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Herc Chats Up Comedy Genius BUFFY Writer Jane_Espenson!!!!

I am – Hercules!!

Jane Espenson makes us laugh so very hard. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER is the finest TV show ever created, and Jane was its secret weapon: the best and funniest BUFFY writer not named Joss Whedon.

Joining the show with its third season, Jane received teleplay credit on a whopping 22 episodes, more than anyone save executive producers Whedon and Marti Noxon.

Before hooking up with the slayer circle, young Jane served on the writing staffs of sitcoms like ELLEN (during its final, best, “lesbian” season) and SOMETHING SO RIGHT and penned episodes for genre hourlongs like STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE and NOWHERE MAN. Subsequent to joining the BUFFY staff she wrote two early installments of ANGEL as well as the third episode of Whedon's short-lived FIREFLY.

Here’s to fill in a few useful details:

Jane Espenson grew up in Ames, Iowa where she watched too much television. At age 13 she attempted to write an episode of M*A*S*H. It didn't work out. She attended college at UC Berkeley, studying linguistics as an undergrad and graduate student. While in grad school she submitted spec episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and got her tiny foot wedged in the last open door of show business. After winning a spot in the Walt Disney writers' fellowship, she worked in sitcoms for a number years. Her first staff job at a drama was her job at Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Thanks to her success there, she's now working on Gilmore Girls as Co-Executive Producer. She often tells people she has the best job in the world.


    Jane’s BUFFY output includes:
  • BAND CANDY (Giles and Joyce revert to unruly teens),

  • EARSHOT (Buffy develops telepathy),

  • HARSH LIGHT OF DAY (Anya gets seriously serious about Xander),

  • PANGS (Xander gets the funny syphilis),

  • A NEW MAN (Giles becomes a demon),

  • SUPERSTAR (Jonathan turns superhero),

  • THE REPLACEMENT (Xander gets Xeroxed),

  • TRIANGLE (Anya’s troll-god ex is summoned),

  • CHECKPOINT (the Watchers Council invades Sunnydale),

  • I WAS MADE TO LOVE YOU (the slayer faces the Aprilbot),

  • INTERVENTION (Spike gets his Buffybot),

  • AFTER LIFE (we learn Buffy was yanked from Heaven),

  • FLOODED (Buffy stresses over plumbing),

  • LIFE SERIAL (the slayer defeats a persistent mummy hand),

  • SAME TIME, SAME PLACE (Dawn becomes a poseable action figure),


  • FIRST DATE (Giles terrifies the Chinese potential with homemade flashcards), and

  • END OF DAYS (Angel clocks Caleb).

Questions were emailed to Jane roughly six at a time. Her first set of responses arrived June 5; her last June 26.


AICN: It makes Herc dizzy with rage to think there’s a you-authored BUFFY: THE ANIMATED SERIES episode gathering dust somewhere. Can you give us its title and some vague idea of what it deals with?

JANE: I actually wrote more than one of these! One of them was called TEENY, in which Buffy got all shrunk up itsy-bitsy. This was great fun because it allowed us to accomplish visuals that would've been impossible with live action. The episode was about feelings of insecurity and obscurity that most of us faced in high school -- a return to the very metaphorical story-telling of seasons one and two of Buffy. Another one that I wrote was called FOOD FIGHT, in which the cafeteria food was revolting (hee hee). This had a cool series of scenes in which spaghetti coalesced itself into a big wiggly demon. And a third episode, whose title is escaping me, (maybe THE BACK ROOM???), involved Buffy being stopped by a security guard for shoplifting and being taken to the store's back room, which was actually a passage to a scary netherworld of judgment and punishment. This one was the last one I wrote, and I never got notes for a rewrite on it, so it may not show up on any sort of list of completed scripts.

AICN: In TEENY, how small did Buffy get? Thumbelina small? Honey, I Shrunk the Slayer small? Beating up white blood cells small? And did she run into a sib of the demon from “Fear Itself”?

JANE: Buffy got Barbie-doll sized teeny and yes, she did face a small demon, a Roika demon which was described as being the size of a Scottie dog. Hope this helps!

AICN: Not to obsess, but will mankind ever get to read this lost work? Or will it remain crated up forever inside some cavernous Fox warehouse, awaiting the attention of “top men” who will never come?

JANE: I suspect mankind's gonna get screwed on this one. The scripts belong to Fox. I never understood why this series was never produced.

AICN: Was Dawn Summers, as Eric Wight’s drawings suggest, to be an ongoing component of the animated series?

JANE: Interestingly, yes. The animated series was set during season one of the live-action series, in which Dawn did not exist, AND YET, she is in the animated series as a... what would she have been?... as a ten or eleven year old. This means, of course, that these are BUFFY'S MEMORIES of what happened during season one... a glimpse into the revised history created by those darn monks. Neat, huh?

AICN: Leaving aside for the moment the many filmed entertainments on which you yourself have labored, what do you believe to be the finest hourlong series ever crafted for American television?

JANE: Hmmm. Good one. I liked MOONLIGHTING, NORTHERN EXPOSURE, TWIN PEAKS, STARSKY AND HUTCH, LAW & ORDER, L.A. LAW, even some of the glory years of GENERAL HOSPITAL. And I have this feeling I'm forgetting some winners. I missed CHINA BEACH, but I know I would've adored it. You know, I've just gotta go with my first instinct: MOONLIGHTING was funny, innovative, genre-busting chaos. Also, apparently, unsustainable. Sigh.

note: I just returned to this question to add MONTY PYTHON, but I see that you have cleverly specified American television... you win this round, Hercules.

AICN: You were maybe seven when STARSKY went off the air, yes?

JANE: Um, yeah... let's say that.

AICN: I fully share your admiration of MOONLIGHTING, NORTHERN EXPOSURE, L.A. LAW and MONTY PYTHON, and TWIN PEAKS was my all-time favorite show before stupid BUFFY came along. If I told you I found LAW & ORDER maddeningly bland, would you look at me like I was on mescaline?

JANE: Oooh. Fightin' words. I love the way LAW AND ORDER doesn't always put their heroes on the side of good. And sometimes they win, sometimes they lose and sometimes for the wrong reasons. I also think it's interesting that there is a series that has remained story-driven in its, what, sixtieth season, right? If not for them, I would argue that all shows eventually become soap operas about the lives of the characters. LAW AND ORDER does what it does and does it well. It may simply be that you're mistaking consistency for blandness, how 'bout that, fella?

AICN: Are you wholly satisfied being one of TV’s most talented, beloved and sought-after scribes, or does ambition drive you these days to create your own potential pilot and feature scripts?

JANE: Blushing from the praise, then collecting myself...

Pilots yes, features no. I've been dipping my brain into the waters of the pilot-fountain more and more these days, and I have a few notions that I'm starting to love. Some are in the Buffy mold, in that they've got extra-normal elements that symobolize ordinary life metaphorically. Others are more realistic. If I create a show, it would be an hour and it would be funny. At least, it would be intended to be funny... whether you actually laugh is up to you.

I'm committed to working exclusively for The GILMORE GIRLS this season, without any "development component" to my deal. That means no pilots. But next year... mmm... look out.

AICN: What was the most entertaining non-musical released to U.S. moviehouses last year?

JANE: Oh my. I'm really a TV person, not a movie person. But you know what I liked? Rob Schneider in THE HOT CHICK ... not a masterpiece, but hooo! Some funny moments! Could it be that this is why I'm not a movie person?

AICN: Do you share my confusion about why so much TV (which is piped into our homes for free) is better than so many movies (which often involve driving, and babysitters and the buying of tickets)? As the amazing BUFFY cast slowly segues into features, I’m frequently appalled by how much better it was served by its small-screen scripts.

JANE: I think it's very natural that TV is better. The system of making television allows for strong individual voices, like Joss's. Movies are always made by committees, and the writer is not at the head of the committee. Thus, mush.

AICN: You wrote the Dawn scenes in CONVERSATIONS WITH DEAD PEOPLE. Now that BUFFY is no more, some fans wonder what Joyce was talking about when she said, “Buffy won’t choose you.” But surely that was just The First messing with Dawnie’s head, yes?

JANE: Yes indeed.

AICN: How big a BUFFY fan were you before you landed on the show’s staff? Were you hooked from WELCOME TO THE HELLMOUTH, or did a particular episode make you sit up and start paying much closer attention?

JANE: I was a huge Buffy fan before I got the job. But I didn't watch from the very start. A friend of mine told me to watch, so I half-heartedly tuned in...and fell in love. I was hooked by THE PACK and by TED -- those are the ones where I have specific memories of watching and saying, I need this show to exist for the world to be a good place. When I decided to make the transition from comedy writer to drama writer, my agent asked me what show would represent my Dream Job. I said BUFFY.

AICN: You’ve stated you prefer to write the “funny stuff” on BUFFY. So why did you decide in 1999 that you wanted to make the leap from sitcoms to drama? Well??

JANE: I had just finished up a year on ELLEN, which I found to be an amazingly wonderful experience. She made everything we wrote better and the room was kind and efficient. Usually, on a sitcom, you consider yourself lucky to be home by midnight, and you often work 'til two or three in the morning. On ELLEN, we wrote good scripts, rewrote them cleverly and were home at nine. When ELLEN ended, I realized I'd be going back to normal sitcom room, and I found it hard to take. Plus, if there was a chance I could work on a show like BUFFY...

I was widely told not to make the jump, that I'd be starting over on the drama side, that I'd lose all the status I'd established in comedy. But I did it anyway, and haven't looked back. And on BUFFY we were home by six.

AICN: You call yourself more a “TV person” than a “movie person.” How much TV does Jane Espenson watch? Were you a fan of GILMORE GIRLS from the onset? Do you watch all three LAW AND ORDERs? What about ALIAS and 24?

JANE: I watch a lot of TV, but I find that recently it's largely oddball stuff: IRON CHEF and JUNKYARD WARS and the History channel (they have this English thing called TIME TEAM), and THE AMAZING RACE. Scripted stuff sometimes feels like homework, like I'm scoping out the competition or something. I do indeed watch all three L AND O's -- maybe because they're so darn story-driven they don't feel like what I do, so they're less like work. I have watched quite a few eps of ALIAS and 24, but have failed to be drawn into either of them... I didn't put in the effort to bond with them. I did not watch GILMORE until recently, but now I adore it... so much funny for the simple sake of funny, and such affectionately drawn characters. It's a show with a great heart to it without being religious schmaltz. I enjoy MONK when I catch it, and I like WILL AND GRACE because it's willing to be goofy and outlandish.

AICN: What about the “non-scripted” shows? Are you watching BIG BROTHER this summer? Does JOE MILLIONAIRE, AMERICAN IDOL or the ROAD RULES/REAL WORLD CHALLENGE do anything for you?

JANE: I loved AMERICAN IDOL (Clay! Clay! Clay!). I love THE AMAZING RACE and SURVIVOR -- they are glories of storytelling-through-editing. I watched JOE MILLIONAIRE and most of THE BACHELOR, but the relationship-based ones are begining to fade for me. I think this is probably true for America, too. I'm getting that same feeling I had when WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE reached saturation point. The pendulum is about to swing back. The best examples of the genre will survive, and the MR. PERSONALITYs are gonna go away and we'll all be the better for it.

AICN: BUFFY, for my money, is the funniest TV series ever broadcast. Since your facility with comedy is so famed, were you ever tapped to “funny-up” the teleplays of others? Or was that strictly young Mr. Whedon’s gig?

JANE: I would love to be hired to do punch-up for movies. But I have never once been approached about it. My agent tells me that studios have their sort of “designated” guys, who get all the punch-up work and that they aren't really searching for new people in this area. But just in case someone sees this who does have a need of this kind... I'M HERE! HIRE ME TO PUNCH UP YOUR FILM! I WILL MAKE WITH THE FUNNY-TYPE WORDS!

AICN: At the ANGEL event at the Museum of TV & Radio a few years ago, Joss Whedon mentioned the original plan was to bring Spike AND Dru back as regulars for BUFFY’s fourth season, but Juliet Landau turned out to be too busy to return. Do you think Buffy and Spike would have eventually coupled-up anyway had Dru returned?

JANE: Oh yeah. Joss doesn't like to leave any couple together too long. We'd already seen what Spike and Dru were like as a couple. If she'd returned I think we'd've played 'em like an interesting divorced couple -- a bit of heat and love still there between them, but mostly challenged into conflict and jealousy.

AICN: You joining GILMORE GIRLS seems, admittedly, like a perfect match – but, wait a minute, maybe too perfect. GILMORE GIRLS is already probably the funniest show left on television. It frankly doesn’t need a Jane Espenson the way, say, a BOSTON PUBLIC or EVERWOOD might. Why did you decide to join GILMORE GIRLS instead of a show in desperate need of your comic acumen? And, hey missy, weren’t you going to work for THE OC at some point?

JANE: I did work for THE OC, during all of hiatus. My work there ended when GILMORE began. I helped them plan stories and I wrote a script which is intended to air as the third episode. And thus, off to Gilmore. Hmm... now the interesting question...

Do they want big funny on BOSTON PUBLIC? Probably not so much. A show has to still feel like that show. And it's not like the people at Gilmore are sitting around going, "we're so funny, we sure don't need another jokesmith around here, let's get one a' them real serious writers."

AICN: You got your foot in the showbiz door via STAR TREK’s unique open submission policy. How big a STAR TREK geek are you, anyway?

JANE: Only medium sized. I loved original TREK and TNG, and watched the early years of DS9, but then I kinda stopped. Here's a measure: I know who wrote THE TROUBLE WITH TRIBBLES. I know who invented the warp drive. I own a copy of Brent Spiner's album. I think I remember Spock's mothers maiden name. But I don't know who played Tom Paris. I don't know what the nacelles do. I don't know the name of the episode where Kirk switched bodies with the woman and spent the episode swanning about and getting hysterical.

AICN: Okay, smarty-pants. What was Spock's mother's maiden name? And while we're at it, in which U.S. state was Jim Kirk born?

JANE: Well, Jim Kirk was born in Iowa like all right-thinking people.

And (refraining from looking it up) I think Spock's mom was Amanda Grayson????

AICN: You get a call tomorrow from Les Moonves. “Jane,” Les purrs in an inexplicably Montalbanian accent, “this coming season is the last for poor ENTERPRISE. We start over with a new TREK series in autumn 2004 and I must insist you take complete creative control of the franchise!” And you have to, because in this scenario Les has photos of your boyfriend doing ghastly things to Miss Kitty Fantastico. What fresh STAR TREK premise do you pitch?

JANE: Man oh man, these are fun questions. Well, I think the best way to freshen it is to stop freshening it so damn much. The original worked. It had stand-alone adventures on planets that illustrated the human condition metaphorically (much the way Buffy's demons are employed), and it had CONFLICT BETWEEN A SMALL NUMBER OF REGULAR CHARACTERS!!! I don't know why we just accept this mandate that there's no conflict among our team. That was not in the original -- Spock vs. McCoy as the warring left and right brain of Kirk was the perfect physicalization of Kirk's internal conflicts. (And by the way, Spock was not emotional because of his human side... he just didn't realize how many of the emotions he struggled with were natural to Vulcans, so stop playing them so damn dull.) So... something like that.

Now, that's still pretty vague. So let's see if we can put some skin on those bones. How about a very young male captain, 23, fresh out of the academy, still learning his stuff. He's teamed with a more experienced "number one" who thinks this is his chance to command, because he can control this kid -- but he does it with total charm and a straightforward excitement about space that's infectious to everyone. Working against this likably manipulative person is a woman, maybe a reformed Romulan-type or similar, the head science officer or councellor perhaps, and she encourages the kid captain to take charge, guides him. Is she genuine, or is she hoping he'll make mistakes? The captain believes in her. Usually.

And there's a Ferengi, because they're funny; and there is a Spock/Data/doctor character too, someone to observe and admire humans and try to be like us, because that always touches my heart. Maybe it's a human who was raised in an alien culture and finds himself unable to find his own humanity now?? Have they done that?

I don't know if any of this would work, but that's my first five minutes of thinking about it. <

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