Black Sitcoms:Our Past, Our Present And Our Future
(A Three- Part series)
As a child of the 90s, my definition of a black sitcom, or any sitcom for that matter would immediately be a semi-staged show with an audience that is programmed to laugh at the “would be” hilarious scenes, (I’m sure most of you 90s kids know what kind of shows I’m talking about already). A sitcom which is short for “situational comedy” can be defined as a term for a television or radio series involving the same cast of actors, playing the same characters in different scenarios each week in what is commonly referred to as an “episode”. Though not strictly confined to the genre, most sitcoms are comedic in nature, hence the name “sitcom”.
In the early days of television, black actors were often cast in stereotypical roles, often as comic clowns in a tradition tracing back to the genre of black minstrelsy popular in the early 20th century. The first television sitcom to portray black people, Amos ‘n Andy, was widely popular among diverse audiences. The actors on the original radio show were both white, however in Amos ‘n Andy they were portrayed by black actors, and represented black individuals as businesspeople, judges, lawyers and policemen. After over 70-odd episodes had been broadcast, it was taken off the air after protests from specific groups including the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), who alleged that the show engaged in stereotyping. Afterwards, there were no all-black sitcoms shown in the U.S. until the 1970s. Before then, in 1951, Amos ’n Andy ranked 13th in the Nielsen ratings and in 1952, it won an Emmy award. The NAACP responded by initiating a boycott of its sponsor, Blatz beer. By April 1953, Blatz withdrew its sponsorship and CBS announced “the network has bowed to the change in National thinking” yet the series was in syndication more than 4 times as long as it was broadcast on the network. It remained in syndication for 13 years after it was withdrawn from the network schedule. As at 1963, it still played on 50 US stations.
In the 1970s, a series of popular black sitcoms appeared, including That’s My Mama, Good Times, Sanford and Son, What’s Happening!!, and The Jeffersons. These sitcoms have been criticized as fostering an image of segregation and helping to perpetuate a belief that black and white cultures are so different, and integration is undesirable and unworkable.
In the 1980s, sitcoms such as The Cosby Show, A Different World, and Frank’s Place, challenged stereotypical portrayals of blacks but were nevertheless seen as “black” (segregated) despite appearances by white actors. Towards the end of the 80s, the major US television networks lost interest in black sitcoms, due in part to the success of series such as Friends with predominantly white casts.
In the 1990s, newer networks such as Fox, The WB and UPN, anxious to establish themselves with a black audience, featured black sitcoms such as Martin and Living Single, which drew high ratings among black households and were profitable even with a limited white viewership. Although there were some black sitcoms successful with the white audiences in the 1990s, (Family Matters, Moesha and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air), from 1997 to 2001, the number of black sitcoms on US television still declined from 15 to 6 as white viewership continued to decline (for black sitcoms), and that decline has generally continued. Civil rights organizations have accused networks of denying minorities equal opportunity as well as a broader participation in general television programming.
Our present and our future will be published soon!