I called Kara Brown the day after the premiere of Grown-ish, the show on which she recently completed a season as a staff writer. “So prompt,” she complimented me. “I’m a professional,” I responded. Ever the professional herself, she then asked me if it was okay that she was making breakfast while we spoke. “It’s not going to be loud, I just didn’t want you to be thrown by my oatmeal-making.”
Those of you who do not frequent the site you’re on right now might be shaken by the relaxed tone of our exchange. Those who have hung around these parts will more likely be aware that Kara and I are former colleagues from our time at Jezebel.com, and because I am the one writing this piece and not she, I will also describe us as dear friends. The current powers-that-be at Jezebel asked me if I would be interested in interviewing Kara on the occasion of the premiere of Grown-ish, the third episode of which airs tonight on Freeform, and I accepted, because, quite frankly, it seemed like easy money.
Anyway, back to Grown-ish. For those who don’t live in New York City and haven’t seen the very cute ad campaign covering all subway stations, it’s a spin-off of the hit ABC show Black-ish, created by Kenya Barris and currently in its fourth season. Black-ish stars Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as the heads of the Johnson family, while Grown-ish follows the exploits of their eldest child Zoey, played by Yara Shahidi, as she enters college and moves away from the grasp of her loving if wacky family.
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Like its predecessor, the show is already receiving strong reviews (though more than one writer has fallen into the trap of using its title to explain that the show, like most new ones, still needs some time to find its rhythm). Also like its predecessor, Grown-ish uses humor to explore issues that would become hokey in other hands. The show continues to tackle race in 21st century America, but has added new topics that a primetime family show on ABC might not be able to fully dive into—sex and drugs, primarily. Overall, Grown-ish is a show about the tricky time that is finding yourself as you leave adolescence, a topic we all know is ripe with story potential.
I spoke to Kara about how she made leap from blogging at Jezebel to writing for TV, the projects she’s working on outside of her new gig, and her recent snafu with a snowmobile. As usual, our conversation has been edited, because the whole thing was truly very long and probably quite boring at times. We pick up with the oatmeal.
KATE DRIES: Oh you’re making oatmeal. You make really good oatmeal.
KARA BROWN: Thank you. Put that in!
So I guess I should prepare you for a really hard-hitting interview because you’ve never been on this end of experiencing working with me.
No! Oh god. What’s it like?
I don’t know; we’re going to find out. I want to start out asking you how you’re doing post crashing a snowmobile.
Oh my gosh, I almost died. I posted a photo about it and it is kind of funny but it really was not funny at the time. Basically, there was this very steep incline and I was turning to go down it and I started to miss it, so to overcorrect I accelerated and tried to turn really hard, but instead I accelerated off an edge, and we went flying. The whole time I was pressing the brake and I wasn’t understanding why I wasn’t stopping, and I later realized it was because we were flying through the air. And then we hit a tree and were thrown off into a thicket of trees. Then no one could see us anymore—it was me and my dad’s girlfriend. And my dad and my sister thought we were dead. I think I blacked out for a second because I woke up on my back and initially I couldn’t move my left leg. I thought I’d broken my leg. I didn’t, but I was very sore, and I am never in this life snowmobiling again.
It’s a thing I’ve never had any desire to do because it seems—I mean, I don’t even like skiing because I’m convinced I’m going to die. But then seeing this happen to you, I thought, nope, I never have to do that. [Laughs]
I haven’t skiied since I was 18. So the joke is that I didn’t want to go skiing because I didn’t want to get hurt and then I get hurt with this stupid thing.
Well obviously I’m glad you guys are okay.
Thank you. Can you imagine if I’d died in a snowmobiling accident right before the show premiered?
Do you think even though you live in LA you would have been on the cover of the New York Post? And what would your headline have been? I always think about that, how slow a news day does it have to be and how weirdly would I have to die for them to be like, “BLOGGER BLUNDER”? Some horrifying headline.
I don’t know if I’m important enough.
I’m definitely not, but I assume that—maybe not in this climate, but in the olden days, there could have been a day when nothing was happening and I died and they were like, oh, a piano fell on her. Great cover.
Right. Well now there’s literally nothing not happening ever so you’d have to really die in a special way.
Anyway. How are you feeling about the premiere of Grown-ish? Is it weird to see it on TV and have people watching it and reacting to it?
This is obviously the first show I’ve written on, and one of the things for me that’s been new is seeing how everything translates. So I’ve obviously been in the room since we’ve been writing the script, and I’ve read the script, and I’ve been at a table read, and we’ve seen them filming it and we saw first cuts and then to see it actually on television and everything’s done and the music is scored and it’s color-corrected and it’s edited and all of that, to see it actually transform into a TV show is crazy because it’s sometimes hard to imagine it when you’re doing it. But I think that’s also probably because this is a new thing for me.
I was wondering, I assume part of the transition of writing online to writing TV is that now you’re sort of part of a system that you used to be critiquing with your old job. Which isn’t necessarily at odds at all—media people critique media all the time—but you’re so used to getting criticism on blogs and it must be a similar but different feeling to get it on a television show you made with all these different people.
Right. And we’re lucky because we’ve gotten really good reviews, which is really exciting. And I’ve poked around on Twitter a little bit…
[Laughs] Yeah I was wondering how deep you wanted to go, how much you wanted to inflict potential pain on yourself.
I looked at the hashtag, because I saw it was trending and I thought, well that’s probably a good thing. I probably had the same experience when I was writing online and when you write something there are obviously things that don’t make it or ideas that you have that don’t fully translate and you can’t always explain what you were thinking and why this is the way that it is, I think even moreso with TV. Knowing the process of how we got somewhere, and so knowing why things are the way that they are and maybe if they didn’t quite translate how we expected them to, and obviously because it’s not my show, I can’t be like, “Actually, this is what it was.”
And I feel also like, when I was at Jezebel, you could just go in the comments and explain something if you really wanted to. With a TV show it’s you and so many other people, and so you can’t be like, oh, this is wrong because the actor said it differently than we imagined it in the script. You can’t throw people under the bus like that. And it’s also, I know what happens all season and I know where we go, so in particular with critics, they just saw the first three episodes, so some of the criticism that they did have I’m like, I know it gets addressed—but you just have to hope people keep watching to see that it actually does.
Yeah. I guess on that front, is it liberating or frustrating to not be able to respond to that stuff? I think on some level it would be nice to be like, wow, I can’t say anything about this. Cool.
It’s a reminder that it’s the show that I work on but it’s not my project. And we’re there to help Kenya make the best show possible. So with that in mind, there’s no thought that I could ever respond to that. I’m not going to go down in the mud and yell at trolls or get mad at critics, that’s not going to be happening. And I think it’s a lot easier when most of the response has been positive, obviously. So I haven’t really felt like there was much that I would have wanted to say something about.
Also what’s interesting about Grown-ish trending on Twitter is that on some level that’s an indication that you’re reaching the viewers you want to reach, which is young people who are on social media.
Right. I didn’t talk a lot about Twitter in the room, but it was definitely something that when I was writing on this show and even just when I’m writing other things of mine, I think about how it’s going to be received. I don’t know that it’s completely good or bad either way. I think sometimes when I’m like, oh, this could cause a problem with people on Twitter it’s because I’ve seen the way something happens in a TV show or an article and it blows up in a crazy way because of Twitter. So I think about that sometimes, and it hasn’t stopped.
You can’t turn it off.
Since college you’ve had three related, distinct careers: working in PR, writing for a news website, and now you’re writing for a TV show. Did you think this would happen, and does it make sense to you now that it has?
I think the trajectory always makes sense at the end. I always thought I was too late, even with Jezebel. Because initially Jessica [Coen] had offered me the editorial internship and I was living in Manhattan and needed a full time job and couldn’t do it. And so I always felt like I started too late and if I had done this earlier, I would be 24 and—well I guess I was there when I was 24 though...
And it’s probably not super logical but I definitely thought that with TV writing as well. Which is also a bit nonsensical, because it’s not like I’m running into tons of 24-year-olds writing on TV shows—it takes awhile. But initially when I was thinking about trying to get into TV, people were saying to me, “You’ll have to be a writer’s assistant, or a script coordinator, because you have no TV experience, you’ve never been a PA or anything like that,” and I was like, wow, I really don’t want to do that. I also would have been terrible at all of those jobs.
I would have been so bad. So I thought I had lost too much ground. But that was not true. That was a silly worry, in retrospect. [Laughs]
So tell us specifically how you got the job writing for Grown-ish. I was going through the archives and I think it’s funny that Jezebel was reporting on Black-ish getting a spin-off and you were writing for Jezebel at the time.
And I wouldn’t have known then, early on.
Right, of course.
The long story is that I had been working on a pilot. And I get a little distracted, a little procrastination, and then when Gawker filed for bankruptcy, I panicked in a lot of ways. I was like, oh my god, you’re going to have to get another job somewhere else, I’m going to have to work at some other website. But it helped me finish that sample really quickly.
Wow. I didn’t know that! That’s kind of cool.
Because it was something I had been thinking about, and I was like, if I lose my job—obviously that did not happen, but in the immediate aftermath we didn’t necessarily know that—I need to have this ready to go.
So I finished it and then probably in August or September of 2016 my friend took me to this, it was called a Comedy Writers Boot Camp at CAA, and it was geared towards women and people of color. And so I went and Issa Rae was one of the speakers. And I remember thinking, well, I know she follows me on Twitter, she’ll probably know who I am. So I went up to her and she immediately was like, oh my god, hello, I didn’t know you were interested in TV. And the boring-ish details are that she was looking for new ideas and scripts and so I said, well I literally have this one thing that I wrote. And she liked it and she had presented it to HBO.
So basically all of a sudden I had this really big meeting at HBO. I had no idea what was going to come of it, I didn’t really know what I was doing, and so I reached out to some friends who worked at agencies and I was like, guys, I have this meeting, do you think any of the agents at your company would care? Because it’s sort of this thing in Hollywood is that none of these agents give a shit about you until you actually have something tangible. These people probably knew who I was anyway but they didn’t care because I didn’t have something lined up. And then out of that experience that’s how I got my agent. And then I spent a lot of time at the beginning of 2017 going on meetings. I kept having a bunch of meetings at ABC and a lot of the executives there really liked me and everyone kept saying, you need to meet Kenya, you need to meet Kenya. And he’s so busy, and then I finally met him after Grown-ish got picked up.
And it was funny too because Kate, we’re at this Starbucks in Encino, and he was like, yeah, I think you’d be a really good fit. So in my mind he’s telling me, you got the job, it’s just a matter of we have to find the money and we have to make some decisions, it’s not totally just his decision, right? The network [is involved too]. So I’m thinking, oh my god, I got the job. But he didn’t tell me, and I think it was a Thursday, and my agent said to me, “If this wasn’t Trump’s America I would tell you to go celebrate but I’m worried that something crazy is going to happen, so just chill.”
So then I was just panicked. And in retrospect, when I talk to other people, they’re like, that was no time at all, that was so fast. I had met with him on a Thursday and I think I found out on Monday. But it was over the weekend and I was super stressed out all weekend. And then I was sitting at a nail salon getting a pedicure and they called and told me. [Laughs]
What a beautifully LA way to find out about that.
It was weird though because it’s hard to talk on your cell phone in a nail salon without being an asshole. So I was like, whispering, “Oh my gosh, this is awesome.” And I think I just threw on the weird shoes and started walking home because I wanted to keep talking and I wanted to call my parents and I couldn’t do it in the nail salon.
Obviously I know from first-hand experience that you watched a lot of TV, but what was appealing to you about going into making it, and also particularly making this show?
Who was the dude with the hair who wrote Blink?
[Kate and Kara try to remember Malcolm Gladwell’s name for several seconds until it comes to them.]
Whatever his book was where he was talking 10,000 hours and whatever the hell, in it he talked about how Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and all of these tech dudes were the exact right age to become these people. They were all in their early 30s so they didn’t have families yet and they could work all the time just as all of this new stuff was happening. And so for me, when the “Golden Age of TV” started, it was around the time that I had graduated from college and I had just moved to New York. I had friends, but it was cold a lot, so I remember watching all of The Wire in like two or three weeks, something crazy. So I was watching a lot of TV when TV was getting really good, like when Mad Men was on and people were like, oh my god, TV isn’t just for movie stars who want to make more money.
So I think watching TV in that particular time was probably really instructional. And also, it was at a time when movies had no black people in them.
But then you had Scandal. So I was like, well I’m not going to pay to go to a movie; I’d much rather watch this TV show where they’re actually putting black women in it, or something like Grey’s Anatomy where women in general got to talk, then go to another Spider-Man movie.
Yeah I was going to say, that was maybe the first time that Hollywood had become an environment that actually seemed appealing for women and people of color to be a part of.
Yeah, I think that was a part of it. I remember when I got the job at Jezebel, my dad said something like, I think you always knew you wanted to be a writer but you didn’t necessarily articulate it outwardly to the world. When I was younger I thought I wanted to be a movie director, so probably part of me knew, but the idea of being a writer is very scary. I remember going to Jezebel, I thought, my parents just paid for me to go to a private university; this needs to be a real job. Finding a writing job that pays you regular people money can be very hard. So I don’t think I always allowed myself to fully believe that that was a thing I wanted to do because when it’s something that feels so narrow, it’s like, oh, there’s a really good chance that it won’t happen. And I don’t love failing at things.
So then with TV, when I got out here, honestly a big part of it was I started meeting people who wrote for television and I kept meeting a bunch of these white dudes in their button-down plaid shirts and they were just so average.
Their personalities were kind of average, their writing was average—they were not exceptional people. And they were killing it, they’re rich on television. They’re doing it and they’re making shows and they’re getting staffed. And I thought, if these dodos have figured it out, surely I can find a way. So I think it was also being confronted with who was actually doing this and then you meet them and I’m like, oh, I’m at least as good as these people.
Yeah. That’s a great attitude to have.
But I didn’t really know that until I moved to LA. It’s really hard to know that unless you keep meeting people and you’re living in the town and you’re confronted with it, and you’re just like, oh, is this what it takes? Oh, I have that. I’ll talk to people now who have no concept of how people become TV writers. And I’m like, yeah, I barely understand, and I am one now.
Obviously Kenya is incredibly talented and Black-ish is such a funny show—when his name was brought up to you along with the potential for this show, how did you feel about it?
It feels too lucky that the first show I get to write on stars a young black girl with naturally curly hair and shit like that. I’m like, oh, this is perfect. Kenya had a couple other shows in development and they weren’t quite sure where things were going to go and I remember people being like, I think Kenya will like you, I think you’ll like Kenya, and I’m like, yeah, that’s the person, that’s who you want to be with. And so I felt like this show was almost too perfect. You get to do this show starring this black girl being run by the creator of Black-ish who is now one of the biggest black people in Hollywood right now at a time when he is just completely skyrocketing. It’s like I created the narrative. As opposed to like, hey guys, I’m leaving to go write on Mighty Whitey McWhite Sitcom Man Show.
That’s a good title.
So now I want to talk about Grown-ish the show. One thing I found really captivating about it was that you have all these little jokes balanced against this general feeling of college being this time that’s supposed to be super amazing, but can actually be exhausting and really challenging. I found it totally overwhelming that I was in this entirely new environment spending all day every day with people I had never met before. I was pretty depressed my freshman year, but it took me awhile to realize why, and that a lot of other people were going through the same thing.
Obviously Zoey has a tightknit, cool group of friends, but it was unique and interesting to see that this is going to be a challenging time for her in many ways.
Yeah. That was one of the things we talked about a lot, where the character on Black-ish and her life as it was presented on Black-ish has gone pretty well for her, that arc. You know, it’s like the big fish, little pond thing. And there were probably a lot of kids who, at their high school, were number one in their class and you get to college and it’s like, everyone here is smart. There are a bunch of people who were also number one in their class. And so for someone who’s been kind of coasting to be in an environment where coasting doesn’t quite work anymore. And being popular in college is a completely different thing than being popular in high school. And being smart in college means something different than it did in high school. So the way that you thought you were going to succeed in a lot of different arenas really shifts when you get to college. That was definitely something we talked about a lot with this character, and a lot of the characters. It’s not quite the real world yet, but it’s much more like the real world then you’ve ever had before.
How do you feel like Zoey’s college experience compares to your experience at Tufts?
[Laughs] Um... writing for the show, I was obviously digging into a lot of college memories. There would be things that I had completely forgotten, and then we’d be in the room talking about something and I’d be like, oh my god, I did that. I don’t think I went in with as many expectations of trying to be something super cool in college. I was interviewed by the Tufts Daily recently and it was really funny because the girl interviewing me was like, so what kind of things did you do in college, activities and clubs? And I was like, I didn’t really do any of that.
I think they expect because I’m marginally successful right now that I think they think that, oh, she must have been in improv and and probably wrote for the Tufts Daily.
I didn’t do any activities. I hung out with my friends and I graduated in four years. So I don’t think I also went into college expecting to kill it—and that is sort of where we have Zoey. She’s going in expecting to be That Bitch again, like she was in high school. And I was just like, let me just feel this out and see what’s happening here.
Zoey’s also really fun as a character because she’s not really “good” in a traditional way. She’s kind of self-involved and not always the sharpest tool in the box. And even though she’s exceptionally beautiful and very confident about that, as we see in the first few episodes, she’s missing some common sense points, with boys in particular, which I thought was a very funny development.
And there’s more of that. We’d had discussions about that in the room where, it’s one of those things where even if you get older, she is incredibly beautiful, and I think that definitely solves a lot of your problems for awhile—and then it really doesn’t. And so we had talked about that with her, where like, yeah, when you’re in high school, if you look like her, things are probably going to be fine for you. But in college it doesn’t really translate the same way. So a lot of what we explore with Zoey are her expectations of something versus the reality of it. And her expectations are not always rooted in common sense or accurately assessing the situation in front of her as opposed to what she would like this to be. I don’t know, I think back to being 18 and it’s like, oh my god, we were so dumb. And didn’t realize it.
How did you guys think about fleshing out Zoey’s friend group? It’s notably a very diverse group—both personality-wise and culturally—and it’s really fun to watch so many different people that we normally don’t see on TV.
By the time we began, everyone was pretty much cast, so Kenya already clearly had an idea in his mind of what he wanted for her friend group. But one of the things I like—and I can’t speak for anyone else in the room—but when I look back at my friends in college, I actually think that her breakdown is pretty similar to mine. And I didn’t go to an HBCU, Tufts did not have many more black people than Cal U fictionally does. But you do find your people, and so I think that for someone like me, where I went to a private high school that was mostly white and the same with college, but you still are able to find the people that you want to be around and you can find the other black people and you can find a diverse group of people even in those environments. And so I think he did a really good job. Because also, I buy that these are people that she wants to be friends with.
And that was the whole idea with the first episode—everyone’s very different, but understanding how all of those kids relate to each other. I remember my dad said something like that to me when I was growing up, because there weren’t a ton of black people in my school, he said “I think you’re probably going to form a lot of close relationships with non-black people of color because there are more of them here.” I had a lot of friends who are non-black people of color, because our experiences ended up being very similar. They’re also a minority in this environment, and just because they’re not black, our experiences tend to line up really similarly regardless.
This is maybe a weird question because they’re your coworkers, but did you have this many hot guys at your school? Because I definitely didn’t.
We always joke that this is the most good-looking cast of people on television. I mean did you have anyone who looks like Yara in your college? Of course not. She looks like a doll. No one looks like that.
No, I did not have that many attractive people. And I remember our first table read someone made the joke of just like, my god, everyone here is very attractive.
It is TV!
So moving back to you, another hard-hitting question: you previously told me that you hate podcasts and you don’t listen to them and yet now you’ve been on a ton of them. Why the sudden switch? Do you just have too much free time?
Ugh, I know. They keep asking me. I still don’t listen to a ton of podcasts. I often don’t listen to myself after having been on the podcast. Also the ones I’ve been on recently, Bitch Sesh, that’s a good one, that’s just me talking our Real Housewives text chain with other people. The Lovett or Leave It thing was cool, it was in front of people. I think I’m also trying to…
Say yes, as Oprah would tell you to?
Say yes, and get more comfortable with the idea of... for any type of writer, you have to be a more outward-facing person unless you’re just holed up and writing and you’re that good and it doesn’t matter. If you write a good story now, there’s a very good chance you’re interviewed on television about it and so you need to be confident. I’m also just like, let me get more comfortable with being an outward-facing person. With Hollywood, unlike other industries where you’re writing, like, Kenya’s a famous person. He goes on The Daily Show and people know who he is and what he looks like and all that. So if—fingers crossed—that becomes a trajectory that I’m on, I better make sure I’m not nervous every time I have to do this. Also you hit me on a big week. That was the most podcasts I’ll be on in any week.
Yeah it was like three or four in the span of seven days or something.
That will probably never happen again.
This is a logistical question: you had obviously a weird schedule working on the West Coast for Jezebel, and now you have kind of a weird schedule working on this TV show in that you have really long hours but then now are not working much. Is that transition odd? In the past however many years, you haven’t had a proper 9 to 5.
I know. I mean the writers’ room was kind of a 9 to 5, in theory. That was actually much more like a normal schedule. And also I was getting dressed every day, which I did not do at Jezebel. [Laughs] I online shop a lot anyway, because I don’t really like shopping in stores, but I was buying so much clothing because I realized that I had a lot of great loungewear. And then I had a lot of athleisure because I was going to the gym a lot, so I had a lot of athletic wear. And then I had outfits if I was going out at night. I did not have a lot of casual daytime looks. So I was buying a lot because leaving the house was different.
I think it’s funny though because before you were talking about how you wanted a stable job as a writer and this is arguably a less stable job than the one you had because the show has to keep being on the air for you to keep writing for it!
I know. [Laughs] It is the irony.
Speaking of free time, how pleased are you with the success of Fancy Pasta Bitch, your pasta website?
Oh my god. Who knew! Actually you know who knew? All praise goes to Amina.
So I had started my pasta hobby and I would post about it on Instagram stories and Amina was like, you need to buy the URL. Like the one day I was like “fancy pasta bitch!” Amina DMed me and was like, buy that URL. Seriously. I will do anything Amina tells me to do. She is the most competent person I know. So I was like, okay, and I bought the URL and I kind of sat on it for awhile and then I was like, let me just do this dumb blog.
Here’s another funny thing, when we were working on my episode of Grown-ish we were talking through the story and Kenya was like “Oh, I read your blog” and I was like, “What blog?”
And he’s like, “Fancy Pasta Bitch!” And so Kenya said, “It was really well-written, it was funny.” And I was like, that’s literally just me typing shit. That’s literally just me being like, okay, I made some pasta today. I don’t go in with a plan, it’s just whatever pops into my head. So when he said he read it and thought it was good I thought, this is very funny for a lot of reasons. But yeah I don’t know, Fancy Pasta Bitch. It’s a movement, maybe.
And how did you become an Amazon influencer?
So you know I’ve written a lot about—
Stuff you buy, yes. I’ve edited a lot of pieces about stuff you buy.
I don’t know, they sent me the email. Also I’ve written about the way celebrities do it bad so I was like, if I people ever pay me for that, I’m going to be like, yo, can you believe they paid me money to do this? I don’t know why people feel so secretive about it. I don’t have a brand like that so that’s probably why. But I would be like, oh my god guys can you believe Adidas sent me these shoes for free? I would be so proud! So it’s maybe one step towards that. But no they said we’re going to make you an Amazon influencer and I was like, what do you do? And you just put in shit that you buy. I can do that. I buy something from Amazon every two days. I’m not proud of it. So it felt like it came together nicely with a lot of my interests.
Well I’m proud of you for your success.
Thank you. I’ve made $126.
Thank you for your transparency about the process.
Except like an idiot I got it in Amazon credit. I shouldn’t have done that.
So now you’re just going to spend it on Amazon. God, they really got you there.
They totally got me there. And here’s the sad thing: had they just given me the cash, probably would have spent it on Amazon anyway.
[Laughs] Last thing is: you have an entire episode of Grown-ish that you wrote. Which episode is that?
How mad will you be if I don’t find a way to watch it live?
It’s fine. But you know what you need to do, you gotta just put it on repeat on Hulu like 1000 times.
Kate, I know you support me regardless.
[Laughs] Yup, that’s me. Supportive as always.
Or you know what I’ll do: I’ll call you and read the entire script to you over the phone.
Hmmm. Hmmmm. Oh, you’re breaking up, I can’t hear you.
I’m going to send you a bunch of videos. Look forward to that in six weeks.
Grown-ish airs on Freeform on Wednesdays at 8 pm ET.