We The People: The Changing Face of the TV Writers Room
Conventional wisdom goes that, while features are typically the domain of the director, TV is primarily a writers’ medium. And while some auteur vehicles may challenge this idea, the engine powering most episodic storytelling stems from one place and one place alone: the writers’ room. And it’s been that way ever since the medium began in the 1940s and ‘50s—picture the smoky conference rooms of My Favorite Year or The Dick Van Dyke Show crowded with cigarette- and coffee-fueled Caucasian men jostling to get their ideas on air. Except more and more, TV writers’ rooms are starting to look much different.
But getting—and keeping!—these jobs still remains a challenge for underrepresented writers out of proportion to their white male counterparts. And minority writers must regularly balance issues of identity and authenticity while simultaneously struggling to avoid being pigeonholed. Such was the subject posed by September 22’s We The People panel “True Reflections of ‘Us’: The Writers Room,” which took place at the 2018 LA Film Festival.
Moderated by Rebecca Sun, Senior Reporter for The Hollywood Reporter, panelists included Our Lady J (writer and producer, FX’s Pose), LaToya Morgan (writer and supervising producer, AMC’s Into the Badlands), Gloria Calderón Kellett (co-creator and executive producer, Netflix’s One Day at a Time) and Natasha Rothwell (writer and executive story editor, HBO’s Insecure). Watch the full panel below and read up on some of the highlights below:
TRUE REFLECTIONS OF ‘US’
Isolated, included or liberated? Sun defined three distinct levels of writers’ room inclusion: “Isolated” refers to rooms in which there is just one writer from an underrepresented community present—a situation that often reeks of tokenism; “Included” means that there are at least three such writers; while “liberated” refers to a show where either the showrunner is themselves diverse, or that includes five or more diverse writers (or both).
Asked to do more. “I’ve been in rooms where I’ve been the only woman and the only person of color,” said Kellett. “[I was] expected to speak for all women and all people of color, which is crazy.” Being the only minority writer in a room places an unfair burden on the writer, the panelists agreed. Said Rothwell: “The idea that a white person at the same pay grade is getting paid to write and I’m getting paid to educate, it becomes increasingly frustrating.”
Having backup helps. A trans writer who began her career on Amazon’s Transparent, Our Lady J stressed to importance of having multiple minority voices in the writers’ room. “When you’re the only person [like that] in the room, you’re sacrificing a lot by putting yourself out there.” She continued, “I want everyone to love me and I don’t’ want to lose my job.” Having another person of the same background backing each other up is key, she said.
Diversity programs: all good? Sun said that while studio diversity programs can be helpful, such programs often operate on a model wherein graduates are staffed on shows to paid out of the studio’s budget for their first year. But when the writer’s second year comes around and they must be paid out of the show’s budget—that’s when many minority writers suddenly find themselves out of a job. The onus, said Morgan, is on showrunners “to make the environment welcoming for that writer” and “making it about hem having a real seat at the table.”
Being there. Rothwell offered advice to underrepresented writers ready to jump into their first real gig: “Behave like you belong there, not that you’re there on a visa. You need to act and behave like that’s real, because it is.” Going to Insecure following a stint writing for Saturday Night Live, Rothwell said that her new show “felt like a place where I didn’t have to explain away my presence. It was the first time I realized, oh, there are so many varied stories around this table.”
Mentorship is a two-way street. Said Kellett of her writers’ room: “This is a staff that is helping me make my show, yes. But I also want to teach you [the writers] to do this, so it’s not just me on panels speaking for Latinas.” She said that her goal is “making showrunners” and joked that she hoped one day that there would be “so many that I can take a Saturday off sometimes!”
The results are on the screen. Sun asked the panelists how they felt their identities have shaped the content of their shows. Said Morgan, “Many times, I’ve had to be one to say, ‘We only have one black [character], maybe we don’t kill them?’” She added that, when writing a new character, “When you’re specific, that’s very helpful. Especially when writing for a show like Into the Badlands set in a dystopian future. I really want there to be people of color in the future, so I write ‘black’ in the character description so casting will know what to do.”
Advice for the next generation. Morgan offered some insight into how young writers can entrench themselves in the Hollywood system: “People should brand themselves. Don’t let agents or reps tell you what you’re supposed to be.” Kellett added: “We all have to be rougher on our agents. Your agent’s job is to get you work. You can determine what you want to do, but you have to show them.” Said Our Lady J: “Sometimes you do have to hold people’s hand.”
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