Lena Waithe, Writer & Actor
Lena Waithe made history in 2017 when she became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Writing for “Master of None.” How she went from sitcom-obsessed kid to sought-after writer and actor is TV-show worthy and proof that busting your butt for what you want pays off big time.
Lena Waithe, Writer & Actor
LENA WAITHE: When you're an artist and you're making whatever it is you're making, I think the mission is to walk to it as vulnerable as possible, so that somebody will be able to connect to it.
LENA WAITHE: I grew up on the south side of Chicago. I was in a house full of women. It was my mother, my grandmother, my older sister, my aunt come by a lot. There was a similar thing that they all had, which was a lot of strength, a lot of pride, a lot of integrity, and a nice amount of sass and swag, too. I know a lot of kids watch television, but I really felt like I was immersed in it. I watched, like, "A Different World," "The Cosby Show," "Saved By the Bell," "The Fresh Prince." Even though they were multicam sitcom characters, they still felt very honest and real. And I just kind of got lost in all of those different kind of worlds.
LENA WAITHE: Getting a chance to work for all these talented black women, who were just sort of playing hacky sack with me for a couple years, just being the most excited person on set, and having a really great attitude and there being nothing that I would say no to doing, it was really the beginning of my life in scripted television.
LENA WAITHE: I went to New York to talk story ideas with Allen and Aziz and some of the other writers. And in the midst of just having a conversation, Alan asked how I came out. And I proceeded to tell them not thinking it was that interesting. And I got back to my hotel, and they both called me and said, we want to do an episode about that. And Aziz was like, you have to help write it, because it's so specific. And it's your story, and I can't write that by myself.
DENISE: I'm gay.
- You what?
DENISE: I'm gay. I've always been gay, but I'm still the same person. I'm still your daughter.
LENA WAITHE: Telling the coming out story, I had to step in my mother's shoes as well. And I think it actually gave me a greater understanding of what it's like to be come out to. It was about telling an honest story about two people who are trying to figure something out. And I think that's what most coming out stories are. I really wanted people to see the love more than the fear or confusion, and I think they really got it.
LENA WAITHE: My LGBQTIA family, I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers. Every day when you walk out the door, put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world, because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren't in it. I do think the things that make me different are my superpowers, because there is no "Thanksgiving" episode if I wasn't born black, gay, and female.
LENA WAITHE: "The Chi" is about being black and human on the south side of Chicago. It's not about drugs. Nobody's singing or rapping. I was more interested in the middle class, the working class community, because that's what I'm from. When you're a working class person with a dream, it's like a pressure cooker, because every day is a choice to fight the good fight, to chase the dream. I know we're not perfect, but we're not all bad either. There's always these demons that we're wrestling with, and I wanted to show that in a real way. So that way people start to care about these communities and these people that make them up.
I think there's a lot of storytellers that don't look like the storytellers of yesteryear. A lot of young, black, queer, different people that have never been a part of the culture in a mainstream way. That's the way I want to change the business is by helping to usher in new voices. There's still a lot of others who haven't been included yet. And so until everyone is in the room, I think we still have work to do.
- They announced that they were looking for people to do programming to send man to the moon, and I just thought wow, I've gotta go there. I grew up in the Midwest, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, upper peninsula. I just enjoyed school, but there was something about math that I just liked more than everything else. I liked deriving the answers, 'cause I didn't wanna memorize, it was too much. I was lazy. When my husband was in law school they wanted the law wives, my being one of them, to pour tea. And I said to my husband, no way am I pouring tea. I was a Harvard Law wife. If I go to Harvard Law School fine, I'll do what the men do, but I'm not gonna be put in that position, and was very proud of me that I had taken that stand. They announced that they were looking for people to do programming to send man to the moon. I was the first programmer they hired. I came up with the term software engineer, and it was considered a joke. What, software is engineering? Mostly men were working there and they had somebody at home to take care of their kids. I had no choice. I'd bring my daughter Lauren into work nights and weekends, and she'd see me playing astronaut to test the software, and doing the kinds of things the astronaut would do. So, she wanted to do it too, so she played astronaut. And all of a sudden everything came crashing on the simulator, and I realized that what she had done is that she selected the prelaunch program during flight. I said oh my god, this not good. We really need to put a protection in there 'cause the astronaut really could do what she did by mistake. I tried to get it through MIT/NASA. No, they said astronauts are trained never to make a mistake. There was an emergency. Everything happened that we thought would happen if they made the mistake, so then there was a decision, go, no-go, land, or don't land. Fortunately, the people at mission control trusted our software, and they said go, go, go. The software and the hardware worked perfectly. The software was on the ground and on the moon.
- [Neil] That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
- Her example speaks of the American spirit of discovery that exists in every little girl and little boy who know that somehow to look beyond the heavens is to look deep within ourselves.
- Being fearless, even when the experts say no this doesn't make sense, they didn't believe it, nobody did. It was something that we were dreaming of happening, but it became real.