The MTV series Awkward. is an irreverent look at the conflict, chaos and humor that defines teenage life. As seen through the eyes of Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards), whose life changes from the moment that a simple accident becomes an epic misunderstanding that is blown way out of proportion, the half-hour episodes are smart, funny, entirely relatable and leave viewers wanting more, every week.
During an exclusive phone interview with Collider, show creator/executive producer/writer/director Lauren Iungerich talked about how Awkward. came about, the universal notion that we can’t control what happens to us but that we can control how we feel about it, speaking to real high school teenagers to keep the dialogue authentic, the challenges of telling the story in just 30 minutes a week, the increasing popularity of the show that has already lead to a Season 2 pick-up, and even gave hints as to what fans can expect from the remainder of the season, leading into the next. She also talked about MTV’s decision to go into production on another pilot that she’s developed, called Dumb Girls, about how the smartest people in life tend to be the dumbest, when it comes to love. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
LAUREN IUNGERICH: It’s a combination of both. I’m a product of a different era. I’m in the Gen X category, not a Millennial. When I grew up in Palos Verdes, there were kids that committed suicide every year, or every other year. You aren’t really thinking about life and death, on those terms, when you’re a teenager. As you get older, you start to think about life and death. The whole notion about being a teenager and the real tagline of it is, “Sometimes being a teenager makes you want to die.” Who hasn’t felt that before? Whether you’re a teenager or you’re 35, you have those moments. You don’t mean them, but it’s how you feel, in the moment. You’re so humiliated, exhausted or exasperated that you feel like, “Oh, kill me now!”
So, I thought about teenagers and what the worst stigma is that you could possibly have in high school. It’s not being pregnant, being gay, being a drug addict or being fat. It’s really being a kid who might be a little unstable. Now, every kid is on Adderall, Welbutrin or Zoloft. It’s a medicated generation. So, I was thinking about that, and thinking about a girl who’s given a stigma that she can’t change anybody’s mind about. It’s an accident, but all the things surrounding the accident make it look like her cry for help. And then, she denies it, and the more you deny it, the more you seem like you’re in denial. It just adds up. It’s how people perceive her. She’s this girl who lives on the outside, so of course, she was probably having those feelings.
How delicate was it to explore the stigma of kids thinking Jenna tried to commit suicide, on a comedy series?
IUNGERICH: I’m not trying to make light of suicide, at all. My grandfather committed suicide. I have had a lot of really close friends and family who have been touched by suicide, and I would never want to make light of it. It’s really a metaphor for what you experience when you’re a kid. She gets this crazy, awful stigma that she can’t control, so it’s about her deciding to take control of how she feels about it. It’s really a message for kids who are in these awful times in their lives. I wanted to do something that was really irreverent and really takes a very satirical look at what it’s like to be a teenager, in an authentic, real, honest way, so you have to go to the dark side, a little bit. Through that dark side, we find the bright light, which is her empowerment of herself. Everybody has that empowerment of self. She starts to realize, on her journey in this show, that she can define who she is, on her own terms.
It’s such a beautiful thing that I struggle with, on a daily basis. You can’t control the things that happen to you, but you can control how you feel about them. I thought that was just a really strong statement for this generation, and really beyond this time of life. I’m in my 30′s, and I’m still struggling with defining myself. I’m working every day to take control of things that are out of my control, and not letting them bring me down or frustrate me, to the point of paralysis. It’s just such a beautiful thing to experience. The journey of the show, even for the adults, is that high school starts in high school, but it never ends because life is high school. That’s a truism that we explore in the show. That’s where Jenna is starting to sense, “Oh, this isn’t going to end when I graduate. This is going to continue with me, for a long time.”
When I was creating this character, I was thinking about her 20-year reunion. She would go to that 20-year reunion and be a totally different person, and probably a really cool person for all the experiences she had as a teenager that defined her, and people would say, “Oh my god, it’s that girl! Remember her?” That stigma will never leave her, from the people who were there when it happened, but she would be able to somehow, through her own exploration of self and defining herself, change their opinions of her, and how great that would be. Jenna is not a loser, and she’s not popular. You can’t put a definition on her. We never explore those kids. There’s a whole realm of kids out there that are just invisible.
IUNGERICH: I think there’s a lot of really good programming on television. What I’ve noticed, through the years of being a professional writer, is the watering down process of story. You have to market to the masses and not offend anybody. To be really authentic and honest, you have to potentially be offensive. So, this project was such a passion project. I wrote it and sold it. I had a terrific executive at MTV, who I pitched it to, totally off-the-cuff. I had thought about it and called him, after a general meeting, and said, “I have this really weird idea, but it’s kind of crazy.” He said, “Come in. Don’t work on it, just pitch me off-the-cuff.” So, I did and he called me back and was like, “Okay, I ran it up the ladder and everybody says it’s super-water cooler. Work on it.” And then, when I sold the show to them, they just let me write the show that I saw.
It was this really amazing hands-off process, as I was developing it. I really wrote my vision for the show, and I wrote a teenage show for my inner 15-year-old self. It’s a love letter to who I was. And, I was really worried when I wrote it because I had to pour so much heart into it and I had to lay things bare that I thought people would judge me for. Teen shows today are either salacious to be salacious, or it’s so middle-of-the-road that it’s condescending to an audience, and I always look at the John Hughes movies of the ‘80s, that I’m a total product of. By no means do I think that I’ve reinvented the wheel with this show, or that I am John Hughes. I am not. He was amazing. I’m just me, and I’m a girly girl. I really thought, when you look at those movies, he was so amazing and so ahead of his time, and he really wasn’t condescending to his characters. He really told the truth, and everything felt really grounded. The heightened comedy came out of what it feels like emotionally when you’re confronted with things that are weird, when you’re a teenager. Tonally, it always felt authentic, and those heightened moments worked because they came from an emotional place.
What I really wanted to do with this show was write a truly honest look at what it is to be a teenager. Jenna (Ashley Rickards) didn’t go into that closet to have sex with Mattie McKibben (Beau Mirchoff). She went into that closet because Matty McKibben wanted to see her and she thought, “I’ll make out with him and maybe he’ll be my boyfriend.” And suddenly, she’s having sex and she hasn’t thought about it. She hasn’t processed it. And then, what happens on the series is that she has time to process what she did. That’s what happens to teenagers so much, and it’s so real. It’s seemingly very scary to put that out there, but that’s what’s happening. By no means, do I think that we are somehow telling kids to go have sex and do drugs and get pregnant. If you tell the truth, then you can sneak in a really empowering message about self-preservation, and I wanted to do that. I wanted to write a show where I could be like, “We’re going to be bold and we’re going to be brave and, at the end of the day, we’re also going to give girls a fairy tale.”
It’s no good, if there’s no romance in there and no pay-off for her struggles. I wanted Jenna to go through some real ups and downs. She makes mistakes, but she’s a good person, and I didn’t want her to be a character who was above it all. She wants people to like her. She cares what other people think. She’s not above it all, like Juno. No disrespect to Juno, which was a great movie and a great character, but Jenna isn’t Juno. She’s nicer than Juno. She cares what people think, and she doesn’t want to hurt anybody. I just wanted to do something that was a little bit more bold, but by no means, do I think I reinvented the wheel. I think I just got lucky with a network that was willing to take some risks, and they see that there’s something very uplifting about the show. There’s a lot of heart. And, through the series, there’s a lot more heart. It gets really emotional and really cool.
Is it challenging to get into the mind of teenagers today and keep the dialogue feeling authentic?
IUNGERICH: Good question. First of all, I usually speak like a teenager and I watch everything that teenagers watch. I also did a focus group with my old high school, and went and talked to 15- and 16-year-olds with my team of writers. We asked them 100 questions. We told the teacher, “If there’s anything that we’re asking them that’s crossing a line, let us know and we can move on.” And she said, “There’s not a question you can ask these kids that will cross a line.” So, we asked the about everything – sex, drugs, everything – and took copious notes. Through it, we came up with a lot of language, and we created a lot of language. We tried to be truly authentic to how kids speak. My voice is the show, so these characters might speak a little bit more thoughtful than an average 15-year-old because we aren’t 15-year-old writers, but kids are really smart.
We just tried to let them take ownership with us, of how they felt, of what they had to say and the language they used. There’s an expression in the show, where the actual title came from, when the kids say “TIA,” which means “This is awkward.” When we were looking to change the name of the show, we went back to that. We couldn’t clear, “This is awkward,” but we could clear Awkward, and it just felt like it encapsulated this awkward situation that Jenna is thrust into, in the pilot, as well as the time of life that is being a teenager. We really got so much out of those kids. It was awesome. And, we do have a lot of teenagers in our show, and they feel like it is representative of how they talk. We try to be authentic, as best we can.
How difficult is it to tell this story in half-hour episodes, that are really only about 20 minutes with commercials? Is it tough to balance telling enough story with not throwing too much into one episodes?
IUNGERICH: It’s an insane challenge, let me tell you. My co-executive producer, Erin Ehrlich, who is the most amazing person in the world, and I both over-write. We tell a lot of story because we know we know we need to tell a lot of story. We also have seven series regulars and we have to tell their stories every week. It’s insanely hard, I will just say that. It took us about eight weeks to really find the groove and the formula of the show. A lot of first-season shows don’t even find their formula until their done with the first season. We found it mid-way through, and then had to go back throughout a lot of episodes and completely start over. It was faster, at that point, but we just had five weeks to churn out most of the season. It was so hard.
I directed one of my episodes – Episode 6, which was a 30-page script – and I probably cut seven pages out of the script. There were seven solid scenes that I had to cut in post because we just didn’t have room. And they were some of the more additive scenes, here and there. They didn’t change the story, but oh, my god. I learned a lot. But, you still have to have room because sometimes you don’t know what’s going to play. You want to shoot more, so that you have that luxury in the editing room, in case something doesn’t work as scripted. That way, you have a back-up and a way to tell the story, and still make it a strong episode. It is really, really hard. Because it is fast and furious, and there is so much story in each episode, we always tried to make sure that the emotional journey was really strong and it never felt like we short-changed Jenna’s journey. It does leave you wanting more, which is a good thing.
IUNGERICH: Well, it was imperative. Some of them really are teenagers. Our cast is really young. Ashley [Rickards] barely qualified to do the pilot because you have to be 18, especially with the sexual nature of the show. They’re all legal. But, what’s so amazing about the cast is that they’re all really strong actors. We lucked out. It’s really hard to find young actors who have so much range. Each one of them is such a defined character. It was hard to write all these voices, but also to find people that really inhabited them, and then brought their own thing to it. I would say that each one of my cast has a little bit of them that’s similar to their character. Not totally because they are their own people, but there’s something about them that they can bring to the character that’s truthful. My casting director told me, “You want to find people who can bring some authenticity because it’s who they really are, in some way,” and she was really smart about that.
What can viewers expect from the remainder of Season 1?
IUNGERICH: The first season is an emotional journey about identity. Jenna’s arc for this season is coming to grips with how she feels about herself, and not letting other people define her, and realizing that that’s a really hard task. She has to get comfortable with who she is and not try to be somebody she’s not. That’s a constant struggle that we all have. I don’t know if we ever graduate to a place where we totally, completely like ourselves. We get better at liking ourselves, but I don’t think we ever get to a point where we’re like, “I like myself.” Even my 93-year-old grandma, before she died, was trying to lose weight. I was like “Grandma, come on, you can’t even walk. Just enjoy yourself.” The show is really, really funny, but it’s so romantic. We’ve got really good twists and turns. Just when you think you know what’s going to happen, you don’t know. We have that mysterious element with who wrote the letter and who Jenna should be with. We get to know who all these characters are, and they seemingly fit a stereotype in some way or another, and then we pull the rug out and we let you know who they are on the other side. Why is Sadie (Molly Tarlov) so mean? You’ll find out. Who is Jake (Brett Davern), as a guy? Who is Matty? Why is Matty hiding his feelings about Jenna? Does he really like her? And, at every turn, just when you think you know what’s good for Jenna, we’ll surprise you again. We tried to keep it as true to life as we could.
IUNGERICH: We had an expert come in and do that. Those kinds of casts don’t really exist, with your arm in that position. That was just a very creative, funny way to really make her stand out. We made two of them, and it took four hours to make each cast. They were open on the side, so she would slip her hand in through the side, and then we would quickly glue her up. Sometimes she would be in that cast for an hour and her arm would be feeling numb, and we would take her out of it. The cast was one of the biggest hiccups for the pilot, just getting that thing on and off of her, and for her to be able to take a break from it.
How reassuring was it that MTV believed in this show enough to pair it with one of its most successful series, Teen Mom?
IUNGERICH: It was very, very flattering. I couldn’t have asked for better promotion for the show. I love Teen Mom. Last season, I was like, “This is one of the best dramas on TV. This is totally like birth control. There’s no way anyone would have a child, when they watch these poor girls struggle with having their children.” The network has been incredible. They’re really been more like partners than a traditional network, in the sense that they are just really fantastically creative, smart and unbelievably supportive of their talent. They just had a good feeling about this show. We were supposed to air in the Fall, and then one of our executives just really fought to put it behind Teen Mom and give it a shot, and they all agreed. They all have a love for the show, and you can feel it with their copious notes about making every cut perfect. It feels really good to be really supported.
How did you approach things with the story, not knowing whether you’d have a Season 2, at the time you wrote it? Did you decide to do a cliffhanger, thinking ahead to where you’d like to take the show?
IUNGERICH: We have a really good cliffhanger, at the end of Season 1, so I have a sense of where I want to take the show next season. When I sold the show, I knew what the first season was going to be in my head. I knew the big bullet points of the show. I knew what I was going to do with the love triangle. I knew what I wanted to do with the letter. And, I had rough arcs for all the characters, in my head. I had an extraordinary group of writers working with me, who were just awesome. Our cliffhanger is really great, and we’ve left some ends to tie up. How we’re going to tie those up will come from really examining relationships and the boundaries that we push in our relationships, in Season 2. This season is really about identity. If we get a second season, we’ll be examining the relationships and the boundaries that we have within those relationships.
IUNGERICH: Immediately. The network would like the show to get back on the air sooner rather than later, which is a wonderful vote of confidence in the show and my incredible production team and cast.
Are there any specific themes or storylines you want to cover in Season 2, that you didn’t get the chance to explore this season? Are there any characters that didn’t interact much in Season 1, that you’d love to write scenes for in Season 2?
IUNGERICH: Now, I can answer that question, but it would spoil what happens at the end of Season 1 and I don’t want to do that. But, I can say that Season 2 is going to be juicy. As for characters that didn’t interact much in Season 1, that is also a bit of a spoiler, since we have only aired four episodes. But, I have plans to have a lot of interesting interactions in Season 2.
MTV has also announced that it will go into production on your pilot for Dumb Girls. When are you looking to shoot that?
IUNGERICH: Sometime in the Fall. We’re still working out the details and have just started casting. I think it will all depend on when we find the right cast.
What can you say about Dumb Girls, and the story and characters you’re looking to explore with that show? Is that going to be another ensemble?
IUNGERICH: Yes, the show is another ensemble and a little bit more of a romp than Awkward. The show explores why the smartest people in life tend to be the dumbest, when it comes to love. I have noticed a common denominator among my smart and successful single friends, who tend to over-analyze and underestimate the opposite sex far more than their peers. The show explores how we can all be our own worst enemies on the path to finding love.
IUNGERICH: Good question. That is a champagne problem and one that I really can’t imagine contemplating at the moment ‘cause it feels so far away, and it’s too overwhelming to process. If it happens, I will be incredibly grateful and probably feel compelled to adopt a child, or a few more cats. Basically, I’d need to do something to pay my good fortune forward. Although, in just contemplating that, it might be easier to get the cats. Kids don’t do well with their moms working all the time. Right?
Are you also looking to branch out into feature writing, or are you just focused on these two shows, for right now?
IUNGERICH: Oh yes, that is the plan. I have been working on a few feature ideas and some new TV ideas. But for now, I am focused on keeping Awkward on the air and making a great second pilot. I am just so incredibly grateful to be working and want to do right by all the wonderful people who put their time, energy and lives into the projects that I write. It takes a village to make anything good, and lucky for me, I happen to be part of an incredible village of great folks. I just hope I can continue to keep working with my village.