As Kim Wayans says in our extended feature on the 25th anniversary of “In Living Color,” her brother Keenen was always encouraging on-screen talent to draw on real-life circumstances and relationships to inject truth into their work. That was, as Damon Wayans explains, the big difference between “Saturday Night Live,” a writer-driven show, and “In Living Color,” a character-driven show where actors were eventually encouraged to pitch characters and concepts and work them out with the writers.
It's no surprise, then, that some of these characters would have personal connections with the performers. As you can see in anecdotes from Kelly Coffield, T'Keyah “Crystal” Keymáh and Kim Wayans, quite a few of them in fact came from other corners of their lives, be it someone they knew or something that would just organically spring to life in the day-to-day camaraderie of the show.
Learn more about the inspirations behind classic characters like Benita Butrell, LaShawn, Velma Mulholland and more below.
Kim Wayans on Benita Butrell
One of Kim Wayans' most indelible creations was Benita Butrell, a neighborhood woman breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience about passersby, always ending on a note of hilarious disparagement. But “nobody better say anything bad about Mrs. Jenkins!”
“Benita was based on a lady in my neighborhood, in the Robert Fulton Projects in New York City. It was actually a couple of ladies in my neighborhood that I grew up with. They were just quite colorful characters, just sitting around, yapping about everybody's business and smiling in your face. And the minute you turn your back, they had something to say about you, too!”
T'Keyah “Crystal” Keymáh on LaShawn
T'Keyah “Crystal” Keymáh had a handful of recurring characters, and one that stuck out in particular was LaShawn, a customer service worker who won't take any guff from anyone. But as Keymáh explains, there was more depth to her creation than merely that.
“LaShawn is one of the characters I transitioned from one of my solo stage shows, which I've done in a thousand theaters and I've done on television. One of them is called 'Some of My Best Friends' and it's about a group of people that you might dismiss at first glance, but then the more you talk you say, 'Oh, this is a human, too.' One of the characters from that show was called Latisha and I wanted to do someone like her on the show, so I did LaShawn and called her Latisha's cousin.
“I've seen a lot of people since do similar characters, which made me kind of feel bad because it seems like they took the negative aspect of her, someone in a low paying job with a smart mouth, and kind of ran with that. But for me she's someone making something of herself, even if she doesn't quite have the tools to do it. This is the best that she can do and she knows that, and she won't take any mess off of anyone.”
Kim Wayans on Li'l Magic
Alongside David Alan Grier in drag as a driven stage mother, Kim Wayans delivered the spark of Li'l Magic. A bright and bubbly little girl desperate to entertain, the character was probably the most personal one she created in her time on the show.
“She's so close to my heart because I was Li'l Magic. I was a desperate little wannabe child actress who was in every community production in my neighborhood. Anytime there was something going on in school, I was front and center with my homemade costume – because I couldn't afford to buy the real costumes so I would just make stuff. I would take my mother's curtains, bedspreads, whatever. By any means necessary. And then I'd show up and I'd be in these shows that I wasn't supposed to be a part of and it would drive the teacher insane. But it was pure comedy, you know? That's how I discovered that I had this comedic knack. I wasn't actually trying to be funny. I was just, you know, a desperate little child trying to participate in shows that I couldn't afford to be in.”
Kelly Coffield on “The Dysfunctional Home Show”
Jim Carrey and Kelly Coffield would often get paired up, being the only two white cast members. And one of the gems they cranked out was “The Dysfunctional Home Show,” about an alcoholic, depressed old man who hosts a housekeeping show with his equally hateful wife. “Pork and beans!”
“I would get very tied into what Jim had already established as a character. I would end up doing kind of an accompaniment to a lot of characters that he had come up with. Like suddenly Fire Marshall Bill has a wife. And so you have to kind of imitate Jim, sort of doing this outlandish thing. In the case of that, though, he had written that show. He wrote a lot with Judd Apatow, actually, who was a great friend of his and he and Judd came up with a lot of stuff and then he'd bring it in and maybe the writers would work on it a bit with him. He was constantly writing, constantly, constantly writing. So he wrote that character. It was really just so much fun, to be more disgusting and inappropriate than he was. Like that was the whole point, is I wanted the mother to be worse than he was, just so horrible that you actually felt sorry for him.”
Kelly Coffield on Velma Mulholland
A lot of Coffield's work on the show seemed to have roots in her theater training, odes to classic film and television throughout. One such character was Velma Mulholland, a film noir, femme fatale-type filmed in grainy black and white finding herself out of place in a modern, colorized world.
“It was really Damon [who pushed for that]. I mean so much stuff came from us sitting around and just horsing around at the table or being out somewhere together. We would just all pile into somebody's car and then we would show up at some restaurant and we'd all have lunch together and just be endlessly entertained by one another. And Damon, I was talking to him and I was like [Velma voice], 'Listen, buddy, I'll tell you what.' And he's like. 'You really ought to make a character and write something.' That was the first thing I ever actually just wrote and handed in and said, 'I want to do this.' And I think it was really because of his encouragement and support.
“The black and white effect was fascinating to people, also. I remember Frank Oz calling the producers and asking how they did it. Everyone's seen it done on film but nobody had seen it done on video. They turned me into a blue screen. I literally looked like a Smurf. Every single costume I wore, every hat they made, every prop that was my personal prop, like a purse or a pair of gloves or whatever it was, every single thing was a shade of blue. And I honestly think I've been referred to as 'the black and white lady' on 'In Living Color' more than I have 'the white lady' on 'In Living Color.' People love Velma Mulholland.”