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Shonda Rhimes On Running 3 Hit Shows And The Limits Of Network TV

Shonda Rhimes appears on <em>Jimmy Kimmel Live!</em> on Sept. 24. Her new memoir is called <em>Year of Yes</em>.
Randy Holmes
ABC via Getty Images
Shonda Rhimes appears on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on Sept. 24. Her new memoir is called Year of Yes.

Shonda Rhimes has been making up stories for a very long time. She's the creator of ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, and the executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder.

"I probably started storytelling when I was about 3," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "We had a little kitchen pantry and it was filled with canned goods and I have really vivid memories of my mother in the kitchen, the television on playing the Watergate hearings, and me inside the pantry playing my own little version of ... the Watergate hearings ... with the cans."

Decades later, Rhimes has moved on from her canned-goods characters. She likens working on three shows at the same time to "going back and forth from one neighborhood to the next."

It can be an all-encompassing endeavor: Rhimes, who estimates that she receives up to 2,500 emails a day, decided that she would no longer respond to emails after 7 p.m. on weekdays or at all on weekends.

"Work will happen 24 hours a day, 365 days a year if you let it," she says. "It suddenly occurred to me that unless I just say, 'That's not going to happen,' it was always going to happen. ... Since turning off my phone at 7 p.m., there's never been a thing so urgent that I regret having my phone off."

In her new memoir, Year of Yes, Rhimes, a self-described introvert, details how confronting her fears allowed her to embrace other aspects of life.

Interview Highlights

On the pressure she felt as a woman of color writing for TV

Now I'm in a place where I feel like it's not a thing that's pressing on me anymore, I don't look at it in that way; but when it first started, it really did make me a workaholic. It made it impossible for me to feel like I could let up on myself ever. Everything really did have to be perfect, because if it wasn't perfect and we failed then I could point to a reason why we failed and it would've been my fault. I really didn't want any of the shows to fail, and I didn't want to be responsible for that. I didn't want to feel like somebody was going to say, "We had a show with an African-American lead but it failed," and have it be my fault. That did not seem tenable to me.

On why she made her first show, Grey's Anatomy , a medical show

The pilot that I wrote first was a pilot about journalists. It was about war correspondents, actually, and it was about very strong, competitive women who really enjoyed covering war. And it didn't get made because we were kind of at war and they felt it was inappropriate to see people really enjoying covering war when real soldiers were dying. And I thought to myself, "Well, I really enjoyed writing this pilot experience. I'd love to do it again." I was at ABC and I said, "Well, what does [CEO] Bob Iger want?" And somebody said, "Well, he really wants a medical show." And I thought, "Well, that's right up my alley," because I love watching all those surgeries on those cable channels, and I think all this stuff is really interesting, and I had been a candy-striper in high school. And so I really kind of tried to apply those kinds of women — the kind of women that I had been really interested in, women who were really competitive and who loved their jobs more than anything — to the world of surgery.

On how showing same-sex couples in love scenes is different from showing straight couples

It is interesting to me that we've done some scenes that were shot-for-shot the exact same scene as a scene that had a man and a woman in it, and had to fight for the scene if it had two people of the same sex in it — fought and won, but had to fight. But I think it becomes a matter of people's comfort level. A lot of [Broadcast Standards and Practices] is the person who is there, it's their taste, and you're having to fight past in a very clear way someone else's taste and get to what the real rules are. ...

I will fight very, very hard for something. I'm waiting to be censored. I'm really waiting for the moment when someone tells me that if I don't change something they will censor me. I feel like that's going to be an interesting moment.

On the limits of network TV

I always say we're incredibly creative within our fences, because I don't feel like we're pushing boundaries. We're very creative within our fences, and because we have the fences, they make for very creative moments. We come up with some stuff that I don't think any of us would've come up with had we not had the fences. I never would've come up with the phrase "vajayjay" had I not had the fences. There's a lot of other things that I wouldn't have done visually had we not had the fences and I think they're better sometimes.

On coining the term " v ajayjay " on Grey's Anatomy

We can [say vagina] and we do, but we had reached a point at some point in I think it was Season 2 of Grey's Anatomy where I think they had said we had used it too much or something. And I really had a problem with the idea that we couldn't use it because we had an episode where you could say "penis" 17 times or something ... you could say that as many times as you wanted, but you could only say "vagina" a certain number of times before somebody just had a heart attack. I was really upset about it, and I was like, "This is a medical part of someone's body; it's a piece of someone's anatomy. We actually should be calling people's body parts what they are. This seems ridiculous to me that we're saying we're offending someone's sensibility by naming something that 50 percent of the population possesses. I don't understand." And they would not budge. They would not budge, and it was the Super Bowl episode that we were doing and Dr. Bailey was giving birth and I was like, "She's a doctor. She's giving birth." In the end, because there was just no more time, I had to come up with a different word, and the word we came up with was "vajayjay." ...

At the very least, what it did for many women who were never going to say the word, it gave them a language to talk about it, which I thought was helpful.

On adopting her first child

I was I think 30, 31 years old and I had just broken up with some boyfriend. And I had rented a house in Vermont for a month and I was going there to write and feel sorry for myself and hate boys. And I got on a plane and flew out there, and the house was in the middle of nowhere, and the next morning Sept. 11 happened. And so I was sitting in this house in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a satellite TV watching what I thought was the world [coming] to an end and I thought, "Well, the world's going to end, and I've done nothing. I'm a child. I've done nothing." I got out a piece of paper and I made a list of things I was going to do if the world didn't end. And at the top of the list was "adopt a baby," because I knew that I could not have the world end having never been a mother. I will be devastated. And the world didn't end and I went home and I hired an adoption attorney and nine months and two days after Sept. 11 my daughter Harper was born.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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