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Andy Sullivan: Against the Grain

In the ‘90’s, black comedy on television is enjoying a moment.  Shows such as Martin (one of my favorites), Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air(the original is the best, Sister, Sister, In Living Color, Living Single and The Jamie Foxx Show presented black characters and black experiences in many ways Americans had never seen.  That’s because before the ‘90’s, the few black sitcoms on television were written and produced almost exclusively by white people.

Television in the ‘70’s was still a very white landscape.  That changes with the arrival of producer Norman Lear.  It’s funny that Norman Lear, a white man, is in many ways the pioneer of black television.  When Lear’s socially conscious and controversial sitcom All In The Family becomes a ratings success, Lear earns the freedom to spin off other progressive sitcoms built around black characters.  All In The Family spun off to The Jefferson’s. Maude, starring Bea Arthur decades before Golden Girls, spun off into Good Times.  By 1974, three of the top 10 sitcoms are Norman Lear shows starring black casts.

Actor John Amos was fired from Good Times after frequently arguing with the writers’ staff over the shows portrayal of black characters.  The Nation of Islam shows up to Norman Lear’s office and says they want to see a black family that isn’t in the ghetto.  So, George and Wheezy move to a deluxe apartment in the sky.  The Jefferson’s was born.

Let’s fast-forward to the ‘90’s.  In September of 1990, the first sitcom built around a hip-hop star hits the air. Will Smith was already known as the Fresh Prince.  He was the first hip-hop artist to win a grammy in that category.  It wasn’t until the second season that the show wasn’t written and produced by white writers and producers.  Will Smith’s popularity skyrocketed as season two came about.  He got executive producer credits.  The show was able to hire more black writers and producers.  The show skyrocketed.

The recently launched and struggling FOX network takes notes of Fresh Prince’s success.  They see there’s money to be made in black programming.  After the success of the movie, I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka, FOX gives star Keenan Ivory Wayans free reign to create whatever show he wanted.  The result was a sketch comedy show that will end up laying the foundation for FOX’s black sitcom boom: In Living Color.  

In Living Color, with its mostly black cast, soon draws a passionate fanbase that its rival, the mostly white at the time, Saturday Night Live, can only dream about.  In 1992, while CBS is airing a Disney-produced Superbowl halftime show, FOX counters with its own halftime special: a 27-minute live episode of In Living Color.  The stunt pulls almost 29 million viewers over to FOX. The next year, CBS replaced the Disney show with The King of Pop.

In the summer of ’92, Keenan is in constant battles with network censors on what he can and can’t say on the air.  The network also dilutes the show’s appeal by syndicating it to local stations, a decision made without consulting Wayans.  In protest, Keenan makes a brief appearance in the season 4 premiere.  Afterwards, he leaves the show.  By the end of the season, the entire Wayans family leaves the show.  FOX cancels In Living Color in 1994 after its fifth season.  The shows early success drives the network’s programming decisions for much of the ‘90’s.  

Martin Lawrence, a cousin of Kid N Play member Christopher Martin, aka “Play”, was in the group’s critically acclaimed film House Party.  Also in that movie was future Martin co-star Tisha Campbell and future Equalizer star and rap legend Queen Latifah.  In 1991, Martin signs a deal to star in a self-named sitcom.  Martin was so hot that, if FOX didn’t get him, another network would’ve.  How talented is Martin? In all, Martin played 9 characters on the show, including his own mother.  

Encouraged by the success of Martin, FOX hires black sitcom creators like no other network.  Soon on the FOX airwaves was Roc, Sinbad Show, Living Single (starring Queen Latifah) among others.  The hottest artists of the day were soon showing up on FOX.  Rapper Biggie Smalls showed up on Martin.  ‘80’s and ‘90’s Rap legend Tone-Loc would guest on Living Single.

Martin’s popularity lands him a hosting gig one week on Saturday Night Live.  It also lands him in trouble with NBC censors.  The monologue is censored in repeat airings of the episode, and he’s banned from ever returning to the show.  His fans love it.  The next year, Lawrence launches what would become a half-billion-dollar (and counting) movie franchise with Will Smith: Bad Boys.

Here’s one you might not know: Friends was NBC’s white version of FOX’s show Living Single.  Living Single debuted in ’93.  Friends came along a year later.  Also in 1994, FOX won broadcast rights to NFL Sunday.  When the NFL comes to FOX, the network cancels four of its six black primetime comedies: Sinbad, Roc, South Central and In Living Color.  Only Living Single and Martin survive.  Martin’s battles on and off set transform his sitcom into one that fans don’t recognize.  FOX abruptly cancels Martin.  Lawrence is sued by co-star Tisha Campbell-Martin for sexual harassment.  She demands the two not appear on set together in the series finale.  They did not.  The once-mighty series went out with a whimper.  By 1998, FOX deserted the black popular culture it had redefined earlier in the decade.

UPN and WB networks would emerge with shows like The Steve Harvey Show, Jamie Foxx Show, In The House, Sparks, Malcolm & Eddie, Wayans Brothers and more.  By the end of 1997, just two years after its launch, the WB Network changes its focus to white teen tv.  UPN continued to court black audiences a little longer but the balance of power had shifted.  Remember in the beginning of this column where I said black shows were being written by white people? That was starting to happen again.  By the end of the ’90’s, the golden age of black sitcoms was truly over.  Sure, there were shows like Black-ish (2014-22) but not much else.  

Back to Martin.  Time does heal all wounds.  Martin Lawrence has made amends with his former castmates.  His life and carer are back on track.  And all those great sitcoms and sketch shows are streaming.  I straggly suggest you check them out.  

Information from Dark Side of the '90's on Vice

Below are links to my podcast, Blendertainment.


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