In conversation, the name Coby Bell might not immediately ring a bell. But mention Jason Pitts — the cheap, former star running back — among fans of The Game, and you'll probably hear about one of the many jerky things that he's done on the show's four-season run. Or if you're like me, you might remember him on an episode of Smart Guy, as the star basketball player who needed tutoring from a pint-sized genius. (Interesting that he goes on to play opposite Tahj Mowry's older sister, Tia, aka The Game's Melanie Barnett. Small world.)
So on the news that BET will pick up The Game for its fifth season, we caught up with Bell to learn that when he's not playing Pitts, he's busy being a family man (he's the father of two sets of twins), playing and writing music, or chasing the bad guys on USA Network's Burn Notice. In this interview, he talks about the surprising success of the "Dip and Pitts," the state of black television and how he balances a bicoastal life.
The Root: How does it feel being on a show that the fans lobbied so hard to get back on air?
Coby Bell: It feels great. It feels really good. I think Mara Brock Akil [the show's creator and executive producer] does a good job of understanding our audience. With all her experience with Girlfriends, she's always known exactly what it is that gets people hooked on the show. She just did her thing. As far as Jason, it's a blast playing that jerk. He's a jerk, but he says what people think but they're afraid to say. So they laugh at it.
TR: Could you talk a little about the show's shift from a sitcom to more of a drama? How did that affect your character?
CB: The show has been evolving since Day 1, really. It started out as a total sitcom, and then the second season we lost the studio audience, started doing a lot more single-camera stuff. Then we went away for a couple years. And we came back on BET and took the opportunity to just make it full-on single camera. Yeah, they are going heavier on the drama. But they've kept my guy silly. I've appreciated that, and I actually requested it. I love doing the comedy.
CB: One of the executive producers came up with the idea of it. Then I got involved with the writing of the song. I went in a studio session, and while we were doing it, we were like, this is kind of dope. On the set, we knew it was silly and fun, but I was not expecting it to go on to YouTube.
TR: And hear it on the radio?
CB: It was on the radio? Wow. I've had people come up to me and say, "Hey, I was in the club and the Jason Pitts song came on." The whole joke was that the song was supposed to be such a flop. And Jason was going around saying it was a dance craze that swept the nation. And in the world of the show, it was just a joke: one of those cheesy songs that football players make. The night before we were shooting, I just made it up. I had no idea it was going to do what it did.
TR: Tell me a little about the state of black television from your perspective.
CB: In a lot of ways, I feel like TV's going backward. There was The Cosby Show in the '80s, which was a mainstream, beautiful thing showing people that this is just a family. Forget about whether they were black or white, but it was a family, period, so check it out. We've kind of gotten away from that.
That's why I'm glad to see the crossover appeal of The Game. I have people from all different races and backgrounds coming up to me and telling me how much they dig the show. I think it's also cool to show an interracial relationship and not make a big deal out of it. It's just two people who are in love. I think it was really cool to get the opportunity to do that. Every episode doesn't have to be about "I'm black and you're white, how will we make it work?" I'm biracial, so I knew firsthand that it was nothing.
CB: When I'm not working, I'm just with my kids and my wife. Since Burn Notice shoots in Miami and The Game shoots in Atlanta, and my wife and my kids are in California, these days I'm either on set or on a plane or with my family. That's just what I do. I fly home every weekend, sometimes twice a week. So it gets to be a lot, but I have four kids, so I don't want to miss out on anything that's going on. And I don't want them to miss out on having me around. It's just kind of what I have to do. Everything I do is for them.
TR: Do you keep up with politics?
CB: It's always important to keep up with what's going on around you. You may not think that all the stuff that's going on in Washington or in other parts of the world affects you and your day-to-day life, but it does. As far as Barack Obama, the way the country was left to him when the Bush administration left, it must be an incredibly tough job. I think he's done an extremely good job with the situation he's been put into. Not only is his situation messed up, but all these other congressmen and senators on the other side are basically doing everything they can to stop everything he's done.
TR: What do you hope viewers take away from watching The Game?
CB: People always use the term "African-American community." They'll say, "The African-American community feels like … " But I never find it to be true. Within the African-American community, there are all different kinds of people with different kinds of ways of going about their lives. But I think The Game represents that spectrum. You got everyone from Melanie, who went to med school and she's a doctor. And you got Jason, who was raised by a football player and raised in the suburbs. And then you have Tasha, who's representing the so-called hood. And I think that's a pretty dynamic view of African-American life.
Erin E. Evans is a writer in New York. Follow her on Twitter.