Great News is a comedy about a nightly cable news program, appropriately titled The Breakdown. It counts Tina Fey, Tracey Wigfield (The Mindy Project), and Robert Carlock (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) among its executive producers. The series, which follows all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans at The Breakdown, is poised to fill the spot in your TV schedule left empty when 30 Rock went off the air. Plus, Nicole Richie is in it, and she’s really funny. (I’m not kidding.)
But for star John Michael Higgins, who plays anchor Chuck Pierce, it’s not the laughs the show provides that resonate with him. “This is may sound ridiculous,” Higgins said in a recent interview with Paste. ”But this is more of a drama to me.”
Higgins’ Chuck is a pompous anchor who is aging beyond his network’s target demographic and struggling to keep up with a constantly changing world. “It’s a very happy show. It’s got a great positive attitude,” Higgins says. “But for Chuck’s story, it’s a story of intense impending doom and loss. It’s a really interesting place for a character to be—which is in perfect power and total danger. If you drop your guard for a second, they’ll fire you. That’s the bubble he’s sitting on.”
A venerable character actor, Higgins has built his career on playing lovable blowhards in projects including the Pitch Perfect franchise and Christopher Guest movies like Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. The secret, he says, is never putting his characters up for “target practice.” “I’ve had a lot in my career of trying to make not very palatable characters more palatable, more human,” he says. “I don’t consider them ridiculous. No matter how ridiculous they are, they’re never ridiculous to me.”
Higgins found Chuck immediately relatable. “I feel like Chuck myself,” he explains, mentioning that on a recent flight he was the only one reading an actual book—you know, the kind where you have to turn the paper pages. “I feel like I’ve been left behind to some extent by the culture. He’s rubbing up against something he doesn’t understand that’s not his world. That’s me, too. I say Chuck lines and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I feel the same way.’”
Briga Heelan (Ground Floor, Undateable) stars as Katie Wendelson, a 30-year-old news producer who suddenly finds herself working with her mother, Carol (Andrea Martin). Like Higgins, Heelan found that she had a lot in common with her on-screen alter ego. “My mom has this irrepressible joy and energy about her that I really found the character of Carol also has,” Heelan says.
Like Katie, Heelan is very close with her mom. She recalls one time when she was locked out of her room in college and called her mom. She was at USC and her mom was home in Andover, Massachusetts. “She was like, ‘Honey, I’m in Massachusetts, what do you want me to do? You need to get off the phone with me and find someone who can help you get in this room because I sure as hell can’t,’” Heelan recalls, laughing. “It was like she thought it was pathetic but also loved it and thought it was really sweet and cute but was also a little bit worried about me and my judgment.”
Heelan connects with the push and pull that comes as you enter the adult world and separate from your parents. “You don’t want to be treated like a child, but sometimes you act like a child. Katie really needs her mom’s cheerleading, and she doesn’t want to need that anymore. That’s a very real thing to me. All of that came from a really easy truthful place for me.”
Heelan, the daughter of an actress and a theater teacher, grew up a fan of Higgins. “For as long as I can remember I’ve had John Michael Higgins in my brain in the funny department. When I heard he was cast I called my whole family because, really, it was a family moment for us that I was going to get to meet this man, much less get to work with him.”
Watching how Higgins approached his character helped inform her performance. “He doesn’t overthink stuff,” she explains. “He doesn’t apologize for stuff. He speaks up when he needs clarity on stuff and he just takes big swings. He takes big effortless swings and it is so cool to watch.”
Both enjoyed having Fey behind the scenes. “She’s everything that I admire in this industry,” Higgins says. “She’s a very good steward for me, because I think she gets me, and I think that’s why she hired me.” Heelan particularly enjoyed when Fey was on set and would give script notes. “It was just the greatest delight of my life,” she says. “It was like she was bringing presents in the room. I get to say right now this funny thing she just came up with.”
The show wrapped in October and Heelan is trying not worry too much about how it will be received. “I love and believe in the people we work with and I love and believe in what we came out with. You never know what the next chapter is going to be so I really just want to enjoy that this is so very true right now.”
She and her husband are also awaiting the birth of their first child—Heelan was pregnant through most of the filming of the first season. “We have a lot in our family that we are anticipating, kind of all at the same time,” she says. “I think my mom’s head is about to explode. It’s just all too much.”
Great News premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on NBC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .