Six comedy series chiefs — Kenya Barris, Nahnatchka Khan, Marta Kauffman, Aline Brosh McKenna, David Mandel and Alan Yang — let it rip on the sex acts they still can’t believe they got past Standards (yes, "chicken cooping" is a real thing), why they don’t like spinoffs and the challenges that come with trying to tell your story when you don’t look like everyone else in Hollywood: "Black people don’t get to write for white people."
For much of Nahnatchka Khan's career, she was the only woman in the writers room. "People looked at me for the wife joke or the daughter joke, like, 'What do you think?' " says the Fresh Off the Boat showrunner. "I'd be like, 'I don't like it.' " That frustration resonated with Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, 41. For a long time, he says, "I was the black guy who wrote for black guys." Fortunately, the six writer-producers who gathered for THR's annual comedy showrunner roundtable were in agreement that the recent proliferation of outlets offering scripted fare for their work has led to a landscape more open to diverse voices than ever before.
Over the course of an hour this spring, Khan, 42, and Barris, along with Aline Brosh McKenna, 48 (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Marta Kauffman, 59 (Grace and Frankie), David Mandel, 45 (Veep) and Alan Yang, 34 (Master of None), dove in on the subject of diversity as well as spinoffs, sex acts and the things they could — and couldn't — get on the air.
David and Marta, you worked on juggernauts during the '90s with Seinfeld and Friends. What could you get away with then that you wouldn't be able to get away with now? And, conversely, what can you do now that you definitely could not have done then?
MARTA KAUFFMAN When we did the lesbian wedding episode of Friends, everybody was up in arms. [NBC] put 104 operators on for fear of getting a million phone calls. They got two. A month later, they got the letters, but nobody called. And the letters were all from the Rev. [Donald] Wildmon. What a putz!
DAVID MANDEL Language-wise, when I watch a lot of network television now, I'm shocked by the discourse. It's pretty foulmouthed on regular 8, 8:30, 9 o'clock shows.
KAUFFMAN Foulmouthed like "shit"?
MANDEL Lots of penis discussion, three-way jokes, boob jokes.
ALINE BROSH MCKENNA And balls jokes, lots of balls jokes.
What can't you believe you got away with — or didn't get away with — on your shows today?
BROSH MCKENNA We had a joke about spidering, and Standards and Practices was like: "Oh, you're not going to get that past us. We know what that is." And I was like, "What is that?" (Laughs.) If I told you what spidering was, you'd never stop throwing up.
KENYA BARRIS We ended up getting some pretty risque sex acts on — like chicken-cooping.
MANDEL Veep has taken foul language perhaps to an art form to some extent. Very elegant combinations of f—s and whatnot, and I love it. But I have a very hard time when I am watching the average CBS show; I'm like, "Whoa, that's filthy."
KAUFFMAN We couldn't say "nipple" in 1993. We ended up saying "nippular."
BROSH MCKENNA People are killed on network shows in the most disgusting, gruesome, serial killer-y ways, but we had a thing where we had to cover Rachel Bloom's nipples. It's like, I don't know, man, I think the thing where someone gets garroted with their own belt is a little scarier than seeing a woman's nipples.
BARRIS There's a famous picture from the Vietnam War of a little girl running who has just gotten her clothes napalmed off [that we wanted to use in Black-ish's police-brutality episode]. I think it won a Pulitzer Prize. To me, that was an iconic symbol, and they were like, "That's not allowed." We couldn't show the [World Trade Center's] twin towers; I'm like, "Everyone has seen the twin towers." And the sign that says "Sandy Hook" could not be shown.
Just the sign?
BARRIS Yep, just the sign could not be shown. Do you guys have Standards and Practices at Netflix?
KAUFFMAN We just have to clear everything within an inch of its life, but we have no Standards.
YANG I was stunned, though, because we did this montage at the beginning of the episode we wrote called "Indians on TV," and it included movies and TV shows from the last 60 years. All different studios, crazy stars ...
BROSH MCKENNA Wow, you cleared all of it?
YANG No. We didn't ask permission. Our lawyer was super excited. She said, "This is fair use, this is parody, this is a political point," so we didn't clear anything. And so far, no one has sued us. Cut to when this runs, I'm completely broke. (Laughs.)
KAUFFMAN When we did [HBO's] Dream On, we had an incredible library of old TV. But then after the first season, the legal department discovered that if it was made — and I hope I get this right — pre-1960, it was fine; if it was made post-1960 and the actor was still alive, we would have to pay for it. So we would be picking a clip and go, "Please be dead, please be dead."
BARRIS They're so worried — and I understand it, but from a creative point, it really hinders you. We use a lot of YouTube clips, ones that are famous, on our show. There's one where Barack Obama comes into the Team USA locker room, and it's white coach, white coach, white coach, Kevin Durant. (Laughter.)
YANG I love that one.
BARRIS And we got the NBA to clear it and we got Team USA to clear it, and they were like, "Well, we don't know who shot this."
KHAN What are they afraid of? Are they afraid of getting sued by the guy who shot it?
YANG It's like, we don't know who did one of Kevin Durant's neck tattoos, so we can't do this. (Laughter.)
Alan, when you were starting out, you've said it was important to you that you worked on "universal shows" — that you didn't want to be seen as "an Asian writer." When and why did that change?
YANG I think it was just a situation where I was maturing as a writer, and I felt like the best stuff is the most honest stuff and the most personal stuff. Ultimately, that specificity is what gives you the universality. So it wasn't a statement or a political move with Master of None. Aziz [Ansari] and I were just like, "Hey, let's put our lives into this show."
Have there been points during the rest of your careers when you felt pigeonholed?
KAUFFMAN I definitely did. After Friends, all they wanted me to do was create another multicamera show, and I felt like, "I've done that — I can't compete with myself on this one." So I did a documentary about Holocaust stuff.
YANG A natural next step. (Laughter.)
KHAN For a long time, I was the only woman in the room. People looked at me for the wife joke or the daughter joke, like, "What do you think?" I'd be like, "I don't like it." One time there were two of us on a show, and it was like heaven had opened up. They could split us into two rooms, but we never got to work together.
KAUFFMAN Well, someone has to do the wife jokes.
MANDEL On Seinfeld, Elaine was the one female character, and we had at different times female writers, but at no point was it somehow: "You're the lady. Lady, write for Elaine."
BARRIS I was the black guy who wrote for black guys. That's what Black-ish was actually created around: He's an ad executive now, but in the pitch he was a TV writer, and there was a joke in the pilot like, "How do you think a black guy would say hello?" I'm like, "Probably like that, but I'll check at the meeting and see what we're doing now."
YANG That's funny.
BARRIS That's why I struggle with the "diversity slot."
In what way?
BARRIS It's a double-edged sword because it does often get people into the room, but at the same time, that person, when they're in the room, either [isn't] ready or they're looked at as "the diversity person" — and they are already low-level, so their voice isn't really loud. I say, if you're going to give a diversity slot, make it an upper-level person who has a voice.
BROSH MCKENNA That's interesting. In my room, I don't care who speaks up. I don't tell the staff writer not to talk as much as the co-EP.
KHAN Our writers' assistants pitch. Give me the idea, I'll take it!
MANDEL I'm oddly the opposite. I tried to make a point of going up to our lower level, younger writers and saying, "I don't want you to feel the pressure to speak up. I'm not going to count the number of things you say." There's pressure the other way, too. But then my least favorite thing is writing in a room. I think you can make something funnier that already exists in a room, but I despise the group-think. Every year when I do a pilot or two to help out a friend, I sit there and watch them tear it apart and put it back together in a room, and it's awful. I think it's why there's a lot of bad network television.
Do the rest of you agree?
KAUFFMAN I find that what a room can do is keep you honest.
BARRIS I agree.
MANDEL See, I think the exact opposite.
KAUFFMAN Well, you've been in some shitty rooms! (Laughter.)
BROSH MCKENNA That's the interesting thing about showrunning. I had done some work in TV, but I didn't really have time to figure out how anyone else did it. It's like Nora Ephron said about directing, and it's like making love: You want to go up to people and be like, "Is that how everyone else does it?" But you just have to find your own way — the way that works for you.
YANG And we prefer making love with a ton of people, and Dave does it by himself. (Laughter.)
Kenya, this season you tackled some really challenging issues on Black-ish, but none more so than police brutality. You have said you felt that episode was incredibly important for the show but also that you were terrified to go there. Can you explain?
BARRIS My success is still very new, and I don't want to be the one who says something to f— my career up. But we're living in this world where there are so many images and things that our kids can't escape from, and you have to learn how to talk to your kids about it all. Police brutality is one that, for me in particular, I had to [discuss] with my young sons because they didn't understand why the protesters were mad. They love police cars. I didn't want to let my experiences scorch the earth for them, but at the same time I don't want to tell my kids not to be aware that police brutality exists because they're young black men.
For the rest of you, when was the last time you genuinely were scared to tell a story?
KHAN Working in the network sitcom arena, whenever you decide to depart from the norm and tell a story that's not typical, I think you're always a little bit nervous. We did an episode this year about representation. The father, played by Randall Park, gets an opportunity to be on TV, and then suddenly there's all this pressure because Asians never get a chance to be on TV. We were doing this obviously meta commentary on our show. But that's not a normal story for network TV, and you only have 22 minutes. So you want to do the material justice and the area justice, but you also want to make it funny and not be preachy, so you start to get nervous about that — but it's an excited nervous because you have this opportunity, and you want to tell this story and you want to make sure you get it exactly right. And in a way, that's exactly what we're talking about in the show.
During last year's roundtable, Empire co-creator Lee Daniels said he finds white people writing for black people offensive. But I wonder whether it goes beyond white people writing for black people, black people writing for white people …
BARRIS That doesn't happen. Black people don't get to write for white people.
BARRIS They do not. I don't hate white people writing for black people because I think it's been done really well. The Color Purple is one of my favorite movies of all time. I don't think it's fair that it doesn't go the opposite way — and to be completely honest with you, we have a better idea of your voice than you do of ours because we have to live in your world. You don't have to live in my world; you're a visitor if you choose to be, if you want to go hang out with your girls and listen to hip-hop. But if I'm going to be an active member of society, I have to live in your world. So I have a better idea of your voice than you have of mine, but I am not allowed to write your voice and you're allowed to write mine.
KHAN If I waited to write only for a Persian lesbian, I'd still be waiting. But I can write for straight white men because those are the jobs. If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to write in other people's voices until you get the chance to write in your own. What's so exciting to me [about the diverse ABC comedies] is that now we get to flip the switch and tell stories that maybe you've seen before through a different lens.
YANG I would never begrudge someone's ability or capacity to write for a character who doesn't look like them, but that being said, there is something to shows where there is that authenticity. Our show is about two 30-year-old guys who are Asian and Indian, and the guys who create the show are Asian and Indian. So yeah, Harold & Kumar is a great movie, but I'm glad there is a show that's about those two characters that is made by people who look like them because there are certain things you've experienced that maybe someone who doesn't look like you hasn't.
BROSH MCKENNA It's an interesting thing because you want your differences to be acknowledged. It's very important to me that I'm a woman, that my parents are immigrants, that I'm Jewish, that my mother was a Holocaust survivor. But I don't want to be defined by them, and that's the road you walk. We have a writer, Rene Gube, who's Filipino. He helps us a lot with [writing for actor Vincent Rodriguez III], who's Filipino, but he will also riff whole Rachel bits because he understands her comedic sensibility. You want to be able to make that contribution because you have a unique point of view, but on the other hand, you want to feel like it's not important when I say it's not important.
BARRIS But then I was talking to a studio exec — a very well-meaning studio exec — recently, who was like, "Well, on The Real O'Neals [an ABC comedy about an Irish-Catholic family who is raising a gay son], everyone is either gay or Irish." I'm like, "That's a bad thing." (Laughs.) That means that there's been a gay Irish person waiting for this show to come on or they would not work. And that's how it was as a black writer. You would often look like, "Oh, is there a black character?" Or if you're a woman, "Is there a female character?" And I think that that's dangerous.
Marta, you got Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin to star in Grace and Frankie. What did you want to explore that had not previously been explored on television?
KAUFFMAN Dry vaginas. (Laughs.) Truthfully, there was nothing on for women above a certain age. What shows center on four people over 70? The baby boomers, especially women, are the largest percentage of the population right now, and there was nothing for them. Where are the women going through things that are real, and what is it to be that age and be alone? So that was the goal, and we couldn't have done it anywhere else — certainly not a couple of years ago.
KHAN It's funny, too, because The Golden Girls is one of the most successful sitcoms.
BROSH MCKENNA And my God, one of the funniest.
KHAN Then that was it, nothing after it.
YANG I feel the same way about shows with working-class people or people with regular jobs. We don't see any of those shows anymore. Where are those shows? It's like everyone has a sweet job in New York.
KHAN I know that they believe that television is aspirational, but they actually put that more on comedy than on drama. I mean, you look at Breaking Bad, that's not aspirational. So I don't know why there aren't the same rules applied to comedies.
David, you took over Veep during one of the craziest election years on record. Does the absurdity of the real world make it harder to do heightened versions for comedic purposes? And to that end, do you live in fear of people saying, "Meh. Not as crazy as the real thing"?
MANDEL I was assuming everyone was going to tune in to our season waiting to see our take on Trump, and we don't have one. (Laughter.) There is no Trump character. There are pieces of pomposity and absurdity that we've taken, but we are not doing a real-life documentary of this stuff.
Does it make your job harder?
MANDEL I do think it makes it harder. I remember back in my days at Saturday Night Live, it got harder and harder to do parody commercials because real commercials started getting funnier and funnier. When they were more serious, you could make fun of them. When they're kind of fun and musical or whatever, what's the parody? So yeah, in a perfect world, Selina Meyer should be the worst, most absurd character. Right now, she's kind of running second. (Laughter.)
OK, I'm hoping we can take a more personal turn here. You often are writing off of your own experiences of who you are — or who you were. If we were to reach out to your parents or siblings and have them describe who you were as children, what would they say?
KAUFFMAN She's fine. (Laughter.)
YANG My mom, because she likes to brag about me, would probably just list all the activities that I was doing. So, "Alan plays piano, the violin, the guitar, the bass, the saxophone, he plays soccer, he plays tennis, he's good at school."
BROSH MCKENNA I remember the first time that my brother described me as a know-it-all, and I was so shocked and appalled. It took me so many years to figure out that that was right. (Laughs.)
Who is the character on television — currently or in the past — with whom you most identify?
BROSH MCKENNA Rhoda Morgenstern was a big deal. Just that she existed — that they had a sassy Jewish broad on TV —made a huge impression on me.
KHAN This is going to sound weird, but when I was a little kid, the Iron Sheik was really big in our house. (Laughs.) He was a wrestler in the WWE who was from Iran, and he would be very proud. His shoes were the colors of the Iranian flag, and that was a big deal. Not to say that I saw myself in the Iron Sheik, but our whole family would gather around the TV on Saturday and watch the Iron Sheik wrestle. And he was the bad guy, so everyone else was booing him and cheering whoever he was fighting — it was the opposite in our house.
BARRIS For me, it was Kevin Arnold from The Wonder Years. Even though he came from a different time period and from a different culture, all of those insecurities were things I was dealing with.
If you were given the opportunity to spin off any of your characters, who would you choose?
KAUFFMAN Not a single one. The whole spinoff thing so rarely works.
BARRIS But when it does … (Laughs.)
KAUFFMAN At least to me, I'd feel like I was cheapening the original.
I know how much you enjoy the questions about a Friends reunion.
KAUFFMAN Oh, oh, don't even. I don't know how many ways we can say no.
BROSH MCKENNA It's a [testament] to the love of the show and the renewed relevance of the show.
KAUFFMAN They can watch it on Netflix!
Speaking of frequently asked questions, David, what are the odds that we see another season of another show you've run, Curb Your Enthusiasm?
MANDEL The neat thing about Larry David is actually I do believe one day he will do it. And if he picks up five years from now, it'll be really fascinating to see what Curb is like in five years.
YANG Aziz and I talked about this a couple of days ago. If and when we stop doing the show in the near future, we want to leave it open-ended because we want to be able to do the show again when we're 50 … and again when we're 60.
KAUFFMAN I don't think [Grace and Frankie] is in that exact same category. (Laughs.)