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HBO's 'Insecure' shows 'black people's humanity,' showrunner Prentice Penny says

Prentice Penny is the showrunner for HBO's
Prentice Penny is the showrunner for HBO's "Insecure."

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Issa Rae stars in a new series, “Insecure," which she created with Larry Wilmore. "Insecure" follows Issa’s life as a young professional woman in Los Angeles who finds herself feeling stuck in a rut, both in her job and in her relationship with her unambitious boyfriend, Lawrence. At the same time, Issa’s best friend Molly feels stuck dating men who have no interest in a real relationship.

Happy AF Insecure video

Rae has best been known for creating and starring in the popular web series “Awkward Black Girl" — but this is her first show on a big channel. When Wilmore left the project to host his late night show, Rae brought in writer-producer Prentice Penny to help steer the process. Penny has worked on shows like "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "Happy Endings," but this was his first time as a showrunner.

When he stopped by the Frame, Penny explained why he felt so strongly about landing the gig on “Insecure.” 

Interview Highlights

On why he felt so strongly about getting the job of showrunner:

Larry Wilmore was going to go do his show for Comedy Central and I was just like, I don't trust anybody. I believe somebody's going to mess this up. I want to run this show. So I called my agent and was like, get me a meeting with Issa. This show is too important.

I did something really old-school: I wrote her a letter... In the letter, I just explained to her how much I loved what she was doing, how much I loved the script, what I related to in the script. I had literally had a work experience where somebody asked me what "on fleek" meant, literally a month prior to that. I worked a non-profit before I was a writer. I just explained to her why I thought I would be good to write her show.

You know when you meet people and you just hit it off and it feels like you've always known this person? That was how our relationship was when we actually first physically sat down and talked...

You don't get to tell these stories every day. I feel like shows of color fall into some areas. Some are about the things you expect people of color to do and then there are shows or movies that are about people of color's pain and struggle. This show was just talking about what life was like on a Thursday for people of color. Like the most mundane details of our lives. I feel like we don't get to tell slice of life stories.

On making the show authentic to the experience Issa wants to tell:

It is a different scenario when you are not the creator or writer brought in to run a show. I learned under a really great showrunner who had my job on "Happy Endings" named Jonathan Groff, who actually now does that too for "Black-ish." He is Kenya Barris' co-showrunner on that show.

I talked to him before we started filming, and the one piece of advice is, he was like, Always be a shepherd of the show. You're brought in to protect and nurture that vision first and foremost. This is not your time to make it be your agenda or this or that. He's like, Your job is to make the best show that she wants to make possible.

That was my whole mindset as I was doing the show. I'm a dad in real life, and they often call me the dad on the show, because HBO bought her show. So I wanted to maintain that and also share what I've learned in 12 years of television to make this show be the best.

On casting a diverse writers' room:

I think Issa and I knew for this show that we didn't want to go a typical route where we just hire a bunch of comedy writers, because there's a lot of drama in this show. So our thing was to have a mix of comedy and drama writers. So that was important.

It was a good mix to have different ages of writers in the room, from very young to people in their forties. We obviously had two white writers in the room because it would be obvious to just stack it. But if you have Issa's voice, you don't need to repeat voices.

That's the one thing I've learned from being on other shows, and when I did my first show, "The Hustle," you always want to make sure that each voice in the room is unique and specific. We had gay and lesbian writers in our room. That was specific. For us it was about assembling this puzzle of, do we feel we have enough 1) interesting voices and 2) that we have voices that don't repeat? 

On what kind of material gets rejected from the show:

I think if we feel like we've seen it on a television show, it definitely is not going to get in our show. If it's a topic that's kind of skirting a thing then it's like, what's our unique take on this subject matter that's gonna be different...

We try to make storylines that you hadn't really seen before. And if it is a thing you've seen, what is our slant on it — our unique spin that's going to be interesting? If not, then we're just retelling a story that's been in there.

So that was a big thing. We would lift issues and things up on the wall of things we wanted to talk about. We said, well, so and so has talked about this, or we haven't talked about this. We would talk about those things in the room pretty candidly.

On women speaking candidly about sex on the show:

It's funny. When I first sat down and was talking with Issa about this show, I was like, Man, this is how women talk? This is what girls say? This is crazy! But it is. The character Molly is based on a friend of Issa's, and we all went out to brunch after we had cast the show, and I just sat and watched Issa and her lawyer friend, who are like best girls, and it was like, oh yep. This is exactly how they talk.

And I've hung with Issa and her crew, and that's exactly how they talk... I always liked Issa because she's educated but ratchet. So she kind of loves ratchet stuff... Ratchet is like when you're unapologetically hood... it's kind of like saying someone's "ghetto."

On how the show is a window into an often unseen part of the black experience:

I think the biggest thing for this show is, because it's talking about what life is like on a Tuesday or whatever, that it's really seeing black people's humanity. And I think so much right now, how black people can be demonized, and certainly African-American men and all the things that are happening with police shooting, there's a part of it that's like this perception of, he's big and black and he's a threat to me, without seeing the humanity that this person can be a father and a husband.

If you can just watch this show you can be like, oh I didn't know that they felt this way or he feels this way. Again, we're not all the black experience. It's like, oh there are things that I can relate to in this show too... Issa's just in a relationship that she doesn't know is going anywhere. Being uncomfortable at your job. I think those things are just relatable on a human level. I think if this show shows humanity for people of color then I think all the more better, obviously. 

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