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'Florida Girls' creator Laura Chinn spins TV comedy from real-life Clearwater

From left to right: Laci Mosley, Laura Chinn, Patty Gugenheim and Melanie Field in a scene from “Florida Girls.” [Courtesy of Pop]
Published Jul. 5

Growing up in Clearwater, Laura Chinn says she knew by age 3 she wanted to escape Florida for the entertainment business. She had no idea that succeeding on that path would, in a way, circle her back to where she started.

Chinn, 33, a former writer-producer on Fox's The Mick, left Tampa Bay for Los Angeles a decade ago. Now she has mined her earlier, more aimless years — and a later-realized love for the Sunshine State — as inspiration for Florida Girls, a new half-hour comedy series she created, stars in and produces for Pop.

Right now, the cable network is probably best known as the American home of cult Canadian hit Schitt's Creek. But that could change when Florida Girls premieres with back-to-back episodes 10 p.m. July 10.

In those first episodes, we meet Shelby, Kaitlin, Jayla and Erica, best friends who "navigate life's curveballs below the poverty line." In a hilariously exaggerated version of Clearwater populated by a diverse and skewed array of Florida Men and Women, the twentysomethings figure out how to pay bills, question their life choices and work as in-house mermaids at a local bar.

They have their issues. An early scene shows Chinn as Shelby blowing into a Breathalyzer to start her car as the other three wait in suspense. But they also have an unshakable, non-judgmental friendship and a (sometimes hidden) desire to be better. The show is irreverent, breezily watchable and very funny.

We talked to Chinn by phone recently about the show.

As a native Floridian from a small town, I feel like I know these characters and this world. Were you hoping for that?

It's all I was hoping for. I grew up lower middle class in a low-income neighborhood and all the shows I watched I couldn't relate to. I couldn't fathom how expensive those lifestyles were. I always wanted to make a show I could have related to growing up.

Where are you from and how did you get to where you're creating a TV show?

I went to Dunedin High and dropped out when I was 16. I always knew I was going to act. That was my goal even when I was dropping out and going to keg parties. It's such a bad lesson: "Drop out, and then you get to make a TV show." But there was a super long road — 10 years of waitressing, struggling, crying and questioning my choices, and keeping on trying. So yeah, I dabbled in junior college, St. Petersburg College, for like six years after I got a GED, then I moved to L.A. and I figured it out. I took the steps. I started doing Upright Citizens Brigade, which is like a comedy improv school here, and that really helped.

How did the idea for Florida Girls develop?

When I first moved to L.A., I would tell people stories about high school and growing up and their reactions were so shocked. I was surprised they thought it was so crazy, because I thought it was normal. It made me realize these aren't everyone's stories, but they're very entertaining. So for 10 years, while I was writing and learning, I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to tell stories about Florida.

When the girls are introduced, you say they met at age 5 and started drinking at 12. How close is that to reality?

Oh, it's exactly close. My group of girlfriends, none of us had dads, because of various reasons. They were MIA, or dead, or living in another state. We all had single moms who were busy taking care of the household, so we raised ourselves and ran around town with no curfew. That group of friends, though, it turned into a family, a dysfunctional one, but we definitely loved each other and raised each other.

Are there specific plotlines that come from real life, too?

I would say Episode 107 is the most nostalgic. It happened to me like almost exactly the way it happens to them. It's called "Drive By." Let's just say that growing up, we used to get viciously jealous about our significant others. So we'd get in the car and repeatedly drive by their house to spy on them and see what they were up to. It was almost always nothing, but there was one night when it was very fruitful.

There are some very Tampa Bay references in the show, like Guavaween and Mugs 'N Jugs. Can we expect more of that?

I actually worked at Wing House and my best friend worked at Hooters, so we were rivals. I was 16! That was fun (laughs). I never worked at Mugs 'N Jugs, but I have a friend who I think works there now. I don't think we ever actually made it to Guavaween, but we'd go to Gasparilla. One time we were in a crowd that was getting rowdy, and a cop came on a horse and maced everyone and we were trapped and coughing on the ground and I thought I was going to die. I used to go at age 13! I went to Prana nightclub in Ybor when I was 13 with a fake ID. I was so excited to tell my friend about Prana when I was there last year. I was like, "It's five different levels of music!"

What's it like visiting Florida now after living in L.A.?

I love it so much. Growing up, I felt trapped. I wanted to escape. I don't think I appreciated Florida enough. It's so special. Now when I go back, Clearwater is amazing, it's such a fun, funky beach town. My mom and I go camping in a different place in Florida every year — Rainbow Springs, Weeki Wachee — I'm so in love with it now. That's why it was really important to me to have a character who voiced her love for Florida and her desire to never leave. I actually don't believe you have to leave your small town at all. Some of the most brilliant, amazing, creative people I know live in Florida, and they get to take their family out for boat rides on the weekend. I actually think the show is aspirational, even though it's not a traditional network sitcom with, you know, a huge house in a big city, it's aspirational because everyone wishes they could go to my island party, or could ride a jet ski with four girls. Hopefully people feel like they'd want to spend a weekend with these girls.

Florida Girls feels as diverse as real-life Florida to me. Was the episode where your character deals with some identity issues important to you?

It was so important. I grew up biracial, but I know I look white to most people. I love to be around white people and see what they say when they think no black people are around. I really wanted to show the way white people can be racist without being racist. Kaitlin isn't racist, but she has some serious blind spots. And I wanted to tell my own story of feeling sorry for myself because people don't know I'm black, and being told, "Listen, you look white in America. Don't pout!"

Will friends from back home be mad when they see this and realize they're a character?

The specific characters are so heightened. They kind of represent collections of people I know. Some are even based on people I know in L.A. But I don't think anyone will be offended. My best friend in Dunedin, she literally showed the episodes to her 7-year-old daughter and I was like, "Noooo!" And she was like, "I have to show her my childhood!"

Are you hyper aware of every Florida joke that pops up when you're watching TV?

It's funny you say that, because I notice Florida everywhere. A lot of shows do it. 30 Rock had like a whole thing about Clearwater. People make fun of Florida because all they know is the headlines, but I think the reason people talk about Florida so much is because Florida is just all of America stuffed into one state. There are so many kinds of people: Jewish, Latin, rednecks, racists, black people, old retired people, all ages. It just makes for an amazing amount of diversity and colorful headlines.

Contact Christopher Spata at cspata@tampabay.com. Follow @SpataTimes.

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