Interview

Lena Waithe Wants to Write Television That ‘Helps the Way We Relate to Each Other’

Learn how "A Different World" sparked Waithe’s drive to become a TV writer and how she hopes to inspire little girls to know the world is bigger than their own backyard.

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Image courtesy of Lena Waithe.

After Lena told her tale of how a general business meeting turned into an amazing love story, we heard the sound of sixteen hundred people falling for the actor, writer and producer in the form of uproarious applause. When it died down, Brendan and Rico asked her to sit with them for a chat.

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Interview Highlights:

On how that love story actually helped win her the role of Denise on “Master of None.”

This sounds the most Hollywood thing I’ve ever said: I went to [co-creator] Aziz Ansari’s house, I walked past his Tesla [laughs]. Nah, I sat down with him and [co-creator] Alan Yang and we’re just talking about life and they were like, “What’s going on?”

And it’s still, I mean, falling in love with her has been the most important, most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me. So I was like, “OK, this is the story that, like, has changed my life and changed me.” And I told them about it and they were just– they were most fascinated by the fact that, like, “So she was not a lesbian? She was a straight person? Did you turn her?” I’m, like, “No! She sent me an email, and next thing I know I’m on a date I don’t even know I was on, and here we are.”

So they kind of enjoyed it and some of the things kind of trickled its way into “Master of None.” “The Denise Experience.”

Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe appear in a scene from "Master of None" (K.C. Bailey/Netflix)
Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe appear in a scene from “Master of None” (K.C. Bailey/Netflix)

On being inspired to become a TV writer after watching “A Different World.”

It was the first time I saw characters that were really smart, really cool, really interesting, and I wanted to be them. It was sort of this amazing PSA, really. It was like, “Black children, you too, can get a college education and be a contributing member of your society.”

So it was just really cool and I think the characters had such a huge impact on me, ’cause they were just so, like, real and they just felt so honest and you can still remember, like, Whitley, and Freddy, and Dwayne, and Ron, and Kim. Like, you say those names, people kind of go, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah!”

Like, I was that weird kid they would ask, you know, ask kids, like when they’re in the first grade, like, “What do you want to do?” “I want to be a firefighter,” “I want to be a doctor,” “I want to be a lawyer.” I was like, “I want to write an episode of ‘A Different World.'” Like, I was that person.

I wanted to create characters that were lasting and impactful. ‘Cause for me it was always, like, that show. I was like a young girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago, and that show kind of made me realize, “Oh, there’s a world outside my backyard,” and so, for me, the reason why I want to write is because I’m always thinking about who is that little girl that I could possibly inspire, that she’ll go, “Oh, the world is bigger than my own backyard.”

On working to create a TV series with Oscar-winning rapper Common about Chicago

I wanted to write about my city. I mean, as we all know, Chicago is sort of going through some troublesome times right now and there’s a lot of headlines coming out like every freaking week and they’re horrible. My family still lives in Chicago.

So the thing I wanted to do was not unlike what Ryan Coogler did with “Fruitvale [Station].” I really wanted to humanize some of these stories. I wanted to write these characters that if you can connect to them, the next time you hear, you know, a story about some young black boy being shot and killed, it won’t just be background noise. But you’ll kind of feel like, “Oh, like that kid could be like that this character that I love, or I relate to.”

And I really think that yes, television should be entertaining, and it should be fun, but I also hope I can write something that kind of helps the way we relate to each other, and sort of, you know, express that humanity.

On the secret local food spot you should go to the next time you’re in Chicago

I’mma blow it up! This is the spot… I want some right now. It’s this place called Pepe’s Mexican Food. Here’s the deal, though: it’s Mexican food, but imagine two big black women with, like, hair nets on and, like, t-shirts that just say, you know, “I’m black and I’m proud!” Imagine them making the Mexican food.

So it’s not real Mexican food, but it’s black people’s interpretation of Mexican food. So it’s, like, grease, it’s like, butter, it’s like ground beef, it’s like nacho cheese. Like, the liquid kind of nacho cheese in there. And like a little bit of lettuce, little bit of tomato, very little vegetable. Greasy, like, you know, taco shells, and tortilla chips out of a bag. Like, you pour in the bag with like, Kool-Aid mixed with Sprite. It’s… it’s my dream.

And, you know, my girlfriend will be pissed, like, “So what we doing for dinner tonight?”

“Pepe’s!”