The Proud Family Showrunners Wanted to Revive the Series 15 Years Ago

Photo: Disney+

This interview with the Proud Family showrunners was originally published in February 2022. We’re celebrating the Disney+ revival with a family reunion featuring cast members Kyla Pratt, Cedric the Entertainer, Jo Marie Payton, and Paula Jai Parker at Vulture Festival in Los Angeles on November 13. Tickets are on sale now!

If you were a Black kid growing up in the early aughts, The Proud Family was one of the few animated series that made you and your family feel seen. Addressing timely, often heavy topics that few series aimed at kids had the guts to talk about — from homelessness and classism to digital piracy — with sharp observation and charm, The Proud Family also brought visibility to traditions like Kwanzaa and to Black history often overlooked in entertainment including Angela Davis’s activism and the contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen during WWII.

Revolving around 14-year-old Penny Proud (Kyla Pratt) and her teenage misadventures along with the high jinks of her loving, if a bit overbearing, family, the sitcom aired from 2001 to 2005 on the Disney Channel, concluding with The Proud Family Movie in 2005 before finding new life in syndicated reruns on BET and Centric (now BET Her). Showrunners Bruce W. Smith and Ralph Farquhar spent years trying to revive the Prouds at Disney, and 17 years later, the family is back on a new streaming platform with a fresh animation style, a host of LGBTQ+ characters, and a decidedly Gen-Z twist (Penny’s an influencer who doesn’t know how vinyls work). Smith, who oversees animation, and Farquhar, who leads the story team, consider Louder and Prouder to be “the best possible version of The Proud Family.” They chatted with Vulture about how the revival came to fruition, updating the characters for new audiences, and their hopes for the future of Black animation.

Who was first interested in reviving The Proud Family — you or Disney?

Ralph Farquhar: We pitched them live-action, we pitched them live-action with animation — we were trying every way to get The Proud Family to come back. When we first started, social media wasn’t what it is today. It was in the barber shops, the hair salons, and the grocery stores. We were hearing from people, “Hey, man, I love that Proud Family. When’s the Proud Family coming back?” We knew we had something. Finally, Bruce and I came up with a concept similar to Proud Family, and we pitched it. The pitch goes really well. Then after the pitch, they say, “Hey, we like that. But how would you guys like to do the Proud Family again?” And we go, “That’s what we’ve been talking about the past 15 years.”

How did you recreate the show from the ground up as far as art direction and animation goes?

Bruce W. Smith: For me, the technology caught up to the idea of how I visually saw the show the first time around. I was a huge fan of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones and always thought the reason those shorts play over time is because the writing was so strong and the visuals matched the writing. It was just as funny as what the characters were saying.

In television, there was always an assumption that the visuals don’t matter as much. I was always of the mind-set that both can coexist. They complement each other. I mean, you are talking to Mr. Ralph Farquhar. The writing and the staff he was gonna put together was gonna be on point. So I’m like, Let’s elevate the look of the show. I like what we were going for the first time — I want the two to sit side by side. The latest version of the technology allows us to do really outstanding 2.5-D animation.

The first time around, we didn’t really have any art direction; we were kinda flying by the speed of our hands and happened to land on a style that worked to get us to the finish line. Now, we really leaned into the cinematic value. We wanted to allow the personalities and nuances of the writing to shine through the new version of these characters.

R.F.: Our aspirations always went far beyond our budget. First of all, we learned how to work together as writers and animators, which is not such a natural marriage. Bruce knew visually exactly where he wanted to go. I knew in terms of the stories we wanted to tell. You see the result of that. The animation is so great right now it elevates the storytelling. Animators are magicians anyway. The beauty of it is, the script is a template. Everybody expands from that point. A lot of these jokes were not written. Bruce’s team adds that whole second level; then in the voice acting, we allow them to ad-lib. Tommy Davidson can do that off the cuff. We have the best possible version of Proud Family this time around.

Culture has changed significantly since the last time we saw the Prouds. What topics were you eager to tackle in this run?

R.F.: A lot of topics come up — and topics that have always been there: race, gender. Social media is a thing that’s risen since we were last on; we tackle an issue about cyberbullying and cancel culture in one episode. One of the biggest topics this first season is LGBTQ issues as they relate to the African American community. That’s a touchy subject in our culture, and we were fortunate enough to get Billy Porter and Zachary Quinto playing same-sex parents that move into the Prouds’ world.

The very first thing we said once we got the pickup was, “We gotta do right by the Michael character. We gotta bring an authentic voice.” The first and only person we thought about was E.J. Johnson. I was friends with him when he was a youngster. I knew he was this kid growing up and could bring everything we needed in terms of voice performance.

B.W.S.: And E.J. helped us shape that character. I’d show him the initial sketches and design for Michael. Each time you see him in the episodes — in a very nontraditional animation habit — Michael’s wardrobe will be different. You know how Penny always wears the same outfit? Every episode you see Michael in, he has a very fabulous, very expensive wardrobe from head to toe. We felt it was worth it to spend money on Michael’s closet because Michael is the fabulous character in our show and deserves that.

R.F.: Now we’re presenting the character in its fullness both in design and in how the character interacts with the other characters. Other things we’re gonna tackle this season is homelessness and where Suga Mama is from.

Was there any difficulty transitioning from a focus on millennial culture to Gen Z?

R.F.: I was old back when we did the first one. Louder and Prouder is the ultimate fan art: All our crew, from our writers to our directors and our artists, were fans of the show the first time around. They knew the show better than we did. We’ve got the voices on board that have guided this show into the proper lane in terms of relevancy. Bruce and I can cover Uncle Bobby and Oscar, but when we get down to Penny, then we get other folks, right?

B.W.S.: You can’t expect every 14-year-old to know and be familiar with all the things we grew up with, so it’s a great way to stay connected. As a culture, that’s what we do. We stay connected to our past. This show works on so many levels: We recognize every aspect of our culture — where we’re from and where we like to go. That’s the connective tissue that allows it to be family viewing.

R.F.: No matter what generation you’re from, you recognize these family dynamics. Even the old episodes that are on Disney right now — I was checking them out the other day and said, “My gosh, these things still play.” Because we come at this Black family dynamic in a very honest, authentic way.

B.W.S.: We wanted the approach to music to be multigenerational. The first time we did the show we had artists as young as Destiny’s Child and artists like Lou Rawls. They wouldn’t be played on the same radio station anywhere nationwide, but we knew the attraction of the show is these unexpected musical drops. If your 5-year-old is being watched by your grandma, they could put on Proud Family; your grandma gonna be washing dishes — all of a sudden she hears a song that makes her go, What are they watching? She’s gonna turn around and watch the show because she hears a song from her generation. Her interest is piqued.

When it came to bringing back the entire voice cast, was it a simple phone call and everyone was immediately on board?

R.F.: That was exactly it, except for Jo Marie Payton.

B.W.S.: When we got the green-light, we immediately went to our cast, and everybody was really excited about it. And Jo Marie Payton called pitching us another show. We were like, “Okay. But why?” She says, “From what I understand, Suga Mama is not gonna be in this version of Proud Family.” I’m like, “Where’d you get that information from?” She got the information from the fan art. They thought we were coming back with the characters much older. There was some key art running around where Suga Mama was missing. Naturally, if Penny’s much older, where is Sugar Mama in all this? Right. She thought that’s the direction we were going. We were like, “You’re fine, Jo Marie.” Suga Mama is ageless. She’s always gonna exist.

R.F.: But that very fine fan art inspired us to do an episode I think everybody’s gonna find very interesting.

Since the first run, you’ve evolved as artists and storytellers. Is there anything that you know now that you wish you learned back then?

R.F.: You grow because you go through stuff. We had to go through what we had to go through the first time. We had to experience what we did. Not only in making the show, but quite frankly, we felt like we weren’t appreciated enough. We knew we had a show people like. It wasn’t getting the shine we hoped it would get. Because we went through that, now we get a chance to do it even better.

B.W.S.: The first time around, we didn’t have the advent of social media. Ralph and I were making the show in a silo. We didn’t get Nielsen’s ratings. I don’t know a Nielsen family that would come up to my door and say, I love this show.

R.F.: We didn’t know anybody with a Nielsen box.

B.W.S.: But social media told us people watch this show in masses and really miss it. There was nothing made in the middle of that bridge. Ralph and I always thought there were gonna be people coming up beside us, making shows that will continue to display this potpourri of Blackness in animation. That didn’t really happen. So you’re talking about this 15-year gap. Not a lot of really Black shows were around.

R.F.: Somebody once asked “Mr. Bruce, what shows do you feel you inspired in your wake?” We were like, We didn’t inspire anybody because nothing happened. There was nothing.

B.W.S.: I’ll give a shout-out to Boondocks, but yeah, that was the problem. It’s like, now Blackness is gonna be defined on the layer of Boondocks when there should be other shows that can sit alongside it that can give you a larger perspective. We know the history of animation hasn’t necessarily been kind to us people. That’s why people were so apprehensive of making new product, because there’s not a lot of Black people in front of the product. There are certain people who should be in control of the content who aren’t.

What you get with Ralph and myself is knowing from top to bottom — from the writing, from the animation side — that we’re gonna put people in a position that can inform the content as we make it. We made sure we hired people in positions to understand and give you the Black experience the way we know. We start out from the general lightbulb idea, and we’ve got people in place who actually carry it out. That’s unique.

R.F.: We’re in a very specific space. We’re in the family entertainment segment. There just, ain’t nothing else. That’s not something we’re proud of or responsible for but it is what it is. So we’re back. We’re glad to be back. Trust me.

B.W.S.: I wanna stress the importance that it’s not just Ralph and I making the show. We have two female Black directors. Ralph has a writers’ room that’s incredible, as he always has. What you see onscreen — if you look behind the curtain at who’s making the show, you’ll see those faces. That’s rare in this business.

R.F.: One thing we did a lot better this time around was make sure we had those faces on board because the animation world is not as progressive as people might think.

B.W.S.: Our biggest hope is that this show’s gonna sit in the Zeitgeist and inspire more artists of color to jump onboard because they see themselves. That’s how it happens: When you see yourself onscreen, you’re more obliged to go, I can do this too. That’s what really makes changes in this business. It shouldn’t just be our show that represents all things Black.

Of course Ralph and I will continue to tell our stories about our folk. This is the starting point. But we’re glad Disney saw that and said, This is what’s needed right now. We’re making sure they know they’ve got the right folks to man that ship.

R.F.: We’re gonna do more shows too. We’ve been getting into business with Black and brown creatives in lanes we didn’t exist in before. We get to discover all this new, unseen, unknown, untested talent, so that in the wake of Louder and Prouder, there’s gonna be a bunch of things coming out. That’s our mission here.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Proud Family Creators Tried to Revive the Show 15 Years Ago