At a pre-Covid holiday event for parents at the Wesley School in North Hollywood, Good Girls creator Jenna Bans panicked when she noticed that her two-year- old daughter, who had been standing right next to her, was gone.
Pushing through the crowd of hundreds, she bumped into Universal Television's Erin Underhill, who served on the board of the school that her kids also attended.
Underhill greeted her with a huge hello, but Bans had no time for niceties. "I am so sorry, I just lost my kid," Bans remembers telling her. "And in less than a half a second, she switched from social, friendly Erin to an almost eerily calm, like, police chief."
The exec grilled Bans on what her daughter was wearing, then hopped on the phone with her husband, who was on the other side of the event, and reported: "We're looking for a little girl with a red scarf." Walking the perimeter in the dark, she conducted a methodical search until she found the errant toddler and reunited her with her mom.
"I've never seen anyone react so calmly and efficiently to a crisis," said Bans, who is developing three new Universal projects for NBC and sister streaming network Peacock as well as one for Fox. "That's why she's such a good executive.
"In the entertainment business, you go from putting out one fire to the next. If she is that calm with a missing two-year-old, that certainly speaks to how she would be with a production problem or a showrunner melting down. She's the best. She found my child. I will never forget that."
Remaining cool-headed in a crisis is a skill that comes in handy when running a studio, especially during a deadly pandemic.
Underhill was promoted from executive vice-president of drama development to president of Universal Television in November 2020. It was right at the start of a brutal winter Covid surge that delayed production on shows such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine and ultimately infected, among so many others, Underhill and her younger son during a visit to Lake Tahoe over spring break. (They both recovered in due course, and her husband and older son were spared.)
Having to make crucial decisions with lives on the line just weeks into her new job "has been interesting," Underhill says from a balcony of her deserted office building on the unusually quiet Universal lot in August. "I feel like I have common sense and a strong moral compass. [But] we can't predict or control anything. We do everything we can, and then we have to let go. I just talked to people on a human level and reassured [them that] we are not going to do anything to put anyone in jeopardy."
So far, that strategy has paid off. "We've had very few outbreaks on sets," says Underhill, who oversees more than 50 primetime comedies and dramas in production. "Shows have shut down, and things have gone on pause, but it's been out of caution and the need to keep people safe."
Despite pandemic disruption, Universal had an impressive nine freshman comedy series receive second-season orders this year, including Mr. Mayor, Kenan and Young Rock on NBC and Hacks on HBO Max. Universal shows earned 75 Emmy nominations, and the studio has several high-profile projects in the pipeline for Peacock, including an adaptation of Field of Dreams from Mike Schur, Vampire Academy from Julie Plec and a dramatic reboot of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which received an unprecedented two-season order.
"This year has been quite incredible," says Underhill, who attributes much of her success, as well as her no-nonsense sensibility, to her small-town upbringing in Petaluma, California, as a first-generation American.
Underhill's father, an immigrant from New Zealand, left home at 16, joined the Merchant Marines during World War II and was a ship's purser in the South Pacific in the 1950s when he met her mother, the ship's nurse, from Ireland. The couple, now deceased, settled in bucolic Sonoma County in a house where Underhill's sister now lives..
As a girl, Underhill attended public school and competed on the swim team. She remains tight with her childhood besties, who moved back after college to raise their own kids.
"It was a beautiful childhood," says the exec, who keeps a mug on her desk printed with the phrase: Bitch, Please. I'm from Petaluma. "It's that sense of community that I don't think I really appreciated until I was gone, because I always thought Petaluma was so boring. It's so small."
A product of the '70s, Underhill grew up on a steady TV diet of Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. And given her father's history as a ship's purser, the two of them loved watching The Love Boat together. "My dad was a big consumer of TV," she says. "I have fond memories of my dad and me sitting on the gold velour swivel chairs in our house, with its shag carpet, watching The Jeffersons."
While she describes her upbringing as "sheltered," Underhill did travel overseas as a child to visit extended family, which broadened her world view. She met 40 cousins for the first time when visiting England at age 10, and "it was TV that connected us," she says. Her relatives were obsessed with the '80s primetime soap Dallas, but because episodes overseas were delayed, "they didn't know who shot J.R. for like a whole year."
Her mom's Irish roots also gave Underhill a love of oral storytelling. Studying English literature at UCLA, she initially wanted to pursue a career in travel writing, but "I realized I'd be existing at the poverty level... because my parents, like good immigrants, completely cut me off right after graduation. It was like, 'We got you to this point. We got you a lot further than our parents got us, so sink or swim.'"
And swim she did. Right after graduation, in 1991, Underhill's college roommate hooked her up with an internship at Paramount Television. Soon Underhill landed a job as an assistant to Steve Stark, then director of current series for Paramount Television, and as she puts it, "the nicest person I've ever met in Hollywood."
But when a group of female comedians from Petaluma scored an NBC sitcom called The Mommies, Underhill decided to try her hand in production as a P.A. "It was very short-lived, but I felt like, 'Oh, it's meant to be.'" After bouncing around from show to canceled show, Underhill craved stability. So she went to work for Anthony Yerkovich, executive producer of Miami Vice, who had an overall deal at Paramount. Her three years with him were like film school. "He would take me everywhere," she says.
Underhill moved to NBC in the late '90s and has remained at the company ever since, rising through the ranks of the network and its sister studio over the course of 23 years. She spent most of that time focused on TV drama, after working as a junior current executive on iconic shows such as The West Wing and ER.
In a business marked by frequent leadership changes, Underhill's long, steady tenure at NBCUniversal stands out. "Yes, I've had the same security badge for a long time," she allows, "but I've had to pivot, be nimble, acclimate and adjust. And the business itself is constantly changing. So, no matter where you are, you have to be open to thinking differently and trying new things and taking risks."
But how, exactly, has Underhill survived for so long when most new leaders prefer to clean house and bring in their own teams? "You'd probably have to ask the people who didn't fire me," she jokes, then adds more seriously, "I think people find me trustworthy. I get the job done. I am able to connect with talent, and they know that I'm a straight shooter — B.S. is just not in my vocabulary."
Writer-producer Jason Katims — who first worked with Underhill on his Emmy-winning drama Friday Night Lights (2006–11), is not surprised at her longevity.
"Executives come and go," he observes, "while she always weathered the storm and slowly worked her way to the top. She is a very authentic person. She's able to keep her cool, seemingly always. She's grounded and levelheaded... incredibly forthcoming. You don't feel that thing when you're sometimes questioning, 'Are they saying what they really mean?' She's very honest."
And during times of turmoil? "I've really tried to stay above scuttlebutt and gossip sessions," Underhill says. "I know this sounds corny, but I was raised by parents who were like, 'Treat people the way you want to be treated.' And I would think to myself, I wouldn't want people to talk about me behind my back." Indeed, the nameplate on her desk reads, "Hon Underhill," because she often calls people hon.
And she is known for throwing around folksy sayings at the office. One of her boss's favorites: "Your ego is not your amigo."
That boss is Universal Studio Group chairman Pearlena Igbokwe, who tapped Underhill to replace her after being promoted herself in September 2020. "It's not about her, it's about the work," Igbokwe says of Underhill. "She wants to get it done without drama and then go home. I'm the same way. She and I are working mothers who want to do a really great job in our professional lives and then make time to have personal lives. It's one of the reasons we operate similarly."
A simple Google search underscores the low profile Underhill has maintained in a business where self-promotion is the norm. Her name rarely appears in print. In fact, this emmy interview marked the first time Underhill had ever sat down with a journalist for a profile.
"I like to fly under the radar," she says. "I've always had a very strong sense of self that has helped root me. I credit my upbringing — not just my parents, but the community I came from. If I were to walk out the door tomorrow, my worth is intact. I'm here to collaborate, to put good stories out into the world, to elevate people and give people credit where credit is due."
Family influences her leadership style to this day. Her dad, Ron Lempriere, taught her that a good idea "comes from anywhere," so she should be open-minded and "listen to what the interns have to say, with their fresh perspective."
Her mom's work as a hospice nurse taught her "it's all finite." As Underhill recalls their values, the charm bracelet that belonged to her mom, Bridget, dangles from her wrist. It carries Bridget's mementos of San Francisco, the city where she first landed in America, and of the ship she and Ron were working on when they met.
"I don't sweat the small stuff," Underhill says, "because you don't know what tomorrow holds. I don't have time for the mishegas."
Underhill also credits her husband of 18 years, Brett — a stay-at-home dad since their kids were young (they're now 13 and 15) — for helping her balance a high-wattage career with family. "I couldn't do what I do if it weren't for him," she says. "I firmly believe that. I'm also so grateful to work for Pearlena, because she gets it. Having a boss who's a working mom — it's a gift."
Perhaps it's no coincidence that a studio led by strong women has attracted so many projects featuring strong women — Good Girls on NBC, Hacks on HBO Max, The Equalizer on CBS, Girls5Eva on Peacock, Never Have I Ever on Netflix — as well as women creators such as Bans, Tina Fey, Nahnatchka Khan, Julie Plec, Amy Poehler, Jessica Goldberg, Carla Banks-Waddles, Sierra Teller Ornelas and Gemma Baker.
"She was a huge draw for me to come to the studio," Bans says of Underhill. "She and Pearlena were talking about how they saw the studio expanding, and selling outside NBC, and they sold all possibilities to me."
Underhill, who dreams of giving Brené Brown–style leadership lectures someday, has managed to navigate complex corporate waters, supporting the fledgling Peacock streaming service while working with creators to sell their projects wherever they fit best, including rival streamers Apple TV+, HBO Max and Netflix.
"The building of Peacock is vital," Underhill says. "It works out well for us in the sense that we have an in-house buyer that needs and wants our content. At the same time, if something is not right for them, we have the flexibility of taking it out into the marketplace and setting it up elsewhere." Bans, whose Good Girls landed at NBC, says she initially braced for rejection when pitching Underhill the idea: three suburban moms struggling with bills decide to rob a grocery store.
"I said, 'I have this crazy idea. It really doesn't sound like a network show.' I totally expected her to be like, 'Why don't we edge toward a procedural or something more traditional?' But she was like, 'Oh my God, we have to do that. That's hilarious.' Instantly she saw the potential for comedy. She just got it. She encouraged me to do what I wanted and not try to bend the idea into what NBC would want."
The show lasted four seasons, gaining new steam after it began streaming on Netflix. When NBC canceled Good Girls in June, Universal tried to work with Netflix to keep it going, but costs derailed the deal. Nevertheless, Bans believes Underhill did all she could to save the series.
"Even when it's an outcome you're disappointed by, you really feel you're such a team with her," Bans says. "I never felt like I was alone trying to fight for my show's survival. She was alongside me every step of the way. She's a hands-on, creative, passionate person who gives 110 percent and is with you on the battlefield."
Be that in the studio, or at school on parents' night.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2021