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.
Slings and Arrows
Whitney, your eponymous show took a particularly brutal beating by the press.
W.C.: Critics do not particularly like multi-cams, but they are the most watched [sitcoms] in the country, so there’s just a little disconnect there, I think. But yeah, back to how people hate me. [Laughs.] I actually think a lot of it had to do with not the actual show [Whitney], but with the promotion of the show. I think my show was very supported, and I’m so grateful for it. But the promotions were, “I’m like every man’s worst fucking nightmare!” And it’s just like, “Oh, that girl. She’s like my girlfriend at her worst.” So before people had actually seen the show, I think a lot of decisions were made about it.
L.M.: People don’t sort of inherently think of women as funny, so there’s kind of a little bit of reeducation that some of this marketing has to do. The marketing has to explain what’s funny about the woman or put a word on. Like adorkable.
What about the Girls backlash? Critics have taken issue with the cast’s lack of diversity.
N.K.: To me, this is really exciting. The passion that stirs up, that means that all those girls and all the people involved in that show are doing something different and something that you haven’t seen before. When stuff is familiar, people don’t talk about it that much. When something’s different and new and bold and original and daring, people fall on either side of it. You can’t just shrug it off.
L.M.: I do think, though, that there’s something about having to defend your right to tell your story that seems a little bit odd to me. I feel like you don’t get that with a lot of guy stuff.
W.C.: It’s human nature to have opinions. I think it’s opinions that keep our stuff good—we can’t say everything is great, or else we’d only have shit. But I think this is just a great example of people just needing to hate.
E.S.: It’s the anonymity of the Internet and everything. People don’t go on the Internet to say flowery, wonderful things about each other. They go on to rip each other to shreds.
W.C.: Also, a lot of what we think is hate, we’re amplifying. It’s one person and we’re amplifying it like it’s everybody. It’s not.
D.H.: I sort of watched it thinking, I’m not in my twenties anymore. Am I gonna relate to this? Is she just gonna really annoy me? And then I just loved it. I think it’s because she’s writing her own specifics. Carl Reiner said, “What piece of ground do you stand on that nobody else stands on?” When you write from that place, it’s real. Everyone gets it.
L.M.: But to be constantly held accountable for the entire ground is where it kind of gets messed up in my mind.
E.K.: I think the lack of diversity on Girls probably has something to do with HBO’s willingness to let her be very specific, and tell her story. Whereas with network shows, there’s always a mandate. It becomes, “How are we gonna include this group of people?” or “We have to have some diversity.”
W.C.: And then every doctor is black.
E.K.: It becomes a token gesture. It doesn’t come from a place of sincere storytelling, or anything organic to the world.
It’s Not TV, It’s … What?
Are any of you envious of the cable model, where shows only produce thirteen episodes at a time?
D.H.: In terms of workload and in terms of quality of scripts, thirteen would be awesome. On the other hand, a 22-episode order means they liked your show, and they wanted to have as many original episodes as possible.
L.M.: I definitely envy having time to write the episodes, and then having time to shoot them, and then having time to edit them. It’s amazing to me that any good network TV gets made, because the schedule is so crazy. But you know, the world’s smallest violin.
E.S.: It gets to the point where it feels like you’re just falling down an endless staircase, where it’s just like, “Oh my God, this feels so out of control.” We’re just putting our heads down and trying to get through it.
N.K.: We only did thirteen, but around episode eleven I started to break down, like James Brown at the end of his concerts, you know, when they have to put a cape on him. Like, “Take me away.”
L.M.: You’re just trying to keep your head above water.
D.H.: The train keeps moving. It doesn’t stop.
L.M.: All of our metaphors involve death. Standing in front of a train, trying to breathe underwater. [Laughter.]
All of your shows feature some serialized stories. That hasn’t always been the case with network sitcoms. Do you think that’s part of why they have resonated with viewers?
E.K.: For me, even as a viewer, I can’t really fully enjoy a show where I don’t have a growing sense of who these people are. So it was really important to me that the network be supportive of us doing these bigger story lines. And they have been.
L.M.: Maybe that is actually what’s been really innovative about this year of television comedy on networks: There have been a lot of emotional arcs in comedies. We definitely do it on our show, and it’s kind of the only way I know how to write.
D.H.: I do think networks were scared of any kind of arc that didn’t conclude within that episode.
L.M.: It’s something that TV can do really well, because it’s like reading a really long novel. You’re investing in the characters for over a year. I think I just said my sitcom is like reading a really long novel.
What’s the key to having a good writers’ room? And what are yours like?
E.K.: You want to create an environment where people feel like they can say anything. It needs to have a safety: You can let your mind go to a really weird, scary, not acceptable place in that room, and then carve a story out of that weird, dark hole in your mind.
D.H.: We’ve had a lot of male writers come in and say, “Oh, because women were writing the show, I didn’t think the writers’ room would be as raunchy.” And it’s more so.
L.M.: My writers’ room gets really dirty.
N.K.: I wanted people to feel comfortable to question me. I’ve been on staff before and people are afraid to say no to the showrunner or to be like, “Uh, that kind of sucks.”
L.M.: This is probably the most, like, woman-y thing that I’m going to say: It’s so emotional to me just having other writers connect to the show, and become passionate about the characters, and watch people have fights about the characters. TV is something that you create in your head, and you write the pilot, and it’s yours. It’s really cool to kind of watch as the characters become so many other people’s, as they belong to other writers.
What was your response to the controversy about Two and a Half Men’s Lee Aronsohn saying we’d reached “peak vagina” and a “labia saturation” point on TV?
L.M.: You shouldn’t be held accountable for things you say on a panel trying to make everyone laugh. But there’s something about “vagina saturation,” those two words together.
E.S.: I couldn’t get past how sexy it was.
L.M.: It was so evocative.
E.S.: It sounds like the name of a boat, or the name of my funk album in the early eighties. No, the whole thing just seems so crazy to me. I was like, “Ugh.” It actually made me tired. You know, shows are for humans and movies are for humans. They’re not for men or women, and whether it’s created by a man or woman—hopefully it’s created by a human! And other humans will enjoy it, be they male or female.