By John Ortved
Photographs by Bjorn Iooss
“I’m not normal,” says Peter Saji. “In my spare time, I used to fight men in cages.” The former amateur MMA fighter and current co–executive producer of ABC’s Black-ish is also not normal in Hollywood terms. He’s a black writer (rare), on a black show (rarer), which is lauded both by critics and its sizable audience (rarest).
And then there is the fact that for most of his adult life, Saji’s hobby involved trading blows to the head. He estimates that during an athletic past that included prep-school lacrosse and snowboarding, as well as martial arts, he suffered between 50 and 100 concussions. It took a serious one, two years ago, to convince him to stop fighting. After several days of worsening symptoms, he finally went to the hospital. “No lie, there was a guy there who had been shot that day. And they took me in first,” he says.
He’s laughing when he tells this story. Pain and discomfort are where Saji finds humor. It’s a quality you notice in his writing on Black-ish, like in the musical episode “Juneteenth,” where Dre (the man whose family the series follows) tries to convince his fellow — mostly white — advertising executives that June 19, the day in 1865 when the last of the American slaves being held in Texas learned they’d been freed, should be celebrated as an national holiday. His colleague tells him, “MLK Day is a pretty big umbrella there, Dre, like Mary Poppins big.”
The sequence is captivating, and because it embraces the discomfort, it’s also funny. “The actual meaning of the episode, that we need to talk about this, makes people uncomfortable,” says Saji. “Because that’s the only way we can truly heal from this terrible affliction that allowed people to think that other people were cattle.”
Saji came to comedy writing almost by accident — and actually through fashion. Saji was producing a break-dancing and DJing event that was sponsored by a T-shirt company owned by the nephew of Darryl Quarles, the writer of Big Momma’s House. Saji showed Quarles his writing, and Quarles offered him a gig punching up scripts. He soon had an agent, and, he says, “ultimately, I got staffed on the critically acclaimed smash hit Cavemen, on ABC.”
But Saji’d had his eye on this prize before meeting Quarles. As a scholarship kid at boarding school, he once entered a movie he’d made into an annual competition. “I remember just holding my breath for the first joke to play, and when it did and it worked and people laughed and cheered, I just remember exhaling,” he says. “That moment, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.’”
Going back even further, Saji says comedy was always there. Growing up in D.C.-area Maryland, he remembers “sneaking” his dad’s Richard Pryor albums and watching Cheers and Night Court over his dad’s shoulder (he was only allowed The Cosby Show). Later, he found himself drifting toward the films of Spike Lee and especially Quentin Tarantino. “Watching those movies and watching people take really dark, unfortunate moments and finding the comedy in that — that kind of became my real inspiration for my own style,” he says.
Having what he calls a “challenging” upbringing — he lost both his parents and his sister — crystallized that style. “When I’d meet people who’d lost a parent, I’d say, ‘Oh, you lost your mom. Is your dad still alive?’ And they’d say, ‘Yeah.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I win.’” He’s kidding, but that’s the point. “They say tragedy plus time equals comedy,” he says. “I’m probably too soon on that stuff. But they say you have to laugh to keep from crying, and I think that’s what comedy is for.”
Which brings us back to Black-ish and the "Juneteenth" episode, the third song in which is an upbeat, ironic ditty that Saji wrote with Fonzworth Bentley — and which tears at the notion of equality. The cast, playing recently freed slaves, sing about all the things they can now do, like vote and “whistle at a white woman.” “You have slaves who were freed, and of course the expectation is that life is going to be better,” Saji says. “But they’re so fucked; they have no idea what’s in store for them. The bitter irony of their excitement coupled with what we know to be the history makes you laugh and then feel bad for laughing because you know it really happened.”
Which begs the question of how, or if, Saji sees change occurring in his own backyard, that of Hollywood. “I think it has changed a lot and hasn’t changed a lot all at the same time,” he says. “On the one hand, it was so bad that just the fact that we’re talking about an episode that talks about slavery on television is an improvement. Black-ish comes. Empire comes. And now new shows: Insecure and Atlanta, and tons of movies. And they’re all doing really well. On the other hand, it shows how underserved one segment of the population is.”
Diversity, for Saji, has to go beyond what’s on the screen. He tells a story of adding his two cents in a writing room where he was the only person who was not an over-40 white man. The scene they were discussing involved gentrification. “It was a point of view they had never considered before, and they really appreciated my perspective, and it went into the show. That is diversity.”
Not that he thinks the conversation ends there. He says the #MeToo movement has caused him to look inward and reconsider his approach to female actors and characters (he and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris were signed on to write Rush Hour 4 before the news of director Brett Ratner’s harassment broke and the project was put on hold). At the same time, he has to be true to himself as a writer. “I’m not a perfect person, and I’m not going to be doing a checklist when I’m writing a scene,” he says. “It’s not about doing PR.”
When you watch Black-ish, it doesn’t feel like anything close to PR. It feels like you’re seeing a real family messily making their way through the world and its issues. It’s funny, and thoughtful, and in the case of the “Juneteenth” episode, catchy too. In fact, when watching the episode, you can’t help but think: This could be a musical of its own. Well, it just might be. Saji and Barris are working with major producers and musical-theater composers to make that happen. Meanwhile, Saji’s signed an overall deal at Disney, where he’s writing several sitcoms, including one about his relationship of the past four years — with a girlfriend who, he says, “is not normal either.”
He’s back to fighting too. He can’t help himself. He quotes the BMX biker Mat Hoffman, who he says claimed that if he were to die without completely using up his body, it would mean he hadn’t used it right. “So maybe I should squeeze the last few drops,” Saji says. I tell him that sounds very stupid and plead with him to reconsider. Good writers are rare. And now more than ever, we need funny people.
John Ortved is a New York City-based writer who watches altogether too much TV. His articles and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, the New York Times and Vogue. You can twitter him @jortved.