Editors Note: Prentice Penny is the showrunner, executive producer and frequent director of HBO’s Insecure, which recently wrapped its fourth season. Following the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd and protests against racism and police violence that swept the nation and the globe, shows like 30 Rock, The Office, Community and Scrubs started pulling episodes featuring blackface scenes from streaming services.
In a guest column for Deadline, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Happy Endings alum Penny isn’t buying into the gesture.
Do you know how f*ckin’ hard it is to get a joke on a television show?
It starts with a bit.
Then, it’s approved by the showrunner (I know because I am one).
Then, it has to make it through multiple rewrites.
Then, a table read.
Then, the studio and network sign off.
Then, actors and directors have to film it.
Then, an editor, studio, and network (again) along with Standards & Practices sign off.
Finally, it’s aired and sponsors/local affiliate stations have to be okay with it.
That’s a lot of people with power who approve what the American audience gets to watch.
And ain’t no one along the way think blackface was maybe a bad idea?
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen Tina Fey, Greg Daniels, Bill Lawrence, and many other showrunners pull their blackface episodes off the air. And to quote LeBron James, it was, “Not one, not two, not three…” but multiple episodes of multiple series. I get the instinct to want to remove these episodes. You want to be considerate of the moment.
BUT, NAH. NOT TODAY.
Removing these episodes absolves you and all of us from having a long overdue conversation. It isn’t like racism just started this past June. Last week, these same episodes were available to watch. One could make the point (although they’d be wrong) that these episodes would’ve made sense had they been made in the 1950s.
BUT THESE EPISODES WERE MADE IN THE 2000s… by the same people who tweet and mock the tone deafness of Megyn Kelly’s inability to understand why blackface is wrong.
Now am I saying those showrunners and Megyn Kelly are the same? Absolutely not. But I am saying prejudice, racism, and white fragility/unawareness are a SLIDING SCALE.
Blackface getting on the air is a symptom of a much larger and disturbing problem: Lack of representation in the writers’ room. We all know it happens, yet it’s something we’re comfortable accepting. Now, is it the same as accepting that police officers will kill a certain number of Black men every year, who we know will result in yet another hashtag? Absolutely not. But is this industry more comfortable accepting living in its bubble, rather than choosing to face some very ugly and uncomfortable truths that will require it to change? Absolutely. Like I said — it’s a SLIDING SCALE.
I’ve heard White showrunners say they’ve hired Black writers because the studio’s diversity initiative basically made it “free” labor. Oof. Now, is this the same as a slaveowner taking advantage of a horribly oppressive system and devaluing a person’s humanity by purchasing them? Absolutely not. But, did these showrunners devalue these Black writers’ worth because they weren’t considered good enough to be hired without the system giving the showrunners an incentive? Absolutely. Like I said — it’s a SLIDING SCALE.
For the record, I don’t believe these showrunners are bad people. Not at all. That’s too broad of a brush to paint anyone with. But am I confused that you tweet “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” yet they don’t matter enough to be on your staff?
And it’s not just showrunners who are complicit in devaluing Black voices. Critics play an enormous part in continuing this cycle. 30 Rock and The Office have received multiple Emmy and Golden Globe wins and nominations from voters. Yet these same critics and voters fail to see the humanity and value in Black stories on television.
In the 68 years of the Emmy awards, only THREE Black shows have ever been nominated for Best Comedy Series, Atlanta, Black-ish, and The Cosby Show, and only the latter has won. Even worse, Best Drama Series has zero nominations for Black shows. Sooooo, three out of over 800 possible nominations in 68 years? Word? That’s what’s hot in the streets?
Now am I saying that TV Academy voters are actively keeping Black showrunners like Courtney Kemp, Justin Simien, or Mara Brock Akil off the ballot? Of course not. But do I think White critics and voters don’t perceive our art to be as good as our White counterparts’? Or worse yet, do they not even watch our shows? Absolutely. Like I said — it’s a SLIDING SCALE.
Even now, as the TV Academy opens more slots for voters to be more “inclusive” of other shows, when I visited GoldDerby.com, most experts and critics seem to have used those slots only to add more White shows to their lists.
The systemic problem of our industry also extends to the guilds. The WGA asks Black showrunners to fire our agents and put our pencils down when they want to show a state of solidarity. Now am I saying the guild uses our Black faces the same way Trump does, by putting black faces in the front row of his rallies saying, “See, the Blacks are down with MAGA”? Absolutely not. But do I think the guild falls dramatically short of that same “punitive, pencils-down” energy when it comes to forcing showrunners to have more diverse rooms or be expelled from the union? Absolutely. Like I said — it’s a SLIDING SCALE.
Now, some might choose to tune me out right now. You might be thinking, “Damn, we just gave you Juneteenth and slave-free syrup. What else do you want?”
WE WANT BETTER.
From our peers. From our industry. And frankly, from human beings just doing the right thing.
WE DESERVE IT. WE DEMAND IT. HELL, WE’VE EARNED IT!
You also might be thinking, this is a lot to digest as a White person. You don’t know if you should salute Black people when they walk into the room or offer to wash their hair. (Don’t offer to wash our hair. Seriously. Do. Not. Do. This.)
So let me give you something you can do that will have an immediate impact:
MAKE 60% OF YOUR ENTIRE SHOW (WRITERS, DIRECTORS, PRODUCERS, DP’S, ALL CREW MEMBERS – PRODUCTION AND POST) PEOPLE OF COLOR. PERIOD.
I’ve done the above on Insecure, so I know it works. Not only is racism systemic, but so is opportunity.
And I get it. It’s hard to get a television show on the air. It’s completely natural to want to hire writers, directors, producers, or editors you’ve worked with before and that you trust. However, if Black creatives in those departments can’t get on those White shows and meet future showrunners who will inevitably hire people they’ve worked with when they get a show, that’s…
Black writers don’t need gestures that we’re not asking for.
What we need is for everyone to be uncomfortable and accountable.
What we need is for people in power to look around the room and ask:
Where am I on the SLIDING SCALE?