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.
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.)