25 years later: How ‘In Living Color’ broke sketch comedy’s race barrier

04.15.15 2 years ago 5 Comments

In the summer of 1989, while Spike Lee's “Do the Right Thing” was sounding a thunderclap in cinemas, a troupe of largely black actors and comedians came together on a Fox sound stage in Century City to produce a sketch comedy show aimed at servicing a minority point of view that had been underrepresented by the medium. With producer Keenen Ivory Wayans at the helm, fresh off the success of his 1988 Blaxploitation parody film “I'm Gonna Git You Sucka,” eight individuals – a then-unknown Jim Carrey along with Kelly Coffield, Kim Coles, Tommy Davidson, David Alan Grier, T'Keyah “Crystal” Keymáh and Wayans' siblings Damon and Kim – filmed the first episodes of “In Living Color.” The show debuted on April 15, 1990, and 25 years later, Damon Wayans can't help but remember first and foremost that he had hair back then.

“I remember the pain of getting fired from 'Saturday Night Live' and feeling that I needed redemption,” he adds by phone, recalling his short-lived tenure on NBC's flagship sketch comedy show. “I was really passionate about doing stand-up and playing around doing characters on stage.”

In just its third year of existence in 1989, Fox had already shown a brief history of defying convention. Joan Rivers had briefly taken up residence opposite “The Tonight Show” on the late night battlefield and Arsenio Hall would follow soon after as the first black entertainer in the space. Meanwhile, sitcoms like “Married… with Children” stood out from the fray with unique content while variety series like “The Tracey Ullman Show” played with format. From the latter (via a series of animated shorts) sprang “The Simpsons,” which drew criticism from some parents and conservatives who felt its rebellious central character Bart Simpson was a poor role model for children. No sketch show that wasn't “Saturday Night Live” had been a lasting success, so the risk of “In Living Color” was right at home in the new network's programming.

Kim Wayans was working as an executive assistant at an oil corporation in downtown Los Angeles when she got the call from her brother to join the cast. “I thought it was great – I could stop working temp and start making some real money,” she exclaims.

Keenen also recruited brother Shawn as the show's in-house DJ SW1, a cultural answer to “Saturday Night Live's” house band at a time when hip-hop was taking hold outside its own niche. (Musical acts such as Leaders of the New School, MC Lyte, Big Daddy Kane and Queen Latifah would often close out episodes with live performances, while Heavy D & The Boyz provided the show with its catchy theme song.)

The rest of the team came largely from the worlds of theater and stand-up. Tommy Davidson, in fact, knew Keenen along with Damon, Carrey and Grier from the comedy club circuit.

“I had just come off of development hell and a failed pilot, so I turned it down initially,” he says. “And then my agent told me, 'Why don't you just audition for the show? If you don't get it you don't get it. What's it going to hurt?' So I auditioned and it didn't go well. I didn't know what I was doing. I wasn't an improv artist per se. But then they had a stand-up audition and once I did stand-up, it was over. There were 30 of the best comics in town and I kicked ass.”

Kelly Coffield, however, was fresh out of the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago with zero comedy experience when she auditioned. She went into it expecting nothing, thinking the series didn't approach her own skill set.

“I may have had a little bit of an easier time at the audition because I didn't really think there was anything at stake,” she says. “I was too ignorant to realize what it really even was that I was auditioning for. So I had a really great time. I just thought it was a hoot.”

Others weren't as versed in the business, however. T'Keyah “Crystal” Keymáh, for instance, recalls with some pain the experience of seeing her very personal audition piece, “Black World,” turned into material for the show without her name initially attached as a writer. She says she had to fight for a specialty writing credit on the sketch, which featured Keymáh as Crissy, a young girl pretending to live in a world dominated by people of color, free of prejudice and persecution.

“It didn't occur to me that that piece would ever be on the show,” she recalls of auditioning the character. “I could tell that they taped the audition and copied down what they thought I said or whatever, but I didn't consciously bring it to the show. But in that I see symbolism of people that will take something that they think is precious and steal it, rather than ask for it and be honorable. So that was my introduction 'In Living Color.'”

(Keenen refutes the notion that the sketch was stolen, reasserting in a statement that “Black World” was “written and performed by T'Keyah and she is credited; all you have to do is watch the episode.”)

One of only four cast members to stay with the series all five seasons, and the only female, Keymáh says she didn't have an agent during her time there. When the first season received a Primetime Emmy nomination for writing, “Black World” was one of the few pieces specifically mentioned in the press, she says, but hers was not one of the 17 names listed for the award.

“I spent a great deal of time in my dressing room crying,” she says. “But I took it all in. I learned a whole lot about television, about networks, about people and how to work as an ensemble and the politics of television. I learned the best way for me to conduct myself and to stand up for myself no matter what.”

***

“In Living Color” was ultimately a different show than “Saturday Night Live.” Rather than a week's preparation and a 90-minute live sprint, the product was crafted through editing. It was filmed in front of a live audience, though, with tapings often running into the wee hours of the morning. Most notable was its difference from NBC's goliath in creative bedrock philosophy.

“'Saturday Night Live' was more of a writer-driven show,” Damon says. “The writers had all of the power. 'In Living Color' was more character-driven. Keenen wanted the actors to feel good about what they were doing, so we would have them come in and pitch characters. 'Who do you want to do?' 'Oh, this is my aunt. She does this, this and this.' Then they would do it and Keenen would say, 'That's a character right there. Write this sketch.' And then we'd figure out, you know, what is the scenario for this character? So the actor would sit down with the writers and kind of gang bang the concept.”

Says Davidson, “It was like being in detention with all the class clowns. We'd walk around goofing off. On the downtime we'd be playing and talking about movies and singing, and Keenen would go, 'Write that down. Write that down. That's funny, but write it down. That's funny, but write that down.'”

However, it took some time to evolve to that place, according to Keymáh. “In the beginning, it was quite the opposite – we weren't encouraged to do anything,” she says. “Keenen would say, 'No, no, we've got this. We have a staff of writers. They're very talented.' And they went through writers like water. But later it became a bit of a mandate: 'If you want to get on the show, you've got to pitch characters.'”

Often characters “would be based on people we knew or people we had been in contact with,” Kim says. “And Keenan was always emphasizing to us that part of building a character is, in fact, giving the character truth and some heart.”

More to the point, Damon notes that truly relatable black point of view was not on television at the time, and had been largely absent from the small screen since NBC's “The Richard Pryor Show” over a decade before. “Like a real, honest-to-God, urban, this-is-what-they're-thinking-on-the-corner kind of show,” he says. “That voice and that void actually made our show super popular in ghettos around the world. Crime rate would go down when we came on, statistically. That's pretty cool, to know that people would rather watch us and laugh than go out and hurt somebody. The crime rate went right back up when it was over!”

Inevitably, a show staking out new terrain is bound to find itself in controversial waters, and “In Living Color” was no exception. Tension with the network began with a highly rated Super Bowl Halftime Show special in January of 1992. During the popular recurring sketch “Men On…,” with the Washington Redskins leading the Buffalo Bills 17 to zero, Damon and Grier ad libbed suggestions that actor Richard Gere and Olympic athlete Carl Lewis were homosexuals. Segments in other episodes made light of date rape and prison rape. Fox censors muted lines or cut segments from reruns altogether in response. But that's where Keenen and his team wanted to be, on the edge of primetime, network comedy.

“Their agenda was not the show's agenda,” Damon says of the censors. “And then a lot of it was sponsors. I think we had like 30 million people tune in to watch the halftime show, and a brand got offended. So they really came down on us after that. We brought them the biggest ratings they had ever had and we got penalized. So I think there was a breakdown. Because Keenen felt like, 'I gave you guys ratings. What are you tripping over?'”

***

Much of the content produced on the show, sketches like “The Adventures of Handi Man” (depicting the escapades of a handicapped superhero portrayed by Damon) or perhaps even “Men On…” (starring Damon and Grier as flamboyant homosexual critics) would draw even more fire in today's politically correct society, pressure-cooked by the proliferation of social media. “But it's not like we did it in the mid-'50s where people were just sort of calloused and didn't know anything about political correctness,” Coffield says. “We used to get letters from people basically saying, 'Thank you so much for including me in the fun,' because we were making fun of everything and everyone. We weren't pointing a finger at anybody; we were making fun of ourselves in the process. It was very inclusive in a way that 'Saturday Night Live,' in my opinion, has gone through periods of time – because that was the sense of humor of the particular cast or that was the tone of the writers' room or whatever – of being mean-spirited, pointing a finger at how stupid everyone is. And that's not that funny to me.”

Keymáh, however, saw things differently. She says she has always been conscious of what is in the media and “how it feeds us,” and particularly of any negative effects it might have. “I didn't want to ever add to that,” she says. “On 'In Living Color,' it was kind of a joke, but not really – I spent a lot of time complaining about scripts that were, in my opinion, over the line and stereotype and disrespectful to whatever group. At some point someone said, 'Well, if Crystal is offended, now we know it's funny!' So it became kind of a bar. But I wanted to put out thoughtful pieces, and sometimes I won. Sometimes they'd say, 'OK. OK.'”

She also jokes that she didn't realize until after she left “In Living Color” that everyone in television was not on a first name basis with their censors.

Much of the cast remained insulated from the disputes Keenen regularly engaged in with Fox executives. Damon in particular says that, given his own tendencies, he was grateful that his big brother could run that brand of interference. “There's a little bit of Homey D. Clown in me where I can get so passionate about something that I'll fly the plane into the building to protect my vision,” he says. “But Keenan is very strategic and plays a great game. He would tell the censors, 'Look, don't tell me I can't do something. Tell me how I can.' It was psychological warfare, because it put them in the position where they had to come with answers.”

Eventually, though, the fragile relationship was too frayed to sustain. Damon left after the third season to pursue a career in film. Keenen's involvement in the fourth was limited, and by the time the fifth and final season rolled around, everyone named “Wayans” had departed.

“My feelings, my sentiments, were definitely with the Wayanses,” says Coffield, who left in solidarity with them after the fourth season. “But the truth of the matter is, when Keenen left, so did the funny, in a particular way that I had a particular place in. It was very obvious that the kind of characters that I was interested in developing, there wasn't really a place at the table for them anymore. It was really, like, 'Well, that's a good character, but how about if she's completely flatulent?' I just saw it as being a very, very dry atmosphere in terms of having any kind of singular voice.”

Davidson, Grier and particularly Carrey and Jamie Foxx (who was introduced at the start of the third season) became the dominant personalities as the show transitioned into its final year. “It got limited with the cast members that the network was doing stuff with,” Davidson says. “It started turning into kind of a power thing of who do they want to see on TV this week, as opposed to what was funny gets on TV. We wanted more of an ensemble feel. So it was a tough thing to experience, when you're coming from a Socialist environment.”

***

Three years ago, around the time the entire cast reunited to be honored at the 10th annual TV Land Awards, there was an attempt to reboot “In Living Color” as two specials. New talent would be intermingled with some from the old team in an attempt to, once again, feed a starved point of view. Davidson and Grier were involved, as was Damon, with Keenen spearheading once again. But it was ill-fated. Davidson says Keenen was having trouble finding the right spark of talent that clicked on the level of that original cast, but Damon reveals further dispute with the network.

“I was going to do it and then Fox took these incredibly confrontational stances,” he says. “They wanted to own any new characters that I did. They only wanted to pay me $2,500 to do two specials. When I left I was making $75,000 per sketch – in 1992. So, you know, you want me to take a pay cut? And I wasn't asking for what I was making back then, but guys, you've got to give me some sort of incentive. I wrote like 10 sketches that were really funny, new characters. They go, 'OK, we own those new characters.' So I had to say, 'Get the f–k out of here.'

“It would have been good,” he continues. “They should bring it back. They just need to support it. Just look at the ratings 'SNL40' got. I won't say we'd get ratings like that, but I damn sure believe that there are a couple of generations of fans that would tune in to see it, especially if it's special in terms of not just a stroke session of how good we were, but how funny we still can be. I think people would love that.”

Or perhaps the legacy of “In Living Color” will be one refined to a particular era, the start of a decade that would ignite with pop cultural vibrancy, the rise of the independent film movement, the explosion of urban music in the suburbs, the introduction of a hip Presidential candidate booming saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” and so on.

Davidson sees the show's legacy as “the institutionalization of color in the mainstream,” he says. “After 'In Living Color,' with 'Martin' and 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air' and all these shows that just came along, 'Living Single,' all these beautiful things, America actually started looking like America on TV.”

Whatever the case, Coffield certainly got more than anyone out of the deal: She met her future husband, Steve Park, on the show. Park was a cast member during the third season, and though they didn't know each other well at the time, they reconnected on a play a decade later, sparks flew, and now they have two children together.

“For our paths to cross again as they did, being cast as this husband and wife, it was so fun,” she says. “Maybe it was because we had this very intense experience together, no matter how well we knew each other, and then when we re-met, it just seemed so much deeper than what you typically feel when you've just met somebody for the first time. It's the greatest thing in my life.”

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