Over the past couple weeks, we’ve seen the unlikely rekindling of the Friends vs Living Single beef. Things got started when Friends actor David Schwimmer was asked in an interview about a Friends reboot. He gave an answer saying he’d want to see an all-Asian or all-black reboot of the show. While well-meaning, it ignored the fact that an all-black version of the show existed in Living Single. This led to actress Erika Alexander calling him out on Twitter about it. Schwimmer would issue a thoughtful response and Alexander promised a longer form response herself.
On Monday, Alexander released her response on Zora. She details how Living Single aired a year before Friends and how the two shows follow remarkably similar templates: six friends living in the same apartment complex in New York dealing with problems in their professional and romantic lives. Hell, both shows were shot at the same studio in Burbank. One show became an inescapable cultural phenomenon, the other was simply labeled “a black show.” The root of Alexander’s argument comes down to what she labels as “perceived stature” and “implicit value.” She makes a good point by saying that “there can never be an all-Black Friends, because Friends was the all-white Living Single.” Yet because Friends is Friends, that point sounds weird even it’s straight facts. It points to the latent racism baked into how we perceive what art is valuable.
It’s a remarkably thought-provoking piece that gets at truths we’ve long known true but often goes unspoken. It details the relationship between capital and artistry with clarity and shows how often black artists get the short end of the stick.
Unfortunately, a work’s quality doesn’t exactly dictate what it’s worth. For example, The Big Bang Theory sold to HBO Max for over a $1 billion. If you’ve been paying attention to the streaming wars at all you’ve probably seen stories about how Netflix bought Seinfeld for $500 million, The Office went to NBC for $500 million and HBOMax spent $425 million on Friends. Yet, I haven’t seen much in the way of streaming services throwing around cash to get The Fresh Prince or Martin. I tried to find how much Hulu spent on Living Single and couldn’t find it. Wouldn’t surprise me if it was far less than the shows listed above.
Alexander’s piece really got me thinking about what is and isn’t on streaming services. What audience is seen as valuable? From the way the money is flowing, it’s not us. There are plenty of black sitcoms from the last three decades that I would kill to be able to easily watch. I’m talking some Moesha, Half and Half, One on One, basically the entire Thursday night lineup on UPN. Shit man, I’d even settle for Cousin Skeeter at this point. Yet, clearly my viewership isn’t worth as much as the white girl who wants to watch The Office for the 27th time.
White art is constantly preserved and celebrated yet ours is easily erased and treated as disposable. It’s there, it’s gone and then folks act surprised 20 years later when they realize, actually, we did it first. While more black art is being made today, its perception has hardly changed. Think I’m wrong? Remember that the next time a black film does well at the box office and it’s labeled a “surprise.”