‘United States of Al’ Producers on Building an Inclusive Writers’ Room
The producers behind CBS’ new comedy “United States of Al” say they understand the backlash the show has received online in the weeks leading to its April 1 debut. But they also hope critics will see the makeup of their writers’ room as evidence that they took the creation of the show — and the representation to depict accurate characters — seriously.
“Trust us to have your back and trust us to do the right thing,” said executive producer Mahyad Tousi, who founded BoomGen Studios with Reza Aslan to create stories about the people of the Middle East, the Muslim community and other cultures. “Our people, Afghans, Iranians, Pakistanis, Arabs, the people from this region — Middle East, North Africa, Central South Asia region, we’ve seen our image dragged through the mud by Hollywood for decades. There’s a lot of trauma. Reza and I get it, because we have it. As storytellers and artists of color, our raison d’etre has always been from the beginning to use stories and popular culture to counter that trauma, to heal ourselves.”
“United States of Al” centers on the relationship between Marine combat veteran Riley (Parker Young) and his Afghan interpreter Awalmir, or “Al” (Adhir Kalyan), who finally lands a visa allowing him passage into the United States. Riley, who has separated from his wife, makes room for Al in his Ohio home, and together they struggle to adjust to their post-combat lives.
Creators David Goetsch and Maria Ferrari, who worked for Chuck Lorre on “The Big Bang Theory,” began kicking around the idea for “Al” after seeing stories on the plight of 17,000 Afghan interpreters who have been promised asylum in the United States, but are still waiting to be granted entry. Many of the stories depicted the bond that often developed between veterans and their interpreters.
“As Maria and I started to talk about it, we realized a couple things: One, the only way to do this is with Chuck, to make the show the way we wanted to make it,” Goetsch said. “And then the second piece was, we’re going to need a writers’ room that’s unlike any writers’ room we’ve ever been in, that is more diverse, and can speak to the both sides of the story. There’s the veteran side, the challenges of coming back with how that impacts the family. And then the perspective of Al as an Afghan-born immigrant who’s now arriving in the United States for the first time.
“This has been a process where we know that we have to win the trust of the on both sides of the story of the veteran and the Afghan side and that really comes from our whole creative team,” he added.
Goetsch has known Aslan for years and reached out to him about the idea. “We had sold a number of projects for various networks with Muslim protagonists, and they never made it on screen for one reason or another,” Aslan said. “And so, the idea that we could maybe get Chuck Lorre interested in this story was a dream come true. It took away some of the frustration that we’ve been having for a decade in trying to make a show just like this.”
Lorre, whose more recent work has tackled topics such as addiction (“Mom”) and aging (“The Kominsky Method”), said he was sold — and that included allowing Goetsch and Ferrari to hire a writers’ room with scribes who perhaps lacked professional experience but brought key knowledge and insight to the show’s stories.
“There would be no ‘Big Bang Theory’ if we weren’t smart enough early on to recognize we were not physicists,” Lorre said. “And I think similarly, we learned the lesson that when you’re out of an environment you know, well, you need to reach out and create alliances. So that your perspective is broad enough to do this and do it respectfully, accurately and hopefully, comedically.”
Goetsch and Ferrari put together a team of seven writers, three of whom are Afghan or Afghan American; one is a military veteran; and one is the fiancée of a combat veteran who served in Afghanistan. Five of them are new to the Writers Guild of America, having joined the union thanks to the show.
“To Chuck’s credit, he was like great, hire the people you want,” Ferrari said. “And was not panicked that five of them would be getting into the guild for the first time on the show.”
“United States of Al” writers include Afghan American standup comic Fahim Anwar, whom Goetsch and Ferrari knew from seeing his routine. “Dave and I were just fans of his work,” Ferrari said. “So we beat his door down. And the first time we interviewed him we were such like fawning fanboys.”
They found Ursula Taherian through CBS, which had been tracking her because she had just written and produced the short film “The Brown List” about her experiences as an Afghan American actress. “It was hilarious, and so we brought her in for a meeting, and she was great,” Ferrari said.
And then there was Habib Zahori, whom Goetsch and Ferrari initially found through a network of Afghan interpreters they had contacted for research. One of them suggested talking to Zahori, who was described to them as “’the funniest Afghan I’ve ever met.’ So we had a phone call with him, and it was electrifying,” Ferrari said.
Zahori, who is a Fulbright scholar, brought the perspective of an Afghan-born individual to the show. “He also had the experience of immigrating to America as an adult, so his experiences mapped one-to-one on Al perfectly,” Ferrari said. “I wouldn’t do the show without him.” An early U.S. experience of Zahori’s, in which he encountered a woman in shorts for the first time, was written into the show’s second episode, as Al fails his drivers’ license test after being distracted by a DMV tester’s bare legs.
“We talk so much about representation that we forget that representation also applies to who is actually putting the words in the mouths of the actors,” Aslan said. “Almost every storyline that Al has in the show is plucked directly from the Afghan writers in the room. So these are real stories. I think that the shorts episode is a perfect example.”
To help tell the story of Riley and his post-war experiences, the show found Bobby Telatovich, a Navy vet who had been working as a script coordinator on “Space Force.” “Dave and I have been volunteering for [the WGA’s veterans’ workshop] for a couple of years,” Ferrari said. “We asked them to send us the five funniest vets that have been through this program. And I wanted to hire Bobby after page four, it was the funniest spec I’ve ever read.”
Rounding out the team, Emily Ann Brandstetter also brought an important perspective to the roles of Riley’s soon-to-be ex-wife Vanessa (Kelli Goss), as well as his sister Lizzie (Elizabeth Alderfer), whose fiancée died in combat. As she’s about to be married to a vet, Brandstetter brought plenty of stories of what it’s like to have a significant other in the military. “We knew that she could help us tell stories about veterans coming back to civilian life and what that was like for him, what it’s like to love somebody like that, and what it’s like to help somebody like that,” Ferrari said.
Also helping with the “The United States of Al” writing team were “Big Bang Theory” alums Anthony Del Broccolo and Andy Gordon. Aslan and Tousi also joined in and assisted with the scripts.
“It’s not about a positive image that we’re trying to portray… it’s just about normalizing,” Aslan said. “I think for a lot of people, TV is how they get to know people who are not like them, people who have a different gender or a different sexual orientation, or a different race or a different religion or a different ethnicity. For a large swath of this country, television’s it. That’s the only connection that they have. But it’s enough. TV is the most powerful force for change in the world. I’m not exaggerating, I truly do believe that. And sometimes it’s just about showing somebody who’s normal. Who acts like they do, who feels the same emotions that they do, who struggles with the same issues. Nothing can change a person’s point of view more effectively than television can.”
But the power of TV is also why “United States of Al” has raised red flags among some who fear the show will perpetuate stereotypes or gloss over cultural imperialism. Earlier this month the trailer to “The United States of Al” faced backlash on social media, and many took the show to task for its concept. Not only did they feel that it provided a romanticized view of a white soldier and someone from a country that the U.S. occupied, but critics also took issue that Kalyan is not Afghan (he’s of Indian descent, from South Africa).
Aslan immediately shot back on Twitter: “You haven’t seen it so can’t really comment from a place of knowledge now can you?” But a few days later, Aslan and Tousi said they completely understood the response.
“I am an Iranian Muslim, who immigrated to the United States in the middle of the Iran hostage crisis,” Aslan said. “So I know what it’s like to be misrepresented on television. And we take that very seriously. But I think important that people give this show an opportunity, that they understand the care with which it’s being developed and created. We understand why they’re so shell shocked by the way that they are often presented in Hollywood. And so they see a 30-second trailer, and they immediately recoil without any understanding of what the show is actually about, and how it actually deals with these tricky and thorny situations. But all we can ask for is an opportunity to earn their trust, give the show a chance. Watch an episode and then make your own judgments.”
Lorre also defended the show’s concept, and urged that people watch it before making up their minds.
“Here’s what you learn about this young man: He’s devoted to his family. He is extremely disciplined and hardworking. He’s a religious man in the best possible description of that phrase, in that he has moral convictions that go with that with that spiritual part of his life. How he behaves, how he treats people,” Lorre said. “And what we’ve learned in having this relationship with Reza and Mahyad and many of the members of the writing staff, this is the kind of man he would be. And that’s a wonderful thing to put on television.”
As for casting Kalyan as Al, the producers said they looked at “hundreds of different actors” for the role but landed ultimately on Kalyan because of his experience, including starring in “Aliens in America,” as well as “Rules of Engagement” and “Nip/Tuck.” Said Goetsch: “It felt like that was the actor we needed to build the show around.”
Tousi said he and Aslan had expressed concern about finding an Afghan actor for the role. “We were hopeful and desperately trying to find an Afghan who could,” he said. “Playing in a sitcom, multi-cams are tough. It takes a learned skill. It’s really hard to pluck someone who’s never done it, and put him in that situation. you have to make the right choice and Adhir was the right choice for this part. But it was really, really important that the other four characters that are in this season, playing Afghans were played by Afghans. And they are. They represent a swath of different kinds of Afghans.”
The “United States of Al” producers recently held a screening and discussion with more than 100 Afghan community leaders, organizations, journalists and influencers to explain more of the show’s origins.
“If representation matters, and by God it does, we’ve all been working for it, then here it is,” Tousi said. “Do not erase our Afghan colleagues who have put their hearts and souls and their stories into this show. That’s counterproductive… if we’re successful, we’ve really made a huge impact both in the way things should be done and the way things are done. And that’s what this story is about.”
Added Aslan: “I think it is important to say that we understand the disappointment out there. But Adhir is extraordinary in this role. And he himself takes the situation, the issue of representation, very seriously. He has done so much work to present an authentic version of this character. And we think of this show as a kind of incubator. We’re creating a farm league of Afghan writers and producers and actors who can become the next generation.”
“United States of Al” is now one of four Lorre-produced sitcoms from Warner Bros. TV on CBS’ Thursday line-up. He’s basically seen it all, but even he was taken aback when retired Army general David Petraeus, who was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and coalition forces in Iraq, took an interest in the series.
“His insight into what’s going on with Riley, our Marine, post-service was very valuable,” Lorre said. “And he made it very clear as well that [interpreters] are vital to the American forces overseas [and] put their lives on the line to help Americans in the most dire circumstances.” Lorre called the support from Petraeus “a rare thing. It doesn’t happen when you make ‘Two and a Half Men.’”