Teresa Hsiao ‘03 encouraged attendees of the Academy’s Jan. 6 Upper School Roundtable to consider a career in comedy writing even though — or, more aptly put, because — she had never done so during her time at Thayer.
“That was never on my radar,” said Hsiao, the co-creator, writer, and executive producer of Awkwafina is Nora from Queens on Comedy Central, referring to a career in comedy writing or even writing, for that matter. “I was interested in writing, but I didn’t know what to do about it.”
So, after graduating Harvard University with a degree in Economics, she told roundtable attendees via Zoom, she took “the safe route” and got a job working for Lehman Brothers, then one of the world’s largest and most respected investment banks.
“It is no longer an entity,” said Hsiao, displaying a comedy writer’s keen sense of understatement.
She explained that Lehman Brothers soon declared bankruptcy (in 2008) and sparked a worldwide economic collapse that eventually resulted in the U.S. government’s $700 billion bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).
“If you take the safe path and it triggers a $700 billion economic crisis, then maybe you should try something else,” offered Hsiao. “Maybe there is no safe path.”
Armed with a love of both television and writing, Hsiao pretty much started from scratch. She bought a book about how to write scripts and, well, began writing scripts. Her career started when she answered a classified ad to write for a Canadian children’s show; she recalls writing in the attic of an old church.
But things moved quickly — “Zero to 60,” is how the Abington native described it — and she soon became a writer for Family Guy and then American Dad, both animated series and both hits.
“It was like going from Single A ball to the major leagues,” Hsiao told roundtable attendees.
Hsiao encouraged students to take an “AMA” (Ask Me Anything) approach because she wanted to give an accurate impression of her career choice. She discussed the high level of collaboration in comedy writers rooms, the frustration of making certain concessions during what is a lengthy timeline from idea to finished product, and the need to remain grounded throughout the chaotic process.
“You’re kept sane by the other people in the room,” she said.
While adding that there’s still room for more, Hsiao said she has seen improvement over the years in terms of diversity, both in front of and behind the camera. She said she likes seeing people of different backgrounds represented on screen and not just as the butt of someone else’s joke.
Hsiao, who co-wrote a feature film that just wrapped up shooting, told students that “there are so many types of funny” — from “stand-up funny” to “on-paper funny,” from “loud funny” to “quiet funny,” and everything in between.
“You can be any sort of person and do this job,” said Hsiao. “You can have your own thing and still be a comedy writer.”