In 1994, she was selected for an internship on Nickelodeon’s first all black comedy My Brother and Me. From there she managed to find jobs on shows like All of Us, The Wanda Sykes Show, Life With Bonnie, and The Hughleys, working for a multitude of showrunners, while honing her writing and production skills. Oddly enough, it was the writers strike of 2007-2008 that allowed her to move forward in her career.
While unemployed, Littlejohn passed along a script she’d been writing to VH1. They were so impressed with her writing style, they asked her to create a show about “modern women with differing ideas on the subject of love.” It was then the sexy, opinionated female protagonists of Single Ladies were born.
I spoke with Littlejohn by phone about her career, her thoughts about the business of creating television, and how one of her greatest inspirations came from Perry Mason.
You’ve worked in the TV industry for over fifteen years and Single Ladies is the first show you can truly call your own. Had you attempted to sell a pilot before this?
I attempted to go out and sell one pilot. I really didn’t have a lot of opportunities to write my own pilots as the years were going on. I was working on so many shows that I had very little time of my own. I was even working on hiatuses. So I tried to go out and sell the one. I didn’t sell it but it got me a lot of meetings and attention. It basically got me this job.
Were you surprised when you got the green light from VH1?
No. I knew they were really wanting a show like this. It was on their radar and was something they wanted to make go right. They just needed the right person to help them do that. I’m always thinking pretty positively. No, it didn’t surprise me because they gave me such good feedback along the way that I couldn’t fathom that they wouldn’t pick it up. Every step along the way was so encouraging and so positive. It just seemed that it was going to go right.
You worked for a long time to get to this point. Now that you have control is it what you thought it would be?
Yeah, I worked for showrunners. That’s all I’ve ever done is work on staff. I knew exactly what to expect, which is why I kind of avoided running my own show for the longest time. I didn’t want that responsibility. I wanted a life. Once you start running a show you have no life but that show, so it’s everything I expected.
Did you learn from those other showrunners what not to do?
I wouldn’t say I learned what not to do. I learned what to do. Everyone has a different style. I wouldn’t say I’m like anyone but me. You just bring your personality to whatever you work on. There are tasks that every showrunner has to do. We’re all alike in those tasks. Personality and individuality is what you bring to any situation. Of course I bring that, but I learned from everyone I worked with what to do as opposed to what not to do.
How did Queen Latifah become involved with this project?
Flavor Unit (Queen Latifah’s production company) and VH1 already linked up before I got into the picture. They were a team looking for a writer to do a show like this. So VH1 found me and then let Queen Latifah know. I got her blessing and we kind of went from there.
Does she come to the set often?
No, she doesn’t. She did obviously when she filmed her episode. She’s doing simultaneous projects so her schedule doesn’t allow for her to visit us.
Do you write the majority of your episodes or do you mainly use outside talent?
I do write the majority of them and I have two writers that I’ve hired that help me do the rest.
The main characters Keisha, Val, and April are strong-willed, independent women but their relationships with men always seem to end badly. Why haven’t any of these women besides Keisha found men they can relate to on more than a physical level?
The show is about the single life so I can’t just get up and get them married. I can’t have them find their perfect guy in the first few episodes of the first season. Then the whole concept of the show would be moot. You examine what happens when you’re dating people and what happens when things go wrong. You think it’s the right person and it ends up not being [so]. That journey is dating, It’s what we all do until we find that special person.
Are these ladies based on yourself or women you’ve known?
Yeah. I have a lifetime of dating, I have a lifetime of friends who’ve dated. You hear the stories, you live the stories, and you create the stories.
Keisha’s relationship with Malcolm has the most going for it. Do you have plans for them to deepen their bond?
I’ve got all kinds of plans for those two. I don’t want to give away what is to come but these two will have quite a future together in my estimation. They are soulmates in one sense. No matter what happens with them I think they’re always going to be drawn to one another.
It’s interesting that the '60s show Perry Mason inspired you to work in television. It resonated strongly with you yet you don’t write crime dramas or legal stories. Why is that?
In my heart of hearts I’m much more lighthearted than that. It’s the same reason I didn’t become a lawyer. I just like it a little lighter. I don’t want to live those stories. When you write you have to live in that world in your head and I don’t know that I want to live in that world. I like to visit it for an hour when I watch those shows but I don’t want to eat, think, dream, and live crime.
Do you think the structure of those stories helped you create Single Ladies?
Sure. Life is nothing but stories. I wouldn’t just say those shows. It’s books or when you hear jokes being told, when you hear songs being written. Songs are little mini stories. Stories go a certain way. They have been around since the beginning of time. Every culture has stories. I think everything has influenced me in that way. Life is a story.
Do you think if one of the single ladies finds happiness the others will be happy for her or jealous?
Of course they’ll be happy for each other. I don’t live in that place where female friends are catty and don’t wish the best for their friends. It’s not the reality I have in my own life, so I don’t want to portray that. So, yeah, they’d absolutely be happy for each other.
Do you think it’s easier now than ten years ago for women to make it in your field?
I think it is. It seems like there are definitely more women doing it now because when I was coming up in writers rooms I was always like one of two or three women and the rest guys. But you do see more. You got Tina Fey, Jada Pinkett. You have tons of women who are just...yeah, there’s definitely a stronger surge. I don’t know if it’s because there are way more channels, way more networks giving people a chance. It’s not just the major [networks]. There are so many other opportunities. Yeah, it certainly does feel like there are more women now.
What are your plans for the future?
I would love to be writing from the comfort of my home, my children running around me and my husband in the other room. He’s doing his thing and I’m writing movies and selling movies or consulting on shows. I don’t picture myself in the daily grind of running a TV show fifteen years from now. It takes so many hours and so much away from your life that at that point I would hope that I’ve got a little bit of money in the bank and I can retire.
Single Ladies airs on Mondays at 9pm ET on VH1.
Follow Stacy on Twitter @StacyALiljohn