Give Me Some Relevance on TV
Why can't we have comedies like Good Times, in which the characters tackle substantive issues?
Yeah, maybe it seems that simple, but in my search for black shows that are actually worth my viewership and contribution to the Nielsen metrics, I'm not finding that crux of entertainment that points out societal ills and issues that I should pay attention to, while laughing with black laughter or gasping a black gasp.
Right now the unemployment rate among African Americans is 16.7 percent, the highest since 1984. More than half of all black male high school students drop out. Nearly twice as many blacks as whites lose their homes to foreclosure.
None of this is funny, but isn't there a way that television writers can treat these issues while making us laugh and at the same time not perpetuating stereotypes? Can we have television that makes us laugh at ourselves because we're familiar with the way characters would react to challenges like these?
"But we need more shows like The Cosby Show, and the reason they won't stay on the air is because black people won't watch them."
Two points there. First, Cosby was unique because of the talents of Bill Cosby. One demographic was already familiar with him through his work on I Spy and through his stand-up routines. Another younger demographic knew him through Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which anchored Saturday mornings on CBS for 12 years. So audiences were already prepared for Cosby's comedy to come to prime time.
Second, just because I'm black doesn't mean I'm under any obligation to watch something I don't think is entertaining, no matter who makes it. In fact, it's the obligation of the producers, writers and actors to make it worth my while. Entertainment is a competitive marketplace, just like any other. If it's not going to be compelling, then the arrow key on the remote gets pressed.
We live in a world that is clearly taking evolutionary steps in civilization. We're expecting that America will be majority minority in the near future; the economy is transforming itself into something none of us recognize; people from Boston to Bahrain are hitting the streets, angry about the wealthy keeping the world's wealth for themselves.
And the president of the United States is black, for God's sake!
Times have changed that much, and the most original black show I can find as I flip through the channels is one, buttressed with canned laughter, about a family living in New Rochelle, N.Y., nestled securely in the American dream that some charlatan tried to convince us was a universal norm back in the 1980s.
Here's the truth, though: There is no norm. We're all screwed up in some way. We all have to deal with this delightfully absurd world, and black folk have done it through imperfect methods that have kept us alive in this country for several centuries.
Now, that's some funny sh--.
Madison Gray is a New York-based writer and Web journalist. Follow him on Twitter.