As an only child and a latchkey kid, I spent a disconcerting amount of my childhood alone in front of a TV … and I loved every minute of it! By age 17, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life—I was going to make more of the shows that I wanted to watch. So I proudly told my father that I was going to college to study television and film.
Wellll … clearly I had been watching too much damn TV. My conversation with my father didn’t go anything like the ones in ’80s family sitcoms where parents said things like, “We love you, Timmy, and we support you no matter what.” And it definitely didn’t end with a “sitcom hug.”
Instead, my dad began and ended our conversation with a string of words that I’m not allowed to type here. Let’s just say that he wanted me to pursue a more “traditional” career—one that ensured that once I moved away from home, I never moved back.
Soooo … I went to the University of Michigan Law School (Go, Blue!) and became a lobbyist at a swanky firm on Washington, D.C.’s infamous K Street, where I got paid big bucks to represent companies like Starbucks and Delta Air Lines. I had the kind of career that wouldn’t cause my parents to be embarrassed when Cousin Larry Earl walked up to them at the family reunion with a mouthful of sock-it-to-me cake and asked, “What’s Akilah up to these days?”
By all accounts, I was “living the dream.” It just wasn’t my dream, and you can only fake it for so long before you get what I like to call “going-through-the-motions sickness.”
So, on April Fools’ Day 2013, when I was just a year shy of being up for partner at my firm, I packed my things and moved cross-country to the City of Angels to finally pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a comedy writer.
My dad’s first response when I told him my plan was, “I didn’t realize that you thought you were funny.” Thanks, Dad! But he knows that I’ve inherited his adventurous spirit and fearlessness. (He also knew that, this time, he didn’t have any say because he was no longer paying my bills.)
So I showed up in Los Angeles with a very clear vision of what I wanted to do and a very vague notion of how to get there—just unfounded confidence that it would all work out. Shortly after I arrived in L.A., comedian and showrunner Greg Fitzsimmons—who is the brother-in-law of one of my closest friends from law school (Go, Blue!)—hired me for a brief stint as a writer’s assistant for a VH1 late-night talk show, where I got to learn all about strip clubs and trap music in Atlanta. Greg’s advice to me on my first day of work was, “Feel free to pitch ideas. … But don’t be a lunatic.” Copy that.
I was then selected to write for the CBS diversity sketch-comedy showcase, through which I met my manager, and I began writing a number of TV scripts, some of which have advanced in network fellowship competitions.
Currently, I work full time on Chelsea Handler’s new Netflix talk show, Chelsea, researching, pitching and developing comedic segments, and I sometimes consult for Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO. I also co-wrote and am producing my first movie, Scratch, an indie horror-comedy that is currently in postproduction. And last month I got my first paid acting gig!
Fun fact: I graduated from a top 10 law school and passed two bar exams, yet many of my friends haven’t been nearly as excited about anything that I’ve accomplished as they are about me being on Netflix for five seconds.
Another fun fact: I’ve made less money in all the time I’ve been working in L.A. than I did in just a few months as a lawyer at my firm. I’m including in this calculation the time that I got my dry cleaning for free because I offered to write a thoughtful response to a negative Yelp review my dry cleaner received.
My CPA told me to stop referring to myself as “unemployed” between gigs. For tax purposes, he insists that I’m “self-employed unsuccessfully.” I remember when I used to blow my tax refund on frivolous things like designer stilettos that didn’t go with anything in my closet. Now I have to set aside my tax refund for things like electricity and milk.
One more fun fact: When I walked away from my corporate law career, I didn’t just walk away from stability and financial security; I also walked away from being really good at something. I didn’t realize that being good at what I did was such a huge part of my identity, but starting over from the bottom as I try to master a new skill set has sent my self-esteem spiraling at times.
Nonetheless, TV and film, more than any other influence, shaped my world view and expanded my idea of what’s possible. In fact, if I had better health insurance, a therapist with an affordable copay might tell me that Clair Huxtable is at least partly to blame for me becoming a lawyer in the first place. At the end of the day, however, writing untold stories centered around real, authentic characters that are rounded, messy and multidimensional like me is exactly what I want to be doing with my life.
These days, my dad texts me twice a week or so to see how I’m doing, and I reply with updates about my latest projects, deadlines and meetings. Without fail, he responds with some variation of, “Great news! Remember, don’t accept any wooden nickels. And don’t panic. Please let me know if you need anything from me. Dad.” I think “don’t accept any wooden nickels” is his way of telling me not to come back home to Texas on a Greyhound bus, broke and empty-handed, talking about, “See, I met this guy at a bar. … He said he’d make me a star.” Copy that.
So here I am in La La Land—where “You’ve got a great smile; if you give me your number, I’ll pass it along to my commercial agent” counts as a pickup line—trying not to develop an eating disorder or a drinking problem, and sometimes tearing up while watching Entourage reruns because “the struggle is too real,” as I chase the vision I’ve had for my life ever since I was a latchkey kid.
I’m officially another L.A. “hyphenate” like “actress-Zumba instructor-dog walker” or “comedian-bartender-bone marrow donor.” I’m a ”recovering lawyer-comedy writer-producer-eBay hustler,” and I’m fully embracing the journey and trying to have some fun along the way because, as a cab driver once told me about quitting my “fancy lawyer job to write jokes,” “Life is once.”
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.