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"How I Met Your Mother" writers Brenda Hsueh and Kourtney Kang give their perspectives on working behind the camera for a major television show.
While Asian Americans are still fighting a battle of representation in front of the camera, we have slowly increased our ranks behind the scenes -- in production, in financing, and in writing. But despite these gains, there is still a ways to go before there is a trickle-down effect and we start seeing more of our faces onscreen -- barring reality TV efforts to spark race wars. Recently, Asia Pacific Arts spoke with two Asian American writers, Kourtney Kang and Brenda Hsueh, from the hip CBS show, How I Met Your Mother, now in its second season.
The daughter of a Korean father and an Irish mother, Kourtney Kang was born in Hawaii and moved to Philadelphia. For as long as she could remember, Kang was interested in the entertainment industry. Originally, she wanted to be involved with performance, in either acting or singing, but she self-deprecatingly admits that she was an untalented performer. She needed to find another avenue for expression. Fortunately, she discovered it through enrolling in a college playwriting course. Since that experience, she earned her MFA and worked her way up through “getting lots of people coffee.” It was from those connections that she landed a position as a staff writer on the short lived American version of the British television series, Coupling, which led to writing positions for other sitcoms (Come to Papa, The Men’s Room) before she joined the Mother staff.
Brenda Hsueh’s route to writing was slightly different. She decided much later in her life that she was interested in television writing. Growing up in New York City, she was an English major in college and planned on staying in New York as a news writer. These plans were halted when her mother got sick. With her mother in LA, she decided to move in order to be closer to her mom. She ended up meeting an entertainment industry contact in Los Angeles through an alumni association event. That contact turned Hsueh onto television writing. After submitting a spec on a whim, Hsueh landed a writing fellowship at ABC. She was then able to secure an agent, who led her to the Fox television series Oliver Beene and The Men’s Room (where she worked with Kang). Incidentally, the How I Met Your Mother creators, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, were also working on Oliver Beene, which ultimately helped her land the gig on How I Met Your Mother.
Writing for the Show
How I Met Your Mother is a smart comedy that might be considered a cross between The Wonder Years and Friends, with a modern, 2000s edge. The show is similar to The Wonder Years because it is set in 2030 and told in flashback. It begins with Ted Mosby (narrated by Bob Saget, and played by Josh Radnor) telling his kids the story of how he met their mother -- hence the title of the show. But it is also a Friends for the 2000s because it is really about Ted and his circle of friends living in New York City. Each episode is told through extensive use of flashbacks -- sometimes between 2030 and present time, and others between present time and earlier moments in present time -- and follows Ted on his many misadventures with his friends. The rest of the show has TV star-power, with Jason Segel of the critically acclaimed show Freaks and Geeks playing Ted's law student roommate Marshall Erickson, Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Alyson Hannigan as Marshall's fiancé, Neil Patrick Harris, AKA TV's Doogie Howser, M.D. as the loveable Barney Stinson, and relative new-comer, Cobie Smulders as Robin Scherbatsky, Ted's love interest, who viewers find out in the first episode is not the mother of the title.
But star power aside, what really makes the show shine is its writing. The stories are laid out in a way that the narratives of the future complement the flashbacks and the portrayals of the present. The non-linear nature of the story provides the viewer with somewhat of a mystery about the future, gradually revealing hints of what happens next. Despite initially using Harris' Barney as much of the show's comedic drive, all of the characters have all developed their own personalities, and they are both likeable and relatable, particularly to the 20-something urban crowd, but not exclusively so. Plus, the chemistry between Radnor's Ted and Smulder's Robin keeps viewers engaged.
According to Kang and Hsueh, the writing process for Mother is very much a collaborative effort. It begins as a forum for ideas. Together, the writers (under the direction of the creators) figure out the main story arc and the main series arc. After they decide on the main points of an episode, they assign the main script to one writer who writes a first draft. After the draft is complete, the script goes back to the writer’s room to go through a revision. Sometimes as a writer, explains Kang, you get attached to your works, but because of the collaborative process, what ends up on the screen is not necessarily one’s own work in its entirety. Kang views this as one of the many plusses and minuses of the collaborative writing, but she loves it nonetheless because there is no other form of writing like it. Also, the writers help out in the production process of the episodes that they have writing credits on, to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
In the brainstorming process, the writers often pull ideas from their own personal experiences. The writer’s room is full of personal anecdotes. One episode that Kang wrote began from a discussion about how there is no good way to break up with someone, which spawned the main plot where the main character, Ted, breaks up with a girl who is not "the one." The episode, entitled "The Return of the Shirt," has Ted rethink the other things he missed out on after dismissing previous relationships early on, including one with Natalie, a girl he broke up with three years earlier. When he decides to give their relationship another try, it is revealed in signature Mother flashback form, that Ted broke up with her three years ago on her birthday via a painfully awkward (but hilarious) answering machine message that was heard by all her friends at her apartment before her surprise party. Although Ted's situation was a tad hyperbolic, it still works because people can identify with the root concept- that breaking up is not an easy thing to do.
Part of the reason that the episodes can rely so much on the writer’s own personal stories is because they all relate to the characters. Hsueh believes that it's the demographic similarities between herself and the characters -- specifically urban single twenty-somethings -- that makes it easy to identify with. Kang relates to the characters en masse as one entity: in her eyes, choosing favorites is as hard as picking favorite children.
As Asian Americans writing for a major up-and-coming television series, the two also weighed in on Asian American issues in the media. Unlike Asian and Asian American actors, who often get typecast in stereotypical roles, both found that their ethnicity was not a big issue for their writing efforts. Kang viewed being Asian American as an asset rather than a liability. Similarly, Hsueh thinks that ethnicity comes into the picture because it gives them the advantage as the “other” in American society. This "other" status is not limited to Asian Americans, and encompasses all minorities, ethnic, political, sexual orientation, and anyone else not completely in the mainstream of American society. Because of the desire to build a writing staff of diverse experiences and perspectives, each unique perspective is valued in order to capture a wide segment of society.
Both mentioned that the producers and staff at Mother try to include more minorities. With the show set in New York City, the most ethnically diverse city in the United States, it is unrealistic if the entire show is without people of color. So whenever it is possible, the show already tries to incorporate different ethnicities into its cast. But, this balance is difficult. Kang recalls with her time on Coupling, essentially a show about dating and love, where there was only one full-time non-white cast member, half-Asian Lindsay Price. In order to compensate and have more people of color on the show, all major outside characters were people of color. However, that was also an odd dynamic. Since all the guest stars played potential love interests, the show was entirely based on interracial couples -- which isn't realistic either.
Instead, Mother tries to put minorities in roles that are not contrived. In an episode that Hsueh wrote, entitled "Zip, Zip, Zip," there is a scene where Barney and Robin are out for the night on the town. At their local bar, Robin helps Barney pick up a girl at the bar, acting as his "wingman." The role of the girl was written for any ethnicity, but they decided to cast Asian American actress Vivian Bang. It is these kinds of roles that Hsueh says they try to create in efforts to portray greater diversity without treading into the province of bad stereotyping or tokenism. While there is a sense of responsibility and consciousness about Asian American representation on television, the two feel blessed to be on a show that internalizes such concerns so they do not have to worry about it as much.
Hsueh and Kang emphasized the importance of both an on-screen and off-screen presence. It's important to see Asian Americans, and people of color in general, in front of the camera just for representation purposes alone, but being behind the scenes is also important for creating the roles that allow for visibility. That way, minorities can contribute to the greater goal of incorporating a wider array of experiences and perspectives onto the screen. Ultimately, according to Kang, it is these more unique perspectives and experiences that make television interesting and enjoyable.
Advice for Aspiring Writers
Write as much as possible in order to refine your writing skills. “The beauty about writing is that you can do it at home and get better. It’s not like acting where you have to have other people around. For writing, you can always do it by yourself,” said Hsueh. Feedback was also important for personal improvement in the writing process. And of course, as an alumnus of the program, she had to plug her own springboard, urging those interested to apply to the ABC Disney Writing Fellowship. Kang recommends to those interested in television or film writing to move to Los Angeles and to "work your way up," just like she did. Worked out pretty well for both of them.
As for How I Met Your Mother, the two are tight-lipped about any plot spoilers for the future.
Who will be the “mother” from the title? “You’ll just have to wait and see.”
How I Met Your Mother
Mondays on CBS
Official site: http://www.cbs.com/primetime/how_i_met_your_mother/
Other APA coverage of Asian Americans working behind-the-scenes in television:
Interview with Richard Wong, who worked on Arrested Development
Date Posted: 10/10/2006