“Find The Meat Beneath Racial Stereotypes” Karin Gist Talks ‘Mixed-ish’… Honestly-ish
The latest series in the “-ish” universe, Mixed-ish, follows in the footsteps of Black-ish, a heartwarming comedy about family, belonging, and race. Where Grown-ish traveled back in time to 1985, Mixed-ish tells the story of family members trying to understand their identities as the rest of the world decides whether they’re black or white. It’s about acclimating to new surroundings while staying true to yourself. Comedy must scratch beneath racial stereotypes and cheap gags to be sustaining. Mixed-ish achieves just that.
“The deeper meaning of the show is always identity for us,” expounded screenwriter Karen Gist, also known for her writing on Girlfriends, House of Lies, Revenge, and Grey’s Anatomy. “Most of our characters and family as a whole, are a little bit fish-out-of-water, people re-starting their lives, or reacclimating to the mainstream world.”
The TV series follows (Rain)bow’s (Arica Himmel) parents, Paul (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and Alicia (Tika Sumpter) when they’re forced to move from a hippie commune to the suburbs after the dissolution of their cult. Mixed-ish is a natural extension of Black-ish that honors its predecessor while standing alone.
“Thematically, the stories on Mixed-ish are about who Bow really is, and the voice-over is about what Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross on Black-ish) is remembering, and why she’s telling that story now. Her story is about the parents, her siblings, her grandparents, and her identity.”
When writing stories about mixed-race families, it’s certainly possible to fall into tired old tropes about race – black and white. To avoid this trap, the TV writers try to simply be as honest as possible when writing the characters. “We like to highlight stereotypical behavior so we can have those conversations about the human experience.”
Specifically, the semi-racist grand-dad, played by Gary Cole is allowed to say semi-racist things, but only so the series can address these thoughts rather than promote them. “The idea is to let some of those stereotypical things happen so we can get to the meat under the stereotypes and go back to identity and humanity, and what the characters are feeling.”
The Danger Of A Spin-off Prequel
On Black-ish, there was a lot of room for characters to grow, but in a spin-off series, the work starts by building on what has already been set up. There is an audience expectation to find familiar ground. Since the series is a prequel, the TV writers can experiment because some people are different and some people are the same, due to victories and failures in life.
In the initial trailer, the narrator says, “My little sister Santamonica complained like a woman with no kids on her third divorce, which interestingly enough, she would become.” Playing with character traits from the other -ish series, the writers of Mixed-ish could explore and honor the original characters. They didn’t feel constrained.
“The likability from the other show is what you’re trying to protect,” said Gist. “The only thing we were trying to protect was the storytelling integrity of Black-ish, so the stories could be relevant, but not preachy. We wanted to extend the conversation. Then, of course, the characters have their own points of view, so it’s a quilt of ideas.”
But, within all of this tightrope walking, the TV series still needs to be funny. Letting the grandparents say what they’re feeling without holding back in a PC way often starts the ball rolling for comedy.
“Whenever you have people struggling to find out who they are, that lends itself to comedy. Some characters think they have the answer, but learn they didn’t know what they were talking about. You just need to make sure the content is real, then write humanity around it. The truth about life is that you laugh at that discovery.”
Drama and Comedy
Coming from a drama background, Gist thinks it’s funny that many people think breaking stories is different for comedies and dramas. “There’s a difference in the final product because you don’t do a joke pass on a drama. I always come from a place of character and story, so it’s not very different. It’s the same creative muscle.”
When creating Mixed-ish, Gist and company meet at the beginning of the season to discuss how it will arc out. “It’s important to talk about who the characters are. For comedies, it’s also about defining the comedic voices of the show.”
“On Mixed-ish, we were trying to figure out who the characters are, what their flaws are, and why they’re funny. In a drama, we’re trying to figure out who that person is and what makes them tick. But most of the time, the comedy comes from a flaw, and what is coming internally or externally to stop a goal. Then you fall in love with the characters so people want to follow them every week.”
“Dramas are plot-based, with writers determining the mid-season points and where the finale will land, with markers along the way. In a comedy writers’ room, you figure out the plot after figuring out who the characters are.”
The Self-Censoring Process
The broadcast networks often request six full scripts before the filming process begins. Gist spends some time focusing on strengths and weaknesses amongst the TV writers, especially when writers are off writing and producing their own episodes. She wants to make sure there are still strong collaborations in the TV writers’ room, so the team can finish the entire season with a degree of consistency.
“We don’t tend to self-censor. We know it’s a network television show so we can’t be too controversial. Thankfully the network wants to be real and get to those conflicting scenes, while still having likable characters. Sometimes we push back on dialogue or story, because like in anything in life, you have to pick your battles.”
The networks somewhat knew what to expect because Black-ish has already gone down many of those storyline roads. Gist spends a lot of time watching television to improve her writing, but also studies real people to better understand her characters.
“I think Mixed-ish is about humanity and about a family that happens to be multi-racial. Because of the landscape on television, there are black TV shows written by black writers. For me, that closes the door to a lot of writers who want to tell human stories. It shouldn’t feel like a specialized story, but about people who happen to be mixed-race.”
The screenwriter added “I am who I am, so I don’t think of myself as a diversity hire. I know I have more to offer than checking a box. I do my work and write honest characters that reflect myself in many ways.” Her life experience naturally permeates her writing.
“I know what it’s like to be a 12-year-old black girl, so I can’t help but inflict some of my own humanity as a black person. Some of those stories definitely come from a very personal place. I want to add to the landscape of marginalized characters in an honest way.”
Whenever Gist meets an up-and-coming TV writer, she advises them to be patient and not be afraid of the hard work. “There is a lot of value in the stories you collect along the way as you live your life.” As for advice she wishes she had been told, she said, “Don’t get caught up in your own head with what you can’t do. Don’t tell yourself ‘No’ before someone else does. Just keep going.”
Currently, Gist is also working on Sister Act 3.
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