You can be forgiven if you’ve spent an inordinate amount of time lately worrying about Hannah’s sex life on Girls or whether demon roommate Chloe on Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 can top that time she adopted a teenager to be her slave (or assistant, whatever). Television is experiencing a renaissance of sitcoms not seen since Friends and Sex and the City. Led by Zooey Deschanel’s New Girl, an out-of-the-box hit when it debuted in September, comedy, particularly on the broadcast networks, is killing it this year (Remember the “Is the Sitcom Dead?” headlines?), and attracting the kind of younger audiences that advertisers lust after. (Nielsen says sitcoms account for four of the top ten shows among 18- to 49-year-olds.) As it turns out, the creators of this season’s most notable half-hours happen to be women: Liz Meriwether (New Girl), Whitney Cummings (2 Broke Girls and Whitney), Emily Kapnek (Suburgatory), Emily Spivey (Up All Night), and Nahnatchka Khan (Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23). We gathered the fivesome, plus veteran female showrunner DeAnn Heline of The Middle, to discuss why comedy seems to be clicking again, how women on TV are different these days, and the so-called peak-vagina controversy of 2012.
The Rise of the Anti-Heroine
None of the female leads on your shows is perfect, and they’re all more interesting as a result.
Whitney Cummings: I remember when women on TV weren’t allowed to be flawed. There’s sort of a biological reason for that. If a guy says, “I fell down the stairs today,” people laugh. But if a girl says it, people are like, “Gasp! Is she okay?” When women do something dangerous or amoral, you judge them differently.
Nahnatchka Khan: I worked on a show once where the female character had to be crying or screaming in every scene. Those were the two accepted emotions—sad or angry. But now you can have a flawed female character on a network show, and she doesn’t have to redeem herself at the end of every episode.
DeAnn Heline: On Up All Night, Christina Applegate messes up as a mom. That’s such a taboo thing—more than being sexually deviant, being a bad mom terrifies people. On CSI, some guy murders nine hookers, and that’s fine. But if someone is late to pick their kid up from school …
Emily Spivey: If we all had to name our favorite characters in television history, I’m sure they’d all be fuck-ups.
Emily Kapnek: Not Pa from Little House!
E.S.: Pa was perfect, but let’s be honest—those girls were straight-up disasters. Female issues aside, something’s happening with the sitcom model, where you feel like you can identify with the characters more. They’re more three-dimensional.
Liz Meriwether: What’s exciting about right now is that there isn’t a formula that we’re all adhering to.
W.C.: Except for exhaustion and ruining our own lives. We’re all going to die alone.
L.M.: But we’ll have each other’s shows to watch when we’re old.
D.H.: I think when people see themselves, it’s even funnier. They don’t want to see perfect characters on TV. The network is slowly coming around to that. With a new show, they’re always a little bit nervous. We would hear things more like, “She should have a victory!” or “She needs to be good at her job!”
W.C.: I went through a particularly aggressive backlash against everything about myself that I can’t change. It was a lot of, like, “Well, what is she saying about women?” But I’m not saying all women do this or all women do that. I’m just trying to tell a specific story about one character.