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Diversity Part II... Writers Rooms Differences... Talking w/ Maiya Williams

After my post last week about the WGA report on the status of screenwriter diversity, several of you emailed-- and SWM posted-- wondering how this report is accurate... and if it is, how could this be?

After all, as SWM points out: "Every single agent in town knows the
best way to sell a new writer is by saying they're 'diverse,'" and "almost
every new writer program emphasizes diversity, even those that say they
mean diversity of experience... When programs looking to discover new talent have to say that they want
the best writers and not the most diverse people, there's a problem."

Diversity today is a strange and sticky topic, and I certainly don't have all the answers... or, for that matter, even all the questions. So I sat down with Maiya Williams, one of the writers here at The Wanda Sykes Show, to discuss. Maiya has written for sketch shows such as MadTV, multi-camera sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Roc, and now a talk show. That's a lot of different types of shows, and a lot of different writers rooms, giving her a wide variety of experiences.

Here are Maiya's thoughts on different types of writing processes... as well as the state of diversity in today's writers rooms...

ME: Maiya, you’ve
written for sitcoms, sketch shows, and now a talk show. How do the writers rooms, and their
writing processes, work differently on these different types of shows?

MAIYA: When you’re on a
sitcom, the show is usually the point of view of the executive producer.[They want different writers with
different voices], but it is definitely a point of view everyone has to match.So you write in room full of people,
where everyone pitches, [and the show] has everyone’s voices, but [it mostly]
has the voice of the show.

On a show like
“MadTV,” they want to have everyone’s sensibility in the sketches.Some people like politics, some people
like gross-out humor, some people like silliness.[And since] they want the show to have many different points
of view… they prefer people write alone, or with one other person, so they have
[different sketches] to choose from.

There was rarely a
room on “MadTV,” but sometimes—if there was a guest or a sketch that no one
pitched, but was assigned—they would assign it to three people.“You people peel off and write this
sketch”… but it was rare anything was worked on by the whole staff.We had twelve people on staff, and
that’s a lot of voices for [a single] sketch, but not for a sitcom.In fact, I can’t remember one time we
[all worked] on something.When
the show was being shot, people might suggest a joke to throw in, but that was
the only time other people might work on your sketch, if people were watching
and something just popped into their head.

On a show like “The
Wanda Sykes Show,” where there’s one person’s point of view—and since none of
us is Wanda—she’s the only one with her point of view.But we try to match it as much as
possible.We don’t write together
because they want volume.Rather
than having seven people come up with ten jokes, they want seven people to come
up with seventy jokes in the same amount of time.

ME: The WGA recently released a report saying there was “little if
any” improvement in employment for diversity and minority writers. But it
seems like every studio has a diversity writers program, agents say they’re all
looking for diversity writers, and every show wants diversity writers and
minorities. So is Hollywood a better place for minority writers,
including women? Is it harder, easier, or the same for diverse writers to
find a job?

MAIYA: It’s a complicated
question because there are many things at work.

No, it is not good for
minorities, despite the fact of diversity programs.

Diversity programs bring
people in, and attract brand new writers, and put them on shows at the lowest
level of writer, but a lot of times these people don’t graduate to higher
levels.[In theory, these]
diversity programs are trying to get more minorities [hired , so they eventually get to] positions of leadership and executive producer positions.[But since these low-level writers
don’t always graduate, they almost never get to those higher levels.]

The secondary problem,
and the reason that’s an issue, is that minorities get pigeon-holed in
Hollywood, especially in sitcoms.

As a minority writer, I
work mainly on black shows; only once have I worked on a show with no black
actors.I went to Harvard, majored
in history and literature, and I always thought my sensibility would be a show
like “Frasier.”But I always end
up on hip-hop shows, where I have to do a lot of research.But that doesn’t matter, because I’m
black… and that’s a black show.

I’ve made a good career
writing for black shows, but black shows have become “ghetto-ized.”In the 1970’s, you didn’t have two nights
of black shows.[All the black
shows were] just on FOX, which was a lesser network.Then they were on the WB… and then on UPN and the CW, which
were even lesser networks than FOX.
As networks start up, they start up with black shows.But as they get a bit of success, they
drop those shows because they’re so specific.

Nowadays, it’s difficult
to find a black show on television.
I can only speak from the perspective of a black writer, but—from the
point of view of a black writer—when there are fewer black shows, there are
fewer black writers working.

ME: What advice would you have for young minority writers trying
to break in?

MAIYA: My advice, if you’re
just starting out:Write for
hour-long shows, which seem to be a little more color-blind.They have black actors without being
black shows, so your resume will have a richness to it and you won’t get
pigeon-holed.If you have a sense
of humor, there are some funny hour-long shows.So even though sitcoms are coming back, unless you want to
be pigeon-holed, write for hour-long shows first.

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