San Leandro, Calif. — Part of the reason the ABC comedy “black-ish” has earned so many rave reviews and high ratings is the way the show — in which an upscale African American family navigates the minefields of race and culture across generations — touches so many viewers of diverse races and backgrounds. The show, which premiered last September and airs Wednesday nights at 9:30 p.m., will wrap up its first season May 20. It stars Anthony Anderson, Laurence Fishburne and Tracee Ellis Ross. One of the contributors to its success is Vijal Patel, an Indian American writer and co-executive producer of “black-ish.” Excerpts from an exclusive phone interview with India-West:
Q: How did an Indian American writer get involved with “black-ish,” an African American show?
A: I have an overall deal with ABC and they asked me, “What shows do you want to work on?” I watched the pilot of “black-ish” and I immediately related to it, because it very much reflected my family’s experience of being first generation in this country.
My parents always ask me, “Why don’t you speak Gujarati? Why didn’t you marry an Indian girl?” — every one of those things that happens when one culture becomes part of a bigger, more heterogeneous culture. I told ABC, “ ‘black-ish’ is the show that I want to work on, because the fact that it connected to me, as an Indian, means it appeals to every culture and every generation.”
Q: Is there going to be a second season?
A: There is no official word on a second season yet. I’m an optimist. The quality of the show, and what it does for ABC as a network, is like, “Hey, we are telling diverse stories that relate to everybody.” I have nothing but the highest expectations that it will be renewed.
Q: When the controversial episode on spanking and corporal punishment, titled “Crime and Punishment,” came out, I thought the whole story could have been written as an Indian family. Tell me more about the experience, and what happened after it aired.
A: It was one of those episodes where we [writers] were talking about corporal punishment, and when everybody in the writing room disagrees about a topic, then you have an episode of television. Obviously, there are so many points of view that doing an episode about it starts a conversation. It was generational, and cultural.
As an Indian, I told [the other writers], “Oh yeah, our mothers hit us all the time, with a belan [Indian rolling pin].”
“They beat you with a rolling pin?”
“Oh, no, it’s a small rolling pin. It’s perfect for hitting kids.”
There was some nervousness from the network about it. And the response to the show was phenomenal; it really showed that this show isn’t just going to do the safe family stories — it’s going to do the edgier family stories that we are all thinking, but none of us are saying.
Q: Has the network ever said no to any ideas?
A: No, they trust us, they trust [show creator] Kenya Barris.
Q: Even if a topic is controversial, if it’s funny, it will fly. If it isn’t, it won’t.
A: Absolutely; in that regard, because if it’s making people laugh, then yes. Laughter and comedy is a great presentation for controversial issues. We are not grandstanding; we are poking fun at it.
Q: Tell us about your background and how you got involved in TV.
A: I was born in Massachusetts, and lived in Ahmedabad, India, for five years when I was little, but I grew up in Pennsylvania. Most of my upbringing was around mostly white kids in Pennsylvania, your typical American upbringing, and I watched a lot of TV.
I studied engineering and business and I went to Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania. My friend suggested I’d love television writing and it clicked in my head. I came to L.A., and slowly worked my way into writing. I’ve always loved to tell funny stories and get paid for it.
Q: Were your first writing experiences sketch comedy, spec scripts [a noncommissioned sample script for an established TV show], jokes for comics, or something else?
A: I wrote a couple of spec scripts, like one for “The Simpsons,” or “Malcolm in the Middle,” just to learn what writing was. Then I started as a production assistant for a Nickelodeon show called “100 Deeds for Eddie McDowd,”and I learned the nuts and bolts and logistics. I got my first script on that too, because I worked for a producer on the show who liked me personally and he said, “Why don’t you write an episode of the show?”
I did and it went over well, and I got an agent and my agent set me up with meetings and it went on from there. I had the fortune of great mentors, the showrunners I worked for, who I learned so much from.
Q: I read that you wanted to create a show about “tiger parents.”
A: Yes, last year I wrote a pilot called “Tiger Family.” It’s about tiger parents raising three genius kids, and basically, the oldest one rebels by dropping out of MIT at 17. I base the show on a Caucasian family I knew in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately it didn’t get made; it was at Fox last season, but it may be something that in three years or five years may get revisited. Parents raising children will always be relevant. I’m pretty busy with “black-ish” right now, though.
Q: What else would you like our Indian American readers to know about you?
A: A lot of what I write comes from my own experience, and that feels authentic. As soon as the audience detects inauthenticity, even if it’s the best joke in the world, they just won’t buy into it.
I get so many calls and emails from my relatives; both my mom and dad have seven siblings and they all have multiple children. My family’s gigantic. After every episode of “black-ish,” they email me and ask, “Is this about the time that …”
They all connect and relate, because they have that generational difference and cultural assimilation issue. It speaks to something that is going on in the Indian community. The show is made for Indians, if you ask me!