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Running the Show

A new book looks at the women—in particular, the Jewish women—who are changing television

Marjorie Ingall
April 30, 2018
Photos: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Ms. Foundation For Women; Charley Gallay/Getty Images for HBO; Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Photos: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Ms. Foundation For Women; Charley Gallay/Getty Images for HBO; Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Photos: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Ms. Foundation For Women; Charley Gallay/Getty Images for HBO; Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Photos: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Ms. Foundation For Women; Charley Gallay/Getty Images for HBO; Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The blaring neon cover of Stealing the Show: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television by Joy Press is scattered with the names of the high-powered women—producers, directors, and writers—profiled inside: Diane English, Roseanne Barr, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Shonda Rhimes, Liz Meriwether, Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Jenji Kohan, Jill Soloway, and Abbi Jacobson & Ilana Glazer. If you are me, you immediately start counting. And yup, seven of those 12 are Jewish. Given that Jews constitute less than 2 percent of the American population, what are the odds?

Joy Press, who has been a TV critic for the Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, and now Vanity Fair, said she was surprised herself. “I don’t think I was explicitly thinking about writing about Jewishness,” she told me in an interview. “Truthfully, it was kind of surprising and fascinating how much of it came through in these women’s shows. There’s historically been a fear that Jewishness would be off-putting to a general audience…and for whatever reason Jewish women were seen as really off-putting. In the book, I mention the adage ‘Write Yiddish, Cast British,’ and if you look at the history of television, you’d be shocked how much it’s true. It’s a way for Jewish writers create characters that feel specific to them, while knowing they wouldn’t be able to get away with a Jewish actress or character. There is something unmistakably Jewish about the patrician family in Gilmore Girls, for instance. And Jill Soloway said, ‘I spent a whole career trying to hide Jewish women in shiksa characters.’”

It was not always thus. The godmother of the sitcom was explicitly, openly Jewish: Gertrude Berg, a constant presence on radio and TV from 1929 to 1956 and the winner of the very first Best Actress Emmy in 1950. “But she was this aberration that would never be referred to again!” Press said with a laugh. “The beginnings of television had ethnic characters who just disappeared in favor of white picket fences.”

Jewish men have long been sitcom creators and writers, but women showrunners who are not Gertrude Berg have been few and far between. In the book, Soloway describes to Press about how male power is handed down: “You can picture the older male director who hires the freshman director,” she says. “They are both wearing baseball caps, and he’s got his arm around the kid, and they know how to do this because they’ve both been on teams and they know how men mentor one another. So they are going to be chosen above a woman or a person of color or a queer person or a trans person. If you are a white straight guy who’s lived in the Pacific Palisades for the past twenty-five years and you bring a young trans director of color onto your set, you are not going to get to have that relaxed feeling of ‘Let me throw my arm around you and show you how things go.’ You are going to be forced to confront your privilege.’”

Press told me, “I’m not aware of Jewish men making a big effort to bring in Jewish women. And the older women who did make it in couldn’t get helped on board by other women because women weren’t in a position to bring them in! Now, though, things are different.”

Why? “The fracturing of the traditional network system has been enormously helpful to women,” Press said. “There’s been this explosion of female-driven shows in the last five years, and even, frankly, since I started working on the book in 2015. I couldn’t keep up! Today there are lots of cable and streaming networks that are really eager for content and are not looking for the massive broad audience that CBS, NBC, and ABC need, which means that a lot more niche TV shows are seen as OK. Which is funny since women are 50 percent of the population! But women are a niche.” And when creators are spared the process of jumping through the hoops of creating network TV, where weird edges and quirk and ethnicity are generally shaved off in the development process, “weirdness and Jewishness become OK,” Press said. “And these great characters created by Jewish women have climbed in through the side door.”

The popularity of TV shows created by women begat more TV shows by and for women: “Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black helped bring attention to Netflix’s programming; Netflix went on to deliver Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Jessica Jones, Grace and Frankie, Lady Dynamite, Glow, and imports Fleabag, Anne with an E, and Chewing Gum,” Press writes. “Amazon followed its Transparent success with pickups for One Mississippi, Good Girls Revolt, Z: The Beginning of Everything, I Love Dick, and Amy Sherman-Palladino’s series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Traditionally sedate female networks made room for more challenging fare (Queen Sugar at Oprah’s OWN network, UnReal at Lifetime), and executives at Hulu showed staunch support for female showrunners.”

Much of the fun of Press’s book, too, is in the weird edges and quirk and ethnicity. Her interviews with Roseanne Barr and writers of the first Roseanne show (the reboot happened after Stealing the Show went to press) are particularly delicious. Barr, Press notes, arrived in Hollywood by way of “a mental hospital, a commune, a feminist bookstore, and as a stay-at-home suburban mother.” Her grandmother, Bobbe Mary, ran an apartment complex in Salt Lake City full of Holocaust survivors (“‘I entertained like mad, because I was afraid if I didn’t everyone would start to talk about the Holocaust,” Barr said) and her mother “was the beautiful girl of our Jewish community and I was her fat daughter who chewed on my own hair.” On set, Barr screamed at everyone, stormed off repeatedly, and burned through staff. A very young Amy Sherman-Palladino worked on Roseanne—she wrote the episode about Darlene’s first period—as did a pre-Buffy Joss Whedon, who said of his stint: “Welcome to my dream and my first heartbreak.”

Press writes, “The level of backstabbing intrigue resembled the royal court of Henry VIII…At one point, [Barr] decided to make the writers wear numbers around their necks rather than address them by name. Sherman-Palladino was number two.” John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf were asked if they’d be willing to continue the show without Roseanne; they refused, and the self-styled domestic goddess stayed in the picture.

Filming was nearly as chaotic on Gilmore Girls, with its breakneck dialogue (in Press’s words, “like a Ramones song transposed to television or a Hepburn-Tracy movie on speed”) and exhausting pace. Sherman-Palladino even “snipped frames so that the dialogue overlapped or characters seemed to move faster.” She rewrote almost all the dialogue she didn’t write herself, because the whole show reflected her singular voice…and of course, her micromanagement made everything run late. Sounding very much like Mrs. Maisel, she told the network executives who kept hocking her: “You can fire me, or you cannot ever call me again. Those are your two choices, because it is like talking to my mother once a week. I am sorry you are tragically disappointed, but I am working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and I literally can’t work any harder than I am.” (Of course, Press delves into the jarring Jewishness of the show’s purportedly WASP characters—Lorelei’s catchphrase is inexplicably “Oy with the poodles already,” and at one point, there’s a misbegotten chuppah in Lorelei’s yard in the most goyish Connecticut small town of all time.)

The book touches on the ambivalence many people feel toward Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham. (Fun fact: Dunham did standup comedy at 14, as a student at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn. Her act’s opening line: “Hi, I’m Lena, and I’m an alcoholic. Just kidding. My dad is.”) Press herself sounds squarely in Dunham and Schumer’s corner. She notes that people seem to have a hard time separating these performers from the unlikeable characters they play. “People respond in a different way to Larry David’s obnoxious, narcissistic, provocative characters, for example,” she told me. “I think in Lena Dunham’s case we have a lot of opinions about how women should behave, and when they don’t act that way, we’re furious. Lena Dunham said that people get more upset about stupid things Hannah does than when Walter White kills people. Hannah is self-destructive and problematic in every way, and we’re uncomfortable that she’s so comfortable with her body. That’s the worst thing for some people: How dare they not be thin and be OK with it!” (I’d argue that in Schumer’s case, she’s not OK with it, and her mixed messages and the sanctimony resulting from her own ambivalence are what infuriate other women. And I’d argue that the level of privilege that Dunham and Schumer repeatedly fail to grasp that they possess, in actual real life, is why many women loathe them. But I’m grateful that Press’s book reminded me of the brilliance of Schumer’s early skits—her furious, feminist parodies of Twelve Angry Men and Friday Night Lights in particular. And I agree that Schumer and Dunham are lambasted by the left and right to a degree that male comics never are.

My very favorite section of the book is devoted to Abbi and Ilana of Broad City. Press writes in an antic, manic, clause-dense way that seems to reflect the anarchic joy of the show itself. She calls the best friends “superheroines and cartoons” who “seem to exist in a world built for them alone.” Where Dunham’s Girls torture and betray each other repeatedly, “Abbi and Ilana delight in each other like voracious lovers, with each going to absurd extremes to help the other…in [one] episode, after the water shuts off during a party, Ilana removes Abbi’s turd from her nonworking toilet and duct-tapes it to her stomach to smuggle it out of the apartment without anyone knowing. She proudly declares herself Abbi’s ‘doo-doo ninja.’” I will miss this show desperately.

Broad City positively revels in its Jewishness. Ilana’s mother, Press notes (as have I) is one of the great, positive depictions of Jewish motherdom in all of TV. Played by Susie Essman, “she is a Jewish mother with no negative connotations,” Press said. “She’s full of chutzpah and advice but so loving and accepting.” Press and I sighed happily as we reminisced about the episode set during Ilana’s grandmother’s shiva: Ilana’s mother, while admiring Abbi’s Italian leather purse, discovers Abbi’s strap-on dildo, demands answers about what it is, and promptly cheers for Abbi for pursuing her own sexual pleasure. (Ilana likewise screams, “This is the happiest day of my life!” At her grandmother’s shiva.)

Press points out that because Jacobson and Glazer came to TV via their own videos on the web (true of Tablet’s beloved Rachel Bloom as well), they hadn’t internalized the death-by-committee ethos of network TV. They had a strong sense of who their semi-autobiographical characters were, and they didn’t have cliched sitcom-writing habits to unlearn.

Press may not want to speculate why her book is teeming with Jewish women, but hey, I will:

1. Judaism has historically prized both humor and literacy. That’s why there are a lot of funny Jewish writers of all genders.

2. Hollywood may still be a boys’ club, but it has also, since its inception, been a place where Jews could get a foot in the door (like comic books and music, and unlike vast swaths of the business world).

3. Jewish women have usually viewed themselves as outsiders and observers: Scorned by WASP-y prom king royalty, bedeviled by unruly bodies and unruly hair, big-nosed and loud and smart and pushy. If you see yourself—and others see you—as an aggressive oddball anyway, maybe that helps you be less wounded by rejection?

Regardless of the whys, the reality is that the snowball of women content creators has achieved sufficient mass for women writers and directors to be able to help other women rise up in greater numbers. Press’s epilogue describes the Woolf Pack, a group begun by writer Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City, The Big C, The Greatest Showman) under the umbrella of the Humanitas Foundation, a nonprofit that supports “writers who create contemporary media…to explore what it means to be a human being.” Stories centered on women, people of color, and LGBT folks certainly qualify. Woolf Pack members now include Jenji Kohan, Shonda Rhimes, Mindy Kaling, Ava Duvernay, Lena Dunham, Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane), DeAnn Heline (The Middle), Danai Gurira, and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (the very Jewish and underrated UnReal). At one lunch, Bicks announced, “If this place got bombed, there would be no more female showrunners.” She added “Which would probably make a lot of people happy.’”


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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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