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All Joking Aside: Comedy Writer Stefani Robinson ’14 on Inspiration, Structure, and Being Kind

Black woman in white shirt, dark ballcap sits on chair, talks to white man with grey hair, glasses, dark jacket
Comedy writer Stefani Robinson ’14 talks with Trustee and TV executive Doug Herzog ’81 at Emerson Los Angeles for the latest installment of All Joking Aside with Doug Herzog. Photo/Daryl Paranada

Growing up in a suburb of Atlanta, Stefani Robinson ’14 participated in high school theatre: stage managing, costuming, and more. It is that background that led her to Emerson.

“When I toured Emerson, it just felt like an immediate fit for me,” said Robinson. “It felt like an extension of what I’d already been experiencing.”

Being surrounded by other creatives and feeling the camaraderie and synergy of working together was important to her. While at the College, she participated in Emerson’s theatre company, RareWorks and the sketch comedy troupe The Girlie Project. 

Today, she’s an Emmy-nominated comedy writer, who talked about her time at Emerson, her career, and answered questions from students in LA and Boston during the latest installment of All Joking Aside with Doug Herzog ’81, a production by Emerson’s Center for Comedic Arts that provides viewers with an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at the comedy business. Past events have featured comedians like Bill Burr ’93 and Iliza Shlesinger ’05.

During the discussion, Robinson revealed she was once a Rocktern, which was an internship program at Comedy Central with Chris Rock. 

“You worked for me?” Herzog exclaimed to laughs from the audience. “Wow, I didn’t know that.”

That program enabled her to step foot into a writer’s room for the first time, which only solidified for her what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. 

Robinson was part of the first class to attend Emerson Los Angeles (ELA), after the building first opened in Spring 2014. While attending ELA, she interned at the Gersh Agency. At first, she was upset because she wanted to continue working at Comedy Central as an intern, but the experience at Gersh ended up being a great one for different reasons. It taught her a lot about the industry. 

At Gersh, Robinson interned in the comedy and motion picture lit departments. She was offered a job as an agent’s assistant before she officially graduated. While working, she met alumnus Sean Barclay ’99, a literary agent at Gersh, and they hit it off. He offered to read some of her writing and was impressed by it. 

Even as she was working full-time, Robinson said she wrote all the time. Some of her earliest memories involve writing, but she didn’t necessarily think she’d pursue a career writing comedy. 

“I was always really attracted to comedy. I’ve done a lot of improv. Most of my favorite pieces of media ever are comedies, like, I had an Austin Powers-themed wedding,” said Robinson, who was a fan of big, high-concept comedies like Zoolander and the Rush Hour movies growing up.  

Barclay eventually set her up with a manager. Her goal at the time was to get a writer’s assistant position. She landed in a writer’s room instead. 

Robinson got her big break after a pilot script she’d written was submitted to FX. At the same time, Donald Glover was looking for a writer for his new FX show, Atlanta, and got hold of Robinson’s pilot script. The stars seemed to align. First Glover, then the show’s producers, met with Robinson, but she didn’t hear anything for months. Until Barclay told her one day that she landed the gig. 

“I truly never believed that anything like that would happen,” said Robinson. “I did not think I would ever get this job.”

“That’s an amazing story,” Herzog added. 

She was the youngest person and lone woman in the writer’s room for Atlanta, which was difficult at first because the other writers were already friends and she felt like “an annoying little sister.” Eventually, she found her way. 

“So much of that writer’s room was just f*cking around, watching Internet videos and making each other laugh. That stuff then made its way into the episode,” said Robinson. 

She continued writing on Atlanta while also working on FX’s What We Do in the Shadows as co-showrunner, executive producer, and writer. She also served as supervising producer and writer on the fourth installment of the Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning FX limited series Fargo.

She is the first Black woman to receive Emmy nominations for both “Outstanding Comedy Series” and “Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series” and has won two Writers Guild of America awards. She was the College’s commencement speaker in 2021. In April 2023, her first feature film, Chevalier, based on the life of French-Caribbean musician Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was released in theaters by Searchlight Pictures. 

When asked about her process of writing, Robinson said she has to outline. She also has what she calls a “vomit document”.

“Creativity and inspiration is really important, so sometimes I’ll have just a vomit document for a particular project where it’s like, I like that song. I like that scene. I like that dialogue. I like a character like this. I want someone to say that. I want this kind of shot. I put all of that in the vomit doc,” said Robinson. “But before I actually start writing anything, I need an outline and I need to be really meticulous about structure.”

At the end of the evening, Robinson was asked by a student about how she copes when a project she’s written has been produced and doesn’t turn out the way she envisioned.

“It sucks when that happens… but you learn so much,” said Robinson.
“So many people love what they’re working on. They’re just trying to do their best to bring that vision to life.”

Robinson said one lesson she’s learned when a project doesn’t work is to be more compassionate to the creatives involved.

“Be kind to each other and to other creatives and to yourselves. It’s a very hard thing that they’re doing, and there’s a lot of love invested into these projects and we’re all just trying to make it work,” she said.

That advice resonated with Kendel Dawson ’24, a creative multihyphenate specializing in directing and writing.

“Going to Emerson I see how many things are created on the daily. Some good, some bad. But I always say that no matter what I think of it, I know there’s a lot of effort that goes into the creation of it,” said Dawson. 

Tana Hok ’24 said she admired how candid Robinson was. 

“I just love how down-to-earth and genuine she was about all her answers,” said Hok, who’d like to start her own production company one day. “It really felt like catching up with a friend even though I’ve never met her in my life.”

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