Top Industry Insider Talks about Hollywood, Television, and Those Damn Racial Wrinkles
Interview with Yvette Lee Bowser
by L. Charelian
I recently had the privilege to sit down and talk with television writer/creator/executive producer Yvette Lee Bowser. Yvette has the rare distinction of being the first black woman ever to achieve one of the holiest of Hollywood grails: creating and producing a hit primetime sitcom. Living Single, which starred an ensemble cast including Queen Latifah and Kim Fields, ran on Fox for four years and now resides in syndication heaven. Another of her creations, For Your Love, currently airs on Sunday nights at 9:30pm on the WB. Because Los Angeles is a town driven and obsessed by the film and entertainment industry, and in honor of Black History Month (and because she is just a swell person) we share her story.
L How old were you when you created Living Single?
L Is that when you formed your production company, SisterLee Productions?
L You started working for Mr. Bill Cosby on A Different World as an apprentice writer. What did you actually do?
Y I was a glorified scrub. I got coffee, made sandwiches. I wasn't paid, but I had access to the writer's room where I was a sponge for a year and a half, soaking it all up. I contributed ideas for storylines and characters from the beginning.
L You're a Stanford graduate. Is working in television what you always aspired to do?
Y When you're young, black, and educated there are three things that you're supposed to be - a doctor, lawyer, or an engineer. I applied to law school, but never went. I got sidetracked serving sandwiches. (laughs)
L How did it feel the first time you saw your name in the show credits?
Y It was exciting. I was undercredited, and the recognition was overdue, so it meant a lot. But that's pretty par for the course in Hollywood.
L For Your Love, starring your good friend Holly Robinson Peete, has been on the air for how long?
Y Four seasons.
L Congratulations. Does Holly's character "Malena" reflect what's currently going on in your life? Is writing the episodes sort of like good therapy?
Y Writing is the best therapy, it's always been extremely cathartic for me. I've seen my life unfold on A Different World with the college years, and Living Single was about me and my experiences as a single woman. For Your Love is the second chapter. It deals with my relationship with my husband and my friends and their significant others. We've just started to get into the baby stories (Yvette has a toddler and a four-month old.)
L Is there an underlying theme to your work, or are you going for pure entertainment?
Y The theme is the truth. Honesty entertains. Certainly there are fantasy shows that entertain as well, but I feel I've been able to entertain people by telling honest stories exposing some of the truths we don't always want to talk about. That's the subject of my most recent development project, which is about a nuclear family that happens to be interracial.
L What can you tell us about that?
Y I hope to do a very funny, smart comedy that deals with race in an honest way. If I don't get this particular idea advanced this year I'll keep trying, because I think race is something that needs to be exposed and dealt with. Maybe if we can have a good laugh, we'll all be less uptight about it.
L Sort of like what Will and Grace has done for gay issues?
Y If we can have Will and Grace, we should be able to have an interracial couple on television loving each other and dealing with each other like anyone else. They will have specific issues that they'll have to confront being interracial, what I call "racial wrinkles." And there will be the kids who have to deal with the influence from both white and black cultures.
L What are your feelings about the television industry as a whole now?
Y I think there is still a racial divide, but there are those of us who continue to strive to close the gap. Often shows or projects in development don't last or get as far as they should because there aren't very many executives of color in a position to greenlight projects or support them. The press has made such a big deal over how blacks and whites have different viewing tastes and it's become a self fulfilling prophecy. I think we've seen plenty of shows over the years that featured African Americans that were watched by white viewers in huge numbers. The industry has created this phenomenon of separatism. The dynamic of segregation in programming creates "Must See TV" and what I call "Not For You TV," with black programs all sort of lumped together. Those nights that are programmed as "urban" nights can work very well, but they also deserve to be promoted as programs that anyone can watch.
L Which has given you the most challenges in this business - race or gender?
Y: Race. But I've encountered both. I've run shows for the last nine years, and often even though I have a certain amount of respect, I'll be sitting with male writers who work for me, and the male executives will be giving the notes and looking at them, not me. But I do feel that my bigger challenges have been racial.
L You once had a project in the works called The Miseducation of Piper Fein. At the time, you described her as a person who "takes adversity and turns it around for her benefit," a real fighter. Do you see that in yourself?
Y Absolutely. Actually, Piper was a pet project of mine that had tremendous creative differences involved. But it was so personal to me that I didn't want to make the substantial changes required. It's very hard to take notes on your own life.
L What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job? The least?
Y (laughs) I get to laugh all day long. I get to amuse people. I enjoy the family feeling you can have on a production, and I've been fortunate enough to have spent significant time on three shows where that existed. The least enjoyable aspect is taking notes from the studio and network, when they tell you what's not working, what they'd like to see. What can be tough about writing shows that are very universal is you'll often get executives who want to tell their story, they don't want you to tell your story. Then you have to be firm and say, "This is the story I know how to tell best." There's a lot of compromise, but that's part of the process and you come to accept it.
L Who or what has been the biggest inspirational influence in your life?
L You are married to your wonderful husband Kyle, you have two beautiful children, the big house, your career in television. Do you feel you have "made it"? What does really making it mean to you?
Y I feel I have made it because I've made all of it work together. It's not always 24/7, but in the overall picture of marriage, children, spirituality, and career my life is very well balanced. I've found a way to stay grounded and feel I haven't really changed. That sometimes surprises people, and when they point that out, it makes me laugh.
L But a lot of people do change when they make it.
Y A lot of people do, but I don't understand that because I never expected to change.
L Your singular accomplishments in television make you a very rare bird. Since you've broken the ground, do you know of any other women of color who have joined you in becoming creator/producers
Y Oh, yes, there are several. Eunetta Boone has "One on One" UPN, Winifred Hervey, "Steve Harvey" on the WB and "In the House," Sara Finney & Vida Spears created Moeisha, Susan Fales, my mentor Showtime. Felicia Henderson, So, they have done it, I was just kind of in the right place at the right time to be the first African American woman to create a hit show.
L What is the best advice you can give any aspiring up-and-coming producer/writer/director hopefuls out there?
Y Don't lose focus of your own goals and what you want to say. Remember to maintain your integrity, and even more so your dignity because Hollywood will damn sure try to take it away. (laughs)
L Yvette, thank you so much.
Y Thank you.
Bowser had a chance meeting with Bill Cosby in her senior year at Stanford, who invited her to be a part of his new series, "A Different World," where she progressed from apprentice writer to producer during her five-year tenure.
Bowser went on to produce "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper" (ABC) and created "Living Single" (FOX), the number one comedy in African-American households during its entire run. She also created the romantic comedy, "For Your Love" (NBC) and executive produced the UPN series "Half & Half." Most recently, Bowser helped spearhead the Writer's Guild of America's Showrunner Training Program.
"Still, Bowser, an only child from an interracial marriage, treads lightly around her success. Among the hundreds of letters viewers send to the show, it is the handful that criticize Living Single that stick with her. She is quick to defend the show's characters; referring to viewers' early criticism of the character played by John Henton, she says, "Overton is not a shuffling buffoon. ... I see him as more of a simple, lovable guy." Bowser also stresses that the show is a sitcom, which is supposed to be light and funny, and not a drama that regularly deals with tough social issues."