The Cast Of In Living Color Reunites To Discuss Changing TV 25 Years Ago (Video)
Next month marks 25 years since In Living Color wrapped its fifth and final season. The FOX sketch comedy series started by Keenen Ivory Wayans introduced two handfuls of household names. The series, which debuted 29 years ago this month, also broke more boundaries in television than even its most diehard fans may realize.
At the Tribeca Film Festival, some key members of the In Living Color cast reunited to discuss the revolutionary program that had millions laughing at their screens on Sunday (and sometimes Thursday) nights. In a conversation, In Living Color‘s founder, Keenen Ivory joined a panel that included David Alan Grier, Tommy Davidson, Kim Wayans, and Shawn Wayans, who debuted on the series as a DJ, before eventually joining the cast. While only David and Tommy remained with the series until its finale, the spirit of this 45-minute conversation captures why In Living Color was a permanent part of 1990s American pop culture.
“It was like a pot of steam about to blow,” recalls Tommy Davidson in the first 10 minutes of the conversation moderated by Aisha Harris. “It had built up. Damon [Wayans] and Keenen and Jim [Carrey] and some other people had been out in Hollywood breaking down doors for us, for years. We finally arrived: me, Martin [Lawrence], D.L. [Hughley], anybody that you know as a comedian came to Hollywood probably around 1988.” Davidson recalls first declining an invitation to be a cast member on the fledgling FOX answer to Saturday Night Live. “Keenen and Robert Townsend and a lot of the creators were doing movies.” He says he met the former at the I’m Gonna Git You Sucka premiere. Previously, Keenen had worked with Townsend on The Hollywood Shuffle. While Davidson had a development deal with Disney, a bit part on Murphy Brown, and a role on Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America TV spinoff, he ultimately gave way to Wayans. The show would change his career.
At 11:20, David Alan Grier recalls auditioning with Martin Lawrence and Chris Rock. “I know I got the show. Martin would come and watch and kid around and stuff. He did alright. Chris Rock did alright; he did okay,” jokes Grier. Notably, Chris Rock would become a featured guest on the show, often portraying a character he’d played in I’m Gonna Get You Sucka. It was at the same time he was on SNL.
Keenen, whose acting was limited as the seasons progressed, describes the mood of the show. “It was very competitive, but fun-competitive. Like, if you look at the first sketch in the pilot [spoofing] Love Connection, Jim has a small part. But he’s stealing the show [as Chuck Woolery]. That’s what would happen if you had the small part in the sketch. You would try to get as many laughs as possible. It made every sketch a winner because there was never a small player in any sketch.” Keenen recalls telling his cast in rehearsals, to improvise one thing for the final taping. “They would just go, and great stuff came.”
Notably, Ivory Wayans stepped away from one of the show’s most controversial and enduring sketches, Men On Film. In its earliest point, it was planned to be played by Damon and Keenen. David Alan Grier, who would play “Antoine Merriweather,” explains. “Keenen gave it to Damon and I. Originally, I think the films [they would review] were made up. But I think the key to those characters and the humor was when we took straight movies and we inferred our gayness onto them. That was what was so subversive. People would get really upset.” David adds that Spike Lee was none too pleased with having his films mentioned in the sketches. “It was a time, back then, when you could play with all that. Black folks got all in their feelings.”
Of handing parts over to his cast, Keenen says, “If I saw somebody do it better than me, I had no problem stepping back and goin’ ‘You do it.’ ‘Cause what I wanted was the best. So whoever’s gonna bring the best, that’s who’s in the sketch.”
David also recalls the great coach that Keenen was in the meetings. “He was always encouraging us to use this time. ‘It’s limited; the show’s not gonna last forever. And you have all this support, and the nation is watching.” At 19:00, Tommy Davidson says that Keenen improvised at one meeting over breakfast. The executive producer suggested that in spoofing Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” music video, that Tommy’s rendition hop-scotch and react to hurting his hand on the car window. Notably, for the last line, when The King Of Pop is arrested, Keenen told Davidson to write the words. Tommy tells the camera “I guess I am Black,” as he is taken away in handcuffs. The laughter was met with provocative reflections of American life.
Keenen, who played Mike Tyson and members of Milli Vanilli, admits that he was never specialized in that field. “None of us were impressionists; I’d never done an impression. We were mimics; we were comedians. If I spend 10 minutes with you, I can do a funny version of you,” he says at 22:30.
At 25:00, David Alan Grier is asked about Men On Film. In the ’90s and beyond, the sketch has been criticized for portraying stereotypical caricatures of gay men. The actor says, “I feel like that was 1990. My personal politics—my knowledge of [LGBTQ] has evolved since then. But I would say there was never any malice in the portrayal of these gay men, at least from my perspective, at that time. But it was very much of its time.”
Meanwhile, Keenen Ivory Wayans adds, “I think the sketch could be done today. We have more information about gay culture. So we can make it even funnier.” He suggests using gay writers and actors to develop the humor in a more authentic and sophisticated way. “The intent of the show was to include everybody: everybody’s gonna laugh. So we did handicapped characters.” Grier adds, “It was all-inclusive, so we offended every aspect of Black culture.” Keenen interjects, “You can only be as good as the time period that you live in, with the information that you have. So that’s what we tried to do.” Of the edgy humor, Shawn Wayans also recalls, “We wanted everybody to say, ‘That’s messed up, but that’s funny as hell though.'”
At 30:00, Keenen is asked about working with FOX on such a cutting show. “It’s nice when they don’t know,” he says of the censors. “We used to have fun with the censors…We’d put things in that we really didn’t want to be in there. Then we’d laugh really hard at the table reads or in rehearsal. The censor would get nervous, and they’d come over, ‘You can’t say that. You gotta come up with something else.’ So there was one time, the guy comes over, and he says, ‘You can’t say “kayak city,” ’cause that’s what we had and everybody was laughing. We say, ‘No? Well, can we say “toss your salad”?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, that’s fine.'” The cast also remembers using Jamaican curse words in the Hey Mon! sketches. “By the time the Jamaican viewers wrote in, we’d already done three or four [sketches],” David Alan Grier says. “We’d already won by that point.”
However, it was not all fun in dealing with FOX. Keenen explains, “You have no idea how regulated television is. In Living Color, we shot [the pilot], and it sat on the shelf for a year. [FOX] wouldn’t air it.” The executive producer, who left before 1993 completed, recalls the executives showing caution to his mention of “revolutionary” television. Meanwhile, in the late ’80s beginning, some of that same brass told the actor and stand-up to “Do what you want to do.” That prompted the lyrics from Heavy D & The Boyz that opened the shows during its most revered period.
At 34:00 David Alan Grier emphasizes the show’s power. “People used to ask, ‘Is this a political show’ when it first came on. And my initial answer was no, until I realized just how just from the fact that we were mostly African Americans writing, and creating, and performing, that in of itself makes it political. Okay? We just wanted to be free. I did. As a performer, I just wanted to get off, man, and to do stuff that no one ever allowed me to do. That became a political act.”
Keenen is asked about the shows of the 2000s and 2010s that may have built upon In Living Color‘s playbook. “I thought of all the ones that came after, to me, Chappelle’s Show was sort of the next evolution. I thought he did a great job. Then, after him, I thought Key & Peele had the next evolution after that.” He says that each Comedy Central show found its voice. “They did it the right way. It’s okay to be inspired by, but you don’t want to duplicate. I was inspired by Richard Pryor; those guys were inspired by In Living Color.”
At a time when some of In Living Color‘s sketches may seem too raw for today’s times, Keenen Ivory Wayans praises his team’s efforts that may go unnoticed. “You talk about legacy. If people were to look at the credits of In Living Color, I would say 80% of our staff were all women, and women of color. From the co-executive producer to the line producer to the first Black woman to direct a sketch show was Terri McCoy, rest in peace. Pam Veasey was Head Writer…this was 30 years ago. The things that we were able to do back then, people are fighting about now. It ain’t that hard, you just got to do that.”