She Gets the Joke

A good ear for story, a collaborative spirit, and a willingness to push the limits have made Amy Gravitt '95 a different kind of television executive.
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October 20, 2016

In her Santa Monica office, Amy Gravitt ’95 has a collection of television-show keepsakes one might expect to adorn the work space of an HBO comedy chief.

There, on a stand in front of the TV where Gravitt watches dailies of the network’s shows, is the Louisville Slugger that actor Danny McBride used to hit out his frustrations when he played failed pro-baseball star Kenny Powers on Eastbound & Down.

Draped over the back of an office chair is the green-and-gold track jacket Jared Dunn, played by actor Zach Woods, gives the programmers of Silicon Valley.

There’s a poster promoting writer/actress Issa Rae’s new comedy Insecure with a personal note from Rae: “To Amy, Thank you for believing in our show!”

Beyond mere show souvenirs, they tell a story about Gravitt’s relationships with her writers and producers—each object offers an inkling of a closeness she shares with them.

“Amy gets our sense of humor,” says McBride. “You can send her something really [messed] up, and you don’t have to worry that’s she’s going to give you notes on walking it backward because she’s scared of risky material. She gets it.”

As the executive vice president of comedy programming, Gravitt is responsible for the development of all of the network’s comedies—including Silicon Valley, new comedies Divorce with Sarah Jessica Parker and Vice Principals with McBride and Walton Goggins, and Emmy-award-winning Veep with Julia Louis-Dreyfus (whose late father, Gérard Louis-Dreyfus, earned two degrees from Duke).

It’s a role that requires close contact with creative types, and TV executives and Hollywood writers often don’t have an easy relationship. Alec Berg, a former Seinfeld writer and executive producer of Silicon Valley, has worked with Gravitt since the show’s inception in 2014. He says he once dreaded getting notes on his scripts from executives. “When I first started working with Amy, my instincts were always to just keep executives and non-writers on the show out of the process as much as I could.”

But when Berg began reading Gravitt’s notes, something changed. Gravitt reacted to the script like a viewer, asking questions and telling Berg when she laughed—or didn’t. “I got sort of spun around to the point where within the the span of a few weeks, I went from trying to protect the material from the network to genuinely wanting her reactions to things.”

Gravitt’s working style can be traced to her childhood, growing up in a military family in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Her dad was a Navy fighter pilot. Her older brother attended the Naval Academy. Early on, she learned to respect the role each person played in an organization.

At Duke, Gravitt joined the Navy ROTC. She woke up early before class to make her dorm bed with perfectly folded corners and marched in drills with her fellow midshipman on the old West Campus soccer field.

After graduating from Duke with a major in political science, Gravitt joined the Navy to fulfill a four-year active duty commitment. She served on the U.S.S. Constellation and was deployed to the Persian Gulf. On the ship, Gravitt was the disbursing officer in charge of all financial transactions. She implemented the first ATM system aboard the ship and eventually became a lieutenant.

Gravitt says the military taught her the importance of collaboration. “It’s about knowing that you’re a part of something bigger and that you’re part of a team. It’s for the greater good.”

Indulging in stories was a way to pass the time. She and fellow sailors would take over the ready room, where pilots otherwise stood by for flight missions, and watch movies every Friday night. Even then, Gravitt’s Hollywood dreams were afloat.

“Hope to see your name in credits in a major motion picture,” a friend wrote on a frame mat holding a photo of the U.S.S. Constellation that hangs on Gravitt’s office wall. It was a parting gift when she left the ship in 1999 and moved to Los Angeles.

She says she was naïve at the time. She knew she wanted to work in Hollywood, but she didn’t know where to start.

Gravitt faxed her résumé to Section Eight, a production company she admired because it was the brainchild of actor George Clooney and film director Steven Soderbergh.

And then, Duke intervened.

Rachel Eggebeen ’98, now the vice president of development and production at Fox 21 Television Studios, was an assistant at Section Eight and offered Gravitt an internship.

Gravitt was twenty-six, a rolling-credits kind of age for someone starting out as an intern. The move was risky. She answered phone calls. She organized libraries of scripts. She made herself useful to her bosses at every turn.

Soon the next step—an assistant job—opened up with Grant Heslov, who now collaborates with Clooney via their production company, Smokehouse Pictures. Gravitt worked in the television division on K Street and Unscripted, two comedies Heslov produced for HBO in the early 2000s.

In 2004, an assistant job opened up at HBO, and Gravitt began working for the head of comedy—a title she would take on twelve years later. She studied the art of the story while scouting new talent at some of Los Angeles’ best comedy clubs.

In her role, Gravitt gets to know her writers well as the show progresses. She pops into the writers’ rooms a few miles down the road at Sony Pictures Studios. She visits when the shows are filming on location. She proves how “creativity is a dialogue,” says Insecure’s Rae.

“You feel valued at the end of the day. You feel like your work has been taken seriously,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like a factory output of shows.”

Gravitt wants to create a pipeline for more women and veterans in Hollywood. She works with a nonprofit called Got Your 6 (military slang for “I’ve got your back”) that is leveraging the industry to create new opportunities for returning service members, and she talks to veterans via the networking nonprofit Veterans in Film & Television.

That commitment to getting diverse people in a room together translates to good comedy, Gravitt says. “If you look at our comedies, they all have very different voices behind them, and as a result, different comedic tones.”

It’s near the end of the day, and the first episode of Insecure is playing on Gravitt’s television. A year ago, the show was Rae’s first big pitch since ABC passed on a series she had been working on with Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes.

“In my eyes, I was like: ‘Oh man, I failed, and I’m never going to get this chance again. I feel like I have to start over,’ ” Rae says.

At the meeting, Rae read her pitch from a piece of paper because she was so nervous.

Gravitt and Casey Bloys, who oversees all of HBO’s programming, bought the show with a casual “Let’s do this.” Rae didn’t even realize that they were welcoming her into the HBO family.

“I’m happy this is the home,” Rae says now. “That’s the most important thing to me at end of the day.”

And at the end of the day, the comedy chief would say she herself is right where she needs to be, too.

“I found my people,” Gravitt says.

GRAVITT WILL BE IN CONVERSATION WITH MSNBC'S JJ RAMBERG '92 ON NOVEMBER 11 DURING DUKE ENTERTAINMENT, MEDIA, AND THE ARTS NETWORK (DEMAN) WEEKEND. GO TO ALUMNI.DUKE.EDU FOR DETAILS.

Holder M.Div. ’13 is the DAA’s assistant director of communications.

  • Christina Holder M.Div.'13 the DAA's assistant director of communications.