In 2012, Tig Notaro was just getting started. She had released her debut stand-up album, “Good One,” and was appearing on programs like “Conan” and “This American Life.” She’d just launched a Kickstarter campaign for a short film she wrote, directed and starred in called “Clown Service,” about a heartbroken woman who enlists the services of a traveling party clown to brighten her mood.
If that premise sounds familiar, it’s probably because Notaro’s colleague Louis C.K. performed a similar sketch on “Saturday Night Live” earlier this year. When Notaro saw the skit, titled “Birthday Clown,” she was shocked. And she wasn’t the only one.
“It has been impossible for me to ignore the cacophony of voices reaching out personally and publicly about the potential plagiarizing of my film ‘Clown Service,’” Notaro wrote in a statement to Entertainment Weekly in April. “While I don’t know how all this actually happened, I did find it extremely disappointing.”
By that time, Notaro hadn’t spoken to Louis C.K. in over a year, although he was listed as an executive producer on her Amazon series, “One Mississippi.” The show, a semi-autobiographical tale of a gay woman in her 40s who moves back to her Southern hometown, was gearing up for its second-season debut in September. Ahead of the premiere, when rumors about Louis C.K.’s history of predatory behavior began resurfacing, Notaro decided to officially distance herself from the “I Love You, Daddy” director.
“It’s frustrating, because he has nothing to do with the show,” Notaro told The Daily Beast in August, reiterating multiple times that Louis C.K. had “never been involved” in “One Mississippi” aside from his financial connection as executive producer. “But I don’t waste my time on him or what anyone thinks. His name is on it. But we are writing the show, the writers’ room. We’re sitting in editing. We’re acting. We’re on set. We’re doing press. And everyone that’s directly involved in the show works very hard. They are decent, talented human beings. And I feel lucky to be surrounded by them.”
That hard work has paid off for Notaro and her cast and crew. “One Mississippi” is a critical standout in an entertainment landscape overflowing with primetime and streaming television. Marked by Notaro’s signature deadpan humor, the original series tells a compelling story of overwhelming heartbreak and reluctant new beginnings that’s garnered a favorable 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The show, co-created by “Juno” scribe Diablo Cody, boasts a writers’ room of all women and a small, dynamic cast of unique players. All this not because of, but in spite of, the show’s superficial attachment to Louis C.K.
“One Mississippi” is partly based on Notaro’s life after she battled an intestinal bacterial infection, lost her mother, broke up with her girlfriend and underwent a double mastectomy following a cancer diagnosis. (This all happened in the space of four months in 2012, the same year her career started to blossom.) On the show, radio host Tig moves back to Mississippi from Los Angeles and attempts to hold herself together ― along with her teddy bear-like brother, Remy (Noah Harpster), and her strangely aloof stepfather, Bill (John Rothman). It’s an honest portrayal of a woman, told by a woman, and played by one of the most interesting women in comedy.
Never have there been more female showrunners pushing the limits of storytelling. According to a report by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, women accounted for 28 percent of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and directors of photography working on programs shared by various platforms in the 2016-17 season. This represents an increase of 2 percentage points from 2015-16. When a woman is at the helm of a series, the writing staff is, on average, composed of 32 percent women, compared to only 6 percent when the showrunner is a man.
Of course, women have been sharing stories and helping run shows for decades, but comedy has not always celebrated their presence. Women have not only seen their work attributed to other, more powerful men, but they’ve been subjected to an environment that turns a blind eye to figures like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and, yes, Louis C.K., all of whom allegedly harassed and assaulted their co-workers while climbing the ladder and earning millions.
As we reckon with the misconduct of some of Hollywood’s heroes and their departure from spaces like prestige TV, it’s worth taking stock of the plethora of storytellers who are ― and have been ― ascending in their place. They make money at the box office; they captivate audiences; they have stories to tell, too.
Thankfully, we have Nahnatchka Khan of “Fresh Off the Boat,” who fought for “a diverse [writers’] room with diverse experiences.” And “UnReal” creator Marti Noxon, who studied the art of showrunning under leaders like Shonda Rhimes. There’s Ava DuVernay, who’s not only heading up “Queen Sugar,” but bringing an inclusive, female-driven adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time to the big screen. And there’s Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, whose CW show, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” tackles topics like mental health via silly show tunes.
There’s also Tina Fey (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), Issa Rae (“Insecure”), Jill Soloway (“Transparent,” “I Love Dick”), Jenji Kohan (“Orange Is the New Black”), Jennie Snyder Urman (“Jane the Virgin”) and Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (“Broad City”), among others.
These female and gender-nonconforming creators (Soloway identifies as nonbinary) are presenting authentic narratives in thoughtful ways, through heartbreak comedies, dramatic sitcoms and manic musicals. Successful programs are being crafted by innovative creators, behind and in front of the camera, who are better poised than most to deliver the stories in need of telling today.
Notaro, for instance, addressed sexual assault on “One Mississippi” well before much of the current wave of allegations coming out of Tinseltown. A storyline in the series’ second season involves Tig’s experience with her stepgrandfather, who molested her when she was a child. While discussing the situation on her radio show with producer and love interest Kate (played by Notaro’s real-life wife, Stephanie Allynne), the floodgates open, allowing Kate to share her own instances of being harassed without even knowing it ― stories about her field hockey coach, her camp counselor and her male teachers.
“That kind of thing happened to me all the time,” she admits to a bewildered, frightened Tig. “It happens to everyone all the time.”
“One Mississippi” touches on this topic in subsequent episodes until it reaches a crisis point in Episode 5, “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” when Kate’s male boss (Timm Sharp) masturbates in front of her during a pitch meeting in his office. Kate sits frozen in her seat until he finishes, grabs a tissue and acts like nothing ever happened. The incident is eerily reminiscent of the stories told by Louis C.K.’s victims, who say he masturbated in front of them without their consent.
When Tig confronts Kate’s boss, he denies harassment, blaming it on “jock itch.” The head of the company sympathizes with Kate, but recommends an internal HR investigation rather than simply firing the offender. Tig, angry, begins to tell her listeners about the situation before Kate stops her: “That’s my story to tell.”
“Our entire writers room is all female and everybody had a story of assault or abuse or harassment on so many different levels and it just was one of the themes that we felt was really, really important to show,” Notaro told The Hollywood Reporter. “To show the different layers and levels to it. People think all assault or abuse is one particular thing, where there are several shades of it.”
The “One Mississippi” creators began crafting their second season right after the 2016 presidential election, using their anger to fuel the story. Not only did they touch on themes of sexual assault, the writers scripted instances of racism and bullying, and debates about faith and religion, opening up a dialogue about certain untouchable topics that are ubiquitous talking points now. It almost feels too timely, as if Notaro and Cody predicted where we’d be at this exact point in our history. But, alas, the signs were always there.
We’ll surely see more series tackle current events, but there’s something unmistakably unique about “One Mississippi.” The Amazon series is powerful yet understated, funny yet serious. And it’s managed to package its power into a dozen 25-minute episodes that make you laugh, cry and question your own reality. With art like this, there’s no doubt audiences will welcome dissections from new female showrunners, as well as mainstays like Khan, Bloom, Fey and DuVernay. As we move forward, we need fresh, bold stories. Ladies, bring it on.
“One Mississippi” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
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