Making history: Lena Waithe talks her Emmy win

By Connor Carynski, News Editor

History was made as a young, black Chicago native received national recognition for her work writing a television episode that gives voice and representation to both the LGBTQ and black communities.

Applause erupted as Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe were announced as the winners of the Emmy for outstanding comedy writing on a television series Sept. 17. The two hugged before making their way on stage while an announcer proclaimed Waithe the first black woman to win in this category.

Waithe, a writer, producer, actress and 2006 Columbia alumna from the former Television Department, and Ansari were given the award for co-writing the episode “Thanksgiving” in the Netflix series “Master of None.” The autobiographical episode portrays Waithe’s character, Denise, throughout a series of Thanksgiving Day dinners as she struggles to express her sexuality to her conservative mother. 

Waithe told The Chronicle that she was unconcerned with winning because she was so excited about being included in a list of nominees who’s work she greatly admires. 

“The history of it all started to sink in that I was the first black woman to ever win that award,” Waithe said. “That sort of took over the room. I was honored to be the recipient, and I think a lot of people in the room felt honored to be in the room when that happened. There was a lot of joy and it was just really amazing.” 

Ansari plays Denise’s close friend Dev, who annually attends her family’s Thanksgiving dinner and helps her come out to her family. The episode starts with Denise as a child, then moves into her early teenage years—as she progressively becomes more aware of her interest in women—and ends with her being accepted by her family as an adult, bringing her girlfriend to Thanksgiving dinner. Waithe said she and Ansari wrote the script for the episode in just three days in a hotel room. 

Michael Fry, executive vice president creative for Octane Rich Media and former Columbia faculty member, first met Waithe her freshman year in one of his classes and said she was always dedicated and inquisitive about her craft. 

Waithe particularly excelled in developing character voice, even when creating spec scripts, which are original stories based on preexisting shows, Fry said. 

“It’s almost like she had been hanging out and living with the characters, she had been watching it so much,” Fry said. “It’s that kind of relationship she has with character voice.” 

Fry—who predicted on social media before the awards ceremony that Waithe would win—said as soon as he saw “Thanksgiving,” he knew Waithe would be nominated for the award. Waithe’s victory marks a chapter of recognition for black and LGBTQ women in the comedy writing field, he added. 

“When [former President Barack] Obama was elected, I broke down in tears because of the cultural pride that I received, because you kind of thought in the back of your mind, ‘Is it possible?’” Fry said. “The next time I felt that way was when Lena won.” 

Waithe expressed gratitude to LGBTQ community members during her acceptance speech, noting that “the things that make us different, those are our superpowers” and that “the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.”

Waithe told the Chronicle that diversity in media makes a difference.

“It’s important that a person who looks like me and walks the world the way I do, [be] on television,” Waithe said. “It sort of validates us and makes it so they see themselves in a real way. It’s important for characters like myself to not be invisible but to be there, be human and be complex and have stories to tell.” 

Sarah Schroeder, director of West Coast and Regional Programs in the Alumni Relations Office, said she hopes current and prospective students realize they can achieve accomplishments similar to Waithe’s by using the same educational foundation she did. 

“Having one of our alums make history in the field of television increases the value of a Columbia degree,” Schroeder said. “It brings global attention to the outstanding people who are coming out of Columbia, and we hope that it encourages the support of our students in the form of donations to our various scholarship funds so that students who want to some day make history like Lena can do so without financial obstacles.” 

Other alumni who won Emmys this year include Tiffany Griffith ’92 for outstanding sound editing for a series dialogue for the show “Stranger Things”; Heather Gross ‘97 for outstanding sound editing for a limited series for the show “The Night Of”; and Dan Kenyon ’10 for outstanding sound editing for a limited series also for “The Night Of.” 

Waithe said Columbia provided a great educational foundation, although not everything about the comedy writing business can be taught in the classroom. Students entering her field should never let anyone outwork them, never let discouragement get them down and always stay passionate, she said. 

Waithe visited the Chicago campus in October 2014 to share advice and speak with students about her accomplishments, as reported Oct. 27 of that year by The Chronicle. 

She told the Chronicle that giving back knowledge to students and the college is important to her. 

“For me, it is important to give [students] as much guidance or parley as much wisdom as I possibly can so maybe they won’t make the same stumbles I did or avoid certain things because I feel like that is the only way the business is going to change,” Waithe said. “We have to share information, we have to encourage and cheer people on.”