Kaitlin Fontana: You’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. I’m Kaitlin Fontana. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media, discussing everything from pitching to production, from process to favorite lines and jokes, and everything in between. Today I’m speaking with Lauren Ashley Smith, Head Writer and Co-Executive Producer for HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show. Lauren is the first black woman to be the head writer of a sketch TV show, she was also head writer for the acclaimed late night show, The Rundown with Robin Thede. Hi, Lauren.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Hi, Kaitlin.
Kaitlin Fontana: Thanks for being here.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Thank you so much for having me, I’m so excited.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, I’m very excited, because this is the first time that I’m hosting this, and I get to talk to an old friend.
Lauren Ashley Smith: How incredible, congratulations.
Kaitlin Fontana: Thank you, congratulations to you.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Thank you.
Kaitlin Fontana: I’m such a huge fan of A Black Sketch Show, I think it’s fantastic, phenomenal.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Thank you.
Kaitlin Fontana: I’m wondering if, first of all, you could talk a little bit about how the show came to be, and how you came to be involved in it. Just what that process has been like for you.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Well, so A Black Lady Sketch Show came into my life, I would say, what year is it? Last Spring. Robin Thede, who I had met and I had stalked her before I met her, because when I found out that she was the first black woman to be the head writer of a late night show, I was like, “I need to work this with person. I need to …” She was a real benchmark for me, I was like, “That’s the person that I need to be around.” But I was an unrepped writer, and I was doing other non-scripted things, and so I wasn’t really in her orbit. So a friend of mine forwarded me the packet for her late night show, and I submitted. I only submitted, because I was like, “There’s no way they’re going to hire me, because I’m unrepped, and they don’t know who I am. But I’m going to submit, just in case they do another round of submissions, and they have my email, so I get it earlier next time.”
So when I found out that the first black woman to have a late night show, and someone I really liked from The Nightly Show, was having her own late night show, super excited. So then I got hired on her late night show, and I was like, “Things can not get better, this is amazing.” I got staffed, amazing. Halfway through the season, I became the head writer, and I was like, “What is happening?” Things, I thought they couldn’t get better, now they are even better. We developed this great rapport and partnership, and we just really realized we had a very shared comedic sensibility.
After The Rundown got canceled, she met with me, and she was like, “I have this sketch show I want to do over the Summer, and I want you to be a part of it in some way.” I was like, “Cool, cool.” A lot of times people say things, people in the business say things, or they’re like, “I have this thing coming up.” I quickly realized that Robin is not someone that talks about it, unless it is 100% happening. So even that early in the game, she had told me, and she was like, “I don’t know if it’s going to be in New York or LA, but I really have this fun idea.” When I heard the idea, I was like, “This is amazing. How has this not already happened?” It’s such a great idea. The plan that she had and vision that she had for the show in creating it was just so groundbreaking, that I was like, “Absolutely.”
Then a couple months later, she was like, “We’re doing it, it’s in LA.” And I was like, “I’ll be there.” So she laid out her whole creative idea for the show, and I was happy to come on board and help make it happen.
Kaitlin Fontana: I feel like it’s such an interesting thing, I also come from late night, that it feels like such a crap shoot when you are submitting a packet. If you are unrepped, which I was for a long time too when I started writing packets for shows, it feels like you’re throwing your work into this black hole. Was there a point where you … And now you’re someone who’s in a position to hire other writers too, how does that process feel to you now, as someone who went through it, and was like, “I don’t know, we’ll see,” and now you’re on the other side of the table taking in those packets? For those who don’t know, late night packet language is basically a sample of your work in the voice of the show, and it varies wildly depending on what kind of show you’re writing for. But generally speaking, it includes some form of jokes and sketches and monologues, and desk bits, if you’re doing a desk-bound late night show. But for you, what’s that process been like to be on the other side of the table now, as a head writer?
Lauren Ashley Smith: It’s really crazy, and actually until you just said that, I didn’t even honestly think about that ever. So it’s a really good question, because I felt, it really does feel like you put a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of research, a lot of asking friends to read your packets, just to get a chance to submit it. Especially when you’re unrepped, and nobody’s asking for it, so you don’t know if it even is going to get opened. That’s a huge step of faith and commitment, and desire to be in the business and to work in late night. So as someone that now reads packets, I absolutely approach reading them with the same compassion that I would want someone to have read mine.
I try to read all of them, and not try to, I do. I have only ever done blind reads, and I think it’s important to not just go to your typical well when it comes to staffing writers, but to go to as large of a pool as you possibly can, so that you can get … You have to live a life to be a good writer, I think. Not always the people that are living a life are the people that have an agent and a manager, and a lawyer, and all those things. I think that it’s very limiting if you just limit yourself to the people that are just within arm’s length. I like to go the extra distance, because that’s what I would have wanted people to do for me, and what people have done for me, and the only reason why I am in the rooms that I’m in now.
Kaitlin Fontana: I think it’s really telling that the shows that I’ve worked on as well, that have people who are in the position to read, who have had those breaks themselves, are the ones who are like, “Wait, let’s slow down and read everything we get. Not just our friend’s friends’ thing, the other pack of 25 white dudes that submitted for this thing, whose jokes we find hilarious automatically.” But an actual blind submission process is so important, and it pays dividends right away. Tell me about a little bit of developing the voice of the show, because watching it, there’s such an evident joy from all sides. You could tell the people making it are feeling joy, you can tell your director, Dime Davis, there’s a lot of joy in the way it’s directed. There’s a lot of joy in the performances, on the page, you can hear that joy. So tell me about how you guys developed the tone that this piece has.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Robin had a very clear vision about having a narrative sketch show, and having grounded experiences in a magical reality. So when she said that to us, that got my brain wheels turning, and that certainly got Dime’s creative and visual wheels turning as well. I think one of the cool things about developing the tone of the show, and the voice of the show, was that in a writers’ room full of black women, and a very diverse group of black women, it wasn’t just like … I think that a lot of times, if you think of a group of women or people that are all the same racially, that’s not very diverse.
But in reality, we have such a diversity of upbringing, religion, sexual identity, regional identity, the way that we were raised. Some of us are only children, some of us have many siblings, some of us are older in age. So it was such a cool way to acknowledge that there is not just one voice and one experience for a black woman. We contain multitudes.
Kaitlin Fontana: What a revelation.
Lauren Ashley Smith: It’s crazy. As we were developing the voice of the show, the cool freeing thing about that writers’ room, even though we were all so different, there was an immediacy to developing the voice, because we did not have to do the normal emotional labor or translation that you often have to do in a writers’ room, when you’re a woman or a person of color, or a queer person, like I am all three. So for many years in my career, in writers’ rooms, I would have to do, I’d be like, my pitch, I’d have to formulate my pitch, which is a hard thing to do as a writer in general. Because you want it to have a beginning, middle, and end, you want it to be funny, you want it to be on story, you want it to be good for the show.
But what you also have to do when you are someone who lives in the margins, you have to be like, “Here’s the point in my pitch where I explain my pitch to the room, where I translate it for them.” And because so much of our shared consciousness was through the lens of black womanhood, that step didn’t have to happen. Which meant we got to just discover the voice of the show a thousand times quicker, and our pitches were so clear, so distilled down to just the funniest parts. Because we didn’t have to be like, “You know how when blank happens? You know how people treat you this way?” Everybody’s like, “Yeah, girl, I know. Move on.”
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, next thing.
Lauren Ashley Smith: So that was the real beautiful part about developing the voice of the show, because it just trimmed all the fat of the slog that you have to go through in a lot of writers’ rooms.
Kaitlin Fontana: This podcast, over the last few seasons, has had a variety of writers from different backgrounds, film, television, and news and new media, but there hasn’t been a ton of time spent on late night. As someone who’s also worked in late night, I think about that a lot. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about, and I know that this is one of those questions, so bear with me, the idea of crafting a single joke. How do you know when you’ve written a good joke? And I know sometimes it’s a feeling, but from your perspective, as the head writer of the show, when is a joke good and how do you know?
Lauren Ashley Smith: So that’s a great question, because to me a joke, for the most part, because it’s not something that’s quantifiable, it’s not like a math problem where you’re like, “Eight plus eight is 16. It just is. So once I get to 16, I’m done.” A joke is not that way. There can always be a bigger laugh to me, and so a lot of times it’s a moving target. But I will say, and this is something I developed as a head writer, I have a feeling that I get when I know that a pitch is right or a joke is right. People call it different things and stuff, but for me, when the joke is right, literally my vision, the room gets brighter. It’s visual to me, and I’m not a visual person at all. That is not my thing at all, but something about …
When I hear it, the brightness of the room goes up. I’m like, “That’s it.” I feel it. That’s something that I developed probably in the past two years, and that is something that I only got as a head writer. As a staff writer, I didn’t have it. I’d be like, “Every pitch is amazing. All my jokes are good.” Well, no. There’s always room to grow. But in crafting a late night joke specifically, I think that it’s really important to have a shared understanding, so a base reality that everyone can hop onto. A level playing field, where it’s like, “This is our reference point.” And then something that is the punchline, and then what takes that punchline from just a good punchline to something unexpected. How can I take that joke to somewhere unexpected?
One of my favorite late night jokes I ever heard, and I’m going to butcher it, but it is exemplary of a perfect late night joke, was written by Caitlin Bitzegaio on The Rundown with Robin Thede. I forgot what political thing we were talking about, but the show was a perfect blend of politics and pop culture, so we were talking about something political. I think she wrote something like, “This political figure,” like Kamala Harris or somebody, “was just as shocked as Marisa Tomei was on her first day at Hillman on A Different World.” That’s a great joke, but then the joke got better. She goes, “Or as shocked as you were when you just remembered that Marisa Tomei was on A Different World.” Which is a perfect joke, perfect joke, because it had the punchline, and then it took a whole other turn.
The way that Robin delivered it was so great, and it’s one of my favorite jokes that I still get goosebumps. The first time I read the joke, I was like, “That is a perfect joke.”
Kaitlin Fontana: That joke has something that I think is underestimated in the world of late night sometimes, which is it’s inviting the audience in too. I think a lot of times when you watch, and these shows have to happen so fast, and they have to happen without a lot of time to go, “Let’s think about it, let’s make the best version of this we can.” No, we’ve got to go on tonight, it’s done. One of my friends who worked in late night, the best thing I ever heard, somebody was like, “Is this funny?” And he’s like, “It’s done.” Yeah, that’s the vibe. That kind of joke is such an electric thing of like, you’re bouncing your ideas off the audience, but then all of a sudden you’re like, “And now, you’re part of it.”
Lauren Ashley Smith: Exactly. Also, I just realized I really did butcher the joke, because it was “as shook,” not “as shocked.” That makes a better joke, and I’m mad at myself. But I do think too, one cool thing about it being … Because ultimately, it does have to get done, and that’s a true thing. But when you have people that are writing at the level that a lot of these late night shows have, that’s why you do the heavy lifting and the work of finding incredibly, brilliant, diverse thinkers. Because even when it’s done, that’s already hitting at a 91%. So even, a lot of people that I worked with on, all the people that I worked with on The Rundown and A Black Lady Sketch Show, their done is already so good, so when you do have those moments, it’s like it just has to be done, at least you can sit knowing that it’s still an excellent joke.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right. I think comedy writers are very hard on themselves habitually, so they’re like, “Ugh, it’s not good.” And then later, you go back to something, you’re like, “Actually, this was great.”
Lauren Ashley Smith: That was excellent.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, I did a good job. Let’s talk about sketch comedy, because I feel like there’s a fun thing that happens. First of all, we met in a sketch comedy context.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Yes.
Kaitlin Fontana: We did a women’s sketch comedy workshop, that was really fun. I’ll get back to that in a minute, because I want to talk about another aspect of that with you. But I think what’s interesting about sketch comedy is it is pronounced dead every five years by the culture, people are like, “SNL’s dead. Nobody’s doing sketch comedy anymore. Don’t pitch a sketch comedy show. Don’t do this, don’t do that.” So I wonder if you could speak a little bit to that idea that for some reason we keep pronouncing sketch comedy dead, and what is it about this show you think that said, “Not only is sketch comedy not dead, here’s a new way of looking at it, and we’re going to put it on HBO.”
Lauren Ashley Smith: I think that, to me, I think the impulse that we have to pronounce sketch comedy dead is because people love it so much, and because a lot of people come to comedy, and by people, I mean people who do comedy, but also people who enjoy comedy, a lot of people, their entry point to comedy is sketch. Whether it’s SNL, or if you grew up and your first exposure was In Living Color, or any one of those sketch shows, or Mad TV or whatever, your entryway into comedy was sketch. A lot of times, I still think the funniest sketches … Somebody has this theory that the funniest SNL era for you is whenever you were 12, because that’s where you felt it was most accessible and the funniest to you. Nothing will ever be as funny as, for me, Will Farrell, Maya Rudolph, Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon era. That’s for me.
But I also know, obviously Gilda, Garrett Morris, all those people. So I think that because we love it so much, no one, and because so much of it is instant classics, we are like, “There’s no way you can improve upon this thing that I believe has already been perfected, so might as well just call it dead, so that you don’t try.”
Kaitlin Fontana: Right.
Lauren Ashley Smith: But I don’t think it ever dies, I just think that it constantly evolves. And I think that’s been proven with shows like Kroll Show, Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, SNL. The train has kept running, and it has kept just elevating. The things that Key & Peele did visually, really elevated the genre I believe. The things that Amy Schumer did in long form sketch, and really showing that you can sit in a sketch for 20-something minutes, and really make it compelling, and socially relevant, that to me is very much a living thing.
When I look at where we’ve gone and what we’ve done, that’s very much a living thing. So I never even considered that sketch would be dead. The only thing we ever set out to do for A Black Lady Sketch Show was be funny, and that was going back to what I was saying about the writers’ room. When you strip away all those other hurdles of being in a writers’ room or being a creator like Robin is, a showrunner like she is, or being a head writer like I am, and you don’t have to deal with people telling you, “No. You can’t. I don’t understand you. I don’t get you.” The only thing you have to worry about is be funny. That’s it.
Kaitlin Fontana: It’s a very special thing too, to watch. You can tell that there’s a rallying around this idea by the kinds of guest stars you guys are getting, and the kinds of people who are giving you a little nod. It’s the tiniest thing, the end of this last episode that just aired when Lena Waithe is in there for a second, you’re like, “Ah.” But you feel this groundswell of “Hello, of course this is here. Of course this is working, and of course this deserves HBO money.” I wonder, can you describe a little more, dig into the idea of what it feels like to have the special thing of a roomful of black women creating this thing?
Lauren Ashley Smith: It was just the most special. It’s hard to put into words, but I will say that there were two key moments, many key moments during the course of working on this show, but the last day of the writers’ room was just one of the most magical truly impactful days of my whole life. We all just sat around, and these are women … The cool thing about the room too is that we didn’t have to go looking, we didn’t have to do a “It’s your first writers’ room” contest thing. All the women, their credits are unreal.
We have Emmy Winner Ashley Nicole Black, Rae Sanni from The Good Place, Brittani Nichols from Take My Wife, Akilah Green from Chelsea, Holly Walker from The Nightly Show, Amber Ruffin from Late Night with Seth Meyers. The people in the room are incredible writers. So they already had a bunch of experience in a room, they were ready to go on day-one. So to be in a room with that caliber of writer, just in general, was an honor. For it to be all black women was unheard of. The way that everyone felt leaving that room, we just all sat there and cried on the last day.
And not cried because we’re like, “We won’t see each other again,” but cried because it was like, “This was a moving transformative experience.” It made me a better writer, it is an experience that I never thought I would have in my career. We were just so deeply moved by it. So it was truly I think healing in a lot of ways for people too, the magnitude of the moment was not overstated. That was a really impactful moment. And then the first day that we saw a full episode, I think it was episode 101, and they had the credits, and I saw the card that had all the writing credits, and it was just a card full of black women’s names, and I started to cry.
The fact that I’m watching a sketch show that’s going to be on HBO, and every single name on that card is a black woman, I was speechless.
Kaitlin Fontana: And you were there the whole time, so that speaks to the impact that potentially has on a black girl who’s watching the show.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Absolutely. Because I knew the first time someone pulled me aside, back when I was working at VH1, and someone pulled me aside and asked, “Have you ever considered being a writer?” As a producer, you write in, you rough in the VO or jokes, and then the writers would punch it up. And the writer at VH1 asked me, “Have you ever considered being a writer?” And I told him no, because no writer I’d ever met looked like me, or was a woman, or was black, or both, or either. So I never considered it, because I just didn’t.
The only person I could really think of that was even remotely someone I could look to was Tina Fey, because she was a woman, she was the first woman to the head writer of SNL. I thought that was really incredible, and that was something that I looked to frequently. But I just didn’t think that it would happen for me, so to have a show like this and a writers’ room like this that will give a young black woman writer something to look to is not lost on me at all.
Kaitlin Fontana: It’s funny how much, I think it just says creators and writers, and then another layer on top of that is women, need permission. We need someone to be like, “It’s cool, you can do your thing.” I think that’s changing, which is so great. But I think you and I are similar generation, we may be the last generation that we needed permission to do something.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Totally.
Kaitlin Fontana: Which is an awesome thing to have, and now watching something like this, it’s like this is permission for a variety of types of women to make something on their own terms. I think a big part of that is that it’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, it’s not The Black Lady Sketch Show.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Correct.
Kaitlin Fontana: That seemed very intentional.
Lauren Ashley Smith: It was extremely intentional, we went over a lot of different names, and we wanted people to know what the show was that they were going to get, and all that stuff. But we thought about The Black Lady Sketch Show, because then that tells you exactly what it is. But then as we were sitting around the table, we were like, “Maybe we don’t want this to be the definitive, we want it to be A, because we want it to be one of many.” I have full confidence that will be the case.
Kaitlin Fontana: Can you tell me about a day in the life of the writers’ room? I think a lot of people outside of this work, or who are interested, or applying for shows, sending in packets, it remains a little mysterious what a day in the life of a writers’ room looks like. Could you tell us a little bit about how you run your room?
Lauren Ashley Smith: I’ve run rooms a couple of different ways with varying methods based on the timeline, the kind of show that I need to make happen, or whatever. But in general, I would say a lot of the time is spent, we have a meeting in the morning and pitch, and for me, I think it’s really important to give writers time to come up with their pitches. Because I think the best pitches come from having time to sit and think about a beginning, middle, and end, where does it go, what makes it unique, what’s the twist. What makes it specific to the show, what are you trying to say.
If you have that, then that means that when you come into a roomful of six other brilliant people, that they have something to pitch on. As opposed to, they’re pitching on a very flimsy premise, or something. So I believe in giving people the day before, or days before, to come up with pitches. Then that way when we get in the room, we have something to work with, and you know your pitch, that means that I can add my two-cents to the pitch, and that person can, and we know where we’re going. Then for the sketch show, the schedule was pretty tight, so we did a lot of pitching in the morning. And then people, pretty much everybody wrote a sketch a day.
We wrote a lot more sketches than we shot, than we aired. But we had to get, you have to have a bank to go to. So it’s usually pitching in the morning meeting, everyone’s tossing around ideas, then assigning things. People write for a couple hours, we read them, give notes, and then we do it all again the next day.
Kaitlin Fontana: When you’re going from that process to the process of elimination, of saying, “These are the sketches that make it into the show,” and in this particular case, this show has some recurring sketches, and it has a narrative through-line that you follow, how did that cream rise to the top as it were?
Lauren Ashley Smith: Some things were as simple as we wrote a sketch that’s around this celebrity, and they’re going to be in Australia, so we can’t shoot that sketch, because it’s not going to be the same without that person. Or it was what makes us laugh, what feels the most exciting, what makes my vision change, what’s the thing that’s like, “These are all great sketches, but what are the most excellent ones?” A lot of times, that’s where my producer hat goes on and my co-EP hat, because I’m like, “This sketch is amazing, but we can not shoot this in the time that we have, so we have to put this one aside for now.”
There are a lot of factors that go into it. It might be the time constraints, or where we are. If we have something that’s like, “It actually requires you to be in Barcelona, Spain,” we’re not going to shoot it, unfortunately, because we’re not going to Spain. But we did a lot of table reads as a writers’ room, and that helped determine, and that helped determine this is where we need to punch, this is where this needs to be trimmed. A lot of it was like, “We have this many sketches that are this length, so we need some that are this length now.” So it was a lot of different factors, but I really believe in trial by putting it on its feet.
As a writers’ room, we would do a little internal table read, and that would give me a sense of being like, “This one is good, but it’s probably not really on tone for the show.” Or as you start to figure out what’s in the show, it’s like, “Actually this doesn’t quite fit with what we’re doing right now, so we’ll put this over here.”
Kaitlin Fontana: Right. That’s unique too in that, not wholly unique, but I think it’s very uncommon in the contemporary age for a lot of your writers to also be the performers of the show, but also just performers in general. And you, yourself, come from a performance background, so how much does that play into the room when you’re putting something up?
Lauren Ashley Smith: That made our table reads really fun, really fun. And it also, I would hear things in scripts the way that a writer … Because sometimes, I would decide who would be reading things in the table reads, just because I realized doing it Wild West style when you have 25 sketches to get through is just a slog, and I’d just be like, “I’m just going to assign these beforehand, so people know what they’re reading.” That way, people can look over them before, so when they give the joke a real try, that it gets a real chance to live or die basically.
But I would hear things in jokes that I didn’t hear when I read them, and I was like, “That joke is way funnier, because of the way that person performed it.” It would inform things, whether it was the person that wrote it, and also hearing people that didn’t write things, their take on something was really helpful. That was something that was always in the back of my mind in the creative process. Because what I find, and what’s so great about the sketch show is that I have now, my family, my friends being like, “Was this thing an Easter egg? Are these two things connected?” What you see in it, I couldn’t have predicted what you would see or find or dig into.
So that was the same way in the table reads, the writers would hone in on something that I wouldn’t have even thought of, and that would help give us other ideas for whether the sketch recurs, or whether this character comes back in a certain way. Because when you get more eyes on it and get more takes on it, it starts to really become a full three-dimensional character.
Kaitlin Fontana: Then the additional layer of how it’s directed, and one of my favorite ones so far is in the first episode, the sketch about the stealing of the dancing at the club, because it has such a new horror feel to it. It’s a little Get Out. That couldn’t have been represented on the page, other than possibly “It’s like a horror movie.” How Dime then took that and gave it another dimension of lighting choice, and directing choices, is another thing on top of that.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Totally.
Kaitlin Fontana: That’s great. Tell me a little bit about, I know it’s different when you’re a head writer and you’re running a room, but where do you write? When you’re writing for you or when you’re writing other projects, or putting a pitch together, what does it look like in the room where you’re writing? What conditions are you writing under?
Lauren Ashley Smith: I love, and I don’t get a chance to do it as much anymore, I love to write in a reclined position. On my couch, with my dog next to me. There’s one corner of my couch that I wrote a whole script, a whole half-hour pilot in this one little tightly coiled spot on my couch. It’s probably permanently indented on that side, because when I write … I don’t like to write at a desk generally, I like to be in a very relaxed position.
Kaitlin Fontana: Interesting.
Lauren Ashley Smith: What I also do, in general, and I actually realized … There was another writer on Twitter who said that this happens to her, and I was like, “That is interesting, I can relate to that.” What I do is, I do most of my writing not at my computer. If I feel like I am not sure about something, or I’m at an impasse, I’ll go take my dog for a walk, or I’ll wash dishes, or load the dishwasher. Or do something that requires my body, but not fully my mind. Then I’ll come back and write it all, just type it all out on the page.
I can formulate the whole script in my mind, hold onto it, and then just spit it out on the page. I’m not really good at just looking at a blank screen, and being like, “Now they say this, and this person says this.” I really let it ruminate for a while, and then just dump it out. Then get it out, don’t self edit at all, and then go back and take another pass of being like, “This is not good, this too lengthy.” But just get it out.
Kaitlin Fontana: The thing you’re describing, like the walking cure of trying to find the information in your head, I feel like that’s such an unknown thing that no one tells you when you’re starting to write. That you need to actually get up and physically move around and do stuff. Is there a scheduled time? Are you someone who programs like, “Between 9:00 AM and noon, I’m going to sit and write, then I’ll have lunch.” Are you one of those kinds of writers? Or are you just like, “When it comes, it comes.”
Lauren Ashley Smith: I lack, I won’t say I lack discipline, but I definitely lack structure. I don’t like to force it, because I feel like if it’s forced, then it’s not really going to be … I’m good at writing on a deadline for sure, and I can get it done, but in my staff writing days, I’d be like, “2:00, I’m done at 1:59. I have to be done.” So it’s going to get done. On my own, if I’m writing a pitch or a script that I’m trying to pitch or sell, or if I have a little bit more time, I’m just like, “Let me get everything else done that I need to get done, so that when I’m writing, I don’t have other stuff hanging over my head.”
That’s why I’m always constantly walking my dog, because the second I get an idea, he’s going to be looking at me like, “I have to poop.” Then I’m going to be in a bad spot. Let me just walk him now, then I have the rest of the time to do it. But I will say that I do try to experiment with, I’ll use this focus app on my computer where I can’t go on any websites, then I just open up Final Draft, and just keep it. If I can do 20 minutes at a time, 20 minutes at a time, I can get through it, but I’m not a super regimented person.
Kaitlin Fontana: I used to feel like I was failing, if I wasn’t one of those people. Because I heard so many stories about people that were, and heroes of mine who were known for being punk rock type people, like John Waters gets up at 7:00 AM and writes for four hours every day. I was like, “John Waters?” That’s great, but I feel like never was like that, so I felt like a failure.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Growing up, my dad, he’s a writer, he’s a poet, and he was in grad school for nine years, he decided to go to grad school, and he had three young children. But writing his dissertation, and while he was getting his PhD, I noticed my dad would play, I think it was Minesweeper or Solitaire, then he’d write a bunch of pages. I learned I think my habits from him, the way that he would be, sometimes he would be writing at 2:00 AM, sometimes he’d be writing at 2:00 PM. It was based on “When am I getting these kids out of my face? And also, when is the inspiration going to strike?”
I try not to be too hard on myself, because I work really hard when I’m working and when I’m running a room and stuff. Sometimes my time might be better spent, instead of staring at a blank computer screen, my time might actually be better spent watching Below Deck Mediterranean on Bravo, because something might come to me in the way that they’re behaving or talking that might inform a character or something. I’m not going to be hard on myself, because I can always pause it or move away from my little cooking game on my phone. I would always, I remember as a kid, my mom would be asking my dad what is he doing, and he’d be like, “I’m working.” I’m like, “I see him playing Minesweeper.” He’s like, “I’m thinking about a poem, I’m thinking about a paragraph, I’m thinking about a theory. The way to distract my idle hands while I’m working this out is by doing something else.”
So I very much got that from him, and I try not to be hard on myself for being that way.
Kaitlin Fontana: Are there 17 poems in his dissertation about Minesweeper?
Lauren Ashley Smith: Pretty much, yeah.
Kaitlin Fontana: I miss Minesweeper, that was a really fun game to play. Do you listen to music while you write? What are the conditions around you while you’re writing?
Lauren Ashley Smith: I can’t listen to music with lyrics. I went through a phase a couple years ago where I was, especially because I was working in a loud work environment, so I have to have not a lot of dialog noise for me to put words together. I need white noise, I can’t hear words, because otherwise my brain can’t put them together in the way that I want them to. I went through a phase where I was listening to a lot of loud EDM, just noise, modem sounds basically, like Skrillex with no lyrics. That served me well for about two years.
Or what I can do is if I listen to the same playlist so much that the words just become texture, and not words. I can’t listen to new music, I can’t listen to rap, can’t really listen to anything that has a lot of wordplay in it. Then my go-to, there’s this YouTube video, it’s really great, it’s 11 hours long, it’s a wooden boat on an ocean, and there’s rain. It’s great white noise, and it just helps block everything out. I’ve written so many good jokes to that 11-hour YouTube video.
Kaitlin Fontana: Amazing. Who were your heroes when you were growing up? Who were the people that really struck you as inspirational comedy writing figures?
Lauren Ashley Smith: That’s a great question. Because I didn’t have a vocabulary for comedy writing, as I was growing up, I just didn’t know that people made their living writing comedy, so it’s hard for me to say comedy writing wise. I think as I got older, certainly Tina Fey, Larry Wilmore, Robin Thede, Larry David. People that really pushed their … I like people that have a very strong voice, and a strong worldview, and that infuse that into their projects and really push through. Like Wanda Sykes, I really admire that.
But I can’t, I truly didn’t know people, I just thought the people on SNL were just making it up. I didn’t know. I did not know, why would I know that? I didn’t have any comedy writing idols, I didn’t know that it was a job.
Kaitlin Fontana: Until someone asked you, when you were working at VH1.
Lauren Ashley Smith: A little bit before that, but pretty much within that period of course.
Kaitlin Fontana: Which speaking of the VH1 job, this is something I would be remiss to not mention, when you’re someone who’s been in this business for a little while, people will, especially younger students, I teach a little bit, they’ll be like, “How did you get into the business? How’d you get your first job?” I got my first job because of you. Because we were in a sketch group together, as I mentioned before, and you were working at VH1, and I think you said you overheard a conversation where someone’s like, “We need a writer for this show who can write jokes, but also knows a lot about music.”
And you knew that about me, because I had been a music journalist, so you recommended me to that job, which I got. And then I got representation because of it. So when people say, “How did you get your first job?” I say, “Lauren Ashley Smith got me my first job.”
Lauren Ashley Smith: I love hearing that.
Kaitlin Fontana: I remember I brought that up once at a Writers Guild event, and you said, “Yes, I only recommend women and people of color to jobs.”
Lauren Ashley Smith: Absolutely.
Kaitlin Fontana: Tell me more about that.
Lauren Ashley Smith: I got this from someone else, I can’t remember who, but I have two roles. One is from back when I used to do more improv, but I basically, because I was on a house team with the Magnet at the time, and I made a decision maybe six years ago, seven years ago that if my team was up with another team that didn’t have any people of color on it, I was not going to sit in the theater and watch the show. If you invite me to a comedy show and there are no people of color or women on the show, and mostly people of color, I’m not going. Because I’m not going to give my money, time, and energy to something that …
We live in New York City or we live in Los Angeles, you can trip over a talented person of color. If you didn’t put somebody on your show, that was intentional. So I’m not going to give my energy to that. As far as recommending people for jobs, I found, because the higher up I got in television, whether it was as a producer or a writer, I found that the way that people were recommending people for jobs were like, it was white dudes recommending white dudes. Mem recommending men. Or people recommending their friend circle, and just going to the quickest person. The little thing that I can do to help balance the scales, or help further level the playing field is if I go out of my way to only recommend women and people of color. Because I know that whenever I ask for recommendation, I don’t get that.
That doesn’t mean that people, there aren’t talented women and people of color, it’s just for whatever reason, they are not the ones that come into people’s minds first. So I make it my business to say, “This is a person that comes to mind first.” And the other people, the talented white dudes that I know, they will be okay.
Kaitlin Fontana: True.
Lauren Ashley Smith: And there are a lot of them, and I think they’re fantastic, but I only recommend women and people of color, and queer people.
Kaitlin Fontana: Do you feel like that has, since you started in the business, that there’s been a shift that has been noticeable to you?
Lauren Ashley Smith: It’s hard to say. I don’t know. I don’t know, only because … There has been a shift, but it’s not enough, so I hesitate to even say, “Yes, there has been.” Because there’s still so much work to be done, and so much making up for the past to be done, that a shift is negligible.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right, yeah. Unfortunately. I think it’s also, there’s such a nice silo of space for people now in some ways, but that can be misconstrued as there’s more space for everybody across the board. There’s something amazing like A Black Lady Sketch Show, and then people go, “Okay, we did one.”
Lauren Ashley Smith: Mission accomplished, check it off. It’s like, no, that’s not how it works. Because when you do, when one white dude gets a late night show, you’re not like, “Okay, that’s it for the white dudes.” That’s not how it works. I want there to be so much content for everyone. The fact that there still are so few Native writers in late night, I don’t think there are any, and in scripted, the fact that there is such little representation of trans-people in writers’ room, and non-binary people in writers’ rooms. There’s still so much more to be done, that we can pat ourselves on the back, but we shouldn’t.
We should actually use that hand to extend a hand to somebody else and invite them into the system, and the process, instead.
Kaitlin Fontana: Well said. What do you hope to happen as a result of this, I won’t say … Of course, you probably want to season two, I don’t know where you guys are with that.
Lauren Ashley Smith: We’d love that.
Kaitlin Fontana: What do you hope to come after this, A Black Lady Sketch Show? For you personally, and also just for creators and people that you love and work with.
Lauren Ashley Smith: For me personally, my hope is always just to work. I always, whenever I finish a job, I’m like, “I’m never going to work again. I will be a Postmate tomorrow.” I have that mentality, that’s where I’m at. I just hope to get another job, whatever it is, that sounds amazing. Whether it’s the same job or some other job, I just hope to do that. I hope to continue to work with brilliant people like Robin Thede, people that are just so clear in their vision. She particularly is someone who, she always throws the ladder back. She always does, so I hope that as I succeed and as I keep working that I can be that way too. I really look to her as a role model in that way, and I hope to always throw a ladder back to people. Because I’ve been thrown a ladder so many times, and keep getting thrown ladders.
And then for creators, I hope that it doesn’t become a thing where it’s like we have this sketch show, so we’re done. I hope everyone gets hungry for a sketch show that stars people of color, people that are not white cis hetero men. I hope that there are so many sketch shows, I can’t keep up with it. I hope that it empowers black creators, women creators, queer creators, to say, “If there’s a space for this show, maybe there’s a space for mine.”
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Do you have a favorite line, or a favorite joke you’ve written?
Lauren Ashley Smith: Ever?
Kaitlin Fontana: Sure, ever or from the show? Put you on the spot.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Oh my gosh, I honestly could not think of one if … Because I have the whole show memorized, because I’ve watched it so many times, I truly can not think of a single one. I’m drawing a blank.
Kaitlin Fontana: Really?
Lauren Ashley Smith: Yes.
Kaitlin Fontana: Oh my god.
Lauren Ashley Smith: How sad.
Kaitlin Fontana: If you think of one later, we can add it in the social for everything. Lauren, thank you so much for coming and stopping by, and talking to us for On Writing. Thanks for recommending me for my first ever job.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Thank you for having me.
Kaitlin Fontana: Which got me here, and in the Guild.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Absolutely. I’m so glad. Number one, I’m always happy when people ask me for recommendations, and I’m always happy when they take them. I want to add an addendum to what I said, because I only ever recommend women and people of color, and I only ever … I won’t even recommend, because my sister is a writer, I won’t even recommend my sister unless I think that she is perfect for the job. The people that I recommend are people that I believe to be the best, and if you don’t hire them, they’re stupid. That’s always what I tell people when they ask me for a recommendation.
I’m like, “You’d be lucky to have this person, get them now, because you’re stupid, and you’re stupid if you don’t call them.”
Kaitlin Fontana: I like the idea of you ending phone calls being like, “You’re stupid.”
Lauren Ashley Smith: Yeah. Absolutely.
Kaitlin Fontana: Click.
Lauren Ashley Smith: When I recommend people, I do not do it lightly. It is only because I think they are too qualified for the job.
Kaitlin Fontana: Well, that is a great place to end, because it makes me look amazing. Thank you, Lauren, and I hope you get a million more seasons of A Black Lady Sketch Show.
Lauren Ashley Smith: Thank you so much.
Kaitlin Fontana: That’s it for this episode. On Writing is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America, East online at WGAEast.org. You can follow the Guild on social media @WGAEast, and you can follow me on Twitter @KaitlinFontana. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thanks for tuning in. Write on.