GAZETTE: “The Chair” deftly combines, and balances, tragedy and comedy. How does that happen?
WYMAN: Get ready, because this is me first as scholar, then as writer. Pretty much no matter what I’m working on, I come back to a short essay Theodor Adorno wrote about how the purpose of art is to disclose while enclosing the violence of the world. You show what is painful, what is sorrowful. The loss of a spouse, the end of a beautiful career, the disastrous lack of intelligibility between mother and daughter — these sorts of really difficult things that happen in the show or things even more difficult. But you also build a frame around them, you give them over so that they can be shared. In every comedy, there is uplift, optimism, integration, a shared experience, a shared future that surrounds whatever loss. Adorno was the biggest crank of all time, but even he came to the conclusion that art itself was in a similar sense lighthearted. I try to keep that in mind on any writing project. I think that’s why I don’t have a lot of trouble with mixing tones or genres. I literally think it’s all comedy in the end and the rest is just internal adjustment.
GAZETTE: How did you transition to screenwriting full time?
WYMAN: My B.A. is in creative writing — technically in poetry writing, though I thought I was going be a fiction writer with, I don’t know, the nicest prosody. I did some criticism and some freelance journalism, and by the middle of my Ph.D. I felt like this academic person with some phony creative frills. And then I got a Facebook message from a friend from Stanford. He wanted to go to dinner the next time I was in New York, and we met at this alarmingly fancy restaurant and as we were eating boar ragù he just came right out and said, “Would you ever want to write a movie? I make movies for a living now.” I said, “No.” And then I went home and tried to become the person he thought I could be, but in secret. I wasn’t going to pass myself off as a screenwriter until I knew if I was good at it.
Over the next year or so, the wonderful creative writing faculty at Harvard let me audit screenwriting classes. I was teaching a little course on comedy and spending all my time with brilliant friends who would engage openly with whatever I wanted to think about or make. I wrote a couple of chunks of feature films, and then out of interest, or some feeling that TV was where interesting stuff was happening, I wrote my first pilot ever in a TV writing workshop. It was an hourlong comedy, and I sent it to my friend from Stanford and he optioned it the same week I submitted my dissertation. A little way down the road, after I had moved to L.A., Amanda Peet read that script and it convinced her I could write.
GAZETTE: You’ve said the bulk of your creative writing training was in poetry. Does that help inform your writing for TV?
WYMAN: I have the kind of brain that thinks of narrative as horizontal and poetry as vertical. Narrative is walking around, you kind of move along a chain of cause and effect, stuff goes by around you or out the car window or whatever. But poetry is transcendent. The movement of it is upward. Time stops. If I had to think through how that connects to my screenwriting, I’d say I want moments of maximum emotional, almost spiritual effect, as much as I want a story that moves forward. I mean, I kind of suspect those are the same kind of moments we share when we laugh together, when someone rearranges our ordinary horizons with a punch line, but maybe that’s a lecture for another day.