EXCLUSIVE: Courtney Lilly, executive producer/showrunner of ABC’s comedy series black-ish, is pulling double duty as EP/showrunner of both black-ish, now in its seventh season, and spinoff mixed-ish, headed to its second season. He is shepherding both shows as part of a new overall deal with the studio behind the black-ish franchise, ABC Signature.
Lilly has been with ABC Signature, part of Disney Television Studios, for six years, since he joined black-ish as co-executive producer in season one. He was subsequently upped to executive producer and was named showrunner at the start of Season 6. Created by Kenya Barris, black-ish kicks off its seventh season tomorrow, Oct. 21, following an hourlong election special, which aired earlier this month.
The studio approached Lilly about adding spinoff mixed-ish to his showrunner responsibilities before the start of the pandemic when original mixed-ish showrunner Karin Gist shifted her focus to her own development (She is currently running a writers room for Our Kind of People, which is eying a straight-to-series order at Fox). At the time, Lilly was ahead on black-ish as he and fellow executive producer Laura Gutin Peterson were already breaking stories for Season 7.
That, combined with the fact that Lilly knows well mixed-ish co-creators/executive producers Barris, Peter Saji and Tracee Ellis Ross from their work together on black-ish, made Lilly comfortable taking on the challenge.
“It’s all under the same umbrella, it’s a Kenya Barris show,” Lilly said. “I’ve worked on black-ish since season one, I know Kenya’s voice, I know Saji’s voice, I know what Tracee likes. It’s just a lot of it made sense and the timing of it made it easier.”
Teaming with Saji, with whom he is close personal friends, Lilly presented to ABC their vision for a potential second season of mixed-ish. The comedy was renewed, and Lilly took the reins of both shows.
He now juggles two Zoom writers rooms (at the same time) and two sets (one at a time because of COVID safety protocols.)
“I can’t go between the two sets because of contact tracing; basically, we want to be able to know where everybody is and who they interact with as much as possible,” Lilly said. “Our procedures make it so I just see an initial rehearsal with just the actors, the DP and director — we all have our face shields, our masks and our PPE. And then I get gone before we have a lot of other people show up with the camera and all that other kind of stuff. I don’t do it between the two shows — when black-ish started shooting, I was doing that, and then when mixed-ish started shooting, I started going over there.”
Helping coordinate the two shoots is the fact that the two shows share a production and post-production team. Lilly also acknowledged his fellow producers on both shows, including Peterson and Jonathan Groff on black-ish and Saji on mixed-ish.
As for running two virtual writers rooms, Lilly does not find that too challenging.
“There are things about doing two rooms in a Zoom world that is user-friendly for me because I just have two monitors on,” he said. “So, I pay attention to one place, kind of be able to give my notes, read a script, do whatever I need to be able to do and then it’s as simple as turning to the monitor on my right a lot of times.”
The pandemic led to changes in the original creative plans for mixed-ish and especially black-ish, whose seventh season had been mapped out by the time COVID-19 hit, leading to some rewriting. Storylines also were adjusted to reflect the Black Lives Matter protests.
“For us on black-ish, we’re always trying to stay on top of what families are talking about,” Lilly said. “Tracee Ellis Ross’s character is a doctor, so she’s going to see the pandemic through a different lens than most of us who don’t work in the medical field are going to see it. Everybody who’s working from home with kids or families and responsibilities they’re going through their own kind of issues familiar to everybody. We’re going to be dealing with that. And also in the wake of the George Floyd protests, we’re going to be dealing with this family having conversations about that.”
Lilly also teased the upcoming Pops and Ruby wedding on the show.
“And over on mixed-ish, everybody’s adapting to the realities of shooting in this environment, and for us that meant turning the show a little bit more inward,” he said. “I think the advantage that both black-ish and mixed-ish have is that they’re family shows, so we’re not trying to deal with stunts. We’re not trying to deal with a universe of extras or any of that other kind of stuff, which meant on mixed-ish for us, scaling back the amount that Bow was in school and that kind of environment because it’s not friendly for shooting. I think for us it also challenged us story-wise to get to know these characters a little bit more by being forced to play a hand where they have to only really interact with each other.”
Despite his current workload, Lilly says he doesn’t feel overwhelmed. “The main thing is being organized, being at work early, knowing what I have to do during the day and then just getting it done as much as anything else,” he said. “It’s the same thing every showrunner does, it’s just now I’ve got just more of that.”
He gave props to another ABC Signature-based showrunner running two shows in the same franchise, Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19‘s Krista Vernoff.
“She’s somebody who’s been doing this on another level too, that’s an hourlong,” he said. “At least I’ve got like 30 pages of script to look at a night, and we only have five-day shoots. The amount that she’s having to keep in her brain seems gargantuan.”
Under the new overall deal with ABC Signature, Lilly’s attention will be focused on running black-ish and mixed-ish. Getting that opportunity and his rise over the past six years that led to it were key in his decision to extend his deal at the studio.
“They’ve been extraordinarily supportive of me. Even just having the confidence in me to be able to do this is a big thing for my career,” he said. “Look, writers are all nervous, anxious people who need almost constant validation. And while I try to stay strong on the outside, I like knowing that I’m liked too. And definitely them extending one of their franchises and saying, we think you can do this is a big deal, and I’m really grateful for it. And that’s why I’m here every morning working so hard to make sure that they didn’t make a mistake and that I didn’t make a mistake and that we can make these good shows.”
In 2000, Lilly, then a reporter for the Providence Journal-Bulletin, won a Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship, jump-starting his career as a television writer. He has written for such series as Arrested Development, My Boys, The Cleveland Show and Undateable.
For his work on black-ish, Lilly has shared three Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy nominations and four Best Comedy Series NAACP Image Awards. Black-ish also won the prestigious Peabody Award in 2015. Lilly is repped by UTA, Ben Jacobson at The Framework Collective and attorney Jeffrey Frankel.