Joanna Coles: The Cosmo Show Is Proof People Still Like Magazines

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Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Since Joanna Coles took over as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan two years ago, she's been approached by a producer who wants to make a drama set at the magazine at least once every three weeks. “If I had a dollar ... ” Coles told the Cut. Better, she now has a show. Coles is the executive producer of an untitled comedy set at a magazine based on Cosmo with a script commitment from NBC. Coles met fellow executive producer David Bernad — behind Enlightened — while dishing about a celebrity photo shoot at a dinner thrown by Funny or Die in Los Angeles. “David sort of slammed his hand on the table and said, ‘This is my next TV show,'” Coles recalled. Unlike the others, however, Bernad followed through, visiting Cosmo’s offices and enlisting co-producer Ruben Fleischer, who directed Zombieland, and Leslye Headland, who wrote Bachelorette, to make the sex bible NBC’s next Dunder Mifflin or Pawnee's Department of Parks and Rec. Coles talked to the Cut about how the Cosmo staff is preparing for their scripted interpretation.

Women’s magazines are a popular setting for television shows and movies. Why do you think that is?
It’s a workplace drama. The workplace is always interesting; it’s not necessarily because it’s a women’s magazine. It’s the characters you recognize. This show centers around a young staffer who dreams of being a political blogger, and it goes horribly wrong, and she sort of maneuvers to Cosmo — or a magazine based on Cosmo. There will be a disclaimer at the front saying it’s in no way based or inspired by Cosmo; that’s a sort of wink to the audience. She moves sideways to being the sex writer.

I think everyone recognizes that person in the office that dreamed of doing one thing [but] is now doing something else. The insanity and eccentric personalities of Cosmo make for a good jumping-off point — there is a sense in which we’re at the juncture of celebrity, beauty, fashion, sex, journalism, and it is a hilarious, surreal mix. There will be lots of celebrity cameos and real-people cameos. I won’t physically be on it. Maybe I’ll be cleaning the coffee machine in the background. It’s going to have proper actors. Headland is a hilarious force. I think she has a very modern voice. I thought Bachelorette was super modern in explaining relationships between men and women.

I agree that Bachelorette is great, but it’s also very dark. If I were a Hearst executive, I’d be worried about what Headland would have to say about my product.
She is pretty dark, but that’s what I love about her. If you think of Entourage or 30 Rock, they both have dark moments. Ricky Gervais is dark, and his British version of The Office is one of the most humane, fascinating observations of office life ever done. There were episodes where I cried it was so moving, what happens to people in a corporate environment. Headland is a superb interpreter, but she’s interpreting something that’s sunny and funny. Leslye said it feels like a club here, and it does a bit. Club Cosmo. We’re upbeat.

For research purposes, Headland has embedded herself at the magazine. What’s that like?
Everybody dresses better. It’s already a pretty funny staff, but I’ve noticed everyone’s coming out with zingers and really good one-liners. Honestly, life here feels like a sitcom anyway. From the insanity of celebrity requests to the strange reality that millions of women have HPV to the latest beauty serums that will make 30 the new 12 — the whole thing is this wonderfully eccentric mix. And we’re always discussing new sex positions.

My assistant, Sergio, has become a sort of strange character in his own right; he’s demanding a character based on him. A couple of people on staff have actually sidled into my office and produced head shots, just in case. Everyone’s kind of g'ed up.

What’s your role in creating the series? How does it compare to creating a magazine?
I have journals, and I have lots of stories. It’s giving anecdotes to Leslye that she can embellish in ways she wants. It’s not going to be a literal translation of Cosmo to the telly. It will become very obvious that Cosmo is just a jumping-off point. But it also shows that people still love magazines. There’s something very glamorous about our office. Leslye hadn’t been to a fashion show, and she couldn’t believe how perfect it was. One we took her to was Ralph Lauren. She was like, “That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” You see this glistening array of fashion and models and larger-than-life characters. This is such a rich scene.

What are your favorite shows on television right now?
John Oliver. I think he’s absolutely genius. I love Homeland. I’m very excited about this new Showtime show, The Affair. I’m obsessed by House of Cards, Borgen, and this French political/police drama, Spiral. You can watch it on Netflix with subtitles. It has the most handsome actor I’ve seen for the past ten years. Embarrassingly, I watch massive amounts of television.

Most important question: Who do you want to play you?
We’re not saying anything about casting. Well, my husband wants to be played by Danny Devito. I pity any poor actress that has got me for an inspiration. I’m hoping she has a very big imagination.