Retrospective: The Black Sitcoms of the 90's

By @TrueGodImmortal 

The 90's are presumably the most celebrated years of a lot of our lives if you are in the 25-40 year old range. While the music from the 90's is forever celebrated, the television programming from the decade is also recognized as some of the best we have ever seen. For those of us firmly rooted in black culture, you know the 90's featured more black sitcoms than we had witnessed on at the same time. It was like a huge wave of empowerment to see so many black faces on various networks. The reason for a majority of these shows being given the green light was the 80's biggest sitcom, The Cosby Show. Last week, we discussed The Cosby Show in our look at the 70's and 80's sitcom retrospective, and today it's where we begin our look at the black sitcoms of the 90's.

The Cosby Show was monumental for black television and showcased a different perspective to the black experience with a successful and mostly solid black family all with aspirations and dreams being fulfilled. It was a departure from the wave of the 70's and 80's, where the majority were either adopted by a white family, living in the projects and poverty, or just a form of a walking stereotype. The Cosby Show changed all that, and as the show officially came to an end in 1992, it left behind a very big legacy and big shoes to fill for black sitcoms. Another show that we discussed before in our 70's and 80's piece was A Different World, a Cosby Show spinoff set in the fictitious Hillman College. That show ended in 1993, a year after the Cosby Show finished. A Different World was a new experience for those of us watching television, as we had never truly seen a show that attempts to accurately depict the black college experience. It was something different and it became vastly popular over the years and helped create another wave in the 90's. However, everything wasn't all good in the early 90's as far as black sitcoms go.

The beginning of the decade saw a forgettable sitcom starring Sheryl Lee Ralph titled "New Attitude", which didn't even make it beyond one season. I'm sure you're not even familiar with what this show is about and the less said about it the better. The show got 6 episodes aired in ABC before being pulled and canceled, as it was based off the Shelly Garrett play Beauty Shop, which would be turned into an also horrible film in 2005. Another failed sitcom in the early 90's, would be the promising yet poorly executed Out All Night, which had a solid cast featuring Patti Labelle, Vivica Fox, Duane Martin, and Morris Chestnut. Unfortunately, the show would not be hugely successful, though it managed to do a bit better than New Attitude in comparison. Out All Night was set in the same television universe as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, with Hillary Banks making an appearance on the 10th episode. You'd think the parallel would make it easier for the show to succeed, but low ratings led to the show getting axed after 19 episodes and just 1 season. One saving grace about the show was that it featured a number of musical guests like After 7, Jodeci, Mary J. Blige, and countless others, making it at least somewhat memorable. Oddly enough, two of the stars from Out All Night, Vivica Fox and Duane Martin would have their own sitcom in the late 90's together titled Getting Personal, and this one would fail as well, getting canceled before the season was over as well. The most noteworthy thing about the show and in a way the most hilarious, Reggie Hayes starred in a role as a character named Leon Sykes Pettibone, which might be the most hilarious name I've ever heard on television. Aside from that, the show really didn't make any waves and fell short. That would be the case for a few others in the decade like the underrated South Central (which had potential), the odd Minor Adjustments (which starred Rondell Sheridan and was quickly canceled), On Our Own (long before he was Jamal on Empire, Jussie Smollett was a child family actor with his brothers and sisters here), the poorly executed Thea, the failed Damon Wayans sitcom titled "Damon", as well as Arsenio Hall's attempt to come back to television with his self titled sitcom. These are just a few of the failed sitcoms of the 90's, but trust there are plenty more and we may discuss them later.

In many ways, the 90's had a throw it at the wall and see what sticks approach. There were many descendants of the Cosby Show that really didn't embody the same values or the same feel, and as a result they failed. One show that seemed to captivate audiences by following the lead of Cosby and the successful black family premise was Family Matters, the show infamously known for the main character Steve Urkel, played by Jaleel White. Though Family Matters is directly a spinoff of the successful show Perfect Strangers, it had a vibe that resembles Cosby merely due to the success of the black family, the Winslows. The craziest part about Family Matters is that Urkel originally wasn't the main character in the show and was introduced halfway through the first season. The show was set in Chicago, based around police officer Carl Winslow, his wife Harriet, daughters Laura and Judy, and son Eddie. I personally was never a big fan of the show, and while Urkel became a favorite in the 90's for many, I think the show had the perfect balance of cheesy and corny to appeal to a certain demographic. That doesn't make the show endearing to me, but for a large number of people, that was a big factor. Where the rest of the black sitcoms could border on adult humor at times, for the most part, Family Matters was wholesome family entertainment with a very catchy theme song as well. I think any show that lasts 8 to 9 seasons will eventually burn out, and make no mistake about it, Family Matters burnt out pretty hard, as we saw a chamber that turned Urkel into a cooler alter ego Stefan, time travel, and various other ridiculous moments that truly took the show from good family entertainment to a bit of an embarrassing joke. When the show was canceled on ABC in 1997, it got picked up for one final season on CBS, which only made things worse it seemed. Regardless, when you talk about the 90's, one would have to mention Family Matters, and especially one of the more iconic characters of the decade in Urkel. His long and pointless pursuit of Laura was the story a lot of sitcoms would continue to push, as the "unlikely guy chases beautiful girl" story has been so prevalent over the years. While Family Matters wasn't my favorite, it is certainly within the top 10 black sitcoms from the decade.

A slept on show that I have to mention from this decade has to be Hangin With Mr. Cooper, a personal favorite of mine. Comedian Mark Curry starred as former NBA star Mark Cooper, who became a substitute teacher and a gym coach. The show didn't have any outlandish moments or truly any outlandish characters, it just blended the right amount of comedy and consistency to carry on for 5 seasons. Raven Symone would be featured here as her time on the Cosby Show ended, and Holly Robinson Peete would end up seeing a lot of screen time in this show as well. The idea of the show was that Mark would move in with his two female best friends and try to manage living with women. It was a funny concept in some way, and it made for entertaining television. Though Hangin With Mr. Cooper isn't regarded as one of the best sitcoms from the 90's, I believe it is one of the most underrated and it helped relaunch the career of Holly Robinson Peete as well, who would go on to have her own black sitcom in the late 90's right after the show ended, the semi successful For Your Love. Hangin With Mr. Cooper isn't one of the greatest of the decade, but it is always an entertaining watch and good for laughs.

Another show that struck gold in the 90's would be the Brandy vehicle Moesha. Now, Brandy was a huge R&B star and would turn her musical success into a teenage based comedy, that saw her going through life just trying to find the answers. She would have a group of friends, Niecey, Kim, and Hakeem, and they would all end up in the Den to party and enjoy food with other teenagers at the time. Moesha was the titular character's name and Brandy would truly bring her own flavor to the character, carrying the show for 6 seasons. The story of the Mitchell family would see ups and downs, with Moesha finding out her believed cousin was really her brother, the family being at strain, and of course the teenage issues that came for Moesha. As the show progressed, it lost a bit of its luster honestly, but it would be the show that truly carried the UPN Network, which is honestly the network that attempted so many black sitcoms that you have to tip your hat to them. UPN saw huge dollars in black sitcoms and shows, and they would continously put them out, even giving a character off Moesha her own spinoff as well. Moesha's loud and outspoken friend Kim Parker and her mother would get their own show, The Parkers, which was intended to captivate a more sassy black female audience and expand upon the college struggles of Kim as she got older. That show is more so rooted in the 2000s, so I won't discuss it much here, but Moesha was responsible for the show's existence, for better or worse.

Another female led black sitcom in the decade was the twin sister comedy Sister, Sister starring Tia and Tamera Mowry. This show wasn't one of my favorites, but I will say it was different in some way. It featured the premise of two identical twins who were separated at birth and adopted by two different people, and they eventually find each other as they're heading into high school. This premise was a bit jumbled, but it was definitely different and made for an interesting dichotomy between the respective adopted parents, played by Jackee Harry and Tim Reid. Marques Houston would play the role of Roger, the dorky yet persistent neighbor who loved both of the girls. Much like Moesha, this show would feature the teenage struggle of both girls, but with a bit more of a true upper middle class reality. Where Moesha felt more urban and a bit more relatable, somehow Sister, Sister felt a tad more upscale in its struggle and problems. Perhaps that's just my perspective. Sister, Sister was a solid show however, and at its best, it catapulted the career of the Mowry family, which in some ways can be seen as the reason why their little brother Taj Mowry got his own show Smart Guy in 1997. Though Smart Guy wasn't as popular as Sister, Sister, it still was a decent program and featured another different premise, as we saw a black child genius being raised by his single dad, something that television hadn't really shown us before. In many ways, this was a daring move. It worked. Both Sister, Sister and Smart Guy are memorable shows from the 90's, and both would be featured on the WB lineup, which spawned a huge wave of successful sitcoms in the 90's.

Steve Harvey, a successful standup comedian, had a failed sitcom in the 90's as a single dad titled Me and The Boys, which doesn't get much notice in his career and for good reason. However, after that show failed, Steve would get a shot at his own sitcom again with the aptly titled The Steve Harvey Show on the WB network. This time, it worked. The Steve Harvey Show featured Steve as a school music teacher, who had a successful career years prior as a funk singer. Steve would play this role perfectly and it seemed to be his most comfortable role ever throughout his whole career. With Cedric the Entertainer also starring, the show had enough charisma and laughs from both men to carry it to a lengthy run on the network. The dichotomy between Steve and the principal of the school, Regina, made for another storyline that featured the "chase", and it always added a special element to the episodes, as you began to wonder if those two would ever get together. That "chase" would be the driving storyline of another WB sitcom, led by yet another popular standup comedian.

Jamie Foxx, who got his big break from In Living Color in many ways, would secure a sitcom with the WB as well titled The Jamie Foxx Show (to be fair, while the WB would invest in black comedians for their shows, they didn't necessarily invest in creativity for titles). The story there was Jamie as a southern guy from Texas moving to Hollywood to stay with his uncle and Aunt to help them run their hotel and chase his dreams. The show was memorable for the theme song and a ton of hilarious moments, but also memorable for that familiar "chase" storyline between Jamie and a worker at the hotel, Fancy. Jamie at first seemed to annoy Fancy and never have a chance, but as the story progresses, their familiarity and comfort start to make her get closer to Jamie. The stop and start approach to their eventual romance was much similar to the story from the Steve Harvey Show, and while some would consider that lazy writing, I thought it worked perfectly on both shows, and thought it worked better on the Jamie Foxx Show. Jamie Foxx used this show to catapult himself to even higher heights and while no one else from the show really had their careers take off (Garrett Morris was already successful), it did the job for Jamie.

Speaking of Jamie, I mentioned he got his start on In Living Color, the 90's sketch comedy show created by the Wayans family. The Wayans family would also make their presence felt on the WB Network, as Marlon and Shawn Wayans would garner their own sitcom titled the Wayans Bros. This show was hit or miss for some, as their brand of humor tends to be in general. Marlon and Shawn were running a growing newsstand and with that came challenges, but also memorable moments. The most noteworthy character outside of the brothers would be John Witherspoon as Pops, their father. In many ways, Pops is the most memorable part of the show, as his outlandish clothing, the poor service at his diner right next to the newsstand, and his trademark phrase of "Bang! Bang! Bang!" made the show even more exciting and interesting. The Wayans Bros is one of my personal favorites and I think the WB lineup had some of the best black sitcoms of the decade without a doubt, and one I'll mention briefly is The Parent 'Hood, the Robert Townsend led family vehicle that memorably featured the characters T.K., Uncle Wendel, and Reagan Gomez as Zaria (she's still commonly referred to as Zaria these days at times). The show ran 5 seasons and is another slept on sitcom that the WB produced and it got lost in the shuffle among the other more successful shows.

I mentioned the UPN Network earlier and I think I have to talk a bit about some of their hits and misses aside from Moesha and The Parkers. One underrated comedy of the 90s remains Malcolm and Eddie, which saw Eddie Griffin and Malcolm Jamal Warner as two friends and roommates trying to enjoy their lives and for the most part, get laid. I always felt Eddie Griffin and his comedic delivery were slept on and he was the perfect person to star alongside Malcolm Jamal Warner, who was a bit more reserved as a character. For every UPN success however, there was a huge miss. One big miss? Homeboys In Outer Space. The show is based on two black astronauts (a nice start if you're looking if something different), who decide to fly around the universe in the 23rd century (okay, still not bad), in a winged car named the "Space Hoopty" (uh, what the hell?), which is piloted by a female talking computer named Loquatia (seriously, what the fuck?). It starts Flex Alexander (which should let you know it would be terrible from the beginning), and Darryl M. Bell of A Different World fame, but this show was absolutely dreadful. There's no reason why this show was even thought of to exist, as it is quite possible the worst show in the history of television from the subpar writing to the awful premise itself. It was truly one of the most embarrassing black sitcoms I've had to sit through and UPN became infamous for their shows in that same light.

Now, to be fair, UPN gave it a fair shot. When they acquired In the House from NBC, the LL Cool J led sitcom, they seemed to be on the right path. LL starred as Marion Hill, the former successful NFL player, who has fallen on tough times and has been forced to rent rooms out in his house. The show itself was entertaining and though it went through its share of changes, it is still a solid show and noteworthy for the 90's, as it managed to last 5 seasons. There were plenty of other shows on UPN that weren't so lucky, but one show that really wasn't so terrible in essence that failed was the lawyer based show Sparks. Sparks aired for about 2 seasons before being canceled, and even spawned a short lived spinoff titled Good News on UPN, but unfortunately, what caused these shows to not be as successful was the timing. The shows weren't necessarily bad and had a strong cast, but if the shows would had been on in the early 2000s during the Girlfriends and The Parkers era, it would have succeeded, as those shows seemed to carry momentum and stay afloat. Regardless, UPN managed to continue to put on for black sitcoms, and made pickups from ABC and NBC when they didn't want their shows any longer, as they did with In the House and eventually the Hughleys as the 90's ended.

One show NBC kept on its nightly lineup is one of the most successful black sitcoms of the 90's, if not THE best, the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Will Smith would lead this amazing cast of characters as the Banks family would take over our television screens for 6 seasons. Will and his cousin Carlton Banks would engage in a ton of hilarious moments and exchanges, while Will's best friend Jazz made for a signature of the show by being thrown out the front door regularly by Uncle Phil. Fresh Prince was essentially everything you wanted in a black sitcom, as it touched on heavy topics, discussed issues affecting our people, featured a successful black family (a very wealthy one at that), and kept the laughs flowing. It is one of my favorite shows of all time and it was the launching pad for the career of Will Smith as an actor without a doubt. We here at DAR have discussed Fresh Prince quite often, so if you want to hear more of our thoughts on the show, you definitely want to check out some of the previous articles.

I have to make a small mention of Nickelodeon and their attempt at a few black sitcoms before I delve into my final network for black sitcoms. After seeing success with All That, the sometimes hilarious duo of Kenan and Kel got their own sitcom, which ran for some seasons. I wasn't a fan personally, but it seemed as if Kenan and Kel had their own brand of comedy that people loved. Another show on the network that still lives on despite only being one season is My Brother and Me, which was actually a good show, just wasn't given the true chance to succeed. The show would run for one season, but somehow is still memorable to many of us who watched it when it was on television. Nickelodeon would also bring the show My Cousin Skeeter near the end of the decade, which would be successful as well for 3 seasons. When talking black sitcoms, I'd at least have to give Nickelodeon some credit for making an effort to feature young blacks periodically.

The last network that really attempted to showcase black sitcoms was oddly enough Fox. Fox in the 90's was home to some groundbreaking television and the first black sitcom to captivate me on the network was Roc. The comedic series with a very serious feel to it starred Charles S. Dutton as the titular character who was a Baltimore garbage collector with a wife, who was a nurse. When talking 90's black sitcoms, I think Roc is likely THE most underrated of them all. It had hilarious moments, some heavy topics, great dialogue and the cast was different from the usual faces we had been seeing. I think the fresher feel and the everyday struggle of Roc made it more relatable to me in a lot of ways. Fox brought more relatable shows to the forefront as far as black sitcoms go, and Roc being based in my hometown of Baltimore is likely what made it stick out and feel so real. Roc wasn't the only show that was great for Fox, there was also Living Single. Living Single was based around a group of singles living in the same apartment building together, while one of them runs a successful yet still growing magazine. It would be led completely by the female characters with the two male leads taking a backseat, giving it a different feel as well. I think Living Single was a pretty good show, and with it showcasing the lives of these single women in a big city trying to enjoy their lives, it gave a bit of the single black woman experience. While not entirely accurate or 100% relatable, it was at least a start in the right direction with the right dialogue and enough laughs for everybody.

Fox, however, would strike gold with what I feel is the best sitcom of all time period. Not just with the 90's, not just with black sitcoms, but sitcoms period. Martin Lawrence was as successful standup comedian in the early 90's and with roles in House Party and Boomerang, his name began garnering attention. That attention resulted in Martin, the greatest sitcom of the 90's and in my opinion, of all time. Martin and his girlfriend Gina, played by Tisha Campbell, would set a standard for television couples as their friendship in real life and chemistry translated over amazingly to the screen. With friends like Tommy, Cole, and Pam, along with Martin playing multiple characters like Dragonfly Jones, Jerome, Otis, and more, this show was everything you'd want and more. It is nonstop laughs and has the best replay view of any sitcom I've ever watched. Even the other reoccurring characters such as Bruhman, Stan, and Big Shirley came with their own set of laughs and a bit of story. Martin wasn't about covering a ton of heavy topics, it wasn't about a creative arc, it was about comedy and reality in the same. Martin wasn't a rich man, he was just a guy trying to make it while loving his woman, and enjoying life with his friends. Sounds simple. And it is. That's what made Martin so great was that he was just that regular funny dude from down the street who was just trying to make a way for himself and that was relatable. His outlandish comedy made for something that we'll never see again on television. I'm just glad I got to witness it for those 5 seasons and that those memories live on still in syndication.

The 90's wasn't a perfect decade,  but it was the best for television. No one can deny the impact of the shows that captivated us in the 90's and it is always good to reflect on these moments because greatness has no expiration date. A large number of these shows are still timeless and fun to watch today. Next time you're clicking through channels, stop and check out one of these 90's classics. You won't be sorry.



Popular Posts