Entertainment, Film and Music
How To Make It As A Black Sitcom: Be Careful How You Talk About Race
Among those who consider such things, it’s generally agreed that “The Cosby Show” holds a canonical, almost sacred status in television history. But there’s at least one critique it’s never been able to shake: The groundbreaking sitcom, which aired from 1984 to 1992, largely sidestepped any discussion of race. Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, who worked as a script-production consultant on the show, recalls an episode where Phylicia Rashad’s Clair Huxtable applied for a lawyer’s job and got turned down. In the writers’ room, says Poussaint, the “Cosby” staff had considered using the plotline as an opportunity to highlight racial discrimination at law firms. But they didn’t consider it for long.
“[They] felt that was too much of a direct hit, and that it would be better to portray the fact that these guys were simpletons, and let the audience assume that they’re rejecting her because she was black without even saying it,” said Poussaint, now a Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry. “It was a little bit more subtle, but white people could say, ‘Those guys are jackasses.'”
According to Poussaint, there’s one rule of thumb when it comes to talking about race on black sitcoms: Best not to do it too much. “A lot of people will turn off if you’re trying to send them a message,” he said.
“Black-ish,” the new ABC sitcom created by veteran TV writer Kenya Barris, doesn’t follow this line of reasoning — the show engages with race from the moment its title card appears. “Black-ish” follows Andre “Dre” Johnson (Anthony Anderson), an advertising executive, as he tries to establish a sense of cultural identity for his upper-middle-class, African-American family in suburban California. When “Black-ish” premiered in late September, it received a dizzying amount of critical praise (tempered by a few pans). Slate’s Willa Paskin declared it the fall’s “best new sitcom,” and as Los Angeles Times critic Mary McNamara noted, the show has been widely greeted as a “game changer.”
The fledgling show has gotten so much hype in part because it marks an overdue return of the black family sitcom to network television. Over the years, there have been two major waves of such shows — first in the 1970s, led by a welter of sitcoms from the white producer Norman Lear (“Sanford and Son,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons”), and again in the mid-’80s and early ’90s, following the success of “The Cosby Show” (“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Family Matters,” “A Different World”). By 1997, there were 18 black sitcoms airing simultaneously on network TV. But as shows like “Seinfeld” and “Friends” grew in popularity, a dry period set in that has more or less lasted to the present day, aside from the occasional outlier like Damon Wayans’ “My Wife & Kids,” which appeared on ABC from 2001 to 2005. “Black-ish,” which received a full season order earlier this month, is the first all-black ensemble comedy on network television in five years — the last sign of one was Fox’s “Brothers,” cancelled after 13 episodes in 2009.
The Decline of Black Sitcoms
Black sitcoms on network TV entered a sharp period of decline after their heyday in the 1990s. This graph chronicles sitcoms that ran on the big networks — ABC, CBS,NBC, FOX, The CW, and the now-defunct UPN and WB — from 1968 to today.