Written By April May : Page 36

WRITTEN BY PAMELA K. JOHNSON PORTRAIT B Y TOM KELLER Who’s Afraid of the N-Word? Neither Kenya Barris nor Norman Lear. 36 • WG A W WRITTEN BY APRIL | MA Y 20 17

Who’s Afraid Of The N-Word?

Pamela K. Johnson

Neither Kenya Barris nor Norman Lear.
Childhood abandonment issues can be a springboard for a career in situation comedy—at least as far as two of the genre’s leading writers are concerned.

“My father went to prison when I was 9,” Norman Lear told a Los Angeles audience in January.

“Your dad went to prison?” Kenya Barris interrupted with considerable surprise. “My dad did, too.”

Barris and Lear sat side-by-side in brown leather chairs opposite former NBC exec Winifred White Neisser. She moderated All in the (black-ish) Family—an engaging twoand- a-half-hour conversation at the private Harvard-Westlake School, where a Lear daughter graduated in 2013, and one of Barris’ daughters will finish in 2019.

Moderator Neisser, married to a teacher at the school, teed up the talk by showing clips that reflected how network TV inched across the color line to include blacks in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Lear and Barris have careers providing graphic illustrations of how far that line has progressed in 60 years. At 94, Lear had just celebrated the reboot of his ‘70s sitcom One Day at a Time on Netflix with a Latino cast; Barris, 42, creator of black-ish, was wrapping a pilot with Felicity Huff man and Courtney B. Vance as a political—and mixed race— odd couple. Plus, Barris announced plans to remake the film White Men Can’t Jump.

“White men did jump,” Lear replied sardonically, often from tall buildings during the 1930s Great Depression. That’s when one in four people was out of work overnight. But not Lear’s Uncle Jack, a press agent “who flicked me a quarter” once in a while. Lear apprenticed with his uncle and became a press agent, too, hoping he’d one day be rich enough to flick quarters to a nephew, as well.


That dream of Lear’s gave way to another: to move his family from the East Coast to Los Angeles and make it in Hollywood. Here Lear started off as a door-to-door salesperson, meanwhile placing comedy sketches with stars such as Danny Thomas. He also wrote live TV for Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and Martha Raye. But when his first marriage ended, Lear once again struggled financially. He had a revelation when a fellow writer—with five kids to Lear’s one, no less—also divorced, but with far less misery.

“All his wife wanted was the money from his Joan Davis reruns,” Lear told the audience of about 500. Writing for live TV meant no reruns, no residuals. That’s when Lear’s career epiphany occurred: “I gotta do a show with residuals.”

Then Lear learned about the British sitcom, Till Death Us Do Part, with a patriarch who hurls a steady barrage of insults at his son-in-law. Lear immediately thought of his stormy relationship with his own father, who was given to bigoted comments. As a kid, his father would call little Norman the “dumbest white kid I know.” Lear tweaked the British concept into the groundbreaking classic All in the Family. Lear’s father transformed into the bigoted Archie Bunker, living in the bubble of a racist household, nostalgic for a country much like the alt-right want today. Bunker became iconic, a sympathetic symbol of everything liberals deplore.

That was then. How about now? “Do you think Archie Bunker would be successful today?” asked Neisser.

“Successful?!” Lear erupted. “He [got elected] president!” Lear’s quip drew a big, uncomfortable laugh, followed by a cascade of tweets.

Barris inherited such tough realism from his mother. She put a bullet in a husband who wouldn’t stop abusing her, lost a child to cancer, and nurtured her surviving children, including Barris, who was often sidelined with asthma. Sick at home watching sitcoms, the young Barris realized that, “If you can get people to laugh, you can drown out the other stuff.”

“White people voted for Donald Trump like he was the first white president,” Barris said to more audience laughter. His recent black-ish episode, “Lemons,” which Lear praised, explored the presidential election from a range of the characters’ perspectives. Barris added that Trump’s victory “goes against every law of nature except corporate law.”

But the prolific writer, unlike his audience, had not been caught by surprise, as had the media pundits and the majority of the country. About a year ago, Barris looked out into the soul of America and sensed reactionary, anti- Obama-era blowback. He was so convinced that he bet one of his staff writers a thousand dollars that Donald Trump would become the Republican nominee. Barris reasoned that a tall, rich, white TV star claiming he’d “make America great again” indeed could win. The candidate “sounds like the ingredients of a cupcake a lot of people would buy,” he said during the primaries.

Barris inherited such tough realism from his mother. She put a bullet in a husband who wouldn’t stop abusing her, lost a child to cancer, and nurtured her surviving children, including Barris, who was often sidelined with asthma. Sick at home watching sitcoms, the young Barris realized that, “If you can get people to laugh, you can drown out the other stuff.”

The Barris family’s fortunes pivoted when his mother received half of his father’s settlement from General Motors after an industrial accident.

Left, Norman Lear’s Good Times circa 1974-79.

Right, 2017 black-ish Good Times episode.

Having absorbed countless hours of TV—including shows by Lear—Barris discovered he had a knack for writing scripts. Like Lear, he began as a press secretary, but quickly beelined into TV. He joined the staff of Soul Food, then Girlfriends. Eventually, he sold some 20 pilots for shows.


In both Barris’ and Lear’s work, at the intersection of race and comedy, the N-word runs the red light.

Lear’s racist black character, George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley), strutted like a bantam rooster from All in the Family to his own spin-off show, The Jeffersons, where he fired off the unexpurgated N-word a couple of times—once in a scene urging his son to stay aware about what his son’s white fatherin- law really thought of him.

On black-ish, Barris did a whole episode on the N-word, and considered using it in full. He decided that a bleeped version with the characters’ mouths pixelated “sounded louder” than the literal curse. And yet, when he sought to televise an image of the Sandy Hook (CT) Elementary School sign, as a way to illustrate hard conversations parents must broach with their kids, he was told absolutely no.

Story-wise, though, Barris mostly gets carte noire, because when suits try to press him about notes, “I drop in the phrase, ‘Well, culturally speaking...’” which, he says, is a hole into which white men are loath to jump.

Barris is quick to acknowledge Lear’s influences on his work. For the season two finale of black-ish, Jenifer Rice- Genzuk Henry wrote an episode titled “Good-ish Times,” pure homage to Lear’s ‘70s Good Times. Barris hopes to adapt Good Times into a film, which might be the equivalent of the nephew flipping an uncle a quarter.

Read the full article at http://www.mydigitalpublication.com/article/Who%E2%80%99s+Afraid+Of+The+N-Word%3F/2765347/401593/article.html.

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