Showrunner Summit: 12 Top TV Players Sound Off on Political Storylines, Sex Scenes and Pay Parity
Heading into Emmy season and the upfronts, Whitney Cummings, Pamela Adlon and more television bosses unload on network pitch meetings ("'I already have a black show.' He said that right to my face") and the future of funny: "If we're thinking about the message it's sending out, there is no comedy. Comedy is over, it's dead."
“Our job is not to take care of people’s feelings,” says Whitney Cummings, the 35-year-old stand-up and self-identified “lib-tard” who was brought in to co-run ABC’s revival of Roseanne. “Our job,” she continues, with Pamela Adlon, 51, creator-star of FX’s Better Things, nodding beside her, “is to make people think and make them laugh and make them talk.”
Those were the motivations for Cummings and her writing staff to wrap themselves, narratively speaking, in such charged topics as guns, drugs, parenting and the election of President Trump for the controversial working-class comedy reboot. And her staff is not alone. Dear White People creator Justin Simien, 35, parlayed his Sundance indie into a Netflix dramedy, through which they unspool unflinching racial commentary in half-hour pops. “Our job,” Simien adds, “is to make you uncomfortable.”
This spring, with another Emmy season underway, THR gathered 12 top showrunners for two separate conversations (April 16 and April 28) that also touched on such hot-button Hollywood issues as pay parity, inclusion and building trust in the writers room. Joining the pair of discussions: Alec Berg, 49 (HBO’s Barry and Silicon Valley); Dan Futterman, 50 (Hulu’s The Looming Tower); Courtney Kemp, 41 (Starz’s Power); Peter Morgan, 55 (Netflix’s The Crown); Bruce Miller, 53 (Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale); Michael Schur, 42 (NBC’s The Good Place); Amy Sherman-Palladino, 52 (Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel); David Shore, 58 (ABC’s The Good Doctor); and Lena Waithe, 33 (Showtime’s The Chi).
Their conversations, condensed and edited together here, offer a close look at the challenges of staying creative and relevant in TV’s crowded and rocky landscape.
LENA WAITHE A big debate we had was: Do black people call the cops?
DAN FUTTERMAN Didn’t they trust you to answer that question?
WAITHE I don’t have a black exec on the studio or network side, and so there is a level of trust that they have to have for me. This came up in the room, which is predominantly African-American, and sometimes things can be generational. There was a writer in our room who basically said, “Well, if I’m in trouble, I call the cops.” But for a lot of us, we’re like, “We wouldn’t do that, we’d want to figure it out on our own.” So, there’s a crime committed in the pilot, a character’s younger brother is shot and killed, and he’s dating someone from the right side of the tracks who says, “Maybe you should call the cops.” Ultimately, we gave him the line, “I’m not about to call the cops, the cops are not about to do nothin’.”
BRUCE MILLER So, you took the debate from the writers room and put it in the story. That’s one of the most interesting things about diversity. When I started my career, there was often one woman in the room. My room now is basically all women and me. And the thing that you get is the disagreement. Because if you have one black person in the room, that black person speaks for all black people in the universe.
COURTNEY KEMP Blackipedia or Blacktionary. Been both of those on many shows. (Laughter.)
MILLER Instead, we have discussions. We had a very long one about what it actually feels like to get your period and how can you tell or not when you start to bleed and all that. And the entire room, all they did was disagree with each other.
WAITHE Because everybody has a very different experience.
MILLER Right. And it’s funny because you think, “Oh, there’s a universal answer to this.” And I just need a line.
FUTTERMAN We have a similar thing on our show [which follows the FBI and CIA in the years leading up to 9/11]. There’s a lot about the Koran, and there’s a lot of Arabic dialogue. And we were leading up to a big interrogation in the 10th episode with Ali Soufan and a terrorist named Abu Jandal, and it’s in Arabic. A lot of the way he gets [Jandal] to speak is he shames him about his lack of knowledge about the Koran. And when we handed in the episode, we got a call from Hulu. They said, “You realize that this is 12 pages in Arabic and it doesn’t cut to anything else, right?” And we said, “Yeah, we do realize that. (Laughter.) That was intentional, and we’ve been leading up to this.” But in terms of the opinions, you ask two Jews about the Torah, you get three opinions; it’s the exact same thing about the Koran. We had a couple of guys of Muslim descent, and then we had the actors, and we had about 14 opinions about where this conversation should lead.
DAVID SHORE My challenge is I have a character at the center of the show who has autism. So how do I make him fully dimensionalized while being true to people with this condition and on this spectrum? It’s important that I don’t turn him into the magic person with autism where he’s got a condition, but he’s fine, he’ll solve all the problems.
Killing Off Characters
KEMP On my show [about a drug dealer and his family], characters die every season. I’ve had actors who I loved personally and I was crying as I typed their demise.
MILLER But they die so well.
KEMP They do die so well. (Laughter.) But in the case [of Raina], I felt like there was no choice. My show is governed by the principle of surprising and inevitable, so the dominos have to fall a certain way. The character’s twin brother had committed a series of acts for which, in their world, you get “got.” So then his sister, being a white hat in our show, tries to save her brother from his fate and, as a result of him making these choices, she is the one who gets hurt. That is surprising because it’s not him, but it’s inevitable because he made some terrible choices. I did hide [her death] from the network for a little while. I always talk to the actor about a week before the production draft goes out. And in this case, you have to talk to the actor and their mom.
THR So, what is that conversation?
KEMP This person will no longer be on the show after episode nine, and it’s not personal and it’s not about your performance, it’s just about where the story takes you, no different than anyone else. This was not the first character I’d killed off, by the way, this is like deep into season four of a lot of people getting “got” on the show. It was more for the child actor, she was frightened and confused. And then you bring the parent in to say, “Hey, it’s not the end of the world, there will be other jobs,” that kind of thing. But that was a hard one. Not the hardest.
THR What was the hardest?
KEMP I had one actor who told me that I was ruining the show and that if he wasn’t on it that a certain segment of the population would never watch it again. And I was like, “OK, dude.” (Laughs.)
SHORE You just made it easier.
KEMP Yeah, in a way. But it’s hard because you’re firing someone. And especially for a series regular, that’s a big check you’re telling them they’re not getting. So, it’s tough, but it’s also part of our show. And by the end of the season, there’s a joke among the actors, “Do you have to go talk to Courtney?”
MILLER You’re the hammer.
KEMP I’m the grim reaper sometimes. And some people have to be real troopers because their dead bodies have to stay in one position for a couple hours.
WAITHE They’re thinking, “Did I put enough in my savings account? I shouldn’t have bought that Tesla.” (Laughter.)
Actor Pay Parity
PETER MORGAN I’ve been listening to everyone talking, particularly about firing people and stuff, and I wouldn’t do that. No, no, no. Each one of us is doing six full-time jobs. So, you have to think, “Well, where am I prepared to let other people just take over completely?” And there are some areas where some of us write less, some of us write more. I have absolutely nothing to do with business affairs, nothing at all. So, when that story broke [about star Claire Foy earning less than Matt Smith], I was as horrified as the next person.
THR Are you guys going to be more involved or at least be knowledgeable going forward?
MORGAN No, you can’t be.
THR You can’t be?
MORGAN If you want to stay healthy and alive — and I would suggest that all of us are on the verge of bad health and insanity — you have to delegate. I was asking Bruce, and he goes on set a lot, and I would love go to on set more. I probably, to micromanage the culture of the show that you’re on, I’d love to know more about what decisions are we making with pay, who are we paying and what are we doing, but I simply have to let my colleagues and co-producers do that, and I have to say, “Well, if I only have so many hours or so much energy, this is the bit that I think I’m best suited to.”
THR Given what a hot button this has become and how much a conversation like this can usurp a show, do the rest of you feel a responsibility going forward to be more involved?
SHORE I’ll probably make a phone call to Sony [the studio behind his show] to say, “Hey, you’re doing it right, right?” Because I literally don’t know what my people are being paid and I’m counting on them to be responsible.
Shooting Sex Scenes
WAITHE I’ve been very involved in Time’s Up and that movement, and for season two, we’re making sure that women feel safe on the set and we’re hyper-aware of what that means because there are sex scenes there. We want to make sure we’re talking to these actresses and also talking to our male actors and making sure they’re aware. Because I don’t play. I’m like, “Look, it’s the city of Chicago, people die every day. So if you wanna play that game and be disrespectful or misbehave on set with an actress or anyone, I will happily call Showtime and say, ‘This person has to go,’ and you will get shot up and it’ll be a wonderful finale.”
KEMP On sex scene days, I actually have thrown people off set. “It’s a closed set, so, like, why are you here? What is your function? If you’re not holding the boom or operating a camera and you’re not holding the robe. … Like, there are 10 jobs that are necessary for a sex scene. Other than that, get off set.” And I will go around and boot people. In a way, there is something about having a woman showrunner, which means that I have asked you to take your clothes off and go through this sex scene and I’ve promised you you’re going to be safe on my set and you believed me because I was also female, so now I have to …
WAITHE It’s your responsibility.
KEMP I have to take the responsibility on.
FUTTERMAN Yeah, we did the same thing, and I left set as well. There were as few people as possible.
SHORE I don’t do [sex scenes] as often, obviously, but, yeah, I chose to leave the set. And then the next day, the actress came to me and asked how she was in that scene, and I go, “Uhhh …” Jesus, I don’t know how to behave. (Laughter.)
MILLER We do a lot of very odd sex scenes. I have to say, our crew, they are so respectful to the point where every single monitor there has a whole box of black around it so nobody sees anything, and we have guys who stand on set with their backs to Lizzie. So, the boom operator is doing his job and the guy who is pulling his cable is not looking.
KEMP But the other piece of that is, how many women do you have on set who are operating cameras?
Life Imitating Art
WHITNEY CUMMINGS A big part of my involvement [on Roseanne], because it stars a character and person who voted for Trump, is that I was the progressive lib-tard in the room, and I really wanted to dig into the hypocrisies and all the hot-button issues that we’re all talking about. So, [the Conners] have a gun in the house, and the story was about how they can’t find it, and I really wanted the 5-year-old kid to find it. She was gonna come out and be holding it, and it made everyone very uncomfortable, which is why I wanted to do it. I thought for a multicam, this could be incendiary and interesting and start a conversation and show the dangers inside the home of these kinds of choices. And the network — well, everyone was pretty freaked out about it. And I fought really hard, and it was a hill that I died on. We didn’t end up shooting that, and then Parkland happened and I was like, I …
JUSTIN SIMIEN Should’ve done it.
CUMMINGS Should have done it? You think I should have done it?
AMY SHERMAN-PALLADINO Oh, I think you should’ve done it.
CUMMINGS I was like, “I’m sure they would’ve made us cut it later, anyway.”
SIMIEN They would’ve.
PAMELA ADLON Absolutely.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO Or they would’ve done what they do, which I think is always a pussy move, which is delay it. Because if you believed in it in the moment, then you believed in it. And even if it takes on a different tone. … My show came of age, for the eight episodes that I’ve done so far, when Weinstein and all that started happening and suddenly people were like, “Oh, it takes on new relevance.” I’m like, “Really? Because women have been gettin’ a finger up their twat for years.”
ALEC BERG When we started shooting Barry, this was before the #MeToo thing, and there are a couple of things in the show that reviewers have pointed to and said, “Oh, they took on the #MeToo movement there.” There is a scene where a character is talking to an agent who may or may not sign her, and he basically says he’s deciding whether to fuck her or sign her, which is something I had heard an agent say. And it was like, whoa, that one went in the memory bank. Now, oddly, we get credit for “Oh, they saw the movement.”
The #MeToo Impact on Comedy
ADLON It’s very dangerous to make your content go into a safer direction. Before the #MeToo thing happened, I would get the obligatory letter from my network, “Dear showrunners, please hire women.” And I would be like, “What the fuuuuck?” (Laughter.) “Please hire all diversities and whatever.” I’m like, “Is this not …?” (Motions to herself.) So, now I have this [#MeToo] to tackle and people are like, “You can address this all directly in your show. This is your voice and your show.” And it’s like, everybody just relax. Let me try to maintain the climate of my show. When you were talking about the [agent] in Barry, did it date you because you had that and nobody would dare do that [now]?
BERG No, but it was interesting that it changed the context of how people received it.
CUMMINGS Yeah, the joke wasn’t funny anymore.
ADLON That’s right. There is a stank on everything and it can’t just be dirty or funny. And when do we ever go back to that? We want to be able to tell whatever story we wanna tell. My network never says no to anything, never mandates anything, but when it came to the storyline at the beginning of the season about my 16-year-old daughter dating a 35-year-old, they were like, “Eeehhh.” I was like, “I don’t know that she slept with him. I honestly don’t. He is procuring her. I want to tell this story.”
SHERMAN-PALLADINO Comedy is heading into a very dangerous place right now and I am very worried about it.
THR How so?
SHERMAN-PALLADINO If we start not being able to do stories because viewed through the lens of #MeToo or this or that … that you can’t suddenly have anyone have an apolitical position or thinking about the message that it’s sending out, there is no comedy. Comedy is over, it’s dead.
BERG It feels like there is this thing that’s like outrage as a recreational activity now.
CUMMINGS I need to hate something.
BERG Right. Where it’s just like, what are you gonna do? Well, I might go to the gym or I’m just going to rage on the internet for an hour.
SIMIEN People literally stopped at the word “White” in my title and like, “He’s causing a genocide for white people.” (Laughs.)
SHERMAN-PALLADINO And unfortunately, comedy, because comedy at its core is a tool that is aimed at oppression and sadness and the worst in human nature, not the best, you don’t get comedy off of great, fun, happy, delightful people. I’m sure Mandela’s lovely, but he ain’t funny. You don’t go to that well for great comedy. You go to the worst of people or the shallowness or the pain and the outcasts, and that’s what makes shit funny. And suddenly it feels like we’re entering this world where it’s like you’ve just got to show wonderful, terrific, delightful things —
SIMIEN Which is so boring.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO It’s so boring!
BERG Also, it disarms satire completely.
CUMMINGS There was a big issue on our show about whether Dan Conner [can call] undocumented workers who are now taking his jobs illegals. There was all this hullabaloo on set about “Can you say ‘illegals’? That’s an offensive word and we’re not supposed to say that, that’s not the PC term.” But this man would not know what the right word is. So if we have him saying “undocumented workers,” it just feels false and you’re not telling the story.
ADLON Oh God, no.
SIMIEN Everyone assumed our show was a response to Trump taking office. But no, we just told the truth. Like, racism didn’t begin when Trump took office. If you tell the truth, no matter what’s happening in the world, it will work and resonate.
CUMMINGS For us, there was all this feedback of like, “This show is part of the problem.” And I’m just like, “[Trump] got elected before this show came back.” Like, [Roseanne Barr’s] Twitter feed is her Twitter feed. But everyone just needs something to blame right now.
Predicting How Storylines Will Land
CUMMINGS There are times [in the writers room] where I’m like, “This is offensive, but this is what these characters would say when no one is watching and when they don’t have a bunch of lib-tard people controlling what they say.” So, I found a lot of times my job was just to go, “If you feel that that’s what this person would say behind closed doors, then let’s go with it.”
SIMIEN Everyone needs to see themselves and what’s happening. And see others.
CUMMINGS There are a lot of things where if this person was related to me, over Thanksgiving I’d yell at them about their beliefs, but there are certain people who talk like this, and to not represent them scares me because then they want to feel represented and seen and heard and they go do it by voting stupid.
BERG And representing someone is not the same thing as endorsing them, right?
MICHAEL SCHUR We had the same thing happen. The finale of [The Good Place] aired the night before Trump was inaugurated. And we had a flashback to Kristen Bell’s character, she’s walking through a grocery store and it was the final moments of her life and the idea was to present a person who was the most selfish person in the world. She went through and she bonked into someone, didn’t care. She dropped a bunch of stuff, didn’t care. She read a magazine and then tossed it back at the thing where she took it from and it fell down, she didn’t care. And the song that was playing in the grocery store was “My Way” by Frank Sinatra because it’s the ultimate tribute to selfishness. It’s like, “I don’t care what you think, I’m gonna do this my way.” And the next night, Trump was inaugurated and his first dance was to “My Way” by Frank Sinatra.
ADLON Oh my God.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO But also we have to accept that there are going to be very offensive jokes, jokes that cross the line. There’s going to be Kathy Griffin holding up Donald Trump’s head. And I’ve got to tell you, I was very disappointed in the Hollywood community for not coming to her defense. They hung that girl out to dry. I didn’t think it was funny, I wouldn’t have personally thought, “Hey this is gonna be my [thing],” but who the fuck cares? Comedians are supposed to push the boundaries so that the rest of us know where the fuck they are.
CUMMINGS I texted her.
SHERMAN-PALLADINO Well, good.
Pitching While Black
WAITHE Usually it’s predominantly white execs or there’s often the poor token black exec they bring to the room, whoever they can find in the office just to say, “Come on, we got a black person coming in here, we wanna look good.” (Laughter.) And that black exec can either be friend or foe. If they are a black person who grew up in Connecticut or went to a private school, and I’m in there pitching The Chi, they’re gonna go, “Well, that wasn’t my experience. I’ve seen that experience of black people before, I don’t want to greenlight a show that’s going to tell that story again.” The truth is, going in to pitch is hard, period, but what people don’t realize is that when you’re someone who is “othered” — and it’s not just for black people, it’s if you’re a trans person, if you’re someone who maybe has a disability and you want to come in and tell a story about that — if you’re sitting with people for whom that’s not their experience, yeah, if you have something that’s phenomenal and they can just kind of relate and get it, they’ll do it, but oftentimes there is a level of not understanding and not being able to relate. Also, the top execs, the people with greenlight power, they live in Brentwood, their kids go to private school. It’s Big Little Lies. So, if you’re not pitching Big Little Lies, sometimes they’re like, “Huh, I don’t get it.” Or they say yes and then try to make it more relatable to them.
THR Are those rooms changing with the success of projects like Power, Empire and Black Panther?
KEMP The people at the top who are saying yes haven’t changed.
WAITHE Not at all.
KEMP I feel like you can go in two different ways, and this is what I tell younger writers. You can go in and pitch the universal part first. So, I go in and pitch Power and I say it’s about the path not taken, it’s about my first love, the one that got away, it’s about does my past dictate my future. Anybody can relate to that. You tell that story first, the specifics don’t matter. That’s one way of doing it. And if you can’t find the universal in your pitch, it’s not the right show. Because it’s not gonna work. A show that’s just about you and living on your block is not going to be interesting enough. But you also have to research the people in the room before you go in because if you are just looking at them as a monolithic group of upper-middle-class white people, well, you screwed up, too, because somebody in there is specifically from 10 miles from where you grew up and then you can connect on that level.
MILLER Or have greenlit 20 really cool, interesting shows all over the map.
KEMP Right. What appeals to them? Because if you go in and you see that this person has greenlit this, that or the other, they might actually vibe with one specific thing in your pitch. What are your references? What are the things that you like? I can go in and for the first 10 minutes talk about how much I love The Crown. Walls go down. Now when I pitch you the show about the drug dealer, it doesn’t matter, I’m the girl who likes The Crown. I think sometimes we make the whole argument about, “I’m different, so they’re not gonna buy it.” Nope. Go in with a good pitch and if the reason they don’t buy it is because you’re different, that’s their loss. When I was pitching Power, I had an executive say, “Well, I already have a black show.” He said that right to my face.
KEMP We did all right without him.
Who Can Tell What Story
MILLER My situation was relatively unique because I was writing based on a feminist novel that had had a long life. People had experienced it as a novel first, so it had a certain amount of credibility and it also had a live author who could bless me in terms of what I was doing with the book. That was helpful. But every time I write a character, it’s not me. I mean, there are not too many 53-year-old Jewish guys with three children who live in Studio City on TV. So you’re always writing people who are super different from you. What you have to do, and what I did, is look at your weaknesses and reinforce them with all the other people whom you’re working with.
KEMP But if you hear Dan talking about how careful he was about writing the dialogue between those characters in that scene [with the Koran], or David, you’re not autistic but you’re very careful. And obviously Peter’s not a Royal …
FUTTERMAN I have mixed feelings about this because I asked Ali Salim, who is on our staff, to write the tenth episode with me, and he wrote that scene because half of his family is Egyptian Muslim and he knows a lot more about that than I do and I didn’t feel equipped to do it. So, I wrote all the America stuff and he wrote all the Yemen stuff. I felt like I needed help in the room with people who had direct experience with a lot of it, and I think the show is better for it. Having said that, I don’t only want to write about 50-year-old guys who grew up in Larchmont.
SHORE And I’m not going to just write me nor do I want to. There are going to be aspects of me in any character but, at the same time, there are characters whose lives are so separate from mine that I wouldn’t even know where to start.
MILLER It seems like our entire job is cultural appropriation, whether it’s cultural appropriation on a tiny, little scale, like this person’s culture, this person’s family, where they live, or on a bigger scale. But you’re always taking someone else’s life and trying to put it into a character.
KEMP Of course. But when we start to say only this person can write this narrative, those of us who are of color or somewhat othered, that means we can only write ourselves. Uh-uh, I ain’t signin’ up for that. I am not going to say that only people of color can write people of color because that means only white people can write white people and that’s not OK. Every writer should be able to write anything, if you do the research and you’re sensitive enough to ask the questions.
WAITHE Look, almost 80 percent of showrunners are white, straight men. And as the times change that number will hopefully change because that means most of what we’re watching is a very similar narrative. Even if people are writing different stories, you can’t help it, that’s where you come from. So, a big thing for me is if you’re a white, straight, male showrunner and you want to tell a story that isn’t like your life, that’s totally cool but you’ve gotta have somebody whose life you’re writing about right next to you. And you gotta be asking them. Because what I don’t love is the white male straight showrunner who acts as if they have the audacity to tell a narrative that isn’t theirs without asking for help.
WAITHE And the problem is they don’t have to ask for help because a lot of the execs look like them also and they’re like, “Yeah, this story about this black family makes sense to me.” “Me too.” “OK, cool.” And they never ask a black person, like, “Yo, is this right?”
A version of this story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.