Wednesday, January 11, 2012

My Five Cents: 'On Writing' with Michael Patrick King...

Once upon a time I was a young wannabe writer with father issues living in New York City. I would rather forgo dinner in order to buy a book or magazine in order to get inspiration; I was terrible at dealing with the opposite sex-- whether romantically or just as friends; and I had a very small, very specific, clique of girlfriends with whom I'd go shopping, to the movies, or out to lunch. I wasn't Carrie Bradshaw-- I was still a teenager-- but I might as well have been. Sex and the City was such an important part of pop culture to be personally because it took, what I consider the quintessential woman, and split her into four: Charlotte, Samantha, Miranda, and of course, Carrie. All of the fears, thoughts, and styles that any and every woman experience at one point or another in her life were magnified and expanded upon week after week by being assigned as a key personality trait to one of the women. For someone who had just about figured out who I was and how I wanted to be, the timing was perfect. I was in awe of Michael Patrick King and the voice he had assigned to modern women-- a voice I had never seen on television before. But today a not-so funny thing happened. While sitting on a panel to discuss his "hit" CBS sitcom 2 Broke Girls in front of a room of a couple hundred televisions critics, King shared his philosophies on writing, and specifically writing comedies-- his current one as the prime example-- and they were so much more archaic than I ever expected.

Indulge me, if you will, as I print King's tainted words from that press conference verbatim, with the most upsetting quotes bolded and some of my own opinions mixed in (but really, I think if you know the show, King's words speak for themselves). I was seriously so appalled by some of the things King had to say-- I just never expected such narrow-mindedness or "old white guy" mentality from him-- to the point where I honestly can't see myself watching and enjoying Sex and the City the same way again.

QUESTION: Michael, the show has become known for its very broad racial and ethnic humor. I was curious about whether you think that reflects the way that New Yorkers in gentrifying neighborhoods interact with each other? And if not, what's compelling to you about imagining that it is?

MICHAEL PATRICK KING: The first thing is that I think that‑‑ good morning. I think that our show is a big ballsy comedy, but it has a bigger heart than it has balls. And I feel that it is broad and brash and very current, and it takes place in Williamsburg, New York, which you know‑‑ if you don't know, all you have to do is Google it, and you'll see it is a complete mash-up of young irreverent hipsters, old‑school people, different nationalities, different ethnic backgrounds, and what our show represents is that mash-up of very current, very young, smart girls and a wide range of characters that come in. We like to say that‑‑ Nina [Tassler] likes to say we're an equal‑opportunity offender. I like to say that the big story‑‑ the big story about race on our show is that so many are represented,* that the cast is incredibly, not only multi‑ethnic including the regulars and the guest stars, but it's also incredibly not ageist. So the big story on our show is we sort of represent what New York used to be and is currently very much still alive in Williamsburg, which is a melting pot.

*My Five Cents: Representing many races still sets them back if you mis-represent them through stereotypes and cartoonish outlines and antics.

QUESTION: In terms of the ethnic caricatures or maybe the broad characters, Nina Tassler said that she's asked you to continue to dimensionalize, continue to get more specific, continue to build them out, in her words. What does that mean exactly? What has she asked you to do?

MICHAEL PATRICK KING: It's an interesting process because, if you talk about stereotypes, every character when it's born is a stereotype.* I mean, this show started with two stereotypes‑‑ a blonde and a brunette. And that implies certain stigmas as well, which we immediately tried to diffuse and grow. And we happened to have Garrett Morris' character, who's an African American. We've done an episode where he has a very personal experience, and you start to see the family showing up around all these characters. Every character on a series hopefully, if you have the journey that everybody would like to have on a series, which is time, you get to shade the characters so they become more and more rounded, a little bit more grounded. A short character like Han will always be referred to as short. There will always be short jokes, the way that Danny DeVito's character in "Taxi" was a short guy. There's going to be jokes. That's what comedy is. You point out the objective viewpoint of somebody else.

*My Five Cents: Even if I believe this to be true, characters still have to be fleshed out from "initial concept" to "script," let alone actual show. Blonde vs. brunette do not a character make, just a "type." That's just Screenwriting 101. If you don't have interesting, unique characters, you don't have anything.

QUESTION: So the network hasn't actually asked you to sort of expand on these characters who may have started off as one-note?

MICHAEL PATRICK KING: I don't think the characters were one-note. I thought the characters were the first note, and as a writer‑‑ I mean, I've had a lot of experience being on shows over years, and what you try to do as a writer and what we try to do as writing staff and what the actors are doing every day perfectly is you grow.

QUESTION: I guess what I'm trying to get at is what the network actually asked you to do.

MICHAEL PATRICK KING: Keep making the show the way you think you want to see it.

QUESTION: But that's not really what she said.


MICHAEL PATRICK KING: Okay. So you're asking me if I was asked by Nina to change the show to make the characters more dimensional? No. The characters are dimensional, and they're seen in segments of 21 minutes, which limits the amount of dimension you can see. So I will call you in five years, and you'll have accrued enough time to figure out if these characters became fully fledged out.*

*My Five Cents: It should, in no way, take five years, ON-SCREEN, to flesh out a character. That's what first drafts are for.

QUESTION: But do you feel happy with the quality of the ‑‑


QUESTION: ‑‑ diner scenes that ‑‑

MICHAEL PATRICK KING: ‑‑ personally thrilled with everything we're doing. I'm real happy with the growth. I feel there is a growth. I feel there's places to grow. I feel we're in the right arena, CBS, who understands what the idea of a big bold joke actually means. I love the fact we're in front of an audience who let us know whether the joke worked and if we're growing in the right direction. I'm really happy with where we are.

QUESTION: As you're developing the characters, do you see the fact‑‑ do you see the need to get away from making vagina references and anal sex references?

MICHAEL PATRICK KING: ...It's 8:30 on Monday on CBS in 2012. It's a very different world than 8:30 on Monday on CBS in 1994. And I feel no need‑‑ I consider our jokes really classy dirty. I think they're high lowbrow. I think they're fun and sophisticated and naughty, and I think everybody likes a good naughty joke. I also think if the show existed only in naughty jokes without pathos,* I would not be happy. So I feel no need to pull away from the brand of "2 Broke Girls," which is basically in‑your‑face girls. It is ballsy. It is right in your face and hopefully funny. I did "Sex in the City" for many, many years. That was a completely different vibration of comedy, and the one thing that they have in common, to me as the writer‑creator of the show, is people pull away from something if it's not in good taste. People lean into something if it's okay, and week after week, more and more people are leaning into "2 Broke Girls." So there's something there that they feel okay about, not something there they feel offended about.

*My Five Cents: But 2 Broke Girls has no pathos...

QUESTION: Mr. King, I think with the Han character, it's not the issue that he's short.


QUESTION: It's the issue that there's so many stereotypical Asian jokes about him. If you had to do it again, would you maybe change that character so he's not such a distraction to the show?

MICHAEL PATRICK KING: I like Han. I like his character. I like the fact that he's an immigrant. I like the fact that he's trying to fit into America. I like the fact that in the last three episode we haven't made an Asian joke. We've only made short jokes.* I mean, you start to see the character, and I like Matthew Moy because I believe Matthew Moy is almost a unique being unto himself. So we're basically writing that character now. I mean, would you say that the blond, rich bitch is a stereotype? Would you say that the tough‑ass, dark, sarcastic‑mouthed waitress is a stereotype? I like all of them. I think they work together as a nice set. Of course, the characters will grow, and I wish we had a lot more time every episode to continually bring out new wings of who these people are, but that's what the series is for.

*My Five Cents: I'm sorry, but if your idea of growth is "graduating from racial jokes to height jokes," you're still just being lazy and taking the "easy" way out when it comes to humor.

QUESTION: So are you‑‑ does that mean that you're not going to go back to the Asian stereotypes?

MICHAEL PATRICK KING: I'm gay. I'm putting in gay stereotypes every week. I don't find it offensive, any of this. I find it‑‑ I find it comic to take everybody down. That's what we're doing...I would say that you could rephrase that being a comedy writer gives you permission to be an outsider and poke fun at what people think about other people.*

*My Five Cents: In relying on a racial, sexual, or "height" joke in order to get the laugh, though, you are not making fun of what people think about other people; you are playing right into what people think about other people by stooping down to their prejudices and comfort level (or lack thereof) with difference. It's lowest common denominator.

If King had offered even an inkling that he was kidding or being glib, that would be one thing. If he was a trained puppet, reciting the company line, that would be another. Neither would be much better, but at least I wouldn't have to think "Oh, how the mighty have fallen." King wasn't snide, nor was he even really defensive when offering comments to critics who have been very vocal about not liking his show. It wasn't his personal attitude that was worrisome; it was his professional one. If he is genuinely happy with the broad strokes stereotypes 2 Broke Girls puts forward, to me that invalidates so much of the forward-thinking work he did with Sex and the City. Both shows are supposed to take place in the exact same city, and yet, they are worlds apart in mentality and tone. If this one had come first, at least I'd be able to assume he gave into network notes in some areas to kick-start his career. This time around, though, is a step in the wrong direction.

Perhaps back in the late nineties, because I got so much personally out of Sex and the City, I put King up on a pedestal. Perhaps in some ways, we all did, as we screen-printed "I'm A Carrie" onto tee-shirts and put the phrase "Mr. Big" into the zeitgeist. Perhaps his "brilliance" and "cutting edge" writing were just puffed up. I'd honestly rather believe that he was never "all that" to begin with than to realize he just sold out.

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