Today’s menu for Merienda with…Jessica Gao
Location: Openaire in Los Angeles
Ahi Tuna Tartare
Tuscan Kale Salad
Veggie Burger with fries
It’s Monday, October 4. It’s been about three weeks since I talked to She-Hulk: Attorney at Law head writer Jessica Gao over a nice and tasty lunch at Openaire in K-town, Los Angeles… although the last time I was there it was called Commissary.
Nonetheless, it’s the night of October 4 and I’m at a special event at Rideback Ranch for the premiere of Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix comedy special The King’s Jester. As I stand there and sip my peach pear La Croix, I see Gao and her friend/Crab Club producing partner Ken Cheng (who may or may not be one of the guests on tomorrow’s episode of Problematic Fave) walk in — and I couldn’t be any happier because I forgot to take a signature Instax pic of her that is usually included in the Merienda with… interview series!
I explained all of this to Gao and later on in the evening we take a pic, but for some reason we take an abnormally long time to stage the pic. It’s giving obnoxious influencer energy.
“Make sure you include this part in the article!” Gao jokes.
So I did!
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Before stepping foot in the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe as the head writer and executive producer of She Hulk, Gao cut her teeth as a writer on many-a-shows — specifically the cult animated series Rick & Morty for which she won an Emmy in 2018. She’s also served as supervising producer on Comedy Central’s Corporate, and was a writer on Silicon Valley and Robot Chicken. It’s no wonder she was chosen as head writer by Godfather Kevin Feige for the MCU’s first half-hour comedy.
Although Gao has a robust resume of TV writing experience, it wasn’t necessarily in her grand plan for her career. Unlike many other Asian immigrant families that come to America, Gao, who was born in Beijing and raised in Los Angeles, said her parents were pretty hands off when it came to her career choice.
“I was just kind of left to my own devices,” Gao said as we dove in on some tuna tartare with sweet potato chips that were a little too thin for the weight of said tuna. “I was a fine arts major and they were totally cool with it.”
It seems that storytelling was woven into her DNA because in kindergarten and the first grade, Gao wanted to be an author/illustrator. “I loved reading,” she said. “I was a huge bookworm and at that age, all of your books have pictures. So I was like, ‘Oh, when you make a book you have to do both.'”
When Gao told her parents that she wanted to pursue a career as an author/illustrator, they didn’t mince words.
“They were like, ‘Well, I hope you like eating garbage and sleeping in the gutter because that’s going to be your life’,” Gao fondly remembered. “I said, ‘Well that doesn’t sound appealing so I guess I won’t do that’… but weirdly, my mom was very encouraging of art, which I feel like is a less stable career than writing.”
Her mom said she could take any art classes she wanted and would buy all the art supplies she needed. That said, Gao attended UCLA as an art major. “I think what helped was I went to UCLA, which is a good school,” Gao admitted. “So [my parents] can at least could tell their friends that their daughter was going to UCLA and just hope that their friends don’t ask, ‘What’s she studying?’ So it’s kind of a good compromise because they get to say that I went to UCLA and I get to just do whatever the fuck I want!”
Gao’s journey to being an artist came to an end when she realized she didn’t want to do be in that world anymore. “Second quarter in, I was like, ‘Oh I hate this. I don’t want to be an artist. Everyone’s so pretentious’,” Gao laughed. “I was really into comic books, so I started a comic book convention at UCLA and through that I met a bunch of comic book artists who were a generation older than me and had careers.”
Gao ended up getting that art degree and then…
“So I got this degree that I knew I wasn’t going to use, so I moved to England…as you do,” after a beat she said continued, “…and then came back to L.A.”
After working a bunch of odd jobs and living with her parents as they “quietly lost their minds”, Gao was also freaking out but eventually things started to work out.
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Because of her love for comic books, storytelling and art, Gao’s work very much leans genre with an emphasis on comedy — a perfect mix of interests that reverberate through the green gamma ray veins of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law.
“My favorite type of comedy is taking a very high concept and then really grounding it in the minutia and the details,” Gao said. “I love comedy in the details and I think that specificity makes things funnier and more relatable universally. So for something like She-Hulk, I love the idea of this huge Marvel Cinematic Universe with high stakes and high concept — it’s all about ‘the universe is going to end, you have to save all the humanity!’ — but then I take that and put it into a TV show where it doesn’t have to be high stakes and we’re really just seeing what happens if the universe is not ending and it’s just a regular day…I want to know what’s happening from 5PM to 10PM when you’re a superhero and have to go home and do the chores.”
She-Hulk introduces us to exactly this. It is a legal comedy that is branded with a self awareness and sense of humor that is fresh, but doesn’t disrupt the MCU ecosystem. In fact, it bolsters it with Gao’s sense of storytelling and familiarity with the IP.
In She-Hulk, Orphan Black icon Tatiana Maslany plays Jennifer Walters, an attorney specializing in superhuman-oriented legal cases. All the while she is navigating a life as a single, 30-something woman who inherited the superpower strength of a Hulk thanks to her cousin, zaddy Bruce Banner a.k.a. Smart Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). The series also sees the return of Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky (a.k.a. the Abomination) and Benedict Wong as Sorcerer Supreme Wong (wait, is he still Sorcerer Supreme?) The new series, directed by Kat Coiro, also includes Jameela Jamil, Josh Segarra, Ginger Gonzaga, Jon Bass, and Renée Elise Goldsberry.
It’s a dope cast and although it isn’t as heavy as something like, say, the end of Infinity War, it still lives and breathes MCU partly because Gao knows what she’s doing. She’s a comic book fan — including the She-Hulk comics. So much that she pointed out that She-Hulk was breaking the fourth wall before Deadpool.
Even so, is very mindful of balancing her role as a fan and a head writer of the series. “These big mainstream titles always have multiple runs and every writer and artist team do their own thing,” said Gao about the comic book series.
“There’s a lot of retconning… there’s a lot of changing things,” she explain. “Her relationship to being She-Hulk changes in every run — whether or not she breaks the fourth wall is different too.”
For the Disney+ series, Gao said they cherry picked from most of the major runs including Jen’s job at GLK&H law firm and her aforementioned breaking of the fourth wall. They even included part of her origin story is from Stan Lee’s first original issue.
For Gao, it’s all about character first, and that’s how she started with this iteration of Jennifer Walters: Who is this person? What is their life? What is their world? Being both career-minded women in their thirties, Gao related to Jen.
“I just thought what if one day I, through an accident, got Hulk powers and everyone’s like, ‘Okay, well now you have to be a superhero’; I’d be like, ‘Hell no. No thank you. I’m too tired. I have no time for this. I have too much on my plate. Hard pass!’ she said as I snort in agreement.
She continued, “I think that most people would kind of react that way because it’s not like you’re ever prepared for it.”
We go into a deep dissection of the ins and outs of being a superhero. We unpack superheroes’ relations to normal, everyday things we have to do such as student loans. “It’s not like [Jen’s] student loans are going to be forgiven because she’s a superhero now,” Gao speaks truth to which I ask the question: “Do the Avengers get paid? Do they get healthcare benefits?”
“Exactly,” Gao nodded. “No one’s talking about that.”
After we half-jokingly discuss the hypothetical healthcare plans of superheroes, Gao said that when it comes to creating this MCU version of She-Hulk, she was surprised that Feige gave the writers room got carte blanche in the beginning — and it’s an environment open to many ideas. At the same time, they are adding on to an existing universe so it’s about fitting the pieces and idea in the right places.
“I think Kevin just likes to see what you come up with because if he likes it, he’ll take it and if it doesn’t work, he’ll just say no — but I think they want to know what you would come up with,” said Gao about the process of creating She-Hulk’s narrative journey. “It’s a lot of trial and error where you can pitch whatever you want but half the time they’ll say no. So really it’s less about them coming in and saying, ‘You can do this and you can’t do that’, it’s more like you go in and you’re like, ‘How about this?’ and then they go yes or no.”
Since premiering in August, She-Hulk was another big swing for Marvel Studios, giving a taste of something refreshing. A palette cleanser that is still destined to connect the dots of the larger tapestry that is the MCU. Gao’s contribution sings with everything from female empowerment to sisterhood to being career-minded to being a diversity hire to dating to body image to a cameo from Megan Thee Stallion to just moving through this world as a single woman — or a woman in general.
“In every writer’s room, all you do is mine each other’s lives for story content and so as we share stories and talk about things that have happened to us, things that matter to us, things that bother us — there are a lot of things that speak to a lot of different people,” said Gao. “Those are the kinds of things that we tend to put in the show.”
Even in the first episode, when Jen is found in a women’s restroom at a bar stranded, phoneless, shoe-less and bedraggled after her Hulk-inducing accident, a group of drunk women come in and help her when you think they will ignore and make fun of her.
“It’s realistic… that’s how you know this show was made by women because I think that if it had been written by a man that scene might be very different because they probably have never firsthand experienced the sanctity of being in the women’s room of a bar with a bunch of drunk women,” Gao stated with realness. “Because any woman who’s ever been in that scenario knows that the drunk girl in the bathroom is like, “‘ just met you, but I’m your ride or die now’…and also I just very specifically did not want to do the trope of, ‘Oh, women are inherently catty.'”
There has been a lot of discourse around the show and feminism, woman “rage” and things of the like. For Gao, she’s not afraid of the word, “feminist”.
“So many people have different definitions of it and also people are very afraid of the word, which I think is dumb,” she explained. “But for me, this is a show about a woman written by a lot of women, made by a lot of women and we just want it to feel real and relatable and very true to the woman experience.”
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As I eat my veggie burger, we talk about when the best time I should publish this interview during the show’s nine-episode run, which streams its penultimate episode starting October 6 and its big finale on October 13. Gao tells me — without telling me a modicum of detail — that everyone will be talking about episode 8… so I anticipate the discourse! (My guess is that we’ll finally see Daredevil in all his yellow suit glory).
As we talk, I notice how red my veggie burger is.
“This veggie burger is very interesting because it has beets in the homemade patty,” I look at my burger weirdly even though it tastes good.
“Yeah, it’s very red,” Gao agreed.
We move on.
As a comic book fan and an experienced writer/producer, Gao said that you can’t ever approach something creative by trying to please everybody. She always felt like she was making this show for a specific intended audience — and that audience are people who would appreciate seeing a very relatable female superhero trying to just deal with the realities of being a superhero.
This story is fun for people who actually know how to express the feelings about the show in a healthy way, but for the rest of the trolls out there, it’s a different story. In particular, we are talking about the toxic fandom that purposely degrade superhero, sci-fi, fantasy, and other genre-driven with people of color, women and other marginalized folks in the roles of major characters. This has definitely been keeping all of these fanbros, racists, misogynists, transphobes, homophobes, and bigots busy. We’ve seen it with Ms. Marvel, Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and other Star Wars properties (remember when John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran joined the franchise?) The same has happened with She-Hulk. The woke brigade was ready to pounce from the jump.
“The people who hate on it were never going to like it because it’s not for them,” Gao said about the toxic backlash. “I’m not trying to write for a bad faith audience because there’s no winning them.”
Gao takes it with a huge grain of salt. “I’ve dealt with trolls. This is not my first time to the troll rodeo.”
She added that most of these trolls who are mad don’t read the comics or even watch the movies. They just want to shit on something. Gao doesn’t have time to deal with this so she has a strategy.
“I choose to not give a fuck,” Gao bluntly puts it. “These people are never going to be in a position to write me a check. They don’t have the talent to be doing what I’m doing or else they would be doing it. So I don’t give a fuck.”
In fact, Gao and her writing team, which started work on this in 2019, are clever in their writing and basically predicted the toxic backlash in the show itself, using it as the butt of many jokes.
“Much of the show is about being in the spotlight as a woman and how the media responds to someone like her — and it’s a parallel between what actually is happening,” Gao pointed out.
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Like every MCU property, Marvel Consulate Feige takes talented storytellers and gives them the opportunity to play in the MCU playground and the results have been spectacular. We’ve seen the cultural nuance and family dynamic through films like Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi while Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man was essentially a heist movie. The Captain America installments lean heavily on thematic war movie elements and political spy thrillers and Black Widow was giving Bourne Identity energy. Matt Shankman’s WandaVision deconstructed modern television and navigated the grieving process; Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness gave us Sam Raimi-branded horror; Taika Waititi soaked Thor in a florescent new wave rock B-movie fantasy; and James Gunn breathed new life into the space opera genre with The Guardians of the Galaxy.
And now, Jessica Gao with the legal comedic stylings of She-Hulk that callback to the days of Ally McBeal-esque courtroom hijinks.
As the MCU expands, we are discovering new pockets of this vast universe like She-Hulk and the law firm of GLK&H, that have remained untapped. There are fantastic storylines — both big and small — that are worshipped by all… and we still need to meet the X-Men and Marvel’s first family Fantastic Four. Also, there are multiverses of characters that haven’t been introduced — and every character matters! Loved how episode 7 of She-Hulk had everyone googling the newly introduced superhero characters in Jen and Blonsky’s therapy group: Man-Bull, El Aguila, Porcupine, Saracen, and Wrecker.
Gao is another talented storyteller added to this exclusive army of creatives in the MCU. Her career was thriving but this just put this Rick & Morty denizen on another level. Up next for Gao is Sony’s upcoming feature Oh Hell No with Jack Black which she co-wrote as well as an art heist feature at Warner Bros. with Jimmy O. Yang and the aforementioned Ken Cheng, as part of their production banner Crab Club, which was launched under the mentorship of Rideback’s Dan Lin (which is why I ran into them at The King’s Jester event! It all comes full circle!)
She-Hulk was most definitely a defining moment for Gao. She help build the foundation for one of the few women-led Marvel installments, shot a nine-episode series in a pandemic, introduced a brand new Marvel character to the masses, and navigated a landscape of toxic fandom with ease. At the end of the day, Gao is more than happy to put her name on the She-Hulk series.
This cast worked so hard… many people worked so hard: the writers, the crew, the post-production team, the VFX artists, the editors,” gleams Gao. “I’m very proud of the show that we made.”
The Merienda with… interview series is an interview with an actor, filmmaker, producer, writer or anyone else who wants to wants to hang out with me, eat some food and/or have some drinks. In Tagalog, “merienda” means afternoon snack, but to me, it encompasses any time of day and it doesn’t really need to be a snack. It can be a full meal, just coffee, or drinks. Most of all, it reminds me of the times when my family or friends would have “merienda” and talk about our days or just gossip. It was all about connection and catching up. Merienda with… reflects exactly that with cool people doing amazing things in the industry as we talk about their journeys, identity, hot topic issues or just random stuff. All the while, we eat and drink because food brings people closer together.