Television cast reunions, like many exercises in nostalgia, can easily come across as indulgent and unnecessary. But, more than two decades after subverting its slapstick premise with frequently profound takes on race, class and family, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is still defying norms.
Thanks in large part to its homage for the late actor James Avery, who died in 2013, and a filmed reconciliation between star Will Smith and onetime cast member Janet Hubert, who was replaced halfway through the series’ run amid mounting tensions, HBO Max’s new reunion special for the ’90s sitcom isn’t just an advertisement for the six-season streaming library. It’s a moving look at the relationships that can be forged on sets when the chemistry is right — and a warning of how long the acrimony can linger when it’s off balance. Series star Alfonso Ribeiro, the America’s Funniest Home Videos host who played preppy Carlton Banks, got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about filming the special, what didn’t make it to air and his own take on why the multicamera sitcoms of yore just don’t work anymore.
As sitcom reunions go, this one is surprisingly moving.
I think they did a fantastic job with it. When we were making it, I felt like it was really going to turn out well. People love the show, but everyone has their own personal relationship with it and with those characters. But we didn’t play into everybody’s idea of it. We just showed everybody what it really was. I think the entire emotion of what James Avery brought to our entire family and to the world made people really feel what we were feeling about that incredible man.
It’s an incredible tribute to him — especially because, back in the ’90s, viewers really didn’t get much opportunity to see what life was like behind the scenes.
We’re in a new time where everyone has access to everything. If you’re on social media, you can see everything. That didn’t happen in the ’90s. There’d be interviews on set every once in a while. Will would go on Letterman and Leno. But you didn’t have behind the scenes. This was a peek behind the curtain that, realistically, I don’t know how many shows will be able to do moving into the future. Once you hit 2010, we know everything about everything.
Once you all agreed to do it, was it difficult to plan?
It was a very simple ask: Let’s film it on the same day that we premiered, 30 years before. They let us know a while in advance, so we were able to make our schedules free that day. For COVID, we all did the testing and stayed away from people beforehand. But I don’t care if Dr. Fauci was on that set, we were gonna hug each other. It was what it was gonna be.
Were you surprised by anything about the finished product?
They edited out a lot. I really felt like that could have been a two-and-a-half-hour special, but short and sweet always works. Maybe they’ll do The Reunion Special 2 one day, where they take the other stuff that we talked about. That’s the only thing I didn’t really know what to expect. I only did one day, but they shot for three days. How do you turn three days into an hour and 10 minutes?
Is there anything that you wish had made the cut?
We did a lot more showcasing the fun and our show night rituals. There was a lot more of that — and a lot of other stuff as well, but I’m really not sure how much I’m allowed to talk about.
Seeing that footage from show nights feels so foreign now. The industry keeps distancing itself from multicamera sitcoms, and you forget about the energy those sets used to have.
If you go back into the ’60s and ’70s, everything was live television. They didn’t do many hourlong dramas. There was a lot of variety and other things with that live energy. The sitcom is kind of the end of that. Yeah, you have shows like Dancing With the Stars or The Voice and all that. But the sitcom energy was incredible. We might do it a couple of times, but it was live. We used to do an episode of Fresh Prince in 90 minutes. I used to laugh at this, because I could never understand it, but we’d always hear about Friends going until 4 o’clock in the morning — and we were like, “What are they doing?” What you come to realize is that the stage performer no longer exists. People are deathly afraid of performing in front of an audience. These shows have gone away because the actors can’t deliver a better performance with an audience sitting there. To me, the performers got worse. (Laughs.) They had to figure out a better way to deliver equal content, because they couldn’t do it the way it had always been done.
There is a specific artistry to being able to play something that lands in a room and on camera.
Absolutely. Where does your energy go? Performing in front of an audience, your energy goes up. But sometimes that energy needs to be small. Can you be small, even though there are 200 people sitting 100 feet away? There’s a reason television actors couldn’t become movie stars. They were typically bigger with their energy than movie stars. On a movie set, everything has to be minimal and the camera is much closer. And since everybody wanted to be a movie star, they only worked on becoming movie stars — and then sucked when they did a TV sitcom, because they couldn’t actually pull off the energy necessary to the medium.
When you were filming the reunion, who led the conversation?
Will really navigated it with the help of the other producers. They’d whisper a few things in his ear when it was time to move from section to section.
Did you learn anything that you didn’t know before?
The one thing I learned aired. And it’s the full story of how Will ended up at Quincy Jones’ house, doing his audition in front of Warren Littlefield and Brandon Tartikoff. But for everything else, it’s like, “Tell me a story about your family of 30 years that you didn’t know.” You can’t.
That audition could never happen today.
Never. People would lose their jobs if that happened today. I don’t think there’s anybody in television who could give a greenlight after one informal audition like that — maybe Les Moonves, before he left CBS.
It’s clear from social media that the cast keeps in touch. How often do you actually see one another?
With Joe [Marcell] living in the U.K., we haven’t seen him in a long time. Joe would always come and stay with James Avery whenever he would come to town, so he’s not back as much as he used to be. Little Nicky, Ross Bagley, we don’t get to see that much. There’s a lot of getting together, but it’s more on an individual basis than as a group.
You were absent the day Janet Hubert was on set. Did you get a chance to talk to her at all?
No, I did not. I wasn’t there. Like two or three days before we supposed to shoot, they were like, “Hey, are you available the next day?” Unfortunately, I had to go shoot [America’s Funniest Home Videos] that day. So all of the social media content and the photographs were taken without me. I literally did my own photo shoot on the couch so they could put me in the group photo. The actual special was filmed in one day, but all the other stuff was done on the other days.
This is a silly question, but do you have a favorite episode?
Karyn Parsons talked about it: that moment where I break the fourth wall and go through the audience. That was always my favorite moment filming the show — but I never watched anything after it finished. We’re talking 30 and 24 years ago now, so I don’t remember a lot! A couple people brought old scripts to the reunion set. I opened a few up and had no idea what I was reading. (Laughs.)
Streaming has made it so that old shows are still current for a lot of viewers — in a way that traditional syndication doesn’t allow. What’s your take on the afterlife of the show?
It’s interesting, this constant changing of the business. I loved syndication, because you could do great work and it would live on forever. Now it’s kind of living on forever in many different facets that are hard to monetize. You’re not getting your rightful checks for it, but it is what it is. At this point, I do my job and I move on the next one. However it plays out, it plays out. We’re in a very different time, and next week it will be something new. One of the people at ABC said to me, “AFV will be on ABC as long as there’s an ABC.” Obviously, that’s not a true statement, but it’s the idea of that …
Your predecessor at AFV, Tom Bergeron, used to refer to it as “the annuity.”
Right — until he decided to hand over to me a beautiful annuity. [Laughs.] What’s crazy is that we don’t know how much longer there will be ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. Kim Kardashian, by herself on social media, is more powerful than any network. The networks have the ability to have hundreds of millions of viewers, but they don’t. She can post an ad on social media, and it’s so much more powerful than the ones the networks have. Where do we end up with media in 10 years? I couldn’t tell you.
Speaking of AFV, you’re in studio without an audience right now?
Yeah. ABC and Vin Di Bona Productions bought the technology that the NBA used while they were in the bubble, zooming the audience into the bubble. People are watching us tape from their homes all over the country, which is actually kind of cool. People who live in, you know, Virginia, wouldn’t have had the opportunity to come to a taping. It’s very different than it was before, but we can still vibe with the audience.
Do you even have to practice “The Carlton” at this point?
It’s all muscle memory. I don’t even have to think about that dance.
Are your castmates pleased with the reception?
We were on a group text as it was all going on. After I finished watching it with my wife, I wrote, “Wow. Oh, so good.” This was a wonderful gift that Will and his team felt was necessary to give the world right now, especially with all that’s going on, and it felt like it was absolutely that.
Interview edited for length and clarity.