[6 December 2004]
In 1989, Keenen Ivory Wayans created In Living Color, imagining it as a post-Civil Rights, crossover comedy show. Ironically, the series’ immense popularity reflected the increasing importance of “urban audiences” during the 1990s.
By the late ‘80s, network executives were well aware that black viewers watched 44% more network TV than their non-black counterparts. NBC had already tapped that audience with The Cosby Show, and followed up with A Different World in 1987, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1990. In 1986, the upstart Fox started “narrow casting,” announcing a fall schedule that specifically targeted black viewers, and in 1990, it added In Living Coor. By 1995, blacks accounted for one-quarter of Fox’s audience. On the new DVD release of the show’s second season, Wayans offers an insightful explanation for its success: “Fox changed the course of black television unintentionally. They didn’t go out to make black shows. They went out to make alternative programming. And when I came along with In Living Color, they were actually very fearful of what I was doing. But they knew that it was something different.”
One example of this difference is Damon Wayans’ portrayal of Homey the Clown. Part coonish stereotype and part oppositional representation, Homey is a militant derelict. With tattered clothing, slurred speech, and pronounced anger, he mocks middle-class values and ideas. In one episode in this collection, “Homey the Clown: When Homey Meets Sally,” we experience the brilliance and racial sensibilities of the show. It starts with a white Wall Street executive asking Homey if he can go ahead of him at the probation office so that he can get back to the stock exchange. Homey responds swiftly, “Sure, let you go back to embezzle millions of dollars while I struggle to get by on minimum wage. I don’t think so. Homey don’t play that.”
Then again, in “Homey the Clown: Homey the Sellout,” Homey screams at representatives of Mr. Establishment, who solicit his help to sell a kid’s cereal: “You want me to further oppress my people to get them to eat stuff that will make their teeth fall out. I don’t think so.” Accepting their million-dollar offer, Homey becomes a pitch-clown, telling kids to “Do what the man says, buy yourself a box of Homey Wheats, the only cereal made from cookies, marshmallows, sugar cubes and other nutritional pieces of candy. This is a cereal Homey can play.” He starts wearing business suits, drives a Porsche, and adopts a condescending attitude toward the poor. He even dines at Chez Whitey. Appearing during the Reagan revolution’s pronounced backlash against the homeless/poor/people of color, Homey offered a counter-narrative, a hilarious yet poignant satire of U.S. “values.”
In addition to the season’s 26 episodes, the DVD set includes audio commentary on several sketches, featurettes on popular characters, and another titled “Appreciating In Living Color.” Commentaries by writers Kim Bass and Buddy Sheffield are especially instructive, as they link Homey’s decision to “sell out” to hip-hop artists abandoning politics for the sake of financial and cultural acceptance.
The featurette “Appreciating In Living Color” includes interviews with the show’s stars as well as USC Critical Studies Professor Todd Boyd, who explain In Living Color‘s part in pushing hip-hop into the mainstream by providing an alternative to the Cosby vision of “blackness.” If at times the DVD extras over-celebrate the show as “authentic” opposition without contradictions, Boyd, Tommy Davidson, and several writers also make the case for its lasting significance. For one thing, it directly engaged U.S. racism. In “Foundation for Golf Heritage,” series regular Jim Carrey plays a country club manager who announces, “There is always a place for blacks at our club as long as they are not holding one.”
For the most part, though, the featurettes reveal little introspection, balancing celebration and defensiveness. One skit features the Buttmans, who all have robust asses atop their heads; when the daughter dates a white man with a smallish penis as his nose in an episode entitled “The Buttmans: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” the Buttman parents wonder how their daughter could date a white man. While the skit is a pointed and hilarious commentary on racial politics and stereotypes, Kim Bass, one of the show’s few black writers, says, it “had nothing to do with race.”
In fact, during the show’s popularity and even today, commentators are unable to see the show’s satire or politics, often focusing on either its humor or its deployment of crude stereotypes. Even those who see its racial text fall into the trap of reducing In Living Color to a promulgator of racial stereotypes without acknowledging its oppositional and progressive orientation. Whether with Tom & Tom, Anton, the Homeboy Shopping Network, or when “Barbara Bush visits the Illiterates,” In Living Color not only repelled “politically correct conventions” by giving voice to “universal social issues,” but provided a space of scathing, yet satirical, critique of America’s racial reality.
Despite its tremendous popularity and its cultural contribution to societal debates on racial issues, the tenure of In Living Color proved to be short-lived. As Fox secured legitimacy as a television network through purchasing the rights to broadcast the NFL, Major League Baseball, and the NHL, it no longer needed or wanted to be associated with black counter-programming found in In Living Color. Once it entered this promised land, Fox systematically canceled its black-oriented shows, including In Living Color, Roc, and South Central. “The only reason FOX, WB, and UPN get involved in black programming,” notes a network vice president in Kristal Brent Zook’s book, Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television, “is so they can temporarily sustain themselves. The minute they can, they pull out.” Still, Fox’s commodification of blackness opened doors for future similar efforts by the WB, UPN, and Comedy Central. Despite the persistent scarcity of black creative power on television, In Living Color paved the way for Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock, and Bernie Mac.
In Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, Robin D.G. Kelley argues that, “despite the appearances of consent, oppressed groups challenge those in power by constructing a ‘hidden transcript,’ a dissident political culture that manifests itself in daily conversations, folklore, jokes, songs, and other cultural practices” (8). The release of the second season of In Living Color on DVD at the same time of the publication Chrstine Acham’s Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power reminds us that television can empower viewers against the establishment. Challenging both a colorblind paradigm and a middle-class black leadership that emphasized respectability over oppositional politics, In Living Color offered dissidence.