I'm a black, female late-night comedy writer. Stop laughing, I'm serious. We exist.
We're just super-rare. Like a helpful comment on a YouTube video. According to a recent Complex article, out of 155 writers currently working on the top-ten late-night shows, there are only EIGHT women of color. That's about 5 percent. We MUST do better.
How? The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), which is the union that represents TV, film, and some digital-content creators, has proposed a diversity tax credit in New York State that will tangibly increase the number of women and people of color in writing and directing positions. But it's facing opposition, mainly because of ignorance. But more on that in a moment.
First, a little about me. I'm currently a writer and performer on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central. For the first season and a half, I held the title of head writer (the first and only black woman in history to have that title, cough). I was also the head writer for this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner (yes, the N-word one).
I've written on about a dozen sitcoms, sketch shows, and award shows for some of today's top comedians (Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, Anthony Anderson, Mike Epps, and Queen Latifah, just to name several). I went to Northwestern University and Second City Chicago. In short, I'm prolific. And humble.
Comedy is a part of my genetic makeup. My father named me after Robin Williams. So it makes sense that my dream, ever since I was a little girl watching Gilda Radner play Roseanne Roseannadanna on SNL, was to work on a late-night comedy/sketch/variety show in New York City. It took me nearly 13 years of working in the business to realize that dream. It took ten years before I sat in a writers' room with another woman. It took four more before I was in a room with more than one woman.
Which brings me to the reason I'm writing this. If you know anything about late-night comedy or if you just read the first few sentences of this article, you know that the world of late night is dominated by writers who are two things: white and male. I'm lucky enough to work on a show that employs 50 percent women and minority writers, but sadly this is an anomaly in the late-night landscape. Most shows have only one female writer (if any) or one writer of color (if any), with Full Frontal with Samantha Bee being a notable exception, which has about half women writers.
And this isn't just an issue in late night. Women writers and writers of color are chronically underrepresented in television and film across the board (Shonda Rhimes can't do it ALL, people. OK, she can, but she shouldn't have to). While scripted shows tend to be slightly more diverse, only 28.7 percent of television writers overall are women, according to a 2016 report published by the Writers Guild. The film industry is even worse, with women writers making up only 16.9 percent. Minority writers make up 13 percent of TV writers and a measly 7 percent of film scribes. If these numbers don't make you angry, they should. They certainly piss me off.
Now, you might be asking: "Robin, why is it so important to hire women and people of color? White men have been making great TV and movies for years." To which I would politely respond: "Are you an idiot?"
This trend of exclusion of women and minorities in the writers' room and behind the camera as directors needs to change. Immediately. Before this past year, with the rise of #OscarsSoWhite and many artist-activists speaking out, not much was being done. But now the WGAE, in conjunction with several other unions, is proposing an amendment to the Empire State Film Production Credit that could change the culture and the business as a whole.
I'm not going to get too far into the weeds of this thing, but here's the basic deets: out of the current $420 million credit for film and TV productions in New York State, the amendment would allot less than 1 percent ($5 million) to be used as a credit for productions that hire qualified women and people of color as writers and directors. The credit allows $50,000 per writer and $75,000 per director.