Geri Cole: So another thing that I’m very excited to ask you about, this is a question that I like to ask all the guests on the podcast, but I specifically, because I feel like this is also something you deal with in the show, is the idea of success, because I feel like success never looks like what you think it’s going to look like, which is played out in the show. And I’m curious how your idea of success has changed over time.
Lena Waithe: Oh, thank you. That’s a really great question. I like to think I have a very complicated relationship with success. And not just me, I think a lot of people have been forced to redefine it for ourselves. And this is what makes me so sad because I do a lot of mentoring and I talk to a lot of folks, and they’re wanting to break into the business and they want to be successful. And what they deem successful is having a TV show or being at a premiere or getting staffed or having a big house and a car. That’s still the scam America sells us as success.
There’s a Drake, Trey Songz’s song that says like, “I just want to be successful. I want the money. I want the cars. I want the clothes. I want the girls.” We’re constantly being told success means abundance, or people think success means happiness. We’ve always been sold that. And it is a scam that can continue to be sold, because until one has a version of America’s success and realize that it’s not what it’s cracked up to be, they can never learn. It’s almost like people have to become successful in order to realize it is just as complicated, frustrating, exhausting, oftentimes depressing and overwhelming. And then yeah, you have to maintain that success.
So you’re on a treadmill trying to uphold this idea of success and all the while you’re exhausted and you are really able to enjoy it. So I think what’s great about Hattie is that she can look at Ida and look at her house, look at her Tesla, look at her show. She’s like, “You’re successful. That’s my mission is to be you.” But I love that she gets a peek inside and gets to spend time with Ida and Ida gets to remind her, she lives in that big house by herself, and the show has become a job and she no longer has the companion that she once was with.
And you see her, you see Ida… What I love about that actress, who’s amazing, who plays Ida, there’s always a bit of a melancholy. And the thing about Ida, she longs for her younger days when she was in Hattie shoes. And I think that’s what it will always be, it’s like, you’re always… Because I now do that sometimes, I think back when I was first out here with my crew and we were all tired and we were all coming up. Now, we barely get to talk to each other, we’re trying to catch up, “Hey, how are you doing? Just checking in.” Or like, “Oh, I’m over here.” We’ve all gotten so busy, and we’ve all been come “successful,” which is another term for isolated in my opinion.
Because if you think about it, success killed some of our greatest entertainers [Branson 00:23:27], Michael, Whitney, all gone, all successful, very successful. So I think that’s where we really have to redefine it because one of the greatest things that Whitney Houston said in one of her last interviews with Oprah Winfrey, I’ll never forget it. Whitney says to her, she says, “There was a moment in my life where I had everything. The guard was out, the movie was killing, the soundtrack was everywhere, I was married to Bobby Brown, the love of my life, we had our baby. I had all that big, old house, I had all these cars and I literally thought to myself, is this it?”
And I don’t think at the time we were able to really digest what she was saying. I think Oprah was like, “Oh yeah, this is an age old… ” Of course, you thought that was going to make you happy, but I’ve never forgot it. Whitney at the top of the top, she said, “Is this it?” And I think that to me is what I always try to tell young people who come up to me, “Oh, I want to do this.” I’m like, “I’m telling you, you can chase and do all these things, you’re still going to ask, is this it, if you really aren’t emotionally fulfilled.” But it’s going to fall on deaf ears or I hope it doesn’t. But everybody’s relationship with the success is different.
But I can look, I see people who are like, “Okay, I got this award, I got this cover, I got this thing.” And you see them almost treading because they’re like, “Well, now what? What do I do now?” And it’s like, you get back to why you started doing this in the first place.
Geri Cole: So then success would be being emotionally fulfilled?
Lena Waithe: Well, I think success is ever changing. A success is like me getting three pages out. That’s successful.
Geri Cole: That’s right. It’s a successful [crosstalk 00:25:12].
Lena Waithe: That’s a successful day. You know what I’m saying? Me finishing a book I was supposed to read, me finishing a screener somebody sent me the link to, me responding to all my email. That’s a successful day. It’s the small things, it really is. And I think that we sometimes tend to get so caught up in the bigger thing or the finish line or making it. And I will tell, I hate to burst people’s bubble, but I will say, there’s no such thing as making it. You getting a job is not the promised land because once you get that thing… That’s the thing Oprah will tell people when they go, “Oh, it was my dream to meet you.”
She goes, “Well, now you have to dream another one because you’ve done it.” And I think that’s what happens, you look at LeBron and say, “Well, what is there after winning an NBA championship?” You start working out so you can win another one. There is no end. So that’s why find the things that bring you joy and do those things, and that’s success, but it’s an ongoing conversation. And I love talking to young people, and not just young people, people who are older than me who are trying to break in, I don’t believe in that shit like, “Oh, you’re this old, so you can’t do it.”
I don’t give a shit. If somebody who would say 50, who was trying to break into the business in essence that I have a knowledge that they don’t and they have a lot of knowledge that I don’t have in terms of life and living in the world, but I always love talking to the folks because I always say like, I’m just as excited about helping them break in as I am someone else. 40-Old Version is all of those things. I looked at Radha I said, “Why can’t you come and make a movie now, your first feature? Let’s do it.” And what a success has been.
So I’m never one to be like, “Oh, you got to be young.” And people always know, is this just for college students? Or what if I’m 58? I’m like, “So what, who cares. If you’re really into it and you want to do it, let’s go.”
Geri Cole: Oh man, you just brought me to a couple of questions, but one specifically that I do want to talk about is your producing 40-year-old version, and how you are mentoring and helping other artists through.
Lena Waithe: Well, 40-Old Version to me is such a gift, I’ve been friends with Radha for a very long time. We met at the Writers Guild at one of these events, which I’m not just saying that because we’re on the Writers Guild Podcast, but also too… And it was a black event. That’s the great thing, WGA West, I was a part of the committee of black writers and Billy bringing us together, which I still deem to be very important. And that’s how I met Radha at one of those, it was like a panel, I was moderating and things about Empire. She was writing on Empire at the time and I just clicked.
When you see the movie, it’s not impossible to see why I was so obsessed with her and just loved hanging out with her, and the journey of that has just been so amazing. I really got to a place in my career where I was like, “I think I can help you make your movie.” And she was like, “You sure? Okay, maybe.” And I was like, “Come on.” And so I just vowed to find the money, which I did, I put some of my own money into it as well. And I said, “Go make your movie, the way you want to make it, I’ll get out of your way.” Because she had been dealing with a lot of producers that were like, “Don’t do this. You shouldn’t do it in black and white. Do you need to be in it? Should you direct it?”
All these things and I was like, “Do your thing.” I’m like, “If I lose money, it’ll be a bet worth losing.” That’s how I feel. I’m to me, it’s like, “You can’t take the money with you. So why not invest it in people who have a dream that they’re trying to realize?” And also too, what’s so interesting about Radha talking about success, Radha for a long time with this amazing talented woman that people just kept being like, “Oh, she’s waiting for her moment, this and that.” And to me, she had to redefine herself because for so long, she was Radha trying to get this movie made, now, she’s Radha who’s made it. Now, she’s a filmmaker.
And that’s been a beautiful journey to watch because the narrative from before no longer applies. So now it’s about how does she continue to walk forward in that, is again, it’s about success. She’s been very successful, this dream come true. But if Radha was sitting here right now, she’s like, “It’s been the most tricky path to walk because now I have to talk differently and think differently because I’m no longer trying to become a filmmaker, I am one.” And that can be very jarring. And so that’s the other thing too, I try to tell people, I’m like,, “For a long time I had dreams of having a TV show, now, I have a couple.”
You know what I’m saying? But now that’s a norm, and so now it’s about the mentorship. It’s about, even though I was mentoring before, I was a known person, but now it’s about, how do I get specific about helping people accomplish their goals and walk in their purpose, but also not get lost in it? And I think that’s a big part of my mentorship. It’s like, “Yeah, we want to teach you to craft, we want to make sure you could do what you’re doing, you have good etiquette, but at the same time, we want to make sure you know not to believe your hype or the criticism and to remember to go on a date every now and then, or give yourself a massage or something like that.
That’s what we also try to bring is not just you living your best life, but having a good quality of life too.
Geri Cole: Another thing that I do, I just want touch on about success and then we’re going to move on from success, but you were the first black woman to win an Emmy for writing in a comedy series. Thank you for opening that door.
Lena Waithe: Wow, I’m grateful.
Geri Cole: Now that you look back on that moment, does it feel different at all?
Lena Waithe: No. I look back at that moment as a turning point. I hope all those black comedy writers sitting in a room trying to get a joke off, trying to get a pitch in, trying to impress, probably white show runner, you know what I’m saying? And knowing that they got some good ideas in their back pocket and they struggle to get them off, I hope they realize that when I won that award, they all stood with me. And all those that came before me like the [inaudible 00:31:00], the Debbie Allen’s, Susan Fales-Hill. There’s been a lot of amazing black writers, but particularly black women who have been in these writers’ rooms for a long time and just never had the light shined on them.
And so to me, the light that shines off of mine, they should bask in it because I don’t have it without them coming before me. And those that are working along next to me and those that are coming up behind me, we’re a tribe because comedy writers it’s a tough gig, it’s not easy, but it’s one I love, and I’m grateful to have broken that barrier, and I look forward to someone else breaking it after me. But I knew it was a moment, I knew when I was nominated that it was a moment. And also it was a big moment in my career. I was really struggling trying to have some creative control at The Chi, which I didn’t have and I was just trying to make a name for myself.
And that moment being so special, it made everybody pay attention. And in that auditorium where people who were not just rooting for me, but some of my adversaries were people in there who were not being helpful and have to stand up when I won that award. And it shifted things, people were almost like, “So where do I send the apology note to?” Don’t bother, it’s all good. And that for me was a turning point in my career, but it was a big moment, I think, for us as a community and the industry too.
Geri Cole: Absolutely. Absolutely. As you have stated, are very busy, you have a lot of chores, but you also I feel have the impressive ability to go back and forth between drama and comedy. Do you feel there’s a common denominator in the types of stories you like to tell?
Lena Waithe: I think I writing imperfect people, that’s definitely a thread, but also I writing people who are looking for their purpose and those who think they have it figured out. Those are my favorite because… And so in essence, I like writing complex human beings, but I also like for things to be symbolic, I like for things to hit, to surprise you. I think it’s very evident that I’m influenced by a different world, which is a big influence, obviously Hillman grad Productions and Susan Fales and Debbie Allen, all that stuff has been very influential to my writing style and how I want to tell stories.
Because in A Different World, one of my favorite episodes is an episode called If I die Before I Wake where Tisha Campbell plays a young woman who was HIV positive, and the Goldberg as a guest star, as a professor, and the assignment is for the students to deliver their own eulogy. Not a laugh a minute per se, but there’s so many funny moments in that episode, so many heartbreaking moments in episode. A character Gina who was named for Gina Prince-Bythewood, who I used to work for, says, and they don’t protect her in that moment, they make her a person out in the world. She says, “I got to change dorm.” She lived down the hall from me.
And that’s a character that we live with, we see all the time. And then you have Kimberly Reese take her hand and say, “If there’s anything I can do, just let me know.” And she lifts up her hand and say, “You just did.” But then also then you have Freddy come in late, “I’m so sorry. Oh my God.” And just like, “Just in time to get up, sit down.” And she’s like, “What the hell?” He was like, “What did I do?” It’s like they never were afraid to go there, even though it was a multi-cam show. And I think that’s what really was important to me to go, “Oh, just because it’s a half hour, it doesn’t mean it has to be a joke every two seconds, you can sit in a scene.”
And so I’m really grateful to that show, and I love an emotional moment after a big laugh or the vice versa. I love to surprise to people, and I think that’s a big reason why people really dig the shot because we go back and forth a lot. And Twenties, it’s more humorous than anything, but you do get some real moments though that hits you in the gut even for me when I’m watching because I’m like, “Man, that’s real.”
Geri Cole: Especially that moment between her and her mom where it gets-
Lena Waithe: Yeah.
Geri Cole: Which I love that dynamic.
Lena Waithe: Yeah. Because the truth is, I think relationships between mothers and daughters, but particularly black mothers and daughters are very complicated. And I’m always confused when I meet black women who are like, “Oh yeah, my mom’s my best friend.” I’m like, “How? What? What are you talking about?” It’s always been a thing, I’ve never understood, my mom always feels my mom in every sense of the word, where she bugs me, she doesn’t know thing. I’m going like, “What?” And also we’re different, we come from different generations where I believe that following my dream is all there ever was, and for her, she had to sacrifice it in order for us to have a good childhood.
And to her being a good black person meant having a house and insurance and maybe a two car garage. For me, it means to be a rebellious, outspoken person in my life. And so we react to the world differently. And so that’s why we’re going to always bump up against each other. But also too, with Hattie, she got a one-track mind. She’s like, “I got to get this thing. Mama will always be there.” But that’s not always true too. Sometimes when you’re so focused on career, you miss out on other things. And she may look back in regret, skipping out on that, I’ll need a bigger concert. But in this moment in her 20s, she wants to go ahead and take that shot because she doesn’t know when she’ll get another chance.
And those are the things you have to dance between, and I think those are the things we love to explore.
Geri Cole: Speaking of hard decisions, do you have any hard won lessons, things that you wish you had known or appreciated before that you know and appreciate now?
Lena Waithe: Well, this is a big lesson I always tell people at WGA stuff, if you’re a show creator, a new show creator, and you say your show is owned by studio, or you partner with a studio and you’ve taken out to networks, and say network buys it and you need a show runner because very rarely is a first-time creator going to be able to run their own show, that’s just not how it goes. But I would always tell people, never hire a show runner that has an overall at the studio that owns your TV show.
Geri Cole: Why?
Lena Waithe: Because their allegiance is to the studio, that’s who pays them, not you. That’s the thing I think I learned, is that have a show runner that’s on your side. It should be you and your show runner against the world, not you versus your show runner, versus the studio, versus the network, versus your cast because that’s how the show will become something that you don’t recognize. So that’s always the advice I give or if I look back. And take your time, I tend to be very quick making decisions, make sure you vet, you vet, vet, vet. That’s the thing I wish I would have known. And also too, if your work is good enough, you don’t need an army, when you’re walking into a room.
I think a lot of times, especially with newbies, I hear them say like, “I got someone so attached, I got this actor, I got bah, bah, bah.” I’m like, “It sounds like a lot of dead weight to me.” You know what I mean? Pick people that are going to work, not just sit and take a piece of the pie.
Geri Cole: That sounds like very good advice.
Lena Waithe: I learned, I learned.
Geri Cole: I want to talk a little bit about the music in Twenties and actually tie that into your own cultural diet, because it seems you’re pulling from lots of different places and influences on the show. Do you want to talk a little about that?
Lena Waithe: Yeah. Well, for me, we always have great music supervisors and we also have a great person who scored it, I want to give a shout to Amanda who did the music for us there. But I think for me, I do want it to feel a little bit like my playlist, where it’s new stuff, but I’m also a person that will sit here and listen to Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. and things like that, Lena Horne Records. I think, especially because I am 36, I was listening to the stuff my mom was listening to, so we have that mix. I do get nervous for the next generation because we got to remember to play them like, Marvin Gaye, and we got to play the Anitta’s and the Patti’s and that kind of stuff, because otherwise, they’ll just only listen to what their generation is producing.
And it’s like, no, they’re just derivative of what came before them, so know the original stuff. So that’s what we try to play with. And I think we definitely surprise people with the music choices sometimes because people go like, “Wait, what? Is that Frank Sinatra? Is that this? Is that that?” But yeah, the rotation should be dynamic, it should be not all over the place at all, feels it makes sense, but we don’t just want what’s new. And also too, I love to feature artists that aren’t very well-known, I love to have queer artists.
I love to feature artist’s music that you got to go hunt and look for, because it’s also an opportunity for them. It’s like, what’s the point, I could put Drake and Rihanna records on there, cool. That don’t take much time, but also we don’t have the money for that too. But ultimately, that’s easy. You know what I’m saying? Let’s put people on people. And I love when people say, I’m constantly putting my Shazaam up when The Chi is on or when Twenties is on or when Queen & Slim is on. But that was also really important for us to have a soundtrack that people could go to.
Because the music is so beloved, especially with The Chi, we have surprises coming up for people, they should stay tuned, but we want people to feel like the music is a part of the storytelling because it really is.
Geri Cole: Is there a line and/or a moment from Twenties that is especially meaningful to you?
Lena Waithe: Damn near everything is. I love all of it. One of my favorite moments though is when she’s in the store buying Ida tampons and the black dude walks up on her and he misgenders her by mistake. And I think what is expected is for him to be cavalier about mis-gendering her, but instead he goes, “Oh, I’m sorry, I should know better. My brother’s chance. I’m sorry, are you gender queer?” And she’s like, “What?” And she said, “I don’t know. It was like non-binary. I don’t know what that means.”
To me, it is important sometimes to show people something they don’t think is true, that a black who knows how he identifies, but he raises a straight black man who is more educated about certain things than Hattie is, because that also speaks to me being a woman who was a part of the queer community, I don’t know everything about how every queer person identifies. If somebody says, “Lena, talk to me about what it means to be non-binary.” I’m like, “I cannot. I’d rather you speak to someone who that is their experience.” Because I can read up on it, I can do my research, but I’d rather hear from them and understand.
Or someone who is gender queer, like, please explain to me because I want to make sure I’m not defining someone else the way someone else may try to define me. And so that’s why that moment is really important because it shows that… Hattie is like, “Look, I’m a lesbian and I’m a stud, and that’s all I know.” And I think there is that, that exists. She’s not as like as woke maybe as she should be, and this brother who people may think, “Oh, he’s about to talk some shit or say something.” And he doesn’t. It’s like he’s actually too educated for her, and I think I was probably like, “Oh, I wasn’t expecting that little term.”
And so it’s things like that I really love. I also love the ending of the first episode, The Pilot, her walking out, seeing that skyline, the world is her oyster and hearing that amazing song, Hopeless that is tied to Love Jones, and her putting on a jacket that I own. It’s a vintage Whitney Houston tour jacket from I’m Your Baby Tonight world tour that our basic production designer found for her and gifted to me. So that’s how much everybody care, it’s just beautiful. But that to me is such a beautiful beginning, you’re like, “Okay, this girl went back, she did the thing, she got the job and now she’s like, ‘All right, let’s see what happens.'”
That’s the way every good pilot ends. To me, the sign of a great pilot is it ends as a new beginning because that’s the story, you’re about to go on a journey.
Geri Cole: Well, that seems a good place as any to wrap things up. Thank you so much for talking with us tonight, and thank you so much for making the show, I’m so excited.
Lena Waithe: Oh, thank you.
Geri Cole: I’m so excited, I was like, “Oh, I got a new show.” I’m so excited for season two.
Lena Waithe: Season two, we’re going to bring you.
Geri Cole: When is it happening?
Lena Waithe: Well, we’re going to start filming in the spring. Christina Elmore who’s also on Insecure, on our show as well, she is pregnant, so whenever she delivers and is ready to get back to it. But yeah, she’s going to go back to Insecure, obviously, she’s going to come back to our show. So that’ll be in the spring. And I still haven’t even looked at the scripture, I’m waiting until that last moment before the table reads it to get in there and do my thing with it. But we’ve good 10 episodes this season rather than eight, so you’ll get a couple more episodes there.
And I’m going to remember not to be too… Because we’ve had such success with this first season and people love it so much, we want to remember to give people what they love, not veer too far away from what happened in season one, but continue to go deeper into these characters, and just keep it light, keep it funny, but also keep it real.
Geri Cole: Nice. Well, I’m excited for it. Again, thank you so much.
Lena Waithe: Thank you. So good talking to you.
Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writer’s Guild of America East online at wgaeast.org. And you can follow the Guild on social media @WGAEast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. I’m Geri Cole. Thank you for listening and write on.