‘In Living Color’ Gets Its Own History Book with ‘Homey Don’t Play That’

When In Living Color premiered on Fox in 1990, the sketch series represented the beginning of a wave of Black network programming unlike any seen on television in decades (arguably ever). In 1994, In Living Color ended along with four other Black series on Fox alone (the syndicated talk show The Arsenio Hall Show ended the very same month). What brought Fox to that moment and what it took to make In Living Color last as long as it did are the focus of Homey Don’t Play That, a fascinating new book by David Peisner. Peisner ably provides a detailed account of the series’ development with a particular focus on its creator and producer, Keenen Ivory Wayans. Through extensive research and interviews, Peisner provides vital context for everything that went into the production and distribution of In Living Color and what made it the cultural force that it was for the first half of the 1990s. The story of In Living Color is, in these pages, the story of the Wayans family (especially Keenen Ivory Wayans) and the Fox corporation, and why they were briefly perfect for one another until they became incompatible.

Keenen Ivory Wayans started out as a standup comedian with Robert Townsend. Together, they moved out to Hollywood and formed “the Black Pack” with Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, and Paul Mooney. Wayans found some success through co-writing Hollywood Shuffle and writing, directing, and starring in the blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. When Fox offered him a sketch show, he was already confident about what he wanted and didn’t want – and so were they. Wayans insisted the show would be “revolutionary,” then saw a room full of executive faces fall. He clarified, “No, not take-over-the-world revolutionary. Revolutionary in terms of funny.” That tension between producing radical material and just getting laughs lasted the rest of In Living Color’s run. Another recurring source of friction was Keenen Ivory Wayans’ insistence on working with his family. His younger siblings Damon and Kim were in the show’s original cast, and Shawn was a production assistant/DJ stand-in in the first season and a writer-performer starting in the second. Marlon Wayans joined the cast in the fourth season. Though Keenen Ivory Wayans took some flak for nepotism, it was undeniable that the Wayans family was tremendously talented. Peisner explores why all were so funny in early chapters devoted to the family’s early years. He also attempts to explicate why Keenen was such a difficult, demanding boss who frequently held up production with last-minute sketch changes. There, too, the result is easier to identify: for the four seasons he produced In Living Color, it was a clear expression of his comic voice that proved impossible to replicate.

Peisner describes the television landscape of the early 1980s as a “wasteland,” a “post-Good Times, pre-Cosby Show drought.” What this functionally meant was, when hiring writers for In Living Color, Wayans struggled to find experienced comedy writers who were Black. Over the course of its run, In Living Color provided early writing jobs for more than a few Black writers, but there was constant debate over what jokes were appropriate for the show and which were unpalatable when pitched by white writers. White writers often pitched hard-hitting sketches taking on racist institutions; Black writers and Wayans himself pushed back. “Keenen, Damon, and Kim, they lived the black experience. They didn’t need to spend one more day fighting that battle,” one white writer tells Peisner. Individual sketches appeared to reinforce racist stereotypes to some writers; to others, these sketches mined laughs from elements of Black life not previously explored on network television (the recurring sketch “Homeboy Shopping Network” comes up frequently throughout the book as hotly debated among writers, producers, and executives). Fox attempted early on to bring in consultants from organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League to sign off on its humor. When they brought in a man who’d marched with Dr. King (the book doesn’t name who), Keenen Wayans told them, “If he ain’t got no jokes, I don’t need him. He’s no blacker than me.” The original plan was to have an entirely Black cast, but the first season was determined to need two white cast members, one man and one woman. That white man, Jim Carrey, was one of the show’s breakout stars, and was from the start making more money than the Black cast members (and fellow white cast member Kelly Coffield). When Keenen Ivory Wayans left the show in its fourth season, he was replaced by three showrunners – two white and one Black. Sketches that previously felt right for the series started to feel uncomfortably wrong, and no longer like jokes being made by and for Black people.

These distinctions are a key component to unpacking In Living Color, and come up frequently in Peisner’s book. Chris Rock, who joined the cast in its final season after a few years on Saturday Night Live, compared being on SNL in the era of In Living Color to being Charley Pride. Peisner quotes him explaining that “I was the first black guy [on SNL] in, like, eight years. I wanted to be in an environment where I didn’t have to translate the comedy I wanted to do.” This was a huge part of what made In Living Color so notable. Producer Tamara Rawitt recalls Fox executives balking at a sketch mocking Louis Farrakhan because they believed that “nobody knows who Louis Farrakhan is.” To Rawitt, this issue was absurd: “Everyone in black culture knows who Farrakhan is.” Rock (and Damon Wayans, who was on SNL for one miserable season) had performed on an established network sketch series, but In Living Color provided an opportunity to appear in sketches written to appeal directly to a Black audience.

Fox’s foray into Black programming wasn’t the result of television executives suddenly deciding to broaden their audiences. In Living Color was a product of its moment even beyond its politics or aesthetics. Thanks to the gradual phasing out of fin-syn regulations, Fox was looking to produce its own original content that would syndicate well, and this sketch show was a good fit. Though its ratings weren’t enormous, they were huge for the fledgling network, and the show’s controversy (and Emmy win) helped bring viewers to Fox. In her landmark book Color by Fox (which complements Homey Don’t Play That perfectly), Kristal Brent Zook explains that “Fox aired the irreverent series when it did because it needed…to distinguish it from the more traditional networks.” By the time In Living Color was in its fifth season, things had changed dramatically at the network. The executives who’d ushered in In Living Color, The Simpsons, and Married with Children had mostly moved on to other networks, and Rupert Murdoch began taking a much more hands-on approach to his network. He wasn’t satisfied with getting niche ratings, and wanted to turn Fox into a juggernaut that could compete with CBS, NBC, and ABC. Throughout Homey Don’t Play That, Peisner clearly explains the ways that decisions made at the corporate level trickled down to the creative. In this case, it’s an identifiable pattern: a young network can make its name with Black programming, but when it’s ready to shoot for higher ad dollars, Black shows are disappeared quickly. One executive is quoted saying “there was no outward racism,” but “Rupert wanted to broaden the advertiser base.” As Fox lost so many of its Black shows, including In Living Color, the WB and UPN began to pick up the slack – until they began to shoot for higher ad buys, too.

In her essay “In The Time of Plastic Representation,” Dr. Kristen Warner expresses concern over the basic demand of more representation for Black people on television: “Black images as the marker of societal progress or regression makes any image acceptable on its face, obliterating context and sidelining any consideration of depth.” By detailing the changes occuring in Black entertainment in the 1980s, David Peisner draws a distinction between SNL hiring more Black cast members and Keenen Ivory Wayans producing a Black sketch show (and one can watch Chris Rock and Damon Wayans on both shows to see just how different their roles were on each). What helped In Living Color stand out was not just that it had a primarily Black cast: it’s that it was a Black show. Peisner does an excellent job detailing the Wayans’s background and their influences that went into making the series, but the book unfortunately ends roughly when the TV series does. In Living Color’s influence was undeniably huge, and its creative team was involved in various capacities with many of the Black series that made it to the air throughout the ‘90s and beyond. What the show’s ultimate impact was deserves further exploration, but for now, Homey Don’t Play That is a welcome addition to the excavation of Black television history.

Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.

‘In Living Color’ Gets Its Own History Book with […]