‘She Got Next!’ Black Female Comedy Writers Talk The Whitewashing Of American TV
‘We’re still waiting for Hollywood to decide to take advantage of the creativity and moneymaking power of artists of color.’
Lena Waithe. Leslie Jones. Tiffany Haddish. Robin Thede.
Over the last few years, the list of recognizable Black women comedy writers has started growing — finally — thanks in large part to crucial conversations fostered by social campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite, #EmmysSoBlack, and #SheReady.
But — no surprise here — there’s still an incredibly long way to go.
While Lena Waithe was the belle of the ball at this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards by becoming the first Black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing (for the brilliant Master of None episode “Thanksgiving”), we must not forget the troubling fact that she was also the first Black woman ever nominated for the award.
And while Robin Thede is now hosting her own late night show (The Rundown with Robin Thede, which premiered October 12), we similarly must not forget that she is the only Black woman doing so, and one of only a handful of Black women who’s ever been given this opportunity.
Given our country’s current socio-political landscape, the need for and potential impact of Black women comedy writers is greater than ever — which means we must continue to further the dialogue, to fight for change.
To keep the conversation going, I interviewed four Black women comedy writers to discuss their unique brands of funny, diversity in the writer’s room, the Emmys, and what it’s like to work in television as a Black woman. Our illustrious panel includes:
Actor-Comedian-Writer Ashley Nicole Black
Emmy winner (Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special) for her writing on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
Writer Amber Ruffin
Writer for Late Night With Seth Meyers and Comedy Central’s Detroiters.
Actor-Writer Diona Reasonover
Writer for I Love Dick and Adam Ruins Everything
Comedian Janelle James
NYC comic who tours with Chris Rock’s Total Blackout Tour 2017.
Some of their answers might surprise you.
Has the dearth of Black women writers in Hollywood impacted your comedy writing career? If so, how?
Diona: Uh, well just to be super clear about it — there’s a dearth of people who have been employed, but not a dearth of writers. I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t felt like a diversity hire, but I think that’s an unfair way to view myself and also to view the show, because if you look at people as if they’re doing this because they don’t really don’t want to hear what you have to say, then that will come through in the performance that you give.
Amber: Sure. Years ago, Black people were more — we were what white people thought we were, and now everything seems so groundbreaking, and it’s just because it’s Black people as Black people see Black people. Every time you see it it’s shocking and uplifting and it feels great.
Ashley: I feel very lucky to have been ready for this job at the time that Hollywood was ready for me. I have a lovely handful of amazing Black women writers I look up to and am lucky enough to call friends that I can go to for advice and support. If I’d gotten into the business even a year or two earlier, I wouldn’t have had that.
‘I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t felt like a diversity hire, but I think that’s an unfair way to view myself.’
How is your comedy unique? Which part of the Black experience do you write about and why?
Janelle: I’m doing Black girl comedy to white people, which can sound fucked up. I’m unique in that I don’t change or magnify my blackness to perform for white people, while some people — I don’t wanna say they’re doing a caricature, because that’s what they think white people expect.
I’m not really trying to appeal to the ever present white, male, 18–35 demographic that every network says they’re marketing to, although they are my fans. That’s also bullshit: ‘Oh, you’re Black, you’re a woman, you’re older; you won’t really appeal to them.’ It feels like only other Black people will take a chance on other Black people.
Ashley: I write about the issues that emotionally impact me. So often that is things that impact women and people of color. But really anything that makes me angry, or sad, I can turn into comedy.
Diona: What makes my comedy unique is that it really isn’t. I love multi-cam. That’s what I know how to do because that is what I grew up watching. I don’t know that any of us are as unique as we think we are. If you look at TV, it’s like people in their twenties and thirties trying to figure life out. There isn’t as much diversity in the human experience as we would think.
Amber: I’m unique in that I’m the type of person who is having a great time, all of the time. I don’t think that there are a lot of positive views of the Black experience. It [being Black] feels great. After the election, everyone was sad, and yes, I was sad, and I also felt freakin’ great. With every terrible thing, everyone can see what we’ve been talking about all along. Now we’re all on the same page.
How would adding more Black women writers into TV writer’s rooms affect those rooms, as well as the shows that make it onto TV?
Ashley: Audiences are made up of every type of person, so it only makes sense for writer’s rooms to also be made up of a diverse group of people who can properly represent a wide variety of experiences. People are very hungry to see themselves reflected onscreen. I remember when Grey’s Anatomy came out. I cried watching the pilot. It was the first time I’d seen characters on television that were like me. I was in college. Some people have waited even longer than that.
Janelle: It would hopefully pull in more diverse viewership and maybe we’d have less cringeworthy moments like when minorities are talking, and a Black person is watching and saying, ‘A Black person did not write this.’
The face of the show has to be different if you want more minorities to be in the room. Seth Meyers has the most Black women writers in late night. When they write something, he has those writers come out and say it. He doesn’t try to say it. It’s not his voice. Why don’t they [these women] have their own shows?
Diona: I hope that I will never see a thing that drives me absolutely insane: Black women going to sleep with nothing on their heads. It gets baffling for me — you had nobody, you didn’t have a costume designer, a friend, no one to tell you how we go to sleep? Something as simple as that. You don’t know how we go to sleep, and we’re supposed to trust you with our emotional arc?
How did you react when you learned that Lena Waithe won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series?
Ashley Nicole Black: I started a standing ovation! I figured when you say, “first Black woman…” regardless of what the rest of that sentence is, I’m standing and clapping. It wasn’t until I was nominated last year that I realized how few people of color have been nominated for and won writing Emmys. And it’s not for lack of talent! It’s for lack of producers having the desire to hire more diverse writing rooms. For the record, Full Frontal has the most diverse late-night writer’s room and we were nominated for an Emmy in our first year, and won in our second! Diversity: It’s a winning strategy!
Janelle James: Yeah, I’m a narcissist. It didn’t impact me in any way….It’s still white people deciding if you’re funny. My ultimate goal is stand-up, to become a Chappelle, a Wanda Sykes.
Diona Reasonover: So I had turned on the Emmys. I was so excited. I had watched the episode. It is such a good episode. I definitely relate to it. I’m also queer. I’m waiting on the category. My TV starts messing up. It froze right there: right when Gina Rodriguez and Shemar Moore came on screen. So I did not find out ’til the next day, and when I did, I was not shocked. She deserved it.
Basic human biology makes humor an effective tool to fight oppression.theestablishment.co
Amber Ruffin: I voted for her! I thought it was beautiful. I didn’t realize that she was the first. I mean, fuck. It’s still happening, Chanté, it’s still — people are still firsts. It is shocking. I don’t believe that there are all of these firsts because we haven’t been good enough. I think that there are all these firsts because people never saw themselves. I think people of color don’t dream big, and white people do. I certainly never thought I’d be where I am…. And I think that that is very silly. I think a lot of Black people feel that way, and I think that every time we see a Lena Waithe, you’re like, ‘Oh, woah, wait a second,’ and then the perception of your whole world changes.
Why do you think that Black people don’t dream as big as white people?
Amber: Just society, the way we’re portrayed in media, society’s expectations of us. It is also safer not to put yourself out there ’cause if a Black person puts themselves out there and fails, people are like, ‘How dare you even think that you could do this?’ But if a white person fails, it’s ‘Better luck next time, kiddo!’
Why do you think that Lena’s nomination was the first time a Black woman was nominated in the comedy writing category?
Janelle: First, it took a minority [Aziz Ansari] to hire her. The whole thing with hiring women of color, people of color — when you’re trying to apply for these jobs, if the head of the show is a white man, if the face of the show is a white man, we have to know how to write in white man speak, and some of us can’t do that.
She [Lena] was able to tell her own story, and that made it authentic, but if we don’t have the opportunity to tell our stories, then we won’t win awards.
Ashley: Television has always been a boys club, and comedy perhaps more so. You can’t get nominated if you don’t get a writing job in the first place. There have been so many studies that show that the more the makeup of the creative team looks like the makeup of the country, the more successful shows and movies are. But we’re still waiting for Hollywood to decide to take advantage of the creativity and moneymaking power of artists of color. We know the audience wants it!
‘Television has always been a boys club, and comedy perhaps more so.’
Diona: I have, honest to God, no reason. There’s no reason for it. There was so much talent, and there wasn’t enough recognition of it. For whatever reason, the people who are in charge just overlooked people for years. I’ll tell you why it’s not: It’s not because there wasn’t enough talent, or because the stories weren’t there, or because people weren’t ready. Definitely people were overlooked, overlooked people who deserved it. That’s all I got….Maybe a little misogyny?
How can our readers support Black women in comedy?
Amber: Consuming what we put out there. It’s also sharing what we put out there. Every Black comedian I know about, I know because someone posted it on Facebook, ’cause it’s not like everybody is out there promoting us. We are aware that if I don’t post this, nobody’s going to know. If I don’t promote it, nobody’s gonna know. A lot of us know each other, and a lot of us are rooting for each other. That’s why when Ashley won, it was a win for us. Black female comedy writers are still so new that we all benefit from everything.
Diona: Watch our stuff. When you hear about a new Black female writer, watch her stuff. If you want to support Black women in comedy — as controversial as it sounds — don’t just watch Black women in comedy. Watch Southeast Asian women in comedy, watch queer people in comedy, watch disabled people in comedy. The more you support diversity, like, across the board, the more diversity there will be.
‘It’s not because there wasn’t enough talent, or because the stories weren’t there, or because people weren’t ready.’
Ashley: Watch our shit! Someone did a study and the majority of people follow mostly white men on Twitter. Make it a point to follow more women and people of color and then like and RT their shit when you enjoy it. If there’s a Black woman serving you jokes and truths on the reg on Twitter, amplify her voice! Go see her live when she does shows. Studios still aren’t convinced that there is a market for our comedy so, if you’re in that market, be loud about it.
Janelle: Stop being cheap. Stop expecting free entertainment; I know that’s a thing now. Support Black writers the same way you support Transformers and The Avengers. When you see a minority putting out work, know that they probably spent their own money to do it. If you want to see more, you gotta fucking support us. People will be like, ‘Give us more!’ but when it’s time to pay $4.99…
Who got next? (Whom should we keep our eyes out for, and why?)
Diona: Yamara Taylor. She writes on Black-ish. She’s wonderful. She’s talented. She’s funny.
Janelle: Issa Rae. It’s their [Insecure’s] first year, so you don’t expect a nomination. Maybe Michaela Coel of Chewing Gum. There are shows like Seth Meyers; If Seth wins, they all win.
Ashley: Great question. Robin Thede’s new show The Rundown will be out soon on BET. And I can’t wait to watch it. Frankly I’m shocked that Amber Ruffin doesn’t have her own late night show yet. I don’t know what networks are waiting for. She’s killing the game!
Amber: I want next. I’ll take next!
What’s next for you?
Amber: I’m writing for Detroiters on Comedy Central.
Janelle: I have an album, Black and Mild, that dropped September 29. I’m also writing for The Rundown with Robin Thede on BET.
Diona: I have a knee surgery coming up.
You can catch me guest starring in a new show, Future Man, on Hulu and writing for I Love You, America, also on Hulu.
Ashley: Right now I’m just trying to find the perfect place in my apartment to put my Emmy!