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For “Young Rock” co-creator, even a pandemic won’t make comedy go away

Kai Ryssdal and Sean McHenry Feb 18, 2021
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Sitcom writer and producer Nahnatchka Khan. "I think we'll be able to laugh at the way that we adapted to our lives being turned upside down," she says. Annie Tritt
COVID-19

For “Young Rock” co-creator, even a pandemic won’t make comedy go away

Kai Ryssdal and Sean McHenry Feb 18, 2021
Heard on:
Sitcom writer and producer Nahnatchka Khan. "I think we'll be able to laugh at the way that we adapted to our lives being turned upside down," she says. Annie Tritt
HTML EMBED:
COPY

While Hollywood has been in flux due to the pandemic, television production has continued where it can — just not necessarily in Southern California. That’s why, for her newest series, “Young Rock,” co-creator Nahnatchka Khan went Down Under.

The series, which retells actor-producer Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s life story, was filmed last fall in Australia, a new experience for Khan. Though she’s a comedy vet and the creator of shows like “Fresh off the Boat” and “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23,” filming during the pandemic was also foreign territory for her.

Khan spoke to “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal about making “Young Rock” as well as the post-pandemic future for comedy. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: You’re trying to do this in the middle of a pandemic. You wind up going offshore. You go to Australia. How big of a deal was that for you?

Nahnatchka Khan: It was pretty big. I mean, I personally have never been to Australia, let alone shot anything in Australia. So we had the two weeks of quarantine, which was very intense, but I’m so grateful that we were able to go down there and make this show.

Ryssdal: Following onto that, you know, you’ve got many other irons in the fire. And we’re not out of this pandemic yet. What’s your production model? I mean, how big a deal is this for you just for everything else you’re trying to do?

Khan: I mean, it’s very challenging. I think that everybody’s figuring it out. And of course, it affects the bottom line because you have all these safety protocols in place and costs that you never had before. But of course, it’s worth it to keep everybody safe. And you know, to keep the machine running.

Ryssdal: Do you think it’s ever gonna go back to normal?

Khan: I don’t know. I honestly, I don’t know if it’s ever going to go back to the way it was where people were just freely kind of moving around and coming in and out. I think it’s always gonna be a little bit different.

Ryssdal: I’m just letting that hang there because I kind of can’t wrap my head around it. But I guess the interview has to go on. I want to talk to you about you for a second because you’re the writer-director, you’re the creator, you’re the person who can do it, but also run the show. It’s like Mike Schur and Shonda Rhimes, right? Which is pretty elevated company. Why do you think you all are what Hollywood is looking for right now?

Khan: Well, I’m flattered to be put in the company of those two. There’s a whole process that goes into greenlighting different projects. And of course, you know, the fact that they believe in the stories I want to tell, and they support that, you know, I find myself just in a very lucky position.

Ryssdal: What do you make, though, of this move, of this moment in this society? And I guess, in your business as well, right? We’re trying to center people of color. We’re trying to center underrepresented groups. You were telling those stories with Dwayne, you told it with “Fresh off the Boat.” It seems like there’s a moment here for you.

Khan: Well, I mean, I think that the more opportunities that we have to center those people, the sections of society that you mentioned that have not been centered before, the better we all are for it. Just because we haven’t seen these stories on television or in movies doesn’t mean that they haven’t happened, right? It doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. So the idea that we now have opportunities and platforms, think of all the stories out there that we don’t know about yet. And those are the things that get me excited.

Ryssdal: Why comedy for you?

Khan: I mean, to me, it’s just always what I’ve gravitated towards. I think that any message that you want to deliver, I personally am able to do it when it’s wrapped up in something that’s amusing and interesting. That’s just the way my mind works.

Ryssdal: So here’s the tricky last question to a comedy person: Do you think we’re ever gonna be able to laugh about the past year that we’ve had? Are there comedies coming out of this pandemic, do you think?

Khan: Definitely. Definitely. I don’t think we’ll be able to laugh at, of course, the tragedy, but I think we’ll be able to laugh at the way that we adapted to our lives being turned upside down, and the ability to look at ourselves and to laugh at ourselves. And to move forward, you know, being able to laugh, even if it’s through tears. And again, not to diminish the toll that it’s taken, but I do think that comedy is never going to go away.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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