Last of the black network sitcoms

by Aaron Barnhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

25 September 2009

Retired NFL star Mike Trainor (Michael Strahan, second from right) returns to his hometown to rebuild his relationship with his family in the new FOX comedy "Brothers" debuting with a special one-hour series premiere Friday, Sept. 25 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. From left, Daryl Chill Mitchell, Carl Weathers, Michael Strahan and CCH Pounder. (Michael Lavine/FOX) 

STUDIO CITY, Calif. — Why visit the set of the new Fox comedy “Brothers”? Well, to paraphrase its co-star CCH Pounder — the last person I expected to see in an old-style sitcom — because I could.

I wasn’t going because I thought this show might be an Emmy contender next season. Nor was my intent malicious, like seeing if ex-NFL lineman Michael Strahan would trip over his lines, or the wheelchair of his co-star, while trying to make the transition to comedy actor.

Mostly I went because “Brothers,” conventional as it appears on the surface, seemed to be an awfully interesting show.

First, it is a new entry in a dying breed: the African-American network comedy. It is the only representative this fall of that subgenre, invented 20 years ago by Fox, when it used “In Living Color” and other shows to lure minority and younger viewers. The black sitcom gave liftoff to the careers of Steve Harvey and Jamie Foxx, among others, but has fallen victim to low ratings and cable competitors (including reruns of older black sitcoms on BET).

Also, “Brothers” is a throwback comedy that’s shot like a play. As Chill Mitchell, one of the stars, notes, “it’s as close to live theater as you get,” with three or four cameras set up to capture the action. This “multi-camera” format is what launched TV’s sitcom era nearly 60 years ago when CBS used it for “I Love Lucy.”

Oh, and “Brothers” might have the wildest casting of any new show on TV. The mom is played by Pounder, an intense dramatic character actor perhaps best known as Claudette, the female detective who could hold her own in a pen of testosterone on “The Shield.” Her husband is played by Carl Weathers, aka Apollo Creed from the “Rocky” films. The brothers are played by Strahan and Mitchell. As a bonus, Lenny Clarke, the most preposterously funny character actor working in TV today, happens to be on the set that day, shooting a guest role as a gullible white guy who will believe anything black people say about themselves.

And after that setup, I feel obliged to mention this: “Brothers” really is not that bad a show.

“There are more black people working in the White House than there are on network television,” Don Reo joked. Wait, he’s got another: “The only other black comedic character on TV is Cleveland (Fox’s “The Cleveland Show,” premiering Sunday) — and he’s a cartoon who’s voiced by a white guy.”

Reo, the executive producer in charge of “Brothers,” broke into network TV in 1970. He’s written episodes of “Sanford and Son,” “All in the Family,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Blossom” (which he created), “The John Larroquette Show” (where he gave Chill Mitchell his first comedic role) and, more recently, a string of African-American themed comedies: “My Wife And Kids,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and now “Brothers.”

“Everybody Hates Chris” was a single-camera comedy. Writers and critics have fallen in love with the form, which allows for more filmic elements — weird camera angles (as in “Malcolm in the Middle”), documentary-style realism (“The Office” and ABC’s new “Modern Family”), outdoor scenes (HBO’s “Bored to Death”) and quick-cut edits (“Scrubs”).

Right now Reo is delighted not to be working on one.

“That was a lot of work, let me tell you — and there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” he said. Reruns of a traditional, multi-camera sitcom like “Two and a Half Men” typically command top dollar in the syndication market, while a single-camera show like “Chris” makes far less in syndication because none has ever drawn that many viewers.

“Everybody in the industry thinks ‘30 Rock’ is brilliant, but America chooses to watch ‘Two and a Half Men,’” said Reo. “Plus, with a multi-camera show you get to have a life. On those single-camera shows you’re working 12-hour days, every day.” (Not that Reo has a life — he’s juggling two multi-camera shows for Fox: “Til Death,” the Brad Garrett-Joely Fisher comedy about a married couple hitting middle age, is filmed nearby on the same Sony lot in Studio City.)

“Multi-camera shows — they don’t review well, but audiences love ‘em,” he said. “They’re joke machines. ‘Two and a Half Men’ is filled with laughs. It’s a big, funny show. As is ‘Big Bang Theory.’ They’re shows that take you away from the troubles of the day. Whereas back in the ‘70s, those shows were ABOUT the troubles of the day.”

The set of “Brothers” is arranged like any traditional sitcom: rooms arranged in a line parallel to the audience, with enough floor space in between for cameras and crew. As the actors and crew moved around rehearsing scenes, I peeled off the co-stars for interviews. I sat in the living room with Strahan, where we talked about the similarities between being a media magnet in the 24/7 New York sports world and being one in the TMZ (“this is a lot easier,” he said).

In the kitchen, Weathers told me about going to cow/calf school in Garnett, Kan., and developing his own pure-bred stock. “I’ve probably learned more from raising cattle than anything else,” Weathers said.

For my interview with Mitchell, I moved over to the bar that’s run by his character. Mitchell rolled up next to me. He’s got a killer handshake, the result of eight years in the chair. “I don’t have to hit my kids,” he joked. “I just grab ‘em.” His daughter, sitting nearby, silently nodded her head.

Mitchell was the one who pitched “Brothers” to Fox. He already had Strahan on board, so he told the network it would be a family comedy about two rivalrous siblings, one recently retired from the NFL and the other in a wheelchair after an accident. Since Fox had already agreed to pick up “Til Death” for another season — thus taking it further down that road to the pot of gold — it made sense to find a companion show to round out the hour.

Mitchell insisted that “Brothers” was just another Fox comedy about a nutty family.

“It’s not a black thing,” he said, a line others on the set would echo. Still, Mitchell acknowledged that a black comedy on network TV probably owed a debt to the new president — and also Tyler Perry, whose African-American comedies for TBS have been enormously successful.

Mitchell is the minority outreach spokesman for the Reeve Foundation, which advocates for spinal cord research. (The late Christopher Reeve would’ve been 57 on Friday.) I ask him about the lack of progress on enforcing and expanding the Americans with Disabilities Act. He shakes his head.

“They’re looking at what is and not looking at what if,” he said.

At an age when most female actresses are finding good roles fewer and far between, CCH Pounder is in peak demand. Since “The Shield,” she’s had roles in HBO’s “Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency,” SyFy’s “Warehouse 13,” James Cameron’s upcoming movie “Avatar” and other films and shows, including “Brothers,” her first sitcom since making 13 episodes of “Women in Prison” for Fox in 1987.

“I’ve never done something just for the duckets,” she said. When “Brothers” was offered to her, Pounder said, why not? And indeed, she’s terrific as the no-nonsense mom with three grown kids (including her hubby).

“Americans expect someone to stay in a box — like moving a portrait around,” said Pounder, who moved to the United States from Guyana when she was a teenager. “I couldn’t think of a more perfect time to shake things up.”

I asked Don Reo how he likes his chances with “Brothers.”

“When it works, it works,” he replied. “I have no idea if it will work. Our demise has been predicted already. We are in deadly time slot and we have what is essentially an old-style sitcom. The odds are certainly stacked against us here. But I think there is something really good here.”

Topics: brothers
//Mixed media