Diane Haithman contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage.
If the 2011-2012 TV schedule is any indication, girls just want to be funny. There are probably more new comedies created, co-created or executive-produced by women in primetime than at any time in history: 2 Broke Girls (Whitney Cummings), The B**** In Apartment 23 (co-creator Nahnatchka Khan) and Girls (Lena Dunham, 2011’s best first screenplay winner at the Independent Spirit Awards for Tiny Furniture). There are more who also might find themselves in the Emmy mix, and Awardsline spoke separately to some of them: Jessika Borsiczky, co-executive producer of Showtime’s House of Lies; Emily Kapnek, creator and co-executive producer of ABC’s Suburgatory; Elizabeth Meriwether, creator and co-executive producer of the Fox comedy New Girl and Emily Spivey, the Saturday Night Live veteran who created and is a co-executive producer of NBC’s Up All Night.
AWARDSLINE: There’s been a lot said about the new shows with women at the helm, especially in comedy. Certainly female comedy was a goldmine for the movies in 2011 with Bridesmaids. What’s going on?
EMILY SPIVEY: I think there just happened to be some ladies with ideas that people liked, I don’t think it was a big conspiracy to get a bunch of ‘lady shows’ on the air. The time has come when more ladies are trying comedy. In the past it was kind of a man thing, especially with stand-up. I think women are really finding their voices and being allowed to be a little more aggressive and speaking about topics that maybe a few years ago were a little more taboo than they are now.
JESSIKA BORSICZKY: We are sort of hitting a place where there’s some real seniority to women in television. When I started at HBO (in the movie division) in 1992 I certainly wasn’t running television shows, it took a long time. But obviously storytelling and movies reflect what’s interesting about our times. The universe of what it is to be a modern woman right now is deep, it’s changing, there’s a lot of fluctuation in family and marriage. Women are now out-earning men and out-educating men and having babies without men so there are a lot of stories to tell. And look at Girls, it’s also showing us a side of what it is to be a young woman that’s new.
EMILY KAPNEK: I think Bridesmaids created a sort of feeding frenzy for that sort of female-skewing, irreverent humor. I think that happens all the time with hit movies. When you see this huge success, they think, what’s the TV version of that? But in this batch, is there a TV version of Bridesmaids? Our show is not that, a bunch of these shows are not that. For me it’s just been a little much, and it gets in the way of the sort of specificity of each project to say: ‘Girl power!’ I get the interest, and I don’t think it’s negative, but, there is a time where it becomes a little bit like, really, guys?
ELIZABETH MERIWETHER: I am just really happy to be a part of it. What I really appreciate is that all of (the comedies) are really different, they have very different protagonists and they are written in different styles, I think that’s a great step towards not seeing all women comedy writers in kind of a block. I think a lot of female viewers respond to female characters that come from a real place.
AWARDSLINE: Do you see a difference in what type of comedy appeals to men and what kind appeals to women?
MERIWETHER: I don’t, really. And I hope that people more and more stop seeing it as two different things. I think something that’s funny is just funny, beyond just the lead of the show being a man or a woman. All the characters in these shows are really flawed, funny, different women. If you look at 30 Rock, it’s so different from Up All Night, or New Girl. I think that’s great. That’s where we should be.
SPIVEY: I think there are a lot of girls who would rather watch a Farrelly brothers movie, and I think there are a lot of guys who would love Bridesmaids. I just don’t believe in chick flick and guy movies. I think if the story is good, everyone enjoys it.
BORSICZKY: I think Bridesmaids was a real watershed moment, everyone realized that female comedians could tell a story about female friendship and female traditions that is raunchy and appealing and commercial and that men would enjoy. If people don’t take a cue from that, they are going to be very behind. It’s totally influencing the next round of development.
AWARDSLINE: We’ve heard a lot about the ‘boys club’ in the comedy writers’ room. Did you – and do you – encounter that in your career? And what is the female-male ratio on your staff?
BORSICZKY: We have two women on the staff and three men. I ran an action movie company, and in 90 percent of the meetings I’d be the only woman in the room. When I shifted to television, it was a much more balanced environment. There are more women in comedy – the last show I ran was Flash Forward, and there are a lot more men in science fiction. I think it’s really important to be expressive and not self-conscious in a writers’ room when you’re going for comedy. On our show it’s not only women’s issues, but also race. We devoted an entire episode of House of Lies to anal sex, you have to know going in that when you are breaking that story there are going to be some very raw moments in the room. I have to say nobody felt uncomfortable, and we were laughing our heads off. That being said, there are limits, I know stories of women who were discriminated against for taking maternity leave, or sexually discriminated against by their bosses, I think that still exists.
KAPNEK: We have a teeny tiny writing staff for the first season, we started with eight getting down to four; there were two women and two men and then me, so actually 3-2, girls. Now in the second season we are adding some people, so it is 4-3, guys. We’re pretty foul, and I’m not easily offended. I think it’s a dangerous job to be in if you are easily offended, man or woman. I do think it (used to be) a boys club in that it was more male dominated, sometimes we felt a little bit outnumbered. I think that the women on our show, they might even be dirtier than the guys.
AWARDSLINE: Is there any trend in the type of woman we’re seeing in today’s comedies?
BORSICZKY: I don’t think there is an equivalent for what Sex and the City did for its time, or even what That Girl did in its time. Those shows were aspirational, and they had a big impact. I think everyone is just asking questions now; (there is no) ‘new modern woman’ on television. We have a lot of discussions on House of Lies, because obviously the women characters on that show are very specific. They inhabit a very shark-infested world, so they are amoral. A lot of reviews refer to them as acting like men. I feel like that is a very outdated way of categorizing characters.
MERIWETHER: The very first meeting I had with (Fox Entertainment President) Kevin Reilly was when he picked up the pilot to shoot, and he said, ‘This show is about the girl at the epicenter, and I want to keep her as unique as possible, to try to preserve this character’s uniqueness.’ I have noticed more openness, a more acceptance of these female characters and not wanting to put them in boxes, to trust the creators to really tell their own stories — that’s been my experience. [Editor’s note: Meriwether disowns the word “adorkable” to describe Zooey Deschanel’s “new girl”.]
AWARDSLINE: When 2 Broke Girls made its debut on CBS, there was a lot of discussion about the frequent use of the word ‘vagina.’ In fact, CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler has said she encourages it: ‘The note we give is that we want to use it more … it’s part of my physical body,’ she observed at January’s Television Critics Assn.’s winter press tour in Pasadena. Seriously, which is funnier, the penis or the vagina?
SPIVEY: Penises are funnier. I don’t know if that’s just because they’re out there and they’re weird and they are a lot less mysterious. I don’t think people like to think of girls that technically, they like to think of pretty curves and boobs and softness and sweetness, and they don’t really want to get down into the mechanics of what’s going on with their lady parts. But I love a good dick joke; I’ll always laugh at a dick joke.
BORSICZKY: Penises are funnier – the degree to which men are controlled by them will endlessly amuse me. But I am all for seeing more vagina and hoo-ha in the network television world, that could only improve our situation.
KAPNEK: Oh my God. I don’t think penises are that funny. I think maybe balls are the funniest. I don’t really find vaginas that funny, my vagina is very serious — just kidding. We had a reference to a vagina in our pilot, but I don’t feel that vaginas come up a whole lot in our show. But yeah – balls win the day.
MERIWETHER: They’re both pretty funny. Put them together and they’re even funnier.