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Robert Carlock On 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,' Political Comedy And Returning To Multi-Cam Sitcoms

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 5/03/2016 Matthew Jacobs

Robert Carlock is responsible for several of your televised comedy obsessions: He wrote for "Saturday Night Live" and "Friends" before becoming one of the head honchos on "30 Rock" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." This weekend, the first movie he's written, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot," again finds him in the company of frequent collaborator Tina Fey. 

In "Foxtrot," Fey plays Kim Barker (Baker in the movie), whose 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle recounted her experiences as an unfulfilled TV journalist who hesitantly accepts a role as a war correspondent in the Middle East. The Huffington Post sat down with Carlock a few weeks after CBS green-lit his first multi-cam sitcom (another Fey union) since "Joey" crashed and burned in 2006. We talked to Carlock about his approach to the light drama of "Foxtrot" and what he thinks about the state of the multi-cam landscape.

I know studios are struggling to market adult dramedies right now, but the trailers for this movie are very misleading. The actual movie is so much better!

I think what’s great is that Paramount is committed to making movies like this. These movies don’t get made as much as they did when I was a kid, and not just war comedies, which is a thing, but anything where you have to pay attention. I think it’s probably a hard thing to figure out how to market because I wonder if, just personally, as a viewer and as a writer, people are used to receiving these kinds of movies and whether they have the shorthand to understand what this is. It is dark and light, and it is more naturalistic than just a comedy. It’s not a rom-com, but it has those elements. That’s what I loved about writing it: It’s about people living in this situation, and people, wherever they are, do funny things. They fall in love, they make mistakes, they have work problems -- even if a work problem could be getting killed.

That’s a pretty big work problem.

Yeah, that’s a pretty big one. And how do you cope with that? What kind of behavior does that bring out? Because, at the end of the day, people are people. I loved writing it because Kim’s book is funny but also sad and frustrating and all of the things that I think we’ve experienced being in the Middle East for well more than a decade. So to answer your question, I hope people show up because I really like it and I think it was a hard movie to name for those same reasons. You don’t want to tell people it’s a hilarious comedy, you don’t want to tell people it’s a dark drama, you don’t want it to feel like it’s political.

Is that why you switched from "The Taliban Shuffle" to "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"? 

Yeah, and that wasn’t my decision, but it also did reference something specific in the book that was her dual life between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and this movie is all about Afghanistan. To that end, it didn’t mean anything anymore. So that was the first place where that title fell apart. But also, yeah, having Taliban in the title would suggest something preachier.

With a movie like this, you have to make a decision whether to lean in to the violent political background or to create a plot that's almost an antidote to that landscape?

Right, I think you’re touching on something that I was very conscious of, which was there are things that are inevitably political in their nature, even if the movie doesn’t take a side. My first draft, I think, was around 300 pages. I was like, “Well, OK.” There were threads that just had to go away and there were things where I just felt like I was saying the same thing 100 times. My hope was that this individual person’s experience could be hopeful, that she could come out of it intact or better having had the experience. That was sort of as close to a point as I wanted to get. I hope the sweetness isn’t cloying. I was conscious of, “OK, how do you tell an Afghanistan story that isn’t simply, 'Oh my God, we’re still there and we went to Iraq." I wanted to stay focused on Tina's character, and I wanted to be able to suggest that, in spite of the frustrations and the hardships, she was able to return to some version of her life. 

And there's so much low-hanging fruit to reach for when it comes to depicting cultural divides. 

I have met and talked to a lot of Afghans, and they have a sense of humor. They're people. And it’s very easy to either ignoble or demonize the other, especially when it’s a world where you’ve been at war for 15 years. There was a scene that didn’t make the movie that Kim came and told me about that wasn’t in the book, where she and some friends were at a café and she was complaining that she hadn’t learned any of the Dari swear words and made [Christopher Abbott's character] teach her. You never do that -- you’re talking to a woman, teaching her all these terrible words. He was just laughing and she was laughing, and the table next to them was offended. We shot a version of that scene, which I think was at least good on a character-actor standpoint, to have that interaction of, “Oh OK, we’ve broken though this barrier.”

I think people find a lot of humor wherever they go. Whatever situation they’re in, funny things happen. They use humor to express themselves, even if it’s gallows humor. And certainly the Afghan characters couldn’t be separate from that. I think it was very important that he not just be the person quoting poetry to her.

After running "30 Rock" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," how easy is it to hand over a script and let someone else take the reins?

You know, that’s a great question. First of all, those guys are great and I just trusted them implicitly. I had Tina in there, too! It was a little weird, and yet at the same time, when I got used to it, it was sort of freeing. I would wake up in the morning and go, “Well, maybe I’ll have to adjust some dialogue or something today,” but I don’t have to have a meeting with props and I don’t have to think about making the day. I can just kind of watch it. And sometimes you’d be sitting there watching it and saying, “Why are they doing that? Oh OK, they’re going to get it around the other side,” or whatever it is. You can’t turn that brain off, and it took a little getting used to. Some days you’re just blowing up a car. So you say, “Yeah, I’ll drive out to the desert and watch a car get blown up.” 

It’s interesting that you are going the multi-cam route next. It seems to antithetical to your other recent shows. Are you excited for the transition?

When you have that three-joke-a-page or five-joke-a-page rhythm, like we do on our TV shows, it’s hard to make adjustments in TV. You know, my first shows, “SNL” and then “Friends” -- and “Dana Carvey” before that -- were in front of an audience. “SNL,” of course, is live. That’s what the “L” stands for.

Oh, OK!

Yeah, people aren’t aware. And I love those show nights, both on “SNL” and on “Friends.” That’s a place where, when a joke doesn’t work for an audience, you’re pitching live and you’re doing the scene again and getting different jokes. When that experience can be communicated, I think you have, even at home, a different relationship with those characters when it works. We did a multi-cam last year with a guy named Matt Hubbard, too. I think Tina, coming from improv, knows that feeling of doing a show. If you can get that to communicate through the screen, it’s a different and, in its way, a better experience. It’s like communicating what it’s like to be at a play or another live performance. That’s a long-winded way of saying I’m a believer in multi-cam. I can’t say there’s a ton that I watch right now, so our hope is to do something that is worth watching.

So can you do "30 Rock" with an audience? Can you keep it edgy and multi-cam at the same time?

I don’t think it can be that, exactly. Even when we did the live “30 Rock” episodes, they couldn’t really be “30 Rock.” You don’t have the tools visually and you don’t have the same room to tell a story and to do jokes. Inevitably, it is a little different. But can you do it different in a way that our seven fans will follow us? We're going to try.

"Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" is now in theaters.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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