To help get myself into bride mode after my engagement a few months ago, I rewatched all of my favorite TV wedding episodes — from “Grey’s Anatomy” and “ER” to “Friends” and “Parks and Recreation.”
This turned out to be a big mistake.
As I watched Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd promise to “take care of each other even when we’re old and smelly and senile,” my bar for my own vows rose considerably. Whereas I’d hoped to keep them sweet and simple, I now wanted to move my future husband. To make him weep and smile at the same time, just as I did watching the iconic moment between those two characters. To tell him, in grand “Grey’s Anatomy” fashion, that I’ve picked him, chosen him and will always love him.
Luckily, the sweeping declaration of love is showrunner Krista Vernoff’s primary language. In that form of art, she’s TV’s van Gogh.
Vernoff was my first — and, ultimately, only — call shortly after I began sweating about writing my vows to a guy who is my personal McDreamy, minus the scrubs.
There have been a lot of weddings in 15 seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy.” (The show’s season finale airs Thursday night.)
They’ve happened on ferry boats, in barns, in gardens, in courthouses, in living rooms, in decked-out hospital chapels and even in a locker room where the aforementioned vows were written on a small blue Post-It.
Vernoff, who also runs “Station 19” for ABC, knows weddings.
On top of her TV credentials, she’s also a newlywed, having gotten married roughly five months ago to her producing partner Alexandre Schmitt.
“My approach to writing my own vows was to be as intimate and as personal as I could and to have a sense of humor,” she said. “The key to getting people to listen, really and truly, to your words is to make them laugh as well.”
Vernoff never had any doubts about her vow skills, but her then husband-to-be, who works in entertainment but is not a writer, was initially “nervous that somehow his wouldn’t live up to mine,” she said.
His worries turned out to be unnecessary.
“He spoke more in these very, very romantic details about who he believed we could be and who we could become together and what the joining of our souls did and what the joining of our lights did,” she said. “He brought so much romance to his that it really blew everyone away.”
Vernoff talked about their first date — how he was awkward and romantic and she loved it. She talked about how he parents his children and is always present for her daughter.
She also pulled a twist that could have been ripped from an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”: Her husband is French, so she secretly had her vows translated into his native tongue and worked with a coach so she could properly recite them to him.
“That was a pretty amazing surprise for him,” she said. “Bring a little drama — a little romance, a little comedy, a little drama.”
And a word count.
Though much of Vernoff’s advice focused on vow content, she was careful emphasize the importance of this one practical preparation.
“I’d actually been to two weddings where they were like, ‘You write yours and I’ll write mine and we’ll just surprise each other.’ And the bride, in both instances, had written like three sentences and the groom had written two pages,” she said. “And you saw her standing there feeling like, ‘Oh, I really blew this. I didn’t do enough.'”
Not writing enough is never really a problem for Vernoff and the “Grey’s Anatomy” staff. In fact, when crafting wedding moments for television, they’ll occasionally have too much material and, due to the constraints they have being on broadcast television, end up having to cut the vows all together.
“Often, even if vows were written into the script, if the episode is long, you’ll end up editing it and just playing music over a visual montage,” she said. “But the characters need something to be saying, even if you’re not letting the audience hear what they were saying.”
Asked if this meant there are vows that “Grey’s Anatomy” fans have never heard before, she said, “I suspect that there have been.”
On Thursday nights, “Grey’s Anatomy” speaks to an audience that’s about 100,000 times larger than your average wedding crowd. Still, it manages to make its biggest moments somehow feel intimate. Vernoff works hard, though, to also have them resonate with as many viewers as possible.
“At any given time when you’re doing a show with a wedding, somebody who’s watching is going through a heartbreak, somebody was left at the altar, somebody’s going through a breakup, somebody is going through a divorce, and you don’t want to abandon that audience by setting this as a romantic ideal that they may not be get in at this moment,” she said.
For example, one of the show’s wedding episode voice overs had Meredith talking about studies that have claimed that married people have overall healthier lives. By the episode’s end, she expands on that with other evidence that concluded a healthier life isn’t necessarily the result of marriage but, rather, a person’s partnerships, romantic or otherwise. You don’t need a spouse; you just need someone you can trust, talk to, and walk with you through all life throws your way, the voiceover claimed.
The same audience considerations don’t have to be made at a wedding, but Vernoff did. The 40-or-so people in attendance all wore cream and white, and she didn’t have a wedding party because “everybody was my bridal party.”
“For me, my community, my circle of friends is as essential to my happiness and well-being as my romantic relationship is,” she said. “To each his and her own, but my approach in my wedding was similar to my approach on the show, which is I want everyone to feel included.”
At the moment, I’m about I’m seven months out from my wedding day. There is plenty of time to think, marinate on words, and land on the prose that will best encapsulate the promise I intend to make and why I’m making it.
There’s also time to go buy some Post-Its.