Alan Yang, Kenya Barris on TV’s Diversity Boom, the Upside of Awards

Alan-Yang-Kenya-Barriss in Conversation Emmys Comedy
Terence Patrick for Variety

Kenya Barris and Alan Yang have never worked together, but they have played together. The breakout comedy showrunners first met in a regular pickup basketball game organized by ABC exec Cort Cass. At the time, Yang was on staff at NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” and Barris was establishing a resume including BET’s “The Game” and TBS’ “Are We There Yet?” Now, they’re running their own series: Barris is prepping season three of ABC’s “Black-ish” and Yang is at work on season two of Netflix’s “Master of None.” Fresh off Peabody wins for their acclaimed half-hours, Variety spoke with the pair about the upside of awards, TV’s diversity boom and why it’s a great time to be working in comedy.

Congratulations to you both on your Peabody wins. Having just experienced that, what are your feelings on awards?

Alan Yang: You don’t make a show expecting to get awards. You don’t make it for the purpose of getting awards. It’s really cool to get the honors, and the Peabody especially is a great one that honors so many different programs across different disciplines. Awards stuff is just gravy. It’s nice to get recognition, we really appreciate it, but it’s not under our control. We just want to make stuff that expresses the emotions and ideas we’re interested in and hopefully does it in a fair and entertaining way.

Kenya Barris: There’s no way in the world you’d make a show to get awards. Two things, from a personal standpoint: It’s always great to be recognized by your peers and the industry and the audience watching to say what you’re doing is resonating. From a professional standpoint: in terms of this being a business, [awards] bring a light to your show and give your show a certain place within the network that I think is important in this day and age, when there’s so many shows you’re competing with and you want things to stand out. To me the Peabody was as big if not bigger than any award, but I do understand an Emmy Award-winning show has a different buzz when it comes to start talking about renewals and things like that. There’s a professional something to it that matters.

Yang: It also attracts eyeballs, if you get nominated or win an Emmy. There are 400 scripted shows across television on all these different platforms, so if you can get into that conversation and be one of the seven shows nominated it doesn’t hurt. We’re all just trying to get our voices heard.

I didn’t want to do a Cosby episode because I felt that would be derivative of the narrative out there in the media already, but I like to think, ‘What’s the story behind the story?’ ”
Terence Patrick for Variety

Kenya, last year Anthony Anderson was nominated, but the show was not. Alan, except for Amy Poehler’s work, “Parks and Rec” was overlooked by the Emmys for almost all seven seasons. Any worry about getting your expectations up this year?

Barris: I really lean back into what Alan was saying. There’s no expectations and I’m not gonna set myself up for any type of emotional falls. Both of us are right now in the midst of making our shows. [Thinking about awards] takes our focus away from what you really have to do. Every day you’re going to fight a new battle and have fun, but at the same time do something that’s really difficult and really requires a lot of focus. There are people whose job it is to put our show out there and hopefully we can get attention, but if not it doesn’t mean our show is any less good or any less worthy. I’m not gonna set myself up worrying about it.

Yang: It’s a great thing for everyone involved if your show gets appreciated, but they’re so unpredictable. The bench of comedies and shows in general is so deep, there are so many great shows out there that there’s no expectation. “The Wire” never won an Emmy, “Brokeback Mountain” didn’t win an Oscar. You just don’t know. There are great pieces of art out there and honestly giving awards to artistic endeavors is a very tricky proposition. We appreciate all the love we’ve got, and this has surpassed my wildest expectations.

You’ve both had to field a lot of questions about diversity in TV, but with honors like the Peabody, do you see your shows making a difference?

Barris: For me, personally, we did not go into this show saying we want to tackle diversity. I wanted to tell a personal story. I really wanted to tell a story that was personal to me the same way [Jerry] Seinfeld told a story that was personal to him — he and Larry David put together a version of what their story was. That’s what I wanted to do. Alan’s show — that’s his story, and Aziz as an actor. When you can tell your story you can start telling other people’s stories.

Yang: For us it’s about doing something honest and authentic. In our everyday lives we sometimes encounter issues of race or talk about race but it’s not every day or every second. We try to do a blend in our show of what we talk about in our real lives. There’s an episode or two about being Indian or Asian on TV, about dealing with your parents who are immigrants — but we fall in love, we have work trouble, we have all these other stories that make the characters more well rounded.

I’m glad we’re doing this interview. If an Asian man and a black man are getting to run shows, that’s very important. It’s not just diversity in front of the camera but behind it. The stories become more authentic and true to what people’s lives are. The more shows you have, the more shows with people of color actually running the shows, that’s when you’re going to get diversity in shows about people of color. There’s a diversity of experiences in those shows so they’re not all the same show. It’s like, ‘We’ve got 50 of these shows and they’re all different.’ So the onus isn’t on one show to represent everyone of that color.

Barris: That’s a great point. The idea that it’s even a story that Alan and I are running shows is interesting to me. Aren’t we a huge part of the slice of what the world is? Lin-Manuel Miranda doing his play. People are blown away by the colorblind casting, but I’ve heard very little about how it shouldn’t be weird a Puerto Rican American made that play because Hamilton was half-black. I’m glad that Alan and me and Mindy Kaling and different people are getting to tell their stories and their version of how they see the world they live in. This isn’t some crazy new spectacular view of the world, this is the world that you live in. The more shows we have from different people —whether it’s the LGBT community, or women, or people of color — will give you interesting perspectives on what those stories are.

Yang: We’ve definitely made strides and we’ve made progress but we’re catching up to what life looks like around us. I read an article about how “Saturday Night Live” has had something like 1,000 hosts and two of them have been Asian. That’s not a high number. That’s almost a rounding error. All we got was Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu. We’re making strides but we’re not there yet.

The “Black-ish” episode “The Johnson Show” and “Master of None” episode “Indians on TV” both deal with the pressure of one TV show representing an entire race. Do you feel that pressure in your own work?

Barris: I know for myself I absolutely do. I didn’t want to do a Cosby episode because I felt that would be derivative of the narrative out there in the media already, but I like to think, “What’s the story behind the story?” If this is something that this person did, it’s a horrible heinous crime, but it became a racial issue because there’s so few of us in the media or having those opportunities. Once something comes up, it’s like that person speaks for the entire race.

There’s a scene in that episode with the family watching the news and they’re talking about an assailant and they have their fingers crossed saying, “Please don’t let him be black, please don’t let him be black.” I find that’s true of a lot of different cultures. When there’s an Asian serial killer you’re like “fuck!” because you feel like “there goes something else.” It’s not a cultural or racial thing — the accusations against Cosby — it’s an accusation of a crime, but it seems to affect our race in a big way.

Yang: It’s a numbers game. It was a dark period of my life when William Hung was the most famous Asian man. He was literally #1 on the list of famous Asian people. There are just so few of us. I don’t feel a pressure to be representing “this is the ideal Indian or Asian outlook on the world.” But I do feel pressure in just making the show as great as possible. I don’t want to be the show that screwed it up, where they say, “Oh, a brown guy and Asian guy did that show and it didn’t really work, let’s wait another 17 or 18 years before making another effort.”

Barris: You do feel like, “Is this gonna be the one that stops all the other ones?” I know I felt like that for Barack as the president. They’re trying to take away every good achievement he’s done, because if he does too good it’s like, “Is the president just gonna start being black like in the movies?” The small moments I’ve had to talk with President Obama, I’ve told him, “I get it.” His presidency was in some ways almost overshadowed by the fact that he was the first black president. To me it’s crazy, it’s an amazing record of things he’s done.

We’re getting very specific, granular points of view, whether it’s ‘Transparent’ or Maria Bamford’s new show, ‘Lady Dynamite.’ There’s cool stuff going on, and frankly weird.”
Terence Patrick for Variety

Comedy seems to be thriving right now, what do you think of the state of the genre?

Yang: What’s really exciting is the amount of experimentation and the people they’re giving chances to. In our lifetime there was a time when there were three networks, and if you didn’t have one of those 20 shows that was it. Your show had to be a crazy ratings juggernaut. They would cancel a show that would get 25 million viewers. Now what we’re getting are very specific, granular points of view, whether it’s “Transparent,” or Maria Bamford’s new show, “Lady Dynamite.” There’s cool stuff going on, and frankly weird. I don’t see it ending anytime soon, fingers crossed.

Barris: I think that’s said perfectly. For me it’s also a really special time to be in comedy, it feels like comedy is having a renaissance. Alan reminded me of the staggering number of 400 television shows. With so many opportunities out there in this fraternity of comedy right now, the shows that are rising to the top, you feel a little bit more proud. The comedies that are really making it, they’re better than they have been in a long time. Television is better than film right now. I think the filmmakers would agree because they’re flocking to television as well. We’re in that fraternity where the small screen is doing more interesting and widely appealing things than the big screen, and that’s a great place to be.

Yang: That’s a great point too — if we were making a movie that was similar in tone and scope to “Master of None” all of the major studios would’ve laughed us out of the room. Instead we get NBCUniversal who are these amazing partners and they give us a decent budget and they give us an unprecedented level of freedom and trust. I feel like you’re not getting that in film as much and that’s why a lot of these prominent filmmakers are going to TV. You’re getting to tell the story you want to tell without an insane amount of interference or having to make a huge amount of money in Asia. I think it’s been an incredible boon to the diversity of television shows.

Barris: You can look at Soderbergh, the Wachowskis, Fincher, Scorsese — the number of people at the top of their game in film coming to television in droves. There’s a certain ticking clock to television, that helps us in a way. We can get notes to a certain extent but at a certain point the show must go on and your voice becomes a little purer. Movies can take years to come out.

Yang: Just the sentence “Woody Allen is making a television show for Amazon starring Miley Cyrus” would’ve made no sense five years ago. It’s incredible.

Barris: That’s crazy.

You’re playing in two different realms — broadcast vs. streaming — and yet it sounds like you both feel creative freedom. Have you privately discussed any differences between the two?

Barris: Alan is coming from “Parks and Rec,” where it seems like they did whatever the f— they wanted to do. From where I stand we have been really really fortunate that ABC has given us very little blockage in the types of stories we can tell. The hardest part is the number we have to fill, there’s a certain atrophy that can develop over the hiatus. You have to kick your brain back in. In general I do feel like there’s a benefit to having that ticking clock. It’s like, “We’re gonna have to tell the story, we’re shooting it, you can air it, or air the rerun.” I would love to work for Netflix but I’m a little afraid because after working in network for so long — the muscle memory you develop, you get used to shooting that way. I wonder how it changes when you’re on a different time cycle.

Yang: I respect the hell out of everyone who does a network show. That is a marathon. It’s so many episodes and it can be a meat grinder. Anyone making a network show, and on top of that making a very good network show, that’s an insane feat of Herculean endurance and fortitude. There was a season of “Parks and Rec” where we did 30 in a row, so many, and honestly it ended up being one of the best seasons. It can be done, but it’s very difficult.

To speak to our experience, we have great executives and they give us our thoughts but it’s always a conversation and never a dictatorial relationship. It’s great to have smart people read your scripts and give you thoughts as long as they are not forcing you to do things that you think are not in the spirit of the show. That has never been the case and that wasn’t the case on “Parks” either, we loved our executives and they were always so supportive of the show.

Being on Netflix really freed our minds. When we did the parents episode, there’s no one in that episode who was in the pilot except Aziz. It’s an entirely new cast. You don’t even get to the credits until minute 12 or whatever. Being on Netflix gave us the courage to attempt something like that.

You both have great ensemble casts. How much does working with actors influence how you see and shape their characters?

Yang: It’s unbelievable how much the actors influence their roles. Lena Waithe, who plays the character of Denise [for example]. We asked [casting director] Allison Jones to just send us interesting people. We met with tons and tons of people. We had this role for a character named Denise who was one of Aziz’s friends and it wasn’t that specific, we were still refining it. We probably met 50 people but Lena was literally the first person we met and she just stuck in our brain because she was so unique. When she sat down she was very confident. She came in a Bolt jersey and Timbalands. She told us a crazy story that had just happened the night before. We said, “You know what we have never seen this specific person on TV and we’re going to make the character her. OK it’s Lena, she’s black, she’s a lesbian, she loves Terrence Malick, it’s a very specific character and a person you haven’t seen before.”

The amazing part of our cast is they’re all writers, Noël [Wells], Eric [Wareheim], Kelvin [Yu], Lena. We went over and rehearsed everything with them. We had them give input on what they like and didn’t like, it was very collaborative and fun. We’d be idiots not to get their input, they know what they do well. I couldn’t have been happier with that whole process.

Barris: Lena was my PA and she’s now become a friend and someone I hope to work with. I feel the same way, Anthony was my partner when we sold the show and we knew we wanted Tracee Ross. Actors are magical people. They can take words you wrote and say them in a way that although you thought the line was good when you wrote it, it’s fantastic when it comes out of their mouth. They live with those characters, they go to sleep with their characters, I’ve heard actors say they dream as their characters. If you find somebody that involved in something you have to hear them. If I do something that doesn’t feel right or come out of an actor’s mouth right, I have to come at from a different way. It’s very collaborative, we’ve become, a symbiotic relationship between all the different parts of the show.

Yang: I went to a very early “Parks and Rec” table read in my first year. Nick Offerman — [the script] just said, “Ron sits there in silence.” He made the tiniest facial gesture and it got a huge laugh in the room. Greg Daniels came up to me after and I said, “He got a laugh off of silence.” He said, “Sometimes less is more.” A good actor can play it really real and it doesn’t have to be an insane broad joke for it to register as a funny character moment. That was a testament to “wow, this guy’s gonna be amazing in this role.”

As you head into your next seasons, what’s top of mind to explore?

Barris: What for me is a big mandate is being different but not different for different sake. I grew up on television, I was babysat by television. I know what a typical television episode looks like and I pay homage to that every week, but I don’t want people to say “I’ve been down this road before.” We try to have our brand, we really want to start a conversation. We love people to be done with an episode and want to go have a conversation about it.

Yang: In writing the second season we want to stay away from formula. There are episodes we loved from season one but we don’t want to be caught in the trap of “structurally these stories are all the same.” We don’t want the audience to think we know where this story is going because it’s familiar from season one. To me the best episodes of the show are the ones that have a clear central idea that we’re passionate about. All of the episodes have this central theme or emotion or idea that really interests us and we’re able to talk about for hours in the room. If it sparks that much conversation in the room then it’s going to be a sturdy foundation for an episode.

Barris: I think that’s the key to any artistic endeavor. You want it to feel fresh and not have people look at it like it’s recreation of something else unless it’s done in a really strong way.

Yang: It sounds almost so basic but, “What’s this story about?” More times than you might think you might not have a clear answer. Once you know where you’re aiming it makes everything else easier.

Barris: I recently was dabbling in the film world and got some rewrite work. These are scripts that have probably been through two or three other writers, they’re go pictures with 70 or 80 million budgets, and I finish reading the script and have the same question: “Hold on, what was that about?” Was there not a point when a group of professionals asked that seemingly basic question that Alan just said? It’s one of the reasons I embrace Pixar the way I do. You do not walk out of a Pixar animated film and ask “What’s this about?” Dan Fogelman who did “Cars” told me the process and it’s the right process. You completely understand what “Cars,” “Nemo,” “Inside Out,” what these movies are. It’s something I applaud Alan for on his show. It’s like, “oh my god, I overstand.” It was a different way of exploring the world of these friends.