Imagine you’re staging a musical number for TV. It’s a peppy ABBA parody fronted by a female singer who’s flanked by female backup dancers. Who do you picture in these roles? Chances are, given Hollywood and society’s proclivity for young, white, skinny women (that is, when women must be cast at all), you likely didn’t picture the types of women that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend actually cast to fill out the scene.
That number, an uproariously funny ode to male genitalia titled “First Penis I Saw,” was fronted by Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), Rebecca’s best friend who’s a middle-aged mother of two. Despite the fact that many other TV shows and movies have a tendency to depict middle-aged, married women as sexless, the song leans into Paula's sexual viability as she reminisces about her high school crush and considers rekindling a romance.
It's so thrilling to watch Champlin sing and dance through a grocery store picking up phallic objects with uninhibited glee that you might not even realize just how unique this scene is. Not only is this number focusing on the type of woman who often doesn't get enough time in the spotlight thanks to her age and body type, but care clearly also went into casting her two backup dancers to find women who are diverse in race and age:
It might not seem like much, but it's a bunch of small decisions like these (plus a couple larger ones, like making Rebecca's love interest Josh Chan Filipino and treating his background as sensitively matter-of-fact, and filling out the cast with fully formed characters like Josh's ex Valencia, a Hispanic yoga instructor with control issues) that have helped Crazy Ex-Girlfriend become known as a champion of diversity on TV. Throughout its three-season run, the show and has garnered praise for everything from its understanding of Filipino culture, to its nuanced depiction of mental illness, to its sensitive handling of a character's bisexuality. And while chronicling the issues of characters who come from a wide variety of backgrounds certainly takes work, it turns out that the secret to telling diverse stories on TV and in movies is pretty simple: All it really requires is making a conscious effort.
That effort should start at the very beginning of any project. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna says that setting the show in West Covina, a majority-minority Southern California suburb, automatically led to a more diverse cast as she and co-creator and star Rachel Bloom sought to cast people who actually reflected the demographics of their real-life setting. McKenna and Bloom spent time in West Covina scouting locations and just observing, which helped them get an idea of the kinds of people they were looking for.
"It’s just an obvious thing you would observe, that [West Covina] is very ethnically mixed in a great way," McKenna says when we speak ahead of the Season 3 finale. "That’s why I don’t think of [casting the show] as much as like, 'Is it diverse?' If that’s the majority, realistically, it’s the world, [and] you’re trying to reflect the world."
It's a message that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend casting director Felicia Fasano was happy to hear. "From day one, when Aline and Rachel hired me, the first thing Aline said was, 'I want this to feel like West Covina, you know what I mean?'" That calibration of realistic casting also extended to how the show's star, Rebecca Bunch (played by Bloom), would be depicted. "[She] should be the hottest girl not necessarily on TV, but the hottest girl in West Covina, or whatever that means," Fasano says. "So we were definitely trying to be very realistic."
"On another show, I might have to go and talk to the writers and say, 'Can you guys stop writing all of these white parts?'"
While some of the show's diversity is baked into Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's dedication to authentically depicting the minority-white city of West Covina, McKenna also emphasizes that telling new stories — something that often comes from highlighting underrepresented populations or hyper-specific characters or both — is simply something that she finds interesting and makes an effort to do.
"Everybody that you know has a very specific place that they come from in terms of who their parents are, not just in terms of their background, but what are their jobs and what’s their family configuration and are people divorced or single. So when you’re coming up with characters, the more specific and idiosyncratic they can be, the better," McKenna says. "Nobody knows anyone who is simply one thing, so we’re trying to reflect what we see in the world."
That ethos has helped populate the show with supporting characters who feel just as realistic as the high-achieving, neurotic yet self destructive Rebecca Bunch — from Darryl, Rebecca's mustachioed boss at her law firm who discovers his bisexuality after divorcing his wife, to Heather, Rebecca's biracial roommate who finds comfort and stability in perpetually being a student at the local community college.
McKenna gets these interesting characters mostly through open ethnicity casting. About 90 percent of the time, McKenna says she tells Fasano that the roles should be open to "all ethnicities," the exceptions being for super specific parts like Josh Chan, Rebecca's initial love interest. (It was decided early on that her love interest would be Filipino, partly because the story takes place in West Covina, which has a large Filipino community, and also because it was a natural opportunity to do something that hadn't been done before, as Asian love interests are still sorely lacking in movies and television.) But even with open ethnicity casting, McKenna also isn't afraid to ask for more.
“I remember in the first season, I said to Felicia, let’s see more variety in the body type, and bigger folk… That’s something I’ll bring up frequently," McKenna says. Any kind of diversity, she adds, can be "something that informs the character and makes the character stand out in some way."
Ultimately, though, creating a diverse cast to tell new and interesting stories requires the casting director, the creators, and the writers to all be on the same page, and not all showrunners value diversity as much as Bloom and McKenna. For someone like Fasano, who values finding unique characters for the projects she casts, it can be a struggle to force diversity if the higher-ups and the writers don't see it as a priority.
"I don’t have to do this on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend because [they're] very inclusive of everybody, but maybe on another show, I might have to go and talk to the writers and say, “Can you guys stop writing all of these white parts?' or whatever it is," Fasano says. "If a producer wants everybody [to be Caucasian or] wants a certain part to be Caucasian, and I bring in only diverse people, and then they don’t pick anyone... that’s just a waste of everyone’s time."
Still, Fasano says there are productive ways to continue questioning the knee-jerk reaction to homogenous casting. "It's about having that conversation like, 'Why does that person need to be Caucasian? Why is that so important to the story?'" Fasano says. It's about re-educating the industry, little by little, about all the untapped potential there is in doing something new and different. Perhaps one day we'll look back at "First Penis I Saw" and laugh not just because it's timelessly hilarious, but because it will be funny to consider how it — and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as a whole — was once one of only a few shining examples of diversity done right.
This story was created in support of Bustle's 2018 Awards Season pledge. Read more here.