'Superior Donuts' Star on TV's Diversity Push: "There's Still a Long Way We Have to Go"

Comedian Jermaine Fowler, who also serves as an executive producer and writer on the comedy, talks to THR about the changes that still need to be made. "I want our show to be that catalyst," he says.
Michael Yarish/CBS

"We need to do better." It was a phrase CBS Entertainment president Glenn Geller used over and over (and over) at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour back in August. During CBS' presentation of its new fall shows, the exec was repeatedly and pointedly asked about the lack of diversity onscreen and off on its new crop of fall shows – a particularly notable void just six months after #OscarsSoWhite took the film industry by storm.

Thankfully, CBS' midseason offerings deliver on that promise from Geller. There's the network's Training Day reboot, featuring African-American actor Justin Cornwell in the Ethan Hawke role. There's the legal drama Doubt, which will make history as the first broadcast series featuring a transgender series regular character played by a transgender actress (Laverne Cox). And then there's Superior Donuts, the multi-cam comedy based on the Tracy Letts play of the same name that stars stand-up comedian Jermaine Fowler opposite Judd Hirsch.

The project did not receive a series order last May before CBS' Upfront presentation. However, the network decided to recast several roles – most notably replacing Brian D'Arcy James with Hirsch – in July and the new pilot received a series pickup in late September, just as CBS was unveiling its fall freshman class. Not only does Fowler represent a breath of fresh air in front of the camera, he also represents diversity behind the scenes, serving as a writer and executive producer on the half-hour multicam.

It's not a surprising turn for Fowler, who began doing stand-up at 17 and has since parlayed his success into writing gigs on series like truTV's 2014 series Friends of the People as well as his own Showtime special, Give Em Hell Kid, the following year. Before Superior Donuts, Fowler created, starred in and exec produced a semi-autobiographical comedy, Delores & Jermaine, that did not move forward at ABC (despite Whoopi Goldberg in the starring role).

The series, based on the Tracy Letts play of the same name, centers on the relationship between a brash, old-fashioned donut shop owner (Hirsch) and his young, modern new employee (Fowler) brought in to help bring the shop into the 21st century as the neighborhood around it begins to gentrify. 

Ahead of Superior Donuts' launch, Fowler jumped on the phone with THR to discuss the behind-the-scenes changes between pilots, the surprisingly close ties between Fowler and his characters and yes, diversity in Hollywood.

When you first read the script, what attracted you to the project?

Well, honestly, I read the script and it was hilarious. From beginning to end, not only were the jokes good but there was a message in the story. It had a lot of heart and there was a lot of depth in the pilot they wrote. Honestly, those are the projects I gravitate toward. I love comedy but more than that, I love comedy that has a message and that has some stakes.

You're also writing on the show. How did that come about? Why did you want to do both?

There were a lot of issues they were bringing up, in particular in the pilot with gentrification and race, I loved that they were bringing these issues up so I just felt why not? I felt like I could bring some value to that. I could bring a different perspective into that world because I've grown up in Maryland and parts of D.C. and lived in Brooklyn about six, seven years and I've been around gentrification my whole life. I've seen it happen. I felt I could bring a different POV to that topic. And I guess they felt the same way. They've also known that I've been writing and producing my own projects for years now and that I was pretty good at it. (Laughs.) I guess they felt that they'd love to have me on board and I'm glad they did. I thought it was a good decision and they've been so good to work with: Bob [Daily], Neil [Goldman] and Garrett [Donovan] and the network and the studio. They've been very receptive to my ideas and that's the show they want. … They don't want a show that's one-sided. They want a show that speaks to many voices, many opinions because that's the world we live in. We live in a world where everyone … it's a mixed bag with different opinions on literally any topic and I feel the show kind of reflects that.

What issues were you important to you to discuss on-air?

I speak from experience and I speak from the heart and I speak only what I know and what I understand; and on what I don't know and what I don't understand, I'm a good listener. I'm a sponge. I'll listen to where anyone's coming from. With that said, I felt like, No. 1, I related so well to that character because I've been in Franco's position where I've been broke looking for a job that I could express myself. I worked check-to-check, worked in dead-end jobs my whole life before I got into stand-up and even during stand-up, I was working at a retail job and Starbucks, all those places. I felt working there that I needed to find an outlet where I could still be creatively happy, so I would write jokes on the palm of my hand when I found the chance, when my boss wasn't looking. Franco mirrored those experiences because at the shop, Superior Donuts, he's always coming up with these new ideas, and that's actually where I was. The writers in the room, they listened, they listened to what I've been through because of how alike Franco and I are so we'll bring up those types of issues, what it's like to work at those types of jobs, what types of conversations you have at those jobs. They've been extremely receptive to those ideas just because I come from that world.

The show also is coming up at an interesting time politically. Given the issues you're tackling on the show; how do you think Superior Donuts can add to the general conversation happening in the country with the recent administration change?

Comedy is just reflective of the world we live in today. At least my favorite type of comedy does. We comment, we make jokes about it, we try to make people cope with it with humor and that's our job.

I play Franco. He's a black kid from North Side Chicago and he's seen a change in the neighborhood, the ushering in of these soulless corporations. He's seen it all, he's seen everything change right in front of him. Arthur has seen everything change too. Because of it, we're going to talk about gentrification. Because we have these two cops on the show, we're going to have to bring up police brutality. We have a young white lady on the show named Maya and for that, we're going to bring up white privilege. There are all these topics on the show that we're going to have to bring up because that's the world we're living in. It would be weird if we didn’t bring it up. It would be a disservice if we didn’t bring these things up. Comedy is supposed to reflect the crazy world we're living in and I'm just happy I get to do that on the show. We don't do shock humor. We're not going to do these jokes to make people go, 'Oh my God, I can't believe they said that. The jokes actually service a story; they service the characters. These characters don't say these things or do these things out of the blue. They have a motive; everyone has a reason why they're doing these things. The more people respect these characters and know these characters, the more messed up things they say or do, it's going to be more endearing and you're going to understand it. … It's not just a shock value show. We have a story we're trying to tell and this story is about this man, Arthur, who wants the best for his donut shop and Franco represents the change he's so afraid of and is so combative about, so that's the main story but around that, we have this crazy world.

You had to shoot a second pilot for Superior Donuts, so what were those conversations like after CBS passed the first time? How quickly did you hear from CBS that they were still interested?

What happened was we shot the pilot and it was funny. The problem was that the material wasn't coming to life the way we wanted it to and that was because the actor who we hired before we cast Judd played too young. He wasn't the curmudgeon-like old man we envisioned as Arthur, so unfortunately the jokes didn’t hit as hard because he played too young for the test audience. They knew they had something there, they knew they wanted to try again because they had something. We all felt the same way. Like, "Man, we have a good pilot and we have a script that we believe is worth fixing and trying again," so we recast the pilot. The pilot didn’t change that much besides casting Judd and Katey Sagal and Anna Baryshnikov and Darien Sills-Evans in the show. They helped out the show so much. Then we shot the pilot and the puzzle just pieced together so nicely. It was a good call on CBS' part. Then you see what happens when you believe in a project from day one like they did. And, like I said, the script didn’t change much. The story got stronger and that just came from me and Neil and Bob and Garrett making the material more concise and the stories got stronger from just the extra time we put into it.

Between the first and second pilot, CBS came under scrutiny for the lack of diversity with its new shows …

You don't say. (Laughs.)

How much did you pay attention to that and those conversations that were coming up about the network?

I think this much: To be a black lead on a CBS network sitcom is huge news. It's a great opportunity and I feel like I have a huge responsibility to portray something fresh and new to the new viewers that are watching the show. As much as networks and studios are releasing TV shows and projects that are indicative of the world we live in right now, I feel like there's still a long way we have to go to reach equality in front of the camera and behind it. But all I can do is kick ass in the writers room and on set in the hopes that this will open more doors for more actors and writers and producers.

Looking at the bigger conversation that's been going on in Hollywood for the last few years, how much do you think that's helping? Have you seen a change in people getting more of these opportunities that maybe wouldn’t have before?

I've seen some change. I grew up watching shows like Martin and Fresh Prince and Moesha, and I was inspired by all these shows. When I was growing up, there were so many black people in TV. That's just the world I was around. I was raised by television, I was raised by the glass box that was in front of me and I would always see black talent on TV just doing what they do and that made me want to do it. I don't know what happened but when I got older, I stopped seeing those faces on TV. It kind of just wasn't there anymore and it kind of made me a little sad. Then working on Superior Donuts and seeing how mixed our writers room is – we have so many good writers in the show – and seeing how diverse our cast is on Superior Donuts, I have some hope. I have some hope that things are going to change for the better. There's going to be a mix of more people who are on TV and I'm very confident in that. I want our show to be that catalyst for the change.

Superior Donuts premieres Thursday at 8:30 p.m. on CBS before moving to its regular time, Mondays at 9 p.m.