November 20, 2018

SCA Comedy Fest: Women Running the Show

By Phenia Hovsepyan

“Women Running the Show” kicked off the Saturday November 3rd lineup of the fourth installment of the USC Comedy Festival. Held at the Ray Stark Family Theater at the School of Cinematic Arts the panel featured three prominent show-runners: Yvette Lee Bowser (executive producer of Netflix’s Dear White People), Natasha Leggero (co-creator and executive producer of Comedy Central’s Another Period), and Gemma Baker (co-creator and executive producer of Mom on CBS). The discussion, moderated by SCA alumnus Joanna Cherensky, was insightful, inspirational, and informative about the ever-changing voice and influence of television with the panelists telling stories about their experiences—from how they came to find their own writing voices, to making the transition to a management role, to advice for other women hoping to break into television.

Leggero, who was a child-actor turned comedian, said the constant practice and failure inherent in stand-up comedy was a very “useful muscle to build in learning how to become a self-starter.” For Baker, who came to Los Angeles with aspirations of becoming an actor only to realize her true talents lay in writing, constant rejection, and working menial office jobs, had become completely discouraging, “I was at my desk looking up ‘places to move in America with a family.’ I was just done,” she recalled. Luckily, Baker stayed in Los Angeles long enough to go to an event and candidly share her experience with prolific sitcom creator Chuck Lorre, unaware at the time who she was speaking with. Lorre later offered Baker a writing job on Two and a Half Men (he was the showrunner), and although she was afraid of losing her health insurance, Baker took the risk. Ironically, the office Baker was managing closed down a few weeks later, affirming for Baker that, “sometimes doing the risky thing is the safest bet.” Bowser, on the other hand, had no aspirations to be an actor, but knew from a very early age that she was a story-teller. “Every sock puppet of mine had a story,” she says. “I knew I wanted to write for television. There was this burning feeling in me that this is what I wanted to do.” Bowser went on to create the hit show Living Single, and attributes her early success to always having a point of view and being prepared. “I knew that as a woman on color I could never fail upward. I just stayed prepared,” Bowser says. “If you stay prepared, doors will open for you.”

The discussion then turned to the different tactics they used to jump-start their careers, with both Leggero and Bowser agreeing it was important to learn how to invest in themselves and promote their work. “You need to follow through and finish things,” Leggero said. “My life story is always the best material for my work,” Bowser said. “I have obliterated the pages of my diary.”

Leggero joked she once had a young assistant who wanted to be a showrunner without having done any of the work leading up to the position. “You can’t just want to be in charge. It is about writing, producing, working in collaboration with one another,” she said. “I was so excited to just be writing, I was so excited that when I went to Warner Brothers my pass worked,” Baker added: “I gained the confidence with time and experience to believe that I could run a show.” For Bowser, becoming a showrunner meant creating her own working environment. “Being a showrunner is very different from being a writer,” she said. “It is like running a business, and I had to combine my writing skills with my management skills.”.

When asked what they look for in potential employees, Leggero joked: “We all have a ‘no a**holes’ rule.” “It is great to have funny people, but also people who are kind and work together,” Baker said. Bowser added that it is important to “know what you can add to the room.” Bowser stressed the importance of knowing your own voice and perspective on the world, understanding why it is important, and being able to articulate it. Baker agreed: “We are looking for a strong voice, with heart and perspective, not just someone filling in the blanks."

As the showrunners thought about the advice they give their own writing staff, as well as any writers in the business, they all stressed the importance of using outlines. “No matter how talented you are, everyone needs a road-map so that you end up saying what you actually want to say,” Bowser said. Leggero’s advice for future sitcom showrunners? “Comedy writers are very talented but also can be very lazy, so you have to learn how to manage all of those personalities.”

Bowser advised the students in the audience to always “be ready to show someone in a pitch why your show needs to get made. You need to know where your characters are going and have answers for questions.” With every question asked from young filmmakers, Bowser, who has sold over 30 pilots, kept stressing that preparation is key. “There is room for everything right now, it is wonderful and it is overwhelming at the same time. The business is looking for fresh points of view, and knowing why your show matters and being able to express it is key,” she added. Baker also told the students to remember they need to have thick skin when it comes to their work and not take criticism of their writing personally. “I had to learn that there is a difference between real criticism and perceived criticism,” she joked.

The overarching message the showrunners wanted to communicate is the immense potential and opportunity that exists in television: “Be willing to make mistakes, but know that now is the time for diverse and authentic voices,” Baker said.

Above from left to right: Co-founders of SCA Comedy David Isaacs & Barnet Kellman, Gemma Baker, Yvette Lee Bowser, Natasha Leggero, Joanna Cherensky, & co-founder of SCA Comedy Jack Epps.