Robin Thede: Make "Regular" Black Stories the Norm on TV

The creator of HBO's 'A Black Lady Sketch Show' and other showrunners discuss how to lower the barriers for young writers at the ATX TV Festival.
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Robin Thede

Protests across the country against racial injustice are a "great thing," according to Robin Thede, in that they're helping reveal the systemic issues that work against African Americans and other people of color.

"It's about opening people's eyes the way the women's movement did, the way the gay rights movement did," said Thede (HBO's A Black Lady Sketch Show) on Sunday during a virtual session at the ATX TV Festival. "Change only happens through revolution. I'm invigorated."

Within the industry, that means not just hiring more Black actors, but also writers, directors and crewmembers so "everyone feels equal on set," Thede said. She also called on studios, networks and streamers to greenlight "more modern Black stories."

"Go watch Black people just living regular-ass lives and being flawed and not being 'strong Black women' every time," she said. "Part of the normalization process is to watch us as you watch anything else."

Thede was part of the festival's "Showrunners State of the Union" panel, along with Marta Kauffman (Grace and Frankie, Friends), Julie Plec (Legacies) and Liz Feldman (Dead to Me). The four producers also discussed ways to lower the entry barrier for young writers of all backgrounds — not just ones from a certain set of colleges or those who can afford to live in Los Angeles — and then train them to become showrunners themselves.

Plec noted that it's often the case on streaming shows with shorter episode orders that all the writing is finished before filming starts, and one or two producers take on most of the on-set responsibility once production is rolling. "Writers aren't budgeted to go produce the episodes they wrote," she said, and thus don't get as many chances to learn about other aspects of producing and advance their careers.

With writers rooms having transitioned to video conferences, Plec also said geography wouldn't necessarily have to matter as much. All four showrunners said they miss the immediacy of a writers room, but as Plec said, "I could hire a writer from Atlanta, where we shoot, or anywhere else, to be in the room via Zoom if they don't have the means yet to live in L.A."

Kauffman said when interns come to work on Grace and Frankie, they're shown every part of what goes into making the show. "Then you see people who started as interns now sitting at the table throwing out amazing ideas," she said. "It gives me great pleasure to see that. Then you want to see them take over."