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  • The Culture Behind Closed Doors:Issues of Gender and Race in the Writers' Room
  • Felicia D. Henderson (bio)

I was torn between preserving my femininity and preserving my career.… Too combative and I would lose my femininity, a little too much delicacy and I could lose my career.

Lucille Kallen, writer, Your Show of Shows (NBC, 1950–1954)1

The room doesn't care if you're Black, White, male or female. The best joke makes it into the script. The writer who pitches the best joke most often, suddenly finds himself with a big show, making big money, living in a big house, driving a big car. It's really that simple.

Kenya Barris, writer/consulting producer, The Game (The CW, 2006–2009)2

The writers I hire have to keep their personal issues out of the writers' room. You don't get to make your problems everybody else's problems. When you walk into that room, I should have no idea what's going on in your personal life. If it doesn't help make the script better, it doesn't belong in the room.

Joel Wyman, head writer/executive producer, Fringe (FOX, 2009–)3

According to television comedy writer Daley Haggar, "if you're not comfortable with sexual humor or with crudeness or with all sorts of people being really honest about certain emotions, then yeah, this job is not for you."4 As a scholar who is also a television writer, I concur with Haggar's assessment. I have been employed [End Page 145] on the writing staffs of six prime-time sitcoms and three one-hour dramas. By the time I embarked on my doctoral study at UCLA, I had been writing and producing television shows for thirteen years. In fact, I was a consulting producer on the CW's Chris Rock co-created sitcom, Everybody Hates Chris (UPN/The CW, 2005–2009), when I began the first year of the PhD program.

No experience I have had on a writing staff has been exactly like any other experience I have had. Every show's culture is unique. On one of the most wholesome family sitcoms, I encountered daily ribbing by the all-male writing staff for not laughing at every joke about male genitalia. On my first one-hour drama I found myself in a political power struggle with an executive producer who did not believe I should have input equal to his regarding the show's creative direction. (The fact that I was responsible for the creative development of the show and had written its pilot script was not reason enough to value my input.)

Because I have been writing, directing, and producing television for so many years, my critical perspective on production culture, specifically the writing of prime-time television comedy, is deeply reflexive and autoethnographic. Anthropologist Deborah E. Reed-Danahay defines autoethnography as "a form of self-narrative that places the self within a social context. It is both a method and a text."5 Further, she contends that "one of the main characteristics of an autoethnographic perspective is that the autoethnographer is a boundary-crosser, and the role can be characterized as that of a dual identity."6

It is as a "boundary-crosser" that I approach this essay. My goal is to use my dual identity as a veteran television writer and scholar to give writers and producers a critical voice in production studies. I approach the topic of writing for prime-time television through an analysis of archival data, ethnographic study, and my own experiences in writers' rooms to investigate the rules, roles, and rituals that exist in the writers' workspace. This workspace is commonly known as the writers' room, or simply "the room."

The Writers' Workspace

The writers' room has long been a source of fascination for both media scholars and the popular press. In an effort to explain the relevance of this sixty-year-old private and protected workspace tradition, I explore here some of the cultural activities and social relationships of these spaces. The writers' room is half-hour comedy's creative ground zero. It is here that a process of collective decision making that...


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pp. 145-152
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