Comedy Central's ‘Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens’ Writers on the Power of a Mostly Female Writers’ Room
By Nicole Bitette
Day one in the writers’ room for the upcoming Comedy Central series Awkwafina is Nora From Queens was an emotional experience. For many of the women in the nearly all-female room, it was their first time being in the majority when writing for a series.
Executive producer Lucia Aniello, who previously served as an executive producer, writer, and director on Broad City, which featured a mostly-female staff, says she took her past experiences for granted, realizing on the first day that working with mostly women (there are eight women and one man on staff) was uncommon.
“There were a handful of women who were actually a bit emotional because they had never been in a room where they weren’t just one of two women in the room,” she said. “It’s not the norm.”
Earlier this month, series creator Awkwafina (known to those in her personal life by her birth name, Nora Lum), became the first Asian-American woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical. With her first Comedy Central series, which premieres on Jan. 22, she wanted to create an opportunity for women and fellow Asian-Americans, to have a seat at the (writing) table.
After her breakout role in Crazy Rich Asians in 2018, Awkwafina told Variety that representation starts “both in front of and behind the camera.”
“I think a big reason there aren’t a lot of our stories reflected is people don’t know how to write for us or think they can’t write for us,” she said. “So I think for any minority group, you need to have writers who can reflect those stories and tell them honestly. It’s important to give people a chance. Take a chance on opening up roles, even leads, for actors of color.”
The ViacomCBS Newsroom spoke to a few of the women who worked on the comedy—which is now in the writing stage for season 2—on what it’s like to write for Awkwafina, their fashion-adjacent Instagram account, Writer Fits, and how the room’s diversity contributes to the show’s humor and impact. Here’s what they had to say:
On the room’s diversity:
Teresa Hsiao (executive producer): It was really important to me, and also really important to Nora [Lum] and Karey [Dornetto, executive producer] to have diverse voices. Obviously, with this show, we saw an opportunity to not only have female voices but also to have people of color, which was very important to me. We were really excited to have people who aren’t typically in comedy writers’ rooms represented so strongly on the show.
We didn’t initially intend to have an all-female writers’ room, but I came from a couple of shows where I was on a show where there were like 20 white guys and two women.
Lucia Aniello (executive producer): For me, it was just, ‘this is what a writers’ room looks like.’ It’s mostly women. It was actually a surprise to me how much I take it for granted.
Karey Dornetto (executive producer): I made a decision in the hiring process to try to make it a very diverse room and also wanted to have all women. It was great—one of the most supportive rooms I’ve ever been in. There was not a lot of ego, and it was just super fun, really. One of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
As the showrunner, I read a ton of people. Some people we staffed had never written on a show before and so I would read them, meet them, then Teresa, Nora, and I would sit down with them. It was a group effort deciding who we wanted in the room.
TH: We had one writer, it was her very first show. We really liked Sam’s [Riley] script and ended up meeting her and all really liked her. For the most part, we had a lot of people who had a lot of experience. They were people we worked with before. Karey [Dornetto] had worked together with Emily Goldwin on Smilf; I had worked together with Cherry Chevapravatdumrong on Family Guy. We were really lucky that they were available and wanted to come write together on the show.
We definitely had a blast. When you’re writing for someone who is so fun and is such a character you can just get into it. A lot of times writers’ rooms can be very stuffy and a lot of times they can be a little bit tough. But, we wanted to create a really fun safe environment for all the writers. I think Nora is a great example of someone who is always happy and energetic and really the vibe that she brings to the show is really the vibe that we wanted to bring to the writer’s room.
Awkwafina’s role in the writing process:
TH: We talk all the time as to what we want for the show, and so we had an idea going into the writers’ room of what the show was going to be. Nora was in-and-out for the first few weeks, then she was off on Jumanji. I was always keeping her up-to-date with what was going on in the room and she would send in notes. She was very involved.
LA: She was in the room a lot. A lot of the stories came from experiences in her life and stories about her. I love working with her. I find her so easy to work with, she’s so funny. She improvises things that you can never dream up in a million years. She’s an awesome mix of somebody who is very silly, but also hyper-intelligent. She can improvise stuff you could have never written and I think that people will probably feel that when you watch the show. You can never say this is someone you’ve seen on TV before. She’s so uniquely her, such a rare voice. I love her, I love Nora.
KD: This year, I don’t think we’ll have her [in the room] as much. We already started. We basically map out what this season’s going to be with Nora , and then we bring the other writers in and fill the rest out. She has a hand in all the scripts as well, making sure the voice is right so you know it’s her.
How they hope viewers will react:
TH: The show is really important. There are so few Asian-American shows, and even fewer Asian-American shows from Asian-American creators. We really want to emphasize the fact that we made this show to not bear the burden, not representing all of Asian-American culture, we made the show really to represent Nora’s authentic life, and the funny things that happen to her. The byproduct of it obviously is that it is an Asian-American cast. We’re really proud of it and we had so much fun doing it. We’re excited for people to see it.
LA: The show is funny first, that’s really important. I mean it’s really laugh-out-loud funny. Lori Tan Chinn is unbelievable on the show. I can’t wait for people to see it. I think that it’s the kind of thing where you’re like “Oh my God so funny” and then it also has some moments of real heart because it’s centered around family. You come away from it from laughing for 21 minutes and it felt good, too, outside of the laugh.
KD: I definitely think the female perspective is a big deal, especially because we have so many female writers. The predominantly Asian cast is going to resonate with a lot of people who haven’t seen that before. We tried to make the room reflect what the show is.
The best part of the writers’ room:
TH: The Writer Fits Instagram, that was the most fun thing. It started off as a bit, where we thought it would be funny to take pictures of ourselves, because writers are obviously not always in front of the camera, sometimes for a reason. It was fun and crazy to actually be models for once. We’re all really tight, super proud of the show and how it came out.
The reaction to Writer Fits has been great. A lot of friends who work on other shows are very jealous that we get to hang out with each other and take pics all the time. I had a friend who worked on a show with mostly male staff, and she texted me being like “Omg I’m so upset. I’m dressed so cute today and no one has noticed.” And we were like “In this room we would notice and you would be on Writer Fits.” We’ve been doing Guest Fits.
Favorite moments from the show:
TH: Episode two we sort of do an inter-Asian race war with grandma’s group of friends meeting a group of Korean grandmas and I think that was super exciting to be able to write that. I don’t think you see something like that on American television before, but also to write that in a comedic way that really respects both sides of Nora’s heritage. A lot of the grandmas that we cast had never acted before. I suppose there aren’t that many actors of that age who are Asian because they never had that opportunity before. They were just having a blast. It was really nice to see and it just makes it all worth it being able to showcase people who you don’t typically see on television, that’s really important to us.
LA: There was a scene in the pilot where Nora is driving around her rideshare people, they were all in the back seat. There were a bunch of different people. We shot on trailers in New York City and it’s always kind of hard to do that stuff, the roads are bumpy. We had her in that car for a couple hours driving around and improvising. Some of the things she would improvise out of nowhere truly had my mouth agape. How does she come up with this? Where in the recesses of her brain does she get this wild stuff? It makes you feel like her brain is firing off on all cylinders and it’s a pretty special moment to watch.