“Comedy 100% changes things,” says Kenya Barris, the creator and star of Netflix’s #blackAF. He is discussing whether the art of laughter can bring about a meaningful societal shift in light of the May killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests against police brutality.
Barris, who also created ABC family comedy Black-ish, says that television comedy can help people “take the medicine with a spoonful of sugar.”
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#blackAF, which also stars Rashida Jones as Barris’ wife, explores the meaning of being Black and successful and raising kids in America. The eight-part scripted series—Barris’ first scripted series since signing a major overall deal with Netflix—launched on the streaming service in April. It has started an interesting conversation online about race and class.
Barris says on both Black-ish and #blackAF that he was inspired by Richard Pryor to “pull the curtain back” and show, “white America, Black America, and to talk to them in a really honest way and have the other side of the conversation.”
Of Pryor, he says, “His voice changed the world and there hasn’t been a new comedic voice like that in 45 years.”
The Shaft and Girls Trip writer also lauds Dave Chappelle, calling his 8:46 special “so powerful” for the way that it mixed a handful of jokes with a potent message about policing in the United States, the death of George Floyd and his own experiences. This is the same man who said, in his 2000 HBO special Killin’ Them Softly, “Every group of brothers should have at least one white guy in it. I’m serious, for safety, because when the sh*t goes down, someone is going need to talk to the police.”
“You need a person whose job it was to bring you levity to tell you the truth,” Barris says. “I think comedy in this day and age has a much harder role, but also a much more important role. Comedy is more under attack than ever before in history. We’re in cancel culture, we’re in a time of cell phones and social media and people taking things out of context and being very sensitive.”
Barris is not the only comic voice grappling with race issues on television. Issa Rae’s Insecure just wrapped up its fourth season on HBO, Dear White People is returning to Netflix for its fourth and final season, Don Cheadle fronts Black Monday on Showtime, Ramy Youssef was joined by Mahershala Ali for Season 2 of his eponymous Hulu series, Lena Waithe has Twenties and Boomerang on BET, and Donald Glover’s Atlanta is returning for two more seasons in 2021.
Felischa Marye, who sold comedy pilot Good Girls Gone to HBO before becoming a writer on Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, says, “Growing up watching Sex and the City, I always wished there were Black shows that took the same risks, and that’s happening with shows like Insecure.”
Marye is now making her own comedy, Bigger, which she describes as a modern-day version of Living Single, for BET+. Executive produced by Will Packer, the series follows five thirtysomethings living in Atlanta. Marye says it was able to feature important social issues “without draining the comedy out of the rest of the show.”
46 years after Norman Lear’s Good Times debuted the country’s first Black two-parent family sitcom, there is still not a plethora of voices from people of color across the 500+ scripted series on each year. But there are other rays of hope in terms of improving representation on-screen and off.
Black sketch comedy is having a particular moment right now with programs such as HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, IFC’s Sherman’s Showcase and Netflix’s Astronomy Club all entering the Emmy conversation. The genre has been predominantly white since Comedy Central’s Key & Peele won for its fifth and final season in 2016.
Astronomy Club’s Caroline Martin says having a diversity of shows in the conversation is a positive step and “takes the load off your shoulders” as the only Black show. “Growing up as sketch comedy nerds, we would watch Saturday Night Live, where maybe there was one Black person, and we’d be watching that person and rooting for that person,” she says. “So, for there to be multiple shows coming out around the same time as ours, that was really awesome. I’m hoping that having multiple shows with different vibes and energy will become the norm. I don’t see us going back from here.”
Her co-creator and co-star Jerah Milligan, who is currently working on Sherlock Homies, a comedy about an all-Black detective agency set in Harlem, says he hopes that what’s going on right now isn’t a “fad,” adding, “I feel like Hollywood goes through times when it cares about people of color and then it fades away. I’m hoping that they stick with it now, and it’s nice to be a part of that door being kicked open.”
Promotion is equally as important as getting a greenlight, he says. “A lot of companies are talking about supporting Black and diverse voices, I do love the opportunity to get a show, but they need to promote shows. A lot of Hollywood isn’t used to seeing Black faces do silly things.”
A Black Lady Sketch Show creator and star Robin Thede agrees that this increased diversity doesn’t feel like a fad, but she calls for full parity. “I think that’s part of that call to action. That’s part of me saying to Hollywood, ‘We’re not asking for handouts. We’re asking for you to view us equally, as you do with anyone else. We want equity, not quotas, or anything like that. We literally want to not be discounted, because we’re Black people doing something that you’re used to only white men, typically, doing.’ ”
Thede recently told a story about the time she had written a spec script for NBC single-camera comedy Parks and Recreation. “My agent didn’t submit it to the showrunner,” she said. “And he told me months later, ‘The spec is good, but it wasn’t a diversity position, so I didn’t send it.’”
“I don’t think we can change people’s hearts, but I do think that we can wake people up to their biases,” Thede, who was also the first Black woman to write for a late-night talk show on The Nightly Show, adds. “It truly is unconscious bias; in so many of these executives’ minds, they don’t even realize it. They think Black writers can only write for Black projects, or that, if you have one Black writer on something, it’s enough. What we’re saying is, no, just hire the best writers. And if you equally look for Black writers, you’re going to find that some of them are way better than your other offerings. You just have to be open to it.”
Opening up across all genres is also key. Lilly Singh, host of NBC’s A Little Late with Lilly Singh, is the first openly bisexual person of color to host a late-night broadcast TV show. “I found comedy to be such a good vehicle to talk about things, and I come from a culture where things are generally not spoken about,” she says. “I use comedy to talk about mental health and sexism. It’s my way of talking about things that are not too on the nose, because then people get to put their defense mechanisms down.”
Singh says authenticity is key, as evidenced by spots on her show such as Kal Penn discussing the trouble with Indian restaurants, and Singh and Mindy Kaling trading Tamil slang. “Late-night hosts have [historically] been white males and they’ve had that space for a while. There needs to be that space for other groups of people to put their defenses down and address these issues better, and I think comedy is golden for that.”
Barris is hopeful that Hollywood will change as a result of the protests. “We’re still so nascent in this moment,” he says, “but I feel like the one thing I am seeing is a lot of unification of cultures. It reminds me of the civil rights movement, which would not have happened if white liberals had not marched alongside Black protestors.”
The protests, and the overwhelming support from a broad swath of society, are a step in the right direction, agrees Marye. “I know a lot of us weren’t here for 1968, but it feels different and bigger, and more people that don’t look like us are fed up.”
And of George Floyd himself, adds Barris, “It’s sad that someone had to lose their life in such a gruesome and graphic way. He changed the world.”
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