Rice and Beans Scripts a Diverse Kids’ World

Jul 31, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Dinah Eng

When Vincent Cheung and Ben Montanio decided to become writing partners, they dubbed themselves Rice and Beans Productions. Over the last 16 years, they’ve made headway in a largely white world of television writers.

Today, they’re working on a new Nickelodeon series, tentatively titled “Lil JJ,” about an African American kid from Arkansas who moves to Los Angeles with his mother to work in his grandfather’s diner. For Cheung and Montanio, the gig means working on their first writing staff with no whites. All the writers are African American and Latino.

No, a sea change has not occurred in the writing world. The duo gives kudos to children’s programming for being way ahead of network prime-time shows in promoting diversity behind and in front of the camera.

“You almost have to have diversity for kids because their world is a diverse mix at school,” says Montanio. “With grownups, it’s easier to isolate yourself in the workplace from whites or other minority groups if you want to. Disney and Nickelodeon know that even kids can smell bulls**t. Shows have to smell and sound right to them.”

Cheung says that among all the careers in Hollywood, writing potentially offers the greatest opportunity for people of color to break in. One mistake many new minority writers make is insisting on writing a character into that all-important spec script that reflects their own race or ethnicity, he said.

“People say they want to make a difference with their diversity,” Cheung says. “I say, `Get the job first, then do what you can to make a difference.’ Write an ethnic character if it’s germane to what you’re writing, but don’t be typecast from the get-go as a minority writer who can only write about your own ethnic group. If you’re going to write a `My Name Is Earl’ spec, write it with the characters already on the show.”

In other words, work the system as it is, not as you wish it would be.

Cheung and Montanio have struck an interesting balance in the way they leverage their expertise and backgrounds. They market themselves as Rice and Beans, a stereotypical image that says clearly who they are. But they aim to impress showrunners and executives as being competent television writers who happen to be minorities.

The two men, who worked together at ITC Productions, began writing in the late 1980s as a team, winning a spot in the 10-week Warner Bros. writing program. Back then, the program was designed to develop new writers, without an emphasis on diversity. Cheung and Montanio were the only minorities in their class.

They were quickly picked up for the staff of “Growing Pains,” then went on to write for “Night Court,” “Married … With Children,” “The Steve Harvey Show,” “Greetings From Tucson” and other sitcoms until 2003.

As sitcoms gave way to dramas and reality shows, the pair moved into animation development for Nickelodeon, which led to contacts at Disney, and their writing the recent TV movie “Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior.”

Cheung and Montanio have built relationships and networked like crazy to meet the market demands of the moment.

“It’s not complex,” Cheung says. “You have to know people who know people, and you have to make your way through the pitfalls. You tend to hire people you’re familiar with because it’s an efficient way to run business.”

While every network has some diversity initiative or another, breaking barriers continues to be hard because cultural differences are not easily bridged.

Picture a writer’s room where the showrunner is white. He or she (don’t laugh, women are making strides) tosses out a story idea. Most everyone voices their opinion or makes a joke. The Asian writer nods. Is the Asian writer nodding in agreement, or coming off as passive and clueless?

The Hispanic writer makes a comment, and the black writer disagrees. They get into an argument about a plot point. Who is seen as being assertive, and who is seen as argumentative?

You may say it depends on the situation, but the reality is that it depends on who’s observing the situation. As long as we see the world through race-colored glasses that we don’t even realize we’ve got on, we won’t be able to see and connect with people who don’t look like us.

“We can’t just pressure showrunners to hire more minorities,” Montanio says. “We should tell them to hire the best writers, and then be the best writers out there.”

For just as women have learned to tell men, “I’m nacho mama,” people of color will have to find a way to make themselves heard and understood as well.

Dinah Eng is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who writes a syndicated column for Gannett News Service.