When thinking of iconic family sitcoms for Black households the list includes programs ranging from Good Times to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as legacy television shows. Modern shows have aimed to reach the same cultural significance through relatable, comedic, and emotion-grabbing storylines. Veteran actors Tracee Ellis Ross and Kenan Thompson held a conversation with Variety discussing their role in the current state of Black family sitcoms.
Both are currently stars of two separate Black family sitcoms. Ross stars as Rainbow Johnson on the award-winning series Black-ish alongside Anthony Anderson, Marsai Martin, and other talents. Kenan leads on his newer, eponymous sitcom as a widowed father raising two daughters.
One aspect both shows have in common is the importance of children actors who play pivotal roles in each series. Thompson shared how he sometimes feels as though he’s in the way of actresses and real-life sisters Dannah and Dani Lane, who he described as “superstars” after watching “two seconds” of their audition tape. Both Thompson and Ross explained how working with younger stars help pass down information from generation to generation.
“Is it tradition, is it the culture, is it personal, is it race, is it identity?—particularly in the case of Black-ish. And when you get to see that played out through generations, it makes such a difference. I also have to say from a personal level, working with kids has been one of the most rewarding things about the show,” shared Ross.
Thompson added, ” I definitely just want to protect their childhood—I don’t want them to grow up too fast just because they’re in a professional setting or they’re having careers at a very young age. I want them to still have as much energy and be as loud and as annoying as they can without distracting from the job—allowing them to be their kid self because trying to tame all that energy is a waste of time.”
He continued, “I definitely envy the amount of energy that those two girls exude in rehearsal even. Just when we’re waiting, in between that time where we’re getting set to shoot or whatever, they’re still [getting] laugh after laugh after laugh. It’s unreal.”
The conversation continued to explore the depiction of Black families in media and on television and the amount of representation across the board.
“I think you have a lot of representations, but it’s a mixture between Love & Hip Hop Atlanta and Love & Hip Hop New York and artistic versions and actor versions of wanting to reflect the Black family. There’s a lot of different networks nowadays, so Tyler Perry might be busy at BET right now or other great writers may be busy at other networks,” the Saturday Night Live alum shared.
“I don’t really know [the amount] exactly, but it is special when they do come around—when it’s Martin [Lawrence’s] time, when it’s Bernie Mac’s time, when it’s Jamie Foxx’s time. Great shows usually come out of when it’s been massaged or when it’s somebody’s time. I’ve been around the development cycle three different times with different ideas, but this is the one that made sense.”
The Girlfriends star added, “One of the things that’s been so special on Black-ish has been being able to see an American family that is Black—not that happens to be Black—where we are dealing with all of the things that any family is walking through but through the lens, the face, the beingness, the experience and the specificity of what it is to be a Black person in America.”
Season 1 of Kenan premiered this past February on NBC. For his role on the show, the 43-year-old was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Comedy Series at the 2021 Emmy Awards.
Black-ish has aired on ABC since September 2014 for seven seasons and produced two spin-offs Mixed-Ish and Grown-ish. Ross was nominated for the Outstanding Lead Actress In A Comedy Series Emmy award in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020, and, now again, in 2021. In 2017, she won the Golden Globe Award Best Actress – Television Series Musical or Comedy for her portrayal of Rainbow.