The Frame

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Why 'Fresh Off the Boat's' writing staff is full of 'outsiders'

by Elizabeth Nonemaker and Darby Maloney | The Frame

"Fresh Off the Boat" is a sitcom, set in the mid-'90s, about a Chinese-American family that moves to a Florida suburb where the father owns a steakhouse. Bob D'Amico/ABC

When Nahnatchka Khan read Eddie Huang's memoir, "Fresh Off the Boat," she says she immediately identified with the kids in the story. Like Huang's character, Khan is also a first-generation American. Her parents are from Iran, but she was born in Las Vegas and grew up in Hawaii.  

As Khan told The Frame, by being part of what she calls "the bridge generation," she connected with "the idea that you are like the advance team that reports back to your family. A lot of your time is spent explaining why you need Air Jordans."

So when Khan staffed her writers' room for the ABC adaptation, she wanted to find other people who had their own experiences of being an outsider. It was essential to the story: "Fresh Off the Boat" is about a Taiwanese-American family that moves from Chinatown in Washington, D.C. to the predominantly white suburbs of Orlando, Florida in the mid 1990s. Though the premise of the show is as old as television itself — it's a family sitcom — Khan believed she could create something "revolutionary" by changing the perspective on something familiar. Consequently, her writing staff might be one of the most diverse in show business.

At KPCC's 2016 Leadership Circle Brunch, Khan spoke more about her background, her vision for "Fresh Off the Boat," and what it was like to have one show canceled and another picked up by the same network in a matter of months.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS 

Your parents immigrated from Iran. You were born in Las Vegas, studied in Hawaii, then came to USC. Can you talk about your journey into television, and was it something you were always angling to do?

Definitely. I grew up watching television as a kid. It was always something I wanted to pursue. The first time I ever wrote anything, it was an editorial column for my high school newspaper. So I could write whatever I wanted. It was about something dumb, like prom. I remember the response I got. People would come up afterwards and say, I thought that was really funny. I liked that feeling. So I decided to pursue writing. I went to USC and got my first break writing for a kids' show called "Pepper Ann."

It was like the kid version of "Ally McBeal," where she had her fantasy life and stuff would play out in her head. She was raised by a single mom. That was like grad school for me, where I got to learn how a TV show was made, how you sustain characters. It's a natural line to "Don't Trust the B----- in Apartment 23." 

That series didn't last as long as some people might have wanted it to. What happens when a show goes off the air? Is there a life experience that can prepare you for what it means to be canceled?

No. I think what nobody ever tells you is they don't use the word canceled to you. You kind of have this feeling, but you're not sure. Then the phone rings and it's Paul Lee, [then] the president of ABC. Your stomach kind of sinks. He's like, You know I love the show. I love you. We have to pull it off the air. The ratings aren't great. And you're [wondering], Are we canceled? You can tell by the reactions of people, yeah. That just happened.

How soon after did you come back to ABC with "Fresh Off the Boat?"

The show got canceled two years ago. Then, that development season, I had already sold one pilot pitch to Fox. So ABC was already upset they didn't get the first one. So they took me out to lunch. I told them I didn't want to be like Charlie Brown and they're Lucy with the football. They said, no — their big push was diversity. They cited the Shonda Rhimes shows as examples, and they wanted to do the same in comedy. So we took the show there.

Let's talk about the source material for the show. 

This is based on a memoir by Eddie Huang. I completely identified with being a first generation American. My parents weren't born here. My brother and I were. That bridge generation resonated with me — the idea that you are like the advance team that reports back to your family [on] what's happening. A lot of your time is spent explaining why you need Air Jordans.

So the book is [Huang's] entire life from I think from [age] zero to 30. So this is a very small part. I said, That's what I want the show to be.

When he's a young kid in the 1990s. 

Yes, exactly. When his family moves from Chinatown in Washington, D.C. to the white suburbs of Orlando so his dad can run a steakhouse called Cattleman's Ranch. I was like, There's the show

I think the studio was concerned about why it had to be set in the '90s. Why not make it present day? For me, it was about reinforcing that idea of isolation. In the '90s, right before the Internet exploded, you had to make it work — kids in your school, in your neighborhood, that's it. You either fit in or you don't. We wanted to preserve that time frame.

Any writer who sells his or her book to a studio generally knows that you cash the check and you walk away. Eddie Huang didn't quite do that. How did you negotiate that conversation, when Eddie is kibitzing on the side about his story not being told accurately?

I think you have to understand where people are coming from. Neither of us have had our lives turned into a sitcom. It must be challenging. You have to sympathize with that. To me, that's the difference between writing a memoir — which is truly one person's point of view — and doing a TV show, which becomes a collective. If you do a good TV show, all the voices that contribute make it better. 

There was an interesting essay about the show in the L.A. Review of Books. The author found the show energetic and subversive. More importantly, [that] this is a comedy that tackles issues of ethnicity. What does that mean on a daily basis, in terms of what you feel the obligations and opportunities for the show are?

I think it's a great opportunity for us. The DNA of the show is the idea that we're telling stories through a different lens. The family sitcom has been around since the beginning of television. But when you take stories that are familiar and you change the way they’re told because you change who’s telling them, that becomes revolutionary in and of itself. We're telling the story from the inside out. The Huang family — they're not the ones in the fishbowl that people are pointing at. They're never the butt of the joke. They're always looking from the inside out. 

One of the most important decisions you make as a show runner is who's going to be in your writers' room. What do you look for, specifically in this show, so that you get the right kinds of voices? 

It's hugely important. For me, it was about feeling like an outsider, feeling like you don't belong. Whether it's because your parents couldn't afford to get you the stuff that you liked, maybe it's because you were gay. So I put together the staff with that in mind.

One of the white writers on staff grew up in Hong Kong. I thought that was a great perspective. But we have Indian-American writers, African-American writers, Taiwanese, Chinese, Korean-American. We even have an Australian that snuck in. But he's gay, so it's okay. I let him come in. We're about 50 percent women, which is also rare for a comedy writers' room. Because that's also important.

One piece of data that's come out in relation to #OscarsSoWhite is that when women are running a show, they tend to hire women. As a female show runner — and there are not a lot — do you feel a special opportunity or chance to change the nature of the statistics? 

It's funny. I never think about it as my objective, to further women's careers. I just pick the people who are best for the job. It just happens to fall that way. I don't know how men think. I don't know if they don't see what I see, or if they choose to not see it, or whatever. But for me, it's like, This person is hilarious. She's a hilarious writer, an amazing director

"Fresh Off the Boat" airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC. 

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