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How Lena Waithe’s Own Story Led To Her Historic Emmy Nod For “Master Of None”

We talked to Lena Waithe about being the first African-American woman nominated for a comedy writing Emmy and how she plans to pay that forward.

How Lena Waithe’s Own Story Led To Her Historic Emmy Nod For “Master Of None”
A still from “Thanksgiving,” (episode 8, season 2) Master of None. [Photo: courtesy of Netflix]

In Master of None’s jinx-defying sophomore season, there is a standout episode and it’s called “Thanksgiving.” Over the course of 34 sharp, pitch-perfect minutes, we watch the evolving relationship between a black queer woman played by Lena Waithe and her mother (played by Angela Bassett). The episode was nominated for an Emmy for outstanding comedy writing, and if it ends up taking the trophy on September 17 (when the ceremony airs on CBS), Waithe will make history–for the second time in two months.

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Waithe, who cowrote “Thanksgiving” with series creator Aziz Ansari, became the first African-American woman to be nominated for comedy writing when the nominations were announced in July. “It’s such a pinnacle to reach, just getting the nomination,” the 33-year old Waithe says. “It was very humbling and I felt a sense of pride to open that door.”

Waithe had been looking for a way in for a long time. She knew early on what she wanted to do for a living. While some aspiring writers wait for the light-bulb epiphany of a Perfect Idea before banging out their first pilot script, Waithe knew that execution was more important than any one idea. She began to hone her craft.

“I’ve been running this race for quite a long time, and I’ve been clocking in my 10,000 hours writing a lot of bad, bad scripts in order to get to some good ones,” she says.

After graduating from Chicago’s Columbia College in 2006, Waithe moved to L.A. and began her upward trajectory in TV writing. She worked as a production assistant, then became an assistant to the writer-filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood, who directed Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights and also works in TV. Both jobs gave her crash-course experience in how writers actually write and how television gets made. All the while, she kept working on her own scripts, polishing them until she was ready to show them to the right people.

Heaven Michelle McCoy and Vijay Mahimtura in Master of None.

Waithe was especially excited about her pilot, The Chi, an hour-long coming-of-age drama set in the South Side of Chicago. When a writer from the series Bones got wind of the script, the writer put it in the hands of her bosses, who eventually offered Waithe a job on the show’s writing team. By the time she’d worked there for a season, she was developing The Chi with Showtime (where it will premiere next spring) and got hired as an actor on Master of None.

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As tough as it was to get a foothold in writing, becoming an actor was a comparative breeze. Master of None‘s Denise, a savvy and sardonic dispenser of dating advice to Ansari’s Dev, is Waithe’s first recurring role. She got the part due to her infectious confidence and the way she instantly vibed with Ansari. The fact that she was also a writer barely came into play, beyond yielding the occasional extra joke in some scenes. It wasn’t until the second season that Ansari asked Waithe to do more than act.

Casey Watkins and Aryan Renjith in Master of None.

Ansari and Master of None co-creator Alan Yang had been considering a Denise-centric episode and they called Waithe into the writers’ room in New York to mine her brain for ideas. When Yang asked about her experience coming out, both creators were captivated by her response–an emotional account of coming out to her mom in a diner.

“When you come out, you never have to jog your memory–you just don’t forget it,” Waithe says. “It’s like as if it was yesterday. Coming out of a closet is like having a baby. It is the most terrifying, nerve-wracking, crazy experience. I feel like anybody who’s ever come out of the closet probably would say the same thing. There’s just certain things that you hear from parents, family members’ reactions, friends–you just don’t forget any of it.”

Waithe soon got a phone call from Ansari: He and Yang wanted to turn her coming-out story into Denise’s story. They also wanted her to write it with them to ensure its authenticity. So they holed up together in a hotel room for a few days and wrote “Thanksgiving.”

Eden Duncan-Smith in Master of None.

The episode follows several years of Thanksgivings that childhood friends Denise and Dev spend together, all leading up to the moment when Denise’s mom comes to accept her daughter’s sexual orientation. There are plenty of laughs, of course, but they’re woven into to a narrative brimming with sincerity and specificity–from bedroom wall posters to conversational tics. It all rings searingly true.

Waithe knew she might be up for an Emmy for the script, but she was blindsided by the nomination’s historical significance.

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“I did not know beforehand,” she says. “Maybe I just assumed someone had been nominated in that category. But a couple of my friends were like, ‘We’re googling it and we think you’re the first [black woman].’ And I was like, ‘I don’t think so. That can’t be.'”

Before publicly acknowledging the milestone, Waithe wanted to be absolutely sure. She asked her publicist, who then called the Television Academy, which confirmed it: Mindy Kaling was the first woman of color nominated for a comedy writing Emmy, for The Office, and Waithe was the first African-American woman.

Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari in Master of None.

Now that she’s broken down the barrier, Waithe wants to help others climb over it, too. Since the nomination, she’s felt a greater urgency to mentor other black female writers. She’s currently mentoring her assistant, Racquel Baker, along with a former assistant, Jessica Watson. She’s also taken under her wing a young woman named Disney Hall, who reached out to her through social media.

“There are so many young women out there who have a voice, who have a unique perspective and want to write,” Waithe says. “And I think it’s not only our job to mentor them but to help make sure they’re getting the classes they need, make sure they get an opportunity they’re right for. You can’t just call yourself a mentor by saying, ‘I’ll get you a job’ or ‘You’re doing fine.’ It’s about figuring out where they are as a writer, what they actually need, and helping them get it.”

A scene from the Emmy-nominated “Thanksgiving” episode, which Waithe cowrote with Ansari.

And of course, she’s also keeping busy with her own projects.

In addition to working on The Chi, Waithe is hoping to sell another pilot, Twenties. The semi-autobiographical comedy tells the story of a young queer black woman living in Los Angeles who happens to have two straight female best friends. She also has a role in Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming sci-fi drama, Ready Player One, due next spring.

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She knows that this is not the moment to slow down. “After I got the Emmy announcement, then it’s that thing of, ‘Okay, now back to work,'” she says. “You can’t rest on your laurels. You’re still proving yourself, you still got to go in. I literally had a pitch meeting the following day. Mind you, it doesn’t hurt to walk in with that news about the Emmy, but you still got to go out and sell yourself and prove yourself and do the dance.”