Geri Cole: Hi. I’m Geri Cole and you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. In each episode, you’re going to hear from the people behind your favorite films and television series, talking about their writing process, how they got their project from the page to the screen, and so much more. Today, I’m thrilled to welcome to the podcast Writers Guild member Lang Fisher, who’s here to talk about the second season of Never Have I Ever, the Netflix series she co-created with Mindy Kaling.
Lang began her television writing career at The Onion and has also written for The Mindy Project, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and 30 Rock. Welcome Lang. I’d like to actually just start talking to you about how are you doing, how are you holding up, how are things? Like what energy are you trying to keep front and center in this crazy time?
Lang Fisher: In this wild time? It was very interesting shooting the last season of Never Have I Ever because it was like we’re shooting during the surge in the winter. I mean I guess we’re in a different surge now but in the winter surge you were shooting, whatever your favorite surge is, but I was very terrified going into that and I was just very worried about the actors and the crew and just had a lot of nerves about it. I will say Universal and our Never Have I Ever, like the production staff did a great job and kept it very safe, and working was actually like a really nice release. It was nice being around people, it was nice … Even though we were like in face shields and looked like we were in Hazmat suits, it was like … It was just nice to be making something that was positive and light and you weren’t besieged by all of the craziness in the world and I’ll say right now, we’re just recently renewed for Season Three and I’m feeling pretty good. I’m excited to get back into it. It’s nice, I don’t know if you feel this way, but it’s nice to have your job sometimes is like escapism. Like to create nice things that are fun to watch, which are a distraction from the very scary news.
Geri Cole: From the very scary world we live in. You’re right.
Lang Fisher: Yeah, it’s like this is … I mean which is why people also love and need entertainment where it’s like got to get away, got to get somewhere away to a world where things are different.
Geri Cole: Absolutely. Let’s talk a little bit about how the shame came together. So you co-created the show with Mindy Kaling. Can you talk us through the like first inkling of the idea to the green light a little bit?
Lang Fisher: This was like sort of an uncommon situation because I think it happened a little backwards. Mindy has written a few books and her essays often sometimes contain stories about herself as kind of a nerdy child and I think one of the executives at Netflix was like eager to work with Mindy and maybe make something based on those stories and Mindy kind of felt like … I don’t think she felt like she had an interesting enough childhood to turn it into a sort of period piece that was super autobiographical, kind of like Everybody Hates Chris. So she ended up deciding that it would be more fun to make a modern day story about a teenage Indian-American girl and so that was sort of the jumping off point.
Then we were kind of trying to figure out what exactly to pitch to Netflix as the story, we sort of started with discussions of just how … Like what we were like in high school. So we both weren’t necessarily cool, but we also weren’t like shy or quiet. We had big personalities, we were loud, we were maybe a little annoying, like who knows, and we kind of decided that like … There’s a lot of shows out there, there are a lot of teen shows out there where like the lead girl is kind of a wallflower and she’s kind of like invisible, and that just wasn’t our experience when we were in high school. We were definitely very visible and had these big opinions and I think we wanted to create a character who had like a lot of anger. Because I feel like every teenage girl I know is just like furious.
Geri Cole: As she should be.
Lang Fisher: As she should be.
Geri Cole: As she rightfully should be, yes.
Lang Fisher: Yes. So it was just like we were like let’s make this girl have a real temper. Like she’s not like a diffident, shy sort of person who hides in the background. We wanted someone who is like out front and bold and loud and had a real rage problem. So that’s kind of where we started from and then we decided … Both Mindy and I have lost parents and we decided that we would make that part of her story. We were both adults, we were both like in our early 30s when our parents passed, but I have a much younger sister who is in high school when my dad died and I saw how hard it was on her and I think we thought that there was some really interesting avenues to go down thinking about how teens process grief. So we made that sort of a cornerstone of her personality was that she was dealing with this very heavy loss but was going to try to funnel it into these teen pursuits of like hooking up with the hottest boy in school and popularity.
Yeah, and so that was kind of the jumping off place and then we wanted to make sure she had kind of an eclectic group of friends and then a lot of the family stuff is like kind of inspired by Mindy’s life and we both have mothers who are doctors, so we made her mother a doctor, and I think Mindy has an experience of like cousins from India coming to stay with her and her family and so we were like, “Let’s give her a cousin who just comes to learn in the United States and it would be great if she seems perfect and makes Devi’s life a living hell because she seems like the daughter that her mother always wanted.
So yeah, I mean, a lot of it was inspired from our lives and we kind of just sort of pieced together something that we felt was personal to us and kind of figured it out from there.
Geri Cole: Man, I feel like that part of … Because everything feels so true. [inaudible] complete sense, it’s like … It feels very organic, we’re pulling from a lot of our actual life experience and I think that comes across because everything feels hilarious but also very real and not like a sitcommy, it’s like no no, this feels like grounded. Everything feels very grounded which is one of the I think really great things about the show.
So can you talk me through a little bit of the Season Two writing process? Like how much of the storyline was set out in advance or how much did you sort of like figure out as you went along? [inaudible] all in one go?
Lang Fisher: Well no, we did two different seasons. So like after Season One, [inaudible] had nothing. So then when we started the writing process for Season Two, then we were like, “Okay, so what happens now?” I think I am like a true believer in the writing process of like don’t leave anything on the table, like just use all your good ideas and hope that if you get another season you’ll come up with more good ideas. Just like –
Geri Cole: Okay. Yeah.
Lang Fisher: Throw them out there. Don’t save anything.
Geri Cole: Yeah.
Lang Fisher: Mostly because it’s like I don’t have enough good ideas to put them in reserves. It’s like I have to throw everything into the bucket. But yeah, Season Two, when we came back, there was so much going on. Once again, we started in the pandemic and we had long talks about whether or not to make the pandemic exist in the world of Never Have I Ever, and we ultimately decided not to, I think for many reasons. There was a part of me that kind of was like, “Well maybe we shouldn’t. Like maybe when we air, it will be really important to see these teens dealing with this stuff.” But I’m really glad that we didn’t because I think people just needed relief from it. I think a lot of shows have bravely dealt with it and have people in masks, but I think there’s like sometimes you just kind of need a break. So I’m sort of glad we just kind of like stuck with our normal world where COVID doesn’t exist.
I think we kind of felt like … We started our discussions with the emotional story, so it was like, okay. She has this big catharsis at the end of Season One where she sort of deals with … She accepts that her dad has died and she shows up and they have kind of like a memorial service on the beach with the family, they toss the ashes into the ocean. But we wanted to make sure, it’s like she’s not going to be immediately fixed. Like grief isn’t just like check we did it, but I think in Devi’s mind that’s what she wants it to be. She wants to be like I’m all better now, I did it and now I’m better, and that’s just not how it works and so we kind of wanted to play out how that grief can manifest in other ways, how she is still trying to find her way through it and also just trying to move into this new chapter of her life where he is really gone and she and her mother are now this unit and we obviously, our show really hinges on this love triangle. So we were like what happened to that.
Geri Cole: Always got some questions about the love triangle.
Lang Fisher: Oh sure. Who doesn’t love a love triangle? But yeah, I think we really … We started from a place of where emotionally is she and how would that make her behave. So in many ways, we kind of are looking at the first season as her being in sort of denial and kind of shoving this stuff off and then I think the second season a little bit is some aftermath. It’s a little bit like she is kind of depressed and she is acting out and she does make these aggressive mistakes because she is in a lot of pain still. So she lashes out at people and I think hopefully what I’d like to see as we go forward and start thinking about Season Three is like we want to watch this character grow. We don’t want to see her make the exact same mistakes all the time. We never want her to not be herself. We don’t want her to all of a sudden not have a temper but you want to watch her move through this because I think it is important for us to show a teenager who is in the process of therapy and have her make progress and mature and sort of like heal some. I think it’s important to show that. But yeah, I think we always want to start from a place of where is she emotionally at the start of a season.
Geri Cole: It’s really interesting to talk with you about it and how it is so much rooted in grief, because it’s so funny. And so you sort of like … It’s a really funny show and it’s like, “Oh right, but so much of it is rooted in her grieving process.” I actually want to talk a little bit because the other thing that I … I mean there’s so many things that I love about this show. One that this character is so flawed and that’s just … Like a young teenage girl being … Yeah, like you were saying, like not the most popular girl or not a shrinking flower but she’s just like a normal person and flawed, but also talking about the tone of the show, which I feel like is super special because it’s a show … It feels like a very modern show about teenagers but it’s not Euphoria. Which is no disrespect to Euphoria, I also love that show.
Lang Fisher: Me too.
Geri Cole: But it’s not that. Can we talk a little bit about how you developed the tone of the show and it’s like what is technically the demo for the show? I mean I feel like I’m in the demo but –
Lang Fisher: Thank you. We want you in our demo.
Geri Cole: Is it supposed to also be for teens? Yeah.
Lang Fisher: It’s interesting because I think … I mean I’m a big an of teen shows and I think that’s why Mindy reached out to me to like work on this project with her. But a lot of teen shows are dramas and I think there’s weirdly something like in these teen dramas that makes people want them to be really sexy and like edgy and like dark or like vampires. It’s like there’s something about … I don’t know if it’s a nostalgia thing about thinking back about like youth or there’s something … Because it’s weird, you don’t see very many like college shows. It’s almost like the mystique dies when people go to college. But I think for us, Mindy and I are both comedy writers and so obviously this was going to be a comedy but I think we really wanted to root it as close to reality as possible. Because I think the comedy of how teenagers actually are is like so much funnier than making them like adults. Like making them like … Certainly like Riverdale is sexy and people are … A 16-year-old girl is wearing like a power suit. But I wore like really ill-fitting cargo pants in high school and –
Geri Cole: Yes. Until I was 30, if we’re being honest.
Lang Fisher: Yeah. And I had like no idea how to do my hair, still don’t. Truly, just was like awkward in my own body. And there’s so much comedy in that. So I also sort of feel like in some teen shows, you can hear the 40-year-old writer behind the words of the teen actors and it’s just like … Did that 15-year-old just like naturally say the word unscrupulous or whatever. It’s like that’s not what they would say.
Geri Cole: Yeah.
Lang Fisher: So we wanted them also to really sound like actual teens and I hired quite a few young writers to be like, “What is slang right now?” Because I don’t know what it is, like I’ll make it up. Occasionally I’ll just ask [inaudible] lead, I’m like, “Is this correct?” She’s like, “I wouldn’t say that.” I’m like, “Okay. What would you say?” But when I see shows where like 16-year-olds are like … Listening to 90s music and using really big words, I’m like, “No no. That is the 40-year-old. Like that is the writer. I’m sure there are teens that love throwback music or whatever but when it’s so pervasive.” So it was like very important to us to have current music, current slang, and to not make them too mature. Like I like that Devi makes really selfish decisions and we obviously want her to grow but I like it because that is what teenagers do. They were just children one second ago and now just are like … Still have like not quite fully developed brains and like adult bodies. So they just do crazy things.
Geri Cole: Yeah, and this is when they learn, hopefully. This is the first opportunity they have to learn, that this was a bad decision.
Lang Fisher: Exactly. And to answer your second question about the demo, it’s all over the place. I mean I think we are very popular with teens but I do think like we have a lot of adult viewers, and every now and then there’s someone like wild. Like the reason Common was on this season was because like … I heard through someone else that he was a fan of the show, and I was like, “Common is a fan of our show?” So we like reached out to him and he was like, “I’d love to be on it.” And we were like, “What? Yes.”
Geri Cole: That’s amazing.
Lang Fisher: Please.
Geri Cole: That’s amazing.
Lang Fisher: So it’s like … I think our goal is to have someone that everyone can kind of identify with and a lot of times sometimes I make jokes that … For instance in like the old Gossip Girl, like the one from the early aughts, there would always be like an occasional Rufus and Lily episode and you’re like, “I don’t want to go off with the parents.” Like why? Why do we have to go off with the parents?
Geri Cole: I don’t care, yeah.
Lang Fisher: You’re like, “Take me back to the sexy teens going to fabulous parties.” But I think in our show, like if any teens listen to this podcast, I’m sure they’re like, “No. Stay away from the adults.” But it seems as though … Like people do identify with Nalini, the mother character, and do like to see her story and Kamala, the cousin. So I think there are characters that kind of reach outside of just the normal teen demo.
Geri Cole: It’s [inaudible] bring up the family because I feel like that’s another thing. Like this show is technically about teenagers but so much of it is also about family dynamics. So I wonder how much of each character’s … Like did you have their family dynamics written out beforehand or was that a thing that sort of was discovered in the room as you were writing the season? Because like with each character, I feel like you get such clear family dynamics and how that affects the character.
Lang Fisher: It’s sort of evolved. I mean I think we always kind of imagined … I think when we broke Season One, we wanted a situation where Nalini and Devi did kind of butt heads and it was clear that Mohan, her father was the peacemaker and once he’s gone it’s like these two people who don’t quite get each other and having to overcome that. Because Melanie has a very rigid idea of how people should be and Devi just isn’t wired that way. I think Kamala started out almost just as like a foil for Devi, like just as someone to like make her freak out but as you find out about anyone, nobody’s perfect and as we’ve sort of expanded her role on the show and who she is as a person and we sort of have gotten to see her personality, the nice thing about Kamala is that like we have some nice moments in Season Two where like Devi actually gave her advice and helped her stand up for herself and the fact that they can kind of like learn from each other now is really nice and we also added the grandmother this season who …
Ranjita Chakravarty who plays her is like truly the best. [inaudible] so funny and so great and just was so game, but it was just nice to add even another generation and then I think exploring sort of s a multi-generational household and those relationships was really fun for us. But I think it’s always kind of evolving the more you get to know the characters.
Geri Cole: So I also feel like I have to ask you, even though I’m sure everyone is asking you about the narrator.
Lang Fisher: Oh sure.
Geri Cole: Which is famously John McEnroe, though there is Andy Samberg and Gigi Hadid also guest stars, narrators for different characters. I feel like when you … Like it seems ridiculous, but it works so well –
Lang Fisher: Thank you.
Geri Cole: How you guys develop this aspect of the show and like where did that idea come from.
Lang Fisher: You know, I think we like initially just really wanted a narrator because I think teenagers are so insular and they don’t … They’re not good at expressing themselves and so to get in their brains, it’s nice to have a narrator and I think a lot of young adult shows do this. You think like The Wonder Years and I feel like a lot of them have these narrators just so you can know what they’re going through, what their inner turmoil is. So we kind of decided that we would do that but then I think when we were really having this discussion about giving her a sort of rage problem. We were like, “Well who is the human embodiment of rage.” And Mindy was like … I mean both of us come from families who really like are big fans of tennis, but Mindy made the point that I think a lot of …
She felt like a lot of like Indian-American families are like tennis fanatics and so it would be nice if we made Devi’s father also one and a big fan of John McEnroe and then it would sort of tie these two parts of her together I mean this temper but also it would be like a link to her father. So we were very surprised when he said yes to it but he is great and it does just add this other dimension. It also helps us bring in like the dad demo. I feel like we have like … Dads are just like, “I heard John McEnroe was on your show so I watched it and I enjoyed it.” Like, “Thank you, sir.”
Geri Cole: Nice.
Lang Fisher: But no, I mean he’s so wonderful and I think it just adds this dimension that is so nice, because you get the feeling that like this anger she has inside of her has a life of its own because of John and also it’s just fun to hear John McEnroe have like very strong opinions about the cutest boys in school and if someone’s mean to Devi. Like just like high school politics coming out of his mouth is so funny. Like as if he cares so deeply about this public high school in the Valley.
Geri Cole: It’s so silly and so fantastic, because it works so well. It’s one of my favorite parts of the show. So I do actually want to talk a little bit about your career. I feel like you’ve had an amazing comedy writing career. Can we talk a little bit about your background and when you knew you wanted to be a TV comedy writer and what you feel like were the moments that like helped you get to this place?
Lang Fisher: Sure. Yeah, I mean, in college, I wasn’t like confident enough to major in writing or English or theater or film or anything, like I really was … I was like I don’t know, I can’t do it. So I majored in international politics which I have not used. But I did get like a … I went to Columbia and we had concentrations which are kind of like minors but I did a concentration in creative writing. But I did a lot of improv also in college and then afterwards, and I really … For a while I thought I wanted to kind of be like a performer and I did some standup, but it wasn’t until I kind of ended up in a writer’s room that I was like, “Yes. These are my people. This is what I want to do.”
So I did a lot of like weird freelance writing things in my twenties for different like blogs or like websites for things. But I didn’t really get my first actual writing job until I got hired at The Onion, and I honestly got hired there because they were starting a new division which was like The Onion News Network. So they were making like the web videos and they ended up hiring I think like six or seven improvisers to try to figure out these web videos. I think people who had like sketch comedy backgrounds because that’s kind of the world that it was. So I did that, I mean at first it was like a one day a week gig and then you would submit a lot of ideas and headlines, which is what you did at The Onion, you write like a million headlines and those can either turn into a story but most of them are thrown in the trash.
So I did that and I was not confident that I was good at it and honestly I’m not sure I was. Sketch comedy is so hard, but I managed to not be fired and I worked there for probably like six years and then at one point, like the end of my time there, we ended up having a couple of television shows, one on IFC and one on Comedy Central, and so I wrote for the IFC one and that was sort of my first television show and then from there I was able to get an agent and be submitted for sitcoms and so I got the break of a lifetime and ended up being on the very last season of 30 Rock, and I think that was the biggest turning point and in my brain I think like …
The best pieces of advice that I can like give to someone like trying to make that jump is just to really be clear with your representatives about what you want to do. Like to be like, “Listen. I want to try to do something that’s like sitcoms. I want to write comedy for television. But in many ways I feel also like I got kind of lucky. It was like the right timing, and I also think that like Kay Cannon, who is like a dear friend, had just left 30 Rock because she was moving to L.A. and part of me feels like they were like, I had kind of a similar energy to her and so they were like, “Okay, you can come be a part of the show.” But yeah. I don’t know if I have like great pearls of wisdom of how to do anything.