How do you have a meaningful conversation about race and culture in a network television comedy? Calling your show "Black-ish" is one way to start.
The ABC comedy starring Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross and Laurence Fishburne follows "Modern Family" this fall and provides a rare (for network TV) look at an affluent black family -- complete with four kids and a live-in grandpa played by Fishburne. And while race is right there in the title, both creator Kenya Barris ("The Game") and executive producer Larry Wilmore ("The Bernie Mac Show," "The Daily Show") promise the "family" element is even more important, as they explained during the show's presentation at the 2014 TCA summer press tour.
"I know race is a big part of it and we're not running from it, but this is a show about culture," Barris said. "It's a show about what it's like to raise a family during a different time."
"It's always amazing to me, it's as if black is a bad thing, we shouldn't talk about them being black," Wilmore said about the approach. "This show celebrates black as a cultural thing more than a race thing. At the heart of the show is a father who thinks maybe he's given his kids too much, and something is lost. It's a very universal type of thing. We love that 'black-ish' is our way of getting into that."
At the same time, the ambition is also to reflect our times and the idea that American culture itself can't be put into simple categories like "black" and "white." "It's one of the things that drew me to the script," Ross explained. "We were pulling apart a dialogue I always had. As a mixed girl, it's always: Are you white? Are you black? Why do I have to be either? It's a universal conversation in this day and age."
Ross, a veteran of the sitcoms "Girlfriends" and "Reed Between the Lines," continued by noting what she has in common with her character: "It's really fun for me to play a mixed person for the first time on television. I'm actually out as a mixed woman!"
The theme of exactly what qualifies as "black-ish" led the panel to some unexpected places. "My kids are living in such a homogenized world," Barris observed. "Miley Cyrus is urban, Justin Bieber is urban and in a way you could say they're black-ish."
"Obama is called the first black president but he's mixed," Wilmore followed. "He's really the first black-ish president." And Anderson quickly interjected, "Because Bill Clinton was the first black president."
All the talk of progress begged the question, why don't we see more network comedies with black leads and Wilmore was asked specifically to compare his experience getting "Black-ish" off the ground to launching "The Bernie Mac Show" on Fox over a decade ago. "It does always change through the years," Wilmore said about network trends. "There was a time when it was no big deal to have black sitcoms on network TV, 'The Jeffersons' and other shows, and then it got segregated. Everything was on [The WB] or UPN. I called it the Negro Leagues we had for awhile. Now we're a novelty all of a sudden, which is interesting too.
"Bernie Mac was in that middle period," he continued, before addressing whether either show had to deal with network push-back or interference. "There wasn't any resistance [from Fox] at all. On that show there wasn't any discussion of race ... There's been no resistance from ABC at all. If anything Paul Lee is more out front of this than we are. We're like, 'Should we use Black-ish?' and he's like, 'Absolutely!' Thank you, Paul Lee!"
Also addressed by the panel: how Wilmore and Fishburne plan to balance "Black-ish" with their high profile commitments elsewhere. Wilmore as Stephen Colbert's successor on Comedy Central (the show will be renamed "The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore") and Fishburne as a series regular on NBC's "Hannibal" (though the fate of his character was left in some doubt after season two).
Fishburne, who acted a bit -- let's say, loopy -- during the panel and answered half his questions in a high-pitched falsetto like he was auditioning for a new Disney princess (it was a running joke that never quite paid off and only got weirder every time), revealed he will be back on "Hannibal" in at least some capacity for season three.
"I'm not going to do a full season of 'Hannibal' this year or a full season of 'Black-ish,'" Fishburne said. "I'll do just enough to keep me free to do both and have fun."
Wilmore's participation is more concrete and less open-ended. "I'm going to be [working on 'Black-ish'] until part of September. I'm trying to break the first 12 stories, I'll be there for the first two tapings. We've already started on the first six scripts," Wilmore said. And at that point he'll step aside: "Other than be a visible cheerleader, once I'm doing TMR -- as I'm calling it -- I'll be full time over there."