The stars of the Fox sketch comedy series In Living Color took a walk back in time Saturday, to share details on how the 1990s hit came about during a special screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The hit comedy was a result of the then-fledgling Fox network’s desire to “push the envelope,” said Keenan Ivory Wayans, who created, wrote and starred in the program from 20th Century Fox Television.
During an onstage discussion, Wayans recalled meeting with Fox execs after showing them his 1988 feature, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.
“The TV folks invited me to meet them. I wasn’t looking [to do TV], I wanted to make movies,” said Wayans who was joined by In Living Color alums Shawn Wayans, Kim Wayans, Tommy Davidson and David Alan Grier.
Wayans recalled that network execs bantered the idea of him creating a show. At one point, a network suit uttered words that would make its way into the show’s theme song: “Then they said, ‘You can do what you wanna do.’ And that’s why it’s in the theme song, ‘You can do what you wanna do — In Living Color.’”
The screening was timed to mark the 25th anniversary of the show’s finale in 1994, as part of the Tribeca TV section.
Prior to the onstage talk, the festival screened the pilot episode of In Living Color, which featured two memorable skits that would return in later episodes of the series, including “The Homeboy Shopping Network” featuring Damon and Keenan Wayans as well as “Men On Films.”
Fans of the show will recall the latter featured Damon Wayans and Grier as gay critics.
“I think the sketch could be done now,” said Wayans. “I’ve evolved since then, but there was never any malice from our portrayals — at least from my perspective at that time, but it was definitely of that time… We have more information now about gay culture, so we could make it even funnier. We’re talking about a time when gay people didn’t have a voice… The intent of In Living Color was to include everyone. We did handicap characters, we did everyone.”
Before In Living Color, Grier said there had been talk of an African-American answer to Saturday Night Live, which was still predominantly white.
“Nobody had done it, but people were talking about it,” said Grier. “Keenan was the one who actually did it… America needed something new and In Living Color was the thing.”
Though Fox was on board to ‘push the envelope,’ the cast did have their run-ins with network censors.
Disagreements with the network over creative latitude were reportedly part of the reason Keenan Wayans stepped back from the series, though he only hinted at that during Saturday’s conversation, noting that Fox was
particularly tolerant in the show’s “first couple of years.”
He added that during the creative process, they would use words they already knew were “no-gos,” only to step back to something that was on the surface less outrageous, which they wanted all the time.
“We used to have fun with the censors,” said Keenan Wayans. “Sometimes during the table reads, we’d start laughing really hard and the censor would say, ‘you can’t say that’ and then we’d give them [something else]. One time, they said we couldn’t say, ‘kayak city’ so we said, can you say, ‘toss your salad?’ and they said, ‘yes.’”
Continuing, he added: “To their credit, especially in the first couple years, they [worked with me]. I’d say, ‘Don’t tell me what I can’t say, let’s talk about how I can say it.’”
In Living Color not only advanced the careers of the Wayans, it also marked a cornerstone for the likes of Jim Carrey, who appeared in all five seasons of the show as well as others including Jennifer Lopez, who was a “Fly Girl,” the women who danced on a stage at the beginning of the show and between sketches.
Tommy Davidson recalled an early conversation with Carrey who noted the historical significance of In Living Color. “Jim from the very beginning said that this was history and that the show would stand the test of time. I didn’t see it at the time, but he did.”
Any anticipation that there might be an In Living Color reboot announced Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival never surfaced during the conversation. The show had been set to reboot in 2012, but was nixed in 2013. Still, the historic and comical significance of the series resonated with the packed house at Tribeca’s Festival