Editors Note: Earlier this week, Prentice Penny, showrunner of HBO’s Insecure, wrote a guest column this week for Deadline reflecting on the recent string of high-profile comedy series pulling older episodes featuring blackface scenes. In it, he wrote about Hollywood’s “sliding scale” that made it possible for so many episodes of so many series to make it through all layers of approval to the air with the offensive material. He called upon peers to “be uncomfortable and accountable,” urging them to make 60% of their shows’ staffs on every level people of color. The column received a strong response and opened a conversation. After we published it, veteran comedy showrunner Gail Lerner, a friend of Penny’s, reached out with her own response, sharing her internal struggle over an old TV episode featuring a blackface-related gag she was involved with, while offering her own plan for increasing diversity in TV writers rooms.
Weighing In On A Sliding Scale
My friend and fellow writer, Prentice Penny, recently wrote a very insightful and indicting guest column in Deadline. It crackles with anger and eloquence, and it filled me with anger, too, that so many sitcoms felt the need, given all the sources of comedy in this world, to add blackface to their roster of things that are cool to joke about.
I texted him about how powerful his column was, then went to sleep, only to wake up at 5 a.m. with a realization that there’s a sitcom episode out there with my name on it that has a blackface joke. I hadn’t thought about it in years. I had long ago mentally buried it with handfuls of shame and tamped the dirt down with denial. At the time I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t that bad: it wasn’t my show, it wasn’t my idea, I’d said in the moment that the idea was offensive, and I’d objected two whole times before I threw up my hands and let it slide. Besides, it wasn’t real blackface, was it? The white main character accidentally sprayed black spray paint on his face and when he was called out by a black character, he was horrified when he realized what it must’ve looked like. It was more a commentary against blackface. Right? Kinda? I was rationalizing as fast as I could, and I was able to move pretty quickly from outrage to complicity. And by the way, I had no trouble cashing the check I got for the script.*
Pretty soon, I stopped thinking about that episode and my part in it (ahh, nothing like the smell of privilege in the morning), until ten years later when my friend Prentice called me out in Deadline. He didn’t mention me by name. In fact, no one’s mentioned the show. It’s called Worst Week, and it’s wedged deep in the Amazon catalog. I’m pretty certain the only people seeing it are flying from Bucharest to Helsinki on the red-eye. When I talked to my friend and the showrunner Matt Tarses about it, he regretted making the choice to keep the joke in, too. He’s mortified.
But when I woke up at 5 a.m., I wasn’t just mortified, I was panicked. All I could think was, No one can find out about this. I’ve worked on Black-ish for six years! What will my friends think? I’m one of the people we shake our heads at! I’m nice on the outside and the worst kind of clueless on the inside. I’m Justin Trudeau, only with messy hair and no power over Canada. Why can’t this just go away? I didn’t know what to do. So I read Prentice’s article again:
“What we need is for everyone to be uncomfortable and accountable.”
Well, I was uncomfortable, that’s for sure. So next I had to be accountable. As the sun came up, I wondered: What can I offer that high-profile showrunners and performers like Jimmy Fallon haven’t already said and done in their apologies?
And then I realized that as someone who’s spent twenty years in writers’ rooms, I can answer a question many people have been asking: how can so many ostensibly smart, Ivy League-educated people (myself included) who rage against systemic racism (myself included) get to a place where putting a blackface joke on network television is still something we let slide? So I’m going to walk you through the process that led to this instance of terrible decision-making, and what we can do to stop it from happening again. (Spoiler alert: more representation.)
To set the stage: it was 2 a.m., when desperation sets in and any idea starts to look like a good idea. We’re all pitching on ways to get our character into trouble. What if he’s wearing a black suit and he only has brown shoes? What if he tries to spray paint his shoes black… You can imagine where it went from there. I don’t remember whose pitch it was or exactly how I objected, only that I said it was offensive and we shouldn’t do it. I felt pretty comfortable objecting. I was a co-executive producer, which is about as high up as it gets, but I was still scolded by a peer with an old writer’s room adage: If you don’t have a solution, you don’t have a problem. I didn’t have a solution. Then someone called me a killjoy, and it struck a nerve. At the time I was the only woman on staff, and getting labeled as a killjoy post-40 is a great way to get a reputation as a woman who’s not so fun to have around. It reminded me of the time (different show, also 2 a.m., again didn’t have a solution) where I called out a pitch for being homophobic and was called a name that’s worse than killjoy and starts with the same hard consonant. Didn’t feel great.
That time, though, it went my way. I endured the name-calling and the story point went away. When I tried to scuttle the blackface pitch, it didn’t go my way so I went along to get along. And I promise you that it felt a lot worse than being called mean names at work.
Now, I’ve also had great experiences. I worked on Will & Grace and Black-ish, whose staffs were disproportionally full of gay writers, black writers, more female writers overall, and we were at all different levels of seniority. Those rooms felt better to be in and led to better, funnier episodes. Our conversations about identity, race, sexual identity, gender and class were more nuanced because there was a broader range of voices asking questions and sharing stories, and that led to more varied kinds of jokes and stories. And when a pitch in the room felt like it should stay in the room, the odds that someone felt comfortable speaking up against it (even if they didn’t have a solution) went way up, because we were pretty sure someone else would have our back. And no one person had to be “the cop,” which no one should have to do because being the cop makes it much harder to be loose and funny, since you’re expected to be the one person who has to tell the majority what’s offensive and what’s not (as if determining what’s offensive is an objective decision that any one person holds the key to).
What compounds the problem is a practice that Prentice wrote about, which is that on most staffs where there’s only one writer of color and that person is frequently a lower level “diversity hire,” it makes it even harder to speak up. What brand-new writer wants to potentially alienate the high-level writers by pointing out that their idea is racist/homophobic/misogynistic? After all, I was a grizzled veteran ten years ago and even I threw in the towel.
I wish I had done better that night, but I can’t change that. What I can do is be uncomfortable and be accountable. When showrunners ask me for recommendations, I can suggest the many, very talented writers of color I love working with first, and I can cultivate relationships with new black writers who have great samples but haven’t found a way to break into a system where 96% of TV writing jobs go to white writers. These are things all white writers can do, and it’ll also go a long way toward making sure everyone feels comfortable speaking up when a bit offends them, and the job of comedy cop will go away.
Thanks for the inadvertent ass kicking, Prentice, because I don’t want to be zipping down a sliding scale. I want to be building an even one.
* Just sent that script payment to NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Felt pretty good. naacpldf.org
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