The groundbreaking comedy sketch show debuted 20 years ago. What would it look like if it aired today?
-Heavy D, In Living Color theme song
"Sit down and be still," my mother would say as I jumped around the living room, Heavy D's lyrics flowing out of my mouth verbatim.
I remember watching In Living Color every Sunday, laughing feverishly at the Buttmans, a hardworking West Indian family named the Hedleys, Homey D. Clown, and Fire Marshal Bill. It was the early '90s, before James Carrey went by his nickname Jim, when David Alan Grier portrayed scandal-ridden Marion Barry, while T'Keyah Crystal Keymah lived in "Black World" where Jesse Jackson was king, and Kim Wayans wrote a "fast song" by way of Tracy Chapman.
That In Living Color made such an impact on a young girl who, at the time, probably didn't understand the punch line is a testimony to the show's influence on not only black television but on television, period. In Living Color set the stage for up-and-coming comedic talents such as Carrey, Grier, Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson, and Kim Coles. Keenen Ivory Wayans, as the host and creator of the show, put his siblings--Damon, Kim, Shawn and Marlon--front and center, making the Wayans family a household name. When the Wayanses left, the show's comedic genius--and in turn its popularity--faded to black in 1994.
But as I prepared to celebrate the 20th anniversary of In Living Color on April 15, I realized that while reminiscing about the ‘90s is nice, not all of the '90s humor holds up today. After recently popping in a DVD of the show's first season and watching a marathon on BET, I found the laughs were few and far between. Ugly Wanda, Homey D. Clown and Anton Jackson? OK, they're still funny. The Buttmans and the Adventures of Handi-man? Ehh, not so much.
And speaking of Foxx's Ugly Wanda, at last year's BET Awards, Wanda (and Martin Lawrence's "Sheneneh") was welcomed into the 21st century. Twitter was flooded with "Skank Robbers" buzz, with "Wanda" and "Sheneneh" as trending topics; a Facebook "Sheneneh and Wanda The Movie" fan page shortly followed; message boards asked, "is this trailer for real?" With an outpouring of support, Screen Gems has green-lighted production.
But that's not all that's next for Foxx. Late last month, the Fox network announced that the comedian would be executive producer of an untitled sketch comedy show pilot. Affion Crockett, a standout comic from MTV's Wild n Out, will be one of the show's stars. Is Foxx positioning himself to become the next Keenen Ivory Wayans? I hope so. There's no doubt that he's funny, and I've always preferred Jamie King to the Auto-Tuned Jamie "Blame It on the Alcohol" Foxx anyway.
However, as opposed to following the traditional network-television route, perhaps the 2010 sketch-comedy show should follow a new format, even bigger than TV. Welcome to the world of Internet TV, the new realm of video, dramatically different from the '90s kinda world when In Living Color first debuted.
Network television execs, and black folks in general, should get with the (online) program. Where are all the funny black folks who should have a television show? They're on the Web, starting up trouble on Twitter, posting their diary-style videos on YouTube, or impersonating America's first black president.
Here's my proposal: Fox, TV One, or any other interested network should launch a sketch-comedy Web series, a la In Living Color 2.0. Hire some young, funny, and most importantly, smart writers; put together a motley crew of actors and comedians; tape short segments as often as possible; and post them online. Promote and tweet, tweet, tweet. This model has proved to be successful with Funny or Die, which began as a comedy video series in 2007 and made its way to HBO this year.
It has to be smart, edgy and witty. If it comes in short clips to watch while you're BAW (bored at work), then it gets bonus Internet points. It must be as much political/cultural commentary as it is laugh-out-loud shenanigans. Let's call it progressive comedy with a bit of "ignant" sprinkled in between.
The multicultural dream cast of characters: Iman Crosson, Lil Duval, GloZell Green, Andy Milonakis, Anjelah Johnson and Nicole Randall Johnson. (Bonus points for snagging Parks and Recreation's Aziz Ansari and Community's Donald Glover.)
Now, many of these names you've probably never heard of. A quick rundown: Iman Crosson made a name for himself in the 2008 presidential campaign with his spot-on impressions of President Barack Obama, and now he's taken on Tiger Woods. He's essential to bridging the funny with the political. Lil Duval is one of the funniest, albeit Twitter-controversial, young comedians out today. Maybe you've seen him in a T.I. video or have stumbled upon one of instant trending topics on Twitter. GloZell Green, well, she's a burgeoning YouTube sensation. Watch her sad, Saturday night attempt to have "fun" in her apartment. Andy Milonakis, the teenage-looking 34-year-old, once had his own short-lived comedy show on MTV. Anjelah Johnson channels the stereotypical nail technician, but she also does a quickly agitated burger-joint cashier who will "cuuuut you." (You may have seen her in Our Family Wedding.) And Nicole Randall Johnson? Well, if Wanda and Sheneneh perfected the black man as a woman, then Ms. Johnson as Darrell ("spelled like Darrell, but it's pronounced Duh-rellll") is the consummate woman as a young black man tryna holla'. Mix some young writers with a few veterans, perhaps Fax Bahr and Alex Small, former In Living Color and MadTV writers, and there's my recipe for success.
Straight-to-the-Web series are increasingly popular. Granted, BET's Buppies didn't fare well, but the number of Web series continues to rise. There's Malik Yoba's Shop Talk, where young men talk about love, manhood and Obama. Michael K. Williams and Jamie Hector (both of The Wire fame) will star in Lenox Avenue, a story of three friends seeking love and relationships in Harlem. Monica Calhoun stars in Robert Townsend's Diary of a Single Mom, which will soon begin its second season.
To be sure, the rise in Web series shouldn't let television networks off the hook for having so few black writers, actors and directors. We want to be accurately portrayed on the traditional small screen, too. But, as much as I miss the days of the Dog Pound, Khadijah and 'em and WZUP, they are long gone. But here's to hoping that the future of blacks in television--be it on the Web or on the boob tube--is live and in living color.
Erin Evans is writer and copy editor for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.