besides being protected by these wonderful writers who are rewriting your stuff and making it even better. So I had my eye on the prize.”

The Creative Price of Success

Other than the fact that she was juggling jobs, Cannon’s experience writing Pitch Perfect was fairly ideal. Because the film didn’t have a huge spotlight on it and was made for a relatively low budget, Cannon had a lot of creative freedom. That changed after the film came out and became a hit. Now it was a Universal franchise, with all of the expectations and demands that come with that designation. Furthermore, Cannon had far less time to write the sequel, which needed to be ready in time for the summer. Oh, and she was pregnant, and felt genuinely sick.

“I was newly pregnant when I found out about the sequel. I was just saying to my husband, I think the only time I’ve had a vacation was when I had a C-section. Then I had 2 weeks where I didn’t have to do any writing!

“Not only was I pregnant, but when we had the first discussions about where, creatively, we wanted to take this group of ladies, my father has just passed away. So there was just a lot of life stuff happening. It was actually a great diversion for me to just be in the world that is the a capella world. I can’t imagine how I would have survived if I was writing a drama. It was kind of nice to be in that happy world. But I was breastfeeding over a computer. It was kind of a mad dash. Because I turned in my first draft two months after my daughter was born and then from January (of 2014) until we started shooting in May it was just every day and every weekend of just trying to make sure the script was where it needed to be before we started shooting.

Cannon also acknowledges the particular creative challenges of working on a sequel to an offbeat hit. There was a freshness to the first film–the character and the a capella universe were a surprise to the audience. “I wanted to make sure to give the fans what they wanted and what I thought they would love,” she says. “So there is a lot of recycling of things you might have seen in the first movie. But I tried to add some twists, like the idea of the ladies being afraid before graduation.

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“The studio also really wanted it to feel bigger, so I would say, too, that there were a lot more cooks in the kitchen in terms of people who had a stake in this and who were giving me notes and wanting it to look a certain way. Whereas on the first one I was kind of on my own. Because I didn’t even know if the movie was going to get made or not so I just was gonna do what I wanted to do. Whereas this one there were stakes and there was a lot of money involved, and it’s a potential franchise. So the idea of the characters going to the a cappella world championships was definitely influenced by the producers, who wanted to make this bigger, broader, better, all that kind of stuff. To heighten the stakes, if you will. So trying to create that, and create Das Sound Machine–the German a cappella group who are the Bellas’ main competition–it was a little nerve-wracking.”

Event the film’s premiere was a more elaborate affair. “At the first one, I got out of my car, had a couple pictures taken of me and then I went in the theater.” However, this premiere, “was crazy. There were so many fans, it was so big, there were over 4,000 people in the audience. It was at the Nokia Theater. And I’d only been to the Nokia for the Emmy’s for 30 Rock, so it was really fun going back. And going back to that feeling of wanting to prove I could do something on my own. I was like, ‘Oh, this has a nice feeling.'”

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety.

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