She Got Problems: A Q&A with Alison McDonald
Alison McDonald merges comedy, female heroines, and the single black experience in the webisodes "She Got Problems" and "Alison is Having Really Bad Day." Her videos, which are "trailers" for a complete series, portray the strong black female protagonist that is largely absent from pop culture. Currently studying with the hilarious Upright Citizens Brigade and boasting an impressive résumé (writer for Everybody Hates Chris, Nurse Jackie, American Dad!, a Fulbright Scholar, and graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and Columbia University), McDonald not only writes and directs, but also acts and can without a doubt carry a tune.
In the style of French films and the comedy of Bridesmaids and Flight of the Concords, McDonald blends interviews, musicals, and a whole lot of self-deprecating humor about love and being a single black woman to a web series that is quirky, fresh, and ready for primetime. McDonald spoke with Bitch recently about her project, the Girls race controversy, and the future for black women writers and comedians.
I thought "She Got Problems" was hilarious and your character reminded me a little of Liz Lemon, which Tina Fey claims is based on a version of herself. How much of the show is a mockumentary of your life? How did this project come about and why did you decide to incorporate a musical aspect?
All I've ever wanted is for my wretched love life to serve some higher purpose. If it makes you laugh, my work is done.
"She Got Problems" is entirely inspired by actual events! (I don't think I'm emotionally evolved enough to "mock" my life; I'm merely lamenting it.) The monologues that bookend "She Got Problems" are blow-by-blow accounts of the most catastrophic date since the dawn of time. Well, it's a photo finish between that date and the really romantic one I had on my friend's SoHo rooftop—until the cops suddenly descended upon my boyfriend and me, brandishing their guns and screaming for us to put our hands in the air. You'll have to wait for the series to launch in order to get all the details, but I promise it's a rib-tickler.
The two "trailers" I've written and directed ("She Got Problems" and "Alison Is Having A Really Bad Day") aren't traditional trailers, in the sense that they aren't montages of scenes from the first two episodes. The thought behind making them was to establish the series' wantonly whimsical tone, and to illustrate the range of musical numbers "She Got Problems" will feature: from Busby Berkeley spectacles to steamy tangos.
Incorporating a musical aspect felt true to the heroine's unsinkable spirit. No matter how much shit she steps in, she just pretends it's glitter and keeps on strutting! Also, musicals are intrinsically American, like apple pie, baseball, and jazz. When Jay-Z produces a musical (Fela), and Trey Parker and Matt Stone become the toasts of Broadway (Book of Mormon), you know there's no demographic to whom musicals don't appeal. To those of you reading this and saying, "I hate musicals," I will win you over with my jocund spirit and my limited vocal range!
The media likes to pretend that successful women in comedy are a new phenomenon, but women have been doing comedy for ages. What has your experience as a woman of comedy been like?
While I do study improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade (Amy Poehler is one of the school's four founders—and she still performs there!), I've never had the masochistic impulse to attempt stand-up. As such, I've never had the pleasure of refuting some asshat who claims women aren't funny. I can speak to the challenges of being a woman comedy writer. It absolutely remains a male-dominated realm. However, with recent shows like New Girl, The B in Apartment 23, and The Mindy Project, the paradigm has finally begun to shift (permanently, one hopes).
You've said—and statistics confirm—that the likelihood of a studio hiring a black woman writer for a production is virtually nonexistent. What do you think the future for black women writers (and women writers in general) is in Hollywood?
With the sole exception of The Mindy Project, I'm unaware that any of the new pilots [for the fall season] were written by women of color. Speaking about black women specifically, Shonda Rhimes' singular success hasn't trickled down to other black women writers in the realms of network or premium cable. While a few black women writers get staffed on network and premium cable shows, they don't get the opportunity to create their own.
Acting runs in your family; your sister is actress, Audra McDonald, famous as Dr. Bennett on the medical drama, Private Practice, and your writing and acting credits span from animated comedy to drama. How is the dynamic different between being a black woman in comedy as opposed to drama?
That's a very interesting question—and one I've never been asked before. I think the controversy that surrounded The Help speaks to this and the larger issue of the limited ways in which black women continue to be portrayed in popular culture. The two most common adjectives used to describe black female characters in pilot descriptions, casting breakdowns, etc., are "sassy" and "streetwise." It sounds like a joke, but I'm completely serious. Of course, the image of the dutiful, humble maid has been with us for nearly a century. Audra is one of only a handful of black actresses of her generation who have amassed impressive bodies of work while managing to elude racial profiling. Training in the theatre is essential; at some point, you're going to do the Greeks, Shakespeare, August Wilson, Susan Lori Parks, etc., which sets a precedent for all of your subsequent work. After playing great roles, it's harder for casting directors to see you as a weave-snatching ho. Don't get me wrong, commercial theatre isn't an Eden of equality, but it's less prejudicial than film and television.
I'm fortunate in that I've been able to write across genres—and that was entirely intentional on my part. I naturally gravitate toward comedy, but knew I could write drama as well. After writing on three comedies, I wrote an hour-long spec pilot, which landed me my first job writing on a procedural. You have to challenge yourself continually, which is why I embarked on this quixotic quest to get "She Got Problems" produced. Well, I hope it isn't ultimately quixotic. This will not be a dream deferred!
Conversations have been exploding around Lena Dunham's Girls on HBO because of the show's lack of racial diversity. On NPR's Fresh Air, Dunham responded: "Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like—not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn't able to speak to." What do you think about her response? Will there ever be a non-token space for black women and men in television?
Lena's responses have been contradictory regarding the show's lack of racial diversity. In an earlier HuffPost TV interview, she's quoted as saying, "…When I get a tweet from a girl who's like, 'I'd love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color.' You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I'll address that."
However, in a more recent interview with the New York Times Magazine, the author asks, "The show has received a lot of criticism for featuring no characters of color. Should we expect to see an episode in which the girls get a black friend in Season 2?" Lena responds, "That would be bananas. I mean, it's not going to be like, 'Hey guys, we've been out looking for a black friend or a friend in a wheelchair or a friend with a hat.' The tough thing is you kind of can't win on that one. I have to write people who feel honest but also push our cultural ball forward." The show's lack of racial diversity is either something she wants to address, or to do so would be "bananas"; it can't be both. She could simply say: "This is the show I wanted to write, the themes I wanted to explore, and the characters through which I wanted to explore it." Anything else sounds glib and disingenuous. The "I just write what I know" defense is also rather specious—taken to its extreme, it's absurd. Novelists who write historical fiction aren't time travelers, nor did George Lucas exist a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Writers are only limited by their imaginations and prejudices. A showrunner doesn't walk into the writers' room on the first day of work and have it suddenly dawn on her/him that s/he's only hired white people. These are deliberate decisions, so own them.
Okay, your Twitter relationship with Blue Ivy™? Explain.
I'm not sure I can explain what I don't entirely understand, but I'll give it a whirl. When I decided to start a Twitter account, I wanted to avoid the Seinfeldian observational comedy trope. A few people—Seinfeld, most notably—can write it well, but in the hands of most people it's mauled. At the time, Beyoncé had recently given birth to her daughter Blue Ivy and, of course, the world went nuts. It occurred to me that someone whose birth was heralded as the second coming of fabulousness could make an interesting comic foil. Moreover, the idea of picking a fight with an infant really appealed to my imbecilic brain. She's become such a fun character to write: she's imperious and entitled, but she's nobody's fool—and she takes quite a few shots at me as well. Until I get served a cease and desist order, it's a nice respite from agonizing over story structure.
Thanks Alison for talking to us! You can learn more about Alison McDonald and her work by visiting her website.
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