“I live in Hollywood,” Vera Santamaria tells me. “My family are all, ‘Oooh, Hollywood!’ But, actually, it’s like living on Yonge Street.”
It’s a warm January afternoon. We are sitting on the patio of Lucky Baldwin’s, a bar in Pasadena featured on Big Bang Theory, the hottest comedy on network TV. It seems appropriate to meet Santamaria here, a place that’s real but made famous by fictional television. Working in TV, writing scripts, telling stories has been her life – from a start in 2002 on CBC’s Our Hero, a show described as “a teen version of Ally McBeal,” to Degrassi, Little Mosque on the Prairie and on to L.A. and shows including Outsourced and, right now, Community. As a producer and writer on that acclaimed comedy, she’s at the top of the TV ladder.
With her background and heritage she brings a piquant voice to writing for television. But the most distinctive aspect of her work is the puncturing of pretension and pomposity. On Little Mosque, she wrote an episode where the imam’s shoes get stolen at the mosque, and another where a character thinks he’s dying and tries to make amends to the community. The synopses sound slight, but both are goofy-clever, illuminating affectations and vanity.
“I think I wrote some episodes that successfully walked the line between being culturally specific and ‘funny just ’cause,’ ” she says, “episodes that would start with some culturally distinct detail but then spin out into something that was hopefully funny in its own right. It also helped that I had insider knowledge on some of the themes the show touched upon, like being the child of parents who emigrated to Canada and everything that’s great and funny and weird about that.”
Community is a deadpan social satire set among a small group of oddballs at a community college. Created by Emmy-winners Joe and Anthony Russo ( Arrested Development), it’s acclaimed for its rich, sardonic humour – and by the time Santamaria was hired last year, the show was noted for episodes mocking conventional TV genres. A good fit for her style, clearly.
It’s considered brilliant and cool, but not a massive hit. NBC has parked it temporarily off-air to introduce some mid-season shows before bringing it back this spring. Santamaria has solo control of one episode that hasn’t aired yet – and it’s her one, minor frustration with the job.
Community is the kind of show that she would have watched as a teenager, living in the Rexdale area of Toronto. “My parents were very protective, so they liked the kids [she has one brother and one sister]to stay at home and watch TV. I watched everything. My parents love to laugh so we always watched a lot of comedies. My dad loved to watch Carol Burnett. I liked to watch Golden Girls, Three’s Company, everything.”
In conversation, her parents are mentioned often. They came to Canada from India in 1969, settled in Sudbury, Ont., and in 1974 moved to Toronto, where Vera was born. She says that a continuing part of her relationship with her loving and supportive parents – her mother was an educational assistant and dad is an elementary school teacher – is her search for ways to assure them that she does, in fact, have a real job. “They supported my writing, always. But they did say something like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to get a teaching degree, just as a backup?’ ”
It was while working on the comedy series How To Be Indie (aimed at the tween audience, it ran on YTV for two seasons, 2009 and 2010) that she convinced them she had a real job. Her parents were proud that she co-created it and it was about a young South Asian girl trying to fit into school and life in Canada. But what mattered too was that she had a designated parking spot on the set. “I took a photo of my parking spot with my name on it, sent it to my parents and they were impressed, at last.”
At the memory of this, her grave and winsome face breaks into broad smile. This is a striking moment in our conversation because, for a comedy writer, she seems a very serious person. She talks with deliberation, and she holds eye contact constantly. One knows instinctively that she is an observer, studying others, and the mischief that comes out in her comedy writing will rise to the surface later.
How To Be Indie matters a lot in her life and career. There was seriousness behind the show and, indeed, at the very basis of her compulsion to write TV shows. “Writing found me,” she says. “I was a kid watching TV and I wondered why I didn’t see a family like mine on TV. You’re just a kid and you’re asking, ‘What’s not funny about me and my family? And people like us. What’s wrong with us?’ ”