Black-ish Creator Kenya Barris on Shonda Rhimes and Why He Wanted His Second Episode to Be About Child-Spanking

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

"In its own sweet way, this is a landmark show," writes Vulture's Matt Zoller Seitz of black-ish, which premieres tonight on ABC. The family comedy, created by former America's Next Top Model writer Kenya Barris, follows a middle-class black family as they struggle through tricky issues of identity and authenticity in the suburbs, and it's earning some of the best reviews of the new fall class. John Horn, host of Southern California Public Radio's new arts and entertainment show, The Frame, talked to Barris about the New York Times's Shonda Rhimes article, the show’s upcoming spanking episode, and the ways the show mirrors Barris’s own experience of being a black creator in a mostly-white world. (Listen to part of Horn and Barris's interview below and subscribe to The Frame at iTunes or Stitcher.)

We’re in your office at the Disney lot. I see this nice message, “We love you, Daddy. XOXO, Mommy and the crew,” referring to, I hope, your kids. How much of your family experience or your own personal experience do you bring to the show, and how much of being a parent informs the kinds of stories you want to tell in black-ish?
Immensely. All of our writers bring their own stories to the table because we feel like that’s how you make them as real and germane to what’s going on today [compared to] anything else that’s out there. Anthony Anderson and myself and Laurence, we sat down and we said, "These kids are growing up differently then other kids." Definitely different than us, but being little black kids in this experience, no one’s telling their story. And there’s a lot of people who are sort of now seeing that the generational tide is moving enough where a huge of immigrant and minority people have sort of taken some steps into becoming a bigger part of what the Zeitgeist of Americana is.

You’re talking about a show that is in some ways a reflection of what’s going on in the country or the world, but I'm wondering if its timing is also possible because of what’s going on in the world. In other words, are there two things happening at the same time?
Absolutely. ABC has allowed us to do it in a way that a lot of networks would not have. One of the things about this show is we want to do relevant and current things. Sometimes those things are a little bit risky and ABC has been really, really, really special to us to [allow us to] take those swings. We have a spanking episode that we did before any of the stuff came out—

The Adrian Peterson and the switch story.
Yes. We’d love to air it as our second episode, and in a very responsible way, we understand ABC feels like it’s not the right time right now to air it, but as producers and writers, we’re like, Oh, my God! Ahead of the curve! But that’s part of what I’m learning — it is a corporation and they are sensitive in a very responsible way, whereas I’m sort of like, I just want to get my thing out there! So, that’s something we’re working through because it’s one of our episodes that we’re happiest with.

So, you would want this to be on next week?
In a perfect world, I would love it to be. We talked to all our writers, and it was really the way it came about. I think of the 12 of us, 11 of us had been spanked as kids. None of us spanked [as parents]. And it was really interesting to see that. Why is that? We all kind of thought we grew up okay, why didn’t we do it? And it started a really interesting conversation, which led us to the differences in black households and white households. The differences in coastal households. The socioeconomic differences. The ethnic differences, the cultural differences, the differences in foreigners. It feels as if a lot of [this] country still believes in spanking. South, Middle America. A lot of the world actually still believes in spanking.

And, of course, what’s happened with Adrian Peterson seems to be over the top, overboard. I don’t know the particulars of the case, I'm not part of it, but it seems to be that there were some definite lines crossed. But it’s still conversation-worthy in terms of where we’re at now and where we were 30 years ago. What’s acceptable to some and what’s not acceptable to some and who’s making the rules. It’s a really interesting episode, I’m really proud of it, but I do understand that it’s something that we have to do in a different kind of way.

So, when do you think it will be broadcast?
Hopefully in a time where it doesn’t seem like we got into it afterward, that we weren’t reactionary.

It has been a very long time since there’s been a network comedy that starred a black family. Do you have any ideas or theories about why that’s the case?
Um, of course, I have ideas and theories.

Let’s hear them.
I think that the powers that be [have not deemed] that it would be financially lucrative in a way that would benefit their particular shareholders or company. And I think there have been some doors that have been opened by Shonda Rhimes, by other people, by movie openings. We’ve been seeing that maybe there is a shift coming, and that maybe there is a certain demographic that might want to be targeted that is not necessarily being targeted. At the same time, I think that the ideas haven’t always been present at the right times, and getting shows on is really just as much about timing as it is about content.

Right, but The Cosby Show was a hit 30 years ago. I mean, I can’t imagine that people can make the argument that we’re a less progressive or open-minded nation now than we were 30 years ago.
People actually could make that argument, but I don’t think that’s what it is. Mr. Cosby was a really big celebrity at the time, a star that probably anyone would have banked on. It was based off of a hit book that he had, Fatherhood. People had a piece of intellectual property that they could have looked at and saw stories come right from. He was always, through his iconic comedy career, known as a storyteller. And each of those stories, literally, you could have sat down and transcribed one of his bits and it equalled an episode. Look, I don’t know why that happened. I think that I’m trying to be as sensitive to the other side of why it hasn’t happened without just saying something that sounds incendiary. I feel like all I know is we’re getting the opportunity and that we want to do the most with the opportunity that we can and we really are getting a real swing.

In January, it was announced that Larry Wilmore would be the showrunner, and then in May, he got his new gig. How is that going to affect the makeup and the mixture of the show?
Greatly. I mean, he is my partner, he helped me shape this in a way that I can’t ever thank him enough for. At the same time, he always empowered me to say that, This is your vision. I’m here to help you pull off your vision, and things that I learned from him while he was here were amazing. At the same time, I feel unbelievably blessed to have Jonathan Groff, who’s my partner who’s just written Happy Endings and some other things and is just a brilliant guy.

Were you surprised when Larry said that he’d gotten that gig?
I was fucking pissed! I was pissed. It happened almost — and Larry will tell you this — I suggested him for that job. Suggested. And it was a joke in the editing room. We were editing the pilot and — I actually told him that he should go after the Letterman job. And then we said, maybe Craig Ferguson. And I never knew that there would be another Colbert show because we thought when Colbert went away [that would be it]. So, next thing I know, it’s the Colbert thing. I found out the day of our pickup, and I was livid. But it lasted for a very short time because he’s my brother and I was very, very happy for him. And I knew, had the situation been reversed, I would have done the same thing. I was scared more than anything. I was scared to go and — we had been on this journey for a while.

This is a show that’s largely about a family, but it’s also about a professional man working in the professional world. And I’m curious as to your writing and thinking about that story, this is a show that’s clearly informed by some of your personal experiences. How many of your personal experiences in Hollywood affected the way you wrote the character experiencing his life in the advertising world?
A lot of them. I actually wanted to make the character a television writer, but we felt like it wouldn’t be as relatable to most of America. Most of America understands — even if they don’t know what an advertising executive is — they know that someone creates ads. We wanted to make it relatable to most of America. At the same time, the same way that Andre is sort of good at his job because of his unique point of view, I — as much shit as I might have talked — I know that my unique point of view in a writers’ room is often why I have the job. It was sort of a double-edged sword because I might complain because they hired me because I was black, but if they hired someone who wasn’t black, I’d be calling.

Which is almost a verbatim line in the first episode of the show, where Andre is hired as the director of urban advertising at his firm and his wife says, Well, you’d be complaining if it was a white guy who got the job, right?
Something that’s literally, 100 percent a conversation I had with my wife about a job that I got, and it really made me think. And I really said that what I wanted to do was sort of knock it, take the opportunity that I had and sort of knock it out the park as much as I could.

A lot of the show is about the perspective that the children in the family have. Are there specific things that your children have said to you that have ended up in the show?
My daughter, Lola, came home, and she was trying to explain a kid to me in her class. And she was going on and on about what backpack she had on, what shoes she had on, and this and that, and I finally said, “Hold on. Are you talking about the only other little black girl in your class?” And she was like, “Yeah, I guess so.” And I looked at my wife and my wife was like, “You know what? They don’t see color.” And I was like, This is ridiculous. And it made me see this was the world they were growing up in. My kids did not know that Obama was the first black president. I felt like I needed to tell them because I felt like, How could you not know that? But for the ones who didn’t know, he was basically the only president they knew.

Do you think that comedy has a specific advantage in addressing stories about race and class that drama does not? And what might those advantages be?
Advantages and disadvantages. I think that we have the advantage of being able to have you look at something that you might otherwise not want to look at, but look at it and laugh. And sort of make it more palatable ‘cause of that. Disadvantage in that some things that we may want to say and have people look at are not to be — the powers that be don’t feel like those things should be explored through comedy. They’re better left dramatically explored.

But one of the problems with that argument is that you can have a great movie like 12 Years a Slave — that came out last year — any number of Oscar voters, some of whom voted for it for Best Picture, admitted they didn’t want to watch it. It was too difficult. They didn’t want to go there. So, you can have a drama that’s very tough and very realistic and very authentic, and it can scare people so much that they won’t even engage in the story.
Absolutely, but at the same time, you couldn’t do Think I Want to Be a Slave: The Movie. You know what I’m saying? Comedically, I’m sure there are a huge amount of slave jokes and things that I could come up with because they had to find something to keep going, they had to find some laughter, and there’s so many idiotic notions that you could explore — why slavery was able to last as long as it did and why people thought it was okay — you could totally do a movie that would. I’ve heard that Eddie Murphy—

The Wayans Brothers may be working on this right now.
Yes, I’ve heard that a lot of people — it’s a movie that people would be like, “Oh, that’s not something that you can explore comedically.” So, in that aspect, that’s an example of something that, a disadvantage that comedy has.

There’s been a lot of news over the last couple of days about an article written about Shonda Rhimes. I’m curious if you’ve read the article and what your thoughts are about the controversy.
I have read the article. Shonda has been very friendly to me and very supportive, and I sent her a tweet saying that she was my “shero.” It’s interesting to me that she was the subject of an article about a show that she’s not the creator of. At the same time, I’m also interested in why her race had to come up. If they wanted to say "Angry Woman," I understand, but she has a lot of characters that aren’t black. Even that, all her characters aren’t angry. But I feel like she is writing romantic dramedy in some aspects, and to minimize her achievements down to a couple characters’ points of view and start your article off like that, about a show she’s not even created — it felt malicious and it felt really irresponsible. I don’t know if the writer meant it. I’m sure the writer didn’t seem as if he had any personal — the article was very at some points complimentary of the show. And maybe he—

She did not mean for it come off like that. It’s one of those things that when someone calls it out, it’s like, Oh, God. The race card. But it’s sort of like you don’t have another place to go. Why did that have to come up? It’s a woman who really goes to work, from what I know, very early, and leaves very late, you know? And has dedicated a lot of herself to her craft and supports a lot of people, gives a lot of people jobs. And it seems like she does a pretty good job of elevating her shows to a pretty high level and doing it with class. So, I have a personal bias.