Back in July, amid great loss and devastating changes ushered in by 2020, Netflix made one of the most exciting and relieving announcements this year has seen: seven Black cult-classic sitcoms were being added to the service. And just like that, Black Millennials, with smartphones in hand and Twitter queued up, anticipated the times where we'd once again be glued to the warmth, ridiculousness and familiarity of Moesha, The Game, Sister Sister, Girlfriends, The Parkers, One on One (coming to Netflix Oct. 15), and Half & Half (coming to Netflix Oct. 15).
These 30-minute TV series represented Black folks in full, capturing what it was like to be Black in America without pandering to the white gaze. And though tropes like the parentless child, the annoying-but-hot-neighbor, and the four-girl friend group felt like overkill at times, they were par for the course in the late 1990s and early 2000s — and quite endearing.
Times have changed, though. Gone are the days of passively singing along to an infectious theme song and settling into 20-something minutes of your favorite show without instant discourse (and spoilers!) on your Twitter feed. Today’s attention to being politically correct doesn’t mix well with the tone-deaf plot lines of TV shows from the early aughts, and it has come to redefine the relaxing binge-watching session viewers anticipated.
In the digital age, callout culture — the act of taking an individual, brand, or piece of art to task for violating a social norm — heightening frustrations around Hollywood’s depictions of relationships, sexuality, race, and politics. For example, in 2017, HBO’s Insecure was side-eyed for not explicitly mentioning the use of condoms in an episode, and earlier this year Kenya Barris’ #blackAF faced criticism surrounding colorism. But are we all just a little too sensitive nowadays, especially when enjoying (and examining) shows created when people were less “woke”?
Well, yes. And no. Humor is one of the Black community’s greatest weapons against pain.
Sure, we've completely outgrown several quips as a community: fat jokes aren't just insensitive, they're lame; there's zero room for chuckles about colorism or sexuality to go unchecked; and a father slut-shaming his daughter over breakfast is completely inappropriate. Delicate conversations — such as those around identity politics, body image, etc. — deserve much more thoughtfulness, balance and nuance than a laugh track and light jeers. Not to mention, you can still catch some of these same stagnant wisecracks on syndicated shows that air most mornings on cable, including Living Single, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Martin — so it's clear that not every line in our beloved sitcoms aged well.
Revisiting our favorite Black sitcoms should be a reminder of how humor has always been a way to fight the many wars we face; our salve, so to speak.
However, many of the open discussions introduced on these Black sitcoms are the type of radical comedy Black people love, even if they make us slightly uncomfortable. A joke about dating a man with unusually wide hips toes the line but is ultimately just good comedy, which in short, simply captures a truth, has an element of surprise and resonates with the audience. What’s more, it’s hard to take offense to the brilliance of Wendy Raquel Robinson’s character Tasha Mack — a successful, no-nonsense Black single mother who traded stereotypical jabs with her white best friend. And while her strong attitude might’ve rubbed viewers the wrong way, the comedic timing and authenticity of her character softened the blow. We all have an auntie like her.
Black sitcoms were created to deliver nuanced art born from everyday touchstones of Black life, taboo topics included. It's why we loved the unflinching and frank series, The Carmichael Show—it’s Black comedy's job to go there; to give the hushed conversations reserved mostly for friends and intimate partners in our living rooms the floor for laughs, relatability and a mental escape. For example, when Bill Cosby’s unforgivable acts were brought to light, Jerrod Carmichael used his series to showcase the range of emotions Black people felt using humor.
For decades, comedy has been used to normalize Black life in America. In the ‘70s, The Jeffersons, Good Times and Sanford & Son were lauded for introducing our world, plights and pleasures to mainstream America. Then, in the ‘80s, shows like The Cosby Show and A Different World gave a more in-depth look at Black life — college students, white-collar Black professionals, etc. — and with that came an evolution in the roles Black actors played and a more open-minded perspective on contemporary social issues. Revisiting our favorite Black sitcoms should be a reminder of how humor has always been a way to fight the many wars we face; our salve, so to speak. And looking back should be a celebration that we have continued to grow more conscious as a whole.
And isn’t that slice of joy needed now more than ever? As we continue to face police brutality, poverty, disparities in healthcare and so much else, don’t we deserve to kiki, fully and from our bellies, to make light of some of the heavy issues in our community? In these times, we need the laughs to keep from crying.
It’s not the sole responsibility of Black art, especially comedy, to be entirely sensitive to every Black viewer’s needs for entertainment. Thus, take the feel-good comedy at face value, and know that the new generation of Black sitcoms and Black TV shows are growing, learning, and building even better content independent of old jokes.
If for no other reason to adore Black sitcoms, although problematic at times, these Black pillars of TV are significant not only for what they meant for Black culture then, but also for the present creators: producers and writers Mara Brock Akil — who just inked a deal to develop projects for Netflix — Ralph Farquhar, Yvette Lee Bowser, Eunetta T. Boone, and the countless Black actors and actresses who starred — Brandy, Tracee Ellis Ross, Tia Mowry-Hardrict, Tamera Mowry-Housley, Mo’Nique, Countess Vaughn, Robinson and more. They helped open doors for the shows we love today.
Now, TV screenwriters and creators, like Lena Waite and Issa Rae, have chosen to build upon the foundation laid by their predecessors while writing comedy that’s inclusive, provocative and still completely and utterly amusing. So it’s safe to say comedy is largely moving away from themes that aren’t cool at all. But if you’re just not feeling your visit to the past via Joan, Kimberly, and Melanie, as Rae said recently in a Billboard Q&A, “It's not a problem if you can log off."