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During her childhood, Jessica Gao was so starved for representation on TV, any show that featured an Asian character in any capacity immediately became her favorite. If she saw one in a commercial, she wanted the product. “I was dying to see any small part of myself,” says Gao, a onetime art student whose affections shifted to screenwriting. “When I was first starting out in TV, there was this feeling among a lot of us writers of color of not wanting to be pigeonholed. I didn’t want to just be known as the Asian writer. But today the context is different. People are trying to be more authentic.”
Gao cut her writing teeth at Nickelodeon on kids fare like Back at the Barnyard and The Mighty B! She’d go on to scribe for several animated and live TV shows, including Robot Chicken and Silicon Valley, before a gig at cult cartoon Rick and Morty changed everything. There, she rose to executive story editor and penned the fan-favorite episode “Pickle Rick,” earning the series (and herself) an Emmy Award. Now a showrunner — make that “head writer,” care of Marvel semantics — Gao launches She-Hulk: Attorney at Law on Aug. 17. This latest serial from Disney+ and Marvel stars Tatiana Maslany as the titular 6-foot-7 green superhero. And, by Gao’s estimation, it’s the first (mostly) comedic series in the MCU. Speaking over Zoom from the eclectic L.A. home she shares with her fiancé and their cat, Gao discussed making a superhero sitcom, her writers room rules and the executive notes she loathes most.
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I’m really excited for Marvel to have a true half-hour comedy and really lean in to a comedy format. Everybody loves the big spectacle — all the action operating at a level that you don’t see anywhere else — but what’s special about TV is that you have the time and the space to really just live with a character and see everyday life. I want to know what’s happening on a Tuesday when the world isn’t in danger. What happens when a 6-foot-7 green woman has to buy a business suit for court?
The female writers on Rick and Morty endured harassment from a lot of social media trolls. How do you handle the likelihood that it’ll happen again in your career?
It’s simply old hat for me now. Really, it’s just about caring about the people who you know will appreciate the work. We’re making it for the audiences who want to see this, who love the character or just want to have a good time watching a show. You can’t please everybody — and you’re never going to make a good thing if you try to [do that]. So first and foremost, we just tried to make each other laugh in the writers room.
What did you learn about running a writers room from your time on Rick and Morty with Dan Harmon?
It’s very different from most traditional writers rooms I’ve been in. For example, we had a timer for the first few weeks where, at the top of the hour, we’d set it for 50 minutes. You can’t look at your phone. You can’t check email. You had to focus on work and only talk about the show. When the timer went off, there’s another 10-minute timer, and that’s your break to do whatever. It got everyone to focus. I’ve since used that in other writers rooms when we needed to really buckle down.
Do you have rules of your own?
The most ironclad rule I had was that we were not going to stay late. I don’t think anything gets funnier or better after 7 p.m., and I’m a firm believer that people have to have lives outside of the room. Really, all you do in the room is mine each other’s lives for stories. They’re not going to have personal stories if they don’t get to have a life. That’s how you end up with dialogue in shows and movies where you’re like, “This doesn’t sound like a human being.”
Earlier in your career, what was your biggest misconception about how TV gets made?
Just how many hands touch the script before it gets to the screen.
What’s the most infuriating note you’ve gotten from an executive?
How long do you have? (Laughs.) There are two types of notes that have been the bane of my existence. One is the preemptive note between outline and script: “Well, make sure to do this and make sure to do that.” I’m a professional screenwriter. You’re telling me literally the basics of writing. Why did you hire me if you think I’m that stupid? The other type that I see often is the classic executive “I want you to over-explain everything and take out all nuance and subtext” note. It really drives me crazy. My philosophy is always, “Let’s not answer a question that’s not being asked.” And if you do shoehorn in a little bit of dialogue to [satisfy them], that just shines a light on something that you don’t want people to pay attention to.
Emmys tend to change careers for writers. Was that your experience?
Oh, it was like night and day, just the deluge of offers and people calling. It was surreal. In the moment, I genuinely didn’t think we were going to win because I just thought, “Well, The Simpsons wins every year.” When I sat back down during the ceremony, my cousin texted me and asked how it was going. I said, “We won!” Then, within two seconds, I got a bunch of text messages from my parents saying, “Why didn’t you tell us you won? Why did we have to hear it secondhand?” (Laughs.)
What’s the biggest challenge for screenwriters right now?
In TV specifically, it’s becoming harder and harder for regular writers to make a living. A shorter episode order means a shorter amount of time that you’re working, so you’re getting paid less. And that means you have to stack your year with multiple jobs to sustain yourself, and that impacts the quality of the work.
Any other Marvel characters that you’d like to write for?
I’m terrified that if I say some character who they’re already working on, unbeknownst to me, it’ll be misread as me leaking something. Then I’ll get a black bag pulled over my head, yanked into a van and buried in an unmarked grave at Disneyland.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the July 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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