This November I have but one mission: convince podcast audiences to adopt Margaritas & Donuts as a yearly Thanksgiving tradition. If millions of people can cajole Die Hard into being considered a Christmas movie, this excellent romcom miniseries with a heartfelt finale set during a family Thanksgiving dinner deserves to be a Thanksgiving re-listen.
In pursuit of this goal I sat down with show creator Faith McQuinn to pick her brain about her first venture into romantic comedy, making a show set in Nashville that isn’t about Nashville, subverting romcom biases towards young characters, and boozy donuts.
For the uninitiated (lucky you, getting to listen for the first time), Margaritas & Donuts follows single pediatrician Josephine through a failed attempt at internet dating that accidentally leads to her meeting Malik, an ophthalmologist who works in the same building as her. Egged on by her best friend Katrina, Josephine takes a swing at forming a real relationship with Malik in the only fashion befitting of a good rom-com: awkwardly.
And if you haven’t listened to M&D and are worried about spoilers: this interview has a bold center-aligned warning at the point when McQuinn and I begin discussion of the bonus episode Love in the Time of COVID, which operates under the assumption the audience has heard all of Margaritas & Donuts. Before that point there are no spoilers for the plot of the series.
The story of how Margaritas & Donuts came to be starts several years before with a lightbulb moment. After getting her master’s in film and working nine years as a professor, Faith McQuinn came to a sobering realization:
Faith McQuinn: Filmmaking is an expensive hobby. I’ve been in rooms pitching TV shows… it’s still just an expensive hobby. [I realized] audio drama is still a thing and people still listen to them. Maybe I should write one?”
McQuinn fell headfirst into the world of audio drama, taking one of her existing stories and adapting it for the medium, launching Boom: A Serial Drama in early 2017. Boom ran for three seasons, its story of loss and recovery decidedly not romcom, until real life threw the production a curveball in 2019.
Faith McQuinn: My two main characters, the voices of Porter and Myra, both had babies. [The hiatus] between season three and four of Boom went from being three months to… I think it ended up being 15 months.”
Much like Robert Zemeckis cooling his heels in 1999, waiting for Tom Hanks to lose weight halfway through production of Cast Away, McQuinn opted to produce something smaller-scale during the surprise hiatus.
Faith McQuinn: This was my What Lies Beneath. I had time and I cannot sit still for very long. I was like, “Hey, let’s write something else.” Margaritas & Donuts happened because I like to keep creating things. I had to keep going.
The seed of the idea that would become M&D was planted during a fast-paced writing contest. With four days to produce a full script, McQuinn was given the category day one: rom-com.
Faith McQuinn: And then I cried, because I’ve never written comedy.”
McQuinn’s final result was a script closely resembling the first episode of Margaritas & Donuts, matching Josephine’s doomed blind date in which she happens to meet an aggressively polite stranger.
Faith McQuinn: [The contest judges gave] feedback: ‘well, this feels like the beginning of something and not a full story.’ Well, then, I guessed I could make it the beginning of something. And it’s completely influenced by my best friend. I’ve known her since we were 11 years old. She’s more Josephine than not.
Gavin Gaddis: I was going to ask, because these characters you made are shockingly realistic. Asked and answered, you’ve got a Josephine.
Faith McQuinn: Yes, yes, yeah. She’s a lot like Josephine, a little bit me, but it’s mostly her. And then Katrina is a lot me. I mean, I happen to also be married with twin daughters [laughter]. We honestly just aimed to build the best person that my friend would say “this is the guy I’d want” to. So… I built her perfect guy and then made him neurotic.
We then reached the inevitable topic of any discussion about romance and physical intimacy in audio fiction: kissing foley.
Gavin Gaddis: This is the most meme-y question I’m ever going to ask. There has been somewhat of a running conversation / joke debate in audio drama spaces about whether or not to use foley of people kissing in scenes where characters kiss.
Faith McQuinn: Oh gosh.
Gavin Gaddis: Obviously, you did it, as characters kiss in M&D. I’m just wondering, like, if you have a philosophy or even there was A Conversation to be had at the time.
Faith McQuinn: A lot of people talk about hating the sound of a kiss, and it’s weird because I don’t actually hate the sound of a kiss as much as the breathing around kissing. That bothers me more. I asked, Tavius and Dany to do kisses (separately) so we could put them in. When I got all their kisses back I realized how flat they sounded. It was like “Ugh, I probably need to take these out.” But then I realized what I was missing was actually all of the breathing that happens. Like before and after you kiss someone?
Gavin Gaddis: There’s a distinct inhale/exhale associated with that, yeah.
Faith McQuinn: They’re both married so I was like “I know, this is gonna be a weird question. But can you kiss your significant others? Because it’s even hard to fake that breath.” Except that neither of them listened to me and just did it alone, but pulled it off pretty well I think. But [disgusted shiver] still just… in my ears every single time I was editing it. I was. I kept saying to myself, “why do I keep doing this? Why did I do it in Boom too? Like, stop with the kissing?” It’s the worst sound to have in your headphones just [second disgusted shiver].
Gavin Gaddis: Well, because it’s like, it’s an inherently intimate show idea. And then you get to the peak of intimacy.
Faith McQuinn: Yeah, in your ear. [final shudder] You don’t want to be that close. Nope. But I felt like if I didn’t have [characters audibly kissing] it would feel like I left something out. Especially the way that scene happens when Josephine jumps on Malik. This doesn’t work unless I include it all.
Gavin Gaddis: M&D is also quite a sex positive show that’s not afraid to talk about character sexuality, so [the foley] makes perfect sense.
Faith McQuinn: Yeah, I wanted them to be healthy about it and feel comfortable about it. Not just between their relationship but also when she’s talking to Katrina about and Katrina is like “no, it’s fine. Whatever you want to do.”
Gavin Gaddis: As somebody who lives within day-trip distance of Nashville, it was wild to hear a show about a city I’m even slightly familiar with. M&D is very much a Nashville Show. How important was it to you to represent Nashville?
Faith McQuinn: I wanted it to be Nashville. It says interesting thing. I had this conversation with film people a few years ago, that more cities need to be like LA and New York. TV shows and movies that are located there but it’s not important anymore.
Gavin Gaddis: Something that’s not set there.
Faith McQuinn: It’s like, “Oh, if we set it in St. Louis, it’s about St. Louis.” And I was like, why can’t other cities- There are tons of cities in the United States. Why can’t Margaritas and Donuts just be there without it being like this story about it being set in Nashville?
Like with Boom, [which is also set in Nashville]. I live here and I’m more familiar with everything here. [Some of the] desire to do that is because I already know it, but I’m also just trying to build this idea of not everything in the United States takes place on the coasts.
Gavin Gaddis: Or Chicago if you’re feeling feisty.
Faith McQuinn: Right, yes. “Wanna get a little wild? Chicago.”
Gavin Gaddis: After having made Margaritas & Donuts, with the whole thing under your belt, do you feel like you want to go back to doing something romcom-y in the future? Even if it isn’t with the M&D characters?
Faith McQuinn: When I finished it, I was very happy with it and proud of myself for actually branching out and doing something different. This is it, this is the thing, this is what you get. Then we started to get feedback. People are very excited and hoping for another season, all of my actors are hoping or more.
I started to think I don’t feel like I want to revisit Malik and Jo, necessarily. But I am wondering if I could do something like The Orphans and create something within the same world. Like, maybe we get Katrina’s story, or someone else adjacent to [the characters of M&D]. Maybe these original characters pop up and another story? But yeah, I think I’m done with Josephine and Malik’s story.
Love in he Time of COVID discussion! Bail out now, people who’ve not finished the show!
Gavin Gaddis: What’s it like taking these characters, maybe Josephine specifically, into a post-COVID world?
Faith McQuinn: It was definitely harder to think about that. And it’s really interesting, because when Tavius and I sat down to start writing this, both of us had a moment and forgot both Malik and Josephine were doctors. We realized yeah, wait, she isn’t actually home all the time. We originally had wanted it to be the story of them, like, would they quarantine together? Would they be that serious in their relationship to quarantine together?
There pretty early decision that they wouldn’t. He might have wanted to, but she wouldn’t, especially if she’s working. When we remembered it and I was like “Oh, she’s a doctor, she’s working, and she’s totally the type of person who would volunteer to work more hours.” We had to approach this love story between someone who is heavily affected by the pandemic and someone who is kind of affected by it, and what does that relationship look like?
Gavin Gaddis: Is there a little bit of autobiography to how Katrina is handling lockdown with the kids?
Faith McQuinn: [comically strained voice] Little bit, little bit. Fewer Zoom calls, but all the alcohol.
Gavin Gaddis: What was the turnaround time on the special?
Faith McQuinn: Um, it wasn’t very long. I think we took probably two months from writing to getting it out.
Gavin Gaddis: It’s set in April when things were the most intense.
Faith McQuinn: Yeah. And the thing is, I even felt like it may have been too late. We wrote this when we were like, you know, deep in it. Then by the time we got the episode out I felt like we were coming out of it, though obviously we weren’t.
Gavin Gaddis: A lot of people wanted to be coming out of it.
Faith McQuinn: Right, yes. And there was a serious discussion about how do you make a light feel-good show about two doctors during a pandemic? Like, how do we approach that? So there was a lot of going back and forth as to what that looked like. We approached the idea to just play on Malik’s neuroses of wanting everyone to be as happy as possible. And that could be the driving motivation through the whole thing: him just meeting Josephine to be happy.
Gavin Gaddis: Taking the entire show, both the main plot and the COVID special as one unit, what are you walking away with from Margaritas & Donuts? What’re the big lessons learned from doing this side project?
Faith McQuinn: Well, on a production side, doing a fully remote production is a completely different beast. Boom was not done remotely. I had a couple of remote actors but basically everyone was in-studio. Dealing with schedules and doing all that is definitely hard when you have a large cast, and you’re trying to get everybody in at the same time.
But on the post-production side recording locally was much easier because everyone is playing off of each other. When it’s fully remote… I wasn’t prepared, I guess, for the kind of post production that’s involved with that and trying to get people to have those same energies. I had a great cast. They were all amazing performers. It was just a matter of when they weren’t hearing each other. They didn’t always have the same energy levels going through scenes, so I was having to cut things and go back to say, “Hey, can you do it happier? Can you bring a little more to this part of this?”
It was a lot more of that than I’m used to. But it was definitely fun to play with something that wasn’t heavy, of course. [Editing M&D was] very light on me. It was nice to not be dealing in post-traumatic stress and anxiety [laughter].
Gavin Gaddis: Time for the cheesy final question: is there any advice you’d give to people considering making a romantic comedy audio drama?
Faith McQuinn: Please make it. There are not enough romcoms out there. We need more of them. And we need more of them dealing with… not your generic romantic comedy character. We need more representation in romantic comedies, not just “Hey, can we have all the mid-30s white couples?”
Gavin Gaddis: Maybe cut down on the man-babies.
Faith McQuinn: Right, right, exactly. The idea of exploring love when it’s not first love. I mean, first love is beautiful and I love that but, yeah. I enjoy a lot of romantic comedies that are people who have experience in loving someone and then having this new love. I think that’s a lot of fun too. So I just want more people to get into it. And yeah, comedy is hard, but it feels so good when you get it out. It makes you feel good to write good things on the page and to have happy moments.
Gavin Gaddis: Margaritas and Donuts is basically like a middle finger to any romcom that isn’t about a 20-something woman protagonist who’s like “Oh my god, if I don’t get married I’m done forever. I’ll never meet another man.”
Faith McQuinn: Yes, that was fully on purpose. I wanted someone who wanted love not because it completed her, but because she wanted it. [Josephine]’s good, she’s happy, and there’s Katrina’s whole speech about Josephine being a catch. Like, “you are a good person. You are an amazing person and you have all of these things.” That was me saying there are more women like Josephine in this world than there are women in the romcoms you see.
Whether you’re listening for the first time or re-visiting Margaritas & Donuts, a supercut of the entire show is available on the Observer Pictures website and in podcatchers everywhere.
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