After recent widespread criticism about Saturday Night Live’s lack of diversity, prompted by the hiring of six new cast members (five men and all white), Lorne Michaels woke up and added three African-American women to the SNL family. Sasheer Zamata is the show’s new featured player, while LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones (vetted from the recent auditions) will join the writing staff.
It’s a step in the right direction, but SNL isn’t the only television show that needs to do better. In the Writers Guild of America’s 2013 TV staffing brief, some troubling numbers came to light. During the 2011 to 2012 season, 83.7 percent of writers were white (6.5 percent were African-American; 4 percent were Latino; 3.9 percent were Asian American; and 0.3 percent were Native American). Ten percent of TV shows had no female writers, and almost a third had no minority writers.
There are network shows breaking ground with a diverse array of talent in their writing rooms (and in front of the camera), but writers of color are still sorely underrepresented. We’ve highlighted the work of 12 important TV scribes of color — some veterans in the business and several up-and-comers to keep an eye on.
Award-winning writer Shonda Rhimes has made a tremendous impact in the world of television, particularly with her work on the long-running Grey’s Anatomy (which utilized color-blind casting) and Scandal as creator, head writer, and producer.
“When people who aren’t of color create a show and they have one character of color on their show, that character spends all their time talking about the world as ‘I’m a black man blah, blah, blah.’ That’s not how the world works,” she told the New York Times. “I’m a black woman every day, and I’m not confused about that. I’m not worried about that. I don’t need to have a discussion with you about how I feel as a black woman, because I don’t feel disempowered as a black woman.”
Scandal has addressed race perhaps more overtly than her other shows, but Rhimes wants people to realize that “the discussion is right in front of your face.”
Korean-American scribe Elaine Ko won a 2013 Emmy for her work on Modern Family, where she serves as a writer, executive story editor, and newly appointed producer. Her WGA-winning ep “Virgin Territory” was noted for embracing “the tough reality of the secrets we all hold from our own family members.” A recent two-year deal Ko signed with the series’ network provided her with a “development component.” She previously honed her talent on the short-lived Do Not Disturb and Back to You, and eventually Family Guy (yes, with that Seth MacFarlane).
Despite being a New York Times best-selling author, an Emmy-nominated producer, a film star, TV showrunner, and one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world, too many audiences still refer to Mindy Kaling as “that girl from The Office.” Many don’t realize, however, that she first joined the series as a writer — the only woman on staff at only 24. But Kaling doesn’t feel the need to be defined by labels. “I never want to be called the funniest Indian female comedian that exists,” she told Vulture in 2012. “I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there. Why would I want to self-categorize myself into a smaller group than I’m able to compete in?” She’s also described the struggle for representation in a field dominated by white men: “My career has only become what it has out of sheer need, not because I wanted it that way. I knew if I wanted to perform I was going to have to write it myself.”
Celebrated for her work on Cold Case and as developer, writer, and producer on neo-noir series The Killing, Veena Sud has been frank about the career barriers she still faces. “If I’m (supervising an) audition, and they don’t know that I’m the showrunner, they’re definitely looking at whoever the white guy is in the room as if he’s the authority,” the Canadian-born Indian and Filipino scribe told Variety. In 2012, it was announced that the Emmy and WGA-nominated writer would be penning a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion for Paramount.
Nahnatchka Khan was the creator and lead scripter for the modestly rated, but strongly written and adored Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, which was recently canceled. Her comedic writing for Malcolm in the Middle and American Dad! speaks for itself. She’ll be bringing some of her own family’s experience about race and cultural displacement (Khan grew up in Hawaii, born to Iranian parents who immigrated to the U.S.) to her upcoming adaptation of Eddie Huang’s memoir, Fresh Off The Boat — about the restaurateur’s Asian family in Orlando.
He almost called it quits in the early stages of his career, but the WGA-nominated Alan Yang got noticed with a spec screenplay for the coming-of-age comedy Gay Dude. He soon sold a pitch for White Dad to Sony (a comedy about a white man who adopts the son of his recently deceased black girlfriend), nabbed a writing spot on Last Call with Carson Daly, and became a consulting producer for an ep of South Park. Currently, the former Harvard Lampoon writer and biology major is a lead writer and co-executive producer for the beloved Parks and Recreation.
The sudden death of Emmy-winning writer and producer David Mills — whose work on Homicide, NYPD Blue, ER, The Wire, Kingpin, and The Corner dealt with racial tensions on the streets and in the squad room — rocked Hollywood.
His work was ahead of its time. Before the days of AMC’s meth cook Walter White and boundary-pushing shows like Hannibal, Mills’ short-lived 2003 series Kingpin, starring a Tony Soprano-esque character, was pulled from NBC. The network didn’t want to promote a character who was a drug trafficker. “The breakthrough here is, this is a story about the condition of a man’s soul. . . . Often in TV, to get that deeply in the psyche of a character, that character is white. It’s pretty rare that a nonwhite character [gets that kind of attention],” he once said of the series.
Mills got his gig at NYPD Blue after challenging co-creator David Milch’s assumptions about black writers. The showrunner hired him and became somewhat of a mentor.
Mills, who was a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist for The Washington Post (where he also wrote about race issues), was a prolific blogger on his website, Undercover Black Man.
“I loved watching The Cosby Show, Living Single, Fresh Prince and Family Matters when I was a kid. But so did all my white friends. They were just good shows we all enjoyed. The answer is to make it the norm again so two shows don’t have to be the representation for all of black culture,” Aisha Muharrar, a favorite writer and producer for NBC’s Parks and Rec, once shared. The former Harvard Lampoon vice-president and More Than a Label author, who got her start on the bawdy animated series Sit Down Shut Up, has been vocal about the lack of diversity on television today — as in the case of Lena Dunham’s Girls.
Early in her career, Sara Hess was noticed for her work on the House M.D. episodes featuring bisexual character Thirteen (Olivia Wilde). Her attention to diversity continues in her writing for Orange is the New Black — a series where the women outnumber the men.
I think more than anything else the thing that excites me about this show is the enormous diversity of women it features, both in front of and behind the camera. There are the women who make the show happen: from our overlords at Netflix and Lionsgate, to Jenji [Kohan] (obviously), the writers and producers, the AD staff and department heads, all preponderantly women. I came up on very male-oriented, male-dominated shows, and that was delightful and satisfying and I learned a ton, but this is amazing. It is honest-to-God groundbreaking.
Beyond that, there’s never been a cast like this on television before: every size, shape, color, and age, women who look like women you know. Every variation on sexuality. Actors fresh out of school who’ve never had a real job before, Broadway hoofers who’ve been working the boards for 40 years. The combined breadth of life experience all in one place — it’s staggering. You guys, Uzo Aduba, who plays Crazy Eyes? She was like, NUMBER FIFTY on our call sheet. The bench is so deep.
Unless you’ve avoided a television set your entire life, you’ve probably watched a James Wong-penned episode of something. The X-Files, Millennium, 21 Jump Street, American Horror Story (including the Stevie Nicks ep you probably caught the other night) have all featured his genre-crossing work. The Emmy-nominated scribe will be tackling the upcoming Rosemary’s Baby miniseries.
Veteran showrunner, writer, and producer Yvette Lee Bowser has sold dozens of TV pilots in her 25-year career and has contributed her talents to favorites like A Different World, Living Single, Lipstick Jungle, and most recently, Happily Divorced. Living Single marked a milestone in television history, making Bowser the first African-American woman to develop her own prime-time series. She spoke about the range of diversity amongst her characters to Black Enterprise in 2012:
We’re still always trying to get at the truth in these shows. We are trying to get to the situations and everyday occurrences of what makes people laugh. Honestly, humor doesn’t really know color. Yes there are some culturally specific commentary that needs to be made but we still generally keep it honest. . . . It’s nice to exercise some muscles that have never been exercised, but honestly, my writing is pretty universal.
A writer on The George Lopez Show, which featured an pall-Latino cast (with the exception of star Masiela Lusha) for the first five seasons, Luisa Leschin has balanced a successful writing, acting, and producing career since the late 1970s. Early on, she realized she was being typecast as an actress, relegated to the roles of hooker or maid. This is when she shifted to screenwriting. “It’s very important to have people of diverse backgrounds in the room because I might say, ‘Why don’t you make the principal a Latino?’ If a writer of color isn’t in the room, that suggestion probably won’t happen,” she told Variety in 2009. Leschin has been writing and co-executive producing Disney’s Austin & Ally, which stars Latina actress Raini Rodriguez.