An Interview with the Creators of ABC's The Middle
Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing two incredibly talented ABC executive producers and show creators, DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler. DeAnn and Eileen, who have written and produced for shows such as The Middle, How I Met Your Mother, and Roseanne, have worked as an inseparable team since they first entered college. Their journey from the Midwest to Hollywood, creating shows I have watched time and time again while procrastinating on my homework, began with something unrealized in many other women: confidence in themselves and their abilities. “I believed I could do things if I wanted to do them,” Eileen said.
Eileen had been drawn to drama ever since her early childhood in Illinois. “I was a theater kid… That is where I found my niche. I would act in plays and I would do all these things. I loved television, and I had a family that loved television, so I remember wanting to stay up as late as I could and watch as many things as I could without having my parents remembering I was still up.” Even as a young girl, if Eileen loved something, she would never remain quiet. When episodes of Saturday Night Live aired on television, she would act them out for her parents the following day. “I remember when, and this is going to make us sound old, but when VCRs first came out. The thing that I thought was so exciting about it was I could record what I saw on Saturday Night Live the night before instead of acting it out for my parents. So I don’t know if that made it better for them. It might have.”
Although DeAnn had a similar upbringing in Cincinnati, Ohio, she knew no one involved in the arts. “My mom was a teacher. My dad was an accountant… I loved theater, I loved TV, I loved film, but it just wasn’t something I ever thought of or dreamed of. I did love writing, and when I was little I tried writing my own Nancy Drew novels. I also thought I was Nancy Drew and would constantly look for clues, like, in the parking lots of restaurants. So I think it wasn’t until I saw a show called The Dick Van Dyke Show where… it had a guy whose job was to write comedy… It was the first time I realized, ‘Wait, someone writes those.’ That it was a thing you could do for a career.”
After they finished high school, Eileen and DeAnn met at Indiana University, with Eileen majoring in music and DeAnn in telecommunications. When she first entered IU, Eileen quickly grew to dislike her living arrangements. “I ended up in a dorm that I didn’t want to be in. I had put five dorms I had liked to be in, and I think they gave me [the] sixth,” Eileen said. “But I am grateful for it because it was how I met DeAnn.
“I was always a person who, I would say, am active in changing my circumstances if I don’t like them… So around Halloween time, I ended up moving into an empty room that was on the other side of the bathroom from DeAnn in a different dorm. And that’s how we met. And we actually had a kind of romantic comedy meet-cute because, as it turns out, DeAnn had written a note to her roommate [on her memo board] saying, ‘Oh, no. Someone is moving into the empty room next door.’ So I met DeAnn with her body blocked to the memo board.”
Although Eileen did take what DeAnn fondly remembered as her ‘party room,’ they soon formed a bond both women would liken to a second marriage. When Eileen became interested in transferring to NYU in her junior year, DeAnn realized that she was unsatisfied with the artistic offerings from the IU telecommunications department at the time, leading them both to make the leap and go to NYU. “That’s our other big piece of advice, is that, you know, just because you are somewhere, always be looking because, if it’s not right for you, or the job’s not right for you, or something’s not right for you, [you can improve your situation],” DeAnn said. “For us, transferring to NYU was so crucial and amazing. And I think that was kind of a bold move because we weren’t unhappy at IU, but it wasn’t really career wise where we wanted to be.”
Switching majors along the way, they both earned degrees in film from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and moved to Los Angeles to focus on their careers in television. When Eileen became a temp on the pilot of Doogie Howser, she at first made limited progress. She and DeAnn had submitted some scripts to producers, and although they received positive feedback, little came of it. It was only when a man came into Eileen’s office and said he was going to pitch ideas to the producers of Doogie Howser that their careers changed. When Eileen asked how he had earned the opportunity to pitch, she learned that it was because he had sold the executive producer a car. In that moment, she realized that no opportunity would come to her unless she was active in seeking it.
“She marched down the hall to the executive producers [of Doogie Howser] and she said, ‘Hi, my writing partner and I have some really great ideas for the show. Can we come in and pitch them?’ And they said sure,” DeAnn said. “The point is, I don’t know if that opportunity would have happened had we not marched down the hall and asked. And once we asked, they were more than willing.”
“Because of that person coming in and making me jealous, it got us off our butts and in there,” Eileen added. “And I remember when we were going in to pitch for the first time we were very overprepared… DeAnn was sitting in the car and was just petrified. We both were before we were going to pitch. And she was saying, ‘I’m not going to get out of the car. If they want to hear the pitch, they can come to the car.’ We just wanted to throw up and were very, very nervous.”
Even though they both felt apprehensive, their ability to set aside their nerves and pitch resulted in the first of many successes. “From [writing for Doogie Howser] we got an agent and went on to work on Roseanne and Murphy Brown and then we had a number of deals at NBC and Disney. And then we worked on a number of shows— Committed, Three Sisters— probably ones you had never even heard of. Then we helped launch How I Met Your Mother and then we did The Middle for almost ten years.”
DeAnn recognizes how her partnership with Eileen has contributed to their achievements. “In a lot of jobs now there are more teams and more women teams, and that’s fantastic. To have another woman by your side to tackle things together… is just huge. It’s so different. When we first got into writing, we were the only women on staff. They were required to have like one woman on staff,” DeAnn laughed. “It was very sad. So I do think that in the beginning, it felt like there was more competition between women.”
DeAnn and Eileen have both encountered other female writers who were used to being the only woman in the room. It often fueled a toxic mindset: If another woman is here, they’re not going to give me the job. They’re going to give her the job.
Today, DeAnn believes, things have changed. “I think that women mostly are willing to help each other out. I knew someone who was an occupational therapist and she had kids and she knew another occupational therapist who had kids and they job-shared. So it’s great. We’ve gone as far as we have because we have each other. You get to work with your best friend, which is awesome, but I do think it’s just great to have another woman as a resource and support… You can help each other out. It doesn’t have to be a competitive situation.”
Eileen agrees that having another woman’s support in the industry is invaluable. “Our partnership is so longstanding. I was reading a book about famous partnerships and you do become like an organism that is not unable to be its own person, but the strength of the team is stronger than anything you are individually. And to other people, in some ways you are impenetrable. People will know we trust each other. We’re always able to be the check. To say: Am I nuts? Did you think I was obnoxious in that meeting? Am I right to feel this way? You also try not to break down at the same time because you will break down. I promise. Everybody will cry at work at some point. At some point things will get overwhelming and it’s just great to have a partner so it doesn’t happen to both of you at once. You just know someone here likes me and supports me, because it’s scary. The entertainment business— it’s hard.”
While their partnership led them to create a nine-season hit sitcom, being women and mothers has still posed many challenges to them both. “It’s a dance of trying to make sure your kids don’t feel ignored when you have this big responsibility,” DeAnn said. “There were times when I wasn’t able to pick them up from school or I missed this event or that event, but I also know how incredibly proud my daughters are of me. And the time where we won the Humanitas Award and my daughters were there and Eileen’s sons. So I think that our kids are incredibly proud of us and we were role models for them to show how you can be a mom and love your kids but also be fulfilled at work and have a busy job… Sometimes you feel guilty when you are at home and guilty when you are at work. I think that when we started in the business the expectation was that you would have to give your life to this.”
The obstacles women face in the entertainment industry became most apparent when Eileen was pregnant. Given the expectation that a mother could not balance her work and home life, Eileen and DeAnn feared they would fail to secure a deal if their employers knew about the pregnancy, leading them to hide that Eileen was expecting twins for almost five months.
DeAnn reflected on these unfortunate experiences but also acknowledged how the industry has evolved since. “She was wearing big tunics and all kinds of things [to conceal the pregnancy]. I think that you were just expected to work all the time and you were expected to answer every email and take calls over the weekend. And I think it’s changed now. I really see so many women and writers and showrunners, just people in our industry, say, ‘Hey, my kid has a ballet recital.’ And great— go, of course.
“When we worked on Roseanne we would regularly work until 2 in the morning and work Saturday and Sunday. I remember one time I went home and it was 6 in the morning and I was brushing my teeth to go to bed and my husband was brushing his teeth to wake up and start his day. So that was super tough. But I think most shows now work more respectable hours and understand people have commitments. I think the work life balance in our industry— we’re still shooting long hours so it’s not great— but it’s much better. People understand people, whether they’re a woman or a man, want to go home and see their kids. You want happy employees and you want happy writers.”
The unique challenges Eileen and DeAnn faced as they juggled work and motherhood have also given them an abundance of comedic material. “I think you develop the skill that when you’re a writer, whenever something is happening to you, a little piece of you flows out to save it for later,” Eileen said. “[We met] Carl Reiner, a way-back legendary writer [from] The Dick Van Dyke Show, and he said the best advice for writers is ‘What is the plot of land that you stand on? What do you know that no one else knows? What is your story?’ That’s what’s going to be funny. The specific things that you have been able to turn from your own life into funny stories. They’re going to be better than making up something that you imagine someone else is thinking… It’s just being very open to the human experience that you’re having and looking at it through a funny lens.”
Eileen’s family has lent a wealth of stories to The Middle. “My son, [Justin], who inspired the character Brick, is on the autism spectrum. Never would we have written a kid who whispered to himself like that if it wasn’t for Justin… When he was four years old, he would watch TV and say, ‘Who’s it presented by?’ And you would say, ‘It’s presented by Paramount. Who cares about that?’ But he did.
“I don’t know if you ever saw the episode where Frankie fell down and Mike didn’t help her up when they were on the train. And she got mad because another stranger reached his hand out first. That actually happened to me on the promenade at Santa Monica Pier and I tripped and fell. My family was nowhere and a stranger reached out his hand. My husband reached out too, but I took the stranger’s hand because my family wasn’t fast enough. But so many things are from real life.”
DeAnn similarly recognized how being a mother had influenced her writing. “We said, ‘We’re tired moms. Let’s write about tired moms.’ Even if you’re not going to become a writer, whatever you choose to do with your career, it’s what speaks to you, and you’re going to bring yourself to it. What can you bring to this company or this job or whatever that nobody else can bring? And think about that authenticity to yourself— what you love and your passion and all that. Because that’s when you’ll be happiest.”
When asked about the greatest challenge Eileen and DeAnn have ever overcome in the entertainment industry, DeAnn recalled how they were once fired from a show. “We were doing the show Lipstick Jungle and it was our first time to do a drama… [The network] brought us in and basically said, ‘You’re fired… We’re making a change.’ And we said, ‘Wait. What?’ And they said, ‘The change is you. You’re not on the show anymore.’”
Though they can laugh about it now, it was hard for them to hear at the time. “It was devastating. I just remember going down the elevator and [although we had kept it together in a professional manner while we were in the office, once we got to the NBC courtyard, we started crying.] We said we have to get ourselves together before we go back to work… So we go to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, which we now call the Crying Bean, because we just had a coffee and were sobbing. And I remember at one point Eileen takes off her sunglasses and there was like a snot stuck to her nose from her glasses. That’s how hard we were crying.”
As DeAnn understood firsthand, people are often fired in the entertainment industry for reasons beyond their control. “It wasn’t like we had turned in a bad script… They just wanted to make a change. What we do is very public too. I remember the headline in Variety was ‘Lipstick Jungle Kisses Off Heisler and Heline.’ It was… embarrassing. So the challenge is not to take it personally… Pick yourself up and say, ‘What’s the next thing?’ and move on.”
Following their own advice, Eileen and DeAnn did move on. After deciding to pursue another project, they created the critically-acclaimed show The Middle and enjoyed the most rewarding part of their careers. The drive and confidence of their team is remarkable, but Eileen believes it boils down to a simple truth. “Focus on yourself and say, ‘What can I do?’ That’s the only thing you have control over and that’s the key to success. Be humble. Be nice. Be smart. And keep bouncing along and you’ll be fine.”
About the Author:
Kaitlyn Donato is a high school student from Winchester, MA. In her sophomore year, Kaitlyn recognized that there were too few magazines focused on writing for and by young women and created The Alcott Youth Magazine. With the magazine, she hopes to publish inspirational writing for all young people to enjoy.
Kaitlyn would like to thank Erin Brown and all other team members from Inspiring Girls USA for making this interview possible. Inspiring Girls USA, an organization dedicated to fostering the ambitions of young girls by connecting them with successful women role models, aims to show girls that they can break down gender barriers and achieve their highest aspirations. You can learn more about their organization at inspiringgirlsusa.org.
Kaitlyn would also like to show her gratitude for the assistance she received from everyone at Books and Bridges, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that coordinates with elementary school teachers to read stories to younger students about women in leadership roles. Books and Bridges believes that discussing female leaders is important for acknowledging women in history and furthering confidence in young girls. To learn more about the organization, please visit booksandbridges.org.