Within each high-energy, half-hour episode, Marvel’s “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” exemplifies a nearly universal truth: pretty much every woman working in the professional world has a badass alter ego or two. And few know that better than the series’ head writer and creator, Jessica Gao.
Gao might not turn into a green-skinned superhuman (that we know of, anyway), but she is a writer with credits on animated series like “Rick and Morty” and “The Mighty B!,” and a producer via Crab Club, Inc., which she formed in 2019 with comedian Jimmy O. Yang and writer Ken Cheng. As of late, she’s had ample opportunity to flex both her writing and producing muscles. “She-Hulk,” starring Tatiana Maslany as the titular heroine, hit Disney+ on Aug. 18 and one of Crab Club’s biggest productions yet, Jo Koy’s comedy feature “Easter Sunday,” premiered in theaters at the beginning of the same month.
All in all, Gao has had a banner year. But long before working with the likes of Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige, Gao’s interest in comics led her to pursue a different career: illustration. She holds a fine arts degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, though she realized during her undergrad days that a career in what she calls “hoity-toity, highbrow art” wouldn’t be her calling.
“Very quickly, I was like, ‘That’s not for me; I’m not going to be a gallery artist,’” Gao says. “I was always into comic books, so in the back of my mind I thought, ‘I’ll just end up working in comics somehow. Either I’ll make a comic book, work for a publisher or do something comic book-adjacent.’” After drifting across the pond to London and back to Los Angeles, where she eventually asked a number of other comic artists for career recommendations, Gao landed a spot on the Nickelodeon Writing Program, a talent launchpad for animation writing.
Over the course of Gao’s ascension to Marvel showrunner status, she has fought her fair share of battles. She faced waves of misogynistic internet trolls during her 2017 “Rick and Morty” tenure, and unsurprisingly has made it a priority to help elevate other people of color and women in entertainment.
That’s where Crab Club comes in. Throughout the years, Gao, Cheng, Yang and their friends have taken turns holding dinner party salons for AAPI creatives, building a tight-knit community and leading to pivotal new connections. For instance, over one such dinner Rideback founder Dan Lin introduced Koy to the Crab crew and explained the concept that would later become “Easter Sunday.” “We all fell in love with [Koy] and hopefully vice versa, and from talking and hanging out, it emerged that Ken was the perfect writer for the movie and that Ken, Jimmy and I would executive produce,” Gao says. “It’s literally a movie that was formed at a dinner.” Cheng went on to pen the “Easter Sunday” script, along with writer Kate Angelo.
On the surface, “Easter Sunday” and “She Hulk” might seem as different from one another as two projects could get—one’s a comedy film about a Filipino family in Daly City, and the other’s a fourth-wall-breaking series following a superhero’s day job. But both reflect some of Gao’s key creative values as a writer. “I want to see characters who feel lived-in, and not like TV people,” Gao says, “and I love any time I get to see a new perspective, a new background I haven’t seen before. We can have shows that are really focused on telling very specific stories and it’s allowing people to discover that specificity actually makes things feel more universal and relatable, because it feels more true and real. That’s the stuff that makes me really excited.”
When Gao dons her producing supersuit, though? That’s a different story. “There’s a part of me that starts thinking more pragmatically,” Gao says, laughing. “Like, how many backgrounds is this going to use? What’s the cheaper way of doing this joke? Is this going to be a nightmare to try to shoot? Those are the kinds of things you start thinking about.”
This article will appear in Character Media’s Annual 2022 Issue. Read our 2021 issue here.