The Neighborhood's Tichina Arnold Is The Queen Of Black Sitcoms

Photo: Courtesy of Monty Brinton/CBS.
Tichina Arnold is part of my family. Before I was old enough to even understand some of the sexually charged dynamics between Martin (Martin Lawrence) and his girlfriend Gina (Tisha Campbell), I sat through marathons of Martin while my older sister and aunt cackled beside me. What I definitely understood were the petty burns that rivals Martin and Pam — Gina’s sassy best friend, played by Arnold — delivered to each other. As I matured, Martin reruns continued to be an integral part of my television viewing experience. Millions of other viewers and me welcomed Arnold, and her classic clapbacks, into our homes with open arms and would continue to do so for two decades.
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Martin was one of the key shows in a Black sitcom renaissance that occurred in the late ‘90s and early aughts. But as the popularity of this specific television genre has ebbed and flowed, Arnold has kept up with its pace. After Martin, she snagged a recurring role on the TV One series, One on One starring Kyla Pratt. She then dominated Everybody Hates Chris as Rochelle, Chris Rock’s no-nonsense mother. In 2014, she joined the cast of the LeBron James-produced sitcom Survivor's Remorse on Starz. Now Arnold has teamed up with another comedy legend, Cedric the Entertainer, as the co-star of the CBS comedy The Neighborhood. In her latest role, Arnold plays Tina Butler, a homeowner in a Black neighborhood who has to adjust when a white family moves into the house next door.
I had the honour of speaking with Arnold about why The Neighborhood is the show America needs right now, what’s still missing for women of colour in the television industry, and what she thinks about the evolution of Black sitcoms as the reigning queen of the genre. See what she had to say right here.
Refinery29: So on average walking around in public, how often are you called Pam?
Tichina Arnold: “Let's see... on average? I would say 10 times a day.”
OMG! Do people even know your name is Tichina?
“A lot of people don't. And a lot of people try to say it and they never know how to say it. I'm like, 'Just call me Pam. Forget it.'”
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Let's talk about The Neighborhood. The premise is great, and it's hilarious.
“Awww good! I'm glad that you like it.”
Does the show reflect the kind of conversations America needs to be having as a nation right now?
“I think this show is needed, especially with the racial uncertainty and the racial tension that we have now going on, not only in America, but in the world. It's a lot of racial tension happening right now, and I think we need a show like this because visually, to see a Black man and a white man work through their differences; to see a Black woman and a white woman find a comfort in each other...you haven't seen it on TV in a long time. [W]here we want to come from is a very organic place with a very serious subject matter. What better way to tell that story or to convey that message than through laughter?
I feel like often under a white gaze, Black families have to prove themselves to some other group, whether they are trying to fit in with the Jones' or move on up like the Jeffersons. I love that the Butlers are the “normal” family, and we watch this white family next door try to figure it out and get it together.
“Yes! You don't normally see it.”
My favourite scene of the show was the one about washcloths and wigs in episode 2, when Tina is shocked to discover that her white peers don't use washcloths to shower. It turned into a big debate at work. Just like on the show, most of the white girls said that they didn't use washcloths and the women of colour were shocked!
“Isn't that crazy?!”
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I love how you guys played on it and used comedy to address it. I was literally in tears laughing because I was laughing so hard.
“I think a lot of time what this show does for us when we read the scripts, and we're working through the scripts, and we're working through the dialogue, we're taking a moment to really understand each other. Even off camera, Beth [Behrs] and Max [Greenfield] have questions to me and Cedric. Me and Cedric will have a full conversation and Beth and Max will look at us like: What did y'all just say? What the hell are y'all talkin' about? We all speak different languages. But just because we speak different languages doesn't mean we can't get along...We can only communicate once we are open enough to learn more about each other.”
What do you think about the evolution of people of colour in sitcoms and the kind of programming that’s been made since you started?
“I'm excited that we are evolving. I'm always open to change. Change doesn't always feel comfortable. I've gone through the whole light-skinned/dark-skinned thing back in the '90s. I've gone through the straight hair versus the kinky hair thing. I've gone through we've discovered that women who are dark-skinned are beautiful, too. I've seen a lot of change throughout the 36 years that I have been in show business. But there has been change for the better. There's also been regression where women still should be paid more. There's still hurdles and barriers that we have to break down. But the fact that things are changing, I'm hopeful about. We're living in a different day and age now…
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"Now we [still] may not be where we need to be. It's beyond diversity, it's inclusion. We don't just want to see us, we want to be in those writers' rooms, we want to be executive producers, we want to be showrunners. It's change that is constantly happening but we want to make sure that the change is for the better. That's the main obstacle that we'll have is sticking to change and making sure it’s for the better.”
Do you think there are more roles and opportunities for women of colour?
“No. This is the problem: There are roles for Black women and Latina women. But versus the roles for the white women, we got a long way to go. Also, the problem begins with there are no things written for Black women. I can't tell you how many auditions I've gone on that it was written for ‘all ethnicities.’ Not only am I in competition with the Asian community, the white community, my own community... I'm in competition with everybody. The upside of that is that it gives me an opportunity to play a role that's not necessarily written for a Black woman. It may be written for a white woman, and because they have to show diversity, they say Okay, we're going to audition Black women, and we'll give her the role. But, that opportunity gives me a chance to show Black women in a different light. It was always about seeing the upside, seeing the positive out of it...There should be more amazing roles written for Black women. It's a must. But we gotta get in those rooms. We gotta get in a position where we have the power to be able to control that and be a part of that, and not wait for somebody to give it to us.”
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You've worked with Martin Lawrence, Chris Rock, and now Cedric the Entertainer. who are all standup kings. Have you ever thought about doing standup?
"No! I always tell people I am not a comedian. I am a comedic actress. I bring the black-and-white to life; and that's those pages, those scripts, that dialogue. I don't think I'll ever end up doing standup. But what I would do is a one woman show or a show that is written and based around me conveying comedic moments.”
That would be so good! I would be in the front row!
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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