Run the World’s Corbin Reid, Andrea Bordeaux, Amber Stevens West and Bresha Webb
Living Single’s Kim Coles, Queen Latifah and Kim Fields
Twenties’ Gabrielle Graham, Jonica T. Gibbs and Christina Elmore;
Bigger's Rasheda Crockett, Chase Anthony, Tristen Winger, Tanisha Long, and Angell Cornwell
Decades after wrapping its five-season run, Living Single — the '90s sitcom from Yvette Lee Bowser about a group of friends living in Brooklyn — still exerts an outsized influence.
Issa Rae, the Emmy-nominated and Peabody-winning actress-producer, cites it as an inspiration, and many believe it strongly influenced Friends, which debuted in 1999, one year after Bowser said goodbye to the brownstone.
An instant hit for Fox, Living Single is enjoying a second wave of fandom today, thanks in part to its availability for a whole new generation on Hulu. Yet the love now being lavished on the show may obscure how radical it was deemed at its 1993 premiere. Critics dismissed it as buffoonish, crass, unimportant.
While plenty of Black sitcoms had come before it, nearly all centered around families or workplaces. With the notable exception of Living Single's network sibling Martin, no show had depicted young, urbane Black people like these — magazine publisher Khadijah (Queen Latifah), airhead Synclaire (Kim Coles), shrewd lawyer Maxine (Erika Alexander), glamorpuss Régine (Kim Fields), folksy handyman Overton (John Henton) and finance dude Kyle (T.C. Carson) — goofing off just as much as they were growing up.
Reactions ranged from befuddlement to outright hostility. "This comedy is supposed to be a black Designing Women," a 1994 Newsweek article huffed, "but it's got quadruple the sex drive and none of the smarts."
In the years since, the friends-finding-their-way-in-the-city format has flourished, from Sex and the City to Girls (both on HBO), but not as much for Black audiences. Yes, there was UPN's Girlfriends in 2000, but it would be another 16 years before Rae's Insecure, a critical darling that explores similar themes about female friendships, premiered on HBO.
Of course, that series, pioneering in its own right, ends its five-season run this year. But when it fades to black, it won't leave the same kind of void Living Single did. Thanks to progress in front of the camera and behind it, as well as the opportunities streaming affords, a new crop of sitcoms now depicts Black people hanging out, hooking up, falling down and being funny.
Consider Twenties, the semi-autobiographical comedy from Emmy winner Lena Waithe. With a Black queer woman as the lead character — Hattie (Jonica T. Gibbs), an aspiring screenwriter, buoyed by her two straight best friends — Twenties is turning heads; its second season on BET is expected this fall.
On the subscription-only BET+, two seasons of Bigger are streaming; produced by Will Packer (Girls Trip), the comedy looks at 30-something college friends navigating "kidulthood" in Atlanta's upper middle class.
This year also saw the debut of Run the World, a half-hour comedy on Starz about four girlfriends doing their thing in modern-day Harlem; Yvette Lee Bowser, of Living Single fame, is the showrunner.
That's not to be confused with Amazon's Harlem, the forthcoming series from Girls Trip scribe Tracy Oliver. At NBC, audiences will soon see a squad of chums who gather at a wine bar to vent about life and love on Grand Crew, a midseason offering from Brooklyn Nine-Nine alums Phil Augusta Jackson and Dan Goor.
This boon in Black friendship comedies isn't just fun and games. Yes, they herald progress in representation, but they also help satisfy deeper appetites. Especially after the watershed moments of 2020, Black viewers are increasingly pushing back on stories centered around Black pain and trauma. Beyond wanting to see a real reflection of their lives in terms of class, education and affluence, Black viewers are demanding to see more Black people simply being happy and having fun.
"Initially, my interest [in writing Harlem] was just based on my reality, which wasn't on the screen," Tracy Oliver says. "Hustling workwise, but also having a blast with friends, having too much to drink, making reckless decisions. Fun. But now I would say there's been a shift, where it has become political. People in Hollywood, for whatever reason, have put a premium on Black trauma — like anything that is sad and painful is considered to be a deeper piece of art. And I find that problematic. Why is it more important to show us like that than it is to show us being joyful?"
Living Single can be seen as an early answer to that question. And what its critics failed to grasp at the time is just what made it so important.
Showing Black people doing — to borrow from Seinfeld — nothing (i.e., talking about dates, work, sex, parents and so on) resonates with Black viewers in ways that are sometimes uncoscious. That's because friend comedies depict traditions so ingrained into the Black American experience, they're almost invisible to the untrained eye.
Take "code-switching," for example. The practice of adjusting behavior and language to suit the setting is what we see when, say, Molly (Yvonne Orji) from Insecure goes from a board meeting to a barbeque in the hood — it's a finely honed adaptive skill that lets her move easily between professional white circles and working-class Black environments.
Code-switching is second nature for Black people, as is something like "playing the dozens," the art of throwing friendly-fire insults with wit and wordplay. That oral tradition, which goes back generations, was ever-present on Martin and Girlfriends, and now it's part of the new programs.
These cultural nuances — recognizable only to people with a deep understanding of the Black experience — are traditions that Black people rarely intellectualize but instinctively perform when they're having fun together. To not see these kinds of rituals is to leave out fundamental functions of Black storytelling.
"These friendships are full of in-group references, lingo, phrases and slang designed to speak to each other in private dialogue," explains Kristal Brent Zook, author of Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution in Black Television. Indeed, Black verbal expression has always been highly sophisticated and rapidly evolving — going back to the ways enslaved people disguised their speech in front of white "company" — and this linguistic play is a form of community-building and resistance.
And even as Black sitcoms began to gain popularity in the '90s, Zook points out, such details tended to make white executives uncomfortable. "They worried white audiences would feel left out," she says. "Black creators didn't care — they wanted to create how it was in real life — the banter, playfulness, the 'yo momma' jokes. All that is done in a way the larger culture can't necessarily understand."
Network notes notwithstanding, today's creators are increasingly liberated from worrying about how to tell Black stories in a way that appeases non-Black people — or, for that matter, Black people who only want to see themselves in a "positive" light.
Creator Felischa Marye — whose Bigger sometimes includes racy sex scenes and characters who might charitably be called a hot mess — says her primary goal is authenticity, not identity politics. "There are so many opportunities for content creation now, it would be boring to have a show that's leading with 'being Black.' Because there's so many outlets, it increases our chance to be real, and tell our stories without the expectation of making some sort of statement about Blackness."
Shows about Black friendships also dig into shared emotional truths that don't even need to be articulated. For example, like many Black people, Marye fielded calls of care and concern from white friends as the demonstrations of 2020 intensified. "I have a lot of white friends who were extra supportive of the Black Lives Movement — I'm not trying to take away from that," she says. "But with your Black friends, there's that shared struggle. You can speak without speaking."
In Bigger's first season, finance guy Deon (Chase Anthony) experiences microaggressions in the office, but he never has to explain to his friends why they're hurtful. His pals never seriously wonder if he's being overly sensitive or imagining things. At the same time, they don't throw him a pity party, either.
"They're sarcastic," Marye says. "They drag each other all the time, they make jokes about each other. That's how me and my friends are. But no matter how cynical they may seem, they have each other's back. It's just like that with Black culture and Black friends."
As the medium evolves, so does the type of black friendships we're getting to see.
In the past, both mainstream and majority Black sitcoms often leaned on archetypes to create instant affinity. You know them: the "Sexy Friend," the "Smart Friend," the Type-A with no heart, the ditz with a heart of gold.
As valuable as they can be for storytelling, archetypes can easily degrade into stereotypes, particularly as characters bumble and make fools of themselves — which is, after all, central to sitcoms. But the Black friendship comedies emerging today eschew archetypes, thus broadening our view of the community.
With its home base in a wine bar, Jackson's Grand Crew introduces us to Noah (Echo Kellum), a hopeless romantic so desperate to find a wife and start a family he often sabotages himself, along with Wyatt (Justin Cunningham), who's so happily married he's borderline smug.
These characterizations are still relatively fresh and original — not that Jackson aspired to break any molds when fashioning them.
"My objective when we were putting these characters together was to create a group [of friends who] feel very different from one another," Jackson says. "The goal was to understand why they're friends, why they're uniquely individual and what's relatable."
Absent in Jackson's mission was any desire to meditate on race, which makes sense for a number of reasons. Not only is that authentic — friends don't typically spend leisure time having meta conversations about the complexities of identity — but the emphasis on universal themes like relationships, love, sex, work and yes, good wine, makes the show accessible to anyone, regardless of background.
"Many times it's easiest to pull from your personal experience," Jackson says, "and my personal experience is that I have a really solid friend group that I can talk with, joke with and just experience life with. L.A. can be a lonely place, so I'm thankful to have a couple of folks who keep me accountable and positive."
Real inclusion means demarginalizing voices, and that means not only giving more people of varying backgrounds room to share their stories, but seeing the universality of those stories once they're told. As both Jackson and Zook put it, gatekeepers have long shut out people of color by asserting that their stories won't make sense to others. That toxic myth has been disproven over and over in ratings and box-office receipts.
Perhaps funny stories about friends will expedite its demise. After all, everybody has bad dates or tough days at work, and, if we're lucky, friends who've been there who can help turn frustration into side-splitting laughs. "I think sometimes people feel like Black stories can't be for everybody to enjoy," Jackson says. "Grand Crew is written through the lens of me as a Black man, but the hope is that the story will feel authentic and interesting and universally relatable."
That's what TV friends are for.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2021