Interview by Travis for The CineManiac (conducted in February 2008)
Peter Murrieta’s writing career began in college when a professor recognized his gift for humor and introduced him to a Comedy Corner, a sketch comedy group. After writing and performing with them he made the big move to Chicago to try to join the famed Second City improv group. After taking some classes he found himself as part of the touring company where he understudied Stephen Colbert (which Murrieta says was “a real fun time” and that Colbert is a “real smart writer, and someone I really enjoyed talking with”). During his five years in Chicago, Murrieta met his wife and his manager.
Eventually Murrieta moved to LA where he found himself as part of the set decorating crew on The Mask before being selected as a Walt Disney Writer’s Fellow, which was his first job writing in the industry. After that Murrieta worked on NBC’s Hacienda Heights, Common Law, Between Brothers, Ask Harriet, Jesse, and Three Sisters before creating his first show, Greeting From Tucson, which lasted one season on The WB. He then moved onto All About the Andersons and Hope & Faith before landing his current job on Wizards of Waverly Place.
I met with Murrieta virtually, thanks to the magic of e-mail, to ask him about writing, the strike, and what he does during his free time.
What made you want to be a writer, and did you always want to write specifically for TV?
I think three things made me want to be a writer–the show MASH, watching my dad and mom watching The Dean Martin show when I was a small child and seeing them laugh, and having people tell me I was funny. And yes, I always wanted to write for TV. TV is where writers get to create characters that you live with for year after year, and the idea of that has always appealed to me more than movies, where it’s a two hour drop in on someone’s life and then it’s done.
You’ve worked on several series that only lasted a few episodes, has that been difficult?
Not really. Or I suppose I would say it’s not MORE difficult. The only hard part is that you spent the time getting to know a set of characters and then they’re gone, forever.
You created Greetings From Tucson for The WB. What was it like having something you created on the air and was it difficult when it wasn’t picked up for a second season?
It was one of the most amazing experiences of my career. The show was about my life growing up in Tucson, so it was very personal, very close. Being what the WB was, I considered it a success because we got a back order of 9 episodes. Most of the comedies at that point weren’t getting that, even. And of course being canceled is never good. But two things made it bearable. The day I got the call was May, 9 2003 — the day my second son, Daniel, was born. And with perspective, I’ve got 22 shows that are all stories about my life that people got to see, and I’ll get to share with my sons when they’re older. I’m also very proud to have been one of the first Latino shows on the air. And a true ensemble show, as well. My God, it sounds like I’m campaigning for the DVD to be put out or something, doesn’t it?
Now your working on Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place. What’s it been like working for a kids show and how different is the atmosphere in the writers room versus a typical comedy?
First time on a kid’s show, and it’s been a lot of fun. Most of the writers are all people I have worked with in the prime time world–and the honest truth is, the atmosphere isn’t that different. You want to tell a great story and you want to not talk down to your audience. Those things never change.
How has the strike affected you and your family personally?
The strike has affected me immeasurably. In both good and bad ways, I suppose. I get to see my two sons and wife a lot more, now that I’m not writing and producing a show full time. But, it’s balanced with a constant gnawing feeling that you don’t know when it’ll ever be over. Financially, of course, I’m hurting like almost every writer is.
Since the end of the summer, I’ve gone from being an executive producer of Wizards of Waverly Place, to Contract Captain, to Strike Captain, to “Showrunner 180 of 200” that walked off his/her show, to some jackass who’s just tired and wants it to be over, no matter what. Then I volunteered to serve on a Guild committee, only to find out it was the Strike Rules Compliance Committee. That’s the committee that goes after scab writing. And my feet hurt. Because I walk. Every day. Four hours a day at the start and now three. And you know what? I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Sure there’s been emotional roller coasters unlike any I’ve been through.
I’m leaving out the pit in my stomach that makes it feel like I’ve been at the beginning of a panic attack for eleven weeks, without the physical release of actually having the panic attack and putting my fist through some dry wall, while my wife or whoever’s near me looks for some wood I can bite on so I don’t chew off my tongue. But who doesn’t feel like that, right?
What hobbies do you enjoy outside of writing?
I coach baseball. My oldest, Joaquin, is a two time all star switch hitting catcher for his little league team. I’m kind of bragging, but there you go. I have a couple of old cars I work on, my fav is a 1964 Lincoln Continental. And I own, with my wife, Aliza, a Comedy Improv Theater in Hollywood, “Bang Comedy Theater”. You can find us at bangstudio.com.
And finally, what are some of your favorite television shows?
Battlestar, Lost, Heroes, The Wire, old Rockford Files, MASH, Bilko, Sanford & Son, Taxi, Family Ties, Buffy, 30 Rock, The Office…
I’d like to thank Peter Murrieta for his time and wish him and all the other writers good luck as they return to their jobs in the next week or two as the strike has thankfully come to an end.