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In Living Color At 25: Highlights From A Comedy Revolution

Illustration for article titled iIn Living Color /iAt 25: Highlights From A Comedy Revolution

“I was on my way home from bingo and got caught up here in the riots,” says Benita Buttrell, a nosy neighborhood gossip played by Kim Wayans on the ‘90s sketch-comedy show In Living Color. As she sits at a bus stop, decked out in mismatched jewelry with her signature plastic curlers still setting her hair, neighbors run in and out of the electronics store behind her, grabbing whatever they can. Meanwhile, the words “NO JUSTICE” are spray-painted onto the storefront’s wall. “We always had ourselves something,” Benita says, giving the looters a judge’s stare as they carry stacks of boxes through the skit. “Didn’t have to wait for Rodney King to get bopped upside the head to get me a love seat.” When a boom box falls in front of her, though, she quickly pulls it close to her: “’Course you wouldn’t wanna look a gift horse in the mouth.” The character’s tagline—“I ain’t one to gossip; you ain’t heard that from me”—defined both one of the show’s most recognizable characters and the entire show’s captivating sense of inclusion: Here are your friends, ready to deliver some real talk.


When In Living Color debuted in April 1990, it seemed primed for a much longer run than the four years it actually got. The brainchild of producer Keenan Ivory Wayans, the show came on the heels of his 1988 Blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Get You Sucka and Spike Lee’s 1989 classic Do The Right Thing, which both presented the black community as culturally powerful, and politically and spiritually repressed, and keenly aware of the world that surrounded them. Wayans filled his new cast with both his talented siblings (Damon, Kim, and Shawn) and a crew of ascendant comedians (including Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier, Jim Carrey, T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh, and Tommy Davidson), while loading the soundtrack with era-defining new music for Rosie Perez’s Fly Girls to dance to.

The skits spoke to every type of person: Goofy conceits parodying the hustle of the hood were nonetheless laced with sympathy and street smarts; female characters were strong, empowered women whose tittering “Go on girl!” championing was as uplifting as it was ridiculous; gay people and immigrants were given a rare spotlight (so long as you put down the more cringeworthy aspects therein to a less enlightened time); and even the most revered icons of the black community, from Maya Angelou to Michael Jackson, were taken down a notch or two.


In celebration of just how well ILC holds up a quarter-century later, we asked some of our favorite writers, from Gawker and Jezebel luminaries, Desus & Mero, to DJs influenced by the show and beyond, to share their favorite memories of the show.

A “New Blackness”

I came to In Living Color late—I was 8 when its final season aired—and didn’t have a true appreciation for the series until many years after that. But, like all great shows, true genius never fades absolutely. In every sense, the show lived up to its name: It was loud and daring, and constantly pushed our idea of black art, black comedy, and blackness outward, proving it to be more vast than we could ever imagine.

The show’s run was during the early 1990s, a time when black machoness was very much in vogue; it was, if you can believe it, a thing to be celebrated—particularly in hip-hop, which was becoming an unstoppable cultural force. But Keenan Ivory Wayans and Co. bucked this notion in more ways than one: The show regularly featured black men in drag (Jamie Foxx as Wanda, the “Men On...” series), examined “New Blackness” before Pharrell tried to make it a thing (“Black Like You”), and repurposed long-held community traditions into causes for celebration (“Dirty Dozens,” “East Hollywood Squares,” “Great Moments in Black History”). Simply put, In Living Color didn’t adapt to the mainstream. And over time it became a North Star for sketch-comedy shows that followed in its path: It was Chappelle’s Show before Chappelle’s Show, MAD TV before MAD TV, Key & Peele before Key & Peele. Twenty-five years after its debut, it remains indelible for one reason and one reason alone: because it dared to be so. - Jason Parham

Heavy D & The Boyz / The Theme Song

You can’t really differentiate the kinetic vigor of the In Living Color theme song from the In Living Color font, but back then it was all perfectly emblematic of New Jack Swing at its peak: Heavy D and the Boyz had used a variation on that blocky font a lot, a relic of the era’s post-Memphis Group art aesthetic. The crew had also worn kufis and kente cloth on album sleeves, and had a message of self-love and increasing the peace; maybe what got lost in the theme-song snippet was that it was a TV jingle about Black Power, following the tradition of themes from comedies like The Jeffersons and A Different World (Aretha!) and, to my mind, Sanford & Son. (How could Quincy Jones’ singular fonk not be about black empowerment?)


But this was rapping, and In Living Color was a different, more modern type of show: youthful and resolute in the era of leather pendants shaped like Africa. “You can do what you wanna do! In living color!” was a message of agency to all the kids defining that modernity at the time, and Heavy D envisioned a world that gave the show a utopian Afrofuturist slant at the ready. “You walk on the moon / Float like a balloon…” he rapped. “How would you feel knowin’ prejudice was obsolete / And all mankind danced to the same exact beat / And at night it was safe to walk down the street?” The answer, from what I always imagined were the Fly Girls singing, “In Living Color!”

The overweight lover was the absolute flyest at the time, spry on his feet with the Smurph and related hot-stepping; in one of his several performances on the show, backed by the Fly Girls and two lone synth homies in graffiti’d shirts, Heavy D literally burst through a door to rap his verses, a formidable boss in a blue suit who brought the audience to shrieks. He was proud, but inclusive: “How would you feel knowin everybody was your friend?” the song goes. In Living Color implied they were. - Julianne Escobedo Shepherd


The Fly Girls

In Living Color was one of the best sketch-comedy shows of all time. Subversive and blisteringly funny at a moment when the media coverage of the L.A. riots tried to legitimize white fears of a black planet, it predated Judd Apatow’s gross-out humor, shed light on the realities of urban America, and launched the careers of Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, and Damon Wayans.


But because I was a pre-teen girl during the show’s heyday, the Fly Girls were my main reason for tuning in. Decked in the perfect blend of All-American and fashion-forward street gear— crushed-velvet bodysuits, neon bicycle shorts, thigh-high pleather boots, giant earrings, etc.— the show’s in-house dancers were the cool, multi-culti big sisters I had always dreamed about having. They busted out their around-the-way swagger following the show’s opening credit sequence (and before and after commercials) with the sort of nimble moves and quick-shifting choreography that bridged the gap between Paula Abdul and Salt-N-Pepa. As a naturally shy young person, watching them inspired me to seek out sassy girlfriends and actually enjoy dancing in public. And while performing SWV’s “Anything” with my step squad during a middle school assembly was as close as I ever got to official Fly Girl status, I’ve found that I’m kind of still angling to imitate their style now.

It’s no surprise that Soul Train alum Rosie Perez was responsible for the Fly Girls’ choreography. When In Living Color premiered in April 1990, it was less than a year after she showed off her tough-girl punches and seductive hip thrusts in the opening sequence to Do the Right Thing. She molded her protégés in her image, commingling moves direct from NYC nightclubs, hip-hop culture, and formal jazz/funk styles. She worked her dancers as hard, if not harder than, any other cast member of the show, and apparently exasperated FOX censors (almost as frequently as the writers themselves did) along the way. From an interview in the video above:

I had carte blanche from Keenen Ivory Wayans, but the FCC, the censors would come in and [say], “They can’t hump on the ground.” I go, “Can they hump on the air?” “No, they can’t hump on the air. They can’t hump on the ground.’” I said, “Okay. Can they hump on the risers?’”They said, “No humping!” I said, “Okay. How about pumping?”


They set up a cultural ripple effect that launched a thousand dance teams. From MTV’s The Grind to Stephanie Tanner’s “Motownphilly” routine, everyone jumped on the mainstream hip-hop dance trend, even long after In Living Color ended in 1994. And no meditation on the Fly Girls is complete without mentioning that the group famously launched the career of Jennifer Lopez. Who would even want to comprehend just what a “Jenny From the Block” could look and act like had her former dance troupe not shown her, and the rest of the world, the true definition of being fly? - Alexis Stephens


Bless In Living Color for decking their men in drag and toeing the line between blunt, borderline-offensive absurdity and comedic empowerment. Where the “Men On…” skits gave two snaps to gay characters on basic cable television, Jamie Foxx’s recurring character Wanda was cast as a kooky, unappealing woman whose equally unabashed confidence was mind-boggling to those around her. The joke was that she was manly in stature (because, well, she was a man); cross-eyed; buck-toothed; and, for the lack of a better word, just plain ugly. (Which is why one of her trademark phrases, “Don’t make me get ugly!” worked so well whenever she was regularly and rudely dissed or confronted.)


Supposedly one of the long lost members of En Vogue, Wanda was regularly flanked by female friends who relied on her to keep their men in line (generally, that man was played by the overly cocky Tommy Davidson); she goes on blind dates and struts as her dates grimace and groan, she’s asked to step in as a massage therapist for a friend who is sick of an aggressively handsy client, and while she’s portrayed as a someone no one would want to sleep with, she flirts with the men around her as if they’d be lucky to get close. The skits that showcased Wanda’s overt sexual prowess were hilarious in how seemingly clueless she was (and how reflexively scandalized the people around her became) while managing to be equally endearing in their misandry. (When she meets with En Vogue in one episode, she all but decks their manager for trying to push her out of his way: “You can’t be putting your hands on me—you ain’t my momma!”) Wanda skits, for all their preening and male bravado, were pretty adept at outing try-hard dudes whose arrogance and lack of tact mirrored Wanda’s own. I’m not sure which was funnier. - Puja Patel

“Hey Mon”

In Living Color was one of the few shows that wasn’t banned in my house growing up. Back then, the Bronx was one of the last areas in New York to get cable, so watching In Living Color was basically all we had. More importantly, it came on late enough on Sunday night that my parents had usually tapped out and given up on raising us for the night. The show ended up being our gateway to new music, because there was absolutely no way we were ever getting cable, period. When asked about the idea of paying for addition channels, my father’s response was always a simple, “Ya must be mad.”


The “Hey Mon” sketch, featuring the hard-working Hedley family, is easily one of my favorites from the show. The Hedleys were Jamaican immigrants who moved to the U.S. to work, and each member of the family had multiple jobs. While the characters were exaggerated, It stayed with me because of how close it was to my actual family life. My parents came to the United states from Jamaica in their twenties with nothing. It was exciting to see this story, the story of families like mine, being shown on television, even if in comedic form. At the time those sketches aired, my pops was a landlord, a bank manager, and ran a carpet-cleaning service on the side. (See!)

I grew up hearing every variation on the “You lazy lima bean” speech—the one parodied in this skit—throughout my life, and vividly recall being driven around on the first day of summer vacation to various stores to fill out job applications. I can’t count the amount of times we’d discuss someone (anyone, really) getting a “good, high-paying job with benefits” at the dinner table. Even though the dreadlocks wigs on ILC were absolutely terrible (and, still, somehow nowhere as bad as the accents), I’d imagine any child raised by immigrants could relate to “Hey Mon.” The sketch reminded me of old-school Jamaican shows like Oliver at Large, and how my uncles and aunties would openly cast their disdain at people who didn’t work. (And by work, they meant real work. At least two jobs, mon.)


When the show was still on the air, I remember there being some outrage about its portrayal of the “hard-working Caribbean family” stereotype, but for me, it was one of the least offensive sketches on In Living Color, and actually felt relatable to a black community that could call more than one country home. Besides, as a Jamaican who currently has about four jobs, I’d say it was pretty accurate! I’d write more, but hey mon, mi got to go to work! - Desus Nice

Maya Angelou


A couple summers ago, I was feeling nostalgic and watched White Men Can’t Jump. Later, when telling my friends how much I’d laughed at Rosie Perez saying quince, my boy asked me if I remembered the Maya Angelou skit from In Living Color. As we pulled it up on YouTube, crying from laughter, I commented: “Yoo! Only he could get away with this!” He being David Alan Grier in drag as Dr. Angelou herself.

When I first saw that skit as a little kid, it was extra funny. It was like you and your cousins making fun of your auntie in the backyard where she couldn’t hear. A bit poking fun at a well-respected black woman was dangerous to me, because nobody disrespected the elders in real life, and Dr. Angelou was definitely a black icon. I knew then that my reaction was specific to my blackness. That day with my friend, though, I truly realized how racialized In Living Color’s humor was.


Many people will remember the Butterfinger skit, where David Alan Grier reprised the character for SNL. But the Froot Loops skit from ILC will always be the best. When his/her voice reaches near-ecstasy reciting the word kumquat, there’s no holding back the laughter. He isn’t making fun of her, but rather making a human out of woman I only knew as an inspirational phrase. (Also, he’s a big-ass dude DRESSED as a woman!) That to me will always be the real “risk” of the joke. Had he not been funny … well, oh boy! It was never that I didn’t understand In Living Color was for black folks—I was simply too young back then to realize its importance. I quote both sketches regularly to this day, and there’s always an internal head-nod to anyone in the room who picks up the joke and continues. That’s what In Living Color was: a head-nod to us all. - Judnick Mayard

“Men on…”

In an era where prime-time successes like Empire and Brooklyn Nine-Nine prominently feature characters navigating the intersection between blackness, queerness, and masculinity in unpredictable ways, it’s easy to forget that seeing someone black and gay on television every week is a 21st-century luxury. The ‘80s and early ‘90s were a wasteland for diversity of that sort in television to a degree that made In Living Color’s “Men on...” segments, where Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier played two effeminate gay men discussing pop culture “from a male point of view,” quietly revolutionary.


For a time, “Men on...” was prime time’s only showcase for gay characters, but it had its problems: The bit was as much an homage to ‘90s black gay culture as a crude riff on it. Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather’s flamboyant mannerisms and unchecked misogyny were often the entire joke. Even so, their sexuality was fearless and out front like few characters in network-television history before them.

It shouldn’t have worked—and sometimes it didn’t—but when Wayans and Grier successfully weaponized their caustic snark against subjects other than themselves, the sketch came together. “Men on Television” was a scathing read for the biggest shows on Fox’s rival networks, a brash move for a fledgling channel boxing with decades-old giants, but then Blaine gets a bump on the head and wakes up heterosexual and faintly homophobic. “Men on...” kicked up trouble and promise in equal measure. - Craig Jenkins


Oswald Bates

A couple decades ahead of Orange Is the New Black, Damon Wayans’ Oswald Bates character turned the crushing notion of life in prison on its head, a cell-block prophet who foreshadowed precocious Internet know-it-all-ism and shouty bravado by butchering the SAT words he gleaned by eavesdropping on conversations between the more enlightened brothers on his tier.


It was the post-Reagan early ‘90s, and then as now, America had its share of racial strife, particularly when it came to black America’s toxic relationship with abusive police: The Rodney King verdict and resulting riots in L.A. were reminiscent of those in the late ‘60s, and born of the same frustrations. In an America where Black Power was an aesthetic as much as an ideology, characters like Wayans’ Bates offered an escape from the self-serious, like so much of In Living Color’s post-Cosby, not-sanitized-for-white-consumption comedy. Even the most wearied among us could find release in this skit: For a second, we could think, “Yeah, my pops/cousin/mom/brother might get unfairly locked up—they might even actually be locked up—but this right here is genuinely funny.”

With requisite kufi on deck, almost masterfully taking 100 percent of the things out of context, Bates’ ever-flowing malapropisms ( Allow me to expose my colon once again. The ramification inflicted on the incision placed within the Fallopian cavities serves to be holistic taken from the Latin word “jalapeno”) sound like the musings of some sort of social-justice bot on Twitter, or the dude on the rush-hour train ride who demands to be heard by any means necessary. One sketch portrays Oswald, preaching from behind his cell bars, as a vehicle for the fictitious United Negro Scholarship Fund, with the tagline “Keep Your Butt in School.” It almost feels as though that ad would’ve been more effective than the real-life UNCF’s real-life “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” campaign.


Yes, mass incarceration— the New Jim Crow, as author Michelle Alexander has put it — is fucked up. Yes, the fight to prove that black lives matter is still very real. But the big joke with Oswald Bates points to fact that the bus-stop revolutionary typically talks the most and says the least, and that we’re defined more by what we do than what we say. Now, if I may retain my liquids here for one moment. I’d like to continue the “redundance” of my quote-unquote “intestinal tract,” you see, because to preclude on the issue of world domination would only circumvent — excuse me, circumcise—the revelation that reflects the “Afro-disiatic” symptoms which now perpetrates the Jheri Curl’s activation. Yeah. - Kasai Rex

Homey D. Clown

There are myriad unspoken rules to follow: Take pride in your work. Be thankful for your job. Forgive children their obnoxious ways. Most of us only dream of breaking these rules before remembering how nice it is to get paid, especially when rent is due. That’s why it feels so good when Homey D. Clown smashes every one of those unspoken rules with a swipe of his stuffed sock as he sneers, “Homey don’t play that.”


Homey does not want to be here, dammit. He hates his job. He hates kids. He hates the jokes, the dumb requests, the fact that he has to hold onto this gig as part of his prison work-release program. And though I wasn’t out on parole (I was finishing up fifth grade when the show premiered), there is something in Homey’s complete disregard for pretending like he cares that made me laugh, and still does. Who hasn’t had to do something—finish mindless homework, buy a wedding gift for a couple you barely know, tell your neighbor’s idiot kid he’s a special star—and found themselves resisting the urge to lash out, “I don’t think so!”

That the show made him a clown (whose job is to please) and had him lashing out at small children (who by default are protected and precious) only heightens how funny the sketch is. Homey D. Clown is sick of this shit, and at some point, who isn’t? The rest of us think about telling our bosses and clients where to shove it, and then quietly smother the urge. In the space between is Homey D. Clown, leading another group singalong about his fight against the man, proclaiming, “Homey D. Clown don’t mess around, even though the man tries to keep him down.” - Diana Moskovitz


Homeboy Shopping Network

Yo, when I was a kid and I did something notable like get a good grade or some shit like that, my pops would take me to see this dude uptown on Sherman who had one of those foldable card tables, the kind where you used to see bootleg CDs and fraudulent purses. The shit was full of all types of shady merch that was packaged funny, or not at all. I always picked a Nintendo game that only had words from Asia on it.


So, obviously, the Homeboy Shopping Network was a sketch near and dear to my heart. (Wow, LOL, look at how I just finessed that segue! I’m a master of prose.) Like a lot of the stuff on In Living Color, Homeboy Shopping Network was very relatable to me growing up in the Bronx, or, really, relatable to anyone growing up in Anyhood, USA.

There was always a dude on the block that had a Russian cable box, or a tricycle with wi-fi, or a baby-panda kidney for the low. Nothing was too ridiculous, and that’s what I loved about the sketch: that it got to cartoonish proportions—Wiz and Iceman were selling NASA satellites and stadium jumbotrons, b!—but never got too corny. As a comedian, hitting that sweet spot is hard, and Damon and Keenen used to do that shit like LeBron doing layups. - The Kid Mero


Fire Marshall Bill

Every once in a while, during a heated conversation with a friend, I’ll still find myself yelling, “Let me show ya something!” before I get deep into it. It’s a joke I’ve made since I was little, because when I was little, we ALL watched In Living Color. It was a bonding show for us at the grade-school lunch table, and even though we were all too young to understand a lot of the humor, Jim Carrey was so insane as Fire Marshall Bill that it was funny regardless: everything from his crazy face to his odd gasping to his pretty much impossible “what if” scenarios to his habit of lighting the building on fire EVERY single time. Fire Marshall Bill even had a wife who’d show up here and there with that same ridiculous laugh, and she seemed just as immortal.


There was no one like Jim Carrey: I just remember thinking, That white dude on the show is so crazy. I never understood how the rest of the cast even worked with him without dying laughing all the time, because he didn’t even have to do anything when it was his time. Just the sight of him made you laugh immediately.

Every once in a while now, I get stuck in an In Living Color YouTube wormhole. It usually starts out with me pulling up one of their music-video parodies (either “Mr. Ugly Man” or the Crystal Waters one), and then there goes my night. I remember him playing Vanilla Ice and Snow like it was yesterday. He was so relevant, yet so ridiculous. He was Ross Perot during the election and it was everything; I dare you to watch him as “Background Guy” and not laugh. Vera the steroid-abusing bodybuilder and the Buttmans were both completely ridiculous, while Overly Confident Gay Man touched on subjects that were rarely spoken about at the time. Dude played Rocky and boxed Grace Jones. He was definitely the weirdo of the crew, but the show wouldn’t have been the same without him. - Jubilee


The Music

I lived in Arizona in the ‘90s, moving there when I was really young from a community in St. Louis, MO, that was way more diverse than the one I ended up being raised in. I spent much of my time growing up searching for blackness: I would hide my scrawny limbs under layers and layers of clothes despite the desert sun. (Note: Anything that resembled Cross Colors, FUBU, Tommy, Polo, be it silky or rayon, had to be bought in the color of mustard, of course.) Needless to say, it was really rare to find relatable pop culture or music for someone who felt so removed from people who looked or acted like me. I can’t say enough about what it meant to me as an African-American living in Arizona (where the black population was about 3 percent) to have a show made by African-Americans, starring mainly African-Americans, and speaking to African-American culture.


There was a time when theme songs to shows like Amen, Living Single, Moesha, Martin, and In Living Color felt like the closest thing I could get to music I wanted to actually listen to. I would get so happy when they came on just so I could hear a jam—I was that desperate! Arizona radio was certainly not playing much hip-hop or R&B, so finding new, good music ended up taking a lot of research.

I’m a DJ now, and reflecting back on those formative years, it’s funny to think about how elemental the music from those television shows would end up being. I recorded every episode of Yo! MTV Raps and stayed buying black movie soundtracks to study the liner notes. Watching In Living Color was likewise mandatory for my musical education: It was my only real exposure to hip-hop culture as a whole, and it was delivered to me in a prime time slot. From the DJs to the Fly Girls to the special guest performances, the show had a strong musical element that reflected the Wayans clan’s view of who was a toy or an appropriator, with the latter represented by skits from Jim Carrey (as Snow or Vanilla Ice) or Tommy Davidson (as MC Hammer). Yet with their musical guests, we saw who they thought deserved props for being the innovators. Every performance was fire: Grand Puba, Queen Latifah, Leaders of the New School, Jodeci, Mary J Blige, The Pharcyde, Souls of Mischief, Kriss Kross, Black Sheep. Heavy D performed the theme song live (yes!). The Public Enemy performance with Ice Cube had me so hype, I stood in front of the TV dancing as my family yelled at me for blocking the screen. “Look at black folks!” we’d say to each other.


These performances and more were significant to my cultural education; the little exposure I had to my roots at all before going to college. I studied them so much that my grandma bought me The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes from a thrift store after I heard Guru rap “a poet like Langston Hughes” in a performance. Every showing was such a strong representation of the guts of hip-hop and shaped who I became as a DJ. In my mind sometimes, I see that scaffolding set with people hanging off of the top and dancing under the bottom, and I realize that’s the vibe I want at every party I DJ at. Watching the Fly Girls, the cast, and their special guests all dancing and interacting as the credits rolled (all over the damn performance, every time!), this was what I was looking for. - Lindsey Caldwell

Lead image by Sam Woolley.

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