Angela Nissel: Write On, Pt 1

Growing up in Philadelphia, Angela Nissel had no inkling of the impact that the people who crossed her path would make in her later years. Aside from bumping into legendary Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson as a teen, and later teaming with him to create one of the most popular web communities, Okayplayer.com, Angela met the people who would later fuel her characters as a humor writer.

With one successful book under her belt, The Broke Diaries, and a new release entitled Mixed, Angela Nissel has enough humorous memories to circulate the globe and back. The remainder of her wit is dedicated to her job as writer on the NBC hit TV show Scrubs.

Speaking with Angela, she recounted her days living in Philadelphia as a biracial girl and the affect that had on her…and her mother’s tall tales of famous “mixed” people. Who would have thought that such experiences would evolve into an HBO pilot, now in the works, starring none other than Halle Berry.

AllHipHop.com Alternatives: What is it like on the set of one of the funniest sitcoms?

Angela: Oh, thank you! It’s a lot harder than I thought it would be! I didn’t have any experience, and I thought they would shoot on a set for like a half hour, hour a day. They shoot for 12 hours a day: Monday through Friday. It’s a single camera, and it’s filmed in an abandoned hospital. At any moment, they might take over your office and use it as a set. I came out of my office from writing one day, and all of a sudden they moved us into an apartment building. It’s crazy, but the greatest thing is that you’re working side by side with all of the actors all the time.

So many of them are just like their characters. We get to pick up on their quirks and put them into their scripts. The man who plays Dr. Cox, we call him Johnny C, and he has a habit of over-annunciating words, which is funny – but then we put that in the script and it fits him! So we get to pick up on all of their little faults and put them into their characters.

AHHA: Which character do you find yourself writing the most material for?

Angela: It really varies. When I first came in, well I’m still the only Black writer on the set, but I found myself writing a lot of Turk’s slang. I was the youngest one too at the time, and I was like, “Guys, no one says slammin’ anymore!” There is this one writer in particular, a white Republican guy, and he was like, “You know I’ve never had a Black friend in my life! I’m having trouble writing for this part. How do Black people say ‘Thank you?’ Is there like a cool way?” I was like, “Um, no we usually just say thank you.”

It’s funny because it’s the type of environment where you have to be comfortable saying things like that. It’s comedy and you have to go with the flow, and there’s different cultures on the set too so you have to be comfortable. There was this one episode where we were going to have these thin-toothed combs because we were going to take pictures. I was like, “You can’t get a thin-toothed comb through Carla’s hair!” Just pointing out certain things to them. But when we write a script, we have to write for every character. I like punching up Turk’s dialogue and Carla’s and Elliot’s too, because they are all in my age group, so I like showing the guys in the room how old they are by how outdated their lingo is.

AHHA: You’re genuinely funny by nature. How do you manage to keep that comedy flowing in your writing?

Angela: I remember I heard Chris Rock say one day, “The worst thing you can do is become rich and comfortable, because then you’re not funny. You need struggle to be funny.” I spend as much time as possible back in Philly just doing those normal day to day things, like sitting with my brother and his wife watching their kid, sitting with my mom, going home and just doing the day to day things and getting outside of L.A. because…L.A. to me is a different city than anywhere else. Plus the part I live in can be so nice and happy.

I went back to Philly and took my husband back there for the first time – he’s from out here. We’re in McDonald’s, and this guy goes, “Hi, welcome to McDonald’s may I help you?” And my husband Ruben is like “Yes, I’ll have this, this, and this.” And the guy is like “Can I get you a drink, sir?” and Ruben is like, “Excuse me?” and the guy yells “Drink n***a!” – and Ruben’s like, “Oh, um nah I’m ok” and the guy goes “Ok that’ll be $5.35, sir” and just went right back to the script! That’s comedy man! You don’t get that here. It’s all about being back home, off sets, and being around normal people. The best thing is you can steal people’s comedy and they don’t know! Like that guy doesn’t know he’s going in a future script!

AHHA: Did you struggle with the L.A. environment? I know a lot of East coast people either love it or they detest it.

Angela: Oh my God! I hated it! I was like, “How do you even meet people because everyone’s in their cars?” All of my girlfriends who I’d known have been out here were like, “Just go to Magic Johnson’s Friday’s girl, just go to Magic Johnson’s Friday’s.” I couldn’t believe the sign actually said Magic Johnson’s Fridays. Then I went there and said, “I’d never been to a Friday’s where you had to get patted down!” I remember I met up with some Okayplayers the first time I came out here. But then everyone lives so far, it’s like, “Hey we’ll meet up!” but you never do because it takes like two hours to get there.

I was finally so lucky because just when I was about to move home, one of my best girlfriends from high school was watching Scrubs and saw my name in the credits and called the Scrubs production office, and we met up for lunch and we’ve been inseparable ever since. And then I was like, “Ok, it’s hard to meet guys out here”, so I went on Match.com and got the husband.

AHHA: So Match.com does work.

Angela: I could not believe it. When I first got on there I was like a kid in a candy store. I didn’t go out for like a year. It wasn’t like the East coast where guys are like, “Hi, how ya doing?” The guys here are as pretty as the women and they won’t give you the time of day. My girlfriend was getting married and said, “You have to do Match.com, that’s the only way to meet anyone out here.” I was such a mess, girl. I was all over the place. I was on Match, BlackPlanet…oh my God I went on so many dates. It was so much fun.

AHHA: How did living in a few parts of Philly as a child affect you growing up?

Angela: I can say now it was good. I feel like, especially doing TV work, I had exposure to so many different types of characters. I’ve been with the rich Becky’s, the Jerome’s; I’ve just been around all types of people. Back then I hated it. I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere, and nobody could do my hair! But it was funny because my mom didn’t think she was exposing me to so many different types of people. Now I feel so blessed because I can go so many places and feel like I can fit in. There’s no character that we can bring on the show that I don’t feel some kind of connection to and can’t pull one from my background that reminds me of that person. So things that don’t seem so good…just wait a little while. You’ll figure out what they’re for!

AHHA: What made you write Mixed as a follow-up to The Broke Diaries?

Angela: At first I didn’t want to write it as my own story. My good friend and I were going to do a collection of stories from mixed people. Then I submitted it to my publisher and she said, “Well actually anthologies, or collections of stories don’t sell too well. Why don’t you just write your story? At that point the only thing I had submitted to her was the stripper story that’s in there. It’s funny because I don’t think of myself as mixed too much. If someone asks me, I say, “Yeah, I’m mixed,” but it’s not that much a part of my life. Part of me didn’t even wanna do it. Then I said, “Ya know what? Write the truth about how it affected you and what you felt like.”

Also I wanted to do it for my mom too, because I knew that she always thought that I would have had it easier because I was light skinned. I just wanted other people to see that people on both sides of the spectrum are affected by racial self-hate basically. I wanted to also represent that not all light skinned girls think they’re cute. [laughs] It seems weird even saying that because people are like, “Oh you guys have it easy and people are always looking up to you.” In a way it might be true, but there’s a lot – at least on my part – of self-discovery and hating myself, because of the people that I knew looked like me treated my mom. I also wanted my mom know some of the things I went through without sitting down and talking to her and making her cry.

AHHA: So you basically woke up to and went to bed with all of these experiences.

Angela: Mmmm-hmmm. The craziest thing is unless people lived with it, people really are like, “Are you exaggerating?” I have like a posse of mixed girlfriends, and we just talk about it all the time. You never know how someone is going to look at you or expect you to be. It just gets tiring. Looking back though, a lot of the stuff was just dumb, but it was funny. Like my mom telling me that David Hasselhoff was half-Black, or taking me through a riot zone to get real pizza so I would know my heritage, I was like “Mom!” She is just so funny with it. She was like, “I was just doing what I knew how to do.” I just didn’t want it to be like “poor mixed girl.”

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