When Lesley Wake Webster ’96 was pitching her idea for the 1995 Princeton Triangle Club show, one Triangle trustee did not hold back his criticism.
“He literally said to me, ‘Young lady, you have no business writing comedy,’” she remembers.
The joke is on that trustee: Webster is now a seasoned comedy writer in Hollywood, with credits on shows like Speechless, Life in Pieces, and American Dad. She says surviving rejection might be the biggest lesson she took away from her whole Triangle experience.
“That was exactly what it’s like to work in TV in Hollywood,” Webster says. “You share your idea, and 99 people may tell you it’s terrible, but one person might hear it and see its potential. If you can find that right person and connect with them, you get to make something.”
Webster is the creator and showrunner of Perfect Harmony, a comedy that premiered on NBC last week and stars Bradley Whitford and Anna Camp. The show tells the story of a former Princeton music professor who finds a new life working with a church choir in rural Kentucky.
If you went to the 1995 Triangle show, you might notice a few similarities. Despite negative feedback from that trustee, Webster says Triangle officers decided to greenlight her idea: Pulpit Fiction. The musical featured a scheming minister in rural Kentucky planning to turn his church into a casino.
“It’s a coincidence that I think relates to the things burbling around in my psyche,” Webster says. She grew up in Kentucky going to church, and her grandfather was a choir director (who happened to meet her grandmother at Westminster Choir College in Princeton).
She says the main character in Perfect Harmony, played by Whitford, is based on her grandfather. He’s joined by a cast of characters that represent “a diversity of points of view.”
Depictions of life in a small town in middle America can be hard to come by in a television program. Though the fictional choir lives in a state that reliably votes Republican, Webster says she doesn’t intend to make Perfect Harmony a political show.
“Politics are a part of life, and you’ll see little flashes of that as it comes up organically with the characters,” she says. “We haven’t put a MAGA hat on a character yet, but they could definitely be wearing them.”
But the show is about so much more than the two taboo topics of religion and politics. It’s about embracing life, finding a community, and learning from the people around you.
“When you get together with other people and make music, there’s a connection, and it’s a beautiful connection that kind of transcends politics and petty grudges,” Webster says. “That sort of life-affirming connection that we have with other people through music was what I found as I was exploring what I wanted this pilot to be about.”
With hundreds of shows competing for your attention, a dose of life-affirming comedy might be just what the doctor ordered.
“It is peak TV time, and that also means there’s an incredible amount of noise to cut through,” she says. “I feel really lucky that I’m actually making a network TV show.”