'Black-ish' Creator Kenya Barris: Show "Has Helped Change the World"

The ABC comedy celebrates 100 episodes with the now Netflix-based Barris and looks ahead to the Prince-themed centennial.
Troy Harvey/ABC
'Black-ish' creator Kenya Barris (left), co-EP Peter Saji and star/EP Anthony Anderson

Although he relinquished Black-ish showrunner duties and signed a lucrative Netflix deal in August, series creator and executive producer Kenya Barris lauded "the magic of what actual network television can do" during the festivities celebrating the ABC comedy's 100th episode.

Citing "Lemons," a January 2017 broadcast in which the Johnson family grappled with Donald Trump's election, Barris still marvels, "We were able to — weeks after this had happened — write, shoot, edit and actually distribute to the world a message. … You can do things and say something at a speed that you can never do in movies, and cable is different."   

Barris and co-executive producer Peter Saji, who wrote the 100th episode, "Purple Rain," joined castmembers Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Laurence Fishburne, Jenifer Lewis, Marcus Scribner, Miles Brown, Marsai Martin, Peter Mackenzie and Jeff Meacham for a screening of the episode and Q&A about the show's run. (Anderson and Fishburne are among the show's executive producers, while producer Ross directed her first episode this spring.)  

The episode's Prince homage was made possible by music supervisor Gabe Hilfer, as well as the late eight-time Grammy winner's family and estate (the artist's sister, Tyka Nelson, was in attendance, as well as her half-siblings and fellow heirs Omarr Baker, Alfred Jackson and Sharon Nelson). Prince's own goddaughter, Yara Shahidi, plays the Johnsons' eldest child, Zoey, and now stars in the Freeform spinoff Grown-ish.

"When Gabe brought the opportunity to me, it was last year, we knew that we had to do it as something special," said Barris.

Each episode usually costs ABC a reported $3 million, and Saji volunteered, "We actually ran out of money at the end," cracking up the crowd. "We literally got every single song we could afford, and that's it."

As the Q&A came to a close, Barris got candid about his departure, reaffirming his fears about building a new ensemble post-Black-ish. "I'm doing things at other places now, and my joke is: ‘I wonder if during their hiatus, I can just get the exact same cast and do a different show.' I think ABC might be mad. But like, it is [true] — I'm scared because this can't happen again. …

"This is literally a group of people who singularly are magic and wonderful and amazing, but collectively, they come together and they make gumbo," he continued, earning applause. "I thank you for changing my life, I thank you for being a part of what I think has helped change the world," a line that garnered an "Amen" from Lewis.

He then addressed the show's fans.

"You said, 'We want this.' And if you hadn't said that, they wouldn't have let us keep doing this. And you guys said it so loudly and so strongly, that we continue to be able to change the narrative, talk about things that people are not supposed to talk about on network television," including spanking ("Crime and Punishment"), gun control ("Rock, Paper, Scissors, Gun"), slavery ("Juneteenth") and postpartum depression ("Mother Nature"). "This is the power of you speaking and using your voice, your money, your influence."

Finally, Barris spotted "brilliant" new co-showrunner and ex-Late Night With Conan O'Brien head writer Jonathan Groff in the audience, asking him to stand for a public passing of the torch.

"The humbleness of that guy," said Barris. "I hadn't had a big show like this before," so ABC brought Groff on at the outset. Barris then explained that networks typically hire an experienced executive producer, ready to question a first-time showrunner's every choice.

"In a hundred episodes, we've never had — other than if we want to — one talk, one dinner, one meeting. … He has been someone who was so gracious with his ability and his talent, and I just want to say thank you, personally," he said.

Groff runs Black-ish alongside Kenny Smith, who signed a three-year pact with ABC just before Barris' departure was announced. The show, produced by corporate sibling ABC Studios, began airing in syndication in September and has a streaming deal with Hulu.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Anderson said he hopes the series reaches 200 episodes, as Modern Family did in January: "I want to see these kids grow up and go to college on our show, so we have a few more years to do that."

Like Anderson's character, Dre, Barris grew up poor but raises his family in an affluent neighborhood, where most of the children's friends are white. The creator and his onscreen alter ego both also have large broods with their wives, doctors named Rainbow.

Barris remains a consultant on Black-ish, and Anderson said six seasons in, it retains his fingerprints while also incorporating stories from the lives of other castmembers.

"He and I sat down six years ago, almost to the date, and talked about how we wanted to change the landscape of television, and we started talking about our families together, and the stories that came out of those conversations are what you see on the air," Anderson said of Barris. "And it started out not only as Kenya's show but a show about both of our families, and has evolved and is incorporating all of the stories from all of these castmembers. So, we all share in the success and in the storytelling of our show."

Anderson added that he and Barris "had a great template to work from in the beginning, and Kenya spearheaded this and put together I think the best writing room this industry has seen in quite some time. And the credit goes to the writers, because without them, we wouldn't be able to tell these stories, regardless of whose stories they are. Without those words on the page, we wouldn't be out here. … The majority of our writers who were here from the beginning are still here, so nothing really changed."

Meacham, who plays Dre's advertising agency colleague, Josh, admitted that the set sans Barris is "weird," since he is "the man who hired me and gave me this job." At the table read where Barris informed the cast and crew of his decision to leave, the departing co-creator gave a "beautiful, emotional" speech.

"Kenya has this ability to know people by name better than anybody I've ever met before," Meacham told THR. "Every single person in that room — there must have easily been a hundred people that night — and he listed everybody, and said a personal thank you to each person, and that was incredible."

As for whether Barris left any sort of blueprint for the show's narrative arcs, Anderson said, "No," while Meacham laughed, "This isn't Lost. I don't think we're too concerned about it."

Barris did reveal who he would most like to see cast in upcoming guest roles: "If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said Kanye [West], and I still love him, but it's OK. I have this dream of I want Sam Jackson to be Pops' brother. I want to make all the jokes about how they keep getting mistaken for each other. And I want the father of those two people to be Garrett Morris," one of Saturday Night Live's original castmembers. "To me, that is the trifecta that I would love to see play out as we continue to expand on what this family is."   

As Barris' presence at the screening implied and Lewis confirmed, he is never too far from the TV family he crafted in the socially conscious Norman Lear tradition.

"He's watching every day," Lewis told THR. "Not on set, but he's watching on the monitors. All the executive producers, with technology, they don't have to show up. They're watching, and they send the message down, 'Tell Jenifer to move a little to the left.' 'I need her to deliver that line a little more forceful' or, 'Pull it back.' Oh, yeah, they're right there. … They are surgical with the show.

"We miss [Barris], of course, but Jonathan Groff is there, and Kenny," thus the actors are "not worried" about how the rest of the series will unfold. "The important thing is that we're glue now. The cast is glue. We walk in, we know who these characters are now."

The most poignant moment of the Q&A came when the Oscar-nominated Fishburne (What's Love Got to Do With It) discussed the starkest difference between his big- and small-screen gigs.

"In our business, it hasn't always been very inclusive," he said. "When I go away [to make a movie], I look up, and I'm only one of three or four black faces of color on a set. And when I come home to Black-ish and I look up, I see something else. I see a lot of women, I see women of color, I see a lot of different kind of people, I see a really inclusive and diverse set. And I think that's the thing I think we all can be really proud of."