Given that late-night is the television daypart delivering more political jabs per minute than any other, it was something of a surprise that a Produced By: New York panel on Saturday, featuring four current executive producers of top shows in the arena, stayed safely away from politics — until the very end. In fact, the most pressing topic in the insider’s look at the ins and outs of daily comedy production was also a surprise to critics who have decried a longtime lack of diversity among staffers on shows. The suggestion by the panelists was that it wasn’t for lack of trying.
“It’s always been important but it’s a lot easier now — it used to be a problem, and you had to get creative because you wouldn’t have candidates,” Mike Shoemaker, producer of Late Night with Seth Meyers and a 30-year-plus fixture in late-night since his time on Saturday Night Live, told a packed “Late Night Laughs” panel at the Producers Guild of America conference.
Lamenting several seasons where no woman would submit work to be a writer on SNL, Shoemaker continued, “You’d go and see [women comedy] performers and convince them to be writers. In 1995, there were four women in [comedy groups] Second City and the Groundlings” that were approached; among them was Paula Pell, who last year wrote the film Sisters. “We said, ‘Would you like to write?’ and she said, ‘No, I’m an actress.’ We had to talk her into” what became a 20-year writing career on the show. “Racially it was the same thing. Now you’d have to actively be a dick to not have a diverse show because there are so many candidates.”
It had been a vicious circle, suggested Jen Flanz, executive producer and Showrunner, for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and the only woman on the four-person panel. “Ten years from now it’ll be even easier, but growing up, you were watching white guys on TV. Now you can better identify with the [diversity in the] faces on TV and see it as an option.”
Prashanth Venkataramanujam, co-creator and executive producer of Netflix’s brand new talk comedy entry, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj — the only late-night show represented from a streaming service — first felt his own pull for diversity when the longtime collaborators were prepping for Minhaj’s featured spot at the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Now with Patriot Act, Venkataramanujam, an Emmy nominee who also worked on Bill Nye Saves the World, is grateful for a crew of writers from different spectrums. “There are blind spots that even us as brown men have with brown women and black women. We have these entrenched vantage points we need to compensate for.”
The panelists — led in discussion by moderator Chris Licht, executive producer and showrunner for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert — also offered hilarious insights to the makings of their shows. The Emmy-winning Shoemaker, who came to Myers’ show after running Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night entry, said that he and Myers agree so often that when they disagree, they love to play up the argument for comic effect. “We bicker like an old couple [shouting] ‘You’re gonna eff’ it up!’” he said. “The staff loves to see Mom and Dad fight and we do it out loud and afterwards it’s fine.”
Flanz, who has worked with all three hosts of The Daily Show, credits Noah’s predecessor, Jon Stewart, with championing her for the job.
“I earned the opportunity, but I was a production coordinator and he was giving me things to do, saying, ‘You can do this’ and bringing me into writer’s meetings.” Later on, as showrunner and host, she and Stewart built a great rapport, even through rare disagreements. “If you pick your battles, they trust if you’re saying ‘I don’t see it this way,’” she said. “The times I disagreed with Jon, we did what he wanted, and if it didn’t go right he’d say, ‘I know, don’t say it.’ Sometimes, a host can’t see every single thing.”
Venkataramanujam’s fellow panelists were themselves most curious about how Patriot Act, which premiered Oct. 28, will be judged, given that, as Licht humorously suggested, it’s a ratings-free zone on Netflix.
“He means literally no one is watching,” Venkataramanujam cracked, adding, “I have no idea,” what success means. Conceptually, however, he and Minhaj quickly realized that the platform would help create the program. “We knew it couldn’t exist in a world with commercial breaks. So we settled on not making a TV show; it’s a Netflix show.” As such, he said, “We rely on what’s happening online and how people respond to the show there. We do pay attention; we’re an internet show and it’s important to have interplay with an online audience.”
Offering a final “how to” for anyone hoping to break into the business, the panelists insisted the entre is to be where you can be seen. “We tell interns every semester, you have to be in the community that feeds these shows,” Shoemaker said, “You should be at UCB [Upright Citizen’s Brigade] Magnet or at the PIT [People’s Improv Theater], which is where one gets hired. You must be in a community where people see you funny.” After that, it’s about maintaining the right attitude. “There’s a zero tolerance for assholes,” Shoemaker said, with all the panelists agreeing readily. “If you’re a jerk, you’re not recommended, so get it out of your system in high school.”
“Unless,” said Licht, “you want to be on the Supreme Court.”