Back in the late-1980s, when Gina Girolamo and I were languishing on the cruel streets of Mahopac, N.Y., there wasn’t much hope of making it out. One either ran with a gang or sold rock on the corner—sometimes both. The horror stories are long and nightmarish, as you’ll see in my forthcoming memoir, Pearlie G—Straight Outta M-Pac.
While I succumbed to the darkness, however, Gina—once upon a time a smart, perky cheerleader who kicked my ass in a student government election—found a way out. She attended college at UCLA, committed herself to a career in television … and has absolutely soared. During her decade at NBC (mostly as VP of Comedy), she helped develop such hit shows as 30 Rock and My Name is Earl. Now, as the senior vice president of television for Alloy Entertainment, Gina has continued to excel. She is the executive producer of The Lying Game, and recently had her fifth (fifth!) series ordered (to quote her excited e-mail to me: “My ABC pilot just got a 13 episode order!!”).
Here, Gina talks about making a career on TV, the highs of Earl and 30 Rock, the lows of working for a devil in a mini-skirt, what it’s like to crack bottles of Cristal with Tracy Morgan, why she likes Celine Dion more than Speedos and how she still cries during those pre-processed American Idol sob stories.
Gina Girolamo, Mahopac homeslice, welcome to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Gina, I’m gonna ask you something I’ve been itching to ask someone in your position for a long time: Why do we give a shit about movies and TV? I mean, I get the whole “It’s an escape thing,” blah, blah, blah. But I’m always baffled, because, well, it’s not real. What happens on The Lying Game, for example, is 100 percent fiction. Like, not true. The drama is make believe. As is the drama in all non-reality TV shows and films. So why do you think viewers invest so much time and, most baffling, emotion? When, come day’s end, the star walks off the set, smokes a cigarette and gets a massage.
GINA GIROLAMO: Oh, good question. First, how do you know what happens on The Lying Game is 100 percent fiction? I think the escape thing is bigger than blah blah blah. I remember years ago I was talking to Cathy Iannotta’s parents [JEFF’S NOTE: Cathy attended Mahopac High School with us. Lovely woman]—both brilliant, intellectuals and I was lamenting my career choice, feeling like I wasn’t contributing to society … to my surprise they felt the opposite. They helped me realize how important escape and entertainment really is for people. I mean, who doesn’t love to sit on the couch and forget about your life for 30-to-60 minutes?
J.P.: So, we went to high school together, and probably had a few conversations and shared a classroom or two. You were bubbly and perky and a cheerleader, and you kicked my ass in a student government election. But that’s all I know about your path. So, I ask, Gina, what’s your career path. Like, how did you get from gang-infested Mahopac N.Y. to Alloy/a career in television?
G.G.: Well those mean streets of Mahopac and all the “high stakes” cheerleading competitions really prepared me for the cut throat culture that is Hollywood. All kidding aside, I went to Westchester Community College for two years after high school then decided California was for me. I transferred to UCLA and fell in love with Los Angeles. When I was a senior I was working at a swanky gym in Brentwood (lots of celebs, agents and industry types were clients) and one of the clients, an actress, asked me what I wanted to do after school. At that point I thought maybe I would be a teacher … I was a political science major and loved history. I also knew law school wasn’t for me so I thought maybe grad school. This woman basically changed my life with the most superficial advice I have ever received; she said I should work in the entertainment industry for a few years in my 20s because I was, “cute and had a great personality”—funny, right? She had been John Cassavetes assistant when she was in her twenties and said it was the most fun ever. So I got a job as an assistant at Sony in the TV division. I worked for a woman I like to affectionately refer to as “the devil in a miniskirt” (waaay before “The Devil Wears Prada came out”—that book made me weep). It was hell. Seriously the worst experience—I lasted a year then got out. I went to work for an amazing woman at The WB. She really taught me a lot and is still a mentor and friend. I left The WB after three years, got hired at NBC and worked there for almost 11 years! Two years ago the CEO of Alloy cold-called me, we met and he hired me to run his TV company. I guess you could say I fell into my career, but I quickly recognized I have a deep passion and talent for television and have loved building a long career in it.
J.P.: You spent 10 years at NBC, and much of that time as VP comedy. What, exactly, does that mean? I mean, literally, what did your job entail? Was it fun? Torturous?
G.G.: Looking back, I can honestly say yes, so fun. Not without heartache or drama but an incredible life-changing experience. I remember one day I was sitting in the main conference room at NBC with the president of the network, my boss and a few colleagues and we were discussing the fall schedule … and I had this moment where I thought, holy shit, I am here, making this huge decision about what new and returning shows are going to be on the air in September. It was surreal. Sometimes my job was tough but never torturous. I have worked very hard but have also played hard as well—one of my favorite memories was a night that started at the SNL cast after-party, then continued over to Bungalow 8 with Tracy Morgan and many bottles of Cristal.
J.P.: You were part of the development team (if that’s the right word) for 30 Rock—an absolutely fantastic program. What can you tell me about the show’s origins, and what went into taking it from idea to reality?
G.G.: Thank you—I love 30 Rock, too. The experience of working on that show remains one of my most educating and rewarding. Tina Fey was coming off of SNL and NBC made a development deal with her. I was the No. 2 in the comedy department at NBC at the time. She pitched the idea she wanted to write—a behind-the-scenes of an SNL-type comedy show starring her and we knew she wanted to cast Tracy Morgan and Alec Baldwin. We were unsure about a behind-the-scenes show but it’s Tina Fey so you gotta try. So she went off to write the script and have her baby. When we got the script we loved the idea of a Tracy Morgan-type tormenting Tina as a “Mary Tyler Moore”-type … there was some debate again about the behind the scenes but we gave it a try. After making the pilot the network testing was terrible and it looked as though it was not going to get on the air—but how do you say no to that package, Lorne Michaels, Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin and all the talented comedy gems in the supporting roles? So we decided to to make some casting changes and reshoot some scenes. Year one, out of the blue, the show won its first Emmy for outstanding comedy series. The next few years were an incredible blur of awards and amazing stories and guest stars. Working with that group really felt like going to grad school for producing comedy.
J.P.: I have something I tell people all the time—“Fame is bullshit.” Like you, I’ve spent a lot of my career around famous people (in my case, mostly athletes), and I find fame to be a corrupting, warping, messed-up thing that takes nice, normal, respectful people and, oftentimes (certainly not always), injects their egos with massive amounts of steroids. Do you agree or disagree? And why?
G.G.: Well, I think those types exist in all walks of life. Fame is tricky and I have watched it turn people. I try to have a lot of empathy for actors and other talent. Society has put a ridiculous amount of value and pressure on “celebrity.” The stakes financially and emotionally are extraordinarily high and I cannot imagine what that feels like when you try to also live your life. Oftentimes when someone becomes hugely successful, they also become insulated and surrounded by people who are scared and insecure about their place on the list. I think that is what ultimately creates unhealthy environments where egos are allowed to inflate. All that being said, I have also worked with warm, grounded and incredibly nice famous people, too.
J.P.: During your time at NBC you worked on Ed, another excellent show, yet one that didn’t last long enough. I’m wondering what it’s like to have a project that you know, know, know is good and great and high-quality, yet—for some reason—can’t get the traction it needs to survive. Do you need to try and think like a viewer? Like, literally put yourself in their shoes and try to understand?
G.G.: It is the worst, most-helpless feeling ever. I have worked on a few of those … every week it takes a team of about 200 people to produce one episode of TV. Now imagine having to look those people in the eye or get on the phone with them the day those low ratings come in. Depressing! I think we always try to think like a viewer but I also believe that there are different types of viewers. There are the mainstream, CBS-type people who love 2 1/2 Men and all the CSIs. Then there are the coasters (New York, Los Angeles) niche types who prefer cable, and shows like 30 Rock. My personal taste lies more on the niche side of things but I constantly try to study successful mainstream shows and glean as much as I can from their formulas. No one wants to have a classy, critically acclaimed low-rated show—unless, of course, you are HBO. They don’t need ratings as much as they need awards to attract talent and subscribers.
J.P.: What’s the absolute highest moment of your career? The absolute lowest?
G.G.: Well, I am embarrassed to say my zenith keeps moving … first was the season one double Emmy wins for the My Name Is Earl pilot, then 30 Rock’s many Emmy, Golden Globe and other accolades. Then in my first year at Alloy I produced four pilots and all four were ordered to series. Year No. 2 I got to make a pilot for ABC!
The lowest probably was the day of mass firings at NBC a few years ago … in one two-hour period 10 of my colleagues were fired one after the other. Luckily I was spared—but it was the darkest day for me professionally.
J.P.: Why do you think it is that so many former childhood actors wind up drunk/crack addicted/giving out $7 handjobs in a corner of Washington Square Park? Is there something about showbiz and kids that just equals nightmare?
G.G.: Hmm, interesting observation. I think a lot of it has to do with uneducated and misguided parents/guardians. These adults are supposed to help their kids manage the insane amounts of money, their lifestyle, how to be responsible. Instead, oftentimes they buy a big house or a new Jaguar with their kid’s earnings, hang out on the set all day long or go to clubs and parties. Having worked around a lot of young actors it pains me to see what they miss out on by choosing to be on a TV show or movie. I did one series with a 15-year-old girl who was home-schooled and had never been to a school dance. Now I am not saying she is going to become a drug addict because she never went to her prom, but it is an unnatural way to grow up.
J.P.: What sort of impact has the whole reality television boom had on your career and, more broadly, the industry? Do you feel like, 50 years from now, we’ll look back at Jersey Shore and Real Housewives and laugh with disdain? Or is this where TV is headed?
G.G.: Ah, reality TV … once thought of as the killer of scripted shows! I love reality TV. Honestly, what all these docu-soaps and competition shows has done is challenged the way scripted series design characters and worlds. Reality shows have some of the most interesting characters and situations currently on TV—I think for anyone in this business that is a benefit. Now all that said, I absolutely think we will look back on Jersey Shore (which I cannot watch for obvious reasons) and Housewives and laugh with disdain.
J.P.: I’ve spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, and while I love it, it can also beat me down. I don’t mean to dog your adopted hometown, but oftentimes it feels surface and sorta, well, artificial. Like me, you’re a New Yorker. We’re loud and brash and say what’s on our mind. Do you long for that at all?
G.G.: I love L.A. I also kinda love the artifice and superficiality of it—simply stated, it’s a pretty place to live and the weather is mostly great all the time. I had a hard time adjusting when I first moved here—I was a little too loud and brash. I have toned that down a little but the one thing I will never lose is my honesty. Not often a quality valued or desired in my business, but I speak the truth and for better or worse it has always been the right way to play a situation. I will always love New York. I also don’t hesitate to get a little mafioso on someone who crosses me or my people.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH GINA GIROLAMO
• Five greatest sitcoms of all time?: Seinfeld, 30 Rock, I Love Lucy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Will & Grace.
• How do you explain Alf lasting beyond three weeks? And have you ever seen The Puppet?: No idea, never saw the puppet.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, please elaborate: Ha! Yes! Have I told you this story? I was flying home from New York once many years ago, the West Wing was still on NBC and I was in business class where Rob Lowe and Morgan Fairchild both happen to also be seated. We had crazy turbulence—the kind where the flight attendants freak out and strap themselves in. Anyway, I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh my god, I am going to die on this flight and it will be all about Rob and Morgan.”
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Emmanuel Lewis, Whitney Houston, Melissa Fiore, Heavy D, tomato soup, American Idol, your cell phone, the smell of vanilla, Rodak’s Deli, Celine Dion, Andy Pettitte, Rush Limbaugh, Speedos: 1. smell of vanilla (oil, preferably Kiehls); 2. Melissa Fiore; 3. Whitney Houston (mostly because of my memories of belting out that first album at Chantale’s house after school); 4. Rodak’s Deli (I am sentimental); 5. Webster!; 6. Heavy D; 7. American Idol (those stories make me cry every time!); 8. cell phone; 9. Celine; 10. Andy; 11. Rush, 12. Speedos (ew).
• How many times a year do you hear the phrase, “I have an amazing idea for a show …” And how often is the idea genuinely amazing?: Too many to count—sadly when pitched that way, NEVER!
• The TV show that should have been huge, but wasn’t: 30 Rock.
• Three nicest actors you’ve ever worked with: Tina Fey, Dave Annable, Terry O’Quinn.
• Would Los Angeles ably support an NFL franchise? Why?: I am going to say no but truthfully I have no idea.
• Would you rather slice off two of your fingers or watch an endlessly looping reel of the Dana Plato True Hollywood Story for three weeks?: Uh, I take Dana.
• I really think a third lunch-line could speed things up in the cafeteria. Can I please have your vote in the next student council election?: I vote YES!