Comedy auteurs who write, act, direct could hit Emmy jackpot
LOS ANGELES — When Emmy Award nominations are announced Thursday, multiple champagne toasts may be in order for a multitasking troupe of sitcom stars.
Aziz Ansari, Donald Glover and Issa Rae are among those who lead shows they also created or co-created, write and sometimes even direct, and who could reap a welcome embarrassment of Emmy riches.
They are TV’s comedy auteurs, with people of color and women well-represented in their top ranks. While it took the industry decades and new platforms like streaming to give them opportunities, the TV academy isn’t wasting time in granting deserved recognition.
As with its big-screen sibling, the Oscars, the Emmys are under pressure to give diversity its due, said Tom O’Neil, author of “The Emmys” and editor of Gold Derby, an awards handicapping website.
“The Emmys need to demonstrate that they’re relevant in a modern, rainbow-spanned world,” O’Neil said. “If they fail, then liberal Hollywood looks like all talk, no sincere action.”
“Master of None” is the brainchild of Ansari, the South Carolina-born son of immigrants from India, and Alan Yang, his Asian-American creative partner. Glover’s “Atlanta” and Rae’s “Insecure” reflect their perspectives as African-Americans.
Netflix’s sophomore “Master of None” already boasts a 2016 Emmy for Ansari and Yang for best writing, as well as nods that year for best comedy series and for Ansari as actor and director.
FX’s “Atlanta” and HBO’s “Insecure” are in their first year of competition, with Glover already the winner of a Golden Globe in January for best comedy actor and Rae earning a Globes nomination as best actress.
The matriarch of this expanding auteur family, Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” is in the running for its sixth and final season on HBO.
The Emmy Awards are set to air Sept. 17 on CBS with host Stephen Colbert.
“Definitely, ‘Girls’ was really influential,” said Yang. “When was the last time a female creator in her mid-20s got to make her own HBO show? That doesn’t happen. You might have a 25-year-old star, but to have that person also be creator and director and writer, it showed it could work.”
While the series was pivotal for the multi-talented Dunham and other women hoping to follow her, it drew fire for its all-white lead cast. Ethnicity remains TV’s bigger hurdle, as it has from the medium’s early days.
When “The Dick Van Dyke Show” debuted it 1961, it was creator Carl Reiner’s second stab at the sitcom. The first, a pilot titled “Head of the Family” and starring Reiner as Rob Petrie, didn’t evoke network interest.
In interviews, Reiner has said he realized he was wrong for the role of a New York City comedy writer and family man. Reiner, who is Jewish, certainly wasn’t right for TV then: The year the show debuted, virtually all family sitcoms featured stringently non-ethnic characters with surnames including Cleaver (“Leave it to Beaver”) and Nelson (“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”).
As TV and culture historian David Marc observed in a 1989 article , America as depicted in 1960s sitcoms had become so white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant that, on “Father Knows Best,” the Anderson family’s “seemingly Hispanic gardener (played by Natividad Vacio) goes by the name of Frank Smith!”
Two sitcom-topping comedians, Lebanese-American Danny Thomas and Joey Bishop, who was Jewish, were the rare exceptions, while no shows about black, Asian or Latino American families aired until “Julia” arrived in 1968 with Diahann Carroll starring as a widowed mom.
Fast forward to today. Getting Ansari cast in “Master of None” wasn’t an issue, Yang said, given his credentials as a writer, a stand-up comedian and an actor on TV sitcoms, including “Scrubs” and “Parks & Recreation.”
Put his experience together with that of Yang, an executive producer on shows including “Parks & Recreation,” and “Master” proved to be “one of the easier sells,” he said.
The distinctive voice that Ansari had developed through his comedy gigs was part of the appeal to Netflix: “It’s the specificity and of the point of view, and the authenticity,” Yang said.
The current welcome mat for diversity was the result, first, of lobbying by civil rights group dismayed by the predominantly white casts on broadcast networks, which now boast inclusive shows such as ABC’s sitcom “black-ish” and NBC’s drama “This is Us,” both Emmy front-runners.
But it took the expansion of cable and streaming to widen the field and give more opportunities to more unique voices.
Among them: Comedy Central’s “Broad City” from Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson; Tig Notaro’s “One Mississippi” and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag,” both on Amazon; BET’s “Real Husbands of Hollywood,” created by and starring Kevin Hart, and Jill Kargman’s “Odd Mom Out” on Bravo.
Kargman, who created, stars in and helps write the show about a square peg in the world of upper-crust Manhattan mothers, said the cable channel readily took a chance in 2015 on a 40-year-old writer who wasn’t a professional actor. The show begins its third season Wednesday.
“Bravo is so used to plucking people from obscurity and giving them reality shows, I don’t think they batted an eye,” Kargman said. The channel’s flexibility, coupled with the pioneering work of Dunham and others, made this “the right time” for her and “Odd Mom Out.”