Lena Waithe from 'Master Of None' : It's Been a Minute Sam talks to producer, writer, and actor Lena Waithe about microwavable pork rinds, growing up in front of the TV in Chicago, transcribing reality television footage, finally making it as a Hollywood writer, powerful storytelling by people of color, and writing and acting in Master Of None with Aziz Ansari. Email the show at samsanders@npr.org and follow Sam on Twitter @samsanders.

Lena Waithe from 'Master Of None'

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(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Hey, y'all. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. Sam Sanders here. Today and every Tuesday here on the show, we're bringing you a deep dive - one interview, one topic. Today we have a really fun and special guest, Lena Waithe. You probably know her as Denise, the best friend of Aziz Ansari's character on "Master Of None." That's Ansari's Netflix show.

So Lena Waithe has this amazing episode in the show, which she wrote and stars in. It's the "Thanksgiving" episode. It's all about her coming out story as a black woman. It is just brilliant. I hung out with her in LA a few weeks ago at NPR's studios out there. And she was the sweetest. She showed up, like, 15 minutes early. She skipped breakfast just to hang out with me, so I ended up buying her, like, a bag of Doritos and some fruit snacks from a vending machine.

We had a great chat. She talked about her new Showtime series all about Chicago. It's called "The Chi," also talked about "Dear White People." It's another Netflix show that she produces. We talked about how she got from Chicago to Hollywood and went from being an intern to an assistant to a writer to a producer to an actress. There's so much here. I hope you love it. I did. Here's me and Lena Waithe talking on a recent Saturday morning in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

LENA WAITHE: There we go.

SANDERS: I smell Doritos in this house...

WAITHE: You want some?

SANDERS: No, no, I don't. I'm more of a cooler ranch instead of nacho cheese.

WAITHE: Oh, those are like - that's...

SANDERS: They're good, yeah.

WAITHE: ...A black man's...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: OK, I got you.

SANDERS: Yes, yes, yes.

WAITHE: That's blacker than this.

SANDERS: Black - no, OK, what's even blacker - oh, I got the blackest snack item for you.

WAITHE: What?

SANDERS: My mom growing up - I don't know where the hell she found it...

WAITHE: Pork rinds?

SANDERS: Microwavable pork rinds.

WAITHE: OK, what? I've never heard of that.

SANDERS: Like the way you microwave popcorn, you microwave pork rinds (laughter).

WAITHE: OK, I want that as well.

SANDERS: Do you?

WAITHE: I mean, well, I'm like...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: ...In our writers room - and I - this shows how black our show is...

SANDERS: Yes.

WAITHE: This is "The Chi."

SANDERS: Brent's going to get mad at you again for not being on the mic.

WAITHE: Oh, [expletive]. OK.

SANDERS: I know. I know.

WAITHE: (Unintelligible).

SANDERS: There we go.

WAITHE: Let me do it - feel like I'm on "Breakfast Club."

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: DJ Envy be like, talk into the mic. No, we have pork rinds. We actually have spicy pork rinds in the bag.

SANDERS: What kind of spice?

WAITHE: I don't even know. It was just like hot pork rinds. I - but I'm telling you you say that...

SANDERS: They'll stink up a whole room.

WAITHE: They do. They're awful. But you put one of them things in your mouth, and you're just like...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: ...OK, there's a heaven. There is a God, and he exists.

SANDERS: You're here - what is it? - Saturday morning...

WAITHE: It's a Saturday.

SANDERS: Five till 11. You're like kind of working right now, talking to me. If you weren't in here, how would you be spending your Saturday? What's your usual Saturday routine?

WAITHE: Oh, man. It's so funny because - look, here's the thing. A lot of people know this about me. I'm very much in love with my girlfriend.

SANDERS: Oh, what's her name?

WAITHE: Her name is Alana Aisha Mayo.

SANDERS: I love that name.

WAITHE: Such a good name.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: She's like - it's like a "Doug" character.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: I'm very lucky to wake up to her every day.

SANDERS: I bet.

WAITHE: So like, this morning - I got in late last night. I did a belated birthday dinner last night. So yeah, I woke up to her. And, like, we were sort of snuggling and being silly. And trust me. If I was not coming here, like, I would probably still be in the bed, like, goofing around with her...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: ...And, like, watching MSNBC or something. But we have family in town right now...

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: ...Her brother and her cousin - a couple cousins and her other cousin are here. So I came downstairs to, like, three black boys hanging out...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: ...You know, on the couch. And she's sitting there. And they're - what did they have on the TV before I left? I don't know, something. But - so I would be kicking it with them, figuring out what we we're going to do for brunch.

SANDERS: Sounds like a lovely Saturday.

WAITHE: Yeah. We try to - she's gotten on me about keeping the weekends pretty clear...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...Just because - even though after this, I'm also going to go sit with Justin Simien and help him with his, like, next project.

SANDERS: What's the next project?

WAITHE: I can't say...

SANDERS: OK, all right.

WAITHE: ...Anything about. It is, like, top secret.

SANDERS: He's the mastermind behind "Dear Black People."

WAITHE: Yes, "Dear White People" although white people want a "Dear Black People" because (unintelligible) about black people...

SANDERS: Did I say "Dear Black People"?

WAITHE: I know.

SANDERS: What the hell?

WAITHE: Because you're sitting in front of a black person...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: ...And you're feeling very black right now.

SANDERS: So black...

WAITHE: Yes. He's the mastermind...

SANDERS: ...In my Marfa Public Radio shirt.

WAITHE: (Laughter) I know. We're very hipster.

SANDERS: Black as hell.

WAITHE: We're black hipsters right now.

SANDERS: Let's talk about your blipster (ph) outfit. I'm loving this.

WAITHE: Oh, are you...

SANDERS: Is that a puka shell necklace? Not quite. What is it?

WAITHE: This was a gift from someone - or maybe I bought this. I don't know. This was - me and my girlfriend and I have these little gold necklaces with, like, our nicknames on it. Mine says Cheese Ball because that's what she calls me, which I am. And hers has her - my little pet name for her, which I will not share.

SANDERS: OK, OK.

WAITHE: And then a Melody Ehsani ring, which is sort of like a big sort of, like, costume thing that says rich which, to me, I think about being rich in spirit, you know...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...Versus like, you know, just about the money and all those kind of things.

SANDERS: What does rich in spirit mean to you?

WAITHE: Oh, balance...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...I think and having a village of people that really celebrate you even when there's not something in particular to be celebrated. And also to be happy, to be doing what you were put on this planet to do.

SANDERS: Yes. And then it's also, like, being OK with being happy. I was telling someone yesterday...

WAITHE: That's real.

SANDERS: ...Like the last month or so for me just has been good - professionally, personally, life has felt good. And, like, you know when things are good? You're like, oh, this is too good. Something bad has to happen...

WAITHE: Oh, that's...

SANDERS: Why are things this good?

WAITHE: My girlfriend has that.

SANDERS: Really?

WAITHE: She sometimes does that.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: I've tried to like - I think she might say because I'm sort of - she might say I'm the optimist, and she's the pessimist. But I think we've rubbed off on each other a little bit in terms of - and I think - but I don't know if she would say she's a pessimist. She's a realist.

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: And so I think that creeps in a little bit. And for me, I'm just sort of like yeah, but how - happiness is fleeting.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: So it's like when it comes like...

SANDERS: Savor it.

WAITHE: ...Sit in it because - you know what? - if you always are waiting for the other shoe to drop, it will.

SANDERS: There you go.

WAITHE: Like, shoe's going to drop. That's going to happen.

SANDERS: (Laughter). OK, so let's talk about what we're here to talk about. Before "Master Of None," you were out here just trying to be a writer - not an actor. So how did Aziz happen and "Master Of None"?

WAITHE: Aziz happened because after I - while I was on the set of "Dear White People" the feature, I got a call from my then-manager that said Allison Jones wants to have a meeting with you...

SANDERS: And this is, like, a legendary casting director.

WAITHE: ...Mind you, I didn't know who she was. I didn't know - I didn't know casting directors.

SANDERS: She's cast everything. Well, she cast "Bridesmaids."

WAITHE: She cast "Freaks And Geeks."

SANDERS: She cast America's "The Office." She cast - did she cast "Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air"?

WAITHE: She did.

SANDERS: (Laughter) It's amazing.

WAITHE: She did. She's, like, got a crazy resume, but I just didn't know - I didn't know that. I was - and he was like, she's a pretty famous, you know, casting director. And I was like, why would a casting director want to meet me? I'm not, like, casting anything. So - but he was like, I don't know. Just - you should go. So I was like, OK. So I went. And sure enough, she had sort of seen me in interviews and seen some of my work. And she was like, are you interested - do you have any interest in acting at all? And I was like, not really. I was like, not particularly.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: And she was like OK, well, let me bring you in for some stuff. And I was like...

SANDERS: How'd you feel when she told you that?

WAITHE: I was like, OK.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: But we had a great conversation.

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: We were talking about TV. She has great taste and things. So we just - so I just like - we just connected on that level.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: And sure enough she did. She brought me in for a couple of different things. And then one of them I booked, which was a small part on "The Comeback," season 2...

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: ...Which was one of my favorite shows of all time.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: So I was very hyped about that. And Michael Patrick King directed me. I spent the afternoon with him and Lisa Kudrow, which was phenomenal.

SANDERS: Lisa Kudrow seems like she's, like, always just hilarious.

WAITHE: She's a genius person.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: She's a genius person.

SANDERS: Yeah, I love it. I love it.

WAITHE: Like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...Genius.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: Yeah, so then, I guess, one day Aziz and Alan - because she was obviously casting their show - they asked her to send them interesting people for, like - to talk to, not even like really read. So by the grace of God, she mentioned me. And I went to Aziz's house and sat and talked to him and Alan for, like, 30 minutes. Like, I didn't have - I didn't know he had a show. I didn't know what it was about. I didn't...

SANDERS: (Unintelligible) Was just like, go to his house.

WAITHE: Just go to his house and talk to him. And that's why I was like, well, it's coming - the meeting is coming from Allison's office...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: So it has to be an acting - but I'm like...

SANDERS: It's a casting.

WAITHE: ...But I'm not reading anything for them. It was very strange.

SANDERS: So they just had you talk about you?

WAITHE: Yeah. We just talked about what was going on in my life. I had just fallen in love...

SANDERS: What did you tell them?

WAITHE: ...With my girlfriend. So I was like, well, you know, made out with her. Now she's my everything...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: ...That's happening - and just being silly and just being myself.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: And then I got a call after that to say, OK, Aziz wants you to read with him.

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: And so then I finally got some sides. I didn't get a full script but...

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: ...And so - and I asked, like, can I play with the script? And they're like, yeah, sure, why not?

SANDERS: Like write some stuff on it?

WAITHE: Yeah, write some stuff just to add some things to give it some flavor or whatever.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: So I did. And so that meant that Aziz wasn't aware of what I was going to say back to him when I sat down to read.

SANDERS: Oh.

WAITHE: So I come in - now we're at Allison's office.

SANDERS: Yes.

WAITHE: And I'm sitting with Aziz. And Alan Yang is there and Allison's there. And it's somewhat of an empty room, which is always preferred, you know, when you're auditioning. And so I started with him, and we're going. And he's just, like, cracking up at the little things..

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: ...I'm saying and I'm saying back. And...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...Alan's laughing. Allison's digging it. And you can just feel from that moment, like, OK, there's something here. It's so cool too because Allison has somewhere on tape, like, me and Aziz reading together for the first time.

SANDERS: Really?

WAITHE: And I'd love to see it because, like, it's - I mean, you could just feel - like there's just a natural...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...Kinship there.

SANDERS: And you weren't scared.

WAITHE: No, I wasn't.

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: Maybe it was because they let me play with the words myself...

SANDERS: Yeah, so it was you.

WAITHE: Yeah. And then we ad-libbed a little bit...

SANDERS: Nice.

WAITHE: ...One of the scenes where Aziz just kind of starting riffing, and I just kind of started going with them and...

SANDERS: Can you recall a certain ad-lib?

WAITHE: Yeah, one of which was like, yeah, man - like, I remember saying THOT.

SANDERS: (Laughter) For listeners who don't know - this is NPR - those hos...

WAITHE: That ho over there.

SANDERS: ...Over there.

WAITHE: That ho over there, which we bring back in the "Thanksgiving" episode...

SANDERS: Yes. Kym Whitley says it beautifully.

WAITHE: ...And Aziz has a great little comeback. It's an acronym.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: It's so great. Oh, it's an acronym. I remember watching that with somebody, and they were dying. They're like, it's an acronym, yeah. It's so funny. So I said that, and he cracked - he's like, the fact that I was actually explaining something to him that he didn't know...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...While we were ad-libbing...

SANDERS: I love it.

WAITHE: ...Because now he's kind of like, I'm genuinely having a conversation with you again...

SANDERS: Yes, yeah, yeah.

WAITHE: ...Like, in this scene.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: So that was that. And then - and I remember, like, making a joke about like you need a - like, don't date a Cassie. You know, you've got to find you a Cassie.

SANDERS: Like, P. Diddy's Cassie?

WAITHE: Yeah.

SANDERS: She's beautiful.

WAITHE: She's gorgeous. But I'll tell you something. I was like, if you can get a Cassie - if you can get a Cassie, that means you're set for life (unintelligible).

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: And he was just like, what? He was like, who are you right now? So then we came - then I came back and I read again. We were a little bit more on-the-book that time.

SANDERS: OK, OK.

WAITHE: And then next I got to call to come test.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: Which is, like, really awkward. You go in. They film you, and all these people are there. It's crazy. And then, like, not even like a week later, they called and said, we want you to come be part of the show.

SANDERS: And they gave you the role of Denise, which was originally meant for a white, straight woman that might have been his love interest.

WAITHE: I think they didn't - all they knew is they wanted a girl in the crew.

SANDERS: OK, OK.

WAITHE: And I think - when they - when thinking about that girl, I don't think they necessarily thought she was going to be black or that she would be a lesbian.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: But I think - such kudos to them because I think they met me, and they were like, OK, well...

SANDERS: She's the one.

WAITHE: ...Let's alter the role to her.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: And I think they kind of thought, oh, that's actually an interesting perspective of like - even though - because I think it would have been cool if they had a straight woman kind of giving, like, a perspective from the other side. I think they kind of have that with Lakshmi, who's now in season 2...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

WAITHE: ...A little bit more. But I think they kind of got a kick out of it. But I remember coming in for the first table read, and they still hadn't decided. And Aziz was like...

SANDERS: If you're going to be straight or gay in the show?

WAITHE: Yeah. And Aziz was like, well, we're thinking maybe she'll be a lesbian. And I was like, I'm not mad at that.

SANDERS: Yeah. Would you have felt comfortable playing a straight woman?

WAITHE: Totally because I think it would have been funny, you know what I'm saying?

SANDERS: How so?

WAITHE: Like my cadence and my vibe or whatever - I'm not going to, like, wear, like, a skirt...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...Or that kind of stuff.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: So to me it could have been - and also, too, there are some women who are more masculine than feminine...

SANDERS: Yes.

WAITHE: ...That are straight, you know.

SANDERS: Yes, totally.

WAITHE: So I wouldn't have minded.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: But also to - looking back at it now - and this didn't really come up in our conversation. But we weren't aware at the time of how little representation there was of queer people of color on television. So in doing it, you know, I think we got a couple of rounds of applause about it, but it was not conscious. It was just sort of, oh, this is who I am...

SANDERS: We like you. Come on, do you.

WAITHE: ...This is how I walk in the world. And they were like we respond to this.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: And that's why it was so cool that the reception of the character - especially in the first season, obviously second season, too - has been so warm and kind. And people just really, like - they just really like Denise.

SANDERS: All right, time for a quick break. We'll be right back in a moment with more from Lena Waithe on how she got her start in show business.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: OK so we'll get back to "Master Of None" a bit later. But first, let's go back to how you got started in all of this, Lena. I was reading somewhere that you decided when you were 7 years old that you wanted to be a TV writer.

WAITHE: Right.

SANDERS: One...

WAITHE: I know.

SANDERS: ...Talk about that.

WAITHE: How weird is that?

SANDERS: I'm trying to think my 7-year-old self. Could I even conceptualize someone writing that stuff?

WAITHE: I think, for me - well, I definitely asked a lot of questions as a kid. But I think a big thing for me was I was so obsessed with television. And not in a way...

SANDERS: What shows?

WAITHE: I mean, here's the deal. I grew up - I'm 30 - I just turned 33. So I was very lucky in terms of when I was a kid - I was born in '84.

SANDERS: So was I.

WAITHE: Oh, OK. See - so it's like - so in the '90s, like, that era is, like...

SANDERS: Yes.

WAITHE: ...When I'm, like, you know, really hyper-aware...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...Of what I'm watching and all that kind of stuff. And we were kids. We didn't have that weird thing about no screens until this age, please.

SANDERS: Oh, we were like, no TV during the week.

WAITHE: Oh, my mom - I was raised by a single mom. And I lived with my grandmother, so my grandmother watched TV 24 hours a day. And my mom was, like, off at some job...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...Or on a date with somebody at any time of the day. So - and my sister was two years older than me, so she kind of was doing her own thing. So I really spent a lot of time watching TV with my grandmother and then watching TV by myself. And my aunt was - my mom's sister was also a big avid television watcher.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: She was also really into movies. So she kind of, like, would take me to go see movies that I was, like, way too young to see. Like, she took me to go see "Love Jones" when I was 12. Like, I saw...

SANDERS: Oh, "Love Jones" gets hot and heated.

WAITHE: Oh, yeah. I was 12. But because it was shot in Chicago, she was like, you should watch this. I saw "Ferris Bueller" when I was really young. She took - "My Best Friend's Wedding," I remember going to see that in the theater.

SANDERS: That's such a good movie.

WAITHE: Yeah. And a lot of it - she really got hyped up on things that were shot in the city where I lived in. She would take me to go see those movies and go, like, they shot that here, sort of - almost creating this weird interesting pride in my city and also the production there. And I'm so happy because I think my mom was like, look, there's stuff happening in these movies and TV shows that you should not repeat and you shouldn't see or shouldn't know. But just like, look, I'm not going to be a hover parent. I don't have that luxury...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...So like, you can watch it. And also she - my family would curse around me. And she was like, just don't repeat it, but of course I did. And I would...

SANDERS: (Laughter)

WAITHE: And I'm really grateful because I know how to curse, and I know how to be. And I think they really kind of gave me a certain level of swag, like, watching all those things. Going back to it, I think, watching - obsessed with "A Different World," obsessed...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...With "The Cosby Show" in a real way, as I got older I really got into mimicking, like, "Martin," "Living Single" because...

SANDERS: Wait, wait, wait, wait, you can't say mimic "Martin" and not mimic some "Martin."

WAITHE: Oh my, God. I mean, to...

SANDERS: Give me some "Martin."

WAITHE: Well, here's the deal. I like to do a lot of his - the characters he would do...

SANDERS: Sheneneh is my...

WAITHE: ...One of which was Sheneneh...

SANDERS: OK. Can you do Sheneneh?

WAITHE: OK, here we go. So this is her.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: So whenever she goes and cuts that corner and sees her not-two-favorite people, which are Pam and Gina. She's like, well, looky (ph) look...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: ...If it isn't little miss bourgeoisie, uh-huh, Gina. OK. And you should back up because you know what a good ass whipping feels like, yeah, because I don't like you no way. OK. I got Piston tickets, OK, front row.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: Oh, you want these tickets? Oh, you want these tickets? OK, you got to come work in my shop for a whole day. I mean...

SANDERS: You're good.

WAITHE: She's like, three, two, one - deal is off, deal is off. I mean, I would just like...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: It just never...

SANDERS: That was - can I just give you snaps for that real quick? (Snapping).

WAITHE: Thank you. I appreciate that. I would like - if Alana, my girlfriend, was sitting here right now, she'd be like, this is my life on a daily basis.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: Like, I'm obsessed. And I think that's honestly - because a lot say, you know, did you want to be an actor? And I really did not. I had no aspirations of...

SANDERS: You wanted to write.

WAITHE: Yeah, I wanted to write. But I think what the acting thing is sort of borne out is me watching things and mimicking them. Like in...

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: ...And sort of saying - and literally a character say something on TV, and I would say it back to them. That's what I would sit and do, like, as a young person. It was like - watch these things again...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...And again and again. It was, like, repetition.

SANDERS: Yeah. So then, OK, child growing up in Chicago, loving TV, wanting to write, walk me through how you get to LA.

WAITHE: I got to LA through Columbia College...

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: ...Because they have something called the semester in LA. And because the truth is...

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: ...Obviously people that go to Columbia have aspirations of being in some sort of - well, not all. But they have a major where you can major in writing and producing in television, which I majored in. And a lot of it, they're really trying to get people to go to Los Angeles. That's sort of their mission. You know, if you're a television writer, screenwriter, they're like, there's only so far you can get it in Chicago.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: The cool thing is there's a lot of production happening in Chicago now, so a lot of those students, I think, are getting a lot of gigs...

SANDERS: It's a good place to shoot.

WAITHE: Yeah. They shoot - yeah...

SANDERS: It looks like a city.

WAITHE: Oh, yeah, it looks like a city.

SANDERS: Such majestic architecture.

WAITHE: Yeah, it's great. And my family's still there. My home base was there.

SANDERS: Where in Chicago?

WAITHE: Well, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: I lived with my grandmother. And then we moved to Evanston.

SANDERS: So very different experience.

WAITHE: Very different experience, but my mom went there for the schools, like literally, you know...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...She was like, we've got to - you can't keep going to school here.

SANDERS: Were you, like, the only black kid in a class in Evanston or no?

WAITHE: No. We were definitely the minority.

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: But it was a mix.

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: It was predominately white. But, you know, we had Latino kids, Indian kids, Asian kids. So that was a really cool thing actually...

SANDERS: Nice.

WAITHE: ...The fact that it was diverse in that way.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: And, you know, we loved it. I went to middle school there, and I went to high school - I went Evanston Township High School.

SANDERS: So then LA. So...

WAITHE: Yeah.

SANDERS: So what semester were you in LA - like, sophomore, junior, senior?

WAITHE: My last - it was my last. I made it my last semester...

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: ...Because a couple of them had done it like junior, senior year, and they'd come back to Chicago. But I remember one girl - because she had done the semester in LA, and she loved it.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: And she was like, my advice - make it your last thing because that way you stay out there...

SANDERS: And can keep working.

WAITHE: Exactly. And she was like - because she did it and then obviously came back and told me all about it. And that kind of made me go, I kind of want to do it - Mary Stanislao (ph). She did it. And so she was like...

SANDERS: What's she doing now?

WAITHE: She - well, I think she's back in Chicago. But she was out here for a while. And that's a tough thing. It is a - you know, it's not lost on me that I'm very blessed and that my journey has taken me to - and also, you know, my drive has got me to where I am.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: Because a lot of people who are out here and, like, you know...

SANDERS: That's the LA story.

WAITHE: ...Go back. I mean - can I tell you like a real thing that happened...

SANDERS: Yes.

WAITHE: ...Like some real [expletive]...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...That was like something out of a movie? So in the semester in LA, there was a guy who - and we actually both went to Evanston Township High School.

SANDERS: Oh, wow. Did you know him there?

WAITHE: A little bit.

SANDERS: OK, OK.

WAITHE: We didn't run in the same circles. But you know, I knew - so we saw each other, and we did the semester in LA together.

SANDERS: Oh, wow.

WAITHE: And - but he was more of an actor than anything else. He was trying to - right. So we did the semester - that was in '06. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, I have people over. And, yeah, you know, I had some folks over my house, some friends. And we Postmated (ph) - we Postmates, you know, just Postmate some food. My Postmate's guy was him.

SANDERS: No.

WAITHE: It was...

SANDERS: Wow.

WAITHE: ...I mean, it was just such a thing. And I...

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.

WAITHE: ...And we didn't, like, really - you know, I mean, we - not really like...

SANDERS: Did you like - were you like, dude?

WAITHE: I was just like, oh, hey. And he was like, hey.

SANDERS: Because, like, what do you say in that moment?

WAITHE: Nothing, there's nothing really you can say. And it was just - it was such a jolt of, like, oh, my goodness. I think for me and him, for both sides. You know, it's just like - it was just - at, like, my crib. And he could see - it was just like a whole - it was just like something out of a freaking movie.

SANDERS: And it's so LA because like...

WAITHE: So LA, dog.

SANDERS: I live in D.C. now, and like...

WAITHE: OK.

SANDERS: ...If you want to work in politics, you could find a job in politics. There's something there for you.

WAITHE: Right.

SANDERS: Like, you can staple someone's papers in some office somewhere, right?

WAITHE: Yeah, you can get a job.

SANDERS: So like, you're going to get a job. But in LA, if you want to work in - like, if you want to act, it's just a...

WAITHE: It's just a combination of luck, God, talent.

SANDERS: Yes, yes, yeah. And so LA is full of these brilliant, beautiful, motivated people serving you food and drink.

WAITHE: Yeah.

SANDERS: It's such a weird thing.

WAITHE: Yeah.

SANDERS: It's such a weird thing.

WAITHE: And everybody has, like, got a - because very few people are from here. So it's like most people, like, you know, you start off, well, I'm from so-and-so. I've been out here for so many years. And also, too, there's no seasons here so, like, time flies by. And, you know, it's just - it's the kind of city that can swallow you up if you let it.

SANDERS: Exactly.

WAITHE: And I was just determined to not, you know, swallow it up. But I remember, before I came out here, a lot of my family - like one my uncles - one of my gay uncles - I have two.

SANDERS: Blessed. Two gay uncles, I love it.

WAITHE: Well, we never said - well, we never said the word gay ever. You know, at Thanksgiving, we never said the word.

SANDERS: Yeah, we're going to talk about that.

WAITHE: I know so crazy. And one was a hairdresser, and one was a flight stewardess but, like, never, never ever had any spouses or anything, apparently.

SANDERS: And the family wasn't like, so...

WAITHE: No.

SANDERS: Just not discussed?

WAITHE: No.

SANDERS: One literally is a hairdresser. The other is a flight attendant and no...

WAITHE: I mean, when I say that, people are like, are you joking? I'm like, nope. They both still do that, by the way. But they're more like - and it's like, like, play uncles in that, like, one of them used to do my mom's hair. So he would come over for - and the other is, like, the brother of one of my aunt's boyfriends.

SANDERS: Gotcha (ph).

WAITHE: So, you know, it's like - but, you know - it's like they'd be - I'm like, OK. But, you know, I still have to say, when I was leaving, he was like, you're going to go out there and really, you know, run the town. And I was like, really, that's the vibe you get? And he's like, yeah. And so I was like, OK. So just like little things like that and, like, my professor at the time, who, like, read a "Girlfriends" spec I wrote in his class. And he, like, winked at me before I walked out. He was like, yeah, you've got something.

SANDERS: And you ended up writing for "Girlfriends," right?

WAITHE: No, I was an assistant to one of the showrunner's over at "Girlfriends."

SANDERS: OK, OK, which is, like, one of the best shows of all time.

WAITHE: I mean, come on. I was writing spec scripts for that show. Like, I knew it like the back of my hand.

SANDERS: Yeah, it's so good. And like I hate that we live in a country where we love series, sitcoms, dramas about women friendships, "Girls," "Sex And The City." The list goes on.

WAITHE: Yep, I'm trying to get one on the air myself.

SANDERS: Yeah. Why can't we acknowledge that "Girlfriends" was one of the best there was?

WAITHE: Dude.

SANDERS: I feel like it's so slept on.

WAITHE: I know. I think - and it's because - maybe it's because of the network that it began on.

SANDERS: Was it UPN?

WAITHE: Started on UPN and then turned into the CW.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

WAITHE: You know, it's hard, you know, when you're on a network like that, I think one people sort of, like, don't take seriously. But that being said, it's like, pickups to Mara for, like, really, like, pushing and trying to make something smart, interesting...

SANDERS: And it was really smart. It was really smart.

WAITHE: ...Yeah - and just like special and timely. And people still mess with it.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah. OK, so you're here for the semester.

WAITHE: Right.

SANDERS: Does it work out well? Like, do you land the job as soon as that's done or what? What's the timeline?

WAITHE: No, you land an internship.

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: You - that's easy to find. You know, like, you know - actually, I don't know, I think...

SANDERS: Unpaid or paid?

WAITHE: Not paid. And then - and then I started working reality television, which a lot of people do to, like, you know - because - and by that, I mean I would watch footage of like "The Real World, Australia" and just, like, transcribe what was happening so the editors could pick and choose from like different cuts. And like...

SANDERS: Woah.

WAITHE: Yeah. That's what I did for, like, a couple years because...

SANDERS: So were you just, like, I just went to college for this?

WAITHE: Just from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m., I did that for, like, got to be, like, a year and some change.

SANDERS: Did you like that?

WAITHE: You know, I liked the people that I sat next to. And, like, you know what I'm saying?

SANDERS: OK, that's diplomatic (laughter).

WAITHE: It was like, you know - it was just such a - but, you know, also, I liked the fact that it finally was a job that I could pay my rent and, like, my stuff. It was very - it made me independent. And then during the day, I would intern, again, for no pay at this literary agency.

SANDERS: Oh, so how many hours were you putting in?

WAITHE: Oh, man, the literary agency was in Beverly Hills from 9 a.m. to 5. The transcriber job was in the Valley. So that's an hour drive to 6 until, like, 2, 3 in the morning. Go to bed and go back.

SANDERS: And then you had to be back at work at 9.

WAITHE: Yeah, and I just was like...

SANDERS: And just on that 405.

WAITHE: Oh, living there. I just - but I just remember, like, I know this is going to pay off at some point. Like, I mean, that's a big thing for me. And I don't think I was even - were even really able to - well, on the weekends, I would try to, like, write and whatever. But I was just like, this has to - I have to be good at what I'm doing. Otherwise, this is just, like, torture. This is cruel and unusual punishment.

SANDERS: So then what happens after that?

WAITHE: What happened was the agency that only repped (ph) television writers - this is a very unique agency. But it's also a good starter agency for a lot of, like, television writers who've got some skills. I was like, I hope they'll like me enough that they'll give me an assistant gig working for one of their clients or something. Sure enough, one day in the office, I'm, like, at the front desk, doing what I normally do. And they go, OK, so the woman who runs "Girlfriends" needs a new assistant.

They're like, do you want to - we can get you an interview. And I was like, OK. So I went in, and I was just, like, very confident because I knew the show. I was like, I remember sitting in - and I was like, none of y'all know the show better than me - none of y'all. And one of them was a young lady, who I'm friends with now, but was like - was the writer's PA the year before. Like, she was up for that gig. And I beat them. I got out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNAPPING)

WAITHE: They were like, you got it. And so - and that's when it all began. That was my journey, like, being on that set and like doing all that and just like - I was in heaven. Like, I'm, like, walking Tracee Ellis Ross' dog. I'm sitting at the (unintelligible).

SANDERS: Wait, what's Tracee Ellis' dog's name?

WAITHE: Well, her dog - this dog has since passed away. But her name was Ladybug.

SANDERS: For those who don't know, Tracee Ellis Ross - you would recognize her as Diana Ross' daughter. She's also the mom on "Black-ish." She was also on "Girlfriends." And she seems like the coolest, nicest person in the world.

WAITHE: She's really sweet, funny, gorgeous, like, very, you know - to be raised in the way that she was...

SANDERS: And be as centered as she is...

WAITHE: ...And to be as like grounded and, like, in touch with folks is like, I think, a real testament to her mom.

SANDERS: Yeah, anyway, this ain't about her. This is about you.

WAITHE: (Laughter).

SANDERS: "Girlfriends" and then what?

WAITHE: I got a call from Mara's assistant.

SANDERS: So Mara is Mara Brock Akil, one of the lead producers on "Girlfriends."

WAITHE: Mara's assistant - you know, her then former-assistant - said hey, you know, Mara's best friend needs an assistant. And she recommended you. And I was like, oh, snap 'cause I've been doing work directly from Mara. Mara would just see me on set running around.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

WAITHE: And her best friend, of course, was Gina Prince-Bythewood. And she needed an assistant for her post on "The Secret Life Of Bees."

SANDERS: And Gina Prince-Bythewood is another great female director. She did "Love & Basketball," also "Beyond The Lights."

WAITHE: So I went, interviewed. It was phenomenal - at her house - met her. You see, like, the poster of "Love & Basketball" and, like, all this kinds of stuff.

SANDERS: Oh, wow.

WAITHE: And so I went, interviewed and started working for her. And she's been like my, you know, industry mother. She always used to joke, well, I had you in my teens - ever since. And so - and then while I was working for her, Gina was like OK, so there's this woman who's directing her first movie. We know - she needs some help from - PA or some assistant type of place and was just like - we think you'd be great. OK. And that was Ava DuVernay.

SANDERS: Wow.

WAITHE: And that was like "I Will Follow." And I would work on that movie.

SANDERS: Which movie?

WAITHE: That was her first movie, "I Will Follow."

SANDERS: OK. Yeah. And Ava went on to direct "Selma" a few years after "I Will Follow."

WAITHE: Worked on that. And then she and I have been tight ever since.

SANDERS: Is she the homie?

WAITHE: She is, which is a phenomenal thing to have. And I'm grateful to...

SANDERS: I love how, like, your story's full of, like, black women helping other black women.

WAITHE: Absolutely.

SANDERS: That's good.

WAITHE: It's a thing that I really took on and like, you know, try to pay it forward.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: And as I was driving here today, I was talking to one of my mentees and, like, helping him. Like, he's doing - he did a spec of "Black-ish" - coming full circle - and just telling him, like, about - ways to implement notes he's gotten from his writers group that we've helped form and try to help him - how to - figure out how to do rewrites.

SANDERS: Yeah. And so you transitioned at some point from assisting to writing.

WAITHE: Right.

SANDERS: Did you - you wrote - what shows have you written for?

WAITHE: I've only written on two, and they could not be more different. One was a Nickelodeon show that only lasted one season...

SANDERS: What Nickelodeon show?

WAITHE: ...Called "How To Rock."

SANDERS: Was it good?

WAITHE: With Cymphonique Miller - was the lead, which is Master P's daughter.

SANDERS: Oh.

WAITHE: Right.

SANDERS: You know what? Master P's kids can have - they're like...

WAITHE: They're like little entrepreneurs.

SANDERS: ...They're good 'cause isn't Little Romeo his kid, too?

WAITHE: Yep.

SANDERS: Little Romeo's, like, talented.

WAITHE: He's like - yeah. He's out here, you know, making funds, man. Like, they're doing stuff. They stay busy.

SANDERS: So Cymphonique had a show. You wrote for that.

WAITHE: Yeah, wrote on that. And then I wrote "The Chi." It was - was called "Chi" right before but now it's called "The Chi."

SANDERS: This is your new Showtime series? Yeah.

WAITHE: The pilot that eventually later would ultimately, you know, land at Showtime.

SANDERS: All right. One more quick break. We'll be right back to talk about Lena Waithe's big episode in the latest season of "Master Of None."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: All right. Let's go back to "Master Of None." Lena, you've had this role of the best friend to Aziz Ansari's character for two seasons now. But this season, your character, Denise, she is the subject of her own episode, my favorite episode of the series thus far, the Thanksgiving episode.

WAITHE: Oh, thank you so much.

SANDERS: Which I'm sure you've been hearing about how much people love it. It's really good. I guess we should give a spoiler alert for those who haven't watched it.

WAITHE: Sure.

SANDERS: If you haven't watched it yet, listeners, pause this, go watch that.

WAITHE: But, like, how have you not watched it? I mean, come on, dog.

SANDERS: Right? How have you not watched it?

WAITHE: No, check it out. Please.

SANDERS: But like - it's so good. So the whole premise of this episode basically is you - your character, Denise - comes out to her mother over the course of like several Thanksgiving dinners.

WAITHE: So to speak, yeah. There's one actual coming-out scene...

SANDERS: Yes. Yes.

WAITHE: ...But, oh, before that, she's sort of just being herself but not...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...In a way. Which is sort of, I think, you know, most people - most gay people's journey.

SANDERS: That's the process. And so, like, one, you got Angela Bassett to play your mother.

WAITHE: I mean, come on.

SANDERS: Phenomenal.

WAITHE: Icon.

SANDERS: Was your mom just like, oh, my God, yes?

WAITHE: Yeah. You know what? It's funny because we were supposed to keep it, like, under wraps, but then Angela - somebody asked her on the red carpet at the Emmys of all places.

SANDERS: Oh.

WAITHE: So what do you have coming up next? Oh, well, I'm going to play - I'm going to go be on "Master Of None," play Denise's mom. But we didn't care. It was - so then that came out. And so that's how my mom actually found out about it.

SANDERS: So what did your mom say?

WAITHE: She was just like, oh, my God, that's amazing. She was so obsessed.

SANDERS: Yeah. I read somewhere that you and Aziz both love Angela Bassett for many reasons but in part because of her role in "The Jackson Five: An American Dream."

WAITHE: "The Jacksons: An American Dream."

SANDERS: I loved that miniseries.

WAITHE: I mean, it's iconic.

SANDERS: What's your favorite Angela Bassett line from that movie?

WAITHE: Oh, well, I mean, the go-to is like - I don't want you. I don't want you. I don't want you no mo (ph).

SANDERS: Yes. I don't want you. I don't want you no mo. I love that.

WAITHE: It's amazing.

SANDERS: Yeah. So this episode, I was watching it actually on the plane coming back from somewhere, so I'm weeping on the plane watching this new episode.

WAITHE: Oh, my God. I didn't even know it was available on planes.

SANDERS: So with Netflix now, you can download something and watch it later.

WAITHE: Oh, there we go. See, you about that new [expletive]. OK.

SANDERS: You know, that new-new, that new-new, yeah.

WAITHE: Got you. Got you.

SANDERS: But like it's so poignant. How much of that is straight up your life? And how much of that is you and Aziz, like, writing something?

WAITHE: The only thing that's not my life is I don't have an Indian boy that I grew up with.

SANDERS: And smoke weed in the...

WAITHE: Right. And I don't - and I did not bring home my nipples and toes.

SANDERS: For those who don't know, Nipplesandtoes23 (ph) is the Instagram account of one of your THOTs (ph)...

WAITHE: One of the girls that I'm - OK, but she's not a THOT to my character. She's a lovely young lady that I...

SANDERS: But OK, unbiased opinion, is she THOT-ish, THOT-esque?

WAITHE: You know, ish (ph) - ish. You know?

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: We all had those moments, though, in our lives.

SANDERS: We do. We do.

WAITHE: Yeah. But everything other than, I mean, everything from the Lebanese thing which I genuinely said when I came out to my friends.

SANDERS: You called yourself Lebanese, not a lesbian.

WAITHE: Aziz thought it was hilarious. Which my friends at the time thought was kind of silly, too. They were like, what? I mean, the grandmother stuff. Kym's character is - Kym Whitley, who I think is an unsung hero of Hollywood and of this episode.

SANDERS: Oh, my God, yes.

WAITHE: She's a combination of all of my mom's friends...

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: ...You know, who - all like play aunts, you know, to me, you know.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

WAITHE: But literally, like, I took, like, three of her - like put the things that they said to her, like, in one person's mouth.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: So, yeah, but she's such - it's such a - it really became - she's such a great character, you know.

SANDERS: So good. Yes. What does she do in this? There's twice where she yells at Aziz.

WAITHE: Oh, my God.

SANDERS: Was the second time over the yams?

WAITHE: She's like, we know what's in the damn yams.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: And she's like, got the nipples, got the toes. She's like so great.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: Oh, my God.

SANDERS: Was it hard to write something that's so your life? And also, like, if I can recall correctly, Aziz really pushed you to write this.

WAITHE: Right. I was just like, I - 'cause that's the thing, too. I try to try to keep that kind of stuff separate.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: You know, like - I - like, a lot of people say, oh, you writing something for yourself? I don't tend to write for myself. Things I write, you know, they may be semi-autobiographical. And - but...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...I like the idea of other actors coming in and helping to bring these characters to life. And then with the acting things and - whether it would be, like, on "The Comeback" obviously or "Master Of None" - I just recently filmed a movie last year. I like being just the actor and that being my job and that being my focus.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

WAITHE: So this is actually the first time I've written something and starred in it. So - just because I always tell people, I'm like, I don't have the Tina Fey or the Issa Rae or Lena Dunham gene. Like, I don't feel the need to, like, write something and be in it. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I think that's beautiful and dope.

SANDERS: Totally.

WAITHE: Hello Donald Glover and Aziz Ansari.

SANDERS: Yes.

WAITHE: But I just - it's not my jam.

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: So that's why I was a little bit - also too, I had a - I mean, my plate was really full at that time...

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...And trying - still trying to get my series picked up at the time. It had not officially been picked up over at Showtime.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: I was about to go film a movie in London.

SANDERS: And they had you actually write in a hotel room in London, right?

WAITHE: I was at - well, Aziz came to London.

SANDERS: To write this with you?

WAITHE: I don't know if it was - that was the only reason. I think he just kind of - he likes to travel. But I think that didn't hurt, you know, 'cause I was in London filming something.

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: And so he came to London to play but also, you know, he got - you know, he was staying in a hotel, a really cool hotel. And I went to his hotel and we just, like, sat for a couple days.

SANDERS: It took you a few days to write this?

WAITHE: Yeah, to write it. And we had a great outline.

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: And so that's what we were sort of going off of instead of us sort of going back and forth or whatever. But then when we sat - when we actually sat down, it was about three days to bang it out.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: And it was - and a lot - I mean, I would say like 85 percent it was like - that, like, we wrote in London is in the episode.

SANDERS: That stayed, yeah.

WAITHE: And we tweaked things on set here and there. But yeah, and a lot of stuff, a lot of scenes that, like, Dev wasn't in, he would, like, get up and, like, walk away. Like, and like - I would be in there by myself alone with my memories and just really recalling it and being super honest. And that's the rule that I go by and so does Aziz. Is it really honest? Is it really true? And, you know, and we really had fun with it. And there's a lot of cool little quiet scenes in there that I really like.

SANDERS: That's beautiful, like when Angela Bassett's character has Denise's girlfriend come in and, like, help make the food.

WAITHE: Right.

SANDERS: Like, oh - this is - she's warming up to this.

WAITHE: Beginning, yeah.

SANDERS: It's happening.

WAITHE: It's slow, but it's like - yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah. Was it hard to act that episode?

WAITHE: No. I mean, you know, it was a lot of fun kind of with - being with the kids, like, you know, and, like, tweaking that 'cause then I just felt like a writer on set, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: But the biggest thing was obviously the coming-out scene at the diner. But even that, like, I had a little bit of butterflies, but I felt very safe in Angela's arms. And, like, you know, she was fantastic.

SANDERS: She was so good.

WAITHE: And, you know, and also the way they put it in the schedule, it was a couple days of us kind of working together. So we, you know, it wasn't the first thing up.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: But it really was liberating, you know, because some people say, oh, was it difficult having to come out again? I'm like, no. Coming out is hard. That [expletive]. Recreating it in that way felt like a celebration of coming out.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: You know, it kind of honored it.

SANDERS: And it was really great of you and the team to humanize a parent like that.

WAITHE: Yes.

SANDERS: 'Cause there's a lot of times there's this conceptualization either the parent loves the kids that come out or hates the kid that comes out...

WAITHE: Right.

SANDERS: ...But it's usually somewhere in between.

WAITHE: Yeah.

SANDERS: And everyone loves their kid, but there's one line Angela Bassett says where she's just like, I don't want life to be hard for you.

WAITHE: Right.

SANDERS: That was very beautifully nuanced.

WAITHE: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. And - 'cause a big thing for me is I didn't want her to be a villain.

SANDERS: Yeah. And she's not.

WAITHE: And my character's not a hero. You know, I - because there's no rule book on what to do when somebody comes out to you, but there's not really a book on how to come out, either.

SANDERS: That's the thing.

WAITHE: And I don't know if I was the expert at doing that because I was a little annoyed and frustrated that I had to.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: And I was happy that I got to write that in and like kind of - but I think - but in hindsight, it kind of speaks to, like, me sort of feeling like, well, people should just know who I am. And that's just sort of not - that's also unfair, too.

SANDERS: Also, they didn't know. You had to tell them.

WAITHE: Right, you know? And I needed to say it out loud. You know what I mean?

SANDERS: Yes. Yes. Yeah.

WAITHE: I think - and I also like the evolution of her coming out to herself sort of in a way and then doing that - she comes out to her friend. And then later, you know, she feels comfortable which is really true. Yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah. And also it speaks to this fact, like, you don't just come out once. You got to come out to this one and then to that one.

WAITHE: Right.

SANDERS: It's like - it's a process.

WAITHE: Yeah. Because for me though, it was - like, that was the only person I really came out to.

SANDERS: Really? OK.

WAITHE: Yeah, it was my mom. Yeah. I mean, well, I came out to my sister, which that was not like - I didn't have a sister on the show. But - so yeah, and my friends. So it was sort of like a couple, but it wasn't - I didn't have - I still don't have a huge family. But for me, that was the one person that mattered.

SANDERS: Yeah. The posters in Denise's childhood room - two big ones. Who were they?

WAITHE: Jasmine Guy. Jennifer Aniston.

SANDERS: Dime pieces.

WAITHE: Yeah, dimes, man. Then we had Halle up there, too. Vanessa Williams got in there.

SANDERS: Were those your real life childhood crushes?

WAITHE: They - well, like, it's interesting. So I sent them pictures of my room as a teenager. And also I shared a with my sister too, so our room was covered in posters...

SANDERS: Really?

WAITHE: ...Like Immature, Toni Braxton, all these, like...

SANDERS: Immature - I have not heard - I haven't thought of Immature in years.

WAITHE: Dude, my sister - obsessed.

SANDERS: Wow.

WAITHE: So her room - all these boys and (expletive). And my side - like, Toni Braxton, Halle Berry and Tyra Banks. It's like, you would have thought, like - but it just goes to speak to, like, black people just, like, not having a lot of experience...

SANDERS: A willful - yeah, yeah. And there's also sometimes, like, this willful ignorance.

WAITHE: Yeah.

SANDERS: I don't want to - they don't want to know (laughter).

WAITHE: It was so blatant and crazy. Like, thinking back on our room now and, like, all of her stuff and all my - hilarious, like, it's silly. But they really took to that, and they went, oh, this is really fun. And (laughter) - but yeah, those were the people, like, in my - like, that was it. It was, like, Halle. We had Karyn Parsons' poster up there too because apparently Karyn Parsons is a fan of the show. So she was down with us, you know, using her image. And Regina King - we have a young picture of Regina King up there...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

WAITHE: ...Who's also a fan of the show. So some of it was some head nods to people who've been really kind about the series...

SANDERS: I love it.

WAITHE: ...And yeah. And also, it's so cool - and I haven't seen him, but Vanessa Williams' son - there's a barbershop he and I frequent.

SANDERS: Oh, nice.

WAITHE: And he's a fan of the show. So that, to me, was sort of cool even though I was, like, Vanessa Williams is, like, a big part of my - but that's kind of a nice little - I always think of him because, like, I've seen him and he's, like, I like the show.

SANDERS: Speaking about '90s, I was reading somewhere that when y'all writing the episode, you and Aziz were playing to '90s R&B. What kind of stuff were y'all playing?

WAITHE: Wow. We would play some LL Cool J, like, doing it and doing it and doing it...

SANDERS: See; "Loungin's" a better song for me.

WAITHE: Yeah, "Loungin's" lit. We were playing, like, some Boyz II Men, some - I think I pulled up some SWV, some D'Angelo. I think...

SANDERS: "Brown Sugar" plays a prominent role in the episode.

WAITHE: Yeah, yeah because I think we were trying to, like, find the music video - that's what, like - we were listening - watching music videos and going, like, what would they be watching? What were they listening to? What were we actually listening to? And Aziz and I have a very similar, like, culture references, too...

SANDERS: Aziz is, like, low-key black.

WAITHE: He's freaking black as hell.

SANDERS: What does that - how does that - what?

WAITHE: I don't know. I don't know if it's because he was in the South or what he leaned more toward. He's also a soulful kind of dude. But him and his younger brother, Aniz - they have very, like, black, like, pop culture references.

SANDERS: And I can tell it's real because, like, there's a lot of folks that try to act, like...

WAITHE: The R. Kelly (unintelligible) does, yeah.

SANDERS: But he's actually for real, like, in the culture.

WAITHE: Yeah. No, he knows. He's obsessed. He really is obsessed. He'll always be - every time I see him - you hear the new Kanye?

SANDERS: (Laughter).

WAITHE: I'm like, no, I haven't. What's up, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

WAITHE: No, he's so great that way.

SANDERS: Somebody wrote - and I want to read this to you. There was a piece by a queer Latina woman in Bustle. Her name is Ludmila Leiva. And she was writing about watching your character, Denise, on the show. And she said, quote, "I saw myself on the screen with her in almost every scene. I felt the heavy silences at the table and sensed the forced conversation and visceral discomfort throughout the years. When her mother requested her silence - you know you can't tell your grandmother because she won't be able to handle this - I felt the suffocation of my own silence. I looked into Angela Bassett's dark, grieving eyes and saw my own mother's pain." Like, how many people have seen themselves and their experience in this episode?

WAITHE: I mean the response has been overwhelming. I mean people - young people - teenagers have messaged me on Instagram. A lot of people have hit me up on Twitter. I try to respond to as many people as I can. A lot of people hit me up on Facebook in the messages. It's just been really beautiful and really wonderful.

And I think it's - the fire that I have in my belly remains, but it's thrown all kind of paper and wood, you know, like, fluid on it, like, because it just really makes me - I think what the resounding response this episode is saying I think to the industry and to me is that we're ready for more stories like this. And we're ready for - because people - I can't count how many people are like, can we get a spinoff or whatever? I'm like, I don't know how realistic that is. But I - what I'm trying to do is really tell my story in the way Aziz told his.

SANDERS: And that those stories can be prestige television...

WAITHE: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

SANDERS: ...Not just the stuff on those other networks but, like, prestige.

WAITHE: Because that's not even my brand, you know what I'm saying? It's like - and that's what I'm really pushing and fighting and still grinding, you know, and also trying to make sure, you know, I don't - my voice doesn't get watered down, you know because there are instances in which, like, some places are sort of like, oh, we prefer this person's voice to yours. But it's, you know - but you're the face of it, you know what I mean?

So it's like - but for me, it's about, you know, getting to a place where I can be - have a real voice and really be empowered and tell my story in a way that obviously will connect to people this way. That's what it's telling me. They're like, keep fighting to tell your story and to do it on your terms. And that's what I'm doing.

And also, too, it's like - it's interesting because I think of James Baldwin often just in my life. And I don't think he - I think his work became a sign of the times, you know? But I think for him, I think he just wanted to be a great writer. He wanted to be a great artist. And I think the same still goes for a lot of us. But I think we have to be mindful of the world we live in and make sure that we are not only being great but we're also serving a purpose and we're opening doors for those to come after us. So we still got firsts, you know? And that's all right. I just look forward to the day when it becomes less odd for people to be doing things that we're doing.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. It's happening. It's happening.

WAITHE: Yeah, slowly but surely, step by step we're getting there.

SANDERS: Let's talk about your new stuff. What's coming up for you? How much can you share about it?

WAITHE: I know. I'm going to be in a movie.

SANDERS: What movie?

WAITHE: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Can you say?

WAITHE: I don't know if I necessarily have to say because I think if somebody wants to Google, they can figure it out. I'm not going to say it. But I filmed a really cool movie. It's exciting. And then I don't know if I'll do press for it because my character's a bit of a reveal. But if I don't do press for it, when the movie comes out and people see it, I think it'll be a really lovely surprise.

SANDERS: I'm excited for this.

WAITHE: I'm very excited.

SANDERS: Also "Chi."

WAITHE: Yeah, "The Chi," "The Chi," "The Chi." We don't have a - we don't know when it'll air, but we're assuming maybe top of next year.

SANDERS: OK. What's that show for folks that haven't heard about it before?

WAITHE: Oh, it's about - I really wanted to humanize black people in Chicago, particularly, because I feel like the headlines and stuff has been sort of, like, sort of painting them in a certain picture...

SANDERS: Especially in Chicago, like, it's one type of black Chicago that you hear about...

WAITHE: Right, exactly so - and we're trying to get it right. You know, it's trial and error. We're trying to figure it out. You know, we all want to make a good show, so...

SANDERS: Common's in there.

WAITHE: Well, yeah. Well, we'll see, you know, but Common's an EP. You know, he's really trying to do more producing, stuff like that. And so him, myself, Rick Famuyiwa directed the pilot. And Rick Famuyiwa is a phenomenal human being and a wonderful person, somebody I want to with again and again and again. And Showtime has been fantastic. And so we're - yeah - we're going to try to have a show for y'all top of next year. We'll see what happens.

SANDERS: And then "Master of None" season 3 coming out any soon?

WAITHE: That is an Aziz Ansari question.

SANDERS: OK.

WAITHE: But I know if he wants to do one...

SANDERS: He gon' (ph) have to have you there.

WAITHE: ...I'm down (laughter).

SANDERS: He can't not have you in there, though.

WAITHE: I know. I know. I'm down.

SANDERS: So next year is it, like, a Christmas episode?

WAITHE: I know. Who knows? I mean, well, they always try to outdo themselves and be different in some kind of way, which I love. So if it's a season 3, you know, I'm sure it'll be just as fun and cool and interesting. And if not, you know, I think it's been a wonderful ride. And it's been, you know, such a joy. So I can't complain.

SANDERS: And it's just been so nice to see young, talented people of color just do their thing. You know, it's funny enough. I know Cord Jefferson. He wrote the "New York, I Love You" episode, which is also brilliant.

WAITHE: He's so dope. He did, like, a Vice piece, too. I saw him on that.

SANDERS: And, like, I should say, "New York, I Love You" was another standout episode from "Master Of None" this season. I knew Cord Jefferson years ago back in D.C., when he was just still hustling. I'm like, you made it good. And I'm like, you made it good. And Aziz made it good. Like, it's so good to see this industry take people of color seriously, in a way that I felt like was not happening.

WAITHE: No, in a real way. Because for a second, it was a bit of a fad. And now we're - I like to say - in vogue. You know I'm saying? Because now...

SANDERS: Speaking of In Vogue, great '90s R&B.

WAITHE: Oh, come on. Hello? Yes. We should play more of them.

SANDERS: Hell yeah.

WAITHE: It's like, you know, because with stuff like "Get Out" and "Moonlight," - because the truth is, we're in a business of heat seekers and copycatters (ph). So those movies or TV shows that have that heat, looking at "Atlanta," do white people have that heat? They aren't easy to copy. But they all go, we want that.

SANDERS: We want the next one.

WAITHE: So now what they're saying is we want that black layered, sophisticated thing. That's a cool thing.

SANDERS: Y'all did "Atlanta"? Give us Houston and Topeka and Boston and New Orleans.

WAITHE: They may get it wrong, but at least they're trying. I think they're looking for writers like Jordan, like Donald, like Issa (ph) like myself, like Justin, you know what I'm saying? It's like - and like Ava (ph) - you know, so I think that, to me, is super exciting that the tide is turning, not just to black people, but to black folks with something to say, that are sophisticated and have a vision. Like "Chewing Gum" is really interesting.

SANDERS: Oh, my God, that show is so good.

WAITHE: You know what I'm saying? So I think to me, that stuff excites me more than just oh, black people are on TV.

SANDERS: And it's exciting to know - so one of my colleagues did a story on how a lot of these black TV shows, most of the viewers are white. A majority of viewers, for shows like "Black-ish," is non-black. And I'm like, good. I'm glad that white people can take a story and hold onto it like it's their own, even if they don't look like them. Like, that is an evolution that I appreciate.

WAITHE: Yeah, me, too. Me, too. I think it's important. I think that's a part of the revolution - a white kid in Brentwood to watch "Atlanta..."

SANDERS: And ID with it and feel like it's apart of him.

WAITHE: Yeah. That's how we actually, I think, build bridges - because now they're seeing a layered version of a black person versus what they always assume they see. Or I don't mind tropes, I don't mind playing with tropes. But my thing is as long as they feel like three-dimensional human beings, I don't give a [expletive] what they do. Look at "The Sopranos." Look at "Batman."

You know what I'm saying? Look at "Nurse Jackie." Those are really flawed - if those characters were black, it would have been a whole uproar, like oh, he got a double life. Oh, she on - she got to be on drugs. You know what I'm saying? Why he got to be a mobster? It's like - but it's not - that's just the backdrop.

SANDERS: No one looked at "Breaking Bad" and was like, that's making white dudes look awful.

WAITHE: Exactly, one of the most celebrated shows of all time.

SANDERS: It was just a good show.

WAITHE: Yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah.

WAITHE: So that's what I want to get more into. You know, for us to not have to always be so prim and proper and always do the right thing and all that kind of stuff. But that's a generational thing because I think older black folks are like, can we have some people like the Cosbys? I'm like, well, see how that turned out. No shade. I still [expletive] "The Cosby Show."

SANDERS: Oh, me, too. I'm always watching because I want the rest of the Cosby family to get their papers, you know? They deserve residuals...

WAITHE: I know.

SANDERS: ...Regardless of what Bill's doing.

WAITHE: Keshia Knight Pulliam got a baby now.

SANDERS: Oh, I didn't know that.

WAITHE: Yeah, with some dude apparently who ain't that cool. She should've stayed with (unintelligible). It's all right.

SANDERS: I agree. You got to go eat lunch or brunch...

WAITHE: I know, or something.

SANDERS: ...Or whatever. You didn't even crack the fruit snacks.

WAITHE: Because I didn't want to be that person on here, like, crackling. But trust me. As soon as you yell cut, I'm just into these Doritos and these fruit snacks.

SANDERS: Do your thing. Hey, well, this was the high point of my week.

WAITHE: Oh, thank you.

SANDERS: I am such a fan. And I pray for your continued success in world domination.

WAITHE: Yes, I receive that. Thank you so much for our lovely conversation and for your wonderful energy, which was a great way to start my weekend. So thank you so much.

SANDERS: Thank you. Go get some food.

WAITHE: I will. All right now.

SANDERS: Lena Waithe, how great is she? Thank you, Lena. Everyone who's listening, be sure to check out "Master Of None" season 2 - so good. Also, a quick favorite to ask. If you are enjoying this show so far, do me a real big solid and review it on iTunes. That helps other people find the show. It helps me get feedback from you guys to make the show better. It's just helpful. And don't forget, you can email us a recording of the best thing that happened to you this week, any time, any week, at samsanders@npr.org. That could wind up in our Friday wraps. OK. Until then, I'm Sam Sanders. Talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Well, we got to get the Doritos crunch on mic.

WAITHE: Oh, we do?

SANDERS: Just give me one.

WAITHE: OK. (Crunching).

SANDERS: That was very good.

WAITHE: My girlfriend hates the sound of, like, chewing and [expletive].

SANDERS: Well, then how do you live your life?

WAITHE: I know, exactly. That's what I try to say to her.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

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