while the comedian, who has to be much more subtle to be funny,
is just loudly criticized when he doesn’t come through”-Edmund Gwenn
There are a few distinct things I remember about being a kid in the early 90’s. I remember being all about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, being grounded and having to wait a week before I could play a new game I got called Street Fighter II, and the fondest thing I remember was every night I’d sit and watch In Living Color with my family. The more I think about it now, the more I realize all the elements of Black culture and comedy I learned from this show. I was imitating the Oswald Bates and Blues singer, Calhoun Tubb, and other characters from the show, and I had them down pat. Delivery, timing, punchline — they became second nature as a viewer. Why a joke is funny, the structure of satire, parodies, and inside jokes were all made clearer to me through In Living Color.
Off the bat, you have to take into account that the cast for season one is predominately Black as fuck. And when I say “predominately” I’m not talking 2 or 3 Black folk, or “we got a passing ethnically ambiguous person so we hit our quota for representation.” Nah, check out that cast — you got a squad that would have every god paying rent on Olympus shook if it were to come down to a roast session.
In Living Color‘s season one line up was a squad full of killers before adding even more heavy artillery into their main cast in later seasons. Notice how there are only two white folks on that cast? Keep in mind, that’s back in 1990. Saturday Night Live started in 1975 and added their first Black woman to the cast in 1992 (Yvonne Hudson). Worse, compare that picture to when Saturday Night Live was called out for adding six new cast members, and not having any Black women part of that ensemble back in 2013. What’s funny is that looking back, there are so many shots that In Living Color took at SNL for not making use of their Black cast members. There were so many levels their inside jokes, it’s freaking genius. One of the things I absolutely loved were the scenes you could tell cast members were trying not to laugh, or happen to break character laughing. It was moments like those that made the show feel so different. There’s something about a Black folk trying to keep a straight face on In Living Color that makes it feel like home.
The show was filled with jokes but don’t get it Chubby Checker, In Living Color was not with the fuck shit in the least. They were real about every shot they took. When looking back for skits to highlight, I saw so many things that went over my head as a kid but I where still got the gist. There’s a T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh skit called “Understanding The Black Woman” that had her wylin’ out, talkin’ about mad misogyny and “give ’em an open-handed slap in the mouth” towards Black women, and I’m like whoa. It wasn’t until later I discovered it was satire towards an actual person, the author Shahrazad Ali, who wrote The Black Man’s Guide To Understanding The Black Woman, which had mad controversy. Bruh, Google that at your own discretion.
Needless to say, T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh’s impression was spot on. The joke comes full circle at the end as well, for the misdirect in the punchline. As a kid I didn’t understand the satire part, but I was able to gather the punchline at the very end with the Black woman coming out on top. If you can have an audience get the punchline even without all the context, you exceeded expectations.
Personally, In Living Color was such a huge cornerstone for me growing up that it influenced my writing, sense of humor, and personality, so much that I still constantly reference back to the show and find myself reminiscing over my favorite skits, trying to pick out a favorite. The Conspiracy, Funky Finger Productions, When Homey Met Sally, The Brother’s Brothers (Uncle Toms), 1-900-YT-Guilt, and Dirt Dozens are a few that come to mind.
Looking at back at other older sketches it’s evident they didn’t age well due to the material or subject matter. It’s funny that we are now in a time where the major complaint is that comedy is changed by politically correct culture; that people are less likely to be “edgy” or take “risks” for fear of audience response, expecting their comedy to stay in a bubble uninfluenced by time and changes in the world. For me, there’s a reason comedians aren’t doing knock-knock jokes or “I just flew in from (location) and boy are my arms tired” jokes anymore. Good comedians find a way to creatively (and hopefully thoughtfully) push limits.
Society and times evolve, which demands the culture of comedy and comedians to evolve as well. No one is saying not to take risks, but what they are saying is not to be a careless asshole in the process. There’s really only an issue of “attack on comedy spaces” when comedians are punching down. There are numerous instances and sketches of cast members playing with or against a trope or stereotype in order to manipulate a joke’s structuring. If you’re trying to give the Balrog knockout blow to a marginalized group for a laugh (be it cheap or intricate), then you’re going to look crazy laughing at their expense. If you’re punching up, no one’s going to check you, boo. They’ll laugh with you.
That said, there are some sketches that probably would not fly today, or would at least teeter on that edge. For example, Damon Wayans and Alan Grier’s Men on Film — that was one my favorite skits growing up, but I had not connected the underlying joke with their portrayal of their characters. You can see why now that sketch may be a lil’ “ehhhhh” if it were to try and fly today as two heterosexual men being overtly flamboyant to portray their characters as two gay men. I don’t believe it was stated if these characters identified as gay, but there’s no ambiguity or subtlety as to the joke in their mannerisms, accompanied with certain sexual innuendos that came with their movie reviews. It’s worth noting how this sketch was such a main staple for the show, and showed proof of gay culture’s ability to become mainstream when it’s appropriated from heterosexual folk (which still occurs today).
The same statement can be said for the Handi-man sketches when looking at displays of physically- or mentally-challenged characters. The character Handi-Man always came out on top (much in stylings of the Superman movies) but if that were to be done today, it would still need to be crafted more carefully and would be best suited using a comedian that lives the experience. And maybe you believe I am digging too deep, but isn’t that what learning from the past and those that came before you is all about? Why a joke that worked at one time may work differently decades later? Yeah, there’s physics to comedy, man. Comedy is an exact science, and craft is craft is craft. Let’s turn to a different sketch with the same two actors, how Damon and Grier’s retelling of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” as a revitalized conversation between Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan as the captains of a baseball team may walk a finer line:
Al Sharpton: Say what, my brother?
Louis Farrakhan: Say what’s right field. My brother is catching.
Al Sharpton: So, now, My brother’s catching.
Louis Farrakhan: Right on.
Al Sharpton: So where’s A conspiracy? Preach on.
Louis Farrakhan: No, Righton is in left field, A conspiracy is at third,
and My brother is catching, Preach on.
Al Sharpton: Preach on?
Louis Farrakhan: That’s right, Preach on.
Al Sharpton: Amen.
Louis Farrakhan: Is playing center field.
Al Sharpton: Say what?
Louis Farrakhan: In right field.
This is skit displays not only satire but how David Alan Grier and Damon Wayans — as well as the show itself — did not have to rely on shock value or physical comedy. They’re all students of the comedy game because, as I stated earlier, comedy is a science. I shouldn’t even say “students of the game,” as by then they were teaching a Masters class in comedy themselves. Not only do Wayans and Grier bring new life to a classic skit, they modify it for their characters, Sharpton and Farrakhan, thereby making his an homage for those familiar with the original skit and a sketch that can stand on its own for those unfamiliar with the original body of work. There are so many layers to how perfectly it was executed. It’s intricacies like this that, to this day, make me go into every crevice of detail when I craft a joke, draft a comedic essay, or write a performance piece.
When we move to talking about the skits that clearly did age well, In Living Color still got bangers. I find myself coming back to the one with Jim Carrey as a police instructor training a new set of cadets in a police academy that can still be applied to today. The skit calls attention to the blue code of silence and police instructed to take out the cameramen — the media — so no evidence can be used against them. This is a sketch that’s almost thirty years old, but is still as applicable a social commentary then as it is what we’re living daily here in America now.
Remember that “reggae” song “Informer”? Performed by Snow, the white guy from Canada (it gets better) that spoke in a fake patois? Yeah, that shit was a #1 hit for seven weeks. In Living Color did social commentary on that whole ordeal in one of their musical parodies “Imposter” and had bars on Snow’s cultural appropriation, privilege, and the reggae artist that criticized watered-down reggae taking over the true form. Not only is that parody riddled with bars but Carrey’s delivery was incredible.
When Tommy Davidson’s character steps on the track and says, “I rap in your songs with the best of my ability / You need a Black man to increase your credibility,” you can see how that portrays certain white pop stars (I won’t name them, you already know) who used Black performers as a cosign to get what they need from, say, hip-hop, and then jump back over to solely being white once that well runs dry. Davidson’s bars echo what’s still happening in the music industry — as well as others — damn near thirty years later.
There are numerous segments we can dissect under the lens of progress of comedy today. The segments continue to be lessons on what works won’t stand through time, and what will ring true perhaps forever. That being said, I feel that there’s one sketch on the that to me is the most underrated and the most overlooked sketch whenever we reminisce about In Living Color. Personally, I’ll even go so far as to say this sketch is underrated throughout comedy and sketch shows. Period. T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh’s Black World is the most well-rounded comedy sketch I have ever seen. I constantly find myself coming back to the ins and outs of this sketch’s musings.
T’Keyah plays Crissie, a young kid waiting for her mother to finish her nightly job of cleaning the theaters. For the next three minutes, Crissie takes us into her imagination via Black World, where all the Black people have all the money, all the dolls are Black with Black hair and Black noses, and the schools have new books… and this sketch is funny and heartbreaking at the same damn time. T’Keyah is acting her ass off, giving the audience social commentary, satire, and experiences with racism as well as being hella aware. T’Keyah is displaying how even Black children are socially aware of their surroundings and the prejudices and discrimination they face daily.
“and the white people don’t follow you around and ask you if you have some money, like they know you didn’t have any money, because your mother didn’t give you any money, because she didn’t have any money… because—they- because they not there anyway because the Black people own the store and they are nice to you — and the white people — I dunno where they are. The must be back in white world.”
The skit even takes a political turn by celebrating that South Africa is free and its political prisoners freed. This segment aired on May 12th, 1990. T’Keyah character is referencing the beginning of the talks to end apartheid in South Africa which started 1990 and ended in 1994. I love how this skit did not only navigate oppression in the U.S., but moved away from stateside in recognizing a different struggle, oppression, and progress overseas. This skit moves so much and is so genius, you can’t tell me it’s not a poem.
Having strangers in an audience to laugh is one thing, being able to weave in satire and social commentary is another; but when you can thread tragedy, pathos, and a hint of heartbreak as well? Look at how all that Black joy T’Keyah has in Black World, where all the oppression is gone juxtaposed to when it’s time to leave and go back to the harsh reality. The skit shows such flexibility in what you’re able to do with comedy. T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh can never get enough credit for dropping those bars. And I will take that to my grave. I will build a log cabin on that hill and die on it.
I constantly refer back to In Living Color as peak excellence in the execution of crafting a message and coming through with its delivery. I owe a lot of how I navigate through the world using humor *cough* mostly as a defense mechanism, don’t judge me *Ahem* to In Living Color, as well as my respect for comedy as an art, and comedians as artists. And it’s a tough art, but one that’s constantly evolving and improving itself. If you are willing to do the same, regardless of your art form, then you can stand the test of time too.
Drop a few of your favorite In Living Color sketches in the comments. Which ones still stand out to you today? Which were overlooked? Let us know in the comments section and keep the dialogue going.