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 mothers 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! Its a lot harder than I thought it would be! I didnt 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. Its a single camera, and its 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. Its crazy, but the greatest thing is that youre 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 Im still the only Black writer on the set, but I found myself writing a lot of Turks 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 Ive never had a Black friend in my life! Im 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.
Its funny because its the type of environment where you have to be comfortable saying things like that. Its comedy and you have to go with the flow, and theres 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 cant get a thin-toothed comb through Carlas 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 Turks dialogue and Carlas and Elliots 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: Youre 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 youre 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 – hes from out here. Were in McDonalds, and this guy goes, Hi, welcome to McDonalds may I help you? And my husband Ruben is like Yes, Ill 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 Rubens like, Oh, um nah Im ok and the guy goes Ok thatll be $5.35, sir and just went right back to the script! Thats comedy man! You dont get that here. Its all about being back home, off sets, and being around normal people. The best thing is you can steal peoples comedy and they dont know! Like that guy doesnt know hes 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 everyones in their cars? All of my girlfriends who Id known have been out here were like, Just go to Magic Johnsons Fridays girl, just go to Magic Johnsons Fridays. I couldnt believe the sign actually said Magic Johnsons Fridays. Then I went there and said, Id never been to a Fridays 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, its like, Hey well 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 weve been inseparable ever since. And then I was like, Ok, its 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 didnt go out for like a year. It wasnt like the East coast where guys are like, Hi, how ya doing? The guys here are as pretty as the women and they wont give you the time of day. My girlfriend was getting married and said, You have to do Match.com, thats 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. Ive been with the rich Beckys, the Jeromes; Ive just been around all types of people. Back then I hated it. I felt like I didnt fit in anywhere, and nobody could do my hair! But it was funny because my mom didnt 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. Theres no character that we can bring on the show that I dont feel some kind of connection to and cant pull one from my background that reminds me of that person. So things that dont seem so good just wait a little while. Youll figure out what theyre for!
AHHA: What made you write Mixed as a follow-up to The Broke Diaries?
Angela: At first I didnt 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 dont sell too well. Why dont you just write your story? At that point the only thing I had submitted to her was the stripper story thats in there. Its funny because I dont think of myself as mixed too much. If someone asks me, I say, Yeah, Im mixed, but its not that much a part of my life. Part of me didnt 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 theyre 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 theres 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 didnt want it to be like poor mixed girl.