The Bricks of Breaking In: Abbott Elementary Writer Brittani Nichols On The Importance Of Community As A Writer
March 17, 2023
How did WGA nominated and NAACP Image Award winning writer, actor and comedian Brittani Nichols (Abbott Elementary, A Black Lady Sketch Show) first fall in love with entertainment? Just like so many, her passion came from watching television. She explains, “I was working as a sports camp coach for kids at a parks and recreation department and I would get home, take a nap, get up and make dinner and watch primetime comedies on television.”
Nichols continues, “I was watching Community and New Girl, Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, Happy Endings. It just occurred to me that that was a job I could have.”
Happy Endings had such an impact on Nichols that it’s the first show she wrote a spec script for. As for why she connected to the show, Nichols elaborates, “It was the first time I saw network people being like let’s try to make this a little different. Let’s have the writers’ room be a little bit more diverse. Let’s have the cast be more diverse. I just appreciated the effort and how that came across as a comedy. The comedy felt very of the time, very current and modern.”
Drive Your Own Path to Success
Taking initiative and creating projects of her own helped drive her path to getting hired for her early writing jobs, with first writing a web series, Words with Girls, and then an independent film, Suicide Kale. Looking back at these projects, Nichols recalls, “Everyone in the world didn’t have a web series yet and it seemed like something that was possible to make. It wasn’t just sitting and writing. It was actually doing something and creating something with friends and people I’ve worked with before.”
For Nichols, the web series helped her get into TV in general with her first writing job for Billy on the Street. Her venture into creating her own independent film is what helped then get her from the variety/sketch space and into the narrative space.
One of the most difficult things about breaking in for Nichols was just being able to afford living in Los Angeles. She notes, “This is an industry that is not built for people that don’t come from money, because even with your first few jobs in the industry, it’s not like you can just go out and buy a house. I still can’t afford a house. It’s a matter of being able to afford to be able to chase your dreams.”
She adds, “It’s gotten so much worse even in the past decade. I don’t know that me from a decade ago if I showed up in LA now would be able to do what I did.”
Select the Right Projects
Nichols credits the sustained growth of her career to being selective about the projects she takes. She offers, “Some of the advice people give to people early on in their careers is to say yes to everything. I vehemently disagree with that. I think a big part of being able to withstand the pressures and stressors of this industry is at least trying to put yourself in situations where you think you’re going to be happy.”
Avoiding what looks to be a potentially toxic work situation can also influence future opportunities. Nichols observes, “The people that you have good experiences with, that’s how you’re going to get your next job. So if you’re in a job where everyone hates it and everything sucks, it’s not very likely those people are going to want a reminder of a terrible time in their life on their next project.”
Even though Nichols has reached the point in her career where she’s able to get in the rooms and pitch to the people who make decisions about buying projects, challenges remain. She relates, “The industry is still not one that looks kindly on stories by queer people, by women of color. It’s now at a point where people will say to your face, yes, we like these things. Two thumbs up. Love to hear it. But no one is then putting the money behind those projects. The industry is actively losing money because they won’t tell more types of stories.”
Stay Current With the Industry
As for the state of the industry, Nichols hopes there’s more equity between comedy and dramas. She states, “Right now the industry is feeling very closed in upon and the things that have been first to go have been comedies. In adult animation we’re seeing that and in features.”
While comedy is often an escape for viewers, the stories being told today also can hit in powerful ways. Nichols asserts, “A lot of times comedy is seen as something that is not political, but I think that there is nothing that is more inherently political than comedy, because what people are choosing to laugh at, to make fun at, to try to find a deeper layer in says way more about our society than sort of regurgitating the same dramatic structures that have been happening since Plato.”
Navigating through her writing journey, Nichols has gotten some advice that’s helped reframe her view on what a writers’ room is and what working on a set is. She shares, “People look over that it is like management and it is dependent on social skills.”
Nichols emphasizes, “So much of this industry tries to act like it’s all about your vision, about enacting this perfect distillation of what you saw in your mind’s eye. Yeah, sure, but it’s also an industry where you have to know how to talk to people and be around people.”
Getting the Job Is the Job
When meetings do come around, whether generals or for staffing, Nichols points out, “What turns people off more than anything are the really small things that are common sense, but some people just don’t do, like being on time. Doing your research about the people that you’re meeting with. Knowing all there is to know that is publicly available about the project. Just doing your homework is sort of just baseline, but when you don’t do those things people notice. And you truly are just dead to them forever."
Nichols has heard so many stories about what staff writers should do in comedy rooms, from only pitching jokes and not stories to taking a back seat to mid-level and upper-level writers. For those who get their first TV gig, Nichols stresses, “Throw everything you’ve ever heard about how a staff writer is supposed to behave out the window, because the way that you’re going to set yourself apart, and the way that you’re going to continue to get jobs, is to be productive and helpful and that means talking.”
There’s often not a lot of preparation given to newer writers, so when a staff writer makes their first trip to set, Nichols recommends, “Be confident in your abilities. You can have some shock and feel a little bit overwhelmed and still be confident that the things that you’re looking for and need to ask for are valid and that you have the position and authority to ask for those things.”
Up-and-coming writers often quiz Nichols about how she managed to get her start and make her way in the industry. She relays, "What I tell people all the time is that it was random. Almost every single job I’ve gotten has been because of a chance meeting, a random bump into someone. I heard about it from a friend.”
This is why Nichols finds developing relationships so essential. She advises, “It’s a super social industry. The best thing you can be doing besides being a great writer is constantly expanding your network in a way that is authentic.”
When interacting with others in entertainment Nichols further suggests, “The number one thing that matters when you’re talking to people is that they’re a person. They’re not just there to create magic for you.”
Stay Creative and Inspired
For Nichols, her friends in entertainment are what inspires her as a creative. She admits, “There’s nothing that’s more inspiring to me than to just see someone absolutely destroy. Just be so funny, because it makes me want to allow more opportunities for people to be funny."
A common mistake Nichols sees aspiring writers make is the false perception that just because they’re a writer means they don’t have to perform. She details, “Meetings are a performance. Interviews are a performance. Pitching in a room is a performance. There are so many parts of the industry that for a writer are still dependent on you being able to come across as charming and funny and smart in a short period of time.”
In her parting advice for writers, Nichols encourages, “Just be a fan of people. Keep finding shows and writers and performers that you like. Continue to be curious about the art form that you say you want to work in, because in my experience those are the best people to work with. Those are the people who are best at their job.”
Written by: Kelly Jo BrickKelly Jo Brick is a TV drama and documentary writer. A Sundance Fellow and alum of Women In Film’s Writer/Showrunner Mentoring Circle, Kelly Jo is also the Vice Chair of the WGAW Genre Committee. She wrote the Telly Award-winning film PAUSE and the Frank Lloyd Wright documentary, The Jewel In The Woods. Follow her on Twitter @KellyJoBrick.
- The Bricks of Breaking In