What Killed the Black Sitcom
By the time I was 13-years-old, I only met three black people. One of them was my friend Marcus. But what I lacked in connection with blacks growing up, I made up for in watching blacks on television. The Cosby Show, In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin, and Family Matters were staples of my pre-pubescent TV regimen. I even watched Sister, Sister.
I didn’t watch blacks on television to be well-rounded. Kids are about as pretentious as a dog. This was the early-to-mid 90’s, the height of my childhood, and the height of the black sitcom. The 1990 Fall primetime line-up featured five black shows. The 2012 fall primetime line-up, however, will feature the same number of black shows as there were under Apartheid.
This would be a highly unlikely coincidence. Primetime without a black sitcom is like an NFL team without black players. For whatever reason, blacks are funnier and more charismatic than white guys. They’re at least loud, which is half the battle. Being loud is the whole battle if you’re Chris Tucker.
So, as I sift through Netflix devouring whatever I can from the heyday of black television, I wonder what the hell happened.
You can’t sit through two minutes of a Tyler Perry joint without being hit in the face with the answer: Black sitcoms used to be about blacks being people, but now they’re about blacks being black people. Half the punchlines in a modern, black sitcom are regular lines spoken in ebonics, and the rest have the “look how black I am” subtext or affectation.
However, in Family Matters, Steve Urkel is black and a nerd without anyone finding it peculiar. In The Cosby Show, when Theo was caught with weed, there was no mention of how this reflects on the black community. In Martin, the Sheneneh character did indicate black stereotypes, but only to make fun of them. (The fact that these jokes are rarely touched today is a conversation for another article.)
Though jokes based on racial stereotypes are funny, a whole TV series based on racial stereotypes is exhausting. The result is a show that is watched only because it exploits the “we’re different because we look different” impulse.
As much as I’d like to blame Tyler Perry for the downfall of the black sitcom, it’s not his fault. This trend was inevitable.
The 20th Century did a lot to remove barriers between blacks and whites. As Jim Crow laws were repealed, however, we started to build new barriers. In the past 100 years, race has gone from being important to being important in a different way. Now we have the black experience, black opinions, and black culture. The dénouement of this story is the black politician, not the politician who is black. In such an environment, there’s no hope for Steve Harvey to make a sitcom without his blackness being the undercurrent of the show.
This root of the racial pander is of course in the university, where we willfully flagellate ourselves with ideas that should be right. But television works at another level. If a joke is tired, then it’s tired. Without our college professors there to monitor what we watch, we change the channel. An intellectual loses power as soon as he loses the ability to give you an F.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw The Blues Brothers. I was in college, and waist deep in my liberal arts education. I’m reminded specifically of the diner scene, and what a relief it was to see a black guy and white guy interact without mentioning race. Maybe this is why I gravitated toward black television in my childhood. Sure, Marcus’s parents wouldn’t have named him Mark, and my parents wouldn’t have named me Marcus, but Family Matters made it clear that blacks weren’t any different from me.
If Tyler Perry remade The Blues Brothers, he wouldn’t know how to write for Matt “Guitar” Murphy without belaboring racial constructs. This is colloquially known as being “not funny.”
The downfall of the black sitcom has of course been blamed on implicit racism in America. The argument goes, sure, we enjoyed blacks on television for a little while, but it was just a fad, like Oprah’s Big Give.
But the truth is even worse. Blacks aren’t on television because they’re no longer portrayed apart from their race. This dehumanization is accepted when packaged in postmodernist language, but when scrutinized under the honesty of laughter, there’s nothing funny about it.