It's seems unimaginable now, but the thing that you have to remember is this: Back in 1990, there really wasn't a space for black comedy, real, raw, uncut funk that took the truth right to the edge and then shoved. Hard. Sure, there was The Cosby Show, but Dr. Huxtable's subversion was subtle, safely contained within the sweater-wearing, family-friendly parameters of the 30-minute sitcom. And yes, there was Arsenio, double-breasted suited and whoo-whoo-whooing, but let's be real—Arsenio was only going to take things but so far.
In Living Color took things where you wanted things to be taken—past Oh-No-He-Didn't! and straight through to Oh-Snap-Yes-He-Did. This was black sketch comedy created by and for black folks. Which meant that it was real. And real funny. Plus, it had a beat that you could dance to. It was Heavy D and the Boyz—How ya livin? What?! How ya livin? In Living Color!—rapping on the theme song. And it was the Fly Girls breaking it on down, b-girls swirling and twirling between commercial breaks. And it was T'Keyah Crystal Keymah playing a little girl rhapsodizing what life would be like in Black World. Because, ultimately, that's what In Living Color was: Black World.
Created by the Wayans Brothers—Keenen Ivory and Damon—In Living Color took a defiantly black aesthetic and mainstreamed it. Where Cosby and Arsenio were middle class and respectable, In Living Color, which celebrates its 20th anniversary today, was anything but. This was comedy spawned from brothers who grew up in the projects and never forgot what life was like there. Their comedy was wicked, smart, bawdy—decidedly un-bourgeoisie. Where else were you going to see "Great Moments In Black History" illustrating the origins of the Jheri curl? Or watch a West Indian family brag about how many jobs they had? Or see two flamingly gay film critics give Great Balls of Fire two snaps up for the title alone? ("Holly Hunter? Hated it!" And "What you think of Glenn Close?" "Oh, I love him.") Yes, it was over-the-top. Yes, it was border-line offensive. But I bet you laughed. I know I did.
This was distinctly '90s-era comedy, saturated with the energy and urgency of hip-hop, which by then was in its renaissance. So you had Kente cloth and breakdancers and Tupac making guest appearances. Still, as comedy shows go, In Living Color, didn't break any new grounds in terms of structure; it followed the same broad outlines of other sketch shows come and gone, beginning with Rowan and Martin's Laugh In in the '60s to The Benny Hill Show in the '80s: Skit, music act, scantily clad dancers jiggling and gyrating. (Except that—hello—one of those jiggling and gyrating dancers was J-Lo, before her big ol' booty went crossover.)
Yet, the show took that structure and subverted it with its content—there was always a slightly pissed-off edge to In Living Color. Jokes were flying about the West Indians and their multiple jobs, but everybody knew why they had so many gigs—because they had to. Or maybe they were just tapping into black rage and spoofing it. Because they could, in a way that white folks couldn't touch with an exceedingly long pole. Think about Damon Wayans, arguably the best of a highly talented crop, who seemed to revel in taking on the impotency of African-American anger, from an angry black clown named Homey to his kufi-wearing black nationalist spouting intellectual gibberish. He was all pacing and world-weariness, looking just a little manic around the eyes.
In Living Color's creators owed, of course, a debt of gratitude to those who went before them. Eddie Murphy brought the inner city to Saturday Night Live, even though SNL never seemed to know what to do with black comic genius. Before any of them, of course, Richard Pryor and Flip Wilson had their own variety shows, serving up sketch comedy. Flip kept it on the more PG side of things, though you could argue that his mini-skirt wearing Geraldine made it easier for Jamie Foxx to don a dress and morph into Weird "I'm Gon' Rock Yo World" Wanda. But Pryor took prime time and rode it hard, with subversive satire that poked holes in America's racial hypocrisy. Watch his President Pryor skit today, and it's still side-splitting, even in 2010. Fear of a black president remains all too real.
In Living Color insinuated itself into our national psyche, finger-snapping and head-rolling all the way. You could call it ironic that FOX TV was once the home of In Living Color and now its cable news channel is the mouthpiece of Birthers and Teabaggers. So for all the town hallers angrily brandishing their "Homey Don't Play That" signs, I have this to say: You better recognize.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. Follow her on Twitter.