PASADENA – I walk up to “2 Broke Girls” co-creator Michael Patrick King, offer my hand and say, “Mr. King, I’m sorry things got so ugly there, but I wanted to say that it came from a place where a lot of us in the room like the parts of your show involving Kat and Beth, and want the rest of the show to live up to that.”
King, stone-faced, silently turns and walks off the stage.
30 minutes earlier…
King and his two stars Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs came on stage looking bright and happy. They had no idea what was coming.
Because here’s the thing about “2 Broke Girls”: As I would ultimately say to King after things went horribly, horribly awry, this is a show that has some promising material involving the friendship and adventures of Max and Caroline. But it is also a show that grinds to a halt whenever Max and Caroline report to work at that diner where their colleagues are a trio of offensive ethnic caricatures and the customers are one-dimensional hipsters who are the butt of the same joke over and over.
Sometimes, with shows that feature obvious flaws, a press tour session will convey the sense that the people in charge of that show are aware of the flaws and are hard at work at fixing them.
The “2 Broke Girls” panel was the opposite of that.
It was among the most tense TCA panels I’ve ever attended, and certainly involving a show that is both that successful and one where a lot of people in the room enjoy at least part of it.
Earlier in the day, I had asked CBS entertainment president Nina Tassler how she felt about the diner scenes. She praised King and noted that, as with past CBS comedy hits like “The Big Bang Theory” and “How I Met Your Mother,” it takes time to add “dimensionality” to the supporting characters, but that she had spoken with King about doing just that.
And does she actually like the diner scenes?
“First of all, I think that they’re an equal opportunity offender. Everybody gets digs. The comment in our dialogue with Michael is, “Yes, continue to dimensionalize, continue to get more specific, continue to build them out.’ But again, our track record shows we do know how to build comedy hits. We’ve done that with all of the comedies on the air, and will continue to do that.”
King came out, beaming, and parroted the “equal opportunity line,” insisting, “I like to say that the big story about race on our show is that so many are represented.”
A reporter brought up Tassler’s earlier comments. King denied that he had been asked to change anything about the show, and tried to equate the writing of the two white main characters with that of the minority ones.
“If you talk about stereotypes,” he explained, “every character, when it’s born, is a stereotype: A blonde and a brunette, which has certain stigmas as well, which we’ve tried to defuse and grow.” He added that every character would get shading with time, but that “A short character like Han will always be referred to as short.”
The reporter referred to the diner characters as “one-note.” King bristled.
“I don’t think the characters were one-note. I think the characters were the first note,” he said. “The characters are dimensional, but they’re shown in segments of 21 minutes, which limits the dimensions you can see. I will call you in five years, and you will have accrued enough time to figure out if these characters became fully fledged-out.”
I asked if he felt he had done a better job shading in Max and Caroline than the supporting characters.
“Yes. It’s called ‘2 Broke Girls,'” he insisted. “Our main job is to take care of the girls. They are the engine, they are the heart, they are the soul and they are the acid. So we’re always going to throw to them first… The other characters will grow and grow and grow as they do with ensembles.” He added that “I personally am thrilled with everything we’re doing” when I asked specifically if he was content with the quality of the diner scenes.
Another reporter tried to approach the diner problem from a gentler, more proactive angle, asking whether Max and Caroline might leave their jobs and open up their cupcake business sooner rather than later.
“I think one of the important realities of ‘2 Broke Girls’ is the word ‘broke,'” he said. “We try very much to deal with the reality of how much money moves through their life… I don’t foresee a way that the girls could raise $350,000 in a season. To me, we will follow the realistic and Chutes and Ladders of building a business. Maybe they’ll get a big chunk of money at some point this season, but not enough. I don’t foresee them leaving the diner. I like them at the diner. I like the look of the diner.”
Quickly, the questions returned to the issue of the ethnic stereotyping. King noted that the last three episodes they’ve filmed haven’t featured any jokes about Han’s ethnicity, but wouldn’t commit to stopping them altogether.
“I believe Matthew Moy (who plays Han) is almost a unique being unto himself,” he said. “Would you say that the blonde rich bitch is a stereotype?”
When pressed further on whether it’s appropriate for him to be writing those jokes, King argued, “I’m gay! I’m putting in gay stereotypes every week! I don’t find it offensive, any of this. I find it comic to take everybody down, which is what we are doing.”
Fienberg leaped in at this point and asked whether being a member of one oppressed minority gave him license to make fun of every other oppressed minority.
“Being a comedy writer gives you permission to be an outsider and poke fun at what people think about other people,” King said.
Fienberg then asked about content restrictions they’ve had, given that this is a show that uses the word “vagina” frequently and has had many not-so-thinly-veiled references to various sex acts. He specifically mentioned “facials,” and the panel seemed confused, insisting on the more mainstream definition of the term and acting like they’d never made any jokes alluding to the Urban Dictionary definition. (Do not click if you don’t want to know.)
“You’re hearing things that don’t exist,” Dennings insisted.
“I don’t think I am, Kat,” Fienberg replied.
(For the record, the joke in question was in the episode “And the ’90s Horse Party,” and began with Caroline talking about a wad of bills. You can, unfortunately, figure out the rest. Google can be your friend if need be.)
“Every conversation we’ve had about edge of ‘2 Broke Girls’ is based on extreme wit,” said the non-humble King. “It’s a sharp wit. It’s about words. We seem to be offending people with the use of words rather than nudity. There has been no nudity on our show, and apparently there doesn’t need to be nudity to push an edge. So we’re more than happy to toil with our paint box of words and see what comes up.”
A reporter asked Dennings and Behrs a question about the horse that plays Chestnut, and they almost exploded in relief at getting a question that wasn’t sharply critical of the series.
“I wish he was here right now!” King quipped.
Things took a particularly uncomfortable turn when the reporter who had initially asked about Tassler’s comments again tried to get King to clarify his remarks, reading the exact quote from the transcript of Tassler’s executive session.
King asked the reporter for his name. The reporter gave it.
“So you’re Irish?” King asked.
“Yes,” the reporter replied.
“So we’ve identified your sexual problem,” King said.
Hearing the exact phrasing of Tassler’s question, King then took issue with how the reporter had asked it earlier, saying, “You didn’t ask me, ‘Did Nina tell you to continue and dimensionalize the characters?’ The answer to that would have been yes.”
Throughout the panel, there were so many ways King could defused each and every one of these controversies. When asked about Nina’s comments, for instance, he could have said upfront, “Nina and I talk all the time about the show, and we’re both conscious of trying to deepen these characters.” Every question, no matter how pointed, had an easy Showrunner 101 answer waiting for it. Instead, King repeatedly poured gasoline onto the fire and seemed puzzled that anyone would question anything about the show at all.
“This show is so much fun for the audience,” he said towards the end, veering between hurt and angry. “I’m surprised the questions are not about fun.”
He seemed so mystified by where the anger was coming from that when the session ended, I felt that I should at least say directly, in terms of both phrasing and proximity, how I felt and why at least I was so insistent on asking about this stuff, and in this way. I don”t know that I expected King to respond, which he ultimately didn’t.(*) But I wanted to say it.
(*) UPDATE: The CBS publicist for the show approached me after this story went up and says that King walked away because she was pulling him off the stage so they could set up for the next panel, and that she had been telling him for several minutes that he had to go. And in fairness to her, I did go up to talk to King several minutes after the session ended, which is often when the scrums break up. It’s entirely possible he might have engaged with me had it been earlier.
I’ve been checking in and out on “2 Broke Girls,” hoping that King would eventually realize that there is a part of the show that works and a part that just doesn’t at all, and steer towards the good part. But everything he said over the course of that uncomfortable panel made it very clear that the show “2 Broke Girls” is now is the show that it’s always going to be.