By D. Dona Le
In the #HWire blog's "Where Are They Now?" series, we check in with Harvardwood program alums—e.g., from Harvardwood 101, the Writers Program, past Writers Competition winners—to find out what they've been up to and to showcase their accomplishments since participating with Harvardwood!
Comedy writer Teresa Hsiao '07 is an alum of the Harvardwood Writers Program and was named a Harvardwood Most Staffable TV Writer! She currently writes on Fox's hit comedy American Dad, and she's previously been staffed on Family Guy and What's Up Warthogs!
Q. Harvard Economics concentrator to comedy TV writer—how did that happen?
A. I went into college having absolutely no idea what I wanted to do after college. So I fell into economics because it was practical and would appease Asian parents. After my junior year I did a summer internship at Lehman Brothers which helped confirm that my future would not be in finance. Especially when Lehman went bankrupt a year and a half later. (From this paragraph, you should be able to figure out how old I am—surprise math quiz!)
I'd always kept this secret pipe dream of writing for TV, although I didn't know anything about Hollywood. I wasn't part of the Lampoon, I didn't have any connections, and I didn't know how any of it it even worked (you write something funny in Word, and the next day it's on the air, right?). But I bought a few books, started my own blog, and forced myself to write every day. I broke down episodes of my favorite shows to track stories. And once I let out the deep, dark secret that I wanted to write for TV—by actually sending scripts to friends, inviting feedback, joining writers' groups—it didn't seem like such a pipe dream anymore.
Q. You are a Harvardwood Writers Program alum and a past Most Staffable TV Writer! How'd you first get involved with Harvardwood?
A. I first got involved with Harvardwood when I was living in New York. We had a small group for comedy writers--ranging from standups to essayists to storytellers. We'd meet at the ShowBiz cafe (actual name, now defunct, not shocking) and share our work with each other. It was enormously helpful. Years later I actually wrote a pilot with Judy Batalion, a super funny writer (and now novelist! - check it out) who I probably wouldn't have met had it not been for that group.
Q. What was your first "break" in the industry?
A. I finally moved from New York to LA because I figured I had to be in LA to write for TV. So, I was working out here when I came across a posting in a Harvardwood email. The creators of a Canadian kids' show were looking to hire comedy writers. By then I had written a 30 Rock spec, so I sent it in, thinking that it couldn't hurt. A few weeks later I got staffed, quit my day job and started writing for Canadian children's television.
Through that show, I got a manager and an agent who put me out for staffing the following season. They sent out that same 30 Rock spec which landed me a bunch of meetings, and which culminated in me getting hired on Family Guy. After two years on that show, I moved over to American Dad and have been there ever since.
Q. What are your (1) favorite and (2) most challenging aspects of the AMERICAN DAD writers' room? Can you take us through a typical day there?
A. My favorite part of the show is the people I get to work with. On AD, I've been very lucky to be in a room with funny, talented writers who are also respectful, kind, and mostly hygienic. When your day-to-day job requires you to laugh and make others laugh, you can't really complain. (But we do complain. A lot. Mostly about when lunch is getting here. Writers are whiny bitches.)
I've been writing on the show now for three seasons, but AD has actually been on the air for twelve. So it's always a challenge to find stories that are new. And stories that haven't already been done by Family Guy, or Bob's Burgers, or South Park, or Futurama, or any other show in the history of television.
On days with table reads, animatic screenings (storyboards), or color screenings, we spend the day rewriting the show. This all comes from the laughs at the table reads/screenings. We'll have one room working on the main script, and another smaller joke room. On non-table read/screening days, we're either rewriting a script about to go to table or we're in smaller rooms, breaking stories aka watching YouTubes of skateboarding fails.
Q. Making people laugh is hard. How do you know if something's working comedically, especially if you're working on a draft solo (versus pitching jokes among other comedy writers)?
A. You never really know. There will be jokes that you love in your script, and they'll bomb in the read. Or there are jokes that you put in as a placeholder that you're too lazy to replace, and they'll absolutely kill. In the end, you have your own comedic sensibility and you should write to make yourself laugh first. Personally, for our show, I like to imagine the typical American Dad fan (a stoned 22-year old who watches our show while eating a family-size bag of Doritos for dinner — his name is Jace, obviously) and just try to make him laugh.
Q. Do you feel that your identity and people's perceptions of your heritage impact (1) how you approach your work and (2) how you're treated as a TV writer, especially in comedy?
A. When I started out, I used to be very conscious of being one of the only women in the room. Or one of the only minorities in the room. So I'd laugh extra hard at bad women/Asian jokes just to show that I was cool with it. Looking back, that seems incredibly stupid, but I was the youngest person on a veteran staff and I bought into the "anything goes" mantra in comedy.
Now I try to be more cognizant: trying to avoid lazy sexist or racist jokes, giving the punchline to female characters, pitching story ideas outside of "Francine gets a job! Can you imagine?!". But ultimately, my job is to write funny episodes or make funny jokes that work within the show. And it shouldn't be only a female writer's responsibility to look out for how women are portrayed on TV. (Replace "female/women" with "Asian", "black", "Latino", "gay", etc., rinse, repeat.)
There is the outside perception that if you're a minority or female, it's somehow easier to get a job — that even though you work alongside 17 white guys, you're only there because of your gender or race. Luckily, throughout my career, no one's ever accused me of wielding my Asian lady superpowers to unjustly seize a job — at least not to my face.
Q. What do you think is the most practical and effective way to address the lack of diverse/female representation issue facing Hollywood today?
A. On one hand, it's up to the people in power — the execs and showrunners — to encourage diversity. The execs have put more diverse shows on the air now, with diverse showrunners. But content shouldn't be the only thing that dictates the hiring of diverse writers. Black writers shouldn't only be hired on black shows or on shows with black characters. Female writers shouldn't be limited to writing for shows with female leads. White men shouldn't be seen as some sort of universal blood type, the only ones who can write for anyone and anything, regardless of race and gender. Hopefully execs and showrunners can recognize that, as they directly influence the composition of writing staffs.
On the other hand, we also need qualified women and minorities applying to these jobs. Showrunners have lamented the lack of quality female/minority writers as one reason they don't get hired. Well, you can't expect there to be a surplus of "quality" writers knocking at the door when historically there have only been one or two in the writers' room. That is why diversity programs are necessary — just to get women/minorities in the door, give them experience, so that future staffs won't be comprised of all the same old white guys.
Also, as it pertains to women, here's one reason why there might be a dearth of female comedy writers: 'cause so many of them have been fucking harassed. Too many women in comedy have described incidents in which they have been made to feel uncomfortable — and I'm not talking about off-color jokes in the room, I'm talking unwanted touching, solicitation, pressure from a boss or a high-level writer to "come over and have some wine". Too often women in comedy are mistreated because, again, "anything goes" and "it was a joke, relax". And while sexual harassment training is a good idea in concept, let's be honest: no one pays attention to it, and the kind of harassment in those videos is child's play compared to what is said in a writers' room. The only way to curtail harassment is to enforce serious repercussions on offenders, no matter their level on staff, and not to punish those who report these incidents. That's something the studios need to do a better job of — policing the bad guys and ensuring women that their careers won't end if they speak up. Then women won't give up their dream of writing for TV while watching her offender get a million-dollar overall deal. And then showrunners will not lament any lack of quality female writers as an excuse not to hire women.