Twenty-five years after the groundbreaking sketch show left the airwaves in a blaze of controversy and conflict, the cast and crew share never-told behind-the-scenes stories of the series that execs pitched to Keenen Ivory Wayans as a "black 'Laugh-In.'"
Keenen Ivory Wayans wasn't looking to do a TV show. In 1988, he was riding high on the success of his cult hit I'm Gonna Git You Sucka and contemplating his next movie. But he took a meeting with a fledgling network called Fox, which made an offer he couldn't refuse. "They told me I could do whatever I wanted," Wayans, 61, recalls. What he wanted was to do a show like Saturday Night Live only much, much edgier. Homey Da Clown, Homeboy Shopping Network, Men on Films — the skits Wayans and his mostly African American cast performed each week pushed the envelope not just of TV's color barrier but of TV comedy, won an Emmy and incubated the careers of stars Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Lopez. Today, 25 years after its final episode (May 19, 1994), The Hollywood Reporter tracks down the cast and crew for an oral history of a button-pushing TV landmark.
THE MEETING — "He thought we were going to pitch him a black sitcom"
GARTH ANCIER, FOX ENTERTAINMENT PRESIDENT I kept index cards of promising ideas on a corkboard behind my head. One card just said "black Laugh-In." We needed someone to bring it to life.
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS, CASTMEMBER AND CREATOR I had done a movie called I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. And it was a big success. And I had set up screenings of the movie for all the studios' film departments. But Fox didn't come. Instead they sent the TV execs. And so when I got a call, I thought I was going in to meet with the film side of Fox and instead ended up in a meeting with the network.
ANCIER He thought I was going to pitch him a black sitcom because of The Cosby Show. I said, "No, no, no. We would love to pitch you this idea and buy a pilot if you're up for it."
WAYANS At that time, Fox wasn't even a network. They were a startup. And I really didn't have interest in that because I wanted to pursue film. But they said to me, "You know if you come here you can pretty much do anything you want to do." And I said, "Well, let me think about it." And then I kind of sat and said, "If I am given an opportunity like this, what would I do?" So I started to put together the show for the idea.
SHAWN WAYANS, PRODUCTION ASSISTANT, DJ, CASTMEMBER I was a teenager. Keenen was telling me that he was working on something and might have something for me. He was always Superman to me. I've been watching my brother do some incredible shit since I was 5.
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS I remember using Laugh-In as a model during the pitch. I liked its quick pace. And, of course, I was a huge fan of Saturday Night Live. The difference was shorter sketches and more character-driven. I emphasized the edge of the show was going to be different. Fox bought the pilot. Then I picked my cast. Everyone wanted to be on it.
TAMARA RAWITT, WRITER-PRODUCER I actually came up with the title for In Living Color, drafting it off of the fabled NBC tag line.
DAVID ALAN GRIER, CASTMEMBER I did my audition with Susie Essman, Chris Rock and Martin Lawrence. We improvised.
JIM CARREY, CASTMEMBER I had known Damon through the stand-up circuit, and we were always kind of clocking each other. He kind of admired what I was doing onstage. He told me, "Hey, crazy man, what do you think about coming in to audition for this thing? Come and meet my brother."
TOMMY DAVIDSON, CASTMEMBER When I landed In Living Color, I was a hot comic. A week before getting the job I had met with Lorne Michaels in his office in 1990 [for a potential SNL spot]. He lined it up for me and said, "I don't want a black comedian. Eddie Murphy was a mistake. I don't want a person that stands out." I was confused. I was born black. There's not a zipper in the back of this thing. [A spokesperson for SNL replies: "This account is without merit. Chris Rock, Tim Meadows and Ellen Cleghorne were all hired into the cast between 1990 and 1991."]
CARRIE ANN INABA, FLY GIRL I got a call from my agent. They were looking for hip-hop athletic dancers under 5-foot-7 of diverse cultural backgrounds. I went in wearing black leggings, motorcycle boots and a white lacy bra with a black leather jacket. I tossed my jacket to the side and walked to the center of the room, ready and eager. Keenen always said that I got the job the moment I walked in because my outfit was so bad and I had so much confidence.
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS We shot the pilot. We did "Men on Films," "The Homeboy Shopping Network" and "The Wrath of Farrakhan" [based on Louis Farrakhan]. We showed it to Fox, and they got nervous.
ANCIER By the time the pilot was finished in 1989, I had left. Peter Chernin took over. But I saw it and I know a lot of people at Fox were offended by it. I made my thoughts known to Fox chief Barry Diller that it was a valuable show and to go forward with it.
RAWITT Fox knew they had something special but the execs were also concerned about potential push back from the African American community. So, [the pilot] sat in long term parking for six months. I discreetly passed along a copy to a journalist at Details magazine. She loved it, got her editors enthused about the pilot and asked in print why it hadn’t been picked up. I faxed the piece to the exec team at Fox and we got our pick up.
PETER CHERNIN, FOX ENTERTAINMENT PRESIDENT Look, the truth is that everyone who saw the pilot went crazy for it and then we started showing it to advertisers. They went crazy for it. We knew this thing hit a nerve from the beginning. It was just wildly funny, and network television had never done anything this pointed about race in America.
SEASON ONE — "Spike Lee hated the show"
DAVIDSON Keenen gave us a mission statement to take the comedy as far as you can take it. He said, "The reason why we have you here is you're out of the box, so I'm going to take you out of the box and across the yard."
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS We were doing something that people hadn't seen yet. Barry Diller … called Peter Chernin and said we couldn't do [the black gay parody] "Men on Films." He was worried it was going to be offensive, blah, blah, blah. And I called Barry and said, "I understand your concern. But do me a favor. At least come to the rehearsal and see it on its feet." He said OK. He came down. He watched the rehearsal. And it was like a bomb went off in the studio audience. People were stomping their feet and clapping and laughing. Barry stood there watching. His face didn't move. But then he turned to me and said, "OK," and he left. So we were able to do it.
CARREY We were warped out of our minds. We presented several sketches that didn't make it on the air, things that were just too insane, like the abortion rally ventriloquist. We came up with a sketch called "Make a Death Wish Foundation" about a dead kid whose posthumous wish was to go to an amusement park. That did not make it on air, either. But I came up with the face of the kid, and it eventually turned into the "Fire Marshall Bill" face.
KELLY COFFIELD PARK, CASTMEMBER David and I shot a black-and-white spoof of the Calvin Klein commercial "Obsession" and called it "Oppression." He looked like a slave in bondage. We shot it for the pilot, but it took a minute for it to be on the air.
GRIER Spike Lee hated the show. He got really mad at us because he thought we were over-the-top about Do the Right Thing. He did not like us making fun of him. People would get angry when we poked fun at them. Arsenio Hall too — anybody that we really poked fun at.
SEASON TWO — "It wasn't easy getting this shit on the air"
LES FIRESTEIN, WRITER AND PRODUCER I came on staff during the summer of 1990. The show was on fire. We had a shitload of work, and there were enormous demands and not a lot of sleep. I assumed all of show business was like this.
SHAWN WAYANS We were hot. Everybody in the industry would pop up on our set, from Eazy-E to Bruce Willis and Demi Moore. Sinead O'Connor came by. They just wanted to tell everybody what a wonderful show it was.
INABA There was magic in the skits, and the Fly Girls had this cult following. [Choreographer] Rosie Perez pushed us hard. She didn't know how to pronounce words like "pirouette," but it didn't matter. She had a vision. And Jennifer Lopez, we all knew she was destined for greatness. She was a very determined young woman.
CHERNIN With a show like this, you're looking to push buttons. And this show pushed further than any show ever had in the history of the network.
SHAWN WAYANS But it wasn't easy getting this shit on the air.
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS I didn't have antagonistic relationships with the censors. I wasn't irrational. I knew there were restrictions. It was more about how far can I go? Like, just tell me where the line is. The frustration was that the line was moved week to week. So you could do something one week, but if they got mail, you couldn't do it the next. We were constantly in that dance.
FIRESTEIN We put decoy sketches in the script packets to give to the Fox execs. We did a "Men on Films" sketch about [a male celebrity] hanging out with Tom and Jerry at the Cannes Film Festival because there was a rumor about a gerbil up his butt. We got a very irate note, which I still have somewhere. But it preoccupied the censor enough for us to do other stuff.
GRIER For the Headleys ["Hey Mon"], we put in all these profane Jamaican curse words. White people didn't know what we were saying.
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS There was a white censor. Then Fox brought in a black guy who they introduced to me as someone who marched in the civil rights movement. I was just like, "He is not the president of the Black Race." I wouldn't deal with him.
CHERNIN From a creative standpoint, I wanted the show to be as outrageous as possible. But we have an FCC license, and we had advertisers and didn't want to get in trouble. I think we did a highly, highly responsible job in that sense.
SEASON THREE — "They wanted the controversy"
LARRY WILMORE, WRITER I came on in the third season. Before that, people would ask, "What do you do?" I'd say I was a stand-up comedian. "Oh, that's interesting." But when I said, "I write for In Living Color," oh my God, they would lose their minds.
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS We decided to do a live episode during halftime of the Super Bowl in 1992 [televised by CBS].
GRIER We hijacked it. Before In Living Color, they were doing ribbon dancers and a white Christian singing group at the Super Bowl.
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS Before we did our halftime special, it was just marching bands. That was the time during the game when everybody went to pee. But after our special, the next year, they hired Michael Jackson.
WILMORE I wrote the "Men on Football" sketch. There were so many sexual innuendos just built in. But we got a lot of support from the gay community — people loved those characters. Damon and David had so much fun playing them, they were enjoying it so much that there was something infectious about it. But [the network] was very concerned because it was live.
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS There was a Fox executive in the booth with a 60-second delay button. They could have hit that button anytime they wanted. But they wanted the controversy.
SEASON FOUR — "I showed up in dark sunglasses"
INABA I left after three years. It was time. A dancer's career is short.
DAVIDSON Other castmembers like Jamie Foxx came in. They did a great job. But the chemistry wasn't as good as it was with the original cast.
CARREY There was a lot of love the first few years. But then people start to fear what the next step is, where am I going from here. Things get a little tight.
WILMORE Keenen was the kind of boss who you really wanted to please but was not easy to please. I used to call him "Murphy Brown" because he had a new assistant every week.
CARREY There were a couple moments where I got pissed at Keenen and I would show up in a sketch with dark sunglasses on. Like, screw you, man. Then everybody would get pissed at me and they'd show up in my sketch wearing dark sunglasses.
FIRESTEIN It was a difficult workplace for a lot of people. One of the reasons for that is that you had this very tight-knit family that was at the center of everything, and the rest of us were not necessarily part of that. If you weren't a Wayans, you definitely had dues to pay.
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS What started to happen into the fourth season was that it was a business. Fox started to rerun the show before it got into syndication. They were using the show to launch other shows. And they were devaluing it. I felt like they were exploiting me. So I left [in the middle of the season].
FIRESTEIN After Keenen and Damon left, people at Fox told us to stop communicating with them. I think we had Stockholm syndrome.
CARREY I was contracted for five years. I could have weaseled out, but I wanted to stick with it. Things were happening for me. I spent nights in my office with Steve Oedekerk writing the Ace Ventura: Pet Detective script. We'd stay up until four in the morning. And David Alan Grier used to rub it in during tapings. He'd go out to the audience and say, "I don't know if you people realize it, but Jim Carrey is about to jump off in a movie called Ace Ventura: Pet Detective." He meant it facetiously. He was making fun of me for the silly name of my movie.
SHAWN WAYANS Kim [Wayans] and I were contractually obligated to be there the last season. It was hell. I knew we were on the Titanic without the captain, and the iceberg was up ahead and I was shackled to the banister. Not one sketch would work without Keenen's touch.
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS They didn't understand that the show was a vision. And once you remove the visionary, you just have a sketch show.
FIRESTEIN When we were canceled [in 1994], I believe we were a bigger hit in the ratings than Seinfeld. My feeling is that the reruns prematurely aged the series. Also, I believe there was an ethnic cleansing at Fox. They were trying to become more mainstream. They started canceling African American-centric shows like South Central and Roc.
CHERNIN There's an old Fred Silverman quote: "The least expensive programming, the least objectionable programming." The Fox network represented the transition to the media world we live in now, which is to try to identify valuable niches. In Living Color was a big part of that transition.
WILMORE It would be hard to bring the show back now. People are too sensitive. They had to bleep words from that All in the Family reboot episode.
SHAWN WAYANS We had African Americans, Asians, females. We brought gay characters into the living room in a fun way. It was all funny and fresh. Look at diversity in TV today! We had it all in one episode.
CARREY It's a weird atmosphere for comedy these days. There are too many lawyers in the world.
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS My siblings and I talk about the show all the time. Like, all the people we could be making fun of! But we'd be off the air in a week. Hollywood is so reactive now.
This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.