Q&A: Pitt alumna talks TV writing on “Resident Alien,” comedy and Pittsburgh


Image via Tom M Johnson

Kelechi Urama, a 2017 Pitt graduate who is currently a story editor on the SYFY series “Resident Alien.”

By Toni Jackson, Staff Writer

Breaking into the television industry seems impossible for many, but Kelechi Urama has found success in the industry. 

Urama is a Nigerian-American and a 2017 Pitt graduate who is currently a story editor on the SYFY series “Resident Alien.” Previously, Urama was a staff writer on Season Two of “Run the World,” which is set to air soon on Starz. CBS Studios has optioned her original pilot “I Need Black Friends,” which focuses on a young Black woman in Pittsburgh who sets out to find Black friends. Urama is originally from Maryland and currently resides in Los Angeles. 

The Pitt News: What is a skill that you learned while attending Pitt that you still use today?

Kelechi Urama: When I was at Pitt, I wrote at The Pitt News for a bit. At the time I was thinking that I was going to become a journalist professionally, so I was a media and professional communications major. I did a lot of interviews going up to random people 一 strangers that I had never met before 一 and asking them to basically tell me about themselves. 

I got a lot of experience just having to connect quickly to people, but also getting to talk to all types of people and getting to hear the different ways that people express themselves. A lot of what we do as screenwriters or TV writers is tuning into character voices, making them feel like real people, making them feel different. 

TPN: After deciding you didn’t want to be a journalist, what made you pivot to comedy and TV writing?

KU:  While I was at Pitt, I fell into screenwriting… Carl Kurlander [and the] Steeltown Entertainment Project were running a short film competition. I found out about it and decided to do it. I think it was my first time writing a script… and then we ended up getting a $5,000 production grant to make it. So I think that experience really steered me towards screenwriting. I’ve always loved television, I’ve always loved film. So once I clued in to the fact that people were actually writing these things, I really felt like that was what I now wanted to do.

TPN: Do you have any comedy icons? Is there anyone you admire for their work as a writer?

KU: Yvette Lee Bower, who created “Living Single,” is definitely one of my heroes. “Living Single” is a show that I loved so much growing up and still love today. It was a full circle moment when I staffed on “Run the World,” which is a show that she helped create. “Living Single” is something I reference frequently in my writing since I typically write about Black women, Black friendships. 

TPN: What was it like to work in a writing room versus creating an original series?

KU: With both [“Run the World” and “”Resident Alien”], they were pretty established, like the world has already been set. So I was able to just jump in. When you’re writing for yourself and you’re creating an original pilot, you are the architect of the entire world. You as a writer are in charge of coming up with what is the premise of the show. Who are the characters? What do they want? What’s against them? What do they sound like? You really have to think about all of that. So it’s very, very hard to do. When you’re coming into a room, all of that is already there for you. 

When you’re in a room, something that I think is very surprising, or at least it was very surprising to me, you really don’t do that much writing. You’re in a writers room for the most part outside of your own episode. Let’s say the writers room is going for 20 weeks, you’ll have maybe two to three weeks to work on your episode. 

For most of that time, you’re just in the room and you’re contributing and you’re just helping to create stories, helping to come up with certain character arcs… You’re pitching jokes, you’re pitching turns for the season. You’re really just sitting there talking and then when the day is done, you go home and log off your computer and go on with your life. I think it’s just always surprising for people to learn that before you get staffed or start working professionally is when you’re constantly trying to turn out new samples, new scripts. But once you’re in the room it’s just a lot of talking. 

TPN: Because you’re originally from Maryland, then attended Pitt and now reside in Los Angeles, were there any major culture shocks for you?

KU: I’m originally from Silver Spring. It was a very Black area but it was also heavily Nigerian, which, I’m also Nigerian. So I feel like during that period for the most part I was just constantly surrounded by Nigerians. So that transition from that atmosphere, I went to school in New York for a little bit at Fordham University before I transferred to Pitt. So then I was in New York 一 which of course, is this huge melting pot where I met so many people from literally every corner of the world 一 and then, of course, transferred to Pittsburgh, which is maybe a little less diverse, but those two places are much more like segregated in some ways. That was surprising to me… sometimes I was the only Black person in a class. 

Now living in LA, it’s also very culturally diverse but it’s very spread out. It’s a place where every neighborhood has a very distinct atmosphere or vibe. It’s a different atmosphere where you have to be very intentional about socializing because everything is so far away in any direction.

TPN: What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

KU: I think just being able to say that I am a TV writer. I’m a working TV writer. I think that’s a really big accomplishment. Just from that first job, “Run the World,” it was something that I wanted for so long. I started TV writing, or at least learning the art of TV writing back in 2013. It was something I knew I wanted to do, but it felt like such a huge risk and leap. When you join the [Writers Guild of America], they always tell you, “It’s easier to become a professional baseball player than it is to become a professional TV writer,” because there’s so few people that get the chance to do it compared to how many want to do it. 

I’m proud of myself for setting my mind to something and then actually getting to do it.