Ms. Pat Thinks The Ms. Pat Show Will Be BET+’s Handmaid’s Tale

Photo: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

Coveting a unique foothold in the streaming wars, BET+ has gone all in on the brutally honest streetwise comedy stylings of 49-year-old Atlanta-native turned Indiana-suburbanite Ms. Pat. Based on Ms. Pat’s life story — first chronicled in her memoir, Rabbit, a reference to the moniker she adopted as a drug-dealing teen — the two-year-old streamer’s newest offering, The Ms. Pat Show, is an ultra-racy update to the family sitcoms of yore that would have never sidestepped the censors back in the day.

In the style of Roseanne or The Cosby Show, there are brightly lit stage sets, three-camera coverage, and a live studio audience providing laughs in all the right places. And just like those series, The Ms. Pat Show also tackles the hot topics of contemporary times, from gun control and race relations to LGBTQ rights. But because it’s on a streaming service, where all episodes dropped August 12, the content has no restrictions — and its creators take full advantage with swears galore, as fans of Ms. Pat’s stand-up might expect and appreciate. Perhaps most compelling, though, are the layers of built-in conflict in the series: Ms. Pat’s character, a churchgoing mother of four, is relatively conservative by today’s standards, which sets up unexpected generation-gap challenges between her and her children.

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BET+, which is owned by ViacomCBS, seemed to spare no expense on this big swing. Though both Ms. Pat and series co-creator Jordan E. Cooper — a playwright in his mid-20s — are new to TV, the broadcaster has backed them with battle-tested talent. Lee Daniels, noted film director and co-creator of Empire, serves as executive producer along with Brian Grazer, a prolific producer with far too many credits to list. As pilot director, they enlisted Debbie Allen, whom viewers might know best as Dr. Avery on Grey’s Anatomy, but Allen also directed 28 episodes of that show as well as installments of more than two dozen other series, from A Different World and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Scandal and Insecure.

Vulture spoke with Ms. Pat about her series’s drawn-out development phase, collaborating with a team of TV newbies and experienced gurus, and the pressure of putting an entire streaming service on her back.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

As much fun as The Ms. Pat Show is, it tackles some very serious topics of our time. In the very first scene, you talk to a fellow first-class passenger on a flight about school shootings. How important was it to you to have critical social commentary be a part of the series?

That was very important to me and to Jordan. I had two other writers before Jordan who kind of wouldn’t listen to me, but Jordan did. That plane scene really happened. I was A-list on Southwest, and I would have conversations with people that didn’t look like me, mainly white men. I try to see why people think the way they think and ask if they understand what it means to be Black in America and about women’s rights, stuff like that. And when I told Jordan about the time school shootings came up, he wrote it just like it happened. It came out great.

Your character on the show comes off as relatively old-fashioned and even conservative, which fuels a lot of conflict between the series’s Ms. Pat and her children. How closely does she resemble you, really?

[Laughs.] That’s me, baby. My kids tell me all the time, “You an undercover Republican.” I am a little conservative. Everybody was getting rid of their Trump friends, I was not getting rid of my Trump friends because I truly believe it’s the United States of America. We got a right to vote the way we want. I should respect your vote like you should respect my vote, and we still should be able to have a fucking conversation. And that’s what’s wrong with this world. We won’t sit down and have a conversation. My next-door neighbor in real life is a Trump supporter, but I like him. When he’s not watching Fox News, he’s okay.

The most compelling example of the generation gap between Ms. Pat and the kids on the show is when your character’s youngest daughter invites her nonbinary friend over to study. Ms. Pat can’t process what it means for someone to not identify with a gender. Is that something you struggled to understand yourself?

I am a little old-fashioned, but I’m willing to learn. My daughter brought home this tall white kid. I’m thinking: He gay. So I approach him and I said “young man” or “boy” or whatever, and the child was like, “I’m him, them, their, and they’re,” and I’m like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” [Laughs.] I was just confused because I had never heard of that. There’s so many branches of being different in this world, I can’t really keep up with them. My daughter explained to me what it was, and so I was like, “Well, how many people are ignorant like me?” So that’s why we wrote the episode. That’s 100 percent true.

How did your relationship with Jordan E. Cooper develop?

Lee Daniels told me to fly to New York on my birthday. He said, “I just met this kid, Jordan Cooper, and I think he can write this thing for you.” Jordan was still in his last year of college, and it was the last day of his play, Ain’t No Mo’, at the Public Theater. I get on the plane and I said, “Man, a 20-something-year-old kid is gon’ write a show for Ms. Pat!?” [Laughs.] Honestly, I was like, “Lee just bullshittin’ me, got me out here in New York on my birthday. I don’t feel like fuckin’ bein’ out here.” But I watched Jordan’s play and I was like, “He got an old-ass spirit.” Turns out he saw me on the Harry Connick Jr. show in 2017, when I had my book out. He couldn’t afford the book, but he wanted to read it, so he screenshotted the book off the internet, whatever he could find, until he got money to buy the book. Immediately, my spirit and his connected. After we met, this boy went to bed with my comedy albums, any interview I did went in his ear. He immediately became me, which is so crazy. He knew my personality, he knew what I would and wouldn’t say. The other writers didn’t do this.

What’s it been like collaborating with him?

I’d gone through a couple writers already while under contract with Fox. They were like, “We can’t hire Jordan, he’s never done anything.” But I’m from the streets, and I truly believe you don’t take the first “no.” I said to Jordan, “Listen to me, baby. They’re not going to give you this job even though we’re trying. But we’re going to make them give you this job. Let’s write a script.” When I thought it was good enough, I made him take his name off it. He almost cried. I said, “I promise you, I won’t steal this, but if it’s not good and your name is on it, you’re not going to get the job.” I gave it to Lee, he took it to Fox, who approved it, and then Jordan got the job.

Me and Jordan came up with the ideas, what the episodes were going to be about. We picked the writers’ room. We bonded. Usually the star and the head writer are not this close. So many times, Hollywood tried to divide us, and I was like, “That’s not what you’re going to do. We’re a team.” We were a team from the start. I was scared, I didn’t want to cuss on TV. Jordan said, “But that’s how you cuss every day. People are tired of seeing a fake momma on TV; let’s try and give them something different. You’re going to be a convicted felon, like yourself; you’re going to be trying to follow your dreams, like you really did, and the daddy is going to take care of the household and cook.” That’s my real life. I said, “Okay. Jordan, if this doesn’t work, I’m gon’ kill you.”

It took quite a while for the show to hit the air.

We were with Fox for five years, but the script was too edgy for them. They sold it to Hulu, and the night we were filming the pilot, my spirit told me, “Hulu’s not going to pick this up.” I pulled Jordan aside and told him. He asked me why I thought that, and I said, “They don’t understand what we’re trying to do.” It took six months for Hulu to drop it. Lee calls me the next day and says, “I promise you, we’re going to sell this thing.” BET+ picked it up, and I’m not going to lie to you, I never heard of BET+. I was a little hurt because I wanted to be on a bigger network, but you got to learn how to mess with people who mess with you, and it’s been a ride. I shed so many tears over this show, so many nights staying up thinking, “Why don’t they understand me? Why are they trying to make me like Clair Huxtable?” But I’ll tell you one thing: I stuck to what I believe in and it worked out.

BET+ seems like they’re not sparing any expense, surrounding you with great front-of-the-camera talent and behind-the-camera talent. Tell me about the team?

Lee Daniels and Brian Grazer, they’re like the big dogs. If you need something done, you call them. Lee pretty much said, “Look, you country-ass people. I don’t know if this shit is gon’ work.” [Laughs.] Because if you see the show, it’s never been done before, and everybody is kind of scared of it. But no matter what, he stayed there with us. Jordan asked for Debbie Allen to be the director. I thought he was crazy. I said, “Boy, you gotta stop askin’ for all this stuff.” Lee picked up the phone and called Debbie Allen, and she read the script and said, “Hell yeah, I’ll do this shit.” We flew to Atlanta to meet her and my spirit connected again.

You got the chance to talk to Norman Lear about The Ms. Pat Show. How did that come to pass and what’d he say?

We knew we were doing something like what Norman Lear did, and Jordan’s a big fan, I’m a big fan. My manager got the pilot to him and he said he wanted to meet me. We talked over Zoom. He literally said, “Oh my God, I wish I could’ve did this in the ’70s, in the ’80s.” He just went on and on and on about how good it was and how he damn near couldn’t even put a mommy and daddy in the bed together back in those days. It was like a blessing. I couldn’t believe that Norman Lear, 90-something years old, watched the pilot and loved it and then took it upon himself, later, to make a video to send to me and Jordan to tell us how much he loved the show and how much he thought it was gonna be a hit. That kinda made me cry.

Has BET+ communicated to you how much they value this property and how important it is to their branding efforts in “the streaming wars”?

They wanted me to know that this show was front and center for them and that they’re really taking it serious. I told them, “Y’all may think I’m crazy, but this show will become your Handmaid’s Tale,” like how that show was to Hulu. Nobody paid attention to Hulu until Handmaid’s Tale, baby. I can tell from the promotion that BET+ put behind this show that they really care about it. I told them, “Dude, I feel like we at Netflix, but we at BET+.”

Ms. Pat Says The Ms. Pat Show Will Be BET+’s Handmaid’s Tale
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