An Emmy-winning comedy writer and best-selling author recently rocketed to the top of the list of Redmond’s better-known former residents.
Jill Twiss has been part of the writing staff of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” since the show started in 2014.
She recently topped best-seller lists as the author of the associated children’s book “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Presents a Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo.”
It turns out Twiss was born in Redmond but only lived here two months. Still, her family made enough of a mark to still be remembered.
Her father, John Twiss, came to the area to work as a Redmond smokejumper, Jill Twiss said in an email interview. He eventually had enough of fighting fires and applied for other jobs within the U.S. Forest Service.
“We moved to Nevada because that was the first job offer,” she said.
John Twiss worked his way up to being the agency’s director of law enforcement before retiring in 2008. But it meant a great deal of moving around for the family.
“Here are the states I lived in before I graduated from high school: Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, (a different place in) Idaho, (a different place in) Oregon, Minnesota, Virginia,” said Jill Twiss, whose other Oregon stint was three years in Waldport.
Twiss started as an actress and stand-up comedian, but decided she needed a job that provided more health insurance than stand-up comedy. So she started looking for writing jobs.
“It didn’t hurt that performing comedy made me nauseous with terror virtually all the time,” she said.
Twiss wrote a packet of sample segments for “Last Week Tonight” before the show took the air in 2014.
“Then when they liked it, I wrote a second packet,” she said. “Finally I met John in person and they decided to hire me. I’ve been with the show since the first episode.”
The children’s book developed from an obsession Twiss has with Marlon Bundo, a pet bunny owned by Vice President Mike Pence’s family. Twiss said she was mainly interested in the rabbit because of his name. The book is a takeoff of “Marlon Bundo’s A Day in the Life of the Vice President,” which was put together by Pence’s daughter, Charlotte, and wife, Karen.
“When we saw that the Pences were coming out with a book, we thought we could use the opportunity to support some really great charities while also hopefully putting out an inclusive, loving children’s book in the process,” she said.
Oliver announced his show’s book on a March “Last Week Tonight” episode that discussed Pence’s controversial views on the LGBT community, and how Pence’s family planned to promote their book with the conservative Focus on the Family, which is known for opposing same-sex marriage and supporting gay conversion therapy.
Twiss’ book (well, Bundo himself is technically listed as author, with Twiss’ assistance), illustrated by Gerald Kelley, tells the story of a same-sex relationship between Marlon Bundo and Wesley, a brown rabbit. All profits from the book benefit The Trevor Project, which seeks to prevent suicide among LGBT youth, and AIDS United.
“While I wrote the story, there was tons of help from our entire staff, and our illustrator Gerald Kelley was just incredible,” Twiss said. “It’s amazing how quickly the whole process happened. I’m told picture books usually take almost two years and we did ours in just a few months. That credit goes to Gerald, our staff and Chronicle books, whom I’m positive we freaked out with our crazy timeline.”
The book hopped up Amazon’s top-sellers list, quickly surpassing former FBI Director James Comey’s book. After 11 weeks, it remained on top of The New York Times best-sellers list for children’s picture books, as of June 17.
“I am honestly shocked by the sales,” Twiss said. “It’s incomprehensible. I think we sold out our first printing just a few minutes after we aired that night.”
Twiss is proud of how the book’s “different is special” message has been received, she said.
“Sometimes it’s hard for kids to deal with feeling out of place or having a family that looks different than that of their friends,” she said. “I hope there’s just a little comfort for those kids in this book about two boy bunnies who love each other.”
While Oliver’s Sunday night show takes its share of digs at President Donald Trump and his defenders, its calling card might be issues not often discussed on late-night comedy. Recent episodes have focused on topics like cryptocurrency and the political and economic crisis in Venezuela. The show has a unique way of leaving the viewer scared but also entertained.
Making the show work is not easy, Twiss said.
“We are also scared!” she said. “Sometimes I wonder the same thing. I wish I had a clear answer as to how we write those jokes. Sometimes we have divine comedic inspiration, but more often than not it’s just sheer labor. We learn as much as we can about the issue with help from our fantastic footage and research departments, and then we just do our best to make it as silly as possible.”
Twiss’ hard work has been rewarded with two Emmy awards, which she won as part of Oliver’s writing staff in 2016 and 2017. Among the nominees that “Last Week Tonight” beat out are the writing staffs from “Saturday Night Live,” “Portlandia,” “Key and Peele” and shows hosted by Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee and Amy Schumer.
Twiss keeps one Emmy in the living room (and only room, she points out) of her New York studio apartment, and she gave the other to her parents, who now live in Custer, South Dakota.
“I am told the statue was a hit at my mother’s Bunko game and my dad’s Rotary meeting,” Twiss said. “Mom and Dad both came with me to the Emmys this year and it was amazing to have them and hopefully almost made up for the fact that I didn’t go to law school.”
While winning an Emmy is rewarding, it doesn’t change everything in life, Twiss said.
“It’s very exciting for about two days, and then everything is exactly the same and it turns out people still cut in line in front of you at the grocery store, like they don’t even know,” she said of the afterglow of an Emmy victory.
Winning an Emmy can also require some manual labor, Twiss said.
“Here’s a fun fact: If you win in the Creative Arts ceremony (which actually happens the week before the one on TV), they mail you the engraved plate for your Emmy and you have to screw it on yourself,” she said. “Suffice it to say I immediately lost the very specifically sized screws in my couch, never to be found again. I had to email the trophy company and beg for more screws, which they very graciously sent. So Emmys are more DIY than you might expect.”
Twiss and the “Last Week Tonight” staff have also received the prestigious Peabody Award and awards from the Writers Guild of America.
Along with the “Bundo” book, Twiss is most proud of the staff’s work on “Last Week Tonight’s” 2014 “Translators” episode, which discussed translators who assisted the U.S. military only to be left behind in danger in Iraq and Afghanistan. The episode, which attracted more than 9 million views on YouTube, included an interview with a translator named Mohammad. Because of a clerical error, the man’s first name was officially changed on his visa to FNU (first name unknown) after taking 3 1⁄2 years to get into the United States.
Another favorite memory was walking into the studio to see the production crew had transformed it into a “Supreme Court for Dogs,” Twiss said. The re-enactments of real court cases using animals was intended to bring attention to the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to allow cameras in the courtroom and the sometimes awful court sketches drawn to show the proceedings.
Twiss has also appeared on screen several times as “Janice in accounting.”
Among Twiss’ mentors, and now friends, is Nell Scovell, who has written for shows ranging from “The Simpsons” to “NCIS” and co-authored the iconic 2013 book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead” with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer.
“Her new memoir ‘Just the Funny Parts’ is probably the most realistic (and hilarious) account I’ve read about what it’s like to be a television writer,” Twiss said of Scovell. “I wish it had existed when I was trying to figure out how to get hired!”
Other inspirations include Oliver, Carol Burnett, Mike Birbiglia, Brian Regan, Tina Fey, Curtis Sittenfeld, Christopher Durang, Sarah Vowell, Laurie Kilmartin, Maria Semple — “I could go on for hours,” Twiss said.
Father recalled fondly
While the Twiss family moved from Redmond before Jill had memories of the place, John Twiss is still remembered fondly by some who remain in the area.
Former smokejumper Mark Corbet, who lives between Redmond and Bend, said he first got to know John Twiss on a fire they fought in 1976 in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
John Twiss had a unique ability to look at a problem and come up with multiple solutions, said Corbet, who recently released his own book, “Between the Dragon and His Wrath: Recollections of a Career Smokejumper.”
“As I got to know John better, I found him to be an intelligent, witty and often times humorous (man), who had a real talent for reading others,” Corbet said in an email. “All abilities that served him well as he rose through the ranks of the U.S. Forest Service. I think that just about everyone he met soon came to view him as a friend, myself included.”
One story about John Twiss from the Fort Smith trip stands out to Corbet. A group of smokejumpers were looking over their menus in a restaurant when Corbet recalls John saying “I don’t believe it!”
“He points to the picture on the front of the menu and says ‘I live right there!’ ” Corbet said of John Twiss. “That menu at the restaurant in Fort Smith, Arkansas, featured a picture of Smith Rock taken looking to the north, from an airplane. On the very edge of the photo, John pointed out his house and the small field around it. We were all as amazed as he had been.”
John Twiss had moved away from Redmond by the time Corbet moved here from La Grande in 1980, but Corbet said he would often run into him at fires, meetings or training sessions. John offered him help, knowledge and advice and became a “go-to guy” when Corbet needed to understand the workings of the Forest Service.
Jill Twiss is interested in writing more children’s books in the future, she said.
“It’s such a hopeful world to dip your toe into and I’m such a huge fan of the genre anyway,” she said. “I am penguin-obsessed so I’d love to write a kids book about a mischievous penguin if i get the chance.”
Twiss is also writing a comedic musical on the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention.
“Trust me when I say I know how weird that sounds,” she said. “It might be terrible! But the best way to find out for sure if something is terrible is to write it, I’m pretty sure.”
As for whether she will return to Redmond someday: “I have not been back to Redmond that I remember, but I’d LOVE to visit,” she said.
— Reporter: 541-548-2186, firstname.lastname@example.org