By Erin Canty
Dear Tiny Descendants,
Stop playing on your hoverboards and sit down for a minute. Since you’re reading this, I’m probably dead [We’re just impressed This Was TV is still going in the future! –Editors]. Or you opened these sweet letters early and I’m just old and tired in the next room. Either way, take a seat and let my wisdom wash over you like the refreshing spray from your shower robot.
What wisdom will I espouse to you today, sweet babies? Old family stories? Secret ingredients from recipes long gone? No, today I’m going to write about TV. You know, those weird flat boxes you see at yard sales. It used to play these long, drawn-out, 20–40 minute stories, and you’d sit back and let drama and laughter fall into your living room. You didn’t have to find it, download it, let it buffer, or stream it. It just crept into your house everyday at about 7:00 p.m., and for a little while, you were somewhere or someone else.
Most of these shows were unremarkable, just silly ways to pass the time between dinner and dessert. But every once in a while, one would come along and change the rules, even change the game. One show in particular arrived at the perfect time, to a still young network with little to lose, and launched the careers of some of the top names in Black comedy. I try not to toss around words like “groundbreaking” and “pivotal” often, but this show is the exception. It was wild. It was bold. It was In Living Color.
To fully understand the magnitude and impact of this program, my dears, you have to understand what it was like at the dawn of the 1990s. Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years in prison. Mikhail Gorbachev had just been elected President of the Soviet Union. Rap music was aggressive, political, and raw (if you didn’t count MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice.) And some crazy new show called Twin Peaks premiered on ABC. Something about this decade screamed, “This will be different.” And it was. Oh, how it was.
So in the spring of 1990, America was primed and ready for something new. With initial offerings like Married… with Children and The Tracy Ullman Show, the Fox Broadcasting Company had already delivered on the promise to bring edgy, unexpected programming to network TV. But on the night of April 15, 1990, when writer and comic actor Keenen Ivory Wayans stepped on stage to introduce himself as the host of In Living Color, a new precedent was set: “Things will be different on Fox, really different. And you’re ALL invited. Even you, Black people.”
Keenen his brother Damon Wayans created, wrote, and starred in many sketches in the show’s early seasons. The elder Wayans were joined by sister Kim, a young Jim Carrey (who still went by James), David Alan Grier, Tommy Davidson, and later, Jamie Foxx and Marlon Wayans. The cast was predominately African-American, making the title In Living Color more than just a play on early television broadcasts.
But just having a predominately African-American cast wouldn’t have moved the needle. No, this cast was good—really good. The characters and sketches leaned into Black and urban humor, but it wasn’t just Blacks or just Whites who ended up as the butt of the joke. The show managed to stay relatable and accessible to a majority audience thanks to smart writing, an audience ready for social and political commentary, and some supreme comedic talent.
You didn’t need to live in the projects to laugh at Benita Butrell. Forget toeing the line, Men on Film and Fire Marshall Bill moved the line altogether. And if you’d ever attended a children’s birthday party, you could sympathize with Homey D. Clown. Hell, I was having children’s birthday parties, and I sympathized with Homey D. Clown.
If that wasn’t enough, In Living Color had musical guests (check out this guest spot from Tupac), and its own dance troupe, The Fly Girls. Did I tell you their choreographer was Rosie Perez? Yes, that Rosie Perez. And before they were superstars, Carrie Ann Inaba and Jennifer Lopez were just two Fly Girls in the back row. The show also had a house DJ, SW-1. (Those initials might look familiar. It was Shawn Wayans’s first foray into the family business.)
So every Sunday night, instead of settling in for drivel and tedium, you were welcomed with open arms to a televised house party, thrown by the funniest, most down-to-earth people in town. It was different, really different. But it turned out to be just different enough to work.
In Living Color survived through the early ’90s. It was never a monster hit, but the buzz was strong. How strong? The show lured over 20 million people away from CBS’s Super Bowl telecast for The Doritos Zaptime/’In Living Color’ Super Halftime Party. Take that, Puppy Bowl!
But by the end of the third season in 1992, the Wayans family began limiting their involvement. Keenen and Damon stopped appearing in sketches, but occasionally popped in as guests. Kim and Shawn stayed on through one more season before calling it quits. By the show’s fifth and final season, there was zero Wayans involvement. Grier and Carrey stayed on through the final curtain. It was 1994. The magic was gone. The show was over.
Not everyone was prepared to let the show rest in peace. Eighteen years later, in the spring of 2012, a ragtag group of dreamers—led by none other than Keenen Ivory Wayans himself—assembled a team of young talent to bring back In Living Color. Players were cast, Fly Girls were assembled, episodes were taped. But as of this writing, the reboot is having a tough time getting off the ground. In fact, the show probably won’t see the light of day. In an interview with USA Today, Fox president Kevin Reilly said what he’d seen so far wasn’t clearing the original show’s “high bar.”
It’s not all that surprising, really. These days, instead of living in color, we’re living scared. Scared to offend people, scared to produce content with a minority-majority cast for network, scared to flop and lose millions. It’s not my money or reputation to lose, so I get it. And I won’t say no one got anywhere playing it safe because plenty of people have. It just wasn’t anywhere new, different, or frankly, worth going.
The stars aligned to bring us a show like In Living Color. And some may disagree, but as I gaze out at the current network TV landscape, (which can be summed up as: chuckleheads, singing, White people, and murder), I don’t see it happening again.
But if it does, kindly remove me from my cryogenic locker so I can defrost and see it for myself. There’s a Werther’s Original it for you, grandchildren.
Previously on Black in Time: A Celebration of TV’s Black Nerds