‘Friends of the People’: A New Sketch Show Finds Its Voice

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Since truTV greenlighted Friends of the People, their new sketch comedy show set to anchor the network’s crossover into original comedic programming, the storyline that’s occasionally popped up is that the series’ inception came to fruition after the In Living Color reboot ultimately did not reboot. However, FOTP is not a revised version of the scrapped ILC series.

The grain of truth in that narrative is that three of FOTP’s cast members, Jermaine Fowler, Jennifer Bartels, and Lil Rel Howery, were set to star in the ILC revival and that’s where they met. That’s it. What did happen is Fowler, Bartels, and Rel realized they had chemistry and that they would be stupid to not move forward together while bringing several of their hilarious and talented young friends on board. 3 Arts Entertainment, who already managed Fowler and Bartels, also realized the potential they’d seen in the pilot and helped assemble the rest of the cast.

Fowler knew the Lucas Bros. from the standup scene, Josh Rabinowitz had also worked with the Lucas Bros. on their Comedy Central Series The Super Late Morning Show, and with Jermaine on several digital shorts. Kevin Barnett knew Jermaine from their time at MTV together, but it was “Homo Thugs,” their three part semi-viral web series that introduced fans to the duo’s on screen chemistry and original voice as writers (Huffington Post called it hysterically funny and the first episode garnered over 675,000 YouTube hits).

The central commonality shared by every member of the cast is that they are relatively unknown to the average network sitcom viewer. Fowler, Rel, and Bartels together with 3 Arts continued to assemble what would become the FOTP cast – Kevin Barnett, Josh Rabinowitz, and Kenny and Keith Lucas were added – all well known in the New York underground scene, all had already made waves at Montreal and done some TV work, but no truly household names just yet. Which is why truTV makes sense. Under the leadership of new president and head of programming, Chris Linn, the network began an ambitious overhaul, looking to create a slate of new original programming right as 3 Arts started shopping the FOTP pilot.

Early in his tenure, Linn articulated his desire to make bold choices and take big swings. To that end, the network has given FOTP a wide berth to create the type of material that the comedians themselves want to see. After all, why recruit a cast of fresh voices if you’re going to try to shoehorn them into traditional network formats?

Five of the seven cast members are African-American males. It’s not a stretch to worry that the general public might expect a certain brand of race-based humor based on the promo posters alone. FOTP, however, is not Chappelle’s Show, and of course, it would be dangerous (probably fatal) to try to be.

Tour de force that it was, Chappelle’s Show relied inordinately on race for premise, plot, and punchline. Take nothing away from the series, but try to recall a sketch that didn’t overtly employ race as a narrative device. Tough, right? Chappelle’s Show was crucial, ground breaking in 2003. It would be stale (because of itself) in 2014. For obvious reasons, a sketch depicting a hypothetical black president who “keeps it real real,” would be trite, if not offensive, today. Chappelle’s Show 2.0 inevitably fails.

Consequently, FOTP, as an outlet, consciously avoids anything that steps near Dave’s domain. As director/showrunner Neil Punsalan explains, “One of the tougher things about coming up with concepts on this show is we will be immediately compared to any other comedy show that has a predominantly African-American cast … So, if we come up with a bit and someone says, ‘What about this Chappelle thing?’ ostensibly it can be not that close to what Chappelle did, but because it’s kind of close we just walk away … Nothing is precious.”

This is an issue that the Lucas Bros. have spent some time pondering. In wardrobe on set in Williamsburg, both of the identical twin comedians are reading a copy of The Ethics of Identity, by scholar Kwame Anthony Appiah. When I ask Kenny for a three-sentence synopsis, he rattles off a Charlie Rose worthy explanation:

“He’s basically deconstructing Mills’ conception of liberty, arguing that it’s more expansive and that there is value to individuality and solidarity in groups. Group identity politics should not limit individuality. The question I’m trying to answer is, ‘To what extent do identity politics limit the creative expression of an individual attached to an identity.’ Do you know what I mean? … If you’re a black dude, if you’re a black comic, what responsibility do you have to black people, as a group, in creating your comedy, or do you have any responsibility at all?”

His brother Keith joins us, clutching his own highlighted and tabbed copy of Appiah’s tome, “First off, what is black comedy? No one ever answers that question. Is it just when a person with black skin does comedy, then it’s black comedy? No other groups [for example] an Irish comedian, no one talks about the Irish and English civil war and how that has any impact on his comedy.”

Kenny jumps back in, “But blacks are so tied to the past. I think with the new alt scene we are turning that paradigm on its head. We have no responsibility to the group. We’re just going to create. And if you like it you can vibe with us.”

Kenny and Keith lament the fact that their animated Fox show Lucas Bros. Moving Co. was immediately classified as a “black show,” simply because the leads are black. “If you watch it though, it’s more of a wrestling show, it’s a 90’s show,” they say.

Of course, some of FOTP’s humor and appeal does rely on exploring racial consciousness; this is inevitable as many of the sketches start as offshoots of the cast members’ standup sets. But while Chicago-based Lil Rel Howery’s brand might fit more closely with The Kings of Comedy lineage, The Lucas Bros., Jermaine Fowler, and Kevin Barnett all perform more frequently in front of beardy Williamsburg or Bushwick crowds.

Race is not ignored entirely in their material – Kevin Barnett points out the limited availability of Halloween costumes available to black people, The Lucas Bros. have a Biggie Smalls gun control joke, and Jermaine discusses the inherent racism of interracial porn (it’s always Mandingo vs. a white chick) and the hilarity of the fact that more than a handful of black performers keep their construction boots on while fucking. But their concentric circles seem to interlock more on a shared love of the WWF, and a sardonic view of the sugary pop culture the 90’s served us.

The cast, who also serve as writers and executive producers, have been throwing around the term “comedy collective” to describe what their group has become, as opposed to a troupe who came up together like, say, Human Giant. The distinction here being that each of the performers, six of whom are standups (Jen Bartels hails from the Upright Citizens Brigade), bring their own unique flavor to the writer’s room. Of course, for the show to work there must be a unified tone. One way they achieve this is by substituting different players into sketches written by other members. That is, just because you write a sketch does not mean you own it. Inventing a character might put you in pole position to play that character, but if a Rabinowitz concept works better with Lil Rel as the lead, Rel gets the lead.

As showrunner and director, Neil Punsalan makes the final call on who goes where and what sketches make it out of the writer’s room. Punsalan, who has writing and producing credits on Sports Show with Norm MacDonald and more recently The Pete Holmes Show, has enjoyed the creative freedom he’s been afforded by working with a cast of relative newcomers. “I love the unknown factor her because we can literally do whatever we want. There are no expectations, and they’re all hungry. I don’t have to ask them to stay late, they’re here. They’ve all even put their standup careers on hold for a spell, which is not something I was anticipating.” It’s impressive to see him patch all seven voices together, ever mindful that it benefits the show to keep the laughs relatively balanced between the cast members. Audience debate regarding which characters and sketches are best is a good thing.

An early favorite might be “Tracy Morgan Freeman.” Jermaine Fowler’s unlikely mash-up of the two Morgans is the rare concept sketch that has you laughing just imagining where it might go. Fowler also features prominently as Steve Urkel in “The Untold History of Urkel,” a spoof on the Family Matters series and its inexplicable reign of dominance from the late 80’s through the mid-90’s. The latter sketch showcases the entire cast, and is a good demonstration of the group’s ability to spread the beats around evenly; all seven get a memorable line off.

The series moves beyond the parameters of a standard sketch show by incorporating man-on-the-street bits and music videos. Kevin Barnett’s “Gentrify Rap” is set to a beat reminiscent of Tupac’s “Hail Mary,” and features a rapper from the hood who prays that his neighborhood will be made safer by an influx of hipsters and their attendant artisanal goods, e.g. bespoke pickles, creative takes on mayo, and iced coffees. The piece works as Barnett’s MC skills are just good enough to make the rhyme believable for 30 seconds, and, having lived in Bushwick since he moved to New York from Florida five years ago, he has plenty to draw on.

While sharing surface similarities with its predecessors, FOTP is wholly unique among sketch shows in that the vast majority of the writing staff are also the cast members. truTV has found seven up and coming young comics, thrown them a budget and stepped out of the way. The content has not been run through a focus group, or a mill of career comedy writers. The end result is seven comics putting it all on the line with no standard to meet other than making each other laugh.

Friends of the People premiers October 28 at 10:30pm EST on truTV.

Zachary McDermott is a writer. He lives in Brooklyn.