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'I'm Looking to Correct the System': An Interview With Gloria Calderón Kellett - Pacific Standard

'I'm Looking to Correct the System': An Interview With Gloria Calderón Kellett

The prolific showrunner talks about how bringing diversity to television writers' rooms also makes the shows better.
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One Day at a Time.

One Day at a Time.

Last April, I attended the BinderCon writing conference while eight months pregnant. Beyond tired, I was just about to cut out early, when I decided to stop by the keynote talk. One of two keynote speakers was Gloria Calderón Kellett, the writer, executive producer, and co-showrunner of One Day at a Time, who spent most of the conversation talking about the difference between the writers' rooms she had been a part of before she was in charge (largely white men), and the one she had intentionally built for her current show (half women and very diverse). Despite my near-total exhaustion, Kellett's passionate commitment to creating change in the writers' room—and in the stories that come out of that room—kept me there right until the end.

In an industry that says it's committed to diversity but, according to many studies, still largely employs (and features stories about) white men, Kellett, a Cuban American, is running a comparatively revolutionary operation. The writers' room for One Day at a Time is half-female and half-Latinx, which is more remarkable than it should be.

Kellett, who also acts and does stand-up comedy, wrote and produced for shows like How I Met Your Mother, Rules of Engagement, iZombie, and Devious Maids, before working on One Day at a Time. When Norman Lear was looking to reboot his 1975 show about a single mother with two kids, he wanted to feature a Latinx family. When Kellett came on board, she infused the show with her own background, and the family became Cuban. Overseen by Lear, the show continues in the spirit of his original sitcom, tackling meaningful storylines—in the reboot, they have featured topics like immigration, post-traumatic stress disorder, gender equality, divorce, and coming out—all with humor. And they've done so to critical acclaim, with a recent GLAAD Awards nomination for outstanding comedy series, a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and recognition on many 2017 best-of-TV lists.

At the end of 2017, Kellett continued her successful year with a bidding war over her newest show, History of Them, a Sony Pictures TV and CBS TV Studios collaboration loosely based on her own life, featuring a Latinx family and an interracial marriage. She also signed an overall two-year deal with Sony Pictures TV last June. Meanwhile, season two of One Day at a Time premieres on Netflix today.

Kellett spoke with Pacific Standard to discuss how diversity in the writers' room translates into better options on TV, and why that's so important for the visibility and representation of marginalized groups.

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How did you get the writers' room together?

When we started on the show, it was important to me to make sure we had representation in the room and that I wasn't the only Latino voice. Because that's normally been the case in the past, where I was the only woman or person of color in the room. With this show, it felt like we had a very good opportunity to fill the room with more diverse voices.

I like the conversations that it brings. I think it's interesting when different people from different backgrounds find a commonality—that's something that Norman's work has always done—so it's really great that we get to do that with our room. We get to talk about our different experiences and where we grew up. We have a Salvadorian, a Mexican, a Puerto Rican, an Argentinian, a Cuban. All of that makes for really great conversations for the show.

Gloria Calderón Kellett.

Gloria Calderón Kellett.

Why did you think it was important to have people from different Latinx backgrounds writing for the show?

Because it's about a Latino experience in America. Non-Latinos can certainly write characters; the human experience is the human experience. However, when contributing to Latino stories and conversations, I think it's richer if you have people who can actually bring their own personal narratives to it.

I've also been the only, or one of the only, females in a room, and the dynamic changes when half of the room is female as well. I like the conversation when it can be a more even conversation. That's when the good conversations happen.

What do you talk about in the writers' room? And how does that translate to the show?

I think you can see it on the screen. We talk about immigration, what it's like to be the child of immigrants. What my parents' immigration story was and how they came to this country. We talk about sexism in the workplace. The guys were shocked hearing the women's stories of sexism. These are all wonderful men that we work with—kind, generous men—and they were really surprised at what we were talking about because as men they had not experienced that.

It just makes for lively discussions. Everyone is learning something, perceptions are shifting and changing because we're all learning from one another. You can literally see it on the screen.

Have you ever tried to have conversations like this in other writers' rooms? And, if so, did they peter out, or were you talked over?

It varied from room to room. I've been fortunate for the most part to have pretty positive experiences, but if you're in a room with a bunch of men, they don't hear you. They're just not as interested because they're not women. If you're a new mom and you're talking about that experience, they're removed from the experience. So it's not that I'm being talked over per se. We're still kind of making our way in.

Even within shows that are more diverse, there's still a tendency to go toward white male writers.

A lot of it is who has the experience in the industry, and who is being given the opportunities to gain that experience. The truth is, for my show, I need upper-level writers to help me run the show. We do have a lot of younger writers who are Latino that we've given opportunities to that are starting, but I can't expect them to run the show because this is their first time doing it. Not to say the kids can't do that—we're teaching them, we're growing them to do that—but they're 24 years old and they don't know how to produce a show yet.

Whatever the showrunner needs to run their show is who they should hire. What was interesting to me about BinderCon was how [the other keynote speaker] Tanya [Saracho] said she wanted to hire exclusively Latinx writers for Vida, a show about two Mexican American sisters. For years there's been exclusively white male rooms and nobody gave anyone any guff. But this one woman, she wants all Latinx writers for a show she's writing about Latinas, and she gets guff for it. But she should be able to do that. [Editor's note: Tanya Saracho did end up hiring an all-Latinx writers' room.]

Without anyone really saying anything.

Yeah, exactly. It's so interesting that she's been getting a lot of pushback.

It reminds me of that Ruth Bader Ginsberg quote where she says she wouldn't be satisfied until all of the seats in the Department of Justice were filled by women. No one blinked when it was all men.

That's right. It's funny, we obviously still have a lot of work to do in making things equal. We're trying to make those leaps forward as much as we can.

What do you think we can do to continue to change writers' rooms so they are more diverse?

I think it needs to be a priority for people, and I don't know that it's been the No. 1 priority before—the No. 1 priority is to do a good show. For me, being a woman and a person of color, I can't not also try to pave the way. So, it's sort of an extra thing I have to do. I'd love to be able to just worry about making the show great, but I want to make the show great by also changing the landscape of what's behind the show. Because I think it adds richness to what's in front of the screen. I don't know that everyone feels that way, and that's OK; I'm not saying this has to be everyone's mission. But, for me, I tend to hire women and people of color because I'm looking to correct the system that has been severely lacking for a long time. But I'm not hiring a woman because she's a woman; I'm hiring a woman because she's a badass and an amazing writer, and she hasn't had the opportunities that some other people have. And I'm delighted to be able to give her an opportunity.

In a way, it's kind of like what white men have been doing for a long time—they're hiring the people that they know.

Yeah, that's right. They've been hiring their friends or people that remind them of when they were younger. That's something that I do too. I can't fault them with that part of it, but there does need to be an active change. And I know that, for me, the active change I can make is by being the boss. If I'm the boss, I can create other people who will be the boss in a few years. That's where I can effect change.

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