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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from season two, episode eight of Master of None, “Thanksgiving.”]
It’s rare for a TV show to take a detour to tell the life story of a supporting character, but that’s just what Master of None did, in the multiple-decade-spanning “Thanksgiving” episode. While Aziz Ansari’s Dev is a part of the proceedings, the episode really tells the story of his friend Denise and her efforts both to come to grips with her sexuality, and to come out to her family.
Lena Waithe, who plays Denise, also co-wrote the episode with Ansari in a hotel in London. “I’ve never been prouder of a thing than I am of that episode of television,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter.
While this marks Waithe’s writing debut on Master of None, it’s far from her first time writing for the small screen. She co-created and wrote on the digital series Hello Cupid in 2013 before becoming a staff writer on Bones the following year. She then created the Showtime drama The Chi, which was recently picked up to series.
The story is closely based on the real story of Waithe’s coming out process, and she spoke with THR about how something that personal and unique gets made.
How did “Thanksgiving” come around? Did you pitch the idea to Aziz? Was that something you two discussed early on?
Honestly, no. I can give Aziz the credit on that one because we did not have that planned. It wasn’t talked about at all. But the best ideas come about that way, when it’s organic. I went to New York to sit with him and [co-creator] Alan [Yang] and these other writers, just trying to talk about my life, and where things were, because that’s really their starting point. What they’re going through, what are some things they’ve experienced. So I was being very diligent throughout the year that we were off, just taking notes about me and my girlfriend, things that she would do, this and that. I was hopeful maybe Denise would have a girlfriend in the new season. So I was just trying to be very mindful of that kind of stuff so I would have it fresh in my brain when I would go sit with them.
So I was sitting down with them, I was going over some of the things, just the relationship stuff, and then somehow, some way, like Alan or Aziz asked, “What was your coming out like, what was that process?” And I just started talking about that, and what it was like to grow up in a house with all black women, and also different generations of women — my grandmother, my mom, my aunt, my sister — and we just started talking about that and they were really fascinated by it. I was talking about how I came out with my mom, and what that conversation was like, and how it was just she and I, and we were in this diner and it just went from there. Then I left the writers’ room, and it was before I could even get to my hotel, and Aziz was like, “We have to tell that story.”
There’s so much of me in that episode of television. It’s a beautiful tribute to my family, to black women everywhere, to black matriarchs. It’s just such a wonderful ode to my childhood and my growing up and my evolution as a woman and being comfortable with myself. It really started out with me going to New York and sitting with those guys, just talking about a bunch of stuff, and that was the thing they really landed on.
What’s the interaction like with Aziz when you’re writing something this personal?
He never really gave me notes on my stuff. When it got to certain scenes, he would leave the room and just give me the laptop and let me go. And then when it got to stuff that was a little funnier and it was Denise and Dev, he would come in and we would switch on things. But it really was a real mutual respect. We literally were passing the laptop back and forth. Like, I would write something, he would take it, play with it, go with that, but he never played in the very important scene, you know what I’m talking about — he never touched that, out of respect. And you don’t often get that. I don’t think people realize that, that oftentimes people will be like, “Oh, it’s got to be my voice, we have to tell it through my prism.” And he never did that. And he was like, “No, this is so personal to you, I’m not going to touch that. These certain scenes, I’m going to leave, because they’re your experience.” But then when it would come to other things, he and I would collaborate.
It’s his show, it’s about his character, and to center an episode on someone else, and to let you tell your story that way, that seems so unusual to have a showrunner take that step back like that.
It really is. It really, really is. Because the rule is, the showrunner is god, but they don’t always have to be. For him to do that was really huge and I don’t think I even realized the gift he was giving me at the time.
Was it hard to relive some of those elements as you were writing them?
No, not particularly, just because I’ve gotten so far away from it. I think the wounds have healed. I’m not picking a scab anymore. I kind of look at it as a battle scar. It was actually healing. It was pretty cool. I’m a product of, it gets better. I was on the other side of that story. To be able to tell that story from sitting where I was sitting, to be in London and filming a movie, and to have Aziz — it wasn’t lost on me where my life has taken me and part of that reason is because I have been my authentic self. A big part of that reason. Because I was out and proud and held my head high was a big reason why I think Aziz and Alan, and Allison Jones, who helped cast me in the show, is why they really took to me.
How do you think Hollywood’s doing in terms of LGBT representation onscreen?
Look, I always think we can do better. I think a big thing to me is us being able to tell our stories without it being pumped through hands that don’t look like us, if that makes sense. I think sometimes you have a gay person or a brown person, we’ve got this great story, and people are like, “OK, we want to make it,” and then they bring in other people and go, “Now, OK, they’re going to rewrite it and we’re going to have notes on it.” I think to me, the real freedom is in having the power to be able to tell your story and to be able to have creative control. Because I think when the people who the story is about really have a voice in it and are involved and have creative control and are really being heard, that’s when you get the best shit. …
Because otherwise, when somebody’s telling our story, it’s their version of it. It’s them looking at it from the outside, versus us telling the story from the inside out. And that’s what I always think we can do better, is more people who are other-ed being able to tell their own story and not have to have someone who doesn’t look like them or hasn’t lived the life they’ve lived be the person who tells the story on their behalf. Because I think that’s where you get into trouble.
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