‘South Central’: A Sitcom 20 Years Before Its Time

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

This summer, with the events of Ferguson, Missouri making headlines around the world, a lot of people were talking about California in the early 1990s. There were the famous 1992 riots, frequent clashes with the LAPD, and just, in general, a really bad time for racial politics in America. And what was happening this summer didn’t make us feel like we had progressed all that far in the twenty years in between. Emerging from this landscape, in 1994 Fox began airing a sitcom called South Central, named for the neighborhood in Los Angeles where the aforementioned riots began, and one with incredibly high rates of gang violence, crime, and poverty.

South Central is a comedy. It’s a comedy with a lot of drama, but it was indeed a 1990s comedy, which generally meant there would be a living room set, three cameras to shoot it, and a live studio audience to watch it being shot. However, what was happening on this living room set, and the issues that were being addressed, made it incredibly different from any other show on TV. South Central follows the Lifford family, which is comprised of Tina, the mother, and single parent of Andre, her teenage son, Tasha, her middle school-aged daughter, and Deion, her toddler foster child. The Cosby Show, which at this point was the last major sitcom with a predominantly African-American cast had ended its run two years earlier and painted a much different picture with two parents, a doctor and a lawyer, raising their family comfortably in a massive brownstone. The opening shot of the pilot episode of South Central lets you know that you’re in for a much different experience.

A crying child, Deion, rolls around in bed, waking up his mom. The camera follows her as she moves through the house to put Deion in the room he shares with Andre, but as she comes into the living room she finds Tasha coming in the front door. When asked what she’s doing outside so early, Tasha replies, “Gettin’ some fresh air. Nothing like the smell of gunpowder in the morning.” And if the show didn’t set itself apart enough from the rest of television, the cold open is filmed single-camera style. Though that format is now ubiquitous, during the 1990s it was super rare. On top of all of this, the version found in the Paley Center (and not in the final aired version, it would appear) features no laugh track during this sequence. There are a few chuckles from the crew, but for the most part, the scene unfolds to silence, letting the jokes have as much impact on the audience as the dramatic moments. The already realistic sequence feels all the more true as the camera moves just as a person would, watching what’s unfolding before them, without the reminder of audience in the form of canned laughter.

As you might imagine, the show is very much a product of it’s time, and in order to be the realistic show that the show’s creators, Ralph Farquhar and Michael J. Weithorn, wanted to make, it needed to be. In an Associated Press interview, done around the time of the show’s premiere, initially the show was sold to CBS who wanted a 1990s version of Good Times. However, this type of show wasn’t what they were looking to do. Farquhar says, “Good Times is rooted in a very obvious sitcom formula that is a throwback to the ‘50s.” They show that they made is very much rooted in the 1990s, from top to bottom.

As we are introduced to Joan, our protagonist, she is struggling to get by with her kids. They don’t know it yet, but their mother has been out of work for the past month. We see her plead her case at a job interview to no avail. She’s unable to buy groceries at the food co-op because they’ve stopped accepting her checks. (She’s told this by a young, sassy, Jennifer Lopez.) Adding to all of this stress, her daughter Tasha is asking for money to get a new Cross Colours jacket and Andre wants to get a beeper. (Like I said: it’s very much rooted in the nineties.) Later in the day when Joan learns that Andre has gone out and got himself a beeper anyway, the show takes two very different approaches to the same issue.

The scene begins with Joan cheerfully welcoming her son home, laying it on thick. “How was your day? Do anything special? Anything hype? Anything dope, ma brotha?” Then, once he attempts to leave the room, she plays her hand, and the beeper goes off in Andre’s pants. Once the traditional sitcom approach has played out, the tone changes drastically. This turns into a fight, a real shouting match between these characters, not played for any laughs at all. Andre tries to argue that there are respectable people that have beepers, but his mother isn’t having it. “In this neighborhood,” she responds, “it’s the gangbangers and the drug dealers and I’m not going to let you get your narrow black ass shot off because you look like one.” The arguing escalates further until Joan, at the end of her rope, shouts, “Give me the beeper, Marcus.” The room goes silent and Andre solemnly tells his mother that he’s not Marcus.

The scene that follows is the perfect merging of the tone of the beginning and end of the preceding one. Joan visits with her friend Sweets, who is cooking for an off-screen brood of children who are playing noisily and occasionally insulting her in a precocious sitcom kid kind of way. Joan is a wreck and recaps the many struggles that she’s encountered throughout her day, revealing that the reason she treats Andre like a child instead of a young man is because she doesn’t want him to end up dead like her son Marcus, who was killed by gang violence. The top comedies on TV in 1994 included shows like Friends, Home Improvement, and Rosanne. This was not the kind of scene that any of those shows would ever touch.

Ten weeks after its debut, Fox cancelled South Central, along with the rest of the shows on their Tuesday night block: In Living Color, and Roc, starring Charles S. Dutton. In other words, they canceled most their shows shows with predominantly African-American casts. Following this there was a campaign to save South Central, with the show’s creators launching a letter writing campaign and the Rev. Jesse Jackson calling for a boycott of the network. It didn’t work. South Central disappeared after its ten episodes aired. Two years later, co-creator Ralph Farqhuar’s new show Moesha appeared on television which dealt with many of the same issues, but in a much more traditional and sanitized way.

I wish I could say that things have changed in the twenty years since South Central aired, but I’m not sure that I can. With TV even more fragmented today, it seems even less likely for a show like this to not only make it on a major network but to pull in the kind of numbers it takes to survive. This might be a second golden age of television, as some have said, but it’s even harder to create a comedy that will not only entertain folks of all backgrounds, but broaden their horizons at the same time. The majority of the episodes are available on YouTube (the pilot of which is embedded below) for you to visit and see television as it might have been.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” has a very self-explanatory title.

‘South Central’: A Sitcom 20 Years Before Its Time