"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?' "
These questions inspired her to do a high school project about the lack of "people like us" on TV. She made it funny, and people liked it, so she kept writing and trying to be funny. Her determination wavered a bit at Ryerson University where she took a degree in Radio and Television Arts and, technically, headed for a career in journalism. "The other day I found drafts of all these letters I was sending out. 'Dear Marketplace, I would really like to write for the show.' That kind of thing. I just wanted to write, really. And step by step, I got there."
First she was a lowly script co-ordinator on Our Hero and then a script she wrote landed with Linda Schuyler, co-creator of the Degrassi series and executive producer of Degrassi: The Next Generation. In 2007 Santamaria was a writer on the show and executive story editor. "I was star-struck by Degrassi," she says. "My sister and I watched the original series when we were kids. It was a show that felt Canadian, that felt like it was about people like us. It's a legendary show. People here in L.A. are actually very impressed that I worked on Degrassi."
That period was a golden age for Degrassi. Two of the female leads would become major stars, Nina Dobrev on Vampire Diaries and Shenae Grimes on 90210. But it was actor Aubrey Graham, now known as the superstar singer Drake, whom Santamaria remembers most fondly. "I loved writing for him. He was a natural. Drake wouldn't know me from hole in the ground, but it was pleasure to create stories for his character."
The Degrassi job led to Little Mosque on the Prairie, another show that, she felt, inched toward depicting the Canada represented by her family. She is emphatically dismissive of the idea that the show is controversial. " Little Mosque is a light family comedy about a community that lives in rural Saskatchewan. The fact that the show was even considered 'controversial' should have been the controversy. In my opinion, depicting Muslims and Islam shouldn't automatically be met with more contention than depicting any other faith would."
After Little Mosque came How To Be Indie, that first "real job," and a very personal creation that, because it was aimed at that age group between kids and teenagers, flew under the radar of Canadian media coverage. But it had a huge and devoted audience on YTV. The flimsiest of shows, it was about little Indie Mehta (Melinda Shankar) dealing with both school and family, where she felt little understood – but everything worked out as long as she had a sense of humour about culture clashes and boys.
"I just channelled family, my relationships and the situation of my friends," says Santamaria.
In 2010, she moved to LA. "I had five seconds of bravery," she says. "I just decided to do it. I'd written a spec script for a new show and decided to try to make it in L.A., in the TV world here. If I hadn't had those five seconds, I'd still be in Canada."
She had few contacts, but a meeting with bosses of the NBC comedy Outsourced, one of the network's highly-touted shows for the 2010/11 season, led to an instant job offer. The show, a satire set at an Indian call centre, a workplace to which American jobs have been lost, was risky for NBC. Would American viewers find the Mumbai setting exotic or would they hate it?
Reviews were mixed and the ratings went up and down for a show that was, for network TV, daringly droll about cultural mix-ups between American bosses and Indian workers. "What did I learn? For now, America still likes their Indian characters in small doses, I guess," she says ruefully. "Some of the feedback bordered on racist. It was a time when this Canadian was baffled by the fuss."
When NBC cancelled Outsourced last year, she was hired to work on Community, another show considered risky, though more for creative and storytelling tactics than cultural reasons. And while she waits for her episode to air, she works. Always writing. "I'm currently consulting on, as well as in talks, to develop projects for CBC and CTV. I'm helping friends develop another show, working on my own comedy pilot. I can't stop writing. This meeting is a real distraction from it."
So I let her go back to work, back to Hollywood, where she made it in the TV business. And her family should be impressed, as any family would be.