February 17, 2021
Alumni Spotlight: Carla Banks-Waddles '00
By Jason Ng
Writer, Producer, and Showrunner Carla Banks-Waddles '00 has maneuvered through the many roles that are integral in the development of a series. Graduate of the Writing Division, Carla has an expansive resume in half-hour comedies and sitcoms including credits on Half & Half, The Soul Man, The Fresh Beat Band, and Truth Be Told. She has since made the jump to hour-longs working as executive producer on NBC’s Good Girls, as well as developing a new drama pilot for the network. Carla created the comedy series One Love and is the founder of Babycakes Productions. With us, she shares her experience moving through the writer’s room ranks, working through the pandemic, and being a part of an industry that brings stories to life on the television screen.
As the founder of Babycakes Productions, what do you consider to be your brand and what are the stories that you are seeking to tell?
I’d like my brand to be known for authentic, fun stories with characters that are relatable and nuanced. Grounded but also a little quirky and unexpected. As a Black woman, I’d like to see my POV reflected in these stories. My family, my experiences as a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend. I like to tell stories that also poke at the truths of our insecurities and imperfections because life can be messy and that’s what’s great about it. The highs and the lows. And how we can show up as our best and worst selves to deal with all of it. We’re all trying to work through something, get somewhere, figure something out. I want to tell those stories in ways that feel real but fun. Always gotta enjoy the ride.
How have you embraced the evolving responsibilities moving from a writer, to becoming a producer, to now showrunner?
The important thing for me has always been – do I feel ready for the next step? I feel fortunate to have come up through the ranks the “old-fashioned way.” Having started in the room as a staff writer and gradually getting that bump to the next level, year after year, and constantly grinding, learning, growing and adapting with each writer’s room experience. Writers sometimes have quick success that allows them to leapfrog that process and suddenly they find themselves at the helm, but they’ve never set foot in a writer’s room. And there’s nothing wrong with that, and it has certainly been done successfully. But it’s harder to be a good general when you’ve never been in the trenches or on the battlefield. We all have different paths, but I wouldn’t exchange mine for anything. There’s been value in that journey and in that climb for me. And all of the experiences – the good, the bad, the ugly -- have helped me embrace this evolution with confidence. I have definitely stressed myself out over it too! Lots of gray hairs happening.
After completing your MFA at the School of Cinematic Arts, you were accepted into the Warner Bros. Writing Workshop. What did that opportunity mean for you then as an aspiring writer who just completed your MFA?
That opportunity was everything. It was the beginning of my start in TV. During the two years that I was at USC, I had already been interning on a Warner Bros. show -- For Your Love created by Yvette Lee Bowser. So, all of these pieces just came together in a perfect storm. Because of the Workshop and that internship, Yvette was able to give me my first staff writing job. And that was just a few months after graduating, which seemed unheard of at that time. That was the beginning of it all.
Reflecting back on your time as a USC student, what were some of the most useful tools that you learned at SCA which have helped you throughout your career?
Just the opportunity to spend two years at USC immersing myself in the craft of writing was a true gift. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was really a luxury. Having access to scripts and internships and resources and professors who were either working or had worked in the business. All of the great speakers who came through, the writing groups with other classmates. It was all just a dream for someone who wanted to be a screenwriter. And being taught by professors like Jay Moriarty who was a veteran TV writer for shows like The Jeffersons, All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, and he was teaching a TV sitcom writing class at USC. At the time multi-camera sitcom was all I wanted to do, so I just devoured all of his stories and everything he was teaching us about structure and comedy. He became a friend and mentor and eventually recommended me to the woman who would become my first agent. I wouldn’t have had that if not for USC. It was a priceless time.
The line between comedies and dramas is seemingly blurred nowadays. Take Good Girls for example, which is billed as a crime comedy-drama. What are your thoughts on how movies and shows are migrating away from static categories?
It has created this in-between genre of the “dramedy,” which for me is a sweet spot of everything I love. I started out in comedy and believe that everyone likes to laugh, but I also want to tell deeper stories that feel real too. Writing straight drama can be so heavy. I enjoy being able to play with tone and have the best of both worlds. Writing those honest, even dark moments and then being able to find some humor somewhere else. I think Good Girls is a great example. Our ladies can be sitting in the dark with a gun waiting to kill somebody and they undercut the tension by having a funny debate about how much the disgusting motel room they’re sitting in costs. And somehow a gruesome scene listening to how Mary Pat cut up a body with an electric knife and stuffed it in a tiny meat freezer becomes hilarious. When TV shows and movies strike that tone and get it right – a little heart, a little humor. That’s just the best.
You created the comedy series One Love, and you wrote the drama pilot At That Age. As a writer, how do you go about entering the mindset on creating a new series?
I always start with the characters, whether they’re mine or someone else’s. What do I love about them, how do I identify with them, what are their backstories, what makes them tick? I try to put myself in each of their shoes and write a bio on who they are, what might their insecurities be, what do they love the most, what do they hate, what do they want, how did they grow up, who do they remind me of, etc. Things that may never end up specifically on the page but all things that help inform and shape who these people are. Once I have an intimate understanding of characters, then I can start to hear them speak and think. And I’m free to put them in situations and worlds and circumstances that feel compelling and unique but still true to who they are. I can start to see story ideas and relationship dynamics more clearly, but it all stems from having some sort of organic attachment to each character. For me, everything starts from there. I also like to find pictures of actors who are the perfect prototype for each character and I print them and put them on my wall while I’m writing. It’s also a fun way to procrastinate and keep from writing a pilot.
What led to your transition to hour-longs after having worked on so many half-hours at the beginning of your career? How might working on hour-longs be different than half-hour sitcoms?
Initially it was because there seemed to be fewer and fewer opportunities each season in the half-hour, multi-camera space and I got tired of being unemployed (as did my mother). Half-hour single camera comedies were popping up everywhere and it was hard to make that transition. I knew comedy writers who had made the transition to one-hour and they loved it. They were taking more meetings, having better hours and they were always working. There’s a tendency to pigeon-hole writers into a genre and you have to prove that you can be good at something else. One staffing season, I wrote a half-hour pilot, but I also wrote a one-hour version of it. I wanted to show that I could write drama, but also how my comedic voice could still be an asset. I got a great response that led to a lot of meetings, and eventually getting staffed on my first one-hour show, which was Hit the Floor for BET. Being able to take more time to tell a real story and just breathe a little, is freeing. For so many years, it was all about three jokes a page. That’s tough but valuable training. But it’s fun to be able to change it up. And I think it’s easier to go from half-hour to one-hour than vice versa. So hopefully all of that early comedy experience laid the groundwork for where I am now. It seems like a natural evolution. And my mother is happy.
How has your work schedule been affected by the recent COVID-19 measures, and how have you adjusted to continue working on your projects?
For better or worse, Zoom has been a game changer for everyone, right? Zoom is amazing and it makes me believe I’ve actually met people in real life. I was on one Zoom and Lin-Manuel Miranda just popped in! I was even on a Zoom with Morris Day. I mean, yes, there were hundreds of other people there, too. But still, our boxes were in the same row. And I may or may not have a screenshot.
I’ve taken meetings and even pitched projects on Zoom now. It’s kinda cool because you can just pull up your whole pitch document on the screen and read it with enthusiasm. It’s just a temporary fix though. Our Good Girls’ writer’s room Zooms every day. The mechanics work, in that we’re able to still gather and talk about story ideas and have production meetings, but it’s not ideal. The best stories and nuanced character moments come from the intimacy in the room and sharing personal stuff. You can’t really capture that interaction over Zoom. So I’m glad we can all still do the work and move the season forward, but I do miss the face-to-face engagement. I don’t miss the commute though!
What are your words of advice for emerging writers who are coming out of school or powering through this pandemic?
Definitely keep writing, of course. But above all, I would say also take the time to nurture your entire creative self. What does that routine look like? Use the quarantine to develop a creative discipline. Even if it’s twenty minutes at a time that fits into whatever your schedule is. Write, read, journal, research, take a class, sit at the beach, your backyard, immerse yourself in television and movies – whatever it is that inspires you to create. Use the solitary and quieter time to take a pause, recharge and think about what you really want to do creatively and where you need to personally grow. Reflect on why you want to tell your unique stories, what’s meaningful and important to you. Create from that genuine place and just keep showing up for yourself. And wear a mask.
What can we expect from Carla Banks-Waddles in 2021?
Season 4 of Good Girls premieres next month, so I’m excited about that. And I’m looking forward to ramping things up to head back to New York to shoot the pilot for At That Age. I’m also excited about having an overall at Universal where I can keep creating and developing stories that are fun and relevant. And if I can follow my own advice above, I hope to just stay plugged in to my creative zone. So, despite all of the uncertainty that’s still looming, I’m looking forward to a busy, productive and fun year. Fingers crossed.