Taking a stand
British writer Bisha K Ali opens up about her journey from stand-up comic to TV showrunner and explains how her experience paved the way for a new Netflix- and Sky-backed talent programme supporting underrepresented writers.
From stand-up comedian to the showrunner of a Marvel series, British writer Bisha K Ali’s rise through the television industry has been nothing less than meteoric.
Having aspired to be a writer from an early age, Ali’s first break came on season one of Netflix’s Sex Education, before she moved to the US to work on Hulu’s series adaptation of classic romcom film Four Weddings & a Funeral. She was then hired by Marvel Studios to work on Disney+ series Loki, and is now responsible for its upcoming series Ms Marvel, on which she is the creator and showrunner.
Set to launch on Disney+ in late 2021, Ms Marvel introduces Kamala Khan (played by Iman Vellani), a 16-year-old Pakistani-American growing up in Jersey City. A great student, an avid gamer and a voracious fan-fiction writer, she has a special affinity for superheroes, particularly Captain Marvel. But Kamala struggles to fit in at home and at school – until she gets superpowers like the heroes she’s always looked up to.
In May this year, Ali also partnered with Netflix and Sky to launch The Screenwriters’ Fellowship, a year-long programme to support six outstanding screenwriters from black, Asian and other racial and ethnic backgrounds that are currently underrepresented in the high-end TV and film industry.
During French television festival Série Series earlier this month, Ali spoke about her TV education, being a stand-up comic, the importance of being represented on screen and how her own experiences breaking into TV informed the ideas behind the fellowship scheme.
Ali’s relationship with film and TV began at an early age. Growing up in England, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, she was exposed to many different types of programmes, alongside US imports that travelled around the world.
I’d seen things from all across the world but, to me, that’s just what television was. Then as I got older, it became more and more of an obsession. I was really raised on TV and film. I did not study anything to do with the creative arts at university. I have an undergraduate degree in economics and a master’s degree in international development and population studies. But I was constantly writing. I was writing scripts for myself, writing scripts with my friends, making little movies with my friends, but I never thought the creative industries were for me. I never saw many people on screen in the UK who looked like me and I rarely saw in the credits any names that sounded like mine, and it felt really inaccessible.
Feeling represented on screen is “incredibly important,” and the lack of representation created a subconscious acceptance of what was deemed to be idealised, aspirational or interesting.
I remember one show in the UK called Goodness Gracious Me, a comedy sketch show that really defined an era for South Asian people because we finally saw ourselves on screen. The creators and stars of that show are infamous to this day; they are legends among the community. When we think about an example of South Asians on television in the UK, that’s still the dominant one from when I was a child, and that’s quite a long time ago. That was the first time I ever thought [breaking into TV] might be possible. But it still felt like such a huge leap for me personally, and for a lot of South Asian people.
She continued writing and then started performing stand-up comedy by going to open-mic nights, where she found there was no barrier to entry and became “addicted” to the instant feedback provided by a live audience.
It’s a really raw form of performance and creation because you know very quickly if you’re not doing well. You know very quickly if people are enjoying or not enjoying what you’re doing, so you’re editing in real time. There are no notes from a script editor, no notes from a producer, no notes from the network. It’s very quick in those terms, so it’s a very freeing medium. I started by going to the open mics and realising anyone can do this, so why not me?
Stand-up provided Ali with an alternative entry into the TV industry when producers who were in the audience at her shows asked about her writing ambitions.
That really was the beginning of how I moved into the industry. I’d side-stepped in, in my own sneaky way. I had all these scripts ready, I met with a bunch of different producers and, in the early days of my career, [UK broadcaster] Sky funded a table read and put loads of agents and loads of other people from the industry in the room so they could see who I was, what my writing was and what my voice was. Off the back of that, I signed to my agent and then it snowballed in terms of taking lots of meetings and getting to where I am now.
As a teenager, Ali put herself through her own film school by watching Goodfellas director Martin Scorsese’s list of the 100 greatest films of all time.
I did not have formal training of going to school to write. As with any craft, it’s about doing it, and then you learn more. If you’re constantly writing, learning about technique and reading the books that are telling you about form and structure, you can educate yourself and you can get to a certain point where your work is indistinguishable to producers from [that of those] who went to film school, who didn’t, who studied what. What it comes down to is the script. That work ethic is what saw me through.
The lack of diversity on screen isn’t limited to racial and ethnic representation. Ali says all kinds of minority groups are “clearly missing” in a lot of the British television industry.
When you weigh racial diversity up against disability, there are way more diverse people on screen than there are people with disabilities. I do think it’s always been a problem. Does what we see on screen marry up with what we’re seeing behind the screen? Does it marry up to the rooms we’re going into where the decision makers are? Does it match up with who the heads of departments are when we go onto a set? Does it match up with who the crew are when we go onto a set? We can be telling really diverse stories, but are the people telling those stories diverse as well? I do think there’s been a significant change in the past 10 to 15 years, but I don’t think we’re done.
Ali says the problem lies in the lack of diversity among those in positions of power who are making the decisions.
That’s where unconscious bias sets in and where implicit bias sets in. It would be great to have more diverse commissioners in the UK across the board. There’s a myth where for every new diverse hire, a white man somewhere is losing his job, and I get very frustrated when I hear this. That’s just categorically untrue. That’s not how this works. We’re saying there’s room at the table and the table can expand and include more of us.
Another trap a lot of creatives from diverse backgrounds sometimes end up stuck in is that it’s not just our job to be creative. It’s also our job to educate someone on what is or isn’t appropriate on what is perhaps a racist act or isn’t a racist act while juggling the social mores of that situation and while juggling your desire to create a piece of work and defend it along different social lines, and that can be really frustrating. It’s a whole other job to be a racial guardian of a profession, and none of us asked for that job. The more people of colour in positions of power, the less we have to have those conversations.
The fellowship scheme with Netflix and Sky was inspired by Ali’s own experience of having to take time off work and travel across London for meetings in the early days of her writing career, which left her feeling “overwhelmed.”
I felt like I didn’t have a financial support system to take care of me in that period. A real problem at the bottom level of the UK industry is we keep saying we want to include more people from working-class and diverse backgrounds, but from communities where they don’t necessarily have a financial safety net. To be clear, I’m very privileged, I’m very lucky I have some financial support, but even then I was struggling a huge amount, so imagine someone with even less financial support than I had.
That was an issue I had when I was starting and when I met with Anne Mensah, the VP of Netflix UK, she was very open to hearing about my experiences. I was looking at those problems and I said, ‘Really, the problem comes down to money. Let’s give new writers a financial cushion for one year and say this is time for you to spend working on your own script, improving yourself, provide them with access to people that they otherwise don’t have access to. Let’s give everybody their first television credit.’
Ali also speaks opening about her “terrible mental health” as a result of working as a freelance writer where your salary depends on your ability to pitch and sell a show, leading to a very insecure lifestyle. But the fellowship will offer mentorship to up-and-coming writers, providing them with the skills they need to build relationships with agents and run their career like a business.
A lot of the mentality [of new writers] is, ‘I just have to get an agent and then everything is going to be OK.’ But that’s just not true. That’s not how it works. You have to get an agent and then learn to work together to build a career.
Something that is also really important is the idea of moving people away from the mentality of, ‘I need to do one TV show. This is my dream TV show. If I get to make it then I’ve done everything I want to do.’ That’s great and lovely, but it’s very hard to promise anybody. I would like to change that perspective to, ‘I want to be a creative artist with a long career.’ That mentality shift will come with time, more information and more learning, and with meeting different producers, different networks and seeing what the possibilities are. Then your ambitions can grow.
Netflix comedy drama Sex Education was Ali’s first television credit, though she admits she was the most inexperienced person in the writers room, which was also one of the most diverse she has ever been in.
That first time in a writers room was exhilarating because you’re sharing ideas constantly. Sometimes they won’t fit with the idea of the head writer when they’re curating all of these ideas and lacing them together. It’s really such a collaborative experience. [Creator] Laurie Nunn led us through that process with real grace and with real intelligence and empathy for our characters. We had these massive spreadsheets on the wall where we were tracking characters in every single scene across the entire show.
That was a really big learning curve for me – the level of specificity, the level of detail and being able to contribute to that when I felt so green. I felt so new and I felt like such an imposter. But they really wiped all of that away and really built my confidence as a writer and as a contributor in that room. After that, I went on to work on Four Weddings & a Funeral in the US and that was a whole different experience, and then writing for Marvel on Loki and for Ms Marvel after that.