Mike White enlightens Toronto TIFF crowd

Headed down to the TIFF Bell Lightbox last night to see Mike White. He’s the casually-dressed dude behind Enlightened, an original and hard-to-categorize comedy/drama airing Monday nights at 9 p.m. on HBO and HBO Canada.
The series stars Laura Dern as a woman who cracks up at work, gets new age counseling and tries to rebuild her life in a positive way, jerks at work and world full of cynics be damned.
White knows of what he writes. He took his own mental health break, as he told the fairly packed Lightbox theatre audience, after the horrifying experience of trying to deliver the sitcom Cracking Up for Fox in 2004. The Fox suits wanted another Malcolm in the Middle. White, the independent mind behind Chuck & Buck, Nacho Libre and The Good Girl, did not share that agenda.
White isn’t the first creative to voice frustration with Fox during the early to mid-2000’s. Others have confided that the network, which would develop terrific, original shows like Keen Eddie, Wonderfalls, The Tick and others–only to kill them after three, four or five episodes–was run as if developing and scheduling were conducted on two different planets.
The 41-year-old Californian says writing for HBO is a far better fit and was stumped to come up with a single note from the premium cable network other than give us more of you. They did wonder about the direction of the series when he was delivering less comedy and more drama than they anticipated. They told him his half hour series was more dramatic than many of their dramas.
Enlightened is dramatic but is seldom dark. Dern’s character slowly makes headway toward enlightenment, although you have to get past the first few episodes to feel the transition. Dern, a neighbour of White’s (living near him, apparently, leads to his best collaborations), is at her manic best, seizing every scene. Luke Wilson has a nice role as her ex, who is there for her to the extent he can be. White seems to find salvation in exploring the limitations of others and then allowing his characters to confront and sometimes erase those limitations.
He also appears on Enlightened as one of Dern’s characters worker drone buddies in the basement. It’s a fun role and White kills it. He says acting in his work allows him to be part of the party that he has created. Partying is big on White’s list.
There’s no official word yet of a renewal, but White says he’s been given the go-ahead to start thinking up another ten episodes.
White shared a story about his last trip to Toronto when he was promoting The Good Girl with Jennifer Aniston. The flight in got pretty bumpy, with the passengers in the small private plane at one point fearing for their lives. White, who speaks in, like, a staccato, sorta like slacker cadence (like), said he looked over at Aniston, whose life was flashing before her eyes. He saw that she was realizing what a fabulous life it was, which made her flip out even more.

Also of interest were White’s asides about his frequent collaborator, Jack Black (yes, Black and White) and stories about his father. Rev. Dr. Mel White was a ghostwriter and speechwriter for Religious Right figures Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. White says it was an inspiration to see that you could make a living by sitting around the house writing. I guess making crazy shit up and getting paid for it was also part of the father/son life lesson.
White is close to his dad and even competed with him–twice–on The Amazing Race. Most TV writers scowl and turn up their nose at the very mention of reality television. For White, it’s all good.  
Telefilm Canada, the Canadian Film Centre and Just For Laughs presented White as part of their masterclasses with comedy creators. The many aspiring writers and performers in the crowd seemed to appreciate the effort. The TIFF venue is perfect, surprisingly cozy for its size with tremendous acoustics. Clips from White’s film work was shown, but unfortunately nothing from his early TV gem Freaks & Geeks, where he served as a writer. Canadian comedy icon and CFC mentor Eugene Levy introduced White, an added bonus for everybody. Film buff Richard Crouse ably acted as White’s on-stage shrink.

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