blackish writers room 2
Inside the writers' room at 'Black-ish'
01:57 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: This story was first published in 2017. Watch Brian Stelter’s CNN Special Report, “The Trump Show: TV’s New Reality,” Friday, July 20 at 10 p.m. ET.

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Comedies mine real life for gems that viewers can relate to

It's all in the details and commonality, say writers of three hit shows

CNN  — 

For a parent, there’s nothing amusing about finding a racial slur casually thrown around in your kid’s text messages.

But it’s an opportunity to have an honest conversation – and if you’re “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris, you can have that conversation with about 7 million people at once.

That’s what happened when Barris discovered an exchange on his daughter’s phone in which a friend was conversationally using the N-word.

First, he talked to his daughter – “I was like, ‘I don’t think Asher should be saying the N-word,’ ” Barris recalled when CNN visited his set earlier this year – and then he raised it with his co-workers: Who gets to say the racial epithet, and who doesn’t?

The result of that conversation was “The Word,” the lauded second season premiere of his ABC series following an affluent African-American family living in a not-so-diverse environment.

“We put it in the show and the kid’s real name was Asher, and he called my daughter, like, ‘Did you tell your dad that I say the N-word?’ ”

Sorry, Asher – that’s what happens when your friend’s dad runs one of TV’s hottest comedies, which is currently up for an Emmy award.

Barris and his team aren’t the only ones effortlessly molding thorny, difficult subjects into award-winning humor.

CNN went inside the writers’ rooms of “Black-ish” and other diverse comedy hits to see how they do it.


For a show about uncertainty, the first season of “Insecure” left no doubt that creator and star Issa Rae brought audiences an inventive, fresh comedy.

Its network, HBO, realized that within weeks of the show’s fall debut and renewed it for a second season. (HBO, like CNN, is owned by Time Warner.)

Back in Los Angeles at the start of 2017, the writers for “Insecure” were already at work on scenes for the second season.

Sitting around a table on the studio lot waiting for a Mexican lunch to be brought in, the diverse group was discussing the character of Molly Carter, played by Yvonne Orji.

Yvonne Orji, left, plays the best friend of "Insecure" star and creator Issa Rae on the HBO series.

On the show, Molly is Issa’s best friend who’s been having a bit of a romantic dry spell. Trying to plot out what comes next for the character, the writers at times talked over each other in their exuberance to share their experiences.

When they get to a potential scene where it’s assumed that Molly doesn’t have a plus one to bring to an event, one female writer piped up, “My mom did that to me once and it pisses you off. Like, you think I can’t get a plus one? I’m getting mad at my mom now just thinking about it.”

Cue laughter from the entire room.

It may seem like a small detail, but that level of authenticity is crucial, “Insecure” showrunner Prentice Penny said. It’s why when he found out Rae was doing a show set in Inglewood, California, he knew he had to be a part of it.

Like Rae’s character, Issa Dee, Penny has worked for a nonprofit and even had an “on fleek moment” in which a white person sought out his knowledge of hip-hop lingo.

Once those yes-it-happened-to-me stories are shared, the real work begins. “It’s almost like taking Play-Doh,” Penny said. “You put it in your hands and you say, ‘This could be anything.’ Then your hands start to shape it into a story. You talk about if this feels predictable (and) how do you turn it on its head. … How do you make it unique or take something they have seen and do it in our way?”

‘Fresh Off the Boat’

ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” has become especially poignant as it gives viewers the chance to see themselves in a show about a Taiwanese family in the US at a time when immigration is front and center on the minds of many Americans.

Randall Park and Constance Wu star in "Fresh Off the Boat," an ABC series about an immigrant family.

The series follows Louis Huang (Randall Park), who moves his family from Washington to Orlando to open up a restaurant as they embrace the American dream. It’s a network comedy, but one that values authenticity over the comfort of viewers at home.

Writer Sanjay Shah is particularly proud of an episode titled “Taiwan” in which Louis wonders whether he made the right choice moving to America after a trip back home shows him new opportunities and makes him realize he’s not an “other” there.

“We had this line where he says, ‘Why did I leave? We are the white people of here,’ ” Shah said. “I can’t tell you how many of my minority friends who watch the show reference that line because they felt that way when they have visited their families’ home countries.”

The emphasis on immigration this season has been very personal for showrunner Nahnatchka Khan, whose family is from Iran. It’s easy, she said, to forget that before “Fresh Off the Boat’s” 2015 premiere it had been 20 years since a sitcom had been built around an Asian family.

“If anything, I want ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ to be remembered as the series that showed people that the experience they hadn’t seen before was (still) relatable,” Khan said. “I think that would be an amazing thing.”


Back on the set of “Black-ish,” Barris said he doesn’t necessarily go looking for story ideas in his everyday life, but they always seem to find him. From there, they make it to the white board in the “Black-ish” writers’ room, where ideas are fleshed out and stories begin to take shape.

Yet his life isn’t the only one that they mine for gold. The room is filled with talented writers who all want their ideas and stories to end up on the small screen.

The writers of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish" share ideas as they get to work on a new episode.

Getting there, though, can sometimes mean opening up with deeply personal stories.

For writer Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry, that’s how the critically praised episode “Being Bow-racial” came to be.

The story involves the family’s biracial matriarch, Rainbow, meeting her son Junior’s white girlfriend, Megan, and things go less than smoothly.

“I spoke about being biracial and my feelings of not being completely open to the idea of my black son dating a white woman,” Henry said. “I think the room was really confused as to how I, as a biracial woman, could say that I had a preference for my black son to date a black woman.”

Not only did the conversation get intense in the writers’ room, but Henry said after the episode she brought her white father to the set and had what was for her an uncomfortable conversation.

It’s those types of stories and the reactions from viewers that thrill Barris.

“That’s been sort of the biggest compliment that I’ve gotten,” he said. “People say I was afraid to talk about this and your show made me open up and have a conversation with my friend or son or whatever, and I think that’s success for us.”