Yes, They’re Classics, But Let’s Leave The ’90s Black Sitcoms Where They Were
Unless you’re a Clinton, Tonya Harding or a member of Milli Vanilli, how could you not love the ’90s? The R&B was timeless, the clothes were baggy, the movies were good, (if we’re keepin’ it real, the soundtracks were better) and just being born black was a political statement. The 90s were when I fell in love with hip-hop, vintage Nia Long, and Fruitopia. But most importantly, the 90s were when we all fell in love with black sitcoms.
Sure, there were sitcoms that existed before the beloved decade but the black comedy series of the 90s far surpassed their predecessors, and have solidified a place in history as the “Golden Age” of black sitcoms. Living Single, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Moesha, each show brought a different flair influencing black fashion, vernacular and played an integral role in shaping the future of black pop culture while influencing generations to come.
Arguably, the Beyoncé of the bunch was Martin. Starring comedic legend Martin Lawrence as Martin Payne, Tisha Campbell-Martin as Gina Waters-Payne, Tichina Arnold as her best friend Pamela James, and the titular character’s best friends Carl Anthony Payne as Cole Brown and the late Thomas Mikal Ford as Tommy “no job” Strawn. The impact of Martin can still be seen and heard today as episodes of the show are in syndication about 50-11 times a day. Catchphrases and influences from the show are still relevant as evidenced by music and visuals created by artists like SZA, Big Sean, and Kaytranda.
What shows like Martin and many of the 90s black sitcoms created were beautiful, and a major part of their legacies is the magic created by these programs was a unique energy that can never be duplicated.
But apparently, that won’t stop some of you from trying.
Recently, Lawrence’s fiancée Roberta Moradfar posted something on Instagram that would lead those of us of sound mind and body to believe a reboot of Martin could be on the way. To add fuel to the fire, Lawrence himself responded by commenting with emoji eyes that are usually reserved for people who are either trying to forewarn you they’re about to slide into your DMs, be messy on the Internet, or give credence to the mess without overtly speaking on it. Because context clues matter, I’m going to go with the latter.
Following the Instagram exchange, TMZ later caught up with three of the show’s stars, Lawrence, Arnold, and Campbell-Martin who were spotted leaving lunch together all smiles. The iconic trio remained tight-lipped about the possibility of a reboot, however it became increasingly clear as the interview progressed the rumor was more than just Internet fodder.
Carl Anthony Payne also hinted the cast has been in talks about reviving the show, and he would be interested in seeing the program picked up by streaming behemoth Netflix. The fifth main character, Thomas Mikal-Ford died in October 2016 of an aneurysm. He was 52.
I don’t want to see the legacies of these shows tarnished by an attempt to recreate a moment in time and black culture that can’t be replicated.
Martin isn’t the only black 90s sitcom setting its sights on a new millennium comeback. Queen Latifah has spoken publicly about the possibility of a Living Single reboot. It’s also confirmed Tia Mowry-Hardrict, Tamera Mowry-Housley and possibly Marques Houston’s first Dominican doobie (fingers crossed) could all be back on our television screens again in a reboot of the hit series Sister, Sister.
All the chatter and speculation about the possibility of seeing reincarnations of some of our most beloved television shows have created a stir on social media and in barbershops nationwide. Conversations and debates surrounding the topic have established two camps: one that is ecstatic about the reboots, and another camp that’s just as passionate about their love of black 90s sitcoms, but aren’t sitting at home on a Friday night with a can of Surge and a black Bart Simpson T-shirt, waiting for TGIF to begin.
I’m the head counselor for the second camp.
Look, and I say this with all love in my heart, beloveds: please stop touching our sacred things. Not because I am a hater and not because I do not ab-so-lute-ly love each of these shows. On the contrary, I don’t want to see the legacies of these shows tarnished by an attempt to recreate a moment in time and black culture that can’t be replicated. But more importantly, I fear our need to hold onto the past will keep us from appreciating the voices of our present, and hinder the inspiration for the voices of our future.
As is the case with most social advancements for people of color in the United States, the road to success for black sitcoms in the 90s was long, winding and full of struggle and obstacles. It’s no secret in the early days of television, black actors were either non-existent or only found work portraying stereotypical roles. However, in 1951, history was made when Amos ‘n’ Andy became the first network broadcast situational comedy with an all-black cast. The show evolved from a widely popular radio broadcast comedy show of the same name with roots in the minstrel tradition. The radio show’s main characters were voiced by two white men who were later replaced by black acting pioneers Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams, portraying Amos and Andy respectively in the televised version. (Good call y’all because, blackface…)
However, even with the casting of black actors the show still received backlash, a battle most prominently fought by the NAACP. The civil rights organization vehemently protested the show and called for its cancellation, citing Amos ‘n’ Andy continued to perpetuate negative stereotypes and untrue racial tropes about black people. Their efforts were not in vain and the show was cancelled in 1953.
After Amos ‘n’ Andy was nixed, there were no other all-black sitcoms broadcast on network television in the United States until the 1970s. That era ushered in a slew of successful black centered shows including The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son and Good Times. The momentum continued into the 1980s with programs like 227, Amen and the seminal body of work that is The Cosby Show. But even these iconic television series were not impervious to criticism. Many of the black sitcoms of the 70s were accused of yet again propagating negative stereotypes of black people, while popular 80s sitcoms like The Cosby Show and the short-lived Frank’s Place - which challenged the stereotypical roles traditionally reserved for black ensembles – have been accused of “white-washing” the black experience to be palatable to the tastes of white viewers.
The creators of those shows learned and appreciated the experiences of their predecessors and used the foundation laid to give their generation a heartbeat and a voice. This generation deserves that same opportunity.
It was in the 90s that black sitcoms hit their stride. The era produced numerous series that not only provided laughs but were also able to tackle the social issues of the times, embrace the inescapable impact of hip-hop culture on American popular culture and incorporate themes and elements of Afrocentrism in a way that had never before been seen on American television. The shows also helped to dispel the myth that black people were a monolith by highlighting the diverse individual experiences that define being black in America.
The 90s gave the world A Different World, a spinoff of The Cosby Show which followed the lives of young black students at the fictitious HBCU, Hillman College. Thanks to the vision of the show’s legendary creative director Debbie Allen, A Different World not only provided light-hearted fare, but also showed never before seen depictions of young black love, introduced the masses to the world of HBCU culture and also grappled with tough topics such as apartheid, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and colorism. The show was also responsible for a significant spike in black college and university enrollment by inspiring many African American students to attend college who longed for the Hillman experience.
The 90s also introduced us to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air starring Will Smith. The series focused on street savvy Smith, a young teenager from West Philadelphia (born and raised on the playground is where I spent most of my days…you know the rest) who was forced to move to the affluent Bel-Air to live with his Uncle and Aunt Phillip and Vivian Banks to avoid troubles in his neighborhood.
The show was a perfect marriage between the burgeoning culture of hip-hop and mainstream pop culture with Smith often donning a baggy HBCU sweatsuit paired with the latest Air Jordans and a number of other popular fashions of the time. The Fresh Prince was a comedic genius, but also found ways to deal with assimilation, classism, gun violence, and in one of television’s greatest dramatic moments (fight me or fact me), helped many of us who grew up with absentee fathers realize that we were not alone.
During this time period, black people saw numerous representations of our multidimensional selves on screen, and today the fire that is the hunger for more still burns. It isn’t hard to understand why the world is hungry to try and recreate the 90s era of black comedies. We were the butler and the head of the household. We love our sisters but Sheneneh could still catch these hands. We were finally able to show the world that the black experience in America is not a one-size-fits-all concept, at least for a couple of hours each week.
For many, and especially those of us who were children during this era, the longing for and excitement about possible reboots of these iconic shows are rooted in a desire to return to a simpler time: nostalgia. However, nostalgia is deeper than just wanting to return to a moment, it’s about the yearning to revisit the memories and the emotions attached to that time.
We all remember where we were when Dwayne Wayne and Ron caught Dean Cain and a group of other white students from a rival school spray paint the word n****r on the hood of his car, and we all recalled the first time we were called a n****r ourselves.
We all remember the palpable sadness we felt when Will’s estranged father showed up in his life only to abandon him yet again, and leave him distraught and crying in Uncle Phil’s arms, “How come he don’t want me, man?”
We all wept and cheered when Whitley left Byron at the altar to marry Dwayne, her one and only true love and remembered the first person who made us feel those feelings too.
However, in our quest for nostalgia, we have to make sure that we are not blocking the path of new young black voices from telling stories of their experiences.
Part of what makes black sitcoms in general so successful is that each era builds upon the success of the era that preceded it. The new ground broken, the chances taken, that’s what made the 90s era so iconic. The creators of those shows learned and appreciated the experiences of their predecessors and used the foundation laid to give their generation a heartbeat and a voice. This generation deserves that same opportunity.
Voices like Kenya Barris, who accurately expressed the universal fear the black community harbored that President Barack Obama was going to be shot when he stepped out of his car to march in his first inaugural parade through Dre on Black-ish.
Issa Rae’s Insecure divided a whole nation into #TeamLawrence and #TeamIssa when Lawrence left Issa for Tasha, leaving his Best Buy shirt hanging in her bare closet as a consolation prize.
You can’t tell me you didn’t feel anything while watching Justin Simien’s Dear White People when a case of racial profiling left Reggie face-to-face with a racist police officer’s gun.
And seriously….have you seen Lena Waithe’s “Thanksgiving Episode” of Master of None?!
We are living in a time filled with some of the greatest black talents in history and they are doing their best to revive and elevate the black sitcom. The laugh tracks may be gone along with the live studio audiences, but the comedic gold? The ability to tackle social issues? The ability to connect with an audience and create deep emotional memorable moments? It’s all there. But by attempting to hold onto and relive the 90s we are not giving this generation an opportunity to be heard or appreciated. Black 90s sitcoms perfectly encapsulated their time period, and it is okay to appreciate the past, but we have to take off the rose-colored glasses that we so often wear when reminiscing on the years of yore, and make way for new classics and new memories.
And besides…20 years from now you will all be begging for The Carmichael Show reboot, because that’s how y’all do.