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Six Female Showrunners Talk Ratings, Their Comedy Icons, and Internet Hate

In our TV issue, we chatted with six female showrunners — Liz Meriwether (New Girl), Whitney Cummings (2 Broke Girls and Whitney), Emily Kapnek (Suburgatory), Emily Spivey (Up All Night), Nahnatchka Khan (Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23), and DeAnn Heline (The Middle) — to get their takes on the state of the sitcom and their experiences this season working on hit shows. Herewith, some outtakes from those interviews, in which these women talk about their comedy icons, whether ratings matter, and getting flack on the Internet.

Overnight ratings seem to be increasingly out-of-date with measuring how people watch TV, and yet they're the ones that get reported widely. Is the whole modern ratings system just a mess?

Emily Spivey: Yeah, it’s very confusing. With my show, most of the viewers are DVRing it. Even my own parents are like, “We DVRed it! We’re watching it!” It’s a little frustrating.

Nahnatchka Khan: It’s such a weird thing. For me, my show’s only aired [a few] times. [The first] two of them were available online on Hulu and iTunes for weeks before they actually aired on ABC. So anybody could go watch it at any time, and it was a huge number. Everybody was really happy. And I was like, “Oh okay great — so obviously this counts towards the ratings, right?” And they were like, “No, that doesn’t count.” And I was like, “Okay, well what counts?” So it’s all these weird delineations of three days after, and the same day, and then seven days — it just feels like it’s kind of piecemeal, all over the place.

ES: It also feels like something from the seventies. I don’t know what a Nielsen box looks like, but in my mind’s eye, I picture the giant Magnavox console television I had growing up. It just feels antiquated.

Liz Meriwether: It just feels like confusion. Talking to network execs and stuff about it, I don’t think anyone really knows how to judge it. My show doubles in ratings when you look at the DVR numbers, but it feels like ... I don't know. Everyone I know watches it on a computer. And I watch all of your shows on the computer, and I sit through the commercials on the computer. It feels odd to not take that into account in a real way when calculating the numbers.

DeAnn Heline: It’s sort of nice to be in the third year because we’re settled into what our ratings are. In the fall, they’re great, and then in the wintertime, we face American Idol, and then it gets tougher. But I just don’t get into that. You can only do what you can do, and there’s a lot of things I don’t have control over. The only thing I have control over is my show.

So, it's not even an issue anymore: The sitcom has fully risen from the dead, right?

Whitney Cummings: In terms of ... a rebirth of comedy, I think we’ve definitely seen that with multi-camera shows. It seemed like they were not cool for a long time.  But then I think — I hate for every one of these conversations to [start] with, “And then the Internet has really changed things,” but it has in a way. Because so many people who maybe wouldn’t have had visibility otherwise were doing really interesting, cool, unique things online that maybe networks wouldn’t have allowed or, you know, that didn’t really have a network to fit with. So, I feel like there [were] all these new projects and people getting visibility in comedy that maybe wouldn’t have had it otherwise if they had to wait for networks to say yes to them.

LM: On the other side of [the Internet] was the embracing that comedy can also be a little bit sad. Maybe that’s from my perspective, [but] kind of just seeing comedy as a valid way of telling a story, that it allowed for a little bit of growth in what television comedy meant, which I think might have something to do with cable. Modern Family obviously was doing stories that were kind of heartfelt and also funny, which people seem to respond to.

DH:  I always felt like it was never dead. What first happened was that reality came in, reality shows and people sort of really developed a love affair with those for a few years, and that sort of seemed to hurt comedy more than drama. But I always knew it would come back around. People always want to laugh. And what’s funny is that, I think at first, networks were afraid of single-camera comedies: "There’s no laugh track, we have to just make sure there’s a million jokes." So they were more scared of the single camera — and then the single camera started doing well. So then they became more scared of the multi-camera! What's great now is, I think the networks are finally understanding that both comedies can work and that the audience likes both.

LM: There isn’t such a rigid idea of what a multi-cam is or what a single-camera is. I feel like both genres are expanding and doing different things, which I think is just generally helping comedy be more interesting.

WC: In comedy clubs, you always know what’s happening with the world and the economy and with people, in general, based on how many people are coming to comedy clubs. As soon as the recession started,  business started booming. When it's tough times economically, I think that’s always a time when people really want to laugh, and I think that’s a good thing for comedy.

NK: I think the next step in comedy is going to be zero cameras, and it's just nobody’s filming anything. It’s just like, We’re going to be doing shit in our living rooms. Yep.

Do you pay attention to your leads' public images? Does it mesh with what you're trying to do on the show?

NK: There’s definitely a blending for James Van Der Beek in my show, since he’s playing himself. I encourage him to get out and try to hook up with girls. But he’s married with two kids, so he won’t. I wish he would. I’m always trying to trick him to come out with me to bars and stuff like that, but he won’t do it.

LM: It’s not my place to be involved. I’m just trying to make the show and create this character that I want to watch. It’s naïve to say that I’m not aware of  [Zooey Deschanel's] persona, but I also think ... some of what the public sees can sometimes be constructed and put through a weird lens. 

DH: I would say the same thing. Patti [Heaton] has a certain persona. It’s sort of close to what she plays on TV, but not exactly. But we don’t really worry about that too much. We just write characters as we want to. We’re very lucky in that there’s a lot of people who love her and follow her on Twitter and Facebook. She’s brought a lot of fans to the show.

LM: Zooey, too. She has an amazing sense of the Internet, which has been really helpful for our show.

Are we going to see M. Ward on season two of New Girl?

LM: That would be amazing. That’s a great idea. I’m taking that idea.

Who's your comedy icon?

WC: I would probably say Michael Patrick King. Michael Patrick King had the biggest effect on me, so I would say Michael Patrick King. The Comeback is my favorite show ever made. The way he crafted that series — everything. It’s perfection. Literally, the more you watch it, the more amazing and humbling it is. My stand-up — he affected me. This is dorky but, [Sex and the City] was such a religion for me that when it went off the air, there was such a void, I thought. And when I was doing stand-up, my whole thing was, “I want to pick up where Sex and the City left off.” How would they handle Facebook and Twitter? It was such a big part of my stand-up DNA.

Emily Kapnek: I'll say Steve Martin. He was a huge influence. I watched SNL growing up, and all the seventies players and right on through. And I remember The Jerk was a hugely influential movie for me

ES: Probably my all-time favorite is Jan Hooks. She was the first time I'd seen a southern woman on TV doing southern comedy that I thought was really smart and authentic and funny.

DH: Carol Burnett. I loved the whole Saturday night (CBS) lineup. But Carol Burnett, maybe because it's because they'd crack up during sketches, it was the first time as a kid that I got the sense that the lines were being written. I would then do my own fake skits and try to be like Carol Burnett.

NK: For some reason, the first person who popped into my head was Holly Hunter.

DH: Oh god, yes.

NK: She has made me laugh in everything that she’s ever done. And she’s such a wide, versatile comedic actress. You have Broadcast News, and then you have Raising Arizona. She’s just constantly, consistently funny. And she also makes it real somehow. She just has this sort of magnetism or something.

LM: Woody Allen. I’ve just been watching his movies since I was 11, and my mom kind of got us all watching his movies. I think that the scene that I still think of when I need joy in my life is in Take the Money and Run, when he’s in a marching band and he’s playing the cello. And he’s putting the chair down and trying to play the cello and then picking up the cello and the chair and then running to catch up with the marching band and putting the chair down. Every time I watch (his work), I get something new out of it.

About a year ago, there was a New Yorker profile that painted a bleak portrait for women in comedy in Hollywood, but now, after Bridesmaids and all the shows this year, has the landscape changed?

DH: Women have always been funny, and if it takes Bridesmaids and some other things to sort of have people go, "Hey, yeah, women are funny," then I guess that’s a good thing. I think definitely things are changing. It (once) seemed like there would be one show on the air that was created by a woman, and now look: There are lots of women who can talk about it now. 

EK:  I think true equality comes when we stop differentiating between the female shows and the male shows. The male shows aren’t under the same scrutiny, and they’re not really referred to as male shows either. There’s been so much emphasis this year on the female shows and female creators and female stars and female writers. It's not that it hasn’t been great and empowering. But at some point, that can’t be the most interesting thing about my show. It better not be.

So you don't feel the need represent for all womankind, to make a big statement?

WC: I don’t know if I’m am qualified to speak about the progress of society, because I am probably, in a big part responsible for halting it, if not setting it back. Especially if I were to read all the blogs that are written about me.

You and Lana Del Ray.

WC: Don’t hate her. I will lose my fucking mind. I think I can speak for the way women’s shows are received, I think we can all speak for that.  There was an article somewhere the other day about all the new girls on TV and about how they all look like sidekicks or something ["Old Pals Falling Into a New Dynamic" by Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times]. It was about that show BFF and how all the girls on television aren’t traditionally beautiful or something. It was really aggressive. You can watch a show, a guy’s sitcom or whatever, and no one’s going to be, "The lead isn’t attractive. Isn’t it refreshing to have a not attractive lead!" In women’s shows, your appearance plays more of a role in people’s perception and reaction the show than if it wasn’t a female’s show. I notice that has just been a big part of the reception of it.

LM: I think there is a microscope on it which I think can lead to backlash. But I just feel like that’s such an outdated microscope. There’s isn’t just one [sitcom] about women. It isn’t just Murphy Brown or Roseanne.  There really are so many ways to be a woman these days and so many stories to tell. The more we can kind of get away from that microscope, the better.

WC: But I think that is only a critical thing. I mean, I walk down the street — I’m sure you guys do, too —   and people are like, “I love your show! Oh my God, I do that! I do that! It makes me feel so much better! I thought I was the only one that made those mistakes.” People, women, have such an amazing response to it. I think there’s a particular critical response that’s a little bit different that I think is very misleading in terms of what  is actually going on in terms of reception to these shows. Because I think people, women, really, really love them. But this happens all the time. It happened with The Cosby Show. His character was black and really rich, and black people were going, “That’s not how black people are. That’s misleading. We’re not rich, we’re not doctors.” There’s always "this," in some way.

Related: The New Girls: Six female showrunners on Why TV just keeps getting better

Photo-Illustration: Frederick M. Brown and Noel Vasquez/Getty