Eric Haywood has spent over a decade writing for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricHaywood.
Recently, the internet was all abuzz regarding an interview comedian Wyatt Cenac did with fellow comic Marc Maron on Maron’s well-known WTF with Marc Maron podcast. What got everybody talking was a lengthy discussion of Cenac’s rocky tenure at Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and his sometimes-contentious relationship with then-host Jon Stewart.
It was well over an hour into the 100-plus-minute interview, which charted Cenac’s upbringing and followed the course of his career, that the subject first came up:
MARON: And how long were you on The Daily Show?
CENAC: Four and half…four and half years…almost five. Yeah.
MARON: And you got along with Jon [Stewart]?
CENAC: [chuckle, followed by lengthy pause] Nah.
MARON: On and off?
CENAC: I mean, he was a boss. I think, at the end of the day, he was a boss.
Cenac proceeded to go into deep detail about his dealings with Stewart (and in fairness, we only get to hear Cenac’s side of the story). The result is a rare peek behind the curtain at what goes on in the making of a television show, particularly from the point of view of a writer who held certain viewpoints that were at odds with his employer. It’s a pretty great interview for reasons that go far beyond whatever went down between Cenac and Stewart, and you should listen to the whole thing, because it’s great.
Anyway, the WTF interview spawned an equally-interesting NPR article by Gene Demby called “On Wyatt Cenac, ‘Key & Peele,’ And Being The Only One in the Room.” You should read that, too, while you’re at it. Although the internet tried its best to characterize the whole Cenac vs. Stewart thing as some kind of brutal OMG-did-you-HEAR-what-happened? smackdown, Demby – who acknowledges his personal friendship with Cenac in his article – wisely pointed out:
“…less attention was paid to what Cenac had to say about being the only black writer in the room, torn between speaking up or saying nothing and keeping the peace.”
“The Stewart-Cenac exchange illustrates what those of us who are often The Only One In The Room tend to know: it sucks.”
Demby’s article is a great read for anyone who works – or seeks to work – in Hollywood, where “diversity” is often expressed by studios and networks as a goal they long to attain but rarely come close to achieving. Therefore, virtually any “diverse” TV writer you talk to can tell you that, at some point in their careers – maybe more than once – they’ve found themselves in the position of being The Only One in the (Writers’) Room.
(Note: For purposes of simplicity, I’m using the admittedly clunky term “diverse” here as a catchall phrase to clumsily lump black, female, Latino/Latina, Asian, gay, and disabled writers together.)
A few quick statistics here to back me up. First, from the Writers Guild of America’s 2014 Hollywood Writers Report:
- Women remained underrepresented by a factor of nearly 2 to 1 among television writers in 2012, claiming just 27 percent of sector employment.
- Minority television writers posted an increase in employment share (from 10 percent in 2009 to 11 percent in 2012), while also closing the earnings gap a bit with white male television writers. Nonetheless, minority writers remain underrepresented by a factor of about 3 to 1 among television writers.
And from the WGA’s 2015 TV Staffing Brief:
- Asian [television writers’ employment] share increased by nearly 2 percentage points (from 1.1 percent in 2001-02 to 2.9 percent in 2013-14)
- Latino share increased about a percentage point over the same period (from 1.9 percent to 2.8 percent)
Okay. Enough with the stats. You can read them in detail, if you’re so inclined, via the links provided. Here’s the point: If you’re black, or female, or Latino/Latina, or Asian, or gay, or disabled, chances are you’ll find yourself in the position of being the only black/female/Latino/Latina/gay/disabled writer on a show sooner or later. Or maybe the only one of two. Hopefully, the circumstances will cause you no undue stress. But because of the “anything goes” nature of most writers’ room conversations, it’s conceivable that you’ll encounter something that makes you uncomfortable, be it a story pitch or a random joke told in the room. And like Wyatt Cenac, you’ll have to make a determination about whether or not you’ll speak up and risk being labeled “over-sensitive” or just hold your tongue. And of course, another option is to simply join the conversation and be seen as “one of the boys” in order to avoid putting your job on the line.
This is a tricky tightrope to walk, and everyone’s threshold for what’s tolerable is different. So there’s no single one-size-fits-all solution that can be applied in all cases. Sometimes you’ll conclude that it’s better for everyone involved (especially you) to let an uncomfortable topic just roll off your back and hope someone changes the subject quickly. Other times, you might believe that speaking up and complaining – even if it means possibly getting fired – is worth it.
And to be clear, this burden isn’t limited only to diverse writers. There’s no reason to assume that a white male writer wouldn’t feel the same level of discomfort when a showrunner makes an offhand rape joke or casually racist or sexist comment (yeah, that can happen), and speaking up might cause them a similar amount of career anxiety. The pressure to be one of the boys is something we all wrestle with to varying degrees, but as Demby’s article illustrates and those bleak employment statistics confirm, there’s an added layer of stress that comes along with being The Only One in the Room.
Ultimately, I believe that learning how to function in a wide variety of work environments is a valuable skill for any writer, and it’s one you won’t read about in your average how-to screenwriting book because it doesn’t deal with the actual mechanics of cranking out a screenplay (and because, like I noted above, it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t easily lend itself towards simple solutions). At the very least, your best bet is to find a fellow like-minded writer and rely on each other as sounding boards to gauge whether a particular comment or situation is one that crossed the line. Sometimes simply venting your frustrations is all that’s needed to help get your head back in the game.