TV with a Purpose

By Dan Verderosa, February 17, 2017
Mike Royce ’86 finds sitcom success tackling tough topics.

How do you go from big-budget blockbuster director Steven Spielberg to famed television creator and producer Norman Lear? For Mike Royce ’86, it started with a provocative documentary that he watched in a film class. When he started at Ithaca College, Royce had dreamed of making movies like “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Today, he is an executive producer, co-developer and co-showrunner of “One Day at a Time,” a Netflix sitcom about a divorced Cuban-American mother and her family that explores a myriad of pertinent political and social issues.

A cinema and photography major at IC, Royce worked as a stand-up comic after graduating. He has since written and produced shows like “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Men of a Certain Age,” “Lucky Louie,” “1600 Penn” and “Enlisted.”

Royce’s new show is a reboot of Norman Lear’s classic “One Day at a Time.” Aside from the obvious pressures that come with that — “You can’t do a Norman Lear show and have it suck,” says Royce — there are also challenges in writing about cultures and topics he hasn’t personally experienced. Royce’s co-showrunner, Gloria Calderón Kellett, draws from her own experience to supply the authenticity of the show’s Cuban-American family. She and Royce also rely on a diverse writers’ room that purposefully includes Latinos, women and LGBTQ people.

“This show can’t be written by 12 white guys,” says Royce. “And by the way, no show should be written by 12 white guys.”

Royce helps to deliver the show’s snappy dialogue, a skill he discovered and honed in screenwriting classes at IC. He also draws from his own personal experience to shape some of the characters and relationships. The two teenagers on the show, Elena and Alex, are inspired by Royce’s two children.

Royce’s daughter’s passion for social justice is mirrored in Elena, who regularly gets fired up about some issue or another. Her zeal and naivety are often played for laughs, but her ideas and opinions on topics from the environment to patriarchy are treated with a deserved seriousness. “I think that’s a good place for comedy to be,” says Royce. “We can both make fun of Elena for how she sometimes introduces a topic, gets wound up about it, or sometimes is wrong, but we want to make sure that she’s not a cartoon; she’s onto something with these things.”

Royce’s insistence on diversity and representation — and tackling important, challenging issues — was fostered at Ithaca College. Classes with Patty Zimmerman, Frank Tomasulo, Barbara Adams and others helped introduce him to a world of film and writing outside E.T. and Indiana Jones. “Left to my own devices I probably would have watched every super-mainstream piece of entertainment that existed at the time, because that’s what I grew up with and that’s where I come from,” says Royce. “So, exposing me to lots of different cultures and styles and genres I think did put me in a place where my work has been able to be more diverse.” 

Zimmerman had an especially large impact on him. It was in her class that Royce watched “Seventeen,” a controversial documentary about high school students in small-town Indiana that tackled racial and class-based issues. Though at the time he didn’t always appreciate being made to watch political documentaries and experimental films, he says that it helped him develop as a writer. “Patty made sure that we were always shaking up our brains. She made sure we never got too comfortable and that we were always challenging ourselves,” says Royce.

Challenging, controversial topics can be found throughout “One Day at a Time.” In one episode, the main character, Penelope, finds herself the target of sexism at work. What follows is an argument between Penelope, her liberal daughter and her conservative mother that is both humorous and enlightening.

“The three generations of women give us an opportunity to explore from three very authentic points of view,” says Royce. “When you can find a topic where they can each have a real point of view, not just an arbitrary one, but one that they all fully believe in, it’s a really interesting argument to be able to portray.”

Royce may not be making the Spielbergian adventure movies he envisioned back in 1982, but he has found his own voice making TV where viewers can have close encounters with witty dialogue, powerful emotional moments and important issues. That suits him just fine.