Annie Julia Wyman studied creative writing at Stanford, earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in English at Harvard, and seemed destined for a career in academia. Then Hollywood came calling. Wyman is the co-creator, with Amanda Peet, of the Netflix hit “The Chair,” a six-part dramedy about Pembroke, a fictional New England college, and the first non-white female head of the school’s English Department, played memorably by Sandra Oh. Wyman spoke with the Gazette about her time at Harvard, her transition to screenwriting, and why comedy is so central to her work and to the human condition. The interview was edited for clarity and length.
Annie Julia Wyman
GAZETTE: Where did your love of literature come from?
WYMAN: I had a grandmother who was an English teacher, and my parents are both real readers. I’m also a middle child, between a younger brother and older twins, and I was the clumsy, introverted nerd of the family. (To be clear, my parents are very nice people and would not describe me that way! They’ve always supported me in whatever weird thing I wanted to do.) I spent some time trying to be cool like my brothers and sister, but that seemed like it was ultimately going to fail. In the hullabaloo of our household, my world was in my books.
GAZETTE: What was your Harvard experience like?
WYMAN: Graduate school is both glorious and so, so hard. It’s difficult emotionally, it’s difficult psychologically, it’s difficult intellectually. I had wonderful mentors who let me write a dissertation about jokes, and I don’t know that I could have asked for anything better. But for me, the signal experience of being at Harvard was being around my peers and being challenged and loved by them through this knock-down, drag-out process. In a way, you become this creature only other creatures who are doing the same weird thing can understand. I’m in daily contact with the women I lived and worked with in our terrible rundown Somerville duplex and I still miss them.
GAZETTE: Where did your interest in humor writing come from, and what does comedy reveal about the human condition?
WYMAN: I’m glad that you’re not my dissertation committee — the last time I answered a version of that question I was terrified! I guess maybe I can start with an anecdote. I was once writing a seminar paper for Helen Vendler, who was still teaching at that time. It was about comedy and a poet you wouldn’t necessarily look for jokes in — maybe Wallace Stevens. I remember she said to me that there are two kinds of people in the world: comedy people and tragedy people. And she said most people are tragedy people because you need to have a sense of gravitas and dignity, you know, as you move through the wild indignity that is life on earth. And then she said I was the other kind of person, someone who might have a harder time expressing directly what I wanted, intellectually or otherwise, because I didn’t touch down in quite the same way. For a second, I couldn’t decide if I should be discouraged or even hurt. Was I unserious? Undignified? But then, in almost the same breath, Helen recounted a little story about an old friend of hers who was also a comedy person. This person died a very painful death, and his last words were: “Tell them I had a great time!” She burst out laughing, just delighted by her memory of this other comedy person, and I went from feeling inadequate to feeling seen and valued for exactly what I was. That’s the power of a great critic, I guess.
But to answer more fully: The upshot of my dissertation was that, as a mostly confident comedy person, I think human life is better explained by the idea of comedy than by tragedy. I think my graduate work was sort of philosophy under the cover of literary criticism, if it was anything. Comedy is integrative, and joyful, and constructive, and I just wanted so badly to say we should be living under a comic dispensation, that we should try to understand what we do together as human beings that way. If you look at two scenes from any narrative work of art, the one that is tragic will likely be more predictable than the one that is comic, because tragedy usually only ends one way, in some form of alienation or violence. Whereas comedy is like this wild aesthetic vastness, and that’s sort of the point of it, that anything could happen, and we’d all be delighted by it.