Top Gay and Lesbian TV Writers Profiled in “Created By”

Created ByIlene Chaiken

If you’ve ever wondered how your favorite television shows came to fruition, then Steven Priggé’s new book, Created By…: Inside the Minds of TV’s Top Show Creators ($14.95 Silman James Press, 2005), will be of particular interest. Besides being one of the few books to profile TV writers, Created By is also a stand-out because of its inclusion of those who less typically rise to positions of great influence in the entertainment industry—women, people of color, and out gays and lesbians.

Alongside the creators of mainstream hits like Alias, That 70’s Show, and Frasier, Priggé interviews some famous gay and lesbian television writers, as well as straight writers who have created some of the more memorable queer television moments.

Writers of queer interest profiled in the book include Alan Ball, out creator of the gay and lesbian-inclusive Six Feet Under (who also won an Academy Award for writing American Beauty); The L Word creator and out lesbian Ilene Chaiken; the straight-but-not-narrow Joss Whedon, who brought together two of the first teenage lesbian lovebirds—Willow and Tara—in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; out writer Max Mutchnick, who created Will and Grace with his straight writing partner David Kohan, and Tom Fontana, creator of gay-inclusive HBO prison drama Oz.

Created By was borne of Priggé’s own “professional curiosity” (after working on the show Spin City, he wanted to get a job as a television writer), as well as his love of television. He wanted to know how individuals came up with the ideas to create his favorite shows. In doing so, he asks all the contributors a range of both personal professional questions about their early writing careers, favorite programs, how they landed their first television writing jobs, navigating network politics, creating an original program and how to make it last.

His unique structural approach to the interview (in each chapter he asks all of the writers the same question and then lists their answers to it together) offers the reader a rare opportunity to compare the way in which a variety of great creative minds tackle the same obstacles and issues.

Most of the writers have in common an early call to write—be it plays, films, poetry or songs—and a combined love of both literature and television. In fact, it’s fascinating to read about their influences and then search for evidence of them in their own work. Writer Alan Ball recalls being heavily influenced by both the work of gay playwright Tennessee Williams (gothic family melodrama ala Six Feet Under), while Max Mutchnick recalls his love of The Odd Couple (featuring a sparring non-married couple not unlike his own Will and Grace).

In his chapter “Breaking In,” each of the writers tells of the combination of luck and skill that landed them their first jobs in the entertainment industry. Some were spotted while acting in their own works, while others came in through the back door via their executive work. Ilene Chaiken’s first television gig was working as an agent trainee for Aaron Spelling. She was promoted to a Development Executive position, and then went on to work for Quincy Jones before burning out on the “business” side of the business. A talent scout saw Alan Ball’s original play about a group of southern bridesmaids, which eventually led to Ball being offered a writing position for Grace Under Fire.

Once in the door, the journey of conceiving, pitching, and creating an original program is unpredictable at best. For some writers, film and politics play an integral role in the creation of their original programs. The Attica Prison riots, for example, made a deep impression on Oz creator Tom Fontana, inspiring him to write a show that about what really happens in prison while standard police dramas ended with the sentencing of the criminal.

Others were inspired by seeing what wasn’t there, as Joss Whedon explains:

“I came up with the idea for Buffy largely due to my fascination with horror movies where the girl always gets killed. I identify with female victims who have been mugged. Most of my work is in gender studies, so I am interested in subjects on women and particularly women as heroes. I wasn’t seeing them in television. So I wanted to take the victim character and turn it on its ear. I wanted to give her some fun.”

The concept for Ilene Chaiken’s drama lesbian-focused drama was also borne out of a desire to tell a story that hadn’t been told yet, and The L Word received an uncommon early green light shortly after an early draft of the pilot was handed in.