A few weeks ago, Buzzfeed reported that a high-ranking executive at a major TV network was alleged to have said that having women in a show’s writers leads to conflict and not comedy. While the comments were later clarified by Adult Swim exec Mike Lazzo, who the words were attributed to, his message remained clear: by his view, female comedy writers are less likely to write good comedy because they are women.
As big as the story was for the first twelve hours of Lazzo’s comments being alleged, redacted, clarified and so on, the combination of a twenty-four-hour news cycle in political overdrive and the unfortunate saturation of stories about shameless prejudice against women as professionals and human beings means that a story about who’s hiring who at a niche late-night TV block blew over pretty quickly.
Fair enough. However, that doesn’t mean that simply because there seems to be a million different headlines about discrimination against women we can’t backpedal and look at how, even when carelessly stated, implying a fundamental incompetence of female writers is an unacceptable precedent to set from someone that high in any respected network’s food chain.
As a major presidential candidate might say to a has-been TV host, let’s tackle this issue and grab it by the pussy.
Mike Lazzo is a thirty-plus year veteran of the television industry, and the current executive vice president and creative director of Adult Swim. He was also paraphrased as saying that “when you have women in the writers room, you get conflict, not comedy” in that Buzzfeed piece, in which a number of anonymous former employees explained their struggles working with the comedy network as women. Much of the conversation surrounding Lazzo’s comments at first focused on the disappointment felt in a company that has produced so much interesting, respected, bizarre work. Adult Swim has been at the helm of cult classics like Tim and Eric, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Rick and Morty, The Venture Brothers, The Boondocks, The Eric Andre Show, and has been repeatedly credited as the network that rose Family Guy from the dead after its initial cancellation on Fox. For a fifteen-year-old network, this much success is no small feat, and Lazzo has been a driving force in accomplishing it.
After the initial fallout over his alleged comments, Lazzo clarified on Reddit to say that what he meant was “women don’t tend to like conflict, comedy often comes from conflict, so that’s probably why we (or others) have so few female projects.” He continued to admit that this was a “dumb answer” and that “Lucille Ball and Gilda Ratner [actually spelled Radner] to Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer prove my statement to be a load of generalized nonsense.”
Take a look at the list of Adult Swim successes closer, and it speaks for itself—none of the central protagonists on any of the network’s juggernauts are female, and conversations being led by writers like Buzzfeed’s Ariane Lange and Splitsider’s Megh Wright in the past several months have revealed that women are equally underrepresented behind in the scenes in creative roles. Of course, it’s likely that the majority of people working in entertainment doesn’t agree with this prejudice, but in an insular world where a rogue comment can prevent a healthy income, it can be challenging to find people willing to speak out against comments like Lazzo’s.
Fortunately, some will.
“It’s garbage,” tweeted Eliza Skinner, a prominent standup with writing credits on The Late Late Show with James Corden and Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.
“Can confirm that all women hate conflict and also the comedy is exactly like a bar fight,” tweeted Jill Twiss, a writer on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
“I don’t believe this even needs to be said, but I’ll say it anyway: The ability to write comedy is not gender-dependent,” Adam Conover, the lead on TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything, a show that came up as a webseries on the CollegeHumor network, told us.
“It’s funny, because that quote makes me WET for some conflict,” tweeted Hallie Kiefer, writer on TruTV’s Friends of the People.
“Hey, Mike Lazzo, here’s some conflict: Go fuck yourself!” tweeted Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of Netflix’s Bojack Horseman.
“I am avoiding the conflict of participating and instead sending thank you notes to my enemies,” tweeted Aparna Nancherla, a standup with a litany of national standup credits and writer for Late Night With Seth Meyers and Totally Biased.
Let’s get one thing straight: to boil this down to this is a Mike Lazzo problem” is to give this similar issue permission to crop up again and again via any number of Mike Lazzos that are harboring similar prejudices a little less publicly. Given his backpedaling on the comments mentioned in the Buzzfeed piece, it seems like Lazzo is well aware that women are perfectly capable of producing excellent television—he’s just not hiring them.
After putting out a call for thoughts on this statement, I lost count of how many people responded to Lazzo’s comments only with “there are four female writers on Rick and Morty,” a number that comprises half the Dan Harmon-helmed writing staff. Twitter eggs told me this. Adult Swim employees told me this. Other television industry people told me this. Dan Harmon’s assistant was somehow directed to a Facebook post of mine and told me this. This statement is true, and positive, and good. Rick and Morty is one out of thirty-something shows on Adult Swim, and can’t be used an excuse to refuse to do better.
Lisa Hanawalt, known for her work as a production designer and producer on Bojack Horseman, explained the dichotomy of wanting to speak up but not wanting to be the one to speak up on her podcast, Baby Geniuses.
“As someone who wants to have a show someday, I probably shouldn’t call them out publicly,” she said of Adult Swim, “but if the gate’s already closed to me then what do I care?”
Hanawalt’s cohost, accomplished standup and TV writer Emily Heller, agreed. “I’m tired of having to be polite to people who are being very rude to us.”
When I asked Hanawalt for a comment on Lazzo after the release of his statements, she expressed a similar sentiment.
“Every time some ish like this happens, women like us are called upon to educate & speak out & list ourselves,” she explained over Twitter. “I take a risk and exert time and energy every time I’m vocal on this stuff. I wish men would take more of the burden. I mean, it’s cool to hear women talk about this and give them a voice! I’m just so sick of these knuckleheads.”
Losing the faith of talent like Hanawalt and others is ultimately Adult Swim’s loss, because their contemporaries are doing a lot better at developing shows with women. Comedy Central has beefed up its women-driven entertainment in recent years (Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, Another Period, Idiotsitter), and networks like TBS (Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Angie Tribeca, Separation Anxiety), Netflix (The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Lady Dynamite, Chelsea), The CW (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin) and others appear to be making a concentrated effort to represent different voices and staff these shows accordingly. In fact, Adult Swim has lost its revered status in the eyes of many former employees, who have since moved on to networks and projects where their voices are more respected.
Lazzo criticized Buzzfeed’s sources on Reddit in their analysis of his comments due to their choosing to remain anonymous, saying “if unnamed sources want to complain, complain about me after I’ve read the script you asked me to read or tossed you out of my office for pitching something I didn’t like.” Writers and comedians like those quoted above are putting themselves at risk by criticizing an executive, and there are many working in similar writing and performance positions who need to remain anonymous in order to preserve their ability to support themselves in an extremely insular industry. It’s a complicated decision to put your name on criticism of the industry you’re trying to thrive within, and, if Lazzo’s comments are any indication, already have a disadvantage in getting ahead in. It’s the classic conflict of “this is bullshit and I hate it, but please hire me.” With his extensive experience in television, it’s likely that Lazzo is aware of this.
One former Adult Swim employee I spoke to is a writer now happily employed on the staff of a popular network sitcom who came up in the industry as a production and office assistant at Adult Swim.
“When I was originally hired, I was told that I’d have a lot of access to the writers and, once production started, be able to me more involved in the show,” she said of her experience at Adult Swim. “Then, I learned that my boss only dated black and Asian women in their twenties—I’m black, and the other office assistant was a young Asian woman.”
While this didn’t stop her from pursuing the opportunity for further work with the company at first, she grew steadily less confident that those opportunities would ever be on the table.
“What struck me the most was that once I was hired I was told by the female production assistant that my interaction with the writers once production started would be limited, because having women around would ‘distract them,’” the source said. “The writer’s room was all men, and the production coordinator told me that our boss had said he’d never let a woman be on staff.” She, and the production assistant who had relayed the information, left the company shortly after.
Another source who is currently employed by Adult Swim expressed a similar inner conflict to many female fans of the network—it’s not okay, but coming from a company that produces some of the funniest stuff on television, it’s especially disappointing.
“I think they definitely have a problem,” the source said. “I mean, just looking at the numbers, it’s insane. And it’s weird, I don’t know like who the problem is.”
This is because a lot (and I’d wager to guess that most) of Adult Swim’s male employees working in the roles of writers, producers and showrunners wouldn’t agree with the assertions their boss Lazzo is making. “I’ve had great experiences, but also great individual bosses and producers on [Adult Swim] shows. Lazzo might be really good at finding, like…decent white guys, morally decent white guys who are cool with hiring women, et cetera.”
While this is encouraging, the source acknowledged that decent white guys, while not bad, aren’t the answer to a systematic problem.
“They should just hire a dope-ass head hunter development exec to be their female face to reach out to female creatives,” the source suggested. “I think there’s a definition to be made between toxic men in positions of power and general ignorance that needs to be pointed out constantly and, hopefully, corrected.”
Another former employee of Cartoon Network and Adult Swim agreed with the problems at Adult Swim being connected to careless opinions like that of Lazzo’s and a general ignorance to the challenges that come with being a woman at the company.
“I’ve been the lone female writer in a ton of writer’s rooms,” she explained, “and I’ll say that while there has absolutely, 100% been sexism on their part, I always handled it well and never caused any ‘drama’ about it, and I’m still friends with most of those guys.”
Adult Swim was rumored to be taking meetings with women after the criticism over the summer, something confirmed by two sources who wished to remain anonymous. As of this publication, there are no female-led or driven projects that have been picked up by the channel, while shows that have been criticized for their loose affiliation with Neo-Nazism are on the schedule. In a time where prejudices against hiring women take place in industries across the board, a refusal to do better is asking to lose talent.
“If I limited my writer’s room to one type of person, it would do nothing but handcuff me creatively,” Adam Conover said. “I can’t imagine choosing to do so.”
So we’ve got a problem. But also, please hire me.
When reached for comment, an Adult Swim representative told Paste they have no further statements at this time.
Jamie Loftus is a comedian and writer. You can find her some of the time, most days at @hamburgerphone or jamieloftusisinnocent.com.