Emmy-nominated writer, comedian, and award-winning author, Jonterri Gadson has written for notable TV shows including A Black Lady Sketch Show on HBO, THE UPSHAWS on Netflix, and other projects for NBC and Adult Swim.
Jonterri Gadson is a former creative writing professor who chose writing/directing/producing TV & Film over seeking tenure. She currently writes for the upcoming EVERYBODY STILL HATES CHRIS. She has also written for HBO’S A BLACK LADY SKETCH SHOW (for which she is Emmy-nominated), Netflix’s THE UPSHAWS (Season 2), NBC’s MAKING IT with Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman, The Kelly Clarkson Show, and Adult Swim’s half-hour comedy Bird Girl. Additionally, she was a Comedy Consulting Producer on 12 Dates of Christmas (HBO Max) writing comedic host copy for Natasha Rothwell. She won Kevin Hart’s LOL Film Fellowship for a short she wrote/directed and premiered at the American Black Film Festival. She’s an alum of the NBC Late Night Writers Workshop, New York Stage & Film Filmmakers Lab, Refinery29 & TBS Riot Comedy Writers Lab, and the IFP Project Forum. She’s published three poetry books, including the full-length poetry collection Blues Triumphant (YesYes Books). Visit Jonterri's website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
INT. BLISS HOUSE RECEPTION AREA - DAY
STEVE holds open the door for ANGIE. He bows. She curtsies. They’re white. It’s cute. They approach DANIELLE, the receptionist. She’s black and her smile is beaming.
Angie! Is this the infamous Steve?
Yes, I didn’t leave him at home to
watch the kids while I luxuriate
I’m finally gonna see what all this
luxuriating is about.
I won’t let you wait a second
longer. Angie, you know where to
go. Steve, you’ll change across the
Danielle holds the door open for Steve.
Ooh, I feel luxuriated already.
You two are the best. Welcome to
INT. FACIAL STUDIO
Steve enters in his robe and slides into the chair next to Angie. She squeezes his hand. NAOMI, professional facial tech with flawless dark brown skin, leans Angie’s chair back.
Angie nods. Naomi massages Angie’s face with her fingertips.
Now do you see why I never miss an
Looks like it feels amazing, Ang.
It does and you’re next.
Relax the muscles in your face.
Inhale. Exhale. Say it.
Angie relaxes into the chair. Naomi places a hot towel over Angie’s face. Steve’s eyebrows shoot up and stay there.
I have your back, Angie. If anyone
wants to hit you, they have to come
Naomi SHUSHES Steve and points to a bronze plaque on the wall. It says:
OFFICIAL PC REFUGE
Bliss House is a certified refuge for people who feel oppressed by political correctness.
Naomi hands Steve a services list and sits him down. He looks at the list. It says:
Say “Retarded” $50
Say “Gay” but mean “Stupid” $50
Be Racist or Homophobic w/Good Intentions $100/$150 for both
It’s against the law to call anyone
out for not being PC in here.
Choose a service.
No, I’m okay. I’ve gotten used to
avoiding confrontation instead.
The walls are soundproof. We sign
Angie takes Steve by the hand.
Remember the rap concert?
I’ll never forget. I knew the words
to every song. I could say every
word. But one.
Everyone watched your mouth to see
if you would say it.
I didn’t say it. It’s the hardest
thing I’ve ever done.
Angie hands Naomi $20.
Sing your song, Steve.
Angie nods at Naomi. Naomi changes the soothing music to:
SFX: GANGSTER RAP SONG
Steve’s breathing quickens, until he bursts out with:
This is for my day one niggas/
those east side niggas/ those fuck
a cop, snitches get dropped type
Angie hypes him up and hands Naomi another $20.
INT. FACIAL STUDIO- LATER
Steve reclines with cucumbers over his eyes.
So this is kinda like a safe space?
Angie SHUSHES Steve.
We don’t use the “SS” word here.
REVEAL: Angie with her hands all up in Naomi’s hair.
Angie puts $20 in Naomi’s hand.
INT. MASSAGE STUDIO
Steve lays on a massage table.
You represent all black people,
That’s the massage you paid for,
So...I’m not racist, right?
Naomi leans in toward Steve’s ear.
You’re not racist.
A little to the left!
Naomi switches to Steve’s left ear.
You’re not racist.
Naomi thinks for a moment, then gets face to face with Steve:
You’re not racist.
Steve MOANS louder and longer than before.
Ah, that’s my spot.
Steve hands Naomi a $20.
INT. MUD BATHS
Steve and Angie sit in mud baths next to each other. They look into each other’s eyes as one smears mud on the other’s face until they’re both in black face.
They wave at Naomi and Danielle who are restocking towels.
They paid $250 to be able to do
INT. BODY WRAP STUDIO - MOMENTS LATER
Naomi slathers cream on Steve, then wraps him in a steaming hot American flag. Steve MOANS then shouts:
Not all white people!
INT. BLISS HOUSE RECEPTION AREA
Steve hands Naomi more $20s. Angie drags him away.
Can I stay? I’m not ready to be
held accountable again. You’re
doing god’s work here!
I’ll give the owner your feedback.
REVEAL: Owner’s picture on the wall: A black woman with a huge smile, holding huge stacks of money.
See you in two weeks for the white
history month special!
We offer that deal every day.
Steve spins around before he gets to the door.
Steve inhales, then shouts:
I don’t see color! Witch hunt! All
lives matter! Do black people get
tan? I have a black friend! You’re racist for calling me racist. What about my feelings? Quit playing the race card! Not my flag! You’re so
articulate! O.J.’s guilty! If you
were nicer to cops, they wouldn’t
shoot you! #MeToo, more like
#MeBooHoo! Racism is in the past,
except reverse racism, that’s
called Affirmative action! Pull
yourself up by the bootstraps. All it takes is hard work and
White Jesus is the only Jesus. If
Oprah can get ahead, you all can.
What about my freedom of speech!?
He makes it rain on Danielle, clears his throat, tips a fake hat, then exits.
Danielle locks the door. Naomi enters counting her tips. They look at the clock and their faces light up.
NAOMI DANIELLE (CONT'D)
Shift change! Shift change!
Naomi and Danielle rush through a door on the opposite end of the spa labeled: THE OTHER SIDE OF BLISS.
INT. OTHER SIDE OF BLISS LOUNGE AREA - NIGHT
Danielle polishes a sign that reads: OFFICIAL PC REFUGE for those who must insist on political correctness. Rejuvenate!
A WOMAN IN A HIJAB sips champagne with a BLACK BUSINESS WOMAN and a PERSON WITH A PHYSICAL DISABILITY.
INT. MASSAGE STUDIO
Business Woman enters in a robe and lays on Naomi’s massage table. She hands Naomi $20 and Naomi swats it away.
Naomi pours hot oil on the woman’s back. The woman EXHALES as the oil rolls off.
This is what it would feel like if
offensive things could just roll
off your back.
BLACK BUSINESS WOMAN
Ahhhh. Must be nice.
INT. BODY WRAP STUDIO - NIGHT
Naomi unwraps a FOOTBALL PLAYER’s legs, then she turns on a soothing version of the “Star Spangled Banner”. The Football Player rises, then he takes a knee. He gives Naomi thumbs up.
INT. FACIAL STUDIO - NIGHT
Someone reclines in a facial chair with a white towel over their face. They hand the List of Services to an unseen spa tech who removes the towel to reveal it’s Naomi in the chair.
“Nigga” is ours!
FADE TO BLACK.
You’ve written for page, stage, and screen, and TORCH was honored to publish some of your early poetry in our 2009 issue. Did you always know you were a writer? When did you know you wanted to share your writing with the world?
I’ve known since 3rd grade that I was a writer. That’s when my short stories for school got me pulled out of class to work with a private instructor. In 7th grade, I entered my first poetry contest, so I guess that’s when I felt ready to share my writing.
You’ve published three incredible poetry collections, Interruptions (2014), Pepper Girl (2012), and Blues Triumphant (2016). Are you still writing poetry and do you think you’ll publish another collection in the future?
Sometimes I accidentally write a poem when I’m trying to write something else when I want to show and not tell. Poetry was my go-to for that. But, no, I don’t think I’ll write another collection. I feel like I said what I needed poetry to be able to say.
You were teaching creative writing when you started writing comedy and pursuing a career in screenwriting. What made you leave the classroom and move deeper into writing for television?
Starting the year after my MFA, I would apply for post-grad fellowships and jobs and TV writing fellowships. I was going to follow wherever yes led me. I kept getting teaching jobs and fellowships and being rejected for TV writing programs, so my dream of becoming a Creative Writing professor came true. Once I’d made it, I felt lost. Now what? Devote my life to students after being my own lowest priority for a lifetime? Tenure terrified me because it felt like it meant those years of following the yes were over. Becoming a professor was the yes I needed to follow to get to my next yes, which was comedy/writing for TV.
Your short “Bliss House” is hilarious and pulls back the layers of white fragility and politically incorrect desires. Do you see comedy as a tool to address challenging topics?
Absolutely. I’m funny… for a reason. Meaning I don’t write comedy just to be silly, I write it to connect with people who can relate and make those who think they can’t relate realize they might be wrong. By putting funny first, it’s easy to slide in something important without hitting people over the head with a message. I love that.
You’re also a stand-up comedian. Do you have any concerns about performing live with recent onstage attacks?
Nah. I’m not saying anything that makes people want to jump me. I’d like to think attackers want their impact to have an impact. I’m 5 foot tall and unknown. No one’s making a statement by tackling me.
Congratulations on your recent Emmy nomination for A Black Lady Sketch Show on HBO! What has your experience been like writing for the show? Has it been different from other writers’ rooms you’ve worked in?
Thank you. It’s my first Emmy nomination! Writing for the show is like a comedy writing boot camp. It’s the writers' room where I’m most myself because my kind of weirdness is most appreciated and valuable there. A majority of the rooms I’ve been in have been great and I’ve felt like my contributions are welcome and matter. I’m just more free in a room full of Black women comedy writers.
What suggestions do you have for others looking to build a career writing for television/film?
The same advice I tell anyone who wants to write anything—READ. Read produced screenplays and TV episodes and figure out what works and what doesn’t, in your opinion. I love a good writing book. I recommend Joe Toplyn’s Comedy Writing for Late Night TV for joke, bit and sketch writing. Ellen Sandler’s TV Writers Workbook helped me understand the structure of a tv episode.
You made a big move early in your career to leave New Jersey and live in California. Which coast is the best coast?
West. Sorry! I loved New Jersey, New York, and the Midwest. But the weather in California is perfect almost all the time. And most of the type of writing I want to do is all done here. This is where I needed to be. So, for me, the West side is the best side. Hahaha.
You have unlimited funds and access to create a dream cast for a project. Dead or alive, who are the top five you are bringing in?
Ooh, great question. Let’s see… my two faves right now star on A Black Lady Sketch Show–Gabrielle Dennis and Skye Townsend. As Big Red from The Five Heartbeats said, “What do they don’t do?!” They’re super talented, especially with creating characters.
Aisha Hinds because I will never forget how she portrayed Harriet Tubman on the TV show Underground (that should’ve never been canceled!).
Michael Keaton, since his performance in Dopesick made me say he was acting his ass off every week.
Zendaya. No explanation needed. Euphoria.
You’ve got one full day to treat yourself. What are you eating, where are you going, what’s your big indulgence?
I’m eating a Raising Cane’s Caniac Combo with no slaw, extra bread, extra sauce. I’m going anywhere my generation of cousins can heal together. My big indulgence is treating myself to whatever the most luxurious suite is at an EDITION hotel somewhere in the world because the chain holds sentimental value for me since I was put up there when I premiered a short and I put myself up there when I went to the Emmy’s.
I know you are working on many exciting projects. Can you share anything we can look forward to seeing?
I’m working on a feature that I call my “heart movie” because it’s the story I most want to tell and it’s the truest thing I’ve ever said. I’m working on an extremely fun reboot now that I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say I’m on, but it’s a dream project with some great people heading it up. I shared nothing and I’m sorry. hahaha.
How can people support you now?
When you see me post links to anything I’ve worked on, please watch, like, follow, and/or share! I’m on twitter @jaytothetee and IG @jonterrig. Help me spread the word. Projects die without viewer support!
Who is another Black woman writer people should read?
Michaela Coel. Read her everything. In all genres and formats.
Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Colleen J. McElroy, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.