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‘Young Rock’s’ boss always loved wrestling. Now Dwayne Johnson’s in her corner

Nahnatchka Khan
Nahnatchka Khan, co-showrunner of the new NBC series “Young Rock,” at her Fierce Baby Productions office in Hollywood.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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For Nahnatchka Khan, the showrunner of “Young Rock,” few television programs of her youth evoke the visceral feeling that wrestling does.

Sure, the times her dad stirred her awake to watch classic films like “Ben-Hur,” “Guys and Dolls” and “Casablanca” set the foundation for how she thought critically about storytelling and character building. But more memorable were the moments she would gather with her extended family, many of whom didn’t speak English, to get lost in the rowdy world of professional wrestling — swept up in the theatrics of characters like Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik.

“It’s not like we could sit around and watch like ‘Laverne & Shirley’ together, because they couldn’t understand what’s up,” Khan says. “But we could all watch wrestling together because there is a spectacle there that they understood. They understood the storytelling. It’s transcendent, in a way. That shared experience, to me, is what makes me so nostalgic when I look back on that time, in that era.”

She’s looked back at that era a lot with her latest project, “Young Rock.” Inspired by the life of professional wrestler-turned-mega Hollywood star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the NBC sitcom, which Khan created with Jeff Chiang, dramatizes Johnson’s journey over four formative periods in his life — from his boyhood years marveling at his dad, a WWF star, and his wrestling friends to an imagined future presidential run. (Khan isn’t the only family member whose childhood interest in pro wrestling has become part of her career: Her brother Nick, a former CAA agent, is now the president of WWE.)

Khan got her start in Hollywood writing for children’s television on ABC’s Saturday morning series, “Pepper Ann.” She steadily built her TV résumé from there, working on shows such as “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Good Morning, Miami” and “American Dad” before helming her own creations. Her first was ABC’s short-lived “Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23" followed by the groundbreaking family sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” which concluded last year with its sixth season.

Video-calling recently from her office in Hollywood, Khan talked about shooting in another country during a pandemic, her biggest regret from her days running “Don’t Trust the B—,” and what it’s like getting frequent voice memos from The Rock. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Hollywood’s most influential showrunners talk with The Times about how they broke into the business, the shifting TV landscape, their writing process and more.

An "Iron Sheik" wrestling action figure
Inside Khan’s Fierce Baby Productions office, an “Iron Sheik” wrestling action figure given to her by her brother Nick Khan, president & chief revenue officer of WWE, is a reminder of her ‘80s childhood. Wrestling also figures into one of the timelines in “Young Rock.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

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“I’m like, ‘Oh, voice memo from Dwayne.’”

With a sitcom featuring Johnson at various pivotal stages in his life, authenticity is key. And Johnson, who has no shortage of projects on his plate, has not been stingy with his time.

His medium [for giving notes,] which I have never encountered before, is audio notes. He’ll give voice memos with his thoughts, a pitch or just like talking about stuff or whatever. I’ve never had that. He’s the first person to do it. I love it from him. I always get excited. I’m like, “Oh, voice memo from Dwayne.” He gave notes on scripts, gave notes on stories, on rewrites, he gives notes on cuts — he’s very much involved. And sometimes we’ll just talk through some stuff if we have a couple of questions. I like to just check in with him anyway, so we have general check-ins. He’s so incredibly busy, even in pandemic times. He’s obviously one of the most famous people on the planet, one of the most industrious, so it’s great to have him be so focused on this.

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The problem with virtual writers rooms

The writers room for “Young Rock” opened a few weeks before lockdown restrictions in the U.S. shut down many film and TV productions. Then the staff transitioned to a virtual writers’room.

When you come on to a Zoom, it’s like, “OK, let’s talk.” It feels so streamlined. But sometimes the creative process isn’t about that. It’s about getting coffee in the morning and chatting. And then walking to go get lunch or whatever — it’s those little moments in between that really sometimes unlocks things for you, even just casually. You get an idea. A virtual writers room, even if there’s eight people in there, there’s no side conversations, because you can only hear one part. So it’s not like two people can just have a chat about what they did last night. The energy is different. So I miss that. Like, the whole room doesn’t need to hear this little conversation we’re having, but I want to be like, “Oh, my God, did you see the ‘Framing Britney [Spears]’ [documentary]?” It’s doable, it’s possible to run a writers room that way, it’s just different. There’s an element that’s missing. And I really cherish that element. Some people were like, “Maybe it’s gonna be virtual rooms for forever.” Maybe, but we’d really be missing out on a lot.

Because of lockdown restrictions in the U.S. that shut down many film and TV productions, “Young Rock” headed to Australia last fall to begin production. The sitcom’s set was at Screen Queensland Studios, but the comedy also shot on location in and around Brisbane and South East Queensland.

The COVID-19 protocols were obviously something that none of us had ever gone through, so we were sort of finding our way through that. Things you don’t even think about — like going out scouting and the scout van, normally there’s one big bus or whatever, and everybody goes, but now you’ve got to only have a limited amount of people. So it’s just a whole new way of thinking about prep and shooting. Luckily, though, being down [in Australia], you can still do stuff with more extras than you can [in the U.S.]. But everybody’s in their bubble, everybody gets tested. So it was sort of just understanding that and then once you embrace that, it becomes almost like second nature and then you can kind of refocus a little bit on the creative, which is what you want to do, right? You want to be sure that everybody is safe, but then you want to just be like, “OK, how do we get this done?”

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Adrian Groulx, Bradley Constant and Uli Latukefu secured lead roles in NBC’s new comedy. The catch? All three are playing Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

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“How much vomit — is it hitting the ground?”

“Don’t Trust the B— in Apt. 23,” the misfit comedy starring Krysten Ritter as Chloe, a scammer roommate in New York, was the first series Khan created. Originally developed for Fox, it ultimately moved to ABC where it fizzled after two seasons in part because of a confusing release strategy. Beyond the controversy spurred by its title, staying true to the series’ eponymous b— often proved to be a challenge on network TV.

I think it was probably an ongoing battle. Everybody was very supportive at ABC at the time of this show, but it is still a network show. So there was [the] broadcast standards thing that we were always coming up against. And we were the latest slot of the comedy block — we were a 9:30 show — but even with that, people were nervous. It’s ABC, which was not known at the time for pushing the boundaries.

In the pilot, I remember we had a big back-and-forth about Chloe getting a kid drunk in order to get some information out of him. I don’t even know how many rounds of edits and re-edits we did. Ultimately, we landed on, he can’t drink on camera, but there could be empty bottles around. And then I think, like, the blow was that he could throw up, but you couldn’t show that. We were going back and forth on what that sound effect was going to be and details of how much vomit — is it hitting the ground? It has to be just an audio joke. I’m sure if I went back through every episode, there’d be a story.

You have to follow your instinct. I love collaborating, I really do. And there are a lot of smart people that work at the studios and the networks. Doesn’t mean you take every single note, but I think there are really good notes and really good feedback. But I do think that if there are things that feel wrong and things that feel like they will compromise the character or the story, that’s the thing that you push back on. Even that sounds silly, that example of that kid drinking, but that was a story point. And that showed the audience that this woman will go there; she will do that.

The logo for Fierce Baby Productions is a young girl spray painting
The logo for Fierce Baby Productions, inside Khan’s Hollywood office, features a “Young Natch” spray painting the logo.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

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“Just let the show be what it is”

It’s not unusual for sitcoms to have episodes air out of order during their broadcast run — a network decision that is made for a variety of reasons even though it can be narratively confusing for viewers and creatively discouraging for the show’s writers. “Don’t Trust the B—" experienced such a rejiggering during its original run on ABC, which frustrated Khan. (The series can now be streamed on Netflix in its intended order.)

If I could do something again, if I could have a do-over, that would be one of the things that I would fight harder for: to air the episodes in the order that they were intended to be seen. Because whenever that decision came, I lost that fight when they started to play with the air order. And after we had this sort of arc with James [Van Der Beek] on “Dancing with the Stars.” There was a whole thing that we were trying to do. So when we talk about lessons that you take forward into the next job, I took that into “Fresh Off the Boat.” I remember early on, I heard some rumblings of like starting to switch around episode order and right away I was like, “No, absolutely not.” And sort of just cut that off before it even really got momentum. The show’s either going to work or it’s not going to work but moving up and moving down — you’re just shuffling the deck. Just let the show be what it is.

There is still an awards season. And, as always, The Times will be right there to capture all of it, from those living in the spotlight to those working backstage on ‘The Envelope’ podcast.

A Keanu Reeves pillow on a director's chair with the name "Natasha Sandwheels."
Khan’s office decor includes a pillow with the face of actor Keanu Reeves, who had a memorable small role in “Always Be My Maybe,” and a director’s chair emblazoned with the name “Natasha Sandwheels”: “I have several aliases for Coffee Bean, reservations, etc, because my name is so long. After one of the writers on ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ was at the airport and heard someone page a ‘Natasha Sandwheels’ over the PA system and thought for sure that was me using an alias ... the writing staff had the director’s chair backing made.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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“It’s not a fiefdom”

After years of putting her narrative skills on the page, Khan made her directorial debut on Season 2 of “Don’t Trust the B—.” She’d go on to direct two episodes of “Fresh Off the Boat” before making her feature directorial debut with Netflix’s “Always Be My Maybe.” With “Young Rock,” which navigates four timelines, it was important to Khan that she direct the pilot to set the tone she envisioned for the sprawling series.

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It wasn’t one of those secret things that I always wanted to do. But I think being a showrunner in television is very similar to being a director in features — a lot of those skill sets crossed over. Those two things feed each other. So going into directing with “Always Be My Maybe,” I had the experience of being a showrunner. Because really, it’s about world-building. Whether it’s six seasons or two seasons or an hour and a half, you’re trying to introduce people into this world, to these characters and have them invest in the story and care. So for me, and for all my collaborators, it’s always about that and allowing other people to contribute. It’s not a fiefdom. You hire talented people, let them bring their talent, let them contribute. And as the director, as the showrunner, your job is to not allow the boat to tip over, to know where you’re going, keep that tone steady. And allow other people to bring what they do best.

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