There was a lot of talk about diversity on television last season and much enthusiasm about what hit shows featuring characters of various races, sexual orientations and gender identities mean for the future of the business.
But somewhat lost among the cheerleading was a more basic truth: The shows were damn good.
Several newcomers to this year’s comedy Emmy race in particular have ushered in a refreshing spectrum of new faces and perspectives not typically heard from on the smallscreen.
“We could have done ‘My boss is coming over and the roast is burned!’ comedy, which is still a very valid form,” notes “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris, whose ABC comedy stars Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as a financially successful African-American couple raising their children in an affluent neighborhood. “But we chose to do things about spanking and about gay siblings. I think America was ready for that and sort of thirsty for it, and received it really well.”
Also at ABC, “Fresh Off the Boat” showrunner Nahnatchka Khan, who previously created the edgy “Don’t Trust the B- in Apartment 23,” never imagined she’d be running a family comedy. At least not until she read Eddie Huang’s memoir about growing up as the first- generation son of Chinese immigrants in Florida.
“Both my parents were born in Iran and moved here as adults, (and) my brother and I were both born here,” she says. “I really related to feeling like you have one foot in both worlds — the world outside your home is so different than the world inside your home, and you don’t even really notice the difference until you start to go out and see the way other people live. It’s a very unique growing up experience that I hadn’t yet seen on TV.”
Amazon’s “Transparent” boss Jill Soloway and the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman drew from their own lives in different ways for their celebrated frosh series.
Soloway reflected on her parent coming out as transgender late in life by creating the fictional Pfefferman family, whose unique blend of dysfunctional relationships and familial bonds are both distinct and utterly relatable. “The Pfeffermans create this really nice way station that’s somewhere in between my own truth and what I want to share,” Soloway says. “They hold the art.”
Urman adapted an outrageous telenovela format about a virgin in her 20s who discovers she’s pregnant as the result of an accidental insemination. Despite the wild premise, Urman layered in her own experiences with pregnancy, including a frightening time when a doctor said her child might be born with a birth defect — something that happens to Jane in episode 13.
“My husband was really traumatized by watching that episode because it was so specific to our experiences,” Urman says. “Jane’s approach to motherhood has been a lot of me working out my own anxieties. That’s been the real thread underneath. I can look back with distance now, ‘What was I doing?’”
Even when it comes to a creative decision like using subtitles for Jane’s Spanish-speaking abuela, the CW president Mark Pedowitz says it was important from the start to make the series as authentic as possible.
“There was a big conversation last year. Do you allow (the subtitles)?” he recalls. “It’s not just a Latino perspective. Many of us who grew up as first or second generation, and your grandparents came from a different country, it varied what they were speaking. The decision was reflective of what was going on in the real world.”
Grounding stories in truth is a throughline among many, whether they work in broadcast, digital or cable.
Starz comedy “Survivor’s Remorse” creator Mike O’Malley began with only a premise — supplied by NBA superstar LeBron James and James’ childhood friend and business partner Maverick Carter — about the unexpected guilt of sudden fame and wealth, especially for athletes who come from a poor background.
“I didn’t want to say this is from LeBron’s life,” says O’Malley, who also wrote for Showtime’s “Shameless.” “I went off and came up with who I thought the characters would be. There was a lot of sincerity and heart I was trying to weave into the story because that’s something I relate to. A family that loves and cares about one another. They might bicker and fight and argue but they’re trying to emerge in this new world (of fame) together.”
“Grace and Frankie” co-creator Marta Kauffman wanted to explore a different set of issues almost never seen on television: the lives of people after 70. “The largest percentage of the population is the aging baby boomer,” she says. “I’m one of them. I wanted to explore our stories.”
The Netflix comedy stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as frenemies forced to live together when their law partner husbands (played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) announce they’ve secretly been in a relationship together for years.
“People make all kinds of decisions as they face the third chapter of their lives. Robert and Sol make a particularly difficult one for some men of their generation,” Kauffman says of the show’s premise. “It’s a story worth telling, but I also don’t see it as some big political statement. We had gay characters on ‘Friends’ 20 years ago.”
Barris says he, too, wasn’t looking to make a statement with “Black-ish.” Although he cites Norman Lear as a prime influence, he was just as inspired by the warm and fuzzy feelings of “The Wonder Years.” “When I was growing up, we’d all sit down and watch (that show) together like a family. That was really what I was trying to do more than anything.”
Some point to the success of ABC’s “Modern Family,” which has won the comedy series Emmy for five seasons running, as one of the driving forces behind this new wave of diversity.
“It takes a couple of seasons for people to realize the great effect of ‘Modern Family’ — it opened the door for different types of families,” Khan says. “The next successful family sitcom is not going to look like ‘Modern Family,’ but the idea behind ‘Modern Family’ opens the door for shows like ‘Black-ish,’ and for shows like ours, where it doesn’t have to be a family that you’ve seen for the past 50 years on television. It can look different.”
“I always believed that cloning one TV show to make another is both stupid and shortsighted,” says Kauffman, who as co-creator of “Friends” knows about being ripped off. “That being said, I do hope that network executives see that it’s not the age of the characters that makes for a successful show, but the universality of the stories.”
The hope is that comedy’s new voices are not part of a passing trend. “I’d be crazy to say I didn’t think it was great, but at the same time I feel like there was a part of me that worried a little bit,” Barris says of the recent focus on diversity. “I didn’t want our show to be looked at as part of a fad, because we worked so hard to not be the Pet Rock.”
Adds Khan: “Even in just 13 episodes, we’ve had so many chances for actors to shine on our show so that going forward people will be like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that guy from “Fresh off the Boat.” He was hilarious. Let’s hire him.’ ”
O’Malley, who also acts and earned an Emmy nomination as the understanding father of Chris Colfer’s gay teen on Fox’s “Glee,” believes there is reason to be optimistic about the long term.
“To try to do something that seems like it’s never been done before really just takes networks opening up their mindset and recognizing there are audiences thirsting for people who look like them or are going through what they’re going through,” he says.
“If you’re a gay kid who has a love for theater, you want to see a representation of yourself on television somewhere that’s not denigrating. And so on and so forth. The human condition is not limited to just a certain set of actors.”