Looking Back at In Living Color

In Living Color was Fox’s first sketch show. During the network’s early years it predominantly featured programming geared towards black and Hispanic audiences, so the show fit right in with the network’s profile. As a result, the show was able to be innovative in a number of ways. It was of course the first sketch program to feature a predominately black cast; when the show began, Jim Carrey was the only white male on the show.

Race wasn’t the only way the show pushed the envelopes. In Living Color’s subject matter was always controversial. In the early years almost all of the sketches addressed a sensitive political issue, frequently related to the black experience in America. Take, for example, this sketch from the second season featuring Damon and Keenan Ivory Wayans as two ‘Toms’ (referring to the character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin) who can’t understand why David Allan Grier has to act so black all the time:

Beyond political issues, the show also loved to test the boundaries of what was able to be shown on network TV at the time, regularly showcasing vulgar, raunchy bits that let to countless fights with executives. Eventually, Keenan Ivory Wayans, the show’s creator and host left after the 3rd season due the constant battles he had over the show’s subject matter. A more notorious sketch, which has only been aired once, is this take off of the Billy Dee Williams Colt 45 commercials, in which Wayans as Williams recommends a beer that’s great for date rape.

The show is famous for launching the careers of several notable talents that would later go on to much greater success, such as Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Lopez, who danced as a fly girl. What many don’t realize is that the writing staff also contained a number of notable young comedians who would go on to later success like Larry Wilmore, Robert Schimmel, Colin Quinn, Chris Rock and Paul Mooney.

Although Foxx and Carey are the cast members that get the most attention today, Damon Wayans was really the break out star of the show. He was responsible for more popular characters and catch phrases than any other performer. Homey The Clown, Anton Jackson and Blaine Edwards all helped make the show a ratings success right from the start.

“Men on Film” is one of the reoccurring sketches that has not aged quite as well. In it, Damon Wayans and David Allan Grier portray two limp-wristed gay men giving film reviews loaded with phallic double entendres. Broad gay stereotypes have been a staple of comedy for centuries, but in the least few years we’ve finally been able move past these tired old routines. There are still plenty of over-the-top gay characters on sketch shows today like Bill Hader’s Stefon character on SNL; the difference is that while Stefon’s general demeanor is ridiculous, the butt of the jokes mostly come from his extremely insular, esoteric take on New York City night life, not his homosexuality. It’s not that Grier and Wayans are being mean-spirited with their depiction of gay characters, it’s just that there is little to their jokes beyond the fact that they are gay.

Contrasting the extremely political themes of most of the sketches are Jim Carrey’s completely apolitical, zany character sketches like Fire Marshall Bill. These bits don’t really have any point to them beyond allowing Carrey to show off his physical comedy chops for a few minutes.

Despite all the edgy political satire and rude humor the most jarring aspect of the show to me really were the Fly Girls. As far as I know there has never been any other sketch show to prominently feature a dance troupe of young women in sexy outfits. Switching back and forth between high energy, over-the-top comedy to earnest dancing makes the show feel a bit bipolar. That’s not to say the Fly Girls are completely devoid of humor; the early ’90s fashions they sport are always good for a laugh. Why people ever thought suspenders could be sexy is beyond me.

Like many sketches shows, In Living Color’s topicality and sometimes outdated sensibilities ages the show but overall it remains an important step in the development of sketch comedy, paving the way the likes of Dave Chappelle and other hilarious comedians.

Carleton Atwater lives in Boston. He also writes about beer at Beeriety.com.

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