When MTV put a major lesbian character at the center of its short-lived series Underemployed last year, I was thrilled. I was even more psyched to learn that an actual lesbian was in the writers’ room, helping to create a three-dimensional, authentic gay girl coming to terms with her interest in women—and sex toys. Television writer Jen Braeden came to Underemployed after getting her start as a writer’s assistant on United States of Tara. She went on to write for Awkward and is now working on the new ABC comedy Super Fun Night, starring Rebel Wilson.
Jen took some time to answer our questions about getting her start, the shows she’s been a part of and what it’s like to be an out woman in the writers’ room.
AfterEllen.com: First, I am so sad Underemployed didn’t get renewed. It was so underrated! Why do you think it didn’t catch on?
Jen Braeden: Thanks, Underemployed was a great little show. I think maybe it was hard to find a big audience on MTV. Their main audience is a little younger, and I think those kids didn’t want to think about the impending quarter-life crisis that happens after college when you’re truly on your own for the first time. Maybe the kids who were the same age as our characters didn’t want to watch other people struggle while they’re having a tough time themselves. Or, maybe 10 pm was too late to put it on without a good lead-in. It’s so hard to do postmortem on shows.
AE: Did you write a lot for Sophia on the show because you are a gay? Were you the official lesbian consultant when it came to her coming out and other related queer commentary?
JB: I definitely tried to make things authentic. There was another gay writer on the show, Brad Bauner, who also wanted to portray a realistic gay character. There was a discussion early on—it might have been a network note—what if Sophia also dated men too? I really pushed back against that. I was so sick of flip-floppy lesbians in TV and movies who dabble with women but what they really need is a big strong man. I didn’t want that. I just wanted her to be gay. And luckily the showrunner, Craig Wright, agreed.
I was really proud of what we did with Sophia. We were even able to do an episode where Sophia is apprehensive about using “equipment,” i.e. a strap [-on]. It was something I pitched in the room in the first few weeks, and I don’t know if anyone thought we could actually do it. But I had never seen that before—the anxiety of being a baby dyke and being introduced to a strap-on for the first time. It’s scary and uncomfortable but also kind of hilarious, and I wanted to do a story about that. The story we ended up doing was very tame, but I’m still proud of it.
AE: What’s your career trajectory been like? How did you get your start?
JB: I was in grad school at Chapman University in Orange County getting my MFA in screenwriting. I needed an internship for school, and I really didn’t want to do coverage of scripts in dark basements like a lot of my classmates. I was spending a lot of my downtime watching Six Feet Under DVDs. I watched the commentary for one of my favorite episodes by the writer Jill Soloway. Her first line was: “You don’t have a life, do you?” and I immediately just felt a connection with her. I wrote her a fan letter.* This was before Facebook blew up so I was lucky, because now people write Jill all the time and ask her for things and now she says no. I told her that I would do anything she wanted for free. She thought I was crazy so said she’d meet me—in a public place. Once she saw that I was not dangerously crazy, she agreed to take me on as an intern, then when I graduated I became her personal assistant for a few years, helping her with her pilots and her life in general.
I was paying my dues, for sure, but learning so much. Then Jill became the showrunner for [United States of Tara and made me writers’ assistant, so I finally got to be in a writers’ room. I became close with Craig Wright there, and when he needed a writers’ assistant to help him work on developing Undermployed into a script, he asked me to come help and promised to hire me as a staff writer if we got picked up. The problem was, I didn’t really have a good sample to prove that I could write well. I hadn’t carved out any time for my own writing. I started working on a pilot about a chick in her 20s who comes out to her wealthy, conservative parents and is disowned, cut-off, and has to go live on her own for the first time.
I just couldn’t seem to finish the pilot. I talked to my aforementioned boss/mentor Jill, and she saw the problem more clearly. She said: “You can’t finish it because you haven’t come out to your parents yet.” She advised me to write a letter to my parents, but assured me I don’t have to send it, just write it. But as soon as I finished writing this letter, I knew I needed to send it. And I emailed it to them that night. A few days later, I finished the pilot, and my real career started—I got an agent a week later, got into a TV Festival sponsored by FOX a month later, and I had a great sample in my pocket that has helped me get all of my jobs.
Undermployed was picked up, and Craig was true to his word and hired me. From there, MTV took notice and sent my sample to Awkward showrunner Lauren Iungerich when they were staffing Season 3, and after a great meeting with Lauren and Erin Ehrlich, I was hired on Awkward. After that, my wonderful agents at WME got me a meeting with Rebel Wilson and showrunner John Riggi for Super Fun Night.
* I wouldn’t really recommend the fan letter angle, I just got really lucky.
AE: What is it going to take to get a lesbian character on Awkward? Do you feel any kind of responsibility as a queer woman to include queer characters on the shows you work on?
JB: I would love Awkward to have a lesbian character! Lauren had such a clear vision for Season 3 and there was just no room for a lesbian storyline. I’m sure I probably tried to pitch one though. I don’t necessarily feel a responsibility to include queer characters, but I’d rather work on shows with queer characters that I connect with. On Awkward, I think I connected in general to the normal teenage angst, regardless of orientation.
AE: When you’re in the writers’ room, is there ever a concern about what’s true about queer people vs. what the greater public will accept about them/us? Do you like to challenge those ideas/stereotypes at all or is your focus on the story/character and not necessarily educating straight people?
JB: My focus is on story and character first and foremost, but if someone pitches something that is offensive in a way a straight person wouldn’t realize, I fight against it. I also have a problem when coming out is trivialized and when gay characters are completely over-the-top flamboyant or one-dimensional. I think—hope—people are starting to realize that gay men and women are just like them, we eat cereal with a spoon, we have jobs and long-term relationships and the most important thing about us is not that we are gay.
I don’t like when gays are stereotypical, but at the same time, I can’t argue too vigorously since I love sports, drive a Subaru Outback, and dress like a boy 90% of the time.
I had an interesting conversation with one of my coworkers about why there hasn’t been a mainstream lesbian character accepted on network TV. I don’t really understand why gay men are OK but there has never been a gay woman. Has there? I can’t think of one on a network TV comedy. Maybe when a lesbian does not fit into one of two stereotypes— lipstick or butch— if it’s just a regular woman who can “pass,” it makes men feel uncomfortable. My coworker’s theory was that if men see a functional happy lesbian who doesn’t need a man, that turns them off. I’m hoping one day this changes and we will see a wildly popular, hilarious female character who just happens to like sleeping with women.
AE: What can you about Super Fun Night? What will lesbians like about it? Can you give us any kind of indication what story lines might arise?
JB: I feel really lucky to be on SFN. It’s insane how funny Rebel is, and how much the camera loves her. She can take a pretty plain scene and just make it great when we shoot it. I think lesbians will like the show because it’s funny. But we also have a very interesting character named Marika, played by the crazy talented Lauren Ash who is confused about her sexuality. I hope it’s something we’ll be able to explore going forward.
AE: What’s it like for an out woman who wants to be in the writers’ room these days? There seem to be several on high profile shows like Orange is the New Black and True Blood, but in the overall scheme of things, it’s still male-dominated.
JB: It’s definitely still male-dominated in most writers rooms, but I’ve been lucky. In all the writers rooms I have worked in, it has been at least half female. Of course that’s not the norm but hopefully one day it will be. As for trying to get a job as a gay, I actually feel in some ways, it makes me kind of different and memorable. That’s probably not the case in most career fields in America, I’m sure. But out here, you have to be interesting to get a job. And talented! But being interesting helps.
AE: What else are you working on/hope to work on or do in the future? Do you want to stay in TV or are you interested in film or other forms of writing entertainment?
JB: I love TV, I love being in the writers’ room. I’d love to work in TV for a long time. I’m also writing a YA book about a teenage girl who survives a plague, which is really hard but really fun. I have had to put it aside since I started work on SFN, because it requires so much of my brain-space. I find writing scripts a little easier, so I’m working on a sci fi movie in my downtime at work. It’s also about a teenage girl in the future, but no plague this time. I’m really mixing it up.