Television

Building a Hollywood Where Everyone Can Succeed

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and The Devil Wears Prada’s Aline Brosh McKenna explains how she succeeded in film and television, and how she is helping others do the same.

Rachel Bloom in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Rachel Bloom in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The CW

What’s it like to be the woman at the helm of one of the most beloved contemporary TV comedies? Aline Brosh McKenna, the co-creator, showrunner, and head writer of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, talked with me about day-to-day life making a hit TV show for my new podcast, Women in Charge. McKenna told me about how she was able to build a team she could rely on, and an environment in which everyone can succeed.

Below you’ll find a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity. For more interviews like this one, get the Women in Charge podcast via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Google PlayStitcher, or wherever you get your shows.

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Julia Turner: Today we talk about the transition from solitary work to running a big team, the bad Hollywood habits she’s trying to avoid replicating, and how to foster diversity in the workplace. So let’s start with your career. Tell us what you are in charge of currently.

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Aline Brosh McKenna: I am the executive producer, showrunner, head writer of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. We’re just starting our fourth season. I have been a screenwriter since 1991, and I’ve produced three pilots, but basically was a person who worked for other people. And then with this show, I became a boss and that was a really interesting experience.

Turner: What was most surprising or interesting to you about it?

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Brosh McKenna: Everyone needs a different kind of boss, and that was surprising—that you sort of have to move your style around a little bit and figure out what works best to communicate with different sorts of people. I found that that works. There are certain things that are sort of nonstarters, or things or tendencies that people have where I know we’re not going to be a good match. If someone’s late for an interview, we’re not going to enjoy working together because I really value promptness. Mostly because I think it’s respectful of others. But other than that, you develop, over time, an instinct for understanding what the best way would be to communicate to a person, how much praise you need to give before you give a critique or suggestion. So, it was interesting to see it’s not one size fits all.

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Turner: Yeah, I mean the psychological aspects of management I think are part of what makes it really interesting. You’re leading this apparatus of 200-odd people. How do you have time to learn what styles work for which people? Does it vary person to person? Does it vary type to type—maybe writers need this and directors need that? How do you think about it?

Brosh McKenna: No, I think it varies person to person. Also, what I noticed is that people have a relationship to authority that has nothing to do with their relationship to you. So sometimes you have to sort of understand, Oh, this is a person who gets a little poppy and hot around someone just because they’re in a position of authority and then other people just sort of seamlessly understand how to speak to someone who is in charge of them. And that’s as much a part of someone’s personality at work as anything else—that’s sort of their style and realizing that it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with you was also an interesting thing to learn.

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Turner: So OK—you’re having a day, you’re at work, maybe you’re shooting and still writing some episodes, which I think is the phase you guys are in right now. How would you describe what you’re trying to achieve and what you’re trying to avoid? You’re doling out praise and admonishment and trying to psychologically manage all these people, but what are you trying to get them to do and what are you trying to get them to avoid?

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Brosh McKenna: Right. Well, I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of admonishment. What I try and do is give clear feedback about process and that I would say is probably my main emphasis—trying to figure out what are the procedures, processes, how are we doing things and how can that be better for everyone to be as efficient and organized as possible? My goal for myself, but also for the people who work at the show, is that everybody can also live their lives and that people can have manageable personal lives.

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So every season, and really every day, I look for more efficient ways to do things and sometimes that means delegating. Sometimes that means moving personnel around so that people are in the right spot. I actually think one of the biggest challenges I have is, because the showrunner is responsible for the writing, the shooting, and the editing, but you can’t physically be in all those places, so finding out what’s happening in all those places is one of the challenges that I have. What I didn’t understand when I started is that people manage the truth for you—they don’t always tell you [the truth because] they either don’t want to share feedback about someone else’s work that they feel like might impact them negatively, or people maybe are giving you a slightly altered version of what’s happening, and so you kind of have to be there yourself.

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The other thing I found was saying, “My door’s open” is not sufficient to figure out how people are feeling and how things are going. You have to go out and say, “How are you? How is this? How was yesterday? What did you think about this? What do you think about this process? What do you think about this new thing we’re doing?” You can’t just say, “Come to me when you have an issue.” You have to actively sort of go and elicit opinions and feedback.

Turner: How do you fit that into a day that’s presumably already pretty full?

Brosh McKenna: Even 10 minutes somewhere can make a big difference. And it’s learning who to talk to, who will give you the feedback that you’re looking for, and finding people who understand, like you, that you need to have an open loop of communication so that you spot things before they become a problem. I think one of the challenging things is if you find out something is a problem, and it has been a problem—it’s frustrating when you haven’t had a chance to address it when it started.

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What’s interesting is I don’t know of other businesses like this. You’re not managing anyone until you get the job. Senior producers do somewhat, but I didn’t rise up through the ranks as a television writer. I rose up being a screenwriter and screenwriters are the boss of nothing and no one. And so, I, like many showrunners, was just sort of handed this responsibility. And Rachel, who’s my partner in the creation of the show, was 26 when we started and didn’t have a lot of experience either.

I had a lot of expertise in the writing area and felt very comfortable in that but learning to administer all these departments was something that I sort of learned on the run. There are sort of a couple key hires that our show made—[people] who not only do their job, but sort of helped me figure out how to do my job best right off the bat. And how you hire people, who you hire, who you surround yourself with is just the one of the hugest parts.

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Turner: How do you assess people out in an interview? How do you figure out, apart from promptness, whether there’s going to be what you need?

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Brosh McKenna: When we started, I was really looking for people who were very all hands on because I knew that our show was going to be dependent on making a lot of different things run smoothly because we have the music department and we have some auxiliary things in our show that make it a little more complicated.

For the senior jobs, I had met with a bunch of people who wanted to tell me that their bandwidth was a bit limited. Like either, they said, “Oh, I’m not really a set person. I only light the room” or “I really specialize in this area.” I was also looking for a certain nurturing energy, because Rachel does several jobs on the show and she’s the fulcrum of the set. I was looking for people who wouldn’t feel like, “Oh, I’m a senior person. I can’t go get Rachel a bottle of water,” if that makes sense. Because a lot of what I do is try and make sure that she is happy and comfortable and healthy. Part of that is sort of just having your antenna up to make sure that this young woman is not falling over. And so whenever I interviewed someone I tried to make sure that they were the sort of person who would pitch in wherever was needed.

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I met more people for the senior people than any other position, and I met a few people for the senior position who either seemed like they wanted to tell me they had a limited bandwidth, or it felt like they were only going to be senior on this show because they didn’t have their own show. It seemed like a compromise position for them.

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And then I met this woman, Erin Ehrlich. The network had wanted me to hire someone who had experience on an hour show, and she doesn’t really, but she had experience on a half-hour show that was a little bit similar in tone to us, Awkward, where she had directed, produced, and been the co-showrunner. And some of it is just gut: I sat down and five minutes into it I was like, “This person is going to be by my side for the whole process.” And she has been, and she has saved my life. There’s nothing that I ask her to do that she’s not prepared to do. And then Michael Hitchcock, people know him from the Christopher Guest movies, but he’s also a writer and producer. And he had a ton of experience doing Glee. So he had done a music show and so he was really helpful.

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Basically, the first season especially, I had two senior people who were there every second of every minute. And that has proven to be the same through all the seasons. I’m just endlessly grateful to both of them because I think I would be in an ICU— there’s so much work to do, you can’t do it without support. They also helped me learn how to do the job. So looking for people who have areas of expertise who can sort of teach you how to do the parts of your job that you’re not as familiar with is very important.

Turner: Right, and trusting them and giving them authority—that authority doesn’t undermine your own.

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Brosh McKenna: Yeah, I’m not worried about that because a television show is, it’s like the military—the hierarchy is extremely important. People really respect the hierarchy, so titles are important, and it was one of the reasons why, when we started, even though Rachel really had very, very little experience, it was sort of up to me what level of producer she would be. We could have made her a junior producer, but because we created the show together, and because I wanted her creative input to be really important to people, I insisted on her being an executive producer, which was sort of a huge elevation over what normally would happen. Four seasons in, people know the show and know the jobs really well so I can delegate more. [Our show is] mainly female-run, and our writers room is seven women and three men.

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Turner: Which is unusual. [Previously,] you had a lot of authority and clout because of your success as a screenwriter, but then structurally within the process of making a movie, you weren’t the boss of it.

Brosh McKenna: So, structurally you don’t have any power. You can only gain, and I know that there’s probably a term for it, but I sort of was gaining like—

Turner: Soft power?

Brosh McKenna: Or like auxiliary power. It was uncomfortable, because I would be using my relationships to get what I wanted as opposed to having access to the structural authority. And unless you are the director in a movie, or a super powerful producer, the buck does not stop with you. And so, television is now a place where all the decisions are really made by writers, and I think that’s why it’s better.

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Turner: As a person who works with words I’m inclined to agree. The most interesting work seems to be happening on television rather than in movies right now. And it’s a place where writers are in charge rather than directors. Just in the span of your career you’ve seen both. What do you think about the kinds of bosses that writers make versus directors? Like can you generalize?

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Brosh McKenna: That’s a great question. I think that we need to have more formal instruction for show running, because I felt like a 7-year-old who had been given the keys to the car. t’s so strange they don’t ask you if you know how to do this—there’s no training. The WGA has a showrunner training program, but it’s mostly for people who are very inexperienced to just sort of acquaint them with how shows work. But when you are given a network show no one comes in and explains to you the most basic things, and so that’s why a lot of shows are really poorly managed. Not anybody should be a boss, but writers often have personal habits and experiences that don’t lead them to be bosses.

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In my case I think there’s a world where I would’ve been an executive, and so I felt like it lent itself to my strengths in a lot of ways. But I was really shocked about how much I didn’t know and how much I had to ask. I really wanted to create a culture where people were calm and happy, and so many people that we worked with in the beginning had been accustomed to working in environments where everyone was in a panic all day. That’s a very common Hollywood thing. I am literally the opposite of that. When I see somebody panicking—if I get an email that says urgent, somebody ought to be dead. We’re making a television show, so unless someone’s in physical peril, it’s not urgent. It’s never urgent.

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So, I don’t like panic. I don’t like yelling. I don’t like running. If I see someone running on a set, I’m also going to assume that someone has been grievously injured. And because it is a place where people can get hurt, for me calm and poise are very, very important. And I’ve really tried to surround myself with other people like that because there’s this Hollywood panic—the last minute, don’t have my homework, Joan Cusack running under the file cabinets in Broadcast News energy that people thrive on, and I really find it counterproductive.

I like to be done early. We get our scripts done early because there’s an inherit chaos to any large enterprise, but the chaos should come from the outside and not from you. I had worked for so many people in Hollywood—directors and writers—that thrive on last-minute [work] and deadlines, and [being] up all night. It’s just not me.

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Turner: Well, and the notion that you got to hang around and play darts until the muse strikes. It’s sort of particular to creative industries I think.

Brosh McKenna: But to me it’s sadistic. Our [writers] room was [filled with people] like someone who just got married, someone who was pregnant, someone who was pumping, someone who had an 11-year-old daughter. The fact that they would show up to work and their boss would eff around on YouTube, and order food, and not even start working until 5 p.m. when they’ve been there since 10, which happens, and then keep them there until midnight—I think that is the most presumptuous, unfair, sadistic thing to do people.

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Unless you say to them, Hey, listen. I’m the sort of person who starts writing at 5 p.m., then we have dinner, and then I like to go ’til midnight you could probably fill a room with writers who love that. I have friends who work that way. But I staffed a group of people who are—I had moms who had tiny babies, and people who had lives, and that was important to me—that we have people who had thriving personal lives, and I just I put myself in their shoes. So, I try not to put anyone in any situation that I wouldn’t want to be in if I were them.

Turner: You, as a screenwriter, wrote many wonderful movies, and the one, perhaps, you’re most known for is The Devil Wears Prada, which has in it, I think maybe, one of the most iconic female bosses in movie history. I just did a screening of the movie Network, so there’s another iconic female boss—

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Brosh McKenna: And Sigourney [Weaver] in Working Girl.

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Turner: There’s a few. But I’m curious—having taken on this role of running this creative institution with 200-odd people working for it at any given moment, has that effected the way you think about the Miranda Priestly character [played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada], and how you wrote her, and what you thought about being boss then versus now?

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Brosh McKenna: Yeah. It’s funny because when I wrote that movie, I had really been [the Anne Hathaway character of] Andy because I tried to break into being a magazine writer in New York and experienced utter failure. Her name is “Andy Sachs,” and my grandmother’s name was Tova Sachs, spelt the same way. I had been that young person, and when I wrote the movie I was in my mid 30s, so I was closer in age to her than I was to Miranda.

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Now I’m basically Miranda’s age, and I’ve become a boss since then, and there are things about her frustration that I really relate to. But I also have always thought that anyone who ever got the wrong order at Starbucks has had a Miranda Priestly moment. Like when you order a sandwich, and you specifically said no onions and it comes with onions you have that moment of like, “How hard could this be?”

But what I love about that character is that it’s not for her glory. To me, that’s her redeeming quality, which is that she doesn’t care about herself. She cares about the magazine, and she cares about fashion. So, she’s a samurai who has devoted herself to the system, and she actually doesn’t care if she gets run over by a car. She cares about the magazine, and she cares about fashion. And I think there’s something very noble in that, and I think that it’s not about her personal glorification. She has, obviously, absurdly high standards, and is very vocal. But anyone who has ever run any enterprise, or organized a book club [may feel like] Why aren’t these people getting back to me? Why am I not getting a RSVP? How hard is it to make lemonade? How hard is it to show up on time? That’s a very basic human frustration.

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And she’s very, very, very dry—that’s the other thing that I love about what Meryl did with that character is that she’s not a wet angry, she’s a dry angry, which is scarier I think.

Turner: I’ve never thought about anger in terms of moisture, but I like it. Have you had a Miranda Priestly moment? Or you talked earlier about giving negative feedback, which can be constructive feedback, but telling someone you didn’t like the way they did something. How do you deliver a negative feedback?

Brosh McKenna: I kind of come from a place of assuming that people are doing the best they can with the information they have. Yesterday, there was something where someone didn’t do something. I had expected it to be done at 9 a.m., and by 2 p.m. it wasn’t done because he was waiting for my approval on something, and he had sort of passively waited for me to show up in the office before he asked me, instead of taking the initiative to get to my assistant to say, Hey. She needs to approve this, because it needs to go out. What I realized is he didn’t really understand the urgency, and he’s a new employee. So, I showed up, and this thing that I thought was out at 9 a.m. was not out at 2 p.m. We wasted a half-day of this prep period. So, I said, You need to get this approval from me in a more timely manner. And he just didn’t understand that part of his job yet because he just started doing the job.

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I sat down and said, “Listen. We need to connect more on how urgent this is, and there are many people around you who you can ask. My assistant, the writer’s assistant, who understand where we are in the process, and who can tell you [the level of urgency].” I don’t think of it as him intentionally not doing anything, he’s doing the best he can, given the information he had.

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I try not to lay over any kind of judgment, because 99 percent of the time people are just trying their hardest, and if you have confidence that you’ve hired people who are making a concerted good-faith effort to do a good job, then you can sort of proceed from that.

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Turner: I want to zoom out a little bit to how you think women are faring in the industry broadly. And for women starting out in writing today, would you say they are better off or worse off than they were when you started in the early ’90s?

Brosh McKenna: You know, it’s tough. We’re doing an awful job because the numbers are just terrible and they don’t move—the number of writers and directors [who are female] doesn’t get better. It’s a little bit better in television, it’s a more open system, but we can all drag out the numbers and they’re just awful. The number of women that are directing is terrible—really bad. The number of women writing is still way, way under where it needs to be. The number of female showrunners, there are a lot of successful ones, but it’s still overwhelmingly not.

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They just did a study that 64 percent of the women in our guild report being sexually harassed.
I think there’s too much emphasis on anecdotal stories—[like] this person’s terrible, this person did this. It’s important to get that information out so that people know who is safe to work with. However, it’s a systemic problem in which individual actors behave a certain way because the system allows them to.

What’s challenging about it is I think [there are] a lot of unconscious assumptions, and I have faced it my entire career—it’s almost never overt. Once in a while they say, Oh, well, they’re just not looking for a woman, but you can really feel that you’re not getting certain meetings and you’re not getting into certain rooms, and you’re not being considered for certain assignments because you’re a woman. And no one would ever say, Oh, we don’t like her because she’s a woman. They’re just thinking, Oh, that’s not my mental image of the person who does that job. Right? It’s the stereotype bias.

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I think we need to do active training to confront people with their biases so that they can understand. And obviously, it’s not just women, it’s people of color, it’s LGBTQ-plus people are just not getting the opportunities because someone’s thinking a director is a man with a light beard and a baseball hat and cargo shorts. And whether they’re conscious of that or not, that’s what they have in their mind. So when they meet a woman, who’s a woman of color, and she’s five-foot-two and she’s pregnant, it doesn’t seem to them like [that person is] a director or a showrunner or whatever it is. And that’s a systemic problem that you need to address with active intervention, so that you confront people with their biases.

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I would love for executives to be trained. I still get sent lists that just have no women on it or no people of color on it, and people need to understand that they have certain preconceptions. Using your power and authority to lock people out of jobs is something you have to point out to people that they’re doing. We have a very primitive understanding of our own motivations—people don’t understand that they’re hiring people that look like them, seem like them. That, to a certain extent, is human nature. But we’ve got to be more aggressive about saying to people, Look at this list you made. Look at who you’re hiring. Look who you’re promoting. Look who’s around you. Just take a look. Because people are not, by and large, not doing it in bad faith. You know, if you lock the door and stick your tongue down someone’s throat, you’re a bad actor and you shouldn’t be working there. But a lot of the ways in which other people are being kept out of the business are by people whose biases are unconscious. And we need so much more education about that.

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Turner: Films pop up and disappear. A television show can exist for many years and can become a slightly more stable organization, just in the sociological sense. But even then there’s sort of a separation between that organization and the executives at the networks and other institutions that are making decisions about which pop ups to prop up at any given time. Is that part of the challenge in this industry?

Brosh McKenna: It’s a freelance-y business, and so it’s dependent on relationships and recommendations, and little communities of groups of people, and those can clump into little homogenous groups. But if you’re in charge, you have an opportunity to make an effort, reach out, be aggressive. You can’t really just say, My door is open. You have to go grab people. Like right now, there’s a woman I’ve known for many years who I met when she was an assistant, and then she was my assistant, and she’s a filmmaker in New York and she makes incredible films. And I just came across a piece that she’d made, and I texted her and I said, Have you ever considered being a director? And she said, Yeah, well I have, but I don’t know how, blah, blah, blah. I said, Get on a plane, come and shadow a director for one of our episodes.

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She has two small children, and her husband just said, I’ll cover for you, and she’s here for three weeks and she’s shadowing one of our female directors. But she wasn’t going to ask. She didn’t know who to ask. Instead of waiting for those people to come to me, I try to identify and grab them by the hand and bring them over. Just recently I interviewed a bunch of people to be my assistant, and I chose one, but there were two other women that I just thought were terrific, so even though I didn’t hire them, I sort of went on a campaign to find them other jobs. Both of them got jobs, and they were both African American women, and I thought they were great. That’s what people did for me. Someone has to put their hand and say, Come over here. And if you’re in a position where you can do that, then it’s very meaningful and gratifying.

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Turner: Can you talk a little bit about Female Filmmaker Friday?

Brosh McKenna: My friend Tamara Davis, who’s a director, posted a picture of herself on set and she said, We need more images of women directing. And I just loved that, and I said, Why don’t we pick a day and ask a bunch of women to post pictures of themselves on set, and we’ll call it Female Filmmaker Friday? And she was like, I love that. One of the nicest things that happened was that somebody posted on Facebook, “Thank you for doing this. My daughter wanted to know how to dress to be a director for her career day at school, and now she had all these pictures to look at.”

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What I’ve loved about it is it’s ladies in their backyard directing 16mm, and it’s Ava DuVernay, and everyone in between. Everybody does it differently. If you have that many images, you’re more likely to see somebody that you think, Oh, that’s me. The physical representation of what you want to be is so important. So it really took off, and it’s been great.

Turner: You made your name as a screenwriter writing, I’ll call them romantic comedies.
They were sort of what the version of romantic comedy was at the time, although work plays a more interesting and central role in them than in what a lot of people think of as romantic comedies. And it occurs to me that a young woman who wanted to be a screenwriter for film right now might be in a much more difficult position than you were, just in terms of what types of movies are getting made. Do you think movies speak well to women now?

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Brosh McKenna: I mean, no. Do you? It’s terrible. We were laughing the other day—I get sent movies where they say, Can you make the female part bearable? She has nothing to say and nothing to do. And we were laughing: Does anyone ever send a male a manuscript and say, Can you make the male part not terrible? It’s only gotten worse, and TV’s gotten better. If I was a young person, a young female writer right now, I would break into TV, and then you can maybe—once you get a little bit of work under your belt—you can transition into movies a little bit up the food chain. And I’m producing a movie that’s written by two of the writers on our show.

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When I started, I was writing movies and I wanted to write TV. I wrote a couple of spec scripts, and I gave them to my agency, and my agent put me on the phone with a TV agent; it happened to be a woman, and she said, Hey, so these are pretty good, but it’s really hard to get on staff. Have you ever been anyone’s assistant, or anyone’s girlfriend? And I was like, What? And she said, It just would really be a lot easier for me to get you a job if you had been someone’s girlfriend. And I had been thinking about switching agencies, and I hung up the phone and I called my friend who was trying to convince me to switch agencies, and I said, I think I need to leave them.

Brosh McKenna: I would love to say that that is not still the case, but you know, there’s still a lot of that. And again, my fear is that when you read about stuff like that, and when you read about people being chased around hotel rooms, and that we’re going to scare women off from even trying. When that happened, I had to go, Well, you know what? Screw you. I’m going to find someone who doesn’t think that way. And I did. I switched agencies, and I was represented by this wonderful woman who was very pro female. I just think we’re scaring women out of both fields by making it clear that it’s stacked against them.

But there is a way forward. But it’s challenging. I think that TV has more female bosses, and not to paint everything with the broadest brush, but I do think that you’re less likely to experience that sort of treatment. I can’t promise any young women trying to break in that it’s paradise, but I can promise you there are people who are trying, and you can try and seek them out.

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