Author David Peisner Shares ‘In Living Color’ Stories, Controversies & Cultural Impact [Interview]
Homey Don’t Play That author David Peisner took us back to the ‘90s with tales about In Living Color, the show’s writing room and more.
In the early 1990s, sketch comedy on television was a real-life Mayberry—lily-white with little-to-no black faces. Sure, you had sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin, and Living Single, but nothing that challenged Saturday Night Live’s comedy crown. And yes, black culture was flourishing, but relegated to the underground: hip-hop was scaring politicians and regular folks, sports were spotlighting more black athletes, and more blacks were entering public office. However, that would change immediately when a blank check handed to Kennen Ivory Wayans led to In Living Color birthing a wave of black network programming, unlike anything we’ve seen on television.
The rise, memorable moments, behind-the-scenes tensions, and inevitable decline of the iconic sketch comedy show was captured in full light by author David Peisner in his book Homey Don’t Play That: The Story of ‘In Living Color’ and the Black Comedy Revolution. With more than 100 interviews in the can, Peisner details the series’ development and provides vital context for everything that went into the writing, casting, production and distribution of In Living Color and what made it a bastion of brilliance for black creatives for the first half of the 1990s. For those not old enough to remember how impactful In Living Color was, just take a look at the show’s alumni: Damon Wayans, Jim Carey, Tommy Davidson, Kim Coles, David Alan Grier, and Larry Wilmore to name a few.
As a child raised on In Living Color, the Wayans Family are still a comedy institution, who have inspired myself and others (see: Dave Chappelle, Key & Peele) to be creative and critique society. Those elements plus events that transpired throughout the early ‘90s helped to make In Living Color and impactful standout. And not only because of the primarily black cast, In Living Color was successful because it was a black show with black content, poking fun at black issues and subjects.
We were blessed to get some time with David Peisner to talk about his book, how beef between Keenen Ivory Wayans and Jim Carey ended up in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and if today’s black renaissance in television will spark the re-emergence of a new black sketch comedy show.
Okayplayer: What was your world like when you first saw In Living Color? Can you speak on what else that was going on in culture (life) that made the impact of In Living Color so great?
David Peisner: My world was pretty unexceptional when I first saw In Living Color. I was 16, so I was in high school in suburban Detroit. I wasn’t leading a totally sheltered life, but, y’know, it was the suburbs, so pretty sheltered. But this is long before the internet. Television was still mostly dominated by three networks. If you wanted to find stuff, find culture, find things beyond your everyday existence, you had to know what you were looking for. You had to have somebody or something pointing the way. In Living Color became that for a lot of people like me.
What the show opened me up to was everything else that was going on in black culture at the time—everything from Arsenio [Hall] to Spike Lee to Robert Townsend to films like House Party, Juice and eventually Boyz ‘N the Hood. And of course, to hip-hop. This was the era when hip-hop was going from being something that was still considered a fringe subculture to becoming the mainstream. So the story of In Living Color and the story I’m telling in this book encompasses all of this. It’s the story about how black comedy and black culture became what it is now: the very center of pop culture.
OKP: There’s a very infamous story about Damon Wayans, as he was supposed to be the show’s next protégé after Eddie Murphy left. Were you ever able to get his thoughts later about that moment and how it inspired him once he started up with In Living Color? Also, can you talk about the family environment in a professional setting with the Wayans? How was it to be related to the show’s boss and fight for screen time, lines, etc.?
DP: I did talk to Damon [Wayans] a little about the pressure that was on him on Saturday Night Live to be the “next Eddie Murphy.” When Damon actually got SNL, there was a party for him that Eddie came to. Eddie took him aside and gave him some advice: “Don’t get integrated into the cast. If you want to stand out, write your own sketches. Even if you only do one sketch, make sure it’s centered around you. Otherwise, you get sucked in and become Garrett Morris.” Damon tried to take Eddie’s advice, but it didn’t necessarily serve him that well. Lorne Michaels was trying to protect Damon from the Eddie comparison and bring Damon along slowly. Damon didn’t have the patience for that. He felt like he was being overlooked. He felt like he wasn’t being given opportunities. And he felt that a lot of that was happening because he was, essentially, the only black guy there. During a sketch that he had a bit part in, he went totally off-script and turned his character—who was supposed to be a cop—into an extremely effeminate caricature. In fact, what he turned him into was a version of what would, years later, become Blaine Edwards in his famous In Living Color sketch “Men on Film.” Lorne Michaels fired him on the spot. When In Living Color started up, Damon actually used a lot of sketch and character ideas he’d first had at SNL but which he was never able to get on the air there.
Once they were all at In Living Color, the issue of nepotism was always sort of bubbling under the surface. Keenen tried to be fair to some extent, but in another way, he always saw the show as a showcase for his family’s talent. That said, he maintains that screen time was always determined by who came with the best ideas. Obviously, Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, and David Alan Grier all had no problem getting on screen because they either were writing their own material, constantly pitching ideas to writers, or killing it every time they got on screen. But at times, there was friction around Keenen’s treatment of his family. Kim Coles, who was there the first season, felt like Keenen consistently favored his sister, Kim Wayans, and gave parts that should’ve been Coles’ to her. This eventually contributed to her leaving the show. Tommy Davidson similarly had some gripes about getting the second banana treatment from Keenen, who he believed was most interested in putting his siblings on. There was also a fair bit of behind-the-scenes grumbling when Keenen added Shawn Wayans to the cast.
OKP: In Living Color had some pretty solid comedy writers such as the Wilmore Brothers (Larry and Marc), Michael Anthony Snowden, Colin Quinn, Pam Veasey and, of course, the Wayans family. Can you talk about the writing room environment at that time? Was that environment hard to bring black women comedy writers into? Also, speak on any never-before-told stories about any written sketch that never aired but should have.
DP: When the show started, they wanted to hire black writers, but the fact was, television had been such a wasteland for African Americans for so long, that there weren’t that many black comedy writers who had the kind of experience a show like In Living Color needed. So they had to get creative. They hired black stand-ups, they hired people who had only written for college newspapers, they hired one woman whose sketch writing experience consisted of writing sketches for her church, they hired one black woman who had previously worked answering the phones at the Hollywood Reporter, and Michael Anthony Snowden was discovered dancing in a club in L.A. One of the producers met him and thought he had a lot of charisma and was a great storyteller, but he’d never written anything before.
The writer’s room was, as one writer put it to me, “like any writer’s room I’ve ever been in, but more.” Which is to say, it was brutal. Writers were hard on each other. If your pitch died, you were going to get blasted for it. Keenen was very tough on the writers too. You needed a thick skin and an ability to churn out tons of material to survive. Lots of writers didn’t and were fired. It was a typical “boy’s club” and therefore, especially tough for women, though the show did a decent job of hiring female writers and there were some, like Pam Veasey, who really flourished. She eventually became head writer and a producer.
OKP: The live NFL Super Bowl sketch with “Men on Football” was controversial, yet it lured millions away from CBS to see what was going on. How did that moment change the way how the NFL and the CBS network would produce their halftime show? Also, speak about what the In Living Color brain trust initially thought about Damon and David’s improved ad-libbing.
DP: The live Super Bowl halftime show was an audacious gambit from the beginning. No one had ever really tried to program anything against the Super Bowl. But halftime, at that point, was dead time. Super Bowl halftimes were the domain of college marching bands and Elvis impersonators. It was basically just time for fans to use the bathroom and refill the chip bowl. So In Living Color saw this opportunity in 1992 and put on a live show opposite the Super Bowl halftime. They promoted the hell out of it and managed to convince more than 20 million people to change the channel. Super Bowl ratings nosedived for the game’s second half. The NFL learned its lesson. The following year they hired Michael Jackson to do the halftime show, and that was the beginning of Super Bowl halftimes becoming spectacles as big as the game itself.
The most memorable sketch from that Super Bowl halftime special was Damon and David Alan Grier’s “Men on Football.” It is largely remembered because Damon ad-libbed two lines, one that referred to the long-trafficked urban myth that Richard Gere had once put a gerbil up his ass as some sort of fetish play, and one that insinuated that track star Carl Lewis was gay. Interestingly, Fox executives had been nervous about the cast going off-script in this way, and had set up a system where both an executive from the Standards and Practices division and the network’s president, Jamie Kellner, were in the booth during the live broadcast, with the ability to push a delay button to keep the offensive material from going out over the air. Kellner told me that he started laughing so hard at the lines that he forgot to trigger this delay. So essentially, he admitted it was his fault. In the aftermath, there were some threats of legal action from Gere and Lewis’ “people,” but none ever materialized. The show sort of hit the sweet spot: Just controversial enough to get people talking about it, but not controversial enough to actually cause too much trouble.
OKP: In Living Color marked an era in black television where we had our music, our culture, our humor and our stars on the small screen. Was there a moment chronicled in Homey Don’t Play That where the cast and crew knew that they had lightning in a bottle? Also, can you speak on your own personal favorite moment, sketch or character from the show?
DP: Interestingly, the show was a hit from episode 1. It didn’t take any time for people to find it, which is somewhat unusual. It’s as if the world was ready and waiting for it. Within the show, most of the cast recognized during that first season that they had, as you put it, caught “lightning in a bottle.” David Alan Grier told me a story about going to get his car washed a few weeks into the show and getting treated like a celebrity. That was sort of the moment that it hit him. Eventually, by the end of season 2 and beginning of season 3, when movie offers started happening, when promoters were throwing money at the cast to do standup dates, it was clear to everyone that they had captured the zeitgeist, so to speak.
My personal favorite moments from the show are probably different from a lot of people’s, maybe because I’ve watched these sketches a lot. While I love a lot of the “Homey the Clown” sketches, my favorite recurring characters are probably the Brothers Brothers. This was Keenen and Damon’s portrayals of what they called, “the most non-threatening black men on television.” The sketch was just an opportunity to attack the entertainment industry’s unbelievably regressive ideas about race. Sadly, a lot of the stereotypes they go after, a lot of the stuff that they are lampooning in the sketch, are still apt today, which is why it still hits so hard and is still funny as hell.
OKP: How did In Living Color come along in the first place? Keenen Ivory Wayans had a promising career as a writer after Hollywood Shuffle and Raw. So, where did the idea of doing a sketch comedy show stem from and what obstacles did he overcome to get the show on the air? Also, can you speak on how the network failed to bring it back after the series ended? Did that also involve Jamie Foxx’s attempt?
DP: After Keenen’s film, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, was a surprise hit, Fox’s television execs called him in for a meeting and basically gave him a blank check. They asked him what he wanted to do and after thinking about it, he decided he wanted to do a sketch show. He had been a fan of Saturday Night Live, but ever since Keenen’s friend Eddie Murphy had left the show, SNL really had no black voices on it. Keenen knew tons of black comics (some of whom were his siblings) who he could populate the show with. He saw tons of targets in black culture—Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Spike Lee, etc.—that SNL wasn’t going after. He was confident he could.
Fox was still a new network then and didn’t have much to lose so they greenlit the pilot. Once they had the pilot in hand though, it took nearly a year before they finally decided to pick up the show. They were nervous that it would upset black people, that it would upset white people, that LGBT groups would protest, or simply that people wouldn’t get it. They did market research, they assembled focus groups, they screened the show for groups like the Urban League and the NAACP, all of which pissed Keenen off. At one point, they wanted to bring on a former civil rights pioneer as a consultant to the show, but Keenen felt like it was essentially blackmail: If they paid this guy, he and other civil rights groups wouldn’t protest the show. So Keenen refused to come to the meeting, telling Fox, “If he ain’t got no jokes, I don’t need him. I don’t need anyone to validate my blackness.” It was a bold stand, particularly since the show wasn’t even on the air yet. Eventually, one of the producers slipped a copy of the pilot to a journalist, who wrote about the show and pointedly asked, “Why is Fox sitting on this great show?” A few days after that story went to print, the show got picked up.
In 2011, there was an effort to reboot the show with a new cast (which included, among others, Lil Rel) but with appearances from the original cast. A pilot was produced but obviously, it never made it to air. The reasons why depends on who you ask. Most people, including Keenen, say that the pilot just wasn’t good enough. There was also a problem getting the original cast members involved. Although there are conflicting reports about this, largely I think it came down to the fact that Fox wouldn’t pay the original cast members much at all. Both Damon and Jim Carrey told me a version of that.
OKP: From Tupac Shakur to Biz Markie to Salt ‘N Pepa to Leaders of the New School — and everyone in between — hip-hop was front and center on In Living Color. Two questions: 1) How do you think In Living Color helped to introduce hip-hop to a broader audience? 2) Who were some acts that either auditioned or wanted to be on the show that never made it on air to perform?
DP: In Living Color was one of very few national platforms for hip-hop on TV in the early ‘90s. The only other show that put on live hip-hop was Arsenio, and he was on late-night. In Living Color’ was on in prime-time on network TV. You have to remember that this is a time before most cities had a dedicated hip-hop radio station. Sure, New York and L.A. and maybe a few other big cities had hip-hop stations on the air, but in most parts of the country, you were only going to hear rap on the radio during specialty shows or late at night on the local urban station. So In Living Color was a chance for rappers to reach into corners of the country that they didn’t otherwise have easy access to. Chuck D, Dres (from Black Sheep) and Speech (from Arrested Development) all talked to me about how In Living Color and Arsenio were basically two big steps on the road to national recognition.
Rosie Perez, who booked most of the music, told me a story about how TLC was supposed to be on the show at one point and was backstage before their appearance but the network apparently wanted them to change or mute some of their lyrics. (Either that or they objected to the condoms that TLC often wore as earrings.) The group refused to make the changes the execs asked for and walked out.
OKP: The show had its fair share of tension. Particularly an exchange between Jim Carrey and Keenen Ivory Wayans. Can you talk about the argument between them and how it ended up in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective? Also, can you talk about if other members of the cast had comments or thoughts when there was no more Wayans on the show?
DP: Keenen and Jim had been grinding gears for a while. Jim had tons of ideas that he wanted on the show, but all of them couldn’t be on. For one, it wasn’t the Jim Carey Show, and besides, not all of the ideas were necessarily as good as Jim thought they were. Their big confrontation happened over a character and a sketch that Jim had pitched which Keenen cut from the show. Instead, Keenen relegated the character Jim had pitched to a single line in another sketch. Jim was pissed about it, so at the table read, when it came time for him to read his one line, he got up, put his ass in Keenen’s face and read the part from his butt. This sort of disrespect toward Keenen was simply not something that happened at In Living Color.
Keenen was pretty well-feared around the set. So when this happened, Keenen and Jim, both stood up and got in each other’s faces. Their manager, who was also the executive in charge of production at the show, got in between them before fists started flying. But Keenen was angry and stormed out. There was talk that if Jim didn’t apologize, he’d be fired. Eventually, he did apologize and there weren’t too many lingering bad vibes. But the interesting addendum to that story was that that was the origin of the “ass-talking” gag that Jim did in Ace Ventura. He was re-writing the Ace script during his off-hours at In Living Color, and he told me that he loved the idea of talking out of your ass as the ultimate sign of disrespect.
After the Wayans left the show, I think most of the cast felt like the show kind of lost its rudder and its identity. It was still funny, at times, but it wasn’t funny in the same way as it had been. Without Keenen steering the ship, there were questions about how far they were comfortable pushing the racial humor, and if sometimes “having fun with black culture” was tipping into “making fun of black culture.” I don’t think the show was as bad after Keenen left as most people remember. It certainly fell off a bit, but Jim, Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier and Tommy Davidson were all still there, and often still funny. They still had a great writer’s room. But it definitely lost what had made it unique.
OKP: Another tension-filled storyline on In Living Color behind-the-scenes was the issue between Rosie Perez and Jennifer Lopez. Can you break that down for those who don’t know (or are too young to have heard)? Also, can you share if those fences were ever mended?
DP: Rosie was the choreographer for the Fly Girls and when Jennifer Lopez joined the troupe in Season 3, there was tension from the beginning. As another dancer put it to me, it wasn’t just that there was tension between Jennifer and Rosie, there was tension between Jennifer and just about everybody in the Fly Girls. (That said, to be fair, other dancers have said they got along with her just fine.) I think the main issue was that Jennifer was extremely ambitious and there was a view that her main concern was what was best for her and her career and not what was best for the group or the show. What Rosie told me is that a lot of the friction between her and Jennifer was really a byproduct of the friction between Jennifer and the whole group. Rosie just didn’t manage the situation that deftly. But I think there was likely something a little more personal too. You have to remember that Rosie was also extremely ambitious and in fact, her acting career was starting to take off already.
I think she had what Jennifer wanted, and she was also, essentially, Jennifer’s boss. Rosie worked the Fly Girls very hard and I don’t know that that was always welcomed by Jennifer (and other dancers as well). There is a story I was told by a producer about how Rosie and Jennifer nearly came to blows on the show at one point—they were going to go in the parking lot to actually slug it out before cooler heads prevailed. I have my doubts that that actually happened, or at least that it happened in that way. I think things tend to get exaggerated over the years. That said, the bad vibes between them were real. Rosie certainly owned up to them when I spoke to her, but she said that any beef was squashed.
However, Rosie took more than a few shots at Jennifer when I spoke to her, and if you read Rosie’s own book, she’s even tougher on Jennifer, so I don’t know that their problems are completely in the past.
OKP: Last question, since In Living Color has ended, American television has moved on. Yet, as we are now in the midst of a black renaissance on the small-and-big screen, could we see a re-emergence of the black sketch comedy show? Or have we all become overly sensitive to that sort comedy?
DP: That’s a good question. I certainly think it’s possible to see the emergence of a new black sketch comedy show, but it’s a very different media landscape now. It’s not just that we’re overly sensitive (which we are) and that a sketch like “Men on Film” would be murdered on Twitter these days (which it would), but also that it’s increasingly difficult for any show to capture the zeitgeist the way In Living Color did, simply because there’s so much content out there—on TV, on the internet, in films, etc. There’s a lot to compete with. That said, Key & Peele certainly worked and there was briefly a sketch show called Friends of the People, which actually grew out of the failed In Living Color reboot, which was decent but never really broke through.
Chris Rock said something which I quote in the book that I think is pretty spot-on about doing a sketch show. After Dave Chappelle ditched his show, Chris was offered an opportunity to do his own “black sketch show.” He went back and watched Season 2 of Chappelle Show and realized there was no way he could live up to that, so he passed. What he saw was that sketch shows were best done by comics on the way up, people without much to lose. When Keenen did In Living Color, he was still basically a nobody, still trying to prove himself. Ditto for Chappelle. And ditto for Key & Peele. These were people who could really push the limits. But Chris Rock in 2006 had a career. “The next guy to do a sketch show can’t be me,” Rock said, “It’s got to be some young kid that doesn’t know any better.” And I think that’s probably true.
David Peisner’s Homey Don’t Play That is out and available on all platforms. Cop your own copy by clicking here.