Amid Peak TV Push to Diversify Writers Rooms, Does Twitter Matter?

With nearly 500 original scripted shows airing last year, and demand for diverse voices at an all-time high, the nontraditional paths to writers rooms remain narrow.
Courtesy of Richard Tamayo, Project Photo Booth
Ira Madison III and Kara Brown

For Erin Ryan, it started with a direct message.

The former Daily Beast senior editor, current staff writer for FXX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (and host of Crooked Media podcast Hysteria), was messaged on Twitter out of the blue by Sunny co-creator/star Rob McElhenney in early 2017. "We emailed back and forth and he said that he had seen my Twitter account and he thought that I was a comedian, and then he looked into my work and saw that I was a journalist, and he thought that I should think about writing for TV," recalls Ryan. "So we kind of were friendly and talking about maybe collaborating or something — like last summer I ended up starting to work on a project with him that’s in development right now — and then in January he just called me and asked if I wanted to write for Sunny. It was literally that."

Ryan is among a number of writers with sizable Twitter followings (currently 153K) who have recently made the transition to TV writers' rooms from jobs in digital media. Others include her former Daily Beast colleague Ira Madison III (129K), who's now writing for Netflix's upcoming sci-fi dramedy Daybreak, and Kara Brown (48.4K), who was a senior writer at Jezebel before joining the staff of Freeform's Grown-ish (she's now a writer on the upcoming CW drama In the Dark, slated for midseason).

So the question: Have we returned to the heady days of 2010-11, after Justin Halpern's Twitter feed of Shit His Dad Said was turned into a William Shatner-starring hit sitcom at CBS, when talent reps, producers and development execs collectively decided that Twitter was the new hot place to find authentic voices? The answer, despite an industry that has been scrambling to diversify its creative ranks, is: not yet.

On Sept. 2, The New York Times published a story headlined "As TV Seeks Diverse Writing Ranks, Rising Demand Meets Short Supply." The article, and the headline especially, sparked immediate backlash on Twitter, with many accusing the Times of carrying water for an industry that is trying to solve a problem without abandoning the established system of discovering and grooming talent that created it in the first place. The main thrust of the criticism could be summed up by this tweet from Ava DuVernay: "Nah. Short supply if you aren’t truly looking, listening, learning. Short supply if you’re just calling agencies and then calling it a day. There is no short supply. There is no crisis here. Just the need for the industry to stop talking, but not walking."

Powerful showrunners like DuVernay and Ryan Murphy, many argued, have already proven that finding talented, diverse voices is as easy as making a commitment to seek them out. It seems relevant then, that of the writers THR spoke with for this article (all interviewed before the Times story), only Ryan's experience deviated much from the more-or-less traditional path. 

Madison, who has an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU, was signed by WME when his Crooked Media podcast Keep It! (co-hosted by Brown, so maybe the message is to try and land a Crooked Media podcast, if possible) became a breakout hit. "I told [my reps] that I wanted to do TV writing, but because of my internet presence they mostly were sending me out for comedy," he says. "My script sample that I had been writing was a comedic one-hour. It was sort of a political satire, based on being involved in writing about politics and culture online. I ended up meeting, just on a whim, with a producer who was doing a teen sci-fi show at Netflix that’s also a bit comedic, in the way that Buffy was. And this just ended up being sort of the best fit for me." And while lots of the people he was taking meetings with followed him on social media, the Daybreak creator was not one of them — in fact, he's still not even on Twitter.

For her part, Brown says her path to TV "probably exists somewhere between Ira's and Erin's." She had only been at Jezebel for a week when she moved to L.A. in early 2014, with plans to eventually get into writing for TV — but, she says, "I think initially I said I wanted to do development because I was kind of afraid to say that I wanted to write." She started working intermittently on a script while at Jezebel, where she quickly built a following writing about the Vanderpump restaurant empire and Rachel Dolezal's hair. Then in June 2016 Gawker Media filed for bankruptcy. "I panicked," she says. "So, that sample that I had been working on, I finished in like a week out of sheer, just, 'I have to figure out a plan B.'" A month later a friend took her to a comedy writers boot camp put on by CAA, where Issa Rae was one of the panelists. "I knew she followed me on Twitter, so I was like, I think she's somewhat familiar with my writing, so I went up to her and she immediately was like, 'Oh my gosh, hello! I didn't know you were into TV.' She had her deal at HBO and at the time they were looking for half-hour projects, and she asked if I had anything and I was like, 'I have literally just one script.'" That led to a pitch at HBO, which led to being signed by WME, which led to a meeting with Grown-ish creator Kenya Barris and her first TV job.

Even Megan Amram — writer for NBC's The Good Place (and two-time Emmy nominee for her web series An Emmy for Megan), part of the first wave of "good tweeters" who broke into TV writing along with Halpern, Jen Statsky and Rob Delaney, and who's often cited as a prime example of how far funny tweets can get you — took a fairly traditional route to her first writers' room. She moved to L.A. after college and had already written an original pilot when she got a job as an assistant on the Disney Channel series A.N.T. Farm. "The showrunners were looking for a new staff writer, and I showed them my sample," she says, "and then they saw my Twitter and thought, 'Oh, this girl clearly has a work ethic and can write jokes,' so they hired me off the strength of that." So while her entree into the business turned more on her bosses liking her sample than her contributions to immaculate timelines everywhere, the episode did make her think of her Twitter account, for the first time, as a "portfolio tool" and a way to "prove yourself very quickly as at least a comedic mind."

Madison echoes that sentiment, crediting Twitter with allowing him to use his voice to his own benefit, rather than that of the media brands he worked for. "I think that when people see that, it’s like they already have an expectation of what they can get." However, Jaboukie Young-White, a Brooklyn comedian who'd built up a sizable Twitter following (currently 202K, though he recently deactivated his account) before landing his first TV writing job, on Netflix's American Vandal, says that in some ways, he felt his social media presence was something to overcome, "because at the end of the day, there is still kind of a stigma attached because Twitter is free, and Instagram is free, so the work that you do on those platforms, it's inherently cheap. So I feel like people are less likely to take that seriously. … I’m not going to lie, when I went out to script, I was like, 'I have to bring it,' because this is, like, me showing that I am a real, quote unquote, screenwriter."

The stigma that Young-White points to could, at least in part, explain why, despite the industry's stated commitment to addressing the persistent racial and gender disparities in TV writers rooms, among other spaces, stories like Ryan's — where a creator reaches out to potential new talent directly, instead of, say, waiting on a list of network-approved, major agency-repped writers — are still rare, despite what would appear to be obvious benefits. "Right now it seems like there’s a big demand for people who are from unconventional backgrounds and writers of color, and queer writers, and trans writers," says Ryan. "If you go to somebody that manages talent and you say, ‘I’m looking for a trans writer for this show,’ like, what are the odds that there’s been a trans writer that’s been established through the traditional channels, which have, in the past, shut them out or had a very high barrier for entry for marginalized groups? So I think it just kind of makes sense if people are trying to jump over some of the hurdles that the traditional staffing structure presents."

Brown recounts her experience of being sent out on meetings by her reps, only to discover that, like with Madison, a lot of the people she was meeting with knew of her from Twitter, and were fans of her work, but no one had ever reached out to her. "It sort of makes me wonder why — I mean not to be like, 'Why weren't they knocking down my door trying to find me?' — but it's the fact that there was no sort of communication with anyone until I was officially repped," she says, citing her own case as evidence that Hollywood's own first-cause paradox — What came first, the credits or the reps? — still applies. Or, in her words, still, "Nobody gives a shit about you until you have something already going on."

One coda: Among the reactions to the Times story was a tweet from African-American filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry that read "Let’s do this. If you are a diverse TV writer, that hasn’t already written on TV show and has a writing sample ready to send out, reply to this thread. Want to see something," and a follow-up a few hours later inviting writers to submit samples to his production company, Monkeypaw. So hopefully, the next writer that goes looking for a trend piece on newly minted TV writers whose careers started with a life-changing DM might actually discover a trend.