- By Curt Holman For the AJC
Decatur-based writer David Peisner regularly watched “In Living Color,” the rollicking African-American-themed sketch comedy series, during its run on the then-fledgling Fox network from 1990-1994.
He didn’t think about “In Living Color” very often over the next two decades, until he considered writing a magazine article on the 25th anniversary of the show’s debut. “I pitched it for Details as an oral history of the show,” Peisner says, “but there was way more here than was going to fit into a magazine story.”
Upon that initial article, Peisner wrote his new book, “Homey Don’t Play That!,” titled after the catchphrase of Damon Wayans’ cantankerous Homey the Clown, one of the show’s most popular characters. The subtitle, “The Story of ‘In Living Color’ and the Black Comedy Revolution,” signals the book’s breadth.
“I started to think of the show as a hinge moment in culture,” Peisner says. “It was part of this movement that changed culture. And it happened slowly — it didn’t happen overnight.”
The book begins with creator Keenen Ivory Wayans accepting the show’s Emmy for outstanding variety, music or comedy series in 1990. Then “In Living Color” goes unmentioned for almost 100 pages. Peisner explores in depth such topics as trailblazing black entertainers, especially Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy; the background of the Wayans family; and the American racial and political tensions of the 1980s that would inform the show’s satire. Peisner describes how Keenen collaborated with actor Robert Townsend on “Hollywood Shuffle,” a film that anticipated the TV show’s irreverent sensibility and was famously funded by Townsend maxing out his credit cards.
Keenen found an opportunity for a TV series, pitched as an African-American version of “Laugh-In,” with the emergence of the Fox network, then airing only a few nights a week. “It’s hard for people to remember when TV was three channels. It was crazy that someone was going to try a fourth channel,” Peisner says. “Certainly in 1990, Fox had nothing to lose. All the executives I talked to wanted to rock the boat, they wanted something edgy — but maybe not so edgy that it would make advertisers complain.”
Popular — and controversial — from its premiere, “In Living Color” became a breakthrough show for such future movie stars as Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey and Jennifer Lopez (one of the backup dancers, the Fly Girls), as well as Keenen, Damon, Kim, Shawn and Marlon Wayans.
Peisner speculates about why so many of the Wayans went into comedy following their impoverished New York childhood. “Ten kids growing up in a small apartment, it was kind of a comedy boot camp for the family members inclined that way,” he says. “So many people said to me how incredible tightly knit that family is, they really look out for each other. Keenen was the first through the door, and he brought his family with him.”
One of surprises of “Homey Don’t Play That!” was that behind the scenes, the show’s writing staff was heavily white. Peisner points out that this was not for lack of trying by Keenen and the other producers. “They would’ve loved to have more black writers, but there weren’t many black writers with TV resumes. This was coming off an era when the black shows like ‘The Jeffersons’ and ‘Good Times’ had almost entirely white writers. ‘In Living Color’ hired a bunch of stand-ups — one guy was a dancer, but he was funny. One had been a receptionist at The Hollywood Reporter.”
Peisner acknowledges that some of the show’s sketches have aged better than others, citing the stereotypical gay film critics from “Men on Film.”
“The ‘Men on Film’ sketches can be hard to watch now, although they weren’t mean-spirited,” Peisner says. “In some ways, that makes you optimistic, since it shows how attitudes towards gay people and sexuality have improved since then.”
The book also explores how “In Living Color” opened up new audiences to the then-resurgent musical form of hip-hop, and not just through performances by the likes of Queen Latifah, Arrested Development and Tupac Shakur. “Hip-hop filtered into the sketches, the attitudes, the dress, the energy,” says Peisner. “(The show) brought something that was on the coasts to a lot more people. Rapper Big Daddy Kane told me, ‘There was no hope that people in Middle America could know anything about me, until I could get on that show.’
“Today, hip-hop culture has become pop culture. It’s mainstream in a way that people born in 2000 don’t remember,” Peisner says.
The book reveals that in some ways, the lasting legacy of “In Living Color” belongs with the show’s many writers, producers and performers who went on to create more African-American programming. “Larry Wilmore started as a writer on ‘In Living Color’ and became a one-man wrecking crew who changed a lot of TV,” with creative or producer credits including “The Bernie Mac Show,” “The PJs,” “Black-ish” and “Insecure.”
Plus, the show inspired a younger generation of young viewers who followed. “People who grew up on shows like ‘In Living Color’ became showrunners and creators,” says Peisner. “Before Robert Townsend and Keenen, there were no examples of African-American creators apart from a couple of blaxploitation filmmakers. They were like the first guys over the hill.” They helped set examples for the likes of “Atlanta” creator Donald Glover or “Get Out” director Jordan Peele.
“I’m not saying that all of these happened because of ‘In Living Color,’ but it helped change the culture,” says Peisner. “It helped say that black culture isn’t just for black people. White people can like it, too.”
Readers can debate the extent of the influence of “In Living Color,” but “Homey Don’t Play That!” makes a compelling case for how much more colorful the culture became after the show’s run.
“Homey Don’t Play That!” by David Peisner (Atria Books, 353 pages, $28)
Author talk: 7:15 p.m. Feb. 7. Free. Decatur Public Library, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur. 404-508-7190, dekalblibrary.org.
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