Bursting Your Assumptions With Blackish Executive Producer Laura Gutin

This week I sat down with television writer Laura Gutin. Currently, Laura is the executive producer of ABC’s hit sitcom Blackish, which is premiering its seventh season this month. We talked about how she navigates being a part of a show that tackles difficult topics, like race relations. Laura explains how she worked through imposter syndrome to realize her own self worth does not rely on others opinions.

How did you get into the industry?

I always loved comedy and I loved making people laugh.  I wanted to write, but I didn’t realize TV was a job. Then my junior year in college, I studied in London and I was watching TV with friends one night. We were all laughing, and somebody turned to me and said, “if you want to be a writer, you could do that” and pointed at the TV. I thought, I guess I could. So, I spent my senior year in college telling myself, you’re going to graduate and you’re going to go work in TV.

Three weeks after college, my dad and I packed up the car. I drove from New Jersey to Los Angeles and started looking for a job. It was all incredibly terrifying, and I thought I had made a huge mistake. But I ended up getting my first TV job about a month and a half after I got here.

I got very lucky because I was temping at a studio lot and I could barely work the computer. The TV show News Radio had just moved on the lot for their final season. The receptionist said to me, “You don’t belong here. I will cover for you. Go drop off your résumé.” I ended up getting a job as the stage production assistant and accounting assistant. So, they kind of cobbled this job together. I went from just graduating college to working on one of my favorite shows.

It was totally surreal and the minute I was in that environment, I just I loved it so much.  I loved the process of making TV. I loved seeing a show go from the script, to the actors reading it for the first time. Seeing them shoot it on tape night in front of the audience. I was hooked and I knew that it was the thing for me.

Most people see the final product of your work on a screen but don’t know what happens behind the scenes. What is the biggest misconception you think people have about the production process of a show?

I think because of the Internet there’s a lot more behind the scenes stuff now. But I think in general, people just see what’s on the screen, but I don’t think the know the magnitude of what goes into creating it. For example, if somebody is in a living room: it was somebody’s job to design that living room and it was somebody’s job to buy all the furniture. If there’s food on the table, that food was done by a food stylist. It really takes a village. On Blackish, we have over 200 people on the crew. I don’t think people realize all of the really specific detail that goes into every job that people take so seriously.

What do you do to feed your creativity?

The biggest thing for me to spark creativity is being out in the world. So that’s been a little hard me now. I’ve always been a big eavesdropper. I just like to observe people. I just see little interactions and go, oh, that’s interesting. It’s just these little nuggets of real human experience that really get me excited to dig into things and to be creative.

Working in entertainment is a 24/7 hustle because there is a lack of stability, how have you been able to manage a personal life and family while navigating the industry?

It’s very hard. When I was first coming up and I was single it was a lot easier. Now that I have kids and I’m older, I can’t stay up until 2:00 in the morning at work and do my best. I’m trying to find that balance and fit everything in in such a way that I’m not burning the candle at both ends. I’m lucky that I’ve been on Blackish and this is my fifth season. So, with that stability also comes a little bit more of a regular schedule.

The most important thing that’s allowed me to have a longer career is focusing on my own thing and not look at what other people are doing. I think that’s the most dangerous thing for a person who is trying to form a career in the entertainment industry. It’s not like school where you’re a freshman in high school. Everyone takes the test. Pretty much everyone passes. Everyone goes up to sophomore year together. In entertainment, people are rising and falling at such different speeds. So, I’ve just learned how to run my own race and not compare myself to other people. I think that’s really helped with all of the instability.

People look at running a popular network show as being the pinnacle of success, what is the downside or hardest part that people might not know?

You push so hard to get to a certain level and then once you’ve achieved it, you kind of look around and go, what do I do now? The hardest part for me is that my favorite thing about being a comedy writer is being a goof and making people laugh. When you’re in charge and have to be the one who keeps everyone on track, sometimes those two clash. I have to remind myself, “You’re the boss and you need to set the tone and you need to model the behavior that you want.”  That’s the biggest change because I always saw myself as a soldier in an army trying to make a television show.

You have a unique position during a year where race relations have become even more prevalent in our society, how has being a white woman come into play as a show runner of one of the most influential black shows? 

I definitely feel a real responsibility to do things right. My friend Courtney Lilly, who’s a black man, is the number one on the show and I’m the number two. We do everything together and I always defer to other people’s lived experience. I’m not going to listen to people tell their stories and go, “OK, well, that doesn’t feel real to me.” My time on the show has always involved a lot of listening. Especially after the summer with the murder of George Floyd and the uprisings around the country, I think it became even more important to listen. Then use that to guide us in a way where we take people’s experience and turn that into a story where people feel heard.

It also helps that our staff is pretty evenly split between black and white writers. Most shows don’t really have many non-white writers at all or many women. One of the really cool things about Blackish is that it’s not just one black writer saying “this is my experience.” We have so many people’s lives and experiences to draw from. It would be stupid to talk over that and shut people down. It is a lot of listening and then taking that and turning it into a show that people hopefully want to watch.

Has there been an experience you have face that has shifted how you fundamentally see the world?

A lot of my career as I was coming up, I had this imposter syndrome. I knew that I had gotten where I was because I had done good work, but I kept feeling like, what if I say something dumb and people look at me a she doesn’t belong here? I was really in my head about all of that stuff. Then I had kids and it really reframed things for me. Where I thought, I had surgery and they cut a person out of my body. So, if I tell a joke and some dude doesn’t laugh at it, that’s not my worth.

I’m so much stronger than these small moments. It really gave me this clarity that I’m a strong person. I don’t need to second guess myself all the time. Just to do your job. Don’t let that stuff get to you because you have done so much bigger. This should not be the thing that takes you down.

When someone watches your show what do you hope they take away from it?

After seven years of Blackish, people have really established a bond with the family. The have gone through the ups and downs with them. The fact that people care about these characters and what happens to them is one of the most gratifying parts of writing it. That means that we’ve connected on a deeper level with our audience.

I just want people to laugh. At the end of the day, I love writing jokes. I love making people laugh. If somebody quotes a joke on Twitter, after 22 years in the business, that part still makes me so happy.

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