“Is there such a thing as being too colorblind?” Samie Falvey, executive vice president of comedy development for ABC Entertainment, calls this question “one of the most provocative I’ve heard in all my years of development.”
Kenya Barris, creator of ABC’s Black-ish, posed the question during the early stages of the sitcom, one of the network’s two new family comedy hits that let viewers know race was part of the equation right in the title. Black-ish is the story of an upwardly mobile advertising executive (Anthony Anderson), his biracial doctor wife (Tracee Ellis Ross) and their four kids, with Anderson’s dad character struggling to hold on to his roots in a predominantly white Los Angeles suburb.
The other gutsy new ABC comedy is Fresh Off the Boat, based on Eddie Huang’s memoir about a Chinese-American immigrant family and their hip-hop-loving son, trying hard to pursue the American dream without losing their identity. FOB represents the first Asian-American family comedy on network TV since ABC introduced Margaret Cho’s All American Girl in 1994.
While outside the traditional sitcom, with its hourlong format and glossy telenovela style, the CW’s freshman comedy Jane the Virgin also highlights a family’s three generations of Latina women (star Gina Rodriguez won a Golden Globe this year for the title role). Creator Jennie Snyder Urman says the family dynamic has struck a deeper chord with viewers than Jane’s romantic adventures.
It’s a recurring challenge faced by Falvey and other network entertainment execs: how to draw the broad audience required for network success by tapping the familiar, while at the same time presenting something new. The go-to, at least on ABC, is family comedy.
A Universal Theme
Let’s face it. Everybody has a family—and you can’t divorce it. “There’s a universality to a family show because we’ve all been raised by someone,” says Snyder Urman. “Every family looks different. Even families that look alike feel different.”
Adds Black-ish star Anderson: “I think it’s an exciting time right now, with a resurgence not only of diversity on television but the resurgence of family comedy.”
Constance Wu, who portrays FOB’s hilariously blunt tiger mom Jessica Huang, agrees. “Other types of comedy might not be as relatable, like twentysomethings in the workplace looking for love—that’s not everybody. Family is a place from which we all come.”
In addition to providing instant recognition in a cluttered entertainment landscape, family comedy also provides incentive for co-viewing in a modern world that tends to separate people into their own private demographics on their own small screens. Yes, Falvey says, families actually do watch TV together when the show has multigenerational appeal.
What the generations have in common is that they’re bored, constantly surfing, hunting for fresh entertainment—and this season, addressing race and culture head-on is the new ingredient in the tried-and-true comedy recipe. “I think it’s refreshing to see different faces going through similar things in life,” says Wu.
Whether in comedy or drama, few in the TV business would argue that this season’s buzzword has been diversity. Both Black-ish’s Barris and Jane’s Snyder Urman have come to find the term marginalizing—as Urman notes, the word now often is used to describe a nonwhite actor (leading to the grammatical absurdity of calling an individual person of color “diverse”). Some TV-makers seem to be more comfortable with the term specificity, meaning that race, culture or any truth that defines character is not ignored but celebrated in the script.
And telling a family story demands such specificity. It’s possible to cast the characters in a police station, fantasy landscape or hospital with actors of different races and create visual diversity while leaving cultural issues out of the story. Who has time to discuss race while being chased by drooling zombies or on the hot trail of cyber-crime? Colorblindness becomes less believable at the dinner table or in the living room.
Specificity in TV comedy is not new—just new-ish. For the past five years, the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series has gone to Modern Family, which shook up TV’s traditional all-white, all heterosexual nuclear family by adding a gay couple with an adopted Vietnamese daughter, and the marriage of a Latina single mom to a wealthy white businessman old enough to be her father.
Modern Family does not shy away from jokes about sexual orientation or from blasting cultural stereotypes. Still, at its core is a white family adapting to changes in society. Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat feature families of color commenting on mainstream, predominantly white society from an outsider’s viewpoint.
As an example, FOB creator Nahnatchka Khan cites Jessica’s bafflement when the women in her neighborhood try to explain the American phenomenon of NASCAR racing. “If you try to describe NASCAR to anyone, you sound crazy,” Khan says.
In the case of Fresh Off the Boat, the cultural journey is from Taiwan to Orlando, Florida. In Black-ish, Anderson’s befuddled dad character, Dre Johnson, has moved from Compton to a suburb that for him might as well be another planet.
Despite obvious comparisons to NBC’s 1984-92 megahit The Cosby Show, about a similarly affluent black family, Barris instead describes Black-ish as “Norman Lear-esque,” in reference to the man who produced All in the Family, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons and other shows that reflected the social and political climate of the ’70s.
“I loved Norman Lear and what he was trying to do, especially for the times,” Barris says. “There’s one type of comedy: ‘My boss is coming over and my wife burned the roast.’ That’s fun to write, too, but it becomes harder when you are doing culturally poignant and topical issues. You actually have to find the center of the story and find the humor around it, and at the same time not be preachy and make people feel like this is an after-school special.”
Falvey cites another new development in comedy, at least on ABC: strong moms. Whether it’s Wu’s Jessica or ’80s supermom Beverly (Wendi McLendon-Covey) on ABC’s third-season series The Goldbergs, Falvey says these fierce family defenders attract the same strong female demographic that flocks to Scandal or How to Get Away with Murder.
At The Heart
“I think people got tired of seeing exclusively white families on television,” says Christopher Lloyd, executive producer and cocreator of Modern Family. “Ethnic comedies at once feel a little different but tap something universal.” And the numbers indicate the audience for these new comedies is not only people of color. For example, 22% of the Black-ish audience is African-American, compared with 20% of the audience for Modern Family—pretty even.
“I think it’s that programmers realize that comedy, whether it’s in the standup world or the sitcom world, had gotten too cynical, too snarky. We felt like there was an underserved appetite for shows that make you laugh but also made you cry a little bit.” –Modern Family cocreator Christopher Lloyd
The producers of the new family comedies believe they’re striking a chord because they bring a similar intent to the writers room: to depict the struggles and joys of families that love each other. Heart, Lloyd calls it.
“I think it’s that programmers realize that comedy, whether it’s in the standup world or the sitcom world, had gotten too cynical, too snarky,” the producer says. “We felt like there was an underserved appetite for shows that make you laugh but also made you cry a little bit.”
Anderson agrees. He calls Black-ish both inspirational and aspirational, and sees this quality in FOB as well. “It’s a father and mother who want to give their children better than what they had growing up,” he observes. “It’s the American dream—who does not want that? That’s what’s resonating with the viewers.”