Jas Waters is not supposed to be here.
Raised by her grandmother and father, the director, TV writer and author grew up in a retirement home, where she shared a pull-out bed with her grandmother until she was 16 years old. As a young girl, Waters and her father would go to the movies every Sunday, where she would watch Nino Brown lord over the seedy, drug-infested streets of New York City, or Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor run Club Sugar Ray. This weekly ritual combined with her unconventional upbringing has shaped Waters' perspective and approach to creating brilliant work.
“By the time I was eight or nine, I was like Roger Ebert,” the Evanston, IL, native said. “I had such a grasp on what made a movie good; what made a story good. I’m also a poor Black kid who grew up in an old folks home. So I understand ground-level life, and I bring that perspective to everything I write.”
Amid a host of life’s detours, Waters’ gift of audacious, witty and vulnerable storytelling has successfully landed her a seat at the table in the writers’ room for a diverse slate of shows, including Comedy Central’s Hood Adjacent With James Davis, VH1’s The Breaks, NBC’s award-winning drama This Is Us and Showtime’s Kidding. She also co-authored the memoir for Rap-A-Lot Records owner James Prince, The Art & Science of Respect, and contributed to The Missing Piece: Finding The Better Part Of Me: A Love Journey, a novel by entrepreneur and motivational speaker Rob Hill, Sr.
“I learn pieces of myself through everything that I write,” Waters said, when asked to identify which writing experience garnered the most gratifying results.
Although the weight of the Trump administration has put society in a fragile condition, Waters has continued to use her position and platform to host responsible conversations based on understanding, reverence and authenticity.
Shadow and Act caught up with Waters to discuss her journey to Hollywood, the responsibility of Black writers in film and TV, and why she’s taken a few steps back from social media.
Shadow and Act: Your story clearly has a running theme: Audacity.
Jas Waters: Oh, for sure. I’m very audacious. This was always the plan for my life, even before I knew it. A billion things had to conspire together for me to get here. Listen, I was raised in an old folks’ home. I never had a traditional life; I never had a safe, cookie-cutter, predictable, affirming life. From the moment I got here, the rules didn’t apply to me. If the basic rules of raising a kid didn’t apply to me, then nothing else really applies to me. So I just had to figure it out. There were several times in my life that I found to be very confining. But as I look back on it, it was very freeing.
Shadow and Act: What has your experience been as a Black female writer in Hollywood?
Waters: So here’s the thing: I grew up watching everything. I watched Seinfeld and Martin, Scarface and Fried Green Tomatoes, Steel Magnolias and Beaches. So my field of depth — and this isn’t to say someone else’s is or isn’t — is vast enough that if you look at my résumé, it’s a little bit of everything.
My manager and I very purposefully only went after jobs that were unexpected and audacious, and that would show that I could do anything. So I went from a ’90s hip-hop drama (The Breaks) to late-night sketch comedy on Comedy Central — which as a Black female writer, you don’t get Comedy Central jobs; there’s been like four or five. That was helpful in proving to my agency and also the town that I could do more than just one thing.
Shadow and Act: Do you feel Black writers are expected to write Black-specific content?
Waters: Yes, and it’s not just from the town. When Kidding first premiered, there was a joke in the pilot about Rosa Parks. I can’t tell you how many people hit me saying, “That had to be you.” It’s so well-meaning, and I was so honored that they watched the show looking for me. But I was so discouraged that they thought the only thing I could contribute was a Rosa Parks joke — but that’s across the board. That was friends, family and followers. We don’t realize how marginalizing we are to ourselves.
Shadow and Act: I feel people may look at Issa Rae, Lena Waithe or Stefani Robinson, who are known for writing Black content, and expect their stories to be the same for all Black female writers in Hollywood.
Waters: But that’s also, in part, because that’s what people are paying attention to. I did an interview on Whiting Wongs at the top of the year with Jessica Gao and Dan Harmon — a very well-known, longtime working showrunner, who created Rick and Morty and Community. The podcast is all about overcoming the white male patriarchy in Hollywood, and the title of the episode is “Don’t Wait for the Diversity Hire.” At that point, I was on Kidding — my fourth show — and it was the first time anyone in my industry had asked me what it was like being a working TV writer. What tends to happen is Black writers that strictly write Black content are championed in a very different way than Black writers who write all other content.
Shadow and Act: Why do you feel that is?
Waters: We as people of color want to see ourselves; we deserve to see ourselves. So the fight first is to see ourselves — and that is a very rightful fight — but it’s a fight that I also fight. The shows that I create from now until the foreseeable future will probably feature people of color first, because I’m itching to tell our story. But that does not mean that you don’t have people of color working in the field, who are doing great work still telling the stories that are being told. It’s an unconscious bias.
Part of it is that (Black writers who don’t specifically write Black content) are not seen as really working toward the cause, because they’re not telling our stories. But (people) don’t realize what my job actually is. On Kidding, I’m the only Black writer and the only writer of color, as far as the staffing level. So it’s my responsibility to write the show along with everyone else and to ideate and track story, but it’s also my responsibility to make sure that like, “Wait a minute. Why is everyone in this scene white?” My fight is still the same fight, and I don’t have anyone who looks like me fighting in the room. I’m fighting alone, but I’m still fighting.
Shadow and Act: Does that responsibility every feel burdensome?
Waters: Yeah. First of all, this s**t is hard in and of itself. Making film and TV is hard, and then to add on the cultural politics, it’s incredibly hard. Also, you've got to remember, I’m the kid that willed my way forward. I got here shoulders first, and so that same audacity is there in the room. That same audacity is there in the meetings; it’s there on set. It’s always going to be there because that’s who I am.
Shadow and Act: Do you feel a responsibility to invite other Black writers or writers of color to the table?
Waters: I try to help where I can. The way the staffing system works, you can’t really bring people into the room. At one point, Kazeem Famuyide knew to come, but he also knew the star of the Comedy Central show. In general, you can’t really homie your way in there. But I do try and get people (production assistant) jobs, and get them on the lot, in the conversation — an opportunity to prove themselves.
I work with several young, budding writers. I read them. I note them. I try and help them grow, and share what I’m learning to make sure I’m not the only one. I don’t get off on being the only one in the room. That’s not a badge of honor for me.
Shadow and Act: As a society, a lot of people are divided on issues, especially in this political climate. What is the climate like inside the writers' room? Is it divided in the same ways, or does the writers' room really provide a way to heal from those outside issues?
Waters: I know that I’ve had a very different experience during the Trump administration, because the day after he was elected was my very first day starting on Hood Adjacent. While everyone else had to go to social media to get their thoughts out, we were doing that every day in the room, and we were able to put it on camera.
Then, (when I began writing for) This Is Us, we talked more about race openly. I’m glad we got to have conversations in the room that made it on screen. It taught me that as a writer, my value to these conversations is on screen, not on social media. That’s why I started to pull back significantly with my thoughts on social media, and (now try to) save it all for the room and the page.
Shadow and Act: Yeah, I remember you announced that.
Waters: Social media is changing, and there’s very little context on social media. You have to work so hard to provide the right context in — at the time, 140 characters — so that people can grasp what you are saying. It’s an absolute panic room, and that’s not good for anyone. It doesn’t actually solve anything, because there’s very little conversation actually being had. It’s just a room of people shouting at one another. I understand that everyone's enraged and mad, and for some people, that’s their only outlet. I had to recognize the blessing in having an outlet that could provide context and also spark conversation. I had to realize the responsibility that came along with that, and to take that very seriously and respect it. Part of that respect is giving less non-contextual opinions on social media and putting it on the page (instead).
Shadow and Act: You also have a platform to create real change. As you’ve seen, people are really affected by This Is Us. Through watching the show, they've been able to identify triggers and work through things with this on-screen family.
Waters: Absolutely — and that's not something I take lightly. When you get the opportunity, you've got to respect it, and that comes with it. So yes, all the conversations are had, and they can get heated. People are still people, but the resolution ends up on the screen.
Shadow and Act: Where did you draw creative inspiration from for This Is Us?
Waters: I tended to pitch more from my real life. I’ve lived a lot of life. I’ve lost 111 pounds, so I understood weight and weight loss, which is Kate’s story. I have, for better or for worse, been on the inside of fame. Having had a television show, (having) been on TV and having several famous friends, I understood — in a very textile way — Kevin’s story. At the time, we knew Randall’s story was going to be about adopting a child as a way to process his own adoption, so they lined up a really great list of adoption counselors to answer our questions. (When) the second counselor described traits of adopted children and what happens as they grow older, it hit so close to home. That's when I learned that I was adopted. So as we were working on (the show), I was working through things. Thankfully, Dan (Fogelman), Isaac (Aptaker) and Elizabeth (Berger) are so great at really wanting authentic stories. The audience can tell what’s real and what’s not. You can’t fool the audience, nor should you want to. So I pulled a lot from my real life.
Shadow and Act: Writing is such a personal, deeply intimate act. Are there things you don’t want to share or use for creative fodder?
Waters: I don’t share anything I’m not ready to face. The moment you put it on the page, you can’t re-cage it. That’s my general rule.
Shadow and Act: So now you're writing for Kidding. How do you approach it?
Waters: I approach every single job like, “What is this story about?” Once you know what it’s about, you can tell it any way that you’re capable of.
Basically, (the protagonist) a kind man in a cruel world. Jeff Pickles, (who is played by Jim Carrey), is a good person in a world full of people who have not had the luxury to keep their goodness. Everyone is broken in their own respective ways; they’re jaded and much darker, much more cynical about life. And here’s a man who — in part because of his job — has been able to maintain a very innocent interaction with the world.
So when you’re treated with such kindness, it’s easier for you to remain kind. (But) what happens, though, when something catastrophic happens, and you’re angry and you don't have a life set up to afford your room for that anger? He has to fall apart in a way that doesn’t destroy everything he’s built, but also his job is to be Mr. Pickles. His job is to teach and to help the most vulnerable amongst us to grow as people. So he has to fall apart in a way that still encourages others to be OK with their own falling apart.
Shadow and Act: Which show has afforded you the best experience?
Waters: I couldn’t even look at it that way. I learn pieces of myself through everything that I write. The most life-altering is learning that I was adopted. I was able to literally turn my head to the side and things made sense that I was trying to make sense of my whole life. And so the only way I could qualify it is in that way, and so yeah, This Is Us.
Shadow and Act: So what is up next for you? We heard you're working on a feature.
Waters: I’m writing a movie based on the book 40 Days of Dating. It’s about two friends; she’s a serial monogamist, he’s a serial dater. They’re single at the same time, and they want to fix their own respective issues, so they decided to date each other for 40 days to tell each other what’s wrong with them. It’s a rom-com about what happened.
Shadow and Act: Cast for it?
Waters: Not that I can say.
Shadow and Act: Well, you often quote a line from Jay-Z, “It’s not lost on me,” which suggests that you’re present and grateful for every experience. Through every writers' room and new accomplishment, how do you stay grounded?
Waters: The grounding is just remembering where I came from, where I started and who I am. Last year for Thanksgiving, I went home to Chicago, and I drove over to the old folks’ home that I grew up in. I remember being a kid and losing my key in the elevator shaft like once a month, being yelled at by the old folks because I was running everywhere, and them teaching me the right way to do laundry. I have a profound sense of gratitude because the unlikelihood that a little girl sharing a bed with her grandmother would be where I am now is slim to none. God had this plan for my life, so I know that it’s bigger than me, and I have to respect it.