This television season Schur said goodbye to fan-favorite (and previous Emmy nominee) “The Good Place” on NBC, while Gist helped usher the latest in the ABC “ish” universe, 1980s-set “Black-ish” prequel “Mixed-ish.” Both shows mix important and oftentimes tough topics with traditional jokes and both manage to be timeless in the conversations they start for their audiences.
With so many similarities, the showrunners were surprised they only recalled meeting each other once, and briefly, before Variety got them on the line to talk about the state of broadcast comedy, especially in a post-COVID-19 world. But, unsurprisingly, they had a lot to say.
Karin, how do you balance such serious subjects as racial profiling to what it means to be biracial in America with jokes on “Mixed-ish”?
Karin Gist: Getting a show on under the “ish” brand, there was something very specific that we were trying to go for and then we were also trying to find our own special voice and version of that brand. We came into it with it as an episode of “Black-ish” that was then picked up and we had to take a look at those characters and figure out who they were on their own because they were born on another series, but because of all of the other stories of the other characters on that show, you didn’t really get to know all of them. So we had to figure out who Paul and Alicia were on their own and how they raised their family with the dynamics that was already set up. And so the way we approached it in the beginning was trying to figure out who they are and what their specific brand of comedy and jokes is, and once we nailed that, then we really set thought about what the show could be and what we could say as a show commenting on what was really going on back then in the ’80s and how we wanted to be able to speak to current issues but through the lens of the ’80s. So for us, the balance was a little bit 50-50 in terms of locking onto comedic voices and the sound of the show, but it’s not an episode of “Mixed-ish” until it’s saying something. We put that on ourselves and that’s how we approached it.
Mike Schur: I think what you’re describing is probably the hardest possible degree of difficulty. It’s already impossible to make a TV show and it’s doubly impossible to make it on a network, and then when you have an audience understanding expectations of characters you’re spinning off into a new world, that is a truly tiny needle that you have to thread because people come to it already feeling like they understand how a character fits into a certain world but then you’re shifting the world. Developing our show and then ending it, it was a completely different thing, like a cousin I guess, because we had the extra ingredient that was moral philosophy that we were stirring in every episode, and the writers had a list of six things that we had to do, we felt, in every episode. We wrote them on cards and put them on the wall, and the first one was, “Is it funny?” We had to constantly remind ourselves that the primary purpose of a half-hour show airing on NBC on Thursday nights was to make people laugh. If we weren’t doing it at that level, no one was going to give a s— about the moral philosophy that we were stirring in. So we literally checked in: “Here’s the story we want to tell, let’s make sure we’re doing all of these things.” We really felt like if it wasn’t enjoyable and entertaining and funny, no one was going to watch the show.
Mike, how different was the approach for the final season of “The Good Place,” when there was already an established audience who knew to expect lessons in ethics and moral philosophy at the core, but characters, especially Chidi, were moving and acting differently than what that audience had come to know and love?
Schur: It just became the same question of ending any other show, in that you’ve been building a certain set of characters and they’ve been on certain journeys and they’re coming to the end of those, and how do you do that in a satisfying way? We were less worried about if it was entertaining and if it was funny — we were pretty sure we had a handle on that at that point. But for some reason, audiences have come to expect that the finale of a series will be the best episode of that series, and it’s extremely unlikely that either the pilot or the finale will be the best episode you do — the funniest, and the most romantic and the most dramatic and the most interesting and and and and. It’s not likely because they have to do a bunch of other things in addition to trying to be funny or dramatic. So I had that fear, certainly, going into the last episode. I think the way that TV has changed over the last 15 to 20 years has led people to have that feeling more than they maybe used to, partly because TV is more serialized than it used to be and people are now designing episodes of TV to be pushing forward to the next one. My first job was “The Office” and NBC told us we couldn’t serialize it because people would just be popping in for the first time in Episode 8 and you can’t have the barrier to entry be so high, in terms of understanding the plot, or you’d be turning people away. We had to fight them to serialize anything — the love story with Jim and Pam and certain plots that Michael was involved in — and by the time that show was over, everything had to be serialized. I think that change in the way that TV is being created has made people expect that they’re going to get this thunderous, amazing conclusion like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Creatively you just want to feel like you did a good job and like the people who have been watching the show the whole time got a satisfying conclusion.
Gist: It’s a compliment that people are so invested in the characters. I do think that in the first season of a show, the pilot just has to be like a mediocre first date, and then the series finale has to be the most honorable breakup ever.
Karin, how do you see expectations changing after the first season of “Mixed-ish”?
Gist: The only feedback that kept us heavily on track was that a lot of parents were watching the show with their kids and having conversations that they wouldn’t normally have with their family. That was an honor, and that felt like it was working for us.
How do you both approach the language of a specific time period when you’re crafting shows that will live on through changing sensitivities?
Gist: Some of our jokes come from the fact that it’s set in the ’80s and a lot of things were different then and some of the things are the same now. As much as we leaned on the time period, surprisingly a lot of our topics and the things we wanted to discuss are still timely now. It’s how far we’ve come but also how much work we still have to do as a community and as a world. That was baked into the idea of [the show] — for people to come away from the show saying, “We still have to give attention to that subject or that issue.”
Schur: “The Good Place” debuted in 2016, and our [first season] finale was right before Trump was inaugurated. The show is about ethics, and because of Trump, the word “ethics” was appearing on the front page of every newspaper for a year, but we got really lucky, in a sense, because our characters were dead so they didn’t know Trump got elected. I envy them a lot. Because they were in such a magical world, we only had to deal with any kind of real-world stuff briefly when they popped back on Earth. There were plenty of pop culture references, but we didn’t feel any pressure to be of a moment because there was no moment; they were in this bizarre afterlife time frame that had no meaning at all. I think we accidentally ended up being really timely because we did a show about ethics and ethical behavior at a moment when the president of the United States was leading the entire world to think about ethics, but we could also side-step the actual addressing of the real-world version of these things because the characters were dead and they didn’t know this was happening.
Both of your shows deal with some heavy topics, so what is the responsibility you feel comedy has to entertain versus educate?
Gist: Both of those things, I think, are true. It has to be funny; people don’t want to know they’re taking their medicine. And we definitely made sure it was all in a digestible way — because no one wants to come home from work and be preached at. So we’re cognizant of that, and we always come to the story from a place of character so it can be relatable and universal at the same time. But we’re able to sneak in some commentary. One of the things that I think is really important for anything I do is I want people to think about something after the episode’s over. I don’t care what their opinion is, but I want there to be conversation. And to me, that’s the blessing but also part of the job we have as storytellers on this platform, especially network television.
Schur: I think in this instance we had the same exact feeling. We really felt like we were at risk all of the time of seeming preachy or worse, boring. Moral philosophy, I personally find really interesting, but it’s a tough hang. It can get really dense and thick and unpleasant, and so the design of the show was that not only was No. 1 on the checklist, “Is it funny?” but we [also] had to have characters that didn’t care or weren’t all-in on the idea of learning about ethics. I like reading it as a pure amateur. A couple of our writers were philosophy majors or took those classes in college, but we didn’t want to seem like we were presenting ourselves as experts. So there was one expert, Chidi, and everybody else was like, “Ugh this is so boring” because that’s the way we felt the audience would be feeling if we got too deep in the weeds. So it was presented all the time as, “We understand this is hard, we understand this is difficult to file and it can be a buzzkill.” It’s the opposite of Nascar or something — it’s not action-packed — but we feel it’s important. So we tried to present it in a very humanistic way. When I pitched the show to NBC, I said, “Don’t worry, it’s not going to feel like homework.” But then the third episode of the show starts with Chidi standing at a blackboard with “Philosophy 101” on it, and I was like, “Oh we’re done.”
Gist: It’s so interesting that you say that because we have the Rainbow character who is this curious, innocent 12-year-old with all of these questions, but thank God she was surrounded by the racist grandad and zero f—s parents who are able to say a lot of what the audience is feeling because sometimes you don’t want to solve the world’s problems, so you have a character who can give a different opinion. It’s really important on shows that are trying to say something to have different points of views to balance it out or at the end of the day, yes, it could feel like school.
Do you think there is a different responsibility for comedy in the post-COVID-19 pandemic era? Do you feel times like this personally inspire writing for you?
Gist: I’m actually writing a drama pilot right now, and I’m not inspired by this, but I did find myself kind of going there with some of the thoughts of people who are on the frontlines and really running the country. It made me think about some of those things in a different way, and those things ended up on the page, for sure. But I do think it’s show-specific, and every show has to figure out what’s right for the show.
Schur: I think the old adage that obstacles are good for comedy is really true, and there is a weird inspiring nature to having to completely rethink whatever you’re doing. We’re now living in a different world than we were living in three months ago. The problem with this thing is it’s not just an obstacle creatively; it’s an obstacle tangibly, and the much bigger problem is literally, how will you make it? Let’s say you go back to shooting stuff on July 13 or Aug. 12 — if you’re writing a show, how can you have two people make out with each other? I can’t imagine writing that scene and asking the actors to do something like that, that feels dangerous. It’s never been dangerous to make a comedy show before, and now every comedy performer is like a professional stunt man or woman. And the danger just inherent to stepping onto the set is going to be enormous. And that’s worrisome because it doesn’t matter how good you are at creative problem-solving or weaving issues of class and race and societal change into whatever it is you’re working on if you can’t physically shoot it.
So what do you see as the biggest challenges in making broadcast television today?
Gist: There’s definitely a challenge of trying to get the stories told and what those stories will look like. After this is over, people may want more escapism and may not want to deal with this, but I think it’s kind of our duty as storytellers and writers to talk about the world in the way it is. On network television there is always wish fulfillment and the aspirational, but there are ways to do that and be honest and real to what’s going on in the world.
Schur: There are millions of challenges, even in a non-COVID-19 world, from having to keep every episode the exact same length to having to break and shoot and edit episodes at the exact same time. If you’re in the 22-episode a year camp, it’s not humane way to live and it took me years and years to develop a system to allow me and the other crew members on the show to have any semblance of a life, which I think is vital. And then you’re also competing with “The Crown” on Netflix, which is $12 million an episode and they shoot it in the most incredible locations and the production value’s off the charts, and also there’s a stigma about network TV.
On the flip side, what do you still really love about the broadcast model?
Gist: I like how broad the platform is and how wide the reach can be. It keeps you on your toes in terms of just getting people interested in watching, but also if you get it right and if you have something to say, so many people are going to tune in.
Schur: I do love it. Like Karin is saying, I love that you can present this to a wide audience — for free. And you don’t have to have an app on your phone or your computer or your Apple TV or whatever; we’re still beaming stuff over airwaves to the world, which I like, in theory. And part of the point of television to me is that you get to watch characters develop and change over very long periods of time, and that’s network TV’s No. 1 weapon: the ability to settle in for more than two hours or more than six or eight or 10 episodes. With the rise of shorter seasons and the premium streaming networks, we’re losing that, and it bums me out. Karin, you wrote on “Grey’s for awhile?”
Gist: Yeah, I did.
Schur: So you have a skill set that is very valuable, which is the ability to slow-play characters over long stretches of years and years and years and how to pace out nuance and change and really take people on a long, steady, sure-handed journey. That’s not something you can just pick up: You have to be taught to do that by Shonda Rhimes or Greg Daniels or whoever, and you have to teach new people how to do it, and I do fear the loss of that institutional memory for TV creators because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. And by the way, I know I sound like a dinosaur when I talk about this.
Gist: You don’t!
Schur: I loved “Fleabag” and I loved “Devs,” and it’s not that that art form is worse because it’s a shorter season, premium thing — they’re not; they’re wonderful. But I don’t think they’re wonderful if they cause the death of the other art form. The other art form is meaningful, and I think there’s a reason if you ask my son and his classmates about their favorite shows, they’re all network sitcom shows that they watch on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon or whatever that are between five and 20 years old. If we lose that art form, we’re losing something essential about the medium of television.
Gist: I totally agree with you. There are some theme songs of shows that were on when I was little that bring up certain feelings in me and it’s because they become your friends and a part of you. But going back, another one of the challenges in working on network shows is that everyone wants everything right now. So, we’re trying to balance rolling characters out slowly and having to build and make people comfortable with getting to know their new friends but then trying to also turn cards over really quickly and figure out how this art form works in this new world with people’s appetites changing.
Schur: This is going to make me sound like a dinosaur, too, but everyone’s trying to make “Game of Thrones” at some level — that’s the white whale because it was a show that the entire country was talking about and got monster ratings — but part of the reason, in my opinion, that “Game of Thrones” was such a big deal was it came out once a week, man! It wasn’t dumped over our heads like a Gatorade shower after a championship, all at once, it made you wait. And that rhythm makes you feel like you’re going on a journey. There’s no national conversation about shows anymore if they’re all dumped on a Friday; then you get one weekend where everyone’s talking about “Tiger King” and then everyone’s moved on, or you’re calling your friend but, “Oh we can’t talk about it, call me back when you’ve seen it.”
Gist: Yeah, the community-building aspect of TV is not entirely there. Everyone clearly watched “Tiger King” but not at the same time, so we can’t talk about them in the same way or have some of those conversations anymore. There is a connection you get to have with network TV that you don’t get to have at Netflix or Hulu or some of those other platforms.