‘Fresh Off the Boat’ showrunner Nahnatchka Khan keeps cool no matter how rocky things might get
If running a sitcom is a hurricane, then Nahnatchka Khan resides in the eye of the storm on “Fresh Off the Boat.”
Creator and showrunner of the ABC series centered on a Taiwanese family building their lives in Orlando, Fla., in the mid-’90s, Khan is the embodiment of cool.
Chilling with her on the couch in her Fox Studios office, she’s relaxed as she recounts her to-do list: wrapping Episode 22, directing Episode 23, prepping the final draft of Episode 25. It’s not just that she’s no stranger to the sitcom game, having cut her teeth on “Malcolm in the Middle” and creating ABC’s cult hit “Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23,” her temperament is a testament to her Hawaiian childhood.
When I ask about its influence, Khan says with a laugh. “Hawaii was great because Hawaii was so chill and my parents were so not.”
Khan sits down with The Times to talk about the commonalities of the outsider experience, the importance of a diverse writers’ room and the secret threat of childhood sleepovers.
What was the adaptation process like, taking Eddie Huang’s book and building a show out of it?
It was so easy. As soon as I read the section with the family moving to Orlando in the mid-’90s I knew that was where you set the show. Within his entire life that’s just a little piece of it, but when we went out to pitch, it was always really smooth, really easy.
Can you tell me a little about Eddie’s decision to part ways with the show?
I’ll say that he wrote a memoir about his life and that it must be hard to have that taken and fictionalized into characters that are not you or your family. They do things that you didn’t do, they say things that you didn’t say, and none of us can relate to that. We’ve never had our lives turned into a sitcom. That must be extremely difficult. His struggle, that’s his journey, but I wish him the best.
How tapped into a specific era do you have to be to recapture it so accurately? Is most of it recall or are you constantly looking things up?
We’ll have times when we’re confident that something took place in 1995, only to have it occur in 1997. For the Halloween episode, we made some references to the movie “Scream” until we realized it actually came out in 1996.
So you’re progressing through the show in real time?
Yeah we’re doing almost real time 20 years ago. This season our Thanksgiving and Christmas were both 1995 and as the present entered 2016, the show moved into 1996.
What was it like putting your writers’ room together for “Fresh Off the Boat”? Did you go out looking for anything in particular?
What I wanted to do was create a diverse room with diverse experiences. Whether they’re Asian or Indian or gay, hip-hop fans, people with kids, people who felt like an outsider for any reason. I want all different kinds of experiences. That was kind of what I was looking for and then, of course, great writers, which they all are.
So it was important to find people who understood the experience of being marginalized as opposed to trying to just approximate the experience?
Stuff starts to feel stale comedically when you’re just rehashing things, so putting together a writers’ room where the majority is made up of people who have not been the focus of the story, it flips everything around.
The family sitcom has been around forever, since the advent of television. I don’t need to reinvent it. But if you take something and you do it in a way that you haven’t necessarily seen before, that’s right where I live.
The focus, then, is about coming at it from a different point of view, like “Clybourne Park” did with “Raisin in the Sun.”
Exactly. And Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” You take these marginal characters from someone else’s story and you follow them.
In the typical white family sitcom, the Huangs would probably be the wacky neighbors or Louis would be a guy at work. But making these people the center of the focus, that’s revolutionary to me. Quietly so.
The great thing about both this and “black-ish” is that they aren’t diversity for diversity’s sake. The stories are completely different variations on typical sitcom stories, again coming at it from a completely different angle.
You’re bringing your own experiences to it. It’s like how my mom would never let us sleep over at anybody else’s house and that’s just a rule.
Because pedophiles. And so many people with similar upbringings have said to me, “My mom was the same way.” It’s all that nightly news stuff they would listen to and treat it like it’s gospel.
“Well, it’s on the TV. How can they say it on the TV if it’s not true?”
Yeah, the news anchors aren’t lying. Diane Sawyer is not lying. Barbara Walters is an angel from God.
Well, that’s obvious.
But people could sleep over at our house because they were like, “Because we know we’re not pedophiles.”
When you think about it, it’s really weird that we let our kids just go sleep somewhere. “I don’t know you, you apparently also have children, here’s my kid.”
That’s this immigrant mindset, and that’s what so many of us in the writers’ room from nonwhite backgrounds have, this shared “Yeah, my mom too.” It’s this thing that it’s hard to explain. There’s no universal set of laws, but it’s just a two-clicks-over way of thinking.
What from your childhood most specifically have you worked to incorporate into the show? Is there a specific story or a specific family quirk that you’re like, “That is my family.”
Louis’ sit-down hair dryer is something that my dad really had in our house. He was obsessed with his hair. Still is. Dyes it jet black. He’s way too old, it’s obviously not natural.
In the room, we talk about it as the thing you don’t know is weird until your white friends see it. They see your dad’s sit-down salon hair dryer and they’re like, “What is that?” “That’s my dad’s hair dryer.”
He would put a hair net on, go under and read like Sports Illustrated. That was his thing.
You’re directing an episode this season. Is this a transition to something more or is writing still your true love?
It’s really to preserve the precious words. No, it’s not like this is my real passion. I love writing, that’s always my first love and why I started this. The rest is learned.
How are you feeling about the Season 3 pickup?
They had already ordered an initial 13, then a back nine, then an additional two. I was honestly terrified they were looking for another episode. Then we came in and they were like, “Congratulations!”
I love [former ABC entertainment president] Paul Lee, and I really will miss him, but I have to say, [new prime-time president] Channing Dungey came out of the gate smoking hot. I’m thrilled. What a strong, bold way to say “My reign begins now. I’m changing it up.”
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