When it debuted on April 15, 1990, In Living Color was like nothing America had ever seen. Keenen Ivory Wayans and his group of mostly unknown comedians had taken the traditional sketch comedy format of a legendary show like Saturday Night Live and flipped it on its head, giving network television and primetime comedy a jolt of energy and urban influence. From the opening theme and the Fly Girls to characters like Homey D. Clown and Fire Marshal Bill, In Living Color was hilarious to some and offensive to others, all while being a wonderful thorn in every Fox executive’s side.
This week, we’ve been celebrating the 25th anniversary of In Living Color with memorable sketches and by checking in on the show’s most important cast members. But in order to tap into the show’s great legacy and the risks the cast and network took in bringing the series into our homes, we reached out to Seasons 1-5 cast member Tommy Davidson, the man who played Howard Tibbs III, Sugar Ray Leonard, and the chef of the Snackin’ Shack, to get the inside story on how In Living Color became the hit series that is still loved 25 years later.
When In Living Color started, Fox was viewed as the anti-network, and the show offered a type of sketch comedy people had never seen before. What was it like for the cast to have the opportunity to introduce a new brand of sketch comedy to people?
It was probably the happiest time for all of us because we had been working for years to get to that point. And to be a stand-up comic and an actor and all that stuff combined, and to have that show, we were just excited because we knew what we were doing. It’s not like it was an accident. When we finished the pilot for In Living Color, it didn’t get picked up for six months. It was just another thing we did that we would never have the chance to do again. So, when we came back we were really excited because we knew it was good.
The ratings and fan base definitely showed that. But was there ever a moment where you thought it might not work, that the network would cut it off?
No. The problem with the networks isn’t, “Are we worried it’s going to work?” The problem with the networks is we’re worried they’re not going to put it on the air. Because you have non-entertainers picking entertainment for people, you’re in trouble. So, it’s really a hard job to get something on TV because the people that greenlight and have the power to put something on TV aren’t creative at all. It’s almost a miracle.
With that being the case, were there certain ideas you wanted to put on the air but weren’t able to?
Yeah, practically three shows that I tried to get on TV so far.
And what did they voice against those ideas?
It’s hard to tell because they have the power to say no, so they can make whatever.
Did you feel right away that you and the cast had something special, or was there a certain moment in the first season when you felt it all click?
We had all known each other, so Keenen brought together a group of people who already knew each other from the stand-up world, who already knew each other from the TV world. He put the best together at the same time and just let us go.
Did you have any personal favorite characters that you liked to perform?
Probably, as characters go, there was a character named Sweet Tooth Jones who was my favorite. Strongest sketch for me, believe it or not, actually came the last season. But I was in a lot of sketches that just burned, right across from another actors, and we killed. BS Brothers with me and David Alan Grier, the ugly one with me and Jamie Foxx, Fire Marshal Bill with me and Jim Carrey. Homey D. Clown with me, as well.
Out of all of the cast who was your favorite character?
It’s hard to say because there are so many, but I’d probably say Fire Marshal Bill because it was so involved. Just crafty. Taught me a lot.
And do you have an all-time favorite sketch from the show’s run?
It’s hard to say. “Three Champs and a Baby” was really good, we had so much stuff that was just killin’.
What was the writing process for the show? Did cast members pitch for each episode?
Yeah, it was both. The writers would come with ideas, we would come with ideas, and we would just put them all in a big pile. And what Keenen felt was going to be funniest for the show he picked. And he was always right. Well, 97.9 percent right.
Was there ever any in-fighting over sketches that were cut?
No, you just gotta accept the fact, like working for a newspaper. When you’re a writer at a newspaper the editor has the right of refusal. So, you gotta go back to you typewriter and keep it moving.
The show became known for just really pushing it, putting out sketches that were edgy and raw, often offensive. Did that become the point of the show?
What do you think? [laughs] That was our thing, our thing was to push it as far as it could go.
Did the network start to set more and more boundaries as the show went on?
Every show. Every freaking show. Every episode. It never ended. It was a constant battle. But, the battle was won for us; now TV can do whatever it wants to do because of us. We’re the ones that went out there and really cracked that thing open.
Were there any problems with the network, when did those problems begin, with them dictating how far the show could go?
Every time. It never stopped. That was an on-going battle, trust me. Til the end of the run of the show. That’s part of why it was so good because we kept in their face. They kept in our face and it caused us to push it, and it was powerful.
Was there anyone on the cast that ever thought you should play by the network’s rules?
No. Hell no. We were all on the same page.
When Keenen stopped appearing in sketches, after Season 3, did that come as a surprise to everyone?
Not really. He could come in and go out or do whatever he wanted to do. Nobody, I don’t think it was deliberate. Just, he’s a producer. So, that’s a demanding job in itself.
And then, at that point, did it feel like the show was starting to move in a different direction?
Not really. It’s not because of him not being on screen that changed the show. The show’s mandate was, “What’s funny gets on the air.” That mandate changed to who gets on the air. It wasn’t based on funny anymore. It was based on who got on the air. So, there are certain individuals who got on the air and others didn’t. And at that point I think the audience picked up on it and was like, it’s not as funny. It’s really mathematical, it’s not personal really. If you start out with a certain recipe for a cake that’s delicious and everybody loves, if you start pulling out ingredients, it’s not going to taste as good. It’s mathematical.
Like the science of baking.
There you go. Come alive [laughs].
As far as the success of individual cast members, was it surprising when movie opportunities started opening up for everyone?
From day one.
And did that too hinder the creative process of the show?
Of course. But with everything comes problems. The end result outweighed that. The collective result is going to have a freaking global impact. It already has. When they start showing this thing more in the upcoming year, it’s only going to make entertainment better because we were so good, and introduced quality back into the market. Hopefully the market will pick up on it. And hopefully quality will become marketable again [laughs].
I just don’t see how a show about selling lamps and stuff, like Pawn Wars or whatever, can outweigh something that’s just as funny and beautiful as can be. And it just goes to illustrate how much power that the networks have. You’re going to gravitate towards what you see. If you make the best bread in the world and everybody loves it, if you control the grocery stores you can put the next quality bread in there and the consumer is not going to know the difference. Because they’re never going to have the chance to taste it.
You mentioned that it allowed other shows to follow suit. What shows do you feel like carried that sensibility?
I think the only show that came along that was close to ours was Chappelle’s Show. A lot of sitcoms came out of that that were really good. Like I said, that’s a different format. But Dave was the closest thing to us that tapped into that audience of ours, which is everybody.