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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Genre Studies: The African - American Situation Comedy, part 2

The Black sitcom 

Blacks have appeared in the situation comedy genre, moreso than any other TV genre. U.S networks & Cable broadcasters have aired approximately 800 sitcoms since 1947 - 184 of them feature African-Americans, either in starring, co-starring, supporting or transient roles (Nelson via Kamalipour, Carilli, 79). 

Angela Mason argues that Black sitcoms are Black, but out of exhibiting a Black philosophy on life. They are called Black sitcoms because a) the actors on it are Black and b), their characters deal with comedy-based situations from a Black perspective (Mason via Kamalipour, Carilli, 80). As well as this, Race-specific issues unique to African-Americans culture, life, history through racism for instance, are also explored.

African- American sitcom's roots trace back to Amos 'N' Andy. However, the negative stereotypes perpetuated were laughed at and thus, the show was cancelled. Premiering in 1968, Julia was the first Black female sitcom & the first Black sitcom star in a show about a professional woman (Fearn-Banks, 401). 

Whilst Huxtable-type families had not reached the TV screen, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons & Julia, were accepted by the mainstream (Hillard, Keith, 232).

Television executives attempted to explore different aspects of African-American Life. Firstly, with working-class families, such as Good Times, That's My Mama and What's Happening!! (Smith-Shomade, 15). 

From 1972 to 1983, Black sitcoms sought to address the social and political experiences of America, thanks in part to Norman Lear. Lear helped dispel the idea that situation comedy couldn't be anything but superficial and silly. From abortion, drugs, homosexuality, racism to discrimination, shows such as The Jeffersons and Good Times all advertedly pointed towards inequality and Black empowerment. It was from then on, that for the first time, Black situation comedy portrayed Blacks being subjectified, - not objectified. That they were not token characters to Whites & the USA saw on TV characters that were contributing, surviving, succeeding in society, without abandoning their culture (Means Coleman, Mcllwain,130). 

Nonetheless, with Good Times and The Jeffersons, Lear presented 2 contrasting ends of the spectrum with regards to Black representation: at one end was the Evans family in Good Times, who were perceived as being of lower-class, poor, whose kids had ambitions that were far beyond any one's expectations. Michael wanted to be a Lawyer, J.J an artist and Thelma a dancer. Meanwhile, The Jeffersons Black representation came in the form of George Jefferson, who successfully owns a chain of dry cleaning businesses in New York, whereas wife Louise worked at the local help centre in town.

By the late 1970s to 1980s, despite the social issues addressed in shows such as Good Times, The Jeffersons, there was a concern that Blackness and African-Americans were to be nothing more than token victims rescued by White characters. Coleman and Mcllwain argued that in Diff'rent Strokes and Webster, through Black child characters Webster and Arnold, the context of being Black whilst living in a Black environment was seen as a negative, but with Black child characters living in a White environment and raised by a White family, it was seen as being positive (Means Coleman, Mcllwain, 132). 

I disagree with this argument; shows such as Webster and Diff'rent Strokes illustrate and highlight issues surrounding child adoption and that with families, in particular, adopting children outside of their race, many parent/s adopt Black kids, Asian kids, Hispanic kids. Not because so that they feel pity towards them and their unfortunate circumstances that may have resulted in their upbringing and being abandoned by their natural parents. I would argue it is not because that they see the Black kids as being inferior, whilst the white adult is seen as superior. But because in most cases, many White families choose to adapt children outside of their race, because, a) they love them, b) they really want to help and c) they want to give them a better head start in life.

They don't see children for their colour. Their ethnicity, if anything to them is irrelevant. They love them, as much as they do of their own children. Therefore, the assertion by Means and Coleman that White parents who adopt Black kids out of kindness, sincerity & love, are doing a disservice to the Black children's well-being and identity & thus, making them abandon their cultural roots, is for me, disagreeable . 

Critics have pointed out that many African-American sitcoms have continuously portrayed African-Americans and Black culture in a problematic light. Yet for Black sitcoms that have found their own audiences & established their own fan bases, these audiences have identified themselves with those characters & their cultural expressions (Carney Smith, 1377). Sitcoms have provided people hours of entertainment and laughter, but also, more importantly, shared and relevant cultural experiences, which are discussed amongst themselves and with others.

The 80s

From the 1980s to late 1990s, many Black TV shows resisted the traditional sitcom format of having 1 joke, per page by crafting and devising dramatic episodes.

The arrivals of The Cosby Show and A Different World both heralded a new chapter for the African- American sitcom genre during the 1980s. The shows set a standard in eliminating barriers for 'coloured' people, especially actors on screen and negative stereotypes of Blacks on U.S mainstream television. They presented Black people as intellectuals, occupying higher positions of power, of young Black people going to college and doing well in their studies. In spite of these shows set, in what many would perceive to be based in a White context and environment, they were, nonetheless, still Black shows & alas, Black sitcoms.

Resultingly, The Cosby Show's accomplishments helped elevate NBC to first place, ahead of its rivals in the network ratings for 6 straight years (391, Edgerton). TV industry insiders credit the programme for resurrecting the sitcom genre, for which at the time, many people thought was dead. The Cosby Show also topped the ratings charts throughout the world, in places such as Canada, Australia & the UK.

The Cosby Show and A Different World accomplishments in America, set standards for other African-American sitcom predecessors to emulate and follow suit, though with relatively little success.

Smith- Shomade proposes that The Cosby Show is similar to Fox's Living Single (1993), with creator Yvette Lee Bowser's characters having what she calls 'Afrocentric markers' (Smith-Shomade, 57). The female characters Synclaire, Khadijah, Maxine and Regine live in a New York apartment block with Black-specific artwork, whereas the guys, Kyle and Overton share another apartment. More importantly, Shomade also cites that in Living Single, because the idea of seeing successful working-class, mid-early 30s women, had not been fully realised before, especially on television, the audience sees the importance, first-hand, of a good first impression for each of these characters. For Living Single, material success, through earning a good living and working, was central to the plot of, as well as the success of the show.

The 1990s 

For what it's worth, although The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show were 2 of the biggest Black sitcoms of the 1970s and 1980s, African-American sitcoms didn't really hit its peak, until a decade after The Cosby Show had ended. The most successful period and decade for African-American situation comedies (and White sitcoms, not forgetting), as well as the most busiest, was the 1990s. Black sitcoms appeared in great numbers both on Cable and nationally as well, but more-so nationally. The big four of NBC, Fox, CBS, ABC established a foothold in the sitcom market, with shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, A Different World, Martin and Living Single drawing in millions each week (Poussaint). With the latter 2 shows on Fox, doing incredibly well.

The wave of Black sitcoms during 1990-1999 celebrated post-racial America, defined by personal responsibility, progress and choice (115, J Leonard). J Leonard argues that although many of these other 90s sitcoms were by no means as successful as The Cosby Show, A Different World and The Jeffersons, by taking race and ethnicity out of the equation, these shows would have denied the existence of racism endured by the Black middle-classes.

With A Different World's success, this was unrealised until Debbie Allen got involved and turned around the fortunes of the series by revamping the show's format. By the time it addressed serious social and political issues, the sitcom began to evolve and improve; explosive story lines involving HIV/Aids, racism, inter-racial relationships, prejudice. Subject matters that today's African-American sitcoms and shows seem to ignore, in favour of buffoonery, indecent images of Black cultural appropriation, and sex.

(continued in part 3....)


  • The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed, Mary M Dalton ed., State University of New York Press, 2005 
  • The A to Z of African-American Television, Kathleen Fearn Banks, Scarecrow Press, 2009
  • The Broadcast Century and Beyond, Robert L Hillard, Michael C. Keith, Focal Press, 2010
  • Cultural Diversity and the U.S Media, ed. Yahya R. Kamalipour, Theresa Carilli ed.,1998
  • Encyclopedia of African American Popular Culture, Jessie Carney Smith, State University of New York Press, 1998
  • Why is TV So Segregated?, Alvin Poussaint, 2010. 
  • The Columbia History of American Television, Gary Edgerton, Columbia University Press, 2009
  • Shaded Lives: African-American Women and Television, Beretta E.Smith- Shomade, Rutgers University Press, 2002
  • African-Americans on Television: Race-ing For Ratings, ed. by David J Leonard, Lisa Guerrero, Praeger, 2013
  • Color by Fox: The Fox Network & The Revolution in Black Television, Kristel Brent Zook, Oxford University Press, 1999 

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