Before we head into the season 4 finale of Scandal, The Root sat down with Scandal writer Raamla Mohamed to talk about how she began her TV writing career, what it’s like working with Shonda Rhimes and her thoughts on the importance of diversity in TV writing.
I was introduced to Mohamed by a mutual friend when I moved to Los Angeles from Washington, D.C., two years ago to pursue my own career in TV writing.
Mohamed began as a writers production assistant on Grey’s Anatomy in 2009. Then she worked as a medical researcher on Off the Map before becoming a researcher on Scandal during season 1. After being accepted into the Disney-ABC Writing Program, Mohamed returned to Scandal for season 2 as a Disney fellow.
Since then she has worked her way up the ranks of the writing staff, and starting season 5, she will be an executive story editor. Mohamed has written five episodes of Scandal and co-wrote an additional episode with another writer. This season Mohamed has written “Where’s the Black Lady?” and “I’m Just a Bill.”
The Root: How did you first decide that you wanted to be a TV writer?
Raamla Mohamed: I’ve always been a fan of television and movies. I’m an only child, so it was pretty much like the TV was my friend. I was also raised by a single mom, so when I got home from school, I would do my homework, then watch TV. Then, at Columbia [University], where I went for undergrad, I double-majored in English and film studies. So I had been interested in TV and movies for years, but I didn’t know in what capacity.
After college I worked in off-Broadway theater in New York [City] and had the opportunity to watch so many shows and plays. That’s when I realized that I was excited about writing, so I applied to grad programs.
TR: And how did you land your first job in the industry?
RM: About a year after I graduated from University of Southern California’s grad school for film and TV writing in 2008, a friend told me that there was an opening for a writers production assistant on Grey’s Anatomy, one of my favorite shows, so I interviewed for it and got the job. That’s where I really learned a lot about TV, and I got to watch these writers sit in a room and on couches telling stories.
I tell people that it’s like this music video back in the ’90s by Blind Melon called “No Rain,” where this girl was a bumblebee, and at first she couldn’t find her place, but then she found this place with all of the bees. That’s kind of how I felt when I started working at Grey’s. I was like, “All of the bees are here! And they pay you for this!” After that I was like, “Whatever it takes, I will try to make this my career.”
TR: So what is it like working for Shonda Rhimes?
RM: Well, I’ve been working at ShondaLand for almost six years, and even when I was an assistant and Shonda would give notes after our table read, it would be pretty amazing how she could just pinpoint what was wrong with the script and know how to fix it. And afterwards you’re like, “Why didn’t I think of that?” But she’s Shonda Rhimes.
There have been things that she’s pitched and I’ve been like, “Really??” For example, when she first came up with the idea that Fitz and Olivia would just take one minute with one another sometimes, I saw the script and was like, “What? And then what happens?” But then cut to when I see it on-screen: Fitz and Liv are sitting there and the song is playing, and I’m crying. That, to me, is a perfect example of how she just has her finger on the pulse of what’s going to be awesome. You learn a lot.
TR: As of season 5, you’ll be an executive story editor on Scandal. Fancy! What is the best part of working in a writers’ room?
RM: The best part is the people. Everyone in our writers’ room is very funny. We have a lot of fun. There are times in the room where I’m in tears from laughing. To get to experience that every day is good for the soul. So even when it’s stressful or we have to stay late to rebreak something, I’d say the best part is that you’re sitting in couches with people you like and have fun with and who respect your voice. Those are opportunities that you don’t always get at a lot of jobs.
TR: And which has been your favorite episode of Scandal overall?
RM: My favorite episode was “The Lawn Chair.”
TR: Ah, the “Ferguson-inspired” episode.
RM: Yes, just the way that that whole story came together was just great, and we had some really great guest actors, like Courtney Vance. Even knowing the storyline and knowing what was going to happen, I still cried at the end.
TR: In March the Writers Guild of America West released its 2015 TV Staffing Brief [pdf], which found that in the last couple of years, minorities and women TV writers have actually lost ground in terms of staff positions and executive-producer ranks. Why do you think diversity in writers’ rooms is important?
RM: Well, some of the issues I’ve heard about in other places are difficult for me to speak to because there is a black woman at the top of our show, so there are some things that are just not going to happen. But I think people just want to see good and exciting stories, and diversity makes characters and stories more interesting.
And when people say “diversity,” I think it’s not just race that’s important but also class, gender and sexuality. All of it is important because you spend a lot of time talking about personal experience in telling a story, and if everyone has the same experience, it just makes sense that that’s going to limit your storytelling. So you need different types of people in the room.
TR: So what changes do you think are necessary to get more writers of color in writing rooms?
RM: I think it’s important to have more diversity at the top. More Shonda Rhimes. More Lee Daniels. We need more diversity among the people who are given the chance to create and run a show.
I think people think that white writers don’t want to hire minority writers, but I don’t think it’s that simple. People tend to hire their friends. You are in a room for eight hours a day. You want to feel comfortable. You want to at least know some of the people who are in the room. And if your friends are mostly white, then your room will be mostly white.
So if you have more-diverse showrunners with more-diverse writer friends, then their friends will be on the writing staff. That’s how things will change.
TR: OK, I’m going to end this interview Chris Rock Top Five-style, but the TV-geek version: What’s on your list of top five TV shows of all time?
RM: Of all time?? OK, let’s see … Felicity. Beverly Hills 90210. Martin. Oh, Friends. OK, I’m trying to think, “Would I choose The Cosby Show or A Different World?”
TR: Yup. That’s a classic debate.
RM: OK. I’ll go with The Cosby Show. Oooh, I also loved I Love Lucy.
TR: OK. We’ll make I Love Lucy your “sixth man.” Awesome.
Akilah Green is a recovering Washington, D.C., lawyer-lobbyist-politico turned TV and film writer and producer living in Los Angeles. She currently works for Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show, Chelsea. She has also worked as a staff writer for Kevin Hart’s production company, HartBeat Productions, and as a consultant for Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO. In addition, she co-wrote and is producing Scratch, an indie horror-comedy feature film, and is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow Green’s adventures in La La Land on her blog, Twitter and Facebook.