TCA: Scenes from an unpleasant panel, where even the horse couldn’t lighten the mood
At the Television Critics Association winter press tour Wednesday, "2 Broke Girls" co-creator Michael Patrick King fielded a lot of questions about ethnic caricatures on his show, the biggest new series of the fall season.
TCA panels are usually friendly affairs in which reporters and critics ask questions of show creators and stars. But this one quickly turned ugly.
The questions focused on characters who work at a diner with lead characters played by Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs. The diner workers include a Korean immigrant named Han who speaks in broken English and desperately wants to be cool.
The questions culminated in Michael Patrick King accusing a reporter from TheWrap (full disclosure: me) of a "sexual problem" when I tried to clarify whether CBS has asked him to change the characters.
Here are the most heated exchanges from the panel, plucked directly from CBS's transcript of the event. (We've identified the questions that were ours.)
QUESTION: Michael, the show has become known for its very broad racial and ethnic humor. I was curious about whether ‑‑
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: Thank you.
QUESTION: I was curious about whether you think that reflects the way that New Yorkers in gentrifying neighborhoods interact with each other? And if not, what's compelling to you about imagining that it is?
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: The first thing is that I think that ‑‑ good morning. I think that our show is a big ballsy comedy, but it has a bigger heart than it has balls. And I feel that it is broad and brash and very current, and it takes place in Williamsburg, New York, which you know ‑‑ if you don't know, all you have to do is Google it, and you'll see it is a complete mashup of young irreverent hipsters, old‑school people, different nationalities, different ethnic backgrounds, and what our show represents is that mashup of very current, very young, smart girls and a wide range of characters that come in. We like to say that ‑‑ Nina likes to say we're an equal‑opportunity offender. I like to say that the big story ‑‑ the big story about race on our show is that so many are represented, that the cast is incredibly, not only multi‑ethnic including the regulars and the guest stars, but it's also incredibly not ageist. So the big story on our show is we sort of represent what New York used to be and is currently very much still alive in Williamsburg, which is a melting pot.
QUESTION (The Wrap): In terms of the ethnic caricatures or maybe the broad characters, [CBS entertainment president] Nina Tassler said that she's asked you to "continue to dimensionalize, continue to get more specific, continue to build them out," in her words. What does that mean exactly? What has she asked you to do?
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: It's an interesting process because, if you talk about stereotypes, every character when it's born is a stereotype. I mean, this show started with two stereotypes ‑‑ a blonde and a brunette. And that implies certain stigmas as well, which we immediately tried to diffuse and grow. And we happened to have Garrett Morris's character, who's an African American. We've done an episode where he has a very personal experience, and you start to see the family showing up around all these characters. Every character on a series hopefully, if you have the journey that everybody would like to have on a series, which is time, you get to shade the characters so they become more and more rounded, a little bit more grounded. A short character like Han will always be referred to as short. There will always be short jokes, the way that Danny DeVito's character in "Taxi" was a short guy. There's going to be jokes. That's what comedy is. You point out the objective viewpoint of somebody else.
QUESTION (TheWrap): So the network hasn't actually asked you to sort of expand on these characters who may have started off as one-note?
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: I don't think the characters were one-note. I thought the characters were the first note, and as a writer ‑‑ I mean, I've had a lot of experience being on shows over years, and what you try to do as a writer and what we try to do as writing staff and what the actors are doing every day perfectly is you grow.
QUESTION (TheWrap): I guess what I'm trying to get at is what the network actually asked you to do.
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: Keep making the show the way you think you want to see it.
QUESTION (TheWrap): But that's not really what she [Tassler] said.
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: Okay. So ‑‑
You're asking me if I was asked by Nina to change the show to make the characters more dimensional? No. The characters are dimensional, and they're seen in segments of 21 minutes, which limits the amount of dimension you can see. So I will call you in five years, and you'll have accrued enough time to figure out if these characters became fully fledged out.
QUESTION: Mr. King, I think with the Han character, it's not the issue that he's short.
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: Uh‑huh.
QUESTION: It's the issue that there's so many stereotypical Asian jokes about him. If you had to do it again, would you maybe change that character so he's not such a distraction to the show?
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: I like Han. I like his character. I like the fact that he's an immigrant. I like the fact that he's trying to fit into America. I like the fact that in the last three episode we haven't made an Asian joke. We've only made short jokes. I mean, you start to see the character, and I like Matthew Moy because I believe Matthew Moy is almost a unique being unto himself. So we're basically writing that character now. I mean, would you say that the blond, rich bitch is a stereotype? Would you say that the tough‑ass, dark, sarcastic‑mouthed waitress is a stereotype? I like all of them. I think they work together as a nice set. Of course, the characters will grow, and I wish we had a lot more time every episode to continually bring out new wings of who these people are, but that's what the series is for.
QUESTION: So are you ‑‑ does that mean that you're not going to go back to the Asian stereotypes?
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: I'm gay. I'm putting in ‑‑
BETH BEHRS: What? Oh, my God.
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: ‑‑ gay stereotypes every week. I don't find it offensive, any of this. I find it ‑‑ I find it comic to take everybody down. That's what we're doing.
QUESTION: Does being a part of one traditionally disenfranchised group make it then carte blanche to make fun of other traditionally disenfranchised groups? Or are you ‑‑
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: No.
QUESTION: ‑‑ at all of them?
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: No, I would say that you could rephrase that being a comedy writer gives you permission to be an outsider and poke fun at what people think about other people.
[Editor's note: The next question was about the horse on the show. Behrs and Dennings said he has become protective of them. "I wish he was here right now," said King.]
QUESTION (TheWrap): I also love the horse. And I'm sorry to parse this so much, but, earlier, Nina came out and said, "Our dialogue with Michael is, yes, continue to dimensionalize." Then you said that she has not asked you to dimensionalize. So I'm wondering. Has anybody at CBS asked you to dimensionalize?
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: If had you asked me ‑‑ what's your name?
QUESTION: Tim Molloy from TheWrap.
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: So you are Irish?
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: Okay. So we've identified your sexual problem.
I understand, Tim. I'm the same way.
QUESTION: I'm just asking if anyone ‑‑
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: Seriously, Tim, you went back to this question. So let me address it.
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: You didn't ask me, "Did Nina tell you, 'Michael, go ahead and continue to dimensionalize the characters'?" The answer to that would have been, yes, Nina has always said dimensionalize the characters. You asked me if she asked me to pull away from the way we started and dimensionalize the characters. So you had a little bit of a different question.
QUESTION: I asked it a couple different ways, but you just ‑‑ I mean, I can read you back your quote if you want.
BETH BEHRS: Okay.
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: Okay.
KAT DENNINGS: No, no.
QUESTION: "You are asking me if I was asked by Nina to change the show to make the characters more dimensional. No." And then you just said, "Yes."
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: Do you have your question there, Tim?
KAT DENNINGS: OMG.
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: Okay. Nina ‑‑
QUESTION: Just answer it.
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: Nina Tassler is ‑‑
MICHAEL PATRICK KING: ‑‑ so far above this conversation. It's not even funny. Nina Tassler, first of all, is about creativity, hilarity, success, and being proud of what we do, which is what we are proud of. And our relationship is nothing but fun, and we believe that the show is nothing but fun for the audience. So I'm surprised that the questions are not about fun.