Katie Dippold storied on making people laugh
NJ.com February 15, 2012
'Parks and Recreation' co-producer, writer Katie Dippold: Making people laugh
by Mark Maurer/The Star-Ledger
Why was her degree from Rutgers in journalism?
Katie Dippold — now one of the most successful comedy writers in the country — says she can only attribute her pursuit of the degree to a long-time love for the movie “The Killing Fields.”
Still, as she spoke to a class of aspiring newshounds at her alma mater last semester, the co-producer and staff writer on “Parks and Recreation” said there was common ground between journalism and making a living by making people laugh: In both pursuits, it’s all about writing, writing more — and then rewriting.
Plus, “the only other thing I ever wanted to do was be an FBI agent, which is not a backup career, you know?” says Dippold, 32.
Dippold, a Freehold Township native, is one of 16 “Parks” writers included in the show’s nomination for best comedy series at the 2012 Writers Guild Awards. The awards are announced Sunday.
This is the first time the Guild has nominated the show, an NBC sitcom focused on a small-town Indiana parks department, now in its fourth season.
Dippold has written seven aired episodes to date, among them “Indianapolis,” in which Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) discovers his favorite steakhouse was shuttered by the health department. She was promoted to co-producer in September, at the start of the show’s current season.
Comedy derailed Dippold’s journalism career early on. During her freshman year at Rutgers, she shared a dorm with Chris Gethard — now an author and comedian who starred in the Comedy Central show “Big Lake” — who introduced her to the sketch troupe the Upright Citizens Brigade, the colorful band that once counted “Parks and Rec” star Amy Poehler in its ranks.
Soon thereafter, Dippold started spending her Sundays taking a train to Manhattan for improvisation classes at the Brigade. Later, as a production intern for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” she first entered a writers’ room for a major TV show — as she was dropping off the staffs’ take-out.
After graduating, she joined one of the regular UCB teams. By day, she was an assistant at a bank in Manhattan, where for three years, she says, she refilled printer trays and fiddled with PowerPoint presentations. But by night, she wrote sketches, performed and attended 1 a.m. rehearsals. Soon, she went on the road with the UCB touring company.
In 2007, she moved to Los Angeles to write for “MADtv.” After that sketch show was canceled in 2009, Dippold’s manager sent an original pilot script of hers to “Parks” show-runner Michael Schur, who responded with a job offer.
Now, with the show’s other staff writers, she spends 60 hours a week for nine months of the year clustered in a room — pitching scenarios, tracking characters and sketching out story arcs. They’ll devote weeks to thinking about the story before penning a single joke, she says.
The writer of a particular episode has about a week to produce a script. When Dippold joined “Parks” in its second season, she remembers submitting a first script that hinged on the jokes. A rookie mistake, she learned.
“Oftentimes, your favorite jokes in the first draft will be the first to go,” Dippold says, “because we have to make sure the story works.”
This year, the show’s season-long arc — which follows earnest Midwestern bureaucrat Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) as she runs for city council — had the writers grappling with big-picture questions and watching reruns of “The West Wing,” she says. They discussed how the election outcome would affect Leslie’s relationship with campaign manager Ben (Adam Scott).
As part of their research on local government, the writers attended council meetings in Los Angeles County. Dippold found one meeting in Burbank unrelentingly dry; she and her comedy cohorts in the back row tried to restrain their laughter.
“There was one man who went up to the microphone, and you couldn’t quite understand what he was saying,” she says. “He was mumbling, but every now and then, you heard him say the word ‘karaoke.' You could gather he was complaining about someone at karaoke, near where he lived."
And while she may not be working for a newspaper or a broadcast news program, to Rutgers media professor Steven Miller, Dippold is still very much a journalist. The mass media sphere of journalism extends to a series like “Parks” that skewers Middle America, he says.
“Social commentators inform more people in some ways than regular journalists do, because it comes from a satirical point of view,” says Miller, who invited his former student to speak in his advanced television-reporting course.
Dippold hopes to write more screenplays and develop a TV show. She continues to improvise onstage with the Los Angeles-based West Coast branch of the Upright Citizens Brigade about once a week, but she says she lacks a burning desire to appear before a camera. Her brief scene as “woman in line” in a 2009 “Parks” episode was cut — and she’s okay with that. Somewhere along the way, Dippold grew ill-disposed to the notion of fame, preferring a backstage role.
“Being famous now sounds kind of terrible,” she says. “It’s not like how it was in old-timey Hollywood. It seems more like constantly having to be terrified when you leave your house.”