Toast of 2017: 'Master of None' writer Lena Waithe looks back at her groundbreaking Emmy win

Angela Bassett and Lena Waithe in the “Thanksgiving” episode of <em>Master of None</em>. (Photo: Netflix/courtesy of Everett Collection)
Angela Bassett and Lena Waithe in the “Thanksgiving” episode of Master of None. (Photo: Netflix/courtesy of Everett Collection)

Thank you, “Thanksgiving.” Last September, writer-actress Lena Waithe made history and became the first black woman to win a comedy-writing Emmy for that Master of None episode (which she penned with creator-star Aziz Ansari).

The nuanced, layered half-hour follows Waithe’s Denise through several decades on that titular holiday — from her as a little 5-year-old girl to an angsty young adult facing her sexuality to a grown woman who’s out and proud. Through it all, Ansari’s Dev provides friendship and support.

Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang persuaded Waithe to help write the script. It became a standout in the acclaimed second season of Master of None and went on to win that Emmy. Then Waithe’s rousing acceptance speech — in which she lauded “my LGBTQIA family” and said “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers” — got a standing ovation live and much praise online.

For our Toast of 2017 series, Waithe spoke to Yahoo Entertainment about that electrifying speech, her continuing mission to find new voices, and her new Showtime drama, The Chi.

A much-belated congratulations on your Emmy win. Looking at it now, a few months later, what was your reaction?
At the time, I was extremely overwhelmed with a lot of joy but also a sense of responsibility. When you’re the person that sort of represents a new beginning of what I think we can be, I was very proud to be that vessel — because there’s no way in the world that I’m the first funny black woman to co-write an episode of half-hour television.

I think the industry is catching up to where we are, and I think I was the vessel for that moment, so I felt a real sense of honor and pride. There’s sort of an idea that your life changes completely, but the truth is I just got right back to work and that’s what I intend to keep doing — which is to be married to the craft and to continue to do the work and continue to earn the award the academy decided to bestow upon me.

So you don’t think much has changed for you, career-wise or in terms of perception?
Look, I’m aware that it’s a very exclusive club, so I think there’s definitely an element of me making a stamp and people acknowledging that. People are very congratulatory and very kind. It does change a bit of perception. All in all, it was representative of the resurgence, of the new school, of the movement that’s happening in the industry. Me and Donald [Glover] and Riz [Ahmed] and Sterling [K. Brown] — there were a lot of people of color who were awarded for their talent that night.

But the truth is, I think there’s still work to be done. We, the artists and the industry, need to continue to make strides. It’s about us continuing to see more people from different walks of life telling their stories and getting the chance to be up there as well. I hope that that’s the change in perception of other people, in terms of watching stories that may not look like yours but still be entertained and learn something from them.

My mission is to continue to introduce new voices to the industry that happen to be women or people of color or who are part of the queer community, because I think those communities are still underserved when it comes to televisions shows and just media in general.

Your speech got a standing ovation. Did you expect such a positive response?
I definitely didn’t expect that kind of reaction, but the advice my lovely partner [Alana Mayo] gave me was to say what you have to say, there are people you just don’t want to forget — Aziz, Netflix, NBC Universal, the cast and crew.

But then she said, “Just say something from the heart,” and that’s what I remembered when I got up there. I really wanted to make the moment not just about me; I really wanted to share it with people of color, with people of the queer community, and those other funny women out there who’ve been banging on the door for so long that when I walked up to it, it was easier to open.

While you were writing the episode, was there a moment when you thought it could be something very special?
I like to feel good about what I’m writing, but I don’t know if there’s any writer that thinks, “Yeah, this is it, this is great.” I mean, I feel excited about things or think that’s a cool line, but more often than not, the things we get excited about, people don’t notice. And people will respond to things that you don’t expect.

I had no idea that it would be what it’s become, and that’s what’s so great about it. If you go in thinking, Oh, yeah, we’re going to change the world, you rarely do. When you’re doing the work and being honest and being vulnerable, chances are someone’s going to receive it.

Was there a particular bit of inspiration behind the episode?
It was a coming-out story. The actual moment of coming out, we did a really good job of not making that the beginning, middle, and end of the story. That’s a part of it. There are so many things surrounding it that I think make the story so special. People from the queer community have told me, “Thank you for showing the process, because that’s what coming out is — it’s not just a conversation.” For me, it was a lot of different memories popping up during that time.

Will you write more episodes of Master of None, if there’s another season?
That depends on what it is, and if it’s absolutely necessary for me to co-write. This episode made a lot of sense for me to get involved in the writing. But I really trust Aziz and Alan and all our really talented writers. They know my voice really well.

If there is a Season 3, if there’s another episode where they’re like, “Hey Lena, we want to get this right and we want you to co-write it,” I’m happy to do that. But if it doesn’t feel necessary, I’ve got enough jobs. I’m happy to come here and be an actor for hire.

Speaking of other jobs, a show you created, The Chi, is premiering next month on Showtime.
I wrote the script back in 2014-2015. Showtime has been with us the whole time, striving to make the best show it can possibly be. And I think we have a really good product, if I do say so myself. We premiere Jan. 7, the first Sunday of the new year. I hope everybody has their Showtime subscriptions ready.

It’s really about what it means to be black and human and living on the South Side of Chicago. It seems like a simple concept, but it’s a very complex thing. I don’t think we’ve seen this before. I think the easy comparisons would be to The Wire, which is a huge compliment. But I think we’re a little different than that.

It’s a bunch of human stories bumping up against each other and seeing how these people live their lives and how most people are just good hardworking folks trying to get through each day and love their kids and fall in love. I really wanted to show that humanity in that community in particular. It’s been reported about and written about but by people who don’t really know the city and haven’t lived there. I think myself and [executive producer] Common and Showtime, all of us want to make sure America gets a real snapshot of what this city is.

Is it based on your own life?
It’s not. I grew up in Chicago in the ’90s, and it’s a little bit of a different city now. I really did want to look into what’s happening in the city now. I wanted to create characters that are a bit of a reflection of me in terms of their dreams and dealing with love and dealing with family stuff, but it’s not autobiographical, not à la the “Thanksgiving” episode.

And what else is coming up for you?
I’m definitely still trying to get some other TV shows on the air, because I’m going back to my roots with half-hour stuff. Hopefully, we’ll have some news soon. And the biggest thing for me, I’m really trying to produce other people’s material and introduce new, interesting, exciting voices in the industry.

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