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TV star Lena Waithe plays a game of 'Wild Card'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

At 40 years old, Lena Waithe has already built an impressive legacy for herself. She became the first Black woman ever to win an Emmy for writing on a comedy series for the show "Master Of None," and she's gone on to create a number of TV shows, including "Boomerang," "Twenties" and "The Chi," which is based on her experience growing up on the South Side of Chicago. "The Chi" just wrapped up its sixth season, and Lena Waithe joined NPR's Rachel Martin for our show Wild Card, where guests choose questions at random from a deck of cards, questions about the memories, insights and beliefs that have shaped them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: You ready?

LENA WAITHE: Yeah.

MARTIN: All right. Let's go. We're in the memories round. Three cards. Pick a card. One, two or three?

WAITHE: OK. I'm going to go with two.

MARTIN: Two. When did you feel like you found your people?

WAITHE: Oh, man. I think, you know, Michael Svoboda, who was a writer's PA on "The Game" when I was an assistant at "Girlfriends" - he and I just really vibed. And he's just like, yo, I got a writers group that I do, where we sit and we, like, write original pilots that we're working on...

MARTIN: Yeah.

WAITHE: ...To kind of help us get some stuff done. And I walked into that writer's group and, like, found all these amazing people that I'm still tight with today.

MARTIN: Tell me how that jibes with Chicago and your experience there because it sounds like you needed to find your writer people.

WAITHE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Did you not have that in some way in Chicago?

WAITHE: You know, I was a bit of a oddball, you know, in Chicago 'cause I was obsessed with TV, obsessed with, like, movies. Like, people go to movies and watch TV shows to pass time. And I think my family could tell it was more than that for me.

MARTIN: Was it moving you in a different way than it was your peers?

WAITHE: I would be just enthralled by it and be thinking about it. Like, I have, like, some chest tattoos. I have, like, a "Wizard Of Oz" tattoo. I have Judy Garland here, you know, have the lion. I have the scarecrow. I have all of it. Like, because that movie was more than a movie for me. It was almost like a Bible to life.

It's like, where you are, you always think there's something out there that's better than where I'm at right now. But the truth is, when you go out there and get to the Emerald City and meet the Wizard, you realize it's all - it's not really what you thought it was. And then all you long for when you're in the Emerald City is to go where?

MARTIN: Home.

WAITHE: Exactly. And so I think what - the big reason why "Wizard Of Oz" is such a religion and a reminder for me is that there is no Emerald City that will feel like home.

MARTIN: Was that sad for you? Was there a grief attached to that? Or it was like...

WAITHE: No. I think what it did was it helped me to stop - it helped me to slow down. Because the truth is there's always something you want, and that's fine. You know, you need that thing to make you want to go. But you got to remember that it'll be nice if it happens, it'll be cool, but you don't want it to be a thing that if you don't get it, that you can't find happiness.

MARTIN: OK. Round 2. This is insights...

WAITHE: OK.

MARTIN: ...Things you have learned or things you are learning.

WAITHE: All right.

MARTIN: One, two, three.

WAITHE: I'm going to go with three.

MARTIN: What makes you irrationally defensive?

WAITHE: Irrationally defensive.

(LAUGHTER)

WAITHE: Oh, my gosh. This is the irrational part.

MARTIN: I know (laughter).

WAITHE: I can get defensive, you know, about just the idea - because - of being wrong about something. Like, I don't like to be wrong. I don't like being proved wrong. I don't like - so I realized like, oh, I - what? I wasn't right about that? What? It's my least favorite thing is getting something wrong. And that can be in many ways, you know, whether it be a relationship, you know, some trivia. You know what I mean? It's like, I don't want to get this wrong. I want to get it right.

MARTIN: I love how those were in the same breath.

WAITHE: I know. It's like relationship, like, taboo, you know what I mean? Yeah. I think - I just - I realize I'm not good at not being good at things.

MARTIN: Yeah.

WAITHE: So I can get defensive when I'm not, like, succeeding at something.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. When's the last time you were wrong about something?

WAITHE: Oh, recently. I thought a particular actress was in "Game Of Thrones," and she wasn't.

MARTIN: Oh, this is my favorite game.

WAITHE: And I was so ticked.

MARTIN: Right.

WAITHE: Because I was like, are you sure that's not her? Am I - yeah. She's, like, that's - no. You're getting that wrong. I was like, ah. And I looked it up, too.

MARTIN: Of course.

WAITHE: I was like, oh, let me see. Let me see.

MARTIN: Right.

WAITHE: I was like, ah.

MARTIN: 'Cause you believed with every fiber of your being that she was in "Game Of Thrones."

WAITHE: I really did. I really did. And that's what I'm saying. Like, I was so not happy about that in that moment because I never get that stuff wrong. But it's OK.

MARTIN: OK. We're going to forget you were wrong about that one. No one has to know. No one has to know.

WAITHE: Now everybody knows.

MARTIN: OK. Round 3.

WAITHE: OK.

MARTIN: Final round. This is the beliefs round, OK, so we're getting into beliefs that shape the way you see the world.

WAITHE: All right.

MARTIN: One, two, three. Three new cards. Three - last card.

WAITHE: I'm going to go with two.

MARTIN: What's your best defense against despair?

WAITHE: Ooh. I love this Baldwin quote he says to Nikki Giovanni in a beautiful conversation they have where she thinks she's a pessimist. And he says, no, you're a realist. You're cool, but you're not a pessimist. He's like, because you're alive. And I think my biggest defense against despair is the fact that I'm alive. It's that I'm here. And even though it can be - it can feel like a curse, it is the greatest gift to be Earthside at this time. And you can't run away from despair. You can try.

MARTIN: Yeah.

WAITHE: You can try. I love the Solange song "Cranes In The Sky" because it's all about ways in which we try to run away. So you can try to shop it away, smoke it away, you know, sex it away - you can't, you know, and many people, I think, try to.

MARTIN: So in the particular, like for you, how do you - just sit there and, like, say an affirmation, like, I'm alive? You look in the mirror? You pinch yourself? Like, what...

WAITHE: No. I'm still a human. I'm a sleeper. I'll try to sleep it away. I try to watch "The Comeback," you know, which is my favorite go-to - Lisa Kudrow, Michael Patrick King, like...

MARTIN: Really?

WAITHE: ...HBO. It is, like - if you're ever sad...

MARTIN: It brings you back from the brinks of despair?

WAITHE: No. It just reminds me of, like, a character that is so flawed...

MARTIN: Ah.

WAITHE: ...Yet I love and root for so much. Like, Valerie Cherish is a game-changing character for me. When I watch that show, you can't help but look at Valerie Cherish and go, all right, I'm all right. I'm OK (laughter). I'll be all right. And I feel better now because I'm laughing, and also, like, completely have second-hand embarrassment.

MARTIN: Lena Waithe, this was such a pleasure. Thank you so much for doing this.

WAITHE: Wow. Thank you so much for pulling so much out of me today.

DETROW: For more of that conversation with Lena Waithe, you can search for Wild Card wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.