Will the Revolution Be Televised?

Homey Don't Play That!: The Story of In Living Color and the Black Comedy Revolution BY David Peisner. Atria / 37 INK. Hardcover, 400 pages. $28.

The cover of Homey Don't Play That!: The Story of In Living Color and the Black Comedy Revolution

Despite its obdurate titlewhich cribs the catchphrase made famous by Damon Wayans’s outrageous character Homey D. Clown from In Living Color—David Peisner’s Homey Don’t Play That! plays practically everything. It dodges and weaves through the biographies of many people, laying down a cultural history of late-twentieth-century black humor, television, and civil rights, even as its bite-size chapters maintain the brisk, gossipy tone of a celebrity tell-all.

Peisner’s main narrative concerns the rise and fall of the highly unusual, incredibly influential, and wildly popular black-American sketch-comedy show, which ran for five seasons (1990–94) on Fox, in its days as a fly-by-night, risky network. But he has also charged himself with providing a gargantuan amount of contextual information about the show’s germination, fat years, and decline; the careers of almost every comedian, writer, and TV executive who grazed ILC; the political and racial environment in which the show arose; and how ILC brought hip-hop to a wider—and, frankly, whiter—audience in the early ’90s, practically defining the way in which the mainstream could consume black-specific cultural products at a safe distance.

In Living Color remains a relatively unsung cultural juggernaut. Like little else that came before it, the show focused on sketch comedy from an emphatically black-American perspective, satirizing archetypes like Kim Wayans’s shade-throwing neighbor Benita Butrell (with her catchphrase “You ain’t heard that from me!”), mashing up Star Trek with the Nation of Islam for the movie parody The Wrath of Farrakhan, and generally tiptoeing the line between representation and offensiveness with Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier’s effeminate “Men on Film” pop critics. Frequently, Keenen Ivory Wayans’s writing staff would throw social commentary on race relations into the mix. ILC launched the careers of a diverse and lasting generation of humorists, actors, and musicians: nearly the entire Wayans family, of course, and also Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey, Jennifer Lopez, Kim Coles, Rosie Perez, Tommy Davidson, and Molly Shannon, among others, to say nothing of the plethora of writers and producers behind the scenes, some of whom helped create projects as different from ILC as Friends. Perez, while contracted as the choreographer of the dance group the Fly Girls (on which Peisner spills maybe a little too much ink), became the show’s de facto music director, introducing television audiences to the songs of, as Peisner puts it, “Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, Queen Latifah, and 3rd Bass”—quite the anticlimax, but he makes the point. The broadness of ILC’s comedy, and the flashy way in which it defined its era, has obscured its importance somewhat, as has racism, surely, and the tendency of the entertainment industry to consider sketch comedy a conduit to film or sitcoms rather than an end in itself. But ILC’s influence reverberates in much that came after: MADtv, Chappelle’s Show, and Key & Peele, obviously, but also a wide variety of sitcoms, and certainly anything Tyler Perry ever produced.

Damon Wayans as Homey D. Clown in In Living Color, 1992. Fox.
Damon Wayans as Homey D. Clown in In Living Color, 1992. Fox.

In its early pages, Homey masquerades as a biography of the Wayans family, the lifeblood of ILC. The Wayanses have churned out so many comedians over the years (Keenen, Damon, Shawn, Kim, Marlon, Damon Jr., etc.), that you can pretty much invent your own prepackaged black TV funny person just by using their last name: Demond Wayans? Okay. Loquatia Wayans? Sure. Tablecloth Wayans? Why not. Peisner wisely chooses to focus on Keenen; in fact, the book makes a strong argument that as creator and head writer of ILC, Keenen kept the show’s vision on track until his removal after the fourth season, which sent the program into a relative tailspin. Peisner paints Keenen as an unlikely overachiever, the first in his New York City housing-project family to attend college (and then, shockingly, drop out to become a stand-up comedian), a man so analytical and driven when it comes to humor that he rarely laughs. (Compared to Damon, an effortless comedic genius, Keenen sometimes comes off as a paranoid despot.)

It would seem obvious to draw a parallel between Keenen Ivory Wayans and an impresario like Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, but Peisner avoids this facile comparison, instead persuasively arguing that there really hadn’t been anyone else quite like Keenen before ILC. His blackness, and the fact that he aimed the show at black audiences, sets him apart from Saturday Night Live, which, Eddie Murphy aside, has remained a primarily white institution (from its misuse of Chris Rock to its historic lack of “Not Ready for Primetime Players” of color). Perhaps unfairly, ILC made SNL’s lone black original-cast member, Garrett Morris, an object of ridicule.

Instead of finding white analogues, Peisner seems determined to prove that the model for the Wayanses was not SNL. To some degree, ILC drew on Laugh-In, but primarily, he demonstrates, the Wayanses idolized Richard Pryor, the boundary-smashing black comedian who, as the years proceed, feels more and more like a tear in the fabric of the universe. In the course of providing perhaps more context than you require, Homey goes so far as to claim that Pryor’s weirdest experience with the mainstream, NBC’s The Richard Pryor Show, of which only four episodes were made, was a significant influence on In Living Color. Both ILC and Pryor succeeded by mercilessly lampooning black people for the entertainment of black people, with relatively little thirst for crossing over.

After a chapter devoted to the rise of Eddie Murphy, which seems irrelevant at first, we follow Keenen to Los Angeles, where he quickly falls in with a group of young black comedians who, since this is the “post–Good Times, pre-Cosby drought,” can’t find work, among them Robert Townsend, Arsenio Hall, Murphy, and Paul Mooney, who had written for Pryor and who dubs the group “the Black Pack.” Murphy, whom the gang appropriately called “Money,” provides many early opportunities for this loose federation: He gives Damon Wayans his first acting gig, a cameo in Beverly Hills Cop; brings Townsend in to direct his concert film Raw (with writing contributions from Keenen); and provides the idea for Keenen’s 1988 breakout film, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.

The success of Sucka led some adventurous executives from Fox to contact Keenen about putting together his own show. According to Peisner: “He knew enough to be polite and hear them out. And they did sound enthusiastic. ‘They told me I could do anything that I wanted to do,’ he says. ‘That’s what set the wheels turning.’”

If not for Keenen’s vision and determination, the story might have ended quite a bit earlier. But as the two-hundred-odd participants Peisner interviews for the book attest, his gestalt was what people responded to. Keenen was an “unrestrained populist”; his primary goal was not to offer political commentary or social justice, but to make people laugh. While this might sound corny—given that his mirth directive included, among many others, a comedian as angry about inequality as Damon—“funny” would certainly draw on the collective pain and need, in a black community continually besieged by injustice, for a venue in which to laugh at ourselves.

Take, for example, the show’s apotheosis, Homey D. Clown, an ex-convict played by Damon who gets into clowning as part of his work-release program, despite physically abusing the children he’s hired to entertain, trying to hip them to harsh realities of race relations in America. In large part, Homey’s funny because he’s dead serious in a wildly inappropriate context, like Malcolm X with a red nose and a neck ruff. Damon’s deadpan performance, reportedly inspired by Mooney’s gruff attitude in the writers’ room, lays out ILC’s comedic philosophy. In Homey’s inaugural appearance, children attending a birthday party suggest that he perform various clichés of the standard clown routine: “Do a silly clown dance for us!” one beseeches, to which Homey responds, “Oh, degrade myself, eh? I don’t think so.” By the end of the sketch, he’s recounting a violent interaction with a maître d’ at a restaurant called Chez Whitey.

Although this character became the quintessence of In Living Color, the show did not exclusively mine anger over race for its comedy. The variety of topics—and the rise of Jim Carrey’s “Fire Marshal Bill,” for example—suggested very powerfully the notion that black people spend our days thinking about, laughing at, and commenting critically on many more things than blackness alone.

Peisner does a wizardly job of turning the potentially dull machinations of backstage Hollywood into intriguing details by highlighting the personalities involved and distilling their aspirations and skirmishes down to their essence. But unfortunately, only a few performers get to appear multi-dimensional; everyone else seems to want more screen time and more money, not much else. The writers are victims of labor abuse, working insane, possibly illegal hours. Though the show becomes a nationwide sensation, the female performers do not get a fair shake; T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh spends a good deal of time in her dressing room, weeping.

Eventually, the show became, in the age-old phrase, a victim of its own success. As network executives watched the soaring popularity of characters such as Homey, they demanded more of the familiar shtick, which gave the writers considerably less room to grow and experiment. After Keenen’s antagonistic departure, ILC’s embarrassing secret—that the majority of its writers were not black—accelerated the program’s decline. Without a black gatekeeper (and lest we forget, taskmaster), and with the show’s biggest star at the time (Jim Carrey) a white man, everything rapidly fizzled. Which in a certain way is encouraging: It turned out that despite all the financial incentives to continue cranking out compromised comedic lameness, the show’s black perspective was its most powerful selling point, even for white audiences, and in the absence of a black sensibility to guide the ship, Fox could not rescue it.

You would think that such an incident might have changed Hollywood’s thinking around race pretty drastically, but nearly thirty years after ILC’s premiere, many of the same assumptions about which demographics will watch what shows and movies, and whether to green-light shows and films based on those demographics, remain firmly in place. We all know what Homey D. Clown would say to that.

James Hannaham is the author of the novel Delicious Foods (Little, Brown, 2015).