Back to black-ish

Kenya Barris reveals what, after years of false starts, finally got his freshman, hit comedy black-ish off the ground and explains why trying to “reach out” to audiences is a wrong move.

2015 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc
Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Yara Shahidi, Marcus Scribner, Miles Brown, and Marsai Martin in black-ish.
February 6, 2015 Written by Denis Faye
Rick Rowell/ABC Kenya Barris

A Korean family stopped me and was like, We love the show.' I said, Really? What do you love about it?' They said, It so reminds me of our family.

Kenya Barris worked his way up the Hollywood television chain to find himself showrunning ABC’s black-ish, a single-camera comedy loosely based on his own experiences as a black family man pondering his cultural identity in predominately white, middle-class surroundings. With that in mind, you’d never expect his biggest impact on the pop culture landscape prior to this to have been America’s Next Top Model.

As he explains it, the idea for the new sitcom stemmed from his childhood friendship with supermodel and fellow ANTM co-creator Tyra Banks. When a feature script they were working on stalled in production, they decided to take the “write what you know” approach. “At the time reality was really kind of in its early stages,” explains Barris, whose resume also contains the TV versions of Soul Food and Are We There Yet?, as well as The Game. “We pitched a show and, quite fortunately, it became what it has become! Totally unexpectedly. One of those flukes, like that thousand dollars you put on Microsoft that you look back on and say, ‘Oh shit!’”

While Barris might not consider America’s Next Top Model the pinnacle of his career, the reality show is shown in over 170 countries with at least 17 different international versions, including Estonia’s Next Top Model. When asked if he expects that many versions of black-ish, he laughs, “We'll see, never know. Don't count me out.”

At first blush, black-ish seems like a funny, charming single-camera sitcom but there are actually some deeper statements going on underneath the surface. Was that dichotomy intentional and how do you balance the two?

First part, yes, absolutely. The conceit of the show was that we wanted to do a family comedy that was actually about something, much in the realm of how Norman Lear used to do back in the day. That’s why we fought so hard for the title, because we wanted it to be something, not incendiary, but when you saw it it made you think “Oh, this has something to say.”

I've done comedy and I've done drama, and I will say, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that comedy's harder because it's harder to tell a story with jokes – and it even becomes harder to tell a story with jokes that's about something. We're not just looking to be poignant for poignancy's sake, but we do want to have our show have some real thought and some real trajectory in terms of where we're going and what we're trying to say. So that's a lot of what we spend our days doing, coming up with those types of stories and figuring how we can say something through a comedic family.

What's your process for that? What's the initial concept to the final draft?

Well, when we put our staff together, I really wanted to make sure that it was a group of people who were willing to be emotive and willing to be partially anecdotal from their own life. The reason I wanted that more so than just funny people was because I felt like I wanted to talk to people who were really willing to say how they felt when they rode up to a bus stop and two guys are making out, or when they're at a stoplight and a black guy with his music blaring rides up next to them – really talk about the little emotions behind that.

Moving past there, we sit around in the writers’ room and tell stories from our lives. But what is the point, what is the bigger lesson, or what's the bigger moment between what we're talking about? For instance one of the stories that we loved was sex talk, our character had to give his son a sex talk. At least for the black community, it's not something culturally that we talk about a lot in our homes, so how can you sort of take this idea of a father having a sex talk with his son and at the same time put some things in that don't feel like you're hitting people over the head with a message? Culturally, our character wasn't raised in a home that sex was openly talked about so, raising kids that are dealing with sex in a much more open way and have the Internet, how is he going to now embrace this talk with his son? That became a really fun story for us to tell.

Have you come up with any topics or ideas or stories you wanted to tell but you just couldn't figure out how to make them funny?

We run into those all the time. As the show grows, it becomes easier because people are willing to accept more and more from their characters.

I grew up in 1970s Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and I remember seeing shows like Good Times and Sanford and Son, but I couldn't connect, I didn't get the experience. It was too kind of foreign to me. Then a decade later, The Cosby Show, I got. So looking at black-ish through that filter, are you hoping to connect with those kids in the Midwest like I was?

That's why it was important for our staff to be so multicultural – though the best way to connect with human beings is through honesty. You can see that through the visual arts, you can see it through music. When people are honest in their endeavors, it translates to people of all different walks of life, so we just try to tell honest stories.

One of the things that's the biggest compliment for me is, a Korean family stopped me and was like, "We love the show." I said, "Really? What do you love about it?" They said, "It so reminds me of our family." I hear that from so many different people from so many different walks of life and so many different ethnicities, cultures, races that it really makes me feel good because that was our aim. We're basically saying we're all the same.

The way to tell that story is not to try to tell a story that relates to everyone but tell it really making the universality be in the specificity. We tell the most honest version of this family story, and in that, it resonates with people.

You're just trusting that it reflects the human condition.

Absolutely, that's a great way to put it. I'm going to write that down.

This is a very autobiographical show for you. Why did you wait until this point in your career to make an autobiographical show?

I've actually sold it a few times to a few different networks. This was just the most salient and unsterilized version of that story, and it resonated the loudest.

So you've got different versions of this story?

I have and a lot of pilots are just multiple versions of the writer’s autobiography. The networks like that. As you know, they want to feel like that the writer can come up with 100 episodes and really relate with the story and make sure that the stories resonate with the audience. The best way to do that is when they come from a personal point of view.

So you're growing as a writer.

Oh, absolutely, we're always growing as writers. Like you talked to me about trying to reach out to the kid in Middle America, that to me is something I would have done five, 10 years ago, try to reach out to everyone. Now, I think that's the wrong move. You don't try to reach anyone, you try to tell the best and most honest version of your story – and hopefully it reaches everybody.

Are the events that are happening the last few months, like Ferguson, reflected in your show at all?

I don't think directly, but hopefully [those events have] changed the world. If things happen in society like that that doesn't change the world, it means our society is headed for a really bad fall. So hopefully it's changed the world and my show is just one reflection of the world.

We did a Martin Luther King episode right around the same time all that was happening, and we definitely felt like we wanted to be honest to some of the things that are going on in the world. We haven't had any stories that are directly about that, per se, but, as writers, everything that we do is an amalgamation of the world around us.

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