How 'Black-ish,' 'Transparent' and More Comedy Series Tackle Racism: "We Just Can't Run From Having These Conversations"
'Master of None' star Aziz Ansari and 'Modern Family' co-creator Steven Levitan reveal how their shows and others mine social issues not seen in TV comedies since the 1970s: "I think you can accomplish more by being subtle and expressing what the characters are going through rather than preaching too much," says Levitan.
Every couple of decades, sitcoms get serious. Back in the 1970s, race relations became a primetime topic on All in the Family, and Bea Arthur had TV's first abortion in an episode of Maude. During the '90s, Murphy Brown helped make single motherhood a front-page issue. Now, in 2016, it's happening again, with such super-topical issues as police shootings, gay marriage, xenophobia and transgender bathroom politics being played for laughs (mostly) on broadcast and streaming comedies.
When ABC's Black-ish aired an episode in which the Johnson children asked their parents about the police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., showrunner Kenya Barris didn't want it to become simply "the Black Lives Matter episode," he says. "Police brutality was part of it, but the bigger problem is that we just can't run from having these conversations — you have to have them in a different way. I knew I wanted to tell that story, and I wanted to do it right inside that living room. People would be claustrophobic, but we'd have that conversation."
Not long ago, NBC's The Carmichael Show introduced a Muslim couple to the fictional family's North Carolina neighborhood. The character played by the sitcom's star, Jerrod Carmichael, pushed buttons by advocating for a wall to stop immigrants from entering the country. "You should be terrified by a line like that because it's like, 'Where is [the character] going with this?' " says Carmichael. "That's not a sitcom joke; that's just a perspective. That's a man saying: 'Yeah, I want a wall — I like walls. I have nothing against Mexicans; I think they are amazing people.' I think what we try and do [on the show] is push people beyond what they're trained to respond to — to a place of just having to deal with it."
Notes Carmichael showrunner Danielle Sanchez-Witzel: "We think about things that are difficult to talk about and ask, 'What are the conversations you have with your family at home with the doors closed, when nobody's watching?' " Conflict behind the scenes indicates good material, she adds: "If we're fighting in the writers room, then it's a good topic because it means there are a lot of different points of view."
Transparent has been at the cutting edge of the trans movement.
Aziz Ansari also addressed immigration head-on in an episode of his Netflix comedy Master of None that revolved around his TV character's parents (played by the actor's real-life parents) and the indignities they experienced upon arriving in the U.S. from India. Another episode dealt with the lack of Asian representation in entertainment, noting how Fisher Stevens donned brownface to portray an Indian in the 1986 film Short Circuit. "[The episode] 'Indians on TV' is in that whole arena of conversation happening now," says Ansari. "They were trying to make Scarlett Johansson play an Asian [in the movie Ghost in the Shell]. Those issues about diversity in entertainment are still going on. It's such an evolving discussion, and people really seem fed up with it."
Adds Master co-creator Alan Yang: "I'm not naive enough to think a single episode of TV is going to change everything, but it's my hope that some people watched that and it at least brought to light something they hadn't thought about before. Everyone is so caught up in their own problems and their own situations that it sometimes takes someone talking to you and sharing their perspective — or, in this case, maybe an episode of television — to express something you yourself haven't personally experienced."
The first season of Jill Soloway's Transparent included an episode about which restroom Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) would use in a shopping mall — more than a year before many Southern states began passing legislation to ban transgender people from using the restroom of the gender with which they identify. "Early on [in the show] we felt like we had to do some educating, like really help people understand the basics [of trans life]," says Soloway. "I don't take credit for starting a revolution. I do think there were aspects of the show being funny and the show being critically beloved that made trans-ness feel normal, as opposed to what it had been before: as a person on Jerry Springer, as a sex worker, a victim, a villain. [This is] just a regular American family, and the trans aspect was a small aspect."
But within the same year as Transparent's debut, Caitlyn Jenner happened. "Caitlyn called me," says Soloway. "She said, 'Thank you for getting my family to watch a show where they were able to see a patriarch transition and nobody died, everybody was OK.' "
Adds the creator/showrunner: "There's definitely been an evolution where we don't feel like we're holding up the education aspect anymore. The education is happening out there in the world."
The Carmichael Show tackled Bill Cosby and xenophobia during its first season.
Some track the most recent stream of socially aware comedies back to Modern Family, whose gay and interracial couplings were, let's not forget, newsworthy when the series debuted in 2009. Series co-creator Steven Levitan acknowledges he never wanted the show to "hit people over the head."
"I think you can accomplish more by being subtle and expressing what the characters are going through rather than preaching too much," he says. But by introducing more atypical families and opening the door for a wider array of characters, these creators hope their shows will continue to be discussed and debated in living rooms, around watercoolers and on social media, where more of these conversations seem to be happening.
Modern Family’s gay and interracial couplings were news when the series debuted in 2009.
This story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.