In 1998, Carla Banks Waddles wrote a $50 check she knew would bounce just to attend an event where TV writer and producer Yvette Lee Bowser would be honored. Waddles, then an aspiring TV writer, summoned the courage to approach Bowser, which led to a phone call and advice on which internships Waddles should pursue. Waddles ended up an intern—and later, a staff writer—for Bowser on NBC’s For Your Love. (She went on to write for NBC’s Good Girls and BET’s Hit the Floor.) She says Bowser’s willingness to share what she knows is part of what makes her such an influential force in Hollywood. “She looks out for people who have been with her,” Waddles says. “She keeps people in her family. I think that impact does have a ripple effect.”
Becoming close to Bowser, ’87, indeed has its perks—and an occasional peril: Anecdotes from your life may end up on-screen. “Just know your name will be changed to protect the guilty,” Bowser says, laughing.
For 34 years, friendships—specifically what she calls “enviable female friendships”—have been Bowser’s storytelling north star. She was the first African American woman to develop her own prime-time series—the iconic ’90s sitcom Living Single. In the years since, she has put her stamp on hundreds of episodes of TV, from the UPN series Half & Half to the satirical Netflix series Dear White People to her latest dramedy, Run the World.
‘I learned very quickly that my art could be my activism, or at least part of it. And that could be my value to society at large.’
Bowser grew up in Los Angeles with a French-German-Irish mother and a Japanese stepfather. “I spent a lot of my childhood trying not to be seen because I didn’t come from means,” she says. “Storytelling was a way for me to articulate my feelings and for me to project into the world what it was that I wanted to see and how I want it to be seen.” During her years at Stanford, her time in the Ujamaa ethnic theme house and at the Black Community Services Center shaped her political consciousness as a biracial woman. “We had a super close group of African American students,” she says. “We had our own little mini campus that was very culturally rich.” She also learned that she deserved to be at the table with people from more affluent backgrounds. “Stanford gives you that information that not everyone gets if you only stay on your block,” she says. “You can be king of your block. But go out in the world. You figure out how to navigate different kinds of people, different kinds of situations. You really start to have an appreciation for yourself and where you’ve come from. So there’s no shame in my game now.”
She was the first in her family to graduate from college. After, Bowser landed a job as an apprentice writer for A Different World, a spin-off of The Cosby Show. Starring Lisa Bonet, the sitcom centered on the lives of students at Hillman College, a fictional historically Black college. Bowser’s first role was unglamorous: She took notes and lunch orders, ran errands, and sometimes helped the art department. But the show, she says, nurtured Black and female creative staff. By the end of her five-year tenure, she had contributed as a writer on every episode, authored 25 of them, and become a producer. She used her experience at Stanford to inform the storytelling, which didn’t shy away from tough topics, including racism, sexual assault and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
At the beginning, Bowser says, she didn’t consider her work important “with a capital I.” To her, it was personal creative expression. But on A Different World, she says, “I learned very quickly that my art could be my activism, or at least part of it. And that could be my value to society at large.”
After leaving the show, though, Bowser says, she experienced the dark side of Hollywood, including misogyny, sexual harassment and racism. “I felt isolated, unmotivated and unappreciated. I was just like, ‘This can’t be what the rest of Hollywood is, because if it is, then I won’t be here for long, because I’m not going to suffer these fools.’ ” She recalls having to fight to protect depictions of Black people on-screen. “Sometimes I would be told, ‘Oh, that’s a little too Black.’ I’m like, ‘Wow, what you just said is a lot racist.’ I didn’t say those things in the room, but I just thought—I have to go create an environment where I can say something or someone else can pitch something that is Black.”
‘I think something that’s been important to me is just to have people who are outside of our culture see us for the humans that we are.’
She was determined that Living Single be a supportive environment for women and people of color. The sitcom, centered on six successful Black friends living in a Brooklyn brownstone, debuted in 1993 and ran for five seasons. It became one of the most popular African American sitcoms of its era and, in its final season, was nominated for six NAACP Image Awards and won three, including Outstanding Comedy Series. Recognition is nice, Bowser says, but she has a larger goal. “I think something that’s been important to me is just to have people who are outside of our culture see us for the humans that we are, and then for them to make those points of connectivity—to see that our experience, though culturally specific, is another human experience.”
Living Single inspired teenaged JaNeika James and her twin sister, JaSheika, to become TV writers. “It was one of the first TV shows that I had ever seen that starred all Black women, different shapes and sizes and shades. And they were just so funny,” says JaNeika, who interned on Half & Half before becoming Bowser’s assistant on the show. She and her sister later served as supervising producers on Fox’s hit Empire. The two are currently executive producers on Peacock’s Bel-Air. James recalls a Living Single scene in which the character Kyle is feeling underaccomplished as he turns 30. His girlfriend’s rejoinder? He’s a great man because he’s able to be with a strong woman like her. “The idea that she’s this, you know, independent, powerful Maxine Shaw, attorney at law, and he has her by his side—that’s good enough for him,” James says. “That was something that always stood out to me.” Empowered women, she says, aren’t always depicted as getting to have love and family while pursuing success. “[Bowser] dispelled that, you know what I’m saying? That is something that has always been an inspiration to me as somebody who’s been ambitious in my career, who also wants love and marriage and family.”
Bowser, who, with her husband, Kyle, has two sons (Evan and Drew, a sophomore who plays baseball for Stanford), walks the talk when it comes to supporting working parents. “I just remember how she looked out for me,” Waddles says. “She gave me an office with a lock on it so I could nurse in privacy.” Bowser says being in a position to take such actions is one of the most rewarding parts of her career. “It’s been interesting to inadvertently inspire others just by being,” she says. “And then to really pick up that baton and run with it, and pass it on as many times as I can and in as many ways as I can.”
These days, Bowser is bringing her trademark focus on female friendship to Run the World, which premiered in May on STARZ. The show was originally set to focus on gossip blog writer Ella (played by Andrea Bordeaux), a fictionalized version of the show’s creator, Leigh Davenport. Bowser, season 1 showrunner and co-executive producer, suggested giving equal footing to Ella’s friends—Whitney, the investment banker, Renee, the ad executive, and Sondi, the academic—as the four 30-something Black women navigate romance, career triumphs and setbacks in Harlem. The series has been picked up for a second season, for which Bowser will stay on as an executive producer.
With the array of platforms and hundreds of scripted series out now, Bowser believes there’s never been a better time for storytellers to find an audience for their tales. Moreover, she says, better resources are available to people of color and women: “The television industry and film industry are now trying to pay more than lip service to our storytelling.” For instance, in the past, creators of color working in TV were often limited to the multicamera format—shows typically shot like a filmed stage play, with a live audience, fixed sets and longer scenes (think Seinfeld), which can be less costly to produce. Run the World is shot as a more cinematic single-camera show (think The Office or Black-ish). To Bowser, the single-camera format represents an opportunity to experiment with the storytelling and the comedy, “because we’re not playing to the audience,” she says. “It can be more shaded.”
‘It’s been interesting to inadvertently inspire others just by being. And then to pick up that baton and run with it, and pass it on as many times as I can and in as many ways as I can.’
That’s not to say Bowser doesn’t appreciate her multicamera roots, especially the volleyball back-and-forth and laugh-out-loud quips between characters so reminiscent of her own friendships. “My life does look and sound like that sometimes, but I do think that the audience also enjoys a more cinematic, subtle and nuanced version of us on occasion.”
With greater representation has come more recognition for those who paved the way for inclusivity on-screen. In recent years, people, including Living Single actors Queen Latifah and Kim Coles, have pointed out the similarities between Living Single and the hit NBC sitcom Friends, which debuted a year later and features six single white friends living in Manhattan. “We’re getting to a place where we’re not afraid to embrace ourselves and accept our place in the culture at large,” Bowser says. For those keeping score, Run the World takes a moment in the script to acknowledge its similiarities to Sex and the City while, as a Variety reviewer said, developing “its own distinct mood and vibe that’s nothing like its predecessor.”
But Bowser says the most meaningful recognition she receives is one-on-one, from people who say that her work makes them feel seen and heard. In the end, it all comes down to shared humanity and, well, friendship. “For people to really just see you as an individual, to know your heart, and embrace that and respect and treasure that, is everything. I am not my career. I’m a human, and I have a special place in the world—as everyone else—but I’ve certainly received a great deal of validation through my career because it is a very public endeavor. I try to make sure that the people I know who don’t work in jobs that are so in the spotlight know how important they are, as professionals and as people. I think it’s very important for us to all be reciprocal in loving on and celebrating each other.”
Makeda Easter is an award-winning arts journalist in Los Angeles. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.