GREENSBORO — When Emily Spivey writes comedy for television and film, she goes to Carolina in her mind.
“Everything I write secretly takes place in North Carolina, whether I say it or not,” Spivey said.
But that’s no secret in “Bless the Harts,” her series that premieres on the Fox network on Sunday, her 48th birthday.
To create the half-hour animated comedy, Spivey drew on her roots in North Carolina, where she was born in Statesville, grew up in High Point, graduated from UNCG and has a home in Jamestown.
Triad audiences will recognize the name of the Harts’ fictional hometown: Greenpoint, a combination of Greensboro and High Point.
There’s even a reference to the Triad in the first episode.
“Every character is an amalgam of different people I knew — friends, family,” Spivey said from Los Angeles. “Nobody is one specific person. It’s just all the wonderful souls that I knew and still know down there.”
Fox has sandwiched it between two other animated comedies, the long-running “The Simpsons” and “Bob’s Burgers.”
Following “The Simpsons” is “such a place of honor,” Spivey said.
“But it is a ton of pressure,” she said. “That Sunday night block of cartoons has just always been so stellar and means so much to so many people. I just want people to like my show as much as they like these other shows.”
Spivey has excelled under pressure.
She won an Emmy Award for her nine years writing for “Saturday Night Live,” from 2001 to 2010.
She created the NBC series “Up All Night,” and wrote for Fox shows “King of the Hill” and “The Last Man on Earth. “ She wrote and appeared in the Netflix movie “Wine Country,” with Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch and Ana Gasteyer.
“Bless the Harts” follows a down-on-their-luck family of three generations of Southern women.
What they lack in cash, they make up for in heart and laughs.
It features a high-powered cast of voices. Kristen Wiig is Jenny, single mom to Violet (Jillian Bell). Maya Rudolph voices grandmother Betty. Ike Barinholtz is Wayne, Jenny’s caring boyfriend.
The title, “Bless the Harts,” comes from that familiar, double-edged Southern phrase.
“I love the saying ‘Bless your heart’ because it has so many different prisms of meaning,” Spivey said. “It can be a sincere one, or it can be mocking. It has so many different connotations...I think it’s so evocative of everything the South is, and how you can view it so many different ways.”
Spivey loosely based restaurant The Last Supper, where Jenny works, on Carter Brothers Barbecue and Ribs in High Point.
The Halloween episode will feature the story of Lydia, the Jamestown bridge ghost.
Also, listen for mentions of Harris Teeter.
She does use some “creative geography,” she said, locating Charlotte closer than it actually is to Greensboro.
“I am hoping that we captured the look and feel of North Carolina, with the green and the kudzu,” Spivey said. “I really wanted to make it as authentic as possible, in both the characters and the sense of place.”
The show doesn’t rely on making fun of Southern accents or stereotypes for laughs. Spivey wants audiences to laugh with the characters, not at them.
Spivey has described it as “more of an animated ‘Andy Griffith Show.’ ”
“That show is so brilliant,” she said. “It paints a funny picture of the South without being mocking. And the characters are so specific and hilarious and soulful and sweet. I always wanted to do a show like that.”
Spivey remains homesick for North Carolina. Someday, she wants to live here full time.
Her husband, film editor Scott Philbrook, and their son, Rowan, live in Jamestown. Spivey travels back and forth.
Her parents, Nancy and Wayne, live in High Point.
Her sister and family live in Troutman in Iredell County.
Her husband’s family lives in Raleigh and Wilmington.
Spivey drew in part on her years at Northeast Middle School (now Welborn Academy of Science and Technology) and Andrews High School in High Point to create the show’s characters.
Longtime friend David Alexander became the inspiration for the character David.
She based the character Brenda on girls she knew growing up, in and around Northeast and Andrews.
She graduated from Andrews in 1989 and entered UNCG’s media studies program.
“To me, those years were all about books and studying,” Spivey said. “I had an amazing education there, with amazing professors that inspired me to do what I’m doing. I wouldn’t be sitting here without Tony Fragola, John Jellicorse and Frank Donaldson.”
She plans to speak next week to Donaldson’s sitcom writing class.
UNCG’s Department of Media Studies considers Spivey “the most high-profile alumna of our undergraduate program,” Donaldson said. “I didn’t have that many courses with Emily, but she excelled in the ones I did have with her.”
One reason for Spivey's success, Fragola said, "is that she has always followed her passion."
In her senior year, Spivey undertook an independent study with Fragola to work on a feature-length screenplay.
Fragola recalled that the story centered around characters based on her family, friends, and acquaintances from High Point.
"I admired the way she captured the idiosyncrasies of her characters, accepting them in all their humanity with their foibles in a warm, respectful, yet comedic way," Fragola said. "She had always shown talent and an original voice in my other classes, but it was with this screenplay that her comedic abilities were so poignantly apparent."
After graduating from UNCG in 1993, Spivey moved with Philbrook to Los Angeles. There, Spivey earned a master of fine arts degree from Loyola Marymount University.
She joined The Groundlings, an improvisational and sketch comedy troupe and school that attracted comic actors such as Will Ferrell and Melissa McCarthy, as well as the women in “Bless the Harts.”
She wrote comedy for the comedy-sketch show “MADtv” and “King of the Hill.”
“Saturday Night Live” hired her friend Maya Rudolph. Fox let her out of her “King of the Hill” contract so that she could become a staff writer for “SNL.”
“Everyone thought I was crazy,” Spivey recalled. “They were like, ‘Why are you leaving this job to go to the hardest workplace in the world?’ I was like, ‘I have to try it.’ I’m so glad I did. It was the best time of my life.”
It was baptism by fire. Her first “SNL” episode marked the show’s return after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — and her 30th birthday. It featured New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and members of fire and police departments.
“We cried like babies that whole show,” Spivey said.
She began conceiving “Bless the Harts” almost three years ago.
While working on “The Last Man on Earth,” its producers at Lord Miller Productions asked for ideas for other shows.
“I’ve been wanting to do a ‘King of the Hill”-style show, that takes place in North Carolina, forever,” she said.
They liked her idea and her suggestion that it be animated. Lord Miller joined forces with 20th Century Fox Television and Fox Entertainment to produce it. Spivey became creator and an executive producer.
Fox has ordered 13 episodes and five more scripts.
She should hear in October whether Fox wants a second season.
Spivey also is working on a screenplay with feature writing partner Liz Cackowski, with whom she wrote “Wine Country.”
But for now she focuses on “Bless the Harts.” She appeared Tuesday on NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” to talk it up.
“I want it to be a show where you can sit with your family and watch it,” she said.
This weekend, Spivey will gather with her own family in Asheville. They will celebrate her 48th birthday, her father’s birthday and her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.
Then they will watch “Bless the Harts.”