With Penn’s Alumni Weekend running from May 15th through May 18th this year, we’re taking the month of May to salute some of our amazing M&T alumni. This special A Day in the Life post comes to us from M&T alum Vijal Patel, currently Co-Executive Producer of ABC’s comedy black-ish.
Please briefly describe what industry you’re in and what your particular position entails.
I’m a TV comedy writer/producer. My primary role in the universe is to turn my own personal tragedies into comedic stories for the public’s enjoyment. The bulk of my day is spent in a room with ten other writers as we aggregate our everyday experiences with family, friends, and the world in general into fictional-yet-relatable narratives that can be spun into episodes of “black-ish.” We start with a basic story premise that is often sparked by sharing anecdotes about what thrills us, riles us, amuses us, or torments us. Next, we work the premise into a story outline that fits the situation and attitudes of the characters in our show. One of us then fleshes the detailed outline into a full script. Then we re-write. Then re-re-write. Then re-re-re-write. Finally, we work with the director and cast to bring the script to life in front of the cameras with the goal of creating a memorable 30 minutes of television. The rest of the time, we watch stupid YouTube videos and debate the pronunciation of the word “biopic.” There’s a huge divide.
What time did you get up this morning before work?
What time did you start working, and what time were you done for the day?
10am start. 6pm stop.
What were some of the projects you worked on today?
I watched a rough cut of an episode to give our editor notes. This typically entails suggesting how to make it funnier/sharper by trimming material that didn’t quite work, or using different takes of performances to make it all really hum. After that, I helped start a re-write of the next script that will be shot.
Who specifically did you interact with today, besides coworkers (clients, interns, researchers, executives, founders, etc.)?
ABC creative executives who give their feedback on our scripts and rough cuts.
Are you currently traveling or about to travel for work?
What was your favorite part of the work day?
I can honestly say that even at it’s very worst, this job is pure joy. All we’re ever doing is sharing personal stories and striving to make folks laugh.
What are some of the challenges within your position that you particularly enjoy?
Micro: The challenge of getting those who’ve been professionally hilarious for decades to shoot Dr. Pepper out of their nose because of a joke I just pitched.
Macro: The challenge of staying relevant in the rapidly changing landscape of media and entertainment.
How did you end up in your current position?
About two weeks before Penn graduation, as I was deciding between Goldman or Morgan or Andersen or Donaldson, I got a call from my dear friend/former roommate Jonas Agin (CAS ’97) who had moved to LA the previous year to get into TV writing. It took him about 17 seconds to convince me that I too would LOVE working in showbiz. He based this theory solely on what he knew about my personality, all academics aside. Don’t get me wrong. I loved M&T. It’s why I chose Penn. But the moment this radically different career possibility was introduced into my consideration set, something in my brain clicked, saying, “Yes! Do it! It’s YOU!” Now… I’m not an idiot. I understood the high opportunity cost of this route, and the incredible risk I’d be taking. But to me, it was worth the big beta. (Besides, an M&T education is no shabby fallback.) So I politely declined all my Wall Street offers, packed up my Mercury Mystique with Zeppelin t-shirts, a guitar, and my microwave oven, and drove to LA. Yes, I realize that sounds like the beginning of a Michael J. Fox movie circa 1986. But from that rather cheesy start, I worked and networked my way up from a showbiz grunt who delivered scripts and picked up lunches to where I am today.
How did M&T help prepare you for where you are today?
Fellow writers often jokingly ask how I feel about completely ignoring my intense world-class education. But the truth is, I use my M&T everyday. Though I don’t professionally practice engineering, finance or management, I accrued a great deal of knowledge about how the world works and a continued thirst for more knowledge. And as a writer, I don’t write about writers, I write about real people who live and struggle in the real world. M&T offered such a sweeping arc of inquiry and education, it taught me everything from the behavior of Walmart shoppers to the behavior of quarks. This breadth of knowledge helps me write believable characters who themselves possess knowledge and insight, and thereby connect with the audience. The other, more nuts and bolts benefit, was that when I first started out as a showbiz grunt, I was looking at maybe $250 a week take-home after taxes. Not a whole lotta scratch. But I’ll tell you this much, there’s nothing more useful for living below the poverty line than a Wharton degree. Using the same fiscal creativity one would implement at a bootstrapping start-up, I was able to stretch the living daylights out of a buck, thus giving myself a longer time horizon to gain a toehold in success. And that made all the difference.
What advice do you have for those who might be interested in pursuing a similar path?
Take a chance that could ruin your life.
Vijal is currently Co-Executive Producer for ABC’s black-ish. He graduated from Penn and M&T in 1998 with a Bachelor of Science in Systems Science Engineering from Penn Engineering and a Bachelor of Science in Economics from Wharton with concentrations in Finance and Management. In his spare time, he loves to spend time with his family, do stand-up comedy, cook, and play music.