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Showrunner Roundtable: 12 A-List Writers Dish About Lesbian Weddings, Race and Why “Black People Don’t Get to Write for White People”

THR gathered six comedy bosses and six drama bosses — including Marta Kauffman, Kenya Barris and Sam Esmail — over two days to talk condoms, why it's a smoother road for "white dudes" behind the camera and the challenges faced by women: "In general, men can and frequently do fail up, and women can and frequently do succeed down — and you're just aware of the fact that as a girl, you can't screw up," says Nina Jacobson.

[Complete conversations with the comedy showrunners and drama showrunners will run in separate THR Emmy issues in June.]

They say write what you know. But if what you know is not the experience of a middle-aged white male, good luck getting a greenlight.

Yes, even in a 400-plus-series universe that has made considerably bigger strides than the film world, that white-guy voice remains the loudest and most often heard. “If I waited to write only for a Persian lesbian, I’d still be waiting,” notes Fresh Off the Boat showrunner Nahnatchka Khan, 42. “But I can write for straight white men because those are the jobs.”

On two days this spring, THR gathered 12 showrunners for spirited conversations that touched on opportunities afforded to various subsets of the population. Among them: Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, 41, who suggested white writers long have been allowed to write for black voices but not so for black writers who’d like to write for white characters. “I don’t think it’s fair,” argued the African-American showrunner. “We have a better idea of your voice than you do of ours because we have to live in your world.”

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.)

BARRIS We ended up getting some pretty risque sex acts on — like chicken-cooping.

ESMAIL We had a sex scene that the network did talk to me about because it was between two men, and it was pretty graphic. My argument to them was, “If this was between a man and a woman, would we be having this conversation?” That was the end of that conversation.

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.

ROSENBERG The beauty of working at Netflix is you don’t have limits. But I also work with Marvel, and their brand is generally PG-13, so no F-bombs. And if anyone was going to say f—, it would be Jessica Jones. But what’s funny is that people have said: “She didn’t say f—? I could have sworn she did.” Because [Krysten] Ritter can deliver a “f—” with her face.

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.”

RIDLEY On ABC you can’t say “asshole,” but you can say “ass” in any other combination of words. So we have this litany of ass fill-in-the-blanks: ass-can, ass-hat, ass- … anything.

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.

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Have there been points during 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.)

FELLOWES If you get anywhere in this game, it’s usually because you’ve got one thing that you’re known for and you do quite well. And then you become the go-to person for that particular kind of job, and then you do more and more of it, and of course you start to think, “Why can’t I do a superhero movie?”

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.”

Are there doors that still are not open for you? Projects for which you’re still not entrusted?

RIDLEY Everything. (Laughter.)Among the things that infuriate me is seeing a white dude coming out of Sundance with an OK film and getting handed a multimillion-dollar franchise — you don’t see [that] with women; you don’t see it with people of color. There are certainly mornings where I wake up and go: “You know what, I’m doing things I love and that I have an immense amount of control over. Why walk into the $200 million franchise where you know you’re going to have to put up with things that are going be very hard?” But there are other days where I wake up and go: “I’ve got kids who are 12 and 16. They deserve to see even a little bit of my perspective injected in here in some mild indoctrination.”

NOXON There’s also this attitude that is very corporate, which is, “Well, we have a woman directing a film on our slate of 30, and we have John Ridley — he’s doing this show that’s very topical, so we’re covered.” How many times have I heard: “Oh, you’re doing that lady movie. We’ve got that one.”

ROSENBERG Or have you gotten the one where your agent goes to put you up for a job, and they say, “We already have a woman”?

Nina, you and Melissa have worked on blockbuster film franchises (The Hunger Games and Twilight), an area in which there are few women in prominent roles. What challenges did you face that you might not have if you were a man?

JACOBSON In general, men can and frequently do fail up, and women can and frequently do succeed down — and you’re just aware of the fact that as a girl, you can’t screw up. Like one screwup and you’re in jail, whereas there are countless male executives, writers, directors who get so many chances. There is not a female equivalent of that guy [for whom] you’re like, “How does that person have that job still?” or, “How does that person get hired over and over again?”

Kenya, this season you have 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.

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For the rest of you, when was the last time you genuinely were scared to tell a story?

ESMAIL Growing up, most of my friends were coders, some were hackers. I ripped a lot of their characteristics off and put them in my characters. But there’s a fine line there because there are real hackers out there, and if you don’t do that respectfully, they could retaliate.

ROSENBERG I was dealing with a lot of different issues on Jessica Jones: rape, abortion, interracial relationships, feminism — all this stuff. What made me nervous was whether the audience was going to [react]. The one I thought was really going to get the most flak was the abortion story; the one that actually got the most, much to my horror and disappointment, was the interracial relationship. I got put on a Nazi hate site — it was terrifying.

KHAN 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 make sure you get it exactly right. And in a way, that’s exactly what we’re talking about in the show.

JACOBSON I was scared of taking on O.J. overall as a white person, knowing that this is a polarizing case. We made every effort to have an inclusive team, but ultimately you started with a bunch of white people, and we know that the case means different things to different people. That was much scarier to me than, say, what we were talking about with episode six, the “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” episode, taking on issues of feminism and sexism in the workplace.

RIDLEY We really wanted to look at the things we didn’t talk about in the first season, and there was a lot of conversation [at the time] about sexual assault on campuses, and that’s where we started to go. Michael McDonald, the other producer, and I felt like we’re going to go into something and have maybe a bit of a predisposition about things or even a distance because we are two guys. We were a little nervous about that but also nervous about, are we yet another male voice going into a subject matter that — I don’t want to say better suited to women, as though men or women or black or white can’t do things — but are we just one more additional voice in a lot of very adept voices trying to talk about something? And actually we had read a few stories about male peer-to-peer sexual assault, so truly in the eleventh hour I called Michael and said, “Do you think we should go down this road [instead]?” We delayed our pitch to ABC by a couple of days, and then we went in. They couldn’t wrap their heads around it [at first, but we all felt like] it’s happening, so maybe this is something we should be talking about.

FELLOWES I’m sure it was a very good decision, but I don’t think writers can be held back by the fact that I can’t deal with rape because I’m not a woman, I can’t deal with anti-Semitism because I’m not Jewish, I can’t deal with racism ’cause I’m not black. None of us would be able to write anything! And of course you think, “I hope I’m being faithful to this; I hope I’m not being offensive; I hope I’ve got the right elements of this,” but to some extent it’s an act of faith when you write.

During last year’s roundtable, 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.

They don’t?

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 Vinnie, 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.

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What are your best stories about the casting process, be they the biggest challenges or the happy surprises?

ESMAIL Rami [Malek, who stars as Elliot on Mr. Robot] was a nervous wreck — he was shaking. He literally said the script breeds anxiety, and it was nerve-racking [to watch]. I was like, “I don’t know, is he going to get through this audition?” And by that point we had seen maybe 100 guys, and it was not right. It was the “f— society” speech, and it felt didactic, and I was like: “This is terrible. We’ve got to call USA and cancel this because this is not good.” But then Rami just did it. I [still] don’t know if that was all part of the character.

JACOBSON The character that was hard to cast was Chris Darden because there were a lot of black dudes who were like: “No way — I’m not playin’ that guy. I hate him.” Not to mention the fact that you had to get somebody who could on one hand be charismatic and sexy enough that you were rooting for him and that you really cared about him but on the other hand let himself be bowled over by Johnnie Cochran. A lot of actors would walk in and couldn’t do it: They were either so charismatic and alpha that they couldn’t be the guy who got overwhelmed, or they were so beta they couldn’t be the guy you rooted for.

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?

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.

A few of you also memorably have killed off some of your characters. Do you panic about how the audience will react?

FELLOWES The death of Matthew goes down as one of the great television crimes of our day. (Laughs.)

ROSENBERG I’ll never forgive you for that.

FELLOWES Of course, the lovely thing is that the audience believes in the show to such an extent that they assume a character only dies because you’ve decided to kill them — not because the actor [Dan Stevens] is desperate to get off and do a show on Broadway, which was the real truth.

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If each of you were to turn the cameras on yourselves and do an autobiographical series, what would be the logline or working title?

ESMAIL Mr. Robot. Elliot is a thinly veiled version of myself. I wrote what I knew because a lot of the details of his life and the loneliness were issues I’ve dealt with basically my whole life.

NOXON I’m a little bit like Sam. It’s called Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. That’s pretty ripped from the headlines. (Laughs.)

RIDLEY It would be about a 50-year-old black dude writing in Hollywood. Titles are not my forte. Ironically, you know what the original title of American Crime was that I went and pitched to the network?

NOXON American Crime Story?

RIDLEY No, it was called The People Vs. They said: “That’s too arcane. How about American Crime?” These two shows cannot get away from each other.

ROSENBERG The content of mine would be about failure — I’ve gotten fired more than all of you put together. If I were a white dude, I’d probably have failed a fraction as many times before I hit it big.

FELLOWES I’d call mine Uphill. I was 50 before anything happened.

JACOBSON I’d probably go with There’s Gotta Be a Pony in Here Somewhere. (Laughter.)

More roundtables featuring drama actresses and actors, comedy actors and actresses, and reality hosts and producers will roll out during the coming month as well. Tune in to new episodes of Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter starting June 26 on SundanceTV. And look for clips at starting May 16, with full episodes on after broadcast.

This story first appeared in the May 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.