on "cancel culture," accountability, and being in the writers' room with Miranda Sings
This post is going to be… different than my other ones, so before I get into it I just want to state for the record: the following post details my personal experience while working on Haters Back Off and more broadly, my opinions on working in less-than-ideal creative workplace environments over the years. While I cannot speak to the specific allegations against Colleen Ballinger - I stand with every single one of the children and young adults who have bravely shared their experiences in the past few weeks. In the face of attacks from online gaslighters and bizarre, callous, ukulele-soundtracked response videos, they deserve to be supported, heard, and believed. For more background on the allegations, I recommend Becky’s TikTok, Adam’s YouTube page, Paige Christie’s overview video, this article from NBC News, this one from HuffPost, and this one from Rolling Stone.
Being the Writers’ Assistant/Showrunner’s Assistant/Writers’ PA on Haters Back Off (you heard that right! Three job titles and still, every month that I made rent was an absolute miracle!) was my first real job in Hollywood. A fresh-faced recent college graduate, I had been warned that your first job in a writers’ room can be grueling. It’s customary to spend years paying your dues - working long hours, fetching countless Happy Vegan salads and skinny Vanilla lattes for the higher-ups, the usual fare. And I was prepared for that. Excited, even. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the unique set of circumstances that I was walking into.
Despite my legacy of being Extremely Online™️, I was not that familiar with Miranda Sings, the character at the center of the show. I remember the night before my first day on the job, I clicked on her YouTube channel and watched video after video in pure confusion. Isn’t this supposed to be for kids? She was dressed like Bozo the Clown but she kept making odd jokes about being, well, molested, and in one clip, I saw her on stage, encouraging what appeared to be a small child to literally reach into her pants and rummage around a bit. I texted my friends, hoping one of them could explain her appeal to me because clearly I was missing something. The show was going into pre-production at the peak of her fame and this woman was huge. She had a New York Times Bestselling book, Jerry Seinfeld’s stamp of approval, and millions of fans (mostly middle school-aged) who hung on her every word. I didn’t get the comedy but I chalked it up to a matter of taste, packed up my Studio-rented laptop and my brass script brads and headed in for my first day of work.
This was 2016, only a few months after a fellow April (Reign, that is) launched the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, so it goes without saying that I was the only Black person in this office. And as uncomfortable as that made me feel, as a POM (Person of Midwestern Experience), I knew how to make nice in a white space. Upon meeting Colleen, my first impression of her was that she was boisterous, opinionated, and had a stunning lack of humility that was unlike anything I had ever seen. Immediately upon entering the writers’ room, I was treated to story after story about her sold out shows, how obsessed her fans were with her and the lengths they would go to get her attention. On the second day, she hauled in a small portion of her collection of art made by her beloved Mirfandas. This included several paper mache Miranda heads (seen above), homemade figurines, stacks upon stacks of fan mail, and drawings of something called “The Daddy Saddle.”
The Daddy Saddle, I would come to learn, is an item featured in many of Miranda Sings’ videos, and it’s used to allow Miranda to more easily ride around on her Uncle’s back. The Uncle character was something that Colleen took great pride in. She had spent years building him into the essential Miranda Sings lore and once we began to break stories for the show, it became clear that he was going to be an integral part of it. Miranda and Uncle Jim had a, in the character’s words, “special relationship.” She often pitched stories in which Miranda and Uncle Jim would be caught in compromising positions or stomach-churning moments of intimacy that could always be easily explained away by a clueless Miranda. It was my responsibility to write down every single one of these pitches, schedule calls to look at mockups of The Daddy Saddle that would be featured on the show, and mark points in the script where Colleen thought we could make Uncle Jim even more “r***y.”
As you can imagine, this all made me so, so uncomfortable. Here I was, the odd one out in every conceivable away, tasked to aid Colleen as she pursued her singular goal of shoving as much incestual innuendo into the show as possible while assuaging the growing behind-the-scenes concerns that the show would be alienating to the intended audience (which was, again, kids.) It all felt deeply wrong - she would show us photos of the packed rows of smiling children who had attended her show the night before, and in the same breath, spend hours trying to think of a way to show Miranda and Uncle Jim all but having actual sex on screen. I felt insane. This was my first job, a coveted Writers’ Assistant position, and I was terrified to be seen as anything less than enthusiastic to be there. Colleen made accomplishing that a Herculean feat.
Not only was I behind the keyboard, typing in “jokes” into the script that to a vulnerable child, could easily make it nearly impossible to identify inappropriate adult behavior in their own lives, but as we neared production, I had a whole new wave of concerns. Another one of my responsibilities was to sit in on production meetings (all virtual, as the writers’ room was in LA and filming was to take place in Vancouver), and take notes. It was in those meetings that I had to document Colleen’s insistence that we used limited POC background actors as the show took place in Washington and having them just randomly there would be “distracting.” I took note as Colleen was shown an Asian food market that would be re-dressed as a bodega for the show and watched her disgust as she demanded assurance that all the “Asian shit” would be removed before filming. I sat patiently as the Powers That Be expressed concern that the entire main cast for the show was white and silently prayed that since someone with some actual say had spoken up, things might change. And I took note, yet again, as Colleen assured them that they had only casted the best person for each role and that it wasn’t her fault that all of those people ended up being white.
Content of the show aside, it was difficult to work for Colleen. She had a knack for making “funny,” biting comments about the people around her and since we all had her to thank for our jobs, we were forced to just go with it. She saw no issue with commenting on my hair, or my clothes, or asking about my personal life. Her lack of boundaries was remarkable. Most days, the first hour or so of work was dedicated to Colleen forcing us all to perform the emotional labor of counseling her through her marital concerns, being a listening ear to her complaints about fans (they were being “so sensitive lately" aka they had spoken up about their discomfort with her using a blaccent) and getting the latest updates on the antics of her fellow YouTubers. I recall overhearing her once brag that a creator was being “cancelled” for saying the n-word (and if you think she went with “n-word” instead of hitting that hard “r” then you haven’t been paying attention) and that she would never be stupid enough to get caught doing something like that.
She once gave me the “honor” of naming a character after me, a villain at Miranda’s school who thought she was better than everyone else because she was a Christian. Colleen made it known on several occasions that she could tell I was less-than-thrilled with the show, even once pulling me aside and quipping, “You totally hate this, right?” I could tell that my discomfort with the “art” that we were creating was notable to her. She would often pitch something vile and then look over to me and ask, “Any thoughts, April?” It was almost like she took a weird pleasure in making me uncomfortable and knowing that even if I wanted to, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. She was cruel. And it was that same cruelty that I recognized in the video she posted on Wednesday, addressing the many allegations that have been piling up against her over the last few weeks.
My two seasons on Haters Back Off were, unfortunately, not my only experience being deeply uncomfortable in the workplace while in pursuit of my dream of becoming a television writer. I have worked with sexists, with racists, with people who called me a “diversity hire” behind my back, with people who wanted applause for resisting the urge to touch my hair despite all it’s “delicious textures,” and with people who were both threatened by my voice and desperate for my approval. And each time I encounter yet another abuser in the workplace, I notice that they seem to all have something in common: an unwavering contempt for “cancel culture” and a pathological failure to demonstrate even an iota of accountability. Let me be the millionth person to say it: cancel culture is not real. The majority of the people I know who work in this industry have spent years of their lives waiting, hoping, that an article will finally drop, naming the sins of the abuser they endured and finishing them for good. And each one has had to stand by and watch as that person is dragged on Twitter for a few days, removed from a project or two, and is back on their feet in time for the next year’s Emmys. There is no witch hunt, no “toxic gossip train,” no dangerous mob hell-bent on destroying the life of an innocent person just for something to do. The truth is, there are real people who have had real experiences that have affected them a great deal, and there are narcissists who choose to cover their ears and look the other way.
I don’t know what’s next for Miranda Sings, but one thing I do know is that Adam, and Becky, and Johnny, and everyone else who has spoken out are all owed, at the very least, a thoughtful, sincere apology. One that acknowledges the very real pain they are clearly in, gives them the respect that they deserve, and is 100% ukulele-free. (And while she’s at it, I would love my $250 back for the hour I just spent having to explain all of this to my therapist. UGH.)
thank you again for being here and see you soon.
for more info about you owe me an apology, click here.