This week we’ll take a look at the ground-breaking comedy show by the Wayans family, ‘IN LIVING COLOR.’
In Living Color is an American sketch comedy television series that originally ran on Fox from April 15, 1990, to May 19, 1994. Brothers Keenen and Damon Wayans created, wrote and starred in the program. The show was produced by Ivory Way Productions in association with 20th Century Fox Television and was taped at stage 7 at the Fox Television Center on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California. The title of the series was inspired by the NBC announcement of broadcasts being presented “in living color” during the 1950s and 1960s, prior to mainstream color television. It also refers to the fact that most of the show’s cast were black, unlike other sketch comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live whose casts were mostly white. It was controversial due to the Wayans’ decision to portray African-American humor from the ghetto in a time when mainstream American tastes regarding black comedy had been set by more upscale shows such as The Cosby Show, causing an eventual feud for control between Fox executives and the Wayans.
Other members of the Wayans family—Kim, Shawn, and Marlon—had regular roles, while brother Dwayne frequently appeared as an extra. The show also starred the rising stand-up comic Jim Carrey alongside previously unknown actor/comedians , Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson, David Alan Grier, and T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh. Additionally, Dancing with the Stars judge and choreographer Carrie Ann Inaba, and actress and pop music star Jennifer Lopez, were members of the show’s dance troupe The Fly Girls with actress Rosie Perez serving as choreographer. The show launched the careers of Carrey, Foxx, Davidson, Grier, Keymáh, Inaba, and Lopez and is credited with bringing the Wayans family to a higher level of fame as well. It was immensely popular in its first two seasons, capturing more than a 10-point Nielsen rating; in the third and fourth seasons, ratings faltered as the Wayans brothers fell out with Fox network leadership over creative control and rights. The series won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series in 1990. The series gained international prominence for its bold move and its all-time high ratings gained by airing a live, special episode as a counterprogram for the halftime show of U.S. leader CBS’s live telecast of Super Bowl XXVI.
Following Keenen Ivory Wayans’ success with Hollywood Shuffle and I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Fox Broadcasting Company approached Wayans to offer him his own show. Wayans wanted to produce a variety show similar to Saturday Night Live, but with a cast of people of color that took chances with its content. Fox gave Wayans a lot of freedom with the show, although Fox executives were a bit concerned about the show’s content prior to its television debut.
In announcing its debut, Fox described In Living Color as a “contemporary comedy variety show”. In its preview, the Christian Science Monitor warned that its “raw tone may offend some, but it does allow a talented troupe to experiment with black themes in a Saturday Night Live-ish format.” Keenen Ivory Wayans said, “I wanted to do a show that reflects different points of view. We’ve added an Asian and a Hispanic minority to the show. We’re trying in some way to represent all the voices. … Minority talent is not in the system and you have to go outside. We found Crystal doing her act in the lobby of a theater in Chicago. We went beyond the Comedy Stores and Improvs, which are not showcase places for minorities.”
The first episode aired on Sunday, April 15, 1990, following an episode of Married… with Children. The first episode was watched by 22.7 million people, making it the 29th top show for the week.
The Miami Herald said the show was as “smart and saucy as it is self-aware” and “audacious and frequently tasteless, but terrific fun”. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it “the fastest, funniest half-hour in a long time”. The Seattle Times said it had “the free-wheeling, pointed sense of humor that connects with a large slice of today’s audience”. The Columbus Dispatch described it as a “marvelously inventive” show that has “catapulted television back to the cutting edge”.
The sketch comedy show helped launch the careers of comedians/actors Jim Carrey (then credited as “James Carrey”), one of only two Caucasian members of the original cast, Jamie Foxx, who joined the cast in the third season and David Alan Grier (an established theatre actor, who had worked in Keenen Ivory Wayans’ 1988 motion picture I’m Gonna Git You Sucka).
The series strove to produce comedy with a strong emphasis on modern black subject matter. It became renowned for parody, especially of race relations in the United States. For instance, Carrey was frequently used to ridicule white musicians such as Snow and Vanilla Ice, who performed in genres more commonly associated with black people. The Wayans themselves often played exaggerated black ghetto stereotypes for humor and effect. A sketch parodying Soul Train mocked the show as Old Train, suggesting the show (along with its host, Don Cornelius) was out of touch and only appealed to the elderly and the dead. When asked about the show’s use of stereotypes of Black culture for comedy, Wayans said, “Half of comedy is making fun of stereotypes. They only get critical when I do it. Woody Allen has been having fun with his culture for years, and no one says anything about it. Martin Scorsese, his films basically deal with the Italian community, and no one ever says anything to him. John Hughes, all of his films parody upscale white suburban life. Nobody says anything to him. When I do it, then all of a sudden it becomes a racial issue. You know what I mean? It’s my culture, and I’m entitled to poke fun at the stereotypes that I didn’t create in the first place. I don’t even concern myself with that type of criticism, because it’s racist in itself.”