Chris Colfer says he was only given two instructions when he walked into the Glee writers' room this spring to try his hand at an episode: He couldn’t break up Kurt and Blaine, and he couldn’t kill off any characters. Other than that, Colfer had free reign in the season’s penultimate episode, “Old Dog, New Tricks,” which airs tonight on Fox. While he has varied writing credits under his belt — including the 2012 indie film Struck by Lightning and the New York Times best-selling Land of Stories novels — scripting Glee was Colfer’s first TV writers’ room experience, and his first musical as well. We caught up with the Golden Globe winner to discuss his writing process, giving Kurt his own story line, and why the hyperpassionate Klaine fans should not send him mean tweets.
Can you describe the process of taking on the writing of a Glee episode?
I’ve been asked for years if I ever wanted to write an episode for Glee, but I always said I never did. Glee was not my world, it was not my creation, and I would never want to tamper it or damage it in any way. So when they came to me and they asked me if I wanted to write an episode, I was very very shocked. But it was definitely an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I was very, very apprehensive when I walked into the writers' room for the first time. I knew there was a story I wanted to tell, but I didn’t know if I was going to be able to. Or if they had a story they wanted me to write, or what kind of guidelines they would give me. They really were just rock stars about it. They were so patient and so generous, and they let me tell the story I wanted to tell. It was a great experience thanks to them.
You penned the second-to-last episode of the season; that’s usually a pretty prestige spot. What kind of guidelines did you get?
That element made it more nerve-wracking. They gave me two guidelines, one that I couldn’t break up with Blaine and two that I couldn’t kill anyone.
So then you crumbled up the paper and went, “Now I have nothing!” — right?
Well, what’s the point! [Laughs.] They were very open. I wasn’t expecting them to give me the keys to the car as much as they did.
Was the Kurt story line something you’d wanted for a long time, or was it a new idea?
One night I got a call from (Glee co-creator) Brad Falchuk asking if I’d be interested in writing an episode. I said, “I don’t know, I have to think about it and see if I have a story in me that I think is worth telling.” Two of my favorite things in the world are old people and animals, so I’m sure I could have a story about that. So I came up with Rachel starting a charity called Broadway Bitches. And I’ve always wanted to do crazy acrobatic stunt stuff, so I thought, Wouldn’t it be funny if Kurt joins a production of Peter Pan in an assisted living home? Everyone I would share that idea with would laugh, so I thought that must be funny. That’s how it went.
Were there elements in the script you never expected to get away with?
Well, the old people in the retirement home are so feisty. I pray no one thinks I was making fun of old people with it, but there are lines like “Debbie, hearing aids on during rehearsal.” There’s actually one, well ... The reason why Kurt joins the production in the first place is a big part of the show. I wasn’t sure I was going to get away with that element. The woman playing Peter Pan dies in rehearsal. He comes to visit his friend Maggie, and while they’re in rehearsal Peter unfortunately dies and [Kurt] goes “I can fill in!” — and he does.
For much of high school, Kurt sided with the girls in group events. But this week, he’s not taking part of the girls’ charity event but instead striking out on his own. Is that indicative of Kurt changing since he’s left Ohio?
It’s less about girls, but more about how all the girls have made names for themselves since they moved to New York. It has little to do with him not being one of the girls anymore, but the fact that his name couldn’t draw a crowd like the other performers. Rachel is doing Broadway; Santana and Mercedes are doing their recording artist careers.
Your episode doesn’t address the Kurt and Blaine relationship directly. Was that a choice on your part?
It was definitely a conscious choice on my part. I wanted Kurt to have a story that was his own. That wasn’t about his relationship with Blaine, or supporting someone else like Rachel. I really wanted him to have his own moment. I have to say, in my episode, Kurt and Blaine are completely fine. They’re completely happy, so if something does happen to them down the road, it’s not my fault. The fans don’t have to send me the angry tweets. Kurt and Blaine are fine in my episode.
They’ll send you the angry tweets no matter what. I loved last week when Glee talked about the perils of Twitter and social media for performers, deliciously meta for what you have to deal with as actors on the show.
It is crazy. It all happened when the show started. I remember being on Glee when Twitter became popular. It’s crazy how much it changed. Prior to that, the only way you’d hear feedback from the audience was fan mail or maybe comments on a website. Not every person on earth had the right to say whatever they wanted to whoever they wanted. It’s insane.
Darren Criss got to work with Shirley MacLaine recently, and now you get June Squibb, Tim Conway, and Billy Dee Williams. Is it some kind of game for who can work with the most seasoned actors?
If it’s a game, I’m winning. [Laughs.] I’m definitely winning in numbers. But anytime we get someone seasoned, or someone who’s a living legend, I freak out. I am over the moon anytime someone like Shirley MacLaine or June Squibb or Tim Conway are part of the show.
Did you have a favorite character to write for?
June Squibb’s character, she’s a feisty old lady. Feisty old ladies are my favorite human beings on the planet. Also, I think Artie and Santana were really fun to write for.
Did any of your castmates lobby you for songs or scenes once they knew you were writing?
It was more lobbying them, and being like, “Please tell me if you hate anything.” I was very, very nervous for them to get the script. But I didn’t get any nasty texts, so that’s good.
Did you stay on set to watch the scenes you weren’t needed in? Or stay away?
It’s very nerve-wracking to watch people say the words that you’ve written. I learned that when I did my movie Struck by Lightning. But it was even harder to do that in this environment because I’ve known everyone for so long. We’ve been on the show for six years, and to suddenly take the steering wheel was very nerve-wracking. So if I wasn’t needed for a scene I would let everyone do their thing. I did not stay. I let everyone do their own job.
Did you have any say in veteran Glee director Bradley Buecker working on on your episode?
I didn’t have any say, but I was so excited that Brad was directing it. He is one of my favorite directors we work with on Glee. I was so excited he got chosen. That was one of the reasons I was able to walk away from set when I didn’t have to be there because I knew it was in very good hands.
Was there anything you couldn’t fit in the episode or that hit the cutting-room floor?
Not really! I just wanted to do a story that would remind us of Glee season one, the underdogs. What better underdogs than actual physical dogs themselves, and some old people who need some love?
What was the biggest challenge in writing a Glee script?
The most difficult thing was finding the time to write. We were filming while I was writing it. I really only had in between scenes and during lighting setup to write the episode. That was the most challenging, and then once everyone got the script that was really difficult personally because I just wanted everyone to like it or to hate anything I’d written for them.
Do you have some sort of secret focus and organization trick, to be able to do all the writing you do while filming?
It’s very difficult, and it’s something I wouldn’t recommend anyone to do. It’s mentally juggling. You only have a certain amount of hours in the day, so you've got to force yourself through it. It comes with a lot of practice. I’ve written many books in between lighting setups and scenes, so I think I’m used it to by now.
Do you think you’d know how to write like you do without the pressure of lots of other things happening at once?
That’s actually a really good point. I think I do my best writing when I am working on something else. I think some of my best ideas came to me when I was a kid because I was bored in school and I would daydream all day. I think I work the best when my mind is occupied with something else.
You’ve gone through the production of a film you wrote and now a TV episode. Do you prefer one to the other?
I think with films and novels, as the writer — at least in my experience — you have full control of the story. TV is very much a collaboration. When I went in the writers room for Glee for the first time, I had never collaborated, ever. I do like having control, so when I write something I know they’re my characters and it’s my world. I guess I could do that with TV it was my own show.
Yes, you can become Ryan Murphy.
Exactly, yes. As long as when I’m writing there’s not a chance of upsetting anyone, I’m happy.
Any plans for your hiatus from Glee for the summer — vacation or more work?
I honestly need to go on a vacation, badly, but I don’t have one planned. I have a lot of other work planned this summer.
There was a movie based in an asylum you’ve talked about before. Is that still in the works?
It’s still in the works. I have a good three meetings about that project a month. It’s very difficult for me to write and produce something while I’m filming Glee. I might have to wait until Glee is over to do that. I did Struck by Lightning while I was filming Glee and it was very, very difficult. It was like having two full-time jobs at once. I think I’ll have to wait until after Glee is over to give that project the attention it deserves.
And now the most important question: How does your cat, Brian, feel about your having written an episode all about dogs?
Brian is very upset. He had some words with me about it. I think we’ll be able to mend it and be fine. I initially wanted it to be about cats and dogs, but the title Broadway Bitches was too good not to use. So Brian was denied his cameo.
He could be on Brittany’s Fondue for Two, a cat guest.
He could be Lord Tubbington’s cousin. I like this idea.
For your next episode! Have they invited you back to the writers’ room yet?
To be completely honest, I think it depends on if people like it or not. [Laughs.] If people don’t like this episode, I don’t think they’ll ask me to come back. I hope people do.