Catching Up With Mike White


By Jason Lamphier

In the auteur’s uncomfortable and poignant HBO comedy, 'Enlightened,' everything—and nothing—is illuminated.

Why are you so drawn to single, middle-aged female protagonists who could be considered pathetic or crazy—like Molly Shannon’s character in Year of the Dog and Amy in Enlightened?

Certainly I can relate. I don’t have kids, and there’s definitely a part in your life when you hit 40 and most of your peers who are gonna have kids have them. The ones that haven’t had them, aren’t. I’m attracted to characters who are looking for ways to find meaning in their lives outside that traditional nuclear family model. I also think women like that are never front and center. They’re usually the irritating office lady who bugs the straight guys. They’re usually reduced to a joke. Whether it’s those kinds of characters or the one in my film Chuck & Buck [2000], I get a pleasure making those characters the protagonists and forcing the audience to take them more seriously. I’m not the typical heterosexual white guy, and that really is the dominant paradigm in the world of TV and movies. I feel like it’s my job to provide an alternate type of story or protagonist. It makes me feel like I’m not completely crazy.

What fascinates me most about this show is how it continually rides the line between dark humor and these really devastating moments. When you finish writing an episode, how do you know you haven’t slipped into the maudlin? Conversely, how do you know you’re not getting too cynical?

I don’t really know. Some people might think that some of the voiceovers do slip into the maudlin—you know, “Deep Thoughts by Amy.” The truth is I spend a lot of my time being overly anxious about being sincere. I think cynicism or sarcasm is almost the rule these days, especially in comedies. As a writer who has written a lot of things at this point, it feels almost like a cheap way out. Sometimes it’s more exciting when I’m writing to be like, “Oh, wow, I’m really taking this seriously suddenly and feeling the emotion.” When the episodes last season started coming together, I realized how emotionally raw some of it was. That was when I was like, “Well this feels new.” There’s certainly an abundance of comic protagonists or antiheroes or narcissists on HBO and other places who are oblivious to their own self-delusions. While that’s true of people in life, they also have other sides of them where they can suddenly have a lot of insight into themselves and others. People can be wise as well as fools.

Like Amy, you suffered a bit of a breakdown a few years ago. How much of yourself do you see in her?

A lot. I’ve gone through a period where I read a lot of those, you know, Buddhist self-help books. When I read those books, I found the advice to be wise and useful. At the time, I was like, I’d love to get at some of this, how our society is so not built around the values highlighted in these books. I thought about how deep the conflict could actually get when you started being literal, and how that would just put you into deep conflict with your company and the people around you. We turn our lives into our religions, you know? We all come up with our own answers for what makes life meaningful, and then we go out and try to project that into everyone else’s answers. It’s tricky when you choose a way of life that is the solution for you not to try to get others to convert to your way of thinking. I felt like there was a story there, so I created Enlightened.

You dealt with queer themes in the film Chuck & Buck. Do you think you’ll revisit queer storylines in future projects?

Chuck & Buck talked about a lot of stuff I wanted to talk about at the time. My dad’s gay, and in the last couple of years things have gotten so different. [Queerness is] still such a nascent identity, and I think there’s a lot of fun to be had and a lot of ideas to get at, and I would really like to write about it. It’s just hard finding the time.

What does your father think of Enlightened?

I think he cries at every episode. In a way, it’s a bit of an anthem for him. My dad is an activist and Amy is kind of an activist. My dad spent so much of his life trying to assimilate into the world he thought he was supposed to be part of, and it made him crazy. When he came out, it was really important for him to get in every person’s face about his sexuality and the politics behind it. I remember in my teens being like, “Ugh, god! Can we just get through the day without an awkward interaction with some stranger or old friend?” At the same time, I realized that’s how true change happens, from people who are willing to risk being unpopular or unlikeable or create these awkward interactions. When Amy’s being strident and in somebody’s face, she may be unlikeable. But at the same time, that’s somebody who’s gonna do something.

There’s a moment in the first episode of season two when Amy asks, “Do you believe in fate?” Well, do you believe in fate?

I’m definitely not one of those people who thinks everything happens for a reason. I do think you can find meaning in everything that happens, but I don’t think it’s all in the cards before it happens. That’s, like, a rich person’s way of congratulating themselves on their luck.

Season 2 of Enlightened premieres Sunday, January 13 on HBO

Tags: Television