The Merienda with… interview series is an interview with an actor, filmmaker, producer, writer or anyone else who wants to wants to hang out with me, eat some food and/or have some drinks. In Tagalog, “merienda” means afternoon snack, but to me, it encompasses any time of day and it doesn’t really need to be a snack. It can be a full meal, just coffee, or drinks. Most of all, it reminds me of the times when my family or friends would have “merienda” and talk about our days or just gossip. It was all about connection and catching up. Merienda with… reflects exactly that with cool people doing amazing things in the industry as we talk about their journeys, identity, hot topic issues or just random stuff. All the while, we eat and drink because food brings people closer together.
Today’s menu for Merienda with…Jean Elie and Mike Gauyo
Location: Mama Carmen’s in Los Angeles
Bomb-ass Haitian food that I can’t pronounce
When I asked Send Help‘s Jean Elie and Mike Gauyo to where we should meet for merienda, they immediately said: “Mama Carmen’s” in south Los Angeles. I was excited and said, “Dope! Can’t Wait.”
I couldn’t find much out about Mama Carmen’s before going because it’s not your typical eatery. When I arrived to chat with Elie and Gauyo, it was essentially a home-run business. We ate very generous helpings of fried plantains, black mushroom rice, and an array of delicious Haitian dishes and stews that I couldn’t pronounce in Mama Carmen’s home. It was a home-cooked meal — something I haven’t had in forever.
Mama Carmen was unbelievably welcoming, kind — and a damn good cook. I sat there stuffing my face as Elie and Gauyo spoke to Mama Carmen in Haitian In fact, it reminded me of when I was younger and my mom and dad would take us to eat at friends’ houses who ran catering and food services from their homes… or it just felt like a family friend feeding you. I learned that it’s all immigrant families that love to feed you delicious food and I am here for it.
Mama Carmen’s is also located in a complex that is a mini Haiti-town in L.A. — and it’s also where Elie and Gauyo shot some of their series.
* * * * *
In Send Help, Elie stars as Fritz Jean-Baptiste, a first-gen Haitian American actor. He is living the Hollywood dream in Los Angeles. He landed a starring role on the TV series This Can’t Be Us and he is feeling great …all while being the sole support system for his demanding Haitian family and still navigating a recent tragedy.
Fritz is doing great — until his show is canceled. Now, Fritz struggles with an all-too-familiar case of imposter syndrome in Hollywood while unpacking his own personal relationships with his family and close friends which includes Patrick (Catfish Jean), Nicole (Courtney Taylor) and Sebastian a.k.a. “Simp” (Amin Joseph). As Fritz tries to figure out his next move in his unemployed life, his friends are along for the ride in Fritz’s journey to “making it” in Hollywood.
As co-creators of the show, it’s no surprise that Send Help reflects Elie and Gauyo’s lives. It may seem like another “struggling actor” comedy, but it’s more than that. It’s about identity, the Hollywood system and a slice of L.A.life all told from a Haitian lens.
Elie and Gauyo are both of Haitian descent — Elie is first generation while Gauyo was born in Haiti and immigrated here with is family when he was four years old. The two met through a mutual friend who thought they should meet because they are two Haitian creatives in Hollywood — which is a bit of a rarity.
Upon meeting, the two found out that they were both from Boston and they share the same August 1st birthday. In addition, Elie was about to join the cast of Issa Rae’s Insecure. Gauyo worked on the podcast FRUIT with Rae and would later go on to write on Insecure.
The two became fast friends and the Haitian bond was strong. “I’m original, he’s spicy,” joked Gauyo about his and Elie’s Haitian background.
“I kind of still have memories of Haiti,” Gauyo tells DIASPORA. “I have memories of that space and what it means to come from Haiti — and it’s just great to be able to see like the fruits of my parents’ labor.”
Elie added, “Honestly, we’re literally living our family’s wildest dreams.”
For those from immigrant families, we all know that the narrative has been to have a career in a stable profession that came from the job trifecta of law, engineering or medicine. It’s essentially the “American Dream”. Many children of immigrants have parents who moved here to give their family a better life. America was a place where opportunities flourished and made you prosper — but when it comes to the acting, writing, fiilmmaking or any form of entertainment or art, immigrant parents saw it as a hobby rather than a profession.
Many parents go through a lot in order to get to America and when they have kids, it makes sense that they want the best for them. So imagine being an immigrant and seeing your kid go off to play make believe in a city that is placed in the middle of a desert. That would certainly raise some eyebrows.
It takes a minute for convince many immigrant parents that you can actually pursue a career in entertainment or the arts and make a living out of it. It’s just an unconventional career route and system — but it’s not all hopeless.
“They’re starting to get it,” Elie said about his career as an actor. “We both flew our mothers out to be in the episode and she was able to see the inner workings of making a television show.”
Elie added that before Insecure and Send Help, his mother’s biggest highlight of his career when he first came out to L.A. was when she found him in a magazine ad or Western Digital in a dentist office. “She was like, ‘Oh my God! My son!” Elie said. “She carried that magazine with her for months to show me off.”
When Insecure was on hiatus, Elie said his mom would ask him “Where’s the job?” and tell him “You’re not making any money right now. Are you going to be okay? You should come back home. You should get some work.”
“I’m like, Ma, that’s not how this works,” laughed Elie.
“They want but so many things, right? They want the grandkids. They want to know you’re okay or that you can take care of them,” Gauyo chimed in about his parents.
“If I say I’m a writer and I write on television, my mom is still kind of like, ‘Well, when am I going to see you on TV?'”, he said. “I feel like immigrant parents really put stock in world recognition. — like brand recognition.”
Gauyo points out — and Elie confirms — that if their work is with networks or streamers like HBO, BET, or Netflix, their parents are on board.
* * * * *
Originally titled On the Fritz, Send Help was developed through endless nights while Elie was working on Insecure and Gauyo was in the writers room for Claws. The first time they went out with the show, it didn’t work out and by then, the pandemic was in full swing.
It wasn’t until they were in a Clubhouse room (remember that?) where the two of them were on a panel and they caught the attention of a fellow Haitian and TV exec Farrah Noel. “She had reached out, asking me if I had any content that we wanted to share with the network,” said Gauyo. “We sent Send Help, not thinking much of it.”
Fast-forward to about a month later, Elie is back in Boston and Gauyo is in Los Angeles during the holidays in a pandemic. “We’re thinking Hollywood’s shutting down anyway,” Gauyo admitted. “And then we got an email saying: ‘Hey, we love this. Let’s develop it.’ That’s how the train started.”
Elie said that the show has changed a bit from his first iteration of it, but the bones are still the same. “It’s like loosely based on my life,” explained Elie. “But it’s one of those things where you, as a person who’s creating shows that’s based on your life, have to let go because you’re inviting new people into the world and their world gets expanded just from everybody else’s experience.”
Send Help comes at a time when those from intentionally exploited communities are looking to tell their own story to show the rich diversity and narratives within their own community; to show that the Black, Asian, Latinx, queer and all other marginalized communities are not monoliths. We have seen it with Gloria Calderon Kellett’s Cuban iteration of One Day at a Time; Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever; Donald Glover’s Atlanta; Searchlight’s Fire Island and Jo Koy’s forthcoming Easter Sunday. The depth of hyper inclusive storytelling bolsters “othered” narratives and makes them universal and seen.
As diversity, representation and inclusion are now have been reduced to performative buzzwords, Elie and Gauyo are just telling the best story in the most unapologetically Haitian way as possible. Send Help just dives into Fritz’s world and he is our tour guide and we just go with it.
“If we felt like someone was pushing back we were like, well, this is about us,” said Elie about being unapologetically Haitian..”We stand firm on that and we didn’t allow people to kind of disrupt that.”
Gauyo added that they were thankful for working with AMC’s ALLBLK because they respected that. “They didn’t really ask many questions when it came to certain culturally specific things.”
As the only Haitian-fronted series Elie does feel a sense of responsibility but doesn’t feel the pressure to be one of the first. During a Clubhouse session, Elie and Gauyo talked about how to get more Haitian stories made. “It starts with not just the people in front of the camera, but also the people behind the scenes,” said Elie. “Because the people behind the scenes are going to be able to push you forward or propel you forward in this story making process.”
He continued, “If it wasn’t for Farah, it’d be tough. So she felt such a genuine connection to our story, that she was able to push against across the goal line and assist us in that process.”
“We had the added benefit of having a great idea,” added Gauyo. “It was something that was specific and very unique, but felt universal.”
Pulling from African, French, and West Indian culture, the Haitian experience isn’t seen often and what we do see of it is often marred by stereotypes of poverty and anti-Blackness. Send Help looks to celebrate the culture and coming from two Haitians, it is sure to open the door to more stories.
Gauyo talked about the impact of his cultural identity on his career saying, “I feel like it’s made my opinion and perspective more specific, but it’s also made my goal and purpose more specific too — to amplify and uplift marginalized people or cultures, because that’s what I come from. That’s what I know.”
“You know, when I step into a writer’s room, I’m bringing my full self into the room,” he continued. “I’m bringing my perspective. I’m bringing my life experiences into the room and it’s important to understand the power of your uniqueness. So for me, if anything, my identity has been my weapon of choice. It’s great knowing that you hold that power.”
“It’s a foundation I can stand and I can always pull from,” said Elie of his Haitian roots. “I can pull from [my culture] in order to tell nuanced stories and get the message across. That’s also in authentic way that other people can relate to what I’m going through or what I’m talking about.”
* * * * *
As we near Send Help‘s August 11 premiere date on ALLBLK, Elie and Gauyo have learned to keep their expectations at bay considering the how Hollywood is when it comes to TV series. Like Project Runway, one minute you’re in…the next you’re out — just look at what’s happening over at WarnerMedia and even Netflix. Launching a TV show or a movie is a monumental task so for anything that isn’t branded with a multi-billion dollar banner name or doesn’t have the undivided attention and support from a major studio, so many things get announced and get shelved or fade into the background. Elie and Gauyo put in the work and they made sure that Send Help happened and the fact that its debuting is a major victory for inclusion.
“I’ve learned to try not to have any expectations — which is very hard,” admitted Gauyo. “I feel like we have goals in mind and goals that we would like achieved. Of course, we want people to respond to the show positively and to take something from the show and to see a bit of themselves — and even if they don’t see a bit of themselves, they’ll have a better understanding of our culture and the way that we move about in the world that we’re in. That’s the least, if anything, we would love that.”
Elie added, “But what I would love for audiences to just see someone trying something… someone trying to figure out that they’re in their own way. Just like a lot of us are.”