Shades of Funny

black-ish Creator Kenya Barris, EP Courtney Lilly Reflect on How the Comedy's 'Absolute' Blackness Has Been Key to Its Universal Appeal

blackish-series-finale-legacy-kenya-barris-interview

Visitors to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., usually start their tour in the belly of the facility, where exhibits drive home the horrifying efficiency with which millions of African people were snatched from their homeland and sold into slavery. As the tour continues upward through the building, visitors traverse centuries of the Black experience in America until they reach an exhibit reflecting the present day.

It was on that highest level where Kenya Barris, during a visit with his family, encountered a surprise that brought him to tears.

 

“At the top floor, there was a TV set,” he recalls. “And black-ish was on. I started crying, you know?”

The ABC series’ inclusion in the exhibit was both touching and well-deserved: In its eight seasons, black-ish has carved a niche as primetime’s most consistent place for pointed, meaningful and yes, funny conversations about race. It has grabbed and held an audience that tunes in every week to watch the Johnsons navigate life as an upper middle-class Black family in the United States. It has made headlines and kept an awards-challenged ABC in the Emmy game. It has been a launchpad for Barris, its creator, who has evolved into a real Hollywood player, someone who commands both professional respect and nine-figure deals.

It also has reached its endpoint. As black-ish gears up for its series finale later this year, TVLine spoke with Barris, as well as current showrunner Courtney Lilly, about the legacy they hope the show will sustain long after the final credits roll.

blackish-series-finale-legacy-kenya-barris-interview‘ABSOLUTELY BLACK’| Barris had written 18 pilots before black-ish, a loosely autobiographical story about a family that looked a lot like Barris’ at the time. It followed ad man Andre “Dre” Johnson (played by Anthony Anderson); his anesthesiologist wife Rainbow, aka Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross); their four children Junior, Zoey, Diane and Jack (Marcus Scribner, Yara Shahidi, Marsai Martin and Miles Brown, respectively); and Dre’s father, Pops (Laurence Fishburne). 

The process of writing and selling the show felt different from what came before “at every point,” Barris says. The concept was simple: “You’re taught to give your kids more than you have. But in doing that, what do you lose?” But rather than going broad, as TV comedies are apt to do, and centering on a family that just happened to be Black, black-ish was the story of a family that was, as Barris says, “absolutely Black.” In the specificity of the Johnson family’s experience, hopefully, viewers of all colors would be able to recognize universal truths.

Once Fishburne and Anderson joined the cast, “I felt like it was on rails,” the EP says. (It helped that the two highly entertaining veteran actors essentially performed as their characters in meetings with network brass.) ABC wasn’t the only network that wanted the show, but it was Barris’ top choice. “I wanted to be on after Modern Family, because I felt if the show was ever going to have love, it needed to be in a place where it was not going to be ‘the Black family sitcom,'” he says. “It needed to be somewhere that it could be that, and so much more.”

black-ish soon became known for its social commentary, its loyal and vocal audience and its unrelenting punchlines. That last part, in particular, was thanks to the show’s deep bench: Larry Wilmore (The Daily Show), Jonathan Groff (Scrubs), Yvette Lee Bowser (Living Single), Corey Nickerson (Chuck) and Gail Lerner (Will & Grace), as well as Barris himself, were in the creative mix. “He had an incredibly talented staff that first year, super, super experienced,” recalls Lilly, who joined the show in Season 1. “There were, I don’t know, like 15 writers, and a dozen of them were showrunner level.”

Storylines that first season found Dre scheming to be the Black Santa that he felt his office holiday party needed and navigating his relationship with Bow’s Black mother and white dad. However, Barris says the show really came into its own with Episode 3, “The Nod.”

In that episode, which Barris penned, Dre realizes that his teen son, Junior, doesn’t understand what it means when Black men acknowledge each other with a backward tilt of the head.  “It was about a head nod, and little intricacies that certain groups will have,” he says. “The show began to turn, and find its feet, on that.” Two episodes later, black-ish took on spanking. “At the time we looked at it, it was being assigned to, you know, Blacks in the ‘hood. Like, people [who] beat their kids,” Barris says. Yet when he polled the diverse writers’ room, almost everyone had received a spanking in their childhood, and nearly no one had spanked their own children. So the topic became the seed for an episode, in part to “start debunking the myths of what people use to divide us,” Barris recalls.

“The first couple of seasons, those stories — and getting behind the curtain of what people were thinking — became what I loved about doing the show,” he adds, “and what makes the show special.”

blackish-series-finale-legacy-kenya-barris-interviewTHE BLACK-ISH SPIN | As the seasons progressed, and black-ish continued to be a funny, insightful voice in the cultural conversation, Barris remembers, the show found increased leeway at the network. “What ended up happening is that the more success we had bucking against what we were told to do — there were some concerns from the Powers That Be, and in all the right spirit and place, but they were like, ‘Is this too ostracizing?'” he says. “And then suddenly, the specificity of these stories began to actually become interesting and translatable to people. So our thing started becoming, ‘Let’s put the black-ish spin on it.” In short: delving into topics that had previously been considered too niche, too insular, too, well, Black for broadcast TV “became the superpower DNA of the show,” Barris says.

And the show wielded that power for good. Take, for instance, the Season 2 episode titled “Hope,” which dealt with the Black Lives Matter movement and how Dre and Bow talked with their kids about police violence against people of color. Via the makeup of the Johnson family — from Dre’s old-school parents Pops and Ruby down to grade-school-age Jack and Diane — “you see all of these different touch points of where a generation’s proximity to a certain issue is,” says Dr. Brandon Manning, a Texas Christian University professor whose area of expertise includes Black pop culture. “The Black Lives Matter episode was one of those moments where you can see through the generations how folks have struggled with issues of police brutality.” Manning adds that the show had similar successes when it took on national politics and the 2020 presidential election. “It plays out in a number of different ways where people are emotionally,” he says.

Season 3’s “ToysRn’tUs” found Bow taking an American Girl Doll-like store to task for only offering two Black dolls: a slave and a civil-rights leader. The Season 4 opener “Juneteenth: The Musical,” staged elaborate theatrical numbers both to commemorate the day enslaved Black people learned they were free in Texas and to chastise America for not, at that point, recognizing the date as a national holiday. In Season 5’s “Black Like Us,” a school photographer’s inability to properly light Diane’s skin in her class photo led to a discussion about colorism. When the 400th anniversary of the slave trade in America approached, Lilly and his writers pitched the network two ambitious, expensive episodes that would be shot in Ghana. “Nobody balked!” he says, laughing, still amazed years later. (Due to the realities of filming in the West African nation, however, the episodes eventually did not come to pass.)

blackish-series-finale-legacy-kenya-barris-interviewblack-ish also aspired to fill gaps its TV forebears had not. Lilly points to the Season 4 arc in which Bow and Dre’s marriage is on the rocks, and they separate before eventually deciding that they want to remain married. He remembers a conversation with Barris around the time the writers were discussing how the story would play out. The Cosby Show came up. “Ken said something that really crystallized the reason for doing it for me. He grew up in a house where the parents weren’t together. And he said, ‘I just always wished that one time I had seen the Huxtables fight, you know?'”

The comedy became such a force in pop culture that when it hit its biggest point of friction with ABC, the fallout made headlines. In 2018, a Season 4 episode titled “Please, Baby, Please” was written, shot and then scrapped by the network. The half-hour had Dre reading a bedtime story to his infant son Devante; the tale was critical of then-President Donald Trump, whom it referred to as “the Shady King.” Another scene in the episode had Dre and Junior examining pro athletes’ choices to protest by taking a knee during the national anthem.

At the time, ABC released a statement that said “creative differences” were behind the decision; Barris later said the network’s suggested edits changed the ep into something unrecognizable, and that the decision not to air it was mutual. (Barris later successfully lobbied Hulu, which streams black-ish, to add “Please, Baby, Please” to its library during 2020’s racial reckoning.) Not long after the episode was scrapped, Barris left ABC years before his contract was up, for a reported $100 million overall deal at Netflix; he has since relocated to BET Studios.

Lilly became showrunner in 2019, and says that both Barris and the network created an environment that made it relatively easy to continue the show’s momentum. “I was set up to succeed,” he says, giving a large part of the credit to Barris. “Honestly, I don’t know how you walk away on something so autobiographical,” he says. “And he did, and he allowed the show to be the thing that I could make it.”

blackish-series-finale-legacy-kenya-barris-interview‘WE ARE NOT JUST MONOLITHS IN OUR STORYTELLING’| Barris says one of the reasons he decamped to Netflix was to create #blackAF, the harder-edged, again loosely autobiographical comedy-turned-potential movie franchise that he sees as the next iteration of a show like black-ish. “I wanted to see: How do you do it for our generation now?” And he’s of course created the black-ish spinoffs grown-ish (which stars Shahidi, airs on Freeform and has a young cast Barris likes to refer to as “my St. Elmo’s Fire“) and mixed-ish (a prequel which told the story of Bow’s childhood and which ran on ABC for two seasons); a comedy about a Latino family, on which Barris is working with Eva Longoria, is currently in development.

In the decades to come, Barris says, he’d like black-ish to be considered on par with the greats. “I know we’re not supposed to talk about The Cosby Show, ” he says, chuckling, “but I hope it’s mentioned in the same breath as Norman Lear and The Cosby Show.” That said, the EP adds that he’d like to think of the show’s impact extending far beyond the screen.

“I want to hope that we had something to do with Juneteenth becoming a holiday,” he says. He also likes to think that black-ish contributed to a landscape that allows for creators like The Underground Railroad‘s Barry Jenkins and Selma‘s Ava DuVernay “to be able to have more of a specific voice” so that audiences can see “we are not just monoliths in our storytelling, as well.” He’s also very proud of the many talented people black-ish directly employed over its eight seasons. “A lot of professionals and directors, writers and actors passed through those stages, and they got their opportunities there,” he says.

blackish-series-finale-legacy-kenya-barris-interviewIT’S AN HONOR TO BE NOMINATED? | Though black-ish and various members of its cast and crew have been nominated 25 times during its run, the show has only taken home one Emmy: Outstanding Contemporary Hairstyling in 2020. “We’re never going to win,” Lilly says, bemusedly resigned. “We’re not the cool kids.”

Barris sees it a little differently — “We were in those nominations when other network shows weren’t,” he acknowledges — but after that day at the National African American History Museum, it didn’t really matter. Seeing black-ish represented on the top floor was a sign that his show meant something to America, to Black people in America. “It got its place in the zeitgeist, and in the community in that kind of way, and it taught me a lot,” he says, still sounding a little awed. “We never won an Emmy, but we did win six or seven straight Image Awards,” an accolade handed out by the NAACP. “I was like, ‘I’m chasing all these other things, but right in front of me, what they’re saying is — my people, my community— …every year, [black-ish] is being heralded.'”

In the end, the comedy had “a voice for people who didn’t have a voice before,” he adds. “That is a lesson, and hopefully the legacy of what black-ish is. It brings us all closer.”

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