From the margins to the mainstream: Race, comedy and prime time TV
"My only hope with ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ is that it is the first one of many."
–Melvin Mar, executive producer of “Fresh Off the Boat”
The fall TV season is about to launch. Last year, we saw the likes of "Black-ish," “Fresh Off the Boat” and "Jane the Virgin" poke fun at racial stereotypes, while also appealing to audiences across color lines. And in the land of late-night television, South African comedian Trevor Noah will soon take over as host of “The Daily Show.”
On Thursday, Sept. 18, Crawford Family Forum guests were treated to an advanced screening of the season two premiere of “Fresh Off the Boat,” followed by a conversation moderated by “Take Two” host A Martínez. The discussion looked at how “Fresh Off the Boat” and shows like it are changing the way we talk about race.
The importance of ‘Fresh Off the Boat’
"It’s a show for everyone, through an Asian point of view,” said “Fresh Off the Boat” executive producer Melvin Mar.
“With my own family's immigrant history, being able to tell the story of ‘Fresh off the Boat’ is cathartic, but the show is for anyone with an outsider experience,” he said.
Joz Wang, editor of 8 Asians and founder of V3—the largest digital media conference for Asian-American journalists and bloggers—said “Fresh Off the Boat” was the show that she always wished for when she was growing up.
Wang added that did have some reservations when the show was first announced. She said when there's just one show for an entire community, it unfairly shoulders the burden of being fully representative, adding a whole new set of pressures to that show.
"When you don't see yourself on TV, the one example starts to become the example for everything,” said Wang. “We as Asian-Americans viewers who don't see ourselves on TV get scared. Will it be a stereotype? Will it be offensive?”
"Before, broadcasting was very one-directional,” said Wang. “Not so now with social media. People are talking back.”
Diversity on the small screen versus the silver screen
Like any show, “Fresh Off the Boat” has its fans and its detractors, but its existence is meaningful to many viewers, especially with the dearth of diverse representation on the silver screen.
TV and film are in very different places when it comes to diversity and production. The enormous volume of television being produced allows for shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” to break through, said Mar.
"We went 20 years without seeing an Asian-American family sitcom, and now we have two in one year,” said Wang, referring to the show “Dr. Ken,” which premieres Oct. 2 on ABC.
Networks like ABC and NBC have programs seeking work from diverse writers, but there’s lots of room for improvement,” said Angela B. Hutchinson, a casting director and founder of the Breaking into Hollywood nonprofit for show business professionals. “There's still work to be done.”
Diversity behind the scenes
Another element differentiating shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” from predecessors like “All-American Girl” is its diversity off-camera.
Wang, referring to “All-American Girl,” said it’s ludicrous to call it a show “diverse” when it has Asian-American actors on-screen but only white writers behind the scenes.
“Diversity behind the camera, including creative control, is key,” said Wang.
"We had 60 percent female directors for the first 13 episodes of ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’” said Mar. “Our writing crew is 50-50 male-female and [multiethnic].”
But what is most important for diversity according to executive producer Melvin Mar?
“An authentic voice. TV is not a factory able put together a diverse show. And diversity alone is not enough. It’s just gotta be a good show.”
Take Two’s A Martínez (@AMartinezLA)
Angela M. Hutchinson (@IamBiH), casting director and founder of the Breaking into Hollywood nonprofit for show business professionals