Written By Summer 2016 : Page 25

WRITTEN BY LOUISE FARR PORTRAITS BY TOM KELLER ADAM MCKAY AND CHARLES RANDOLPH DISCUSS THE BIG SHORT WITH CRAIG MAZIN. black • ish like Me Kenya Barris writes what his family knows. mobile ad man named Andre “Dre” Johnson (Anthony Anderson), whom Barris modelled on himself. Often breaking the fourth wall, Dre frets that his success has distanced his four spoiled children from their roots. When Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) requests a bar-mitz-vah, his dad throws him a bro-mitzvah instead—some-thing actor Anderson actually did for his own teen son. Barris has five kids himself, with a sixth on the way. He sees beauty in cultural homogenization, but he wor-ries about it, too. “You wonder in giving your kids this new world, are they losing the world that you had?” However, black-ish is not only about him, Barris adds. It’s also about the room and the experiences that his eclectic group of writers contribute. With minorities and women still woefully under-represented in the in-dustry, the black-ish writing team of 14 is an exception, split almost 50-50 along racial and gender lines. “At its best, the show is a microcosm of life, and you need people from all different walks of life to give you the points of view that make that show really work,” says Barris. “If we can pull it off, do things fresh and new and interesting that I’m proud of, for three years in a row, that’s the benchmark. Two-year shows come and go. I think this third year is that moment.” ROOM FOR DOUBT K enya Barris didn’t expect this. At 6 foot three and wearing a stylishly ripped denim cowboy shirt with jeans and designer sneakers, he’s lounging on a massive sectional in the guest house of his gated San Fernando Valley hills estate. Suddenly he glances through a window at the verdant landscape and lets out a cackle. “We have rats! I have never in my life had them. I’m like, this is not what I fucking paid for.” At least the rats aren’t in this guest house—a writer’s dream office with skylights, wall-long movie library, oversized flat screen, and pool table. They’re scurrying outside in the ferns. And there’s an upside here that Barris need not mention: the creatures could show up as a storyline in some future episode of black-ish, the deeply personal ABC sitcom Barris created, inspired by his own family, and just picked up for a third season. Why couldn’t the rodents make a TV appearance? His young son’s question triggered an episode, “Hope,” about police violence and the American justice system. So too did the desire of his anesthetist wife, Dr. Rania Edwards Barris, to hang on to her maiden name. Even chauffeuring his basketball-playing daughter to prac-tices and games led to a show touching on the black-ification of white kids, and vice-versa. Other taboo subjects black-ish wasn’t afraid to explore: the slur euphemistically known as “the N-word”; gun owner-ship; Martin Luther King Day. All this as a backdrop to the tribulations of an upwardly Barris still cringes at his memory of being a young writer in the room. He had written sketch comedy for The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show , and was working on the Showtime drama Soul Food when Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane) asked him to join her team in writing the Girlfriends pilot. Desperate to return to comedy, he froze in the room, something he’s seen happen to oth-ers. “I was literaly flop-sweating, I was so nervous.” Un-able to get his own jokes across, he cracked up way too hard at everyone else’s. “I became room cheerleader.” SUMMER 16 A A W Y Y SUMMER 20 20 16 WG WG W WRITTEN WRITTEN B B • • 25 25

Black-Ish Like Me

Louise Farr



Kenya Barris writes what his family knows.

Kenya Barris didn’t expect this. At 6 foot three and wearing a stylishly ripped denim cowboy shirt with jeans and designer sneakers, he’s lounging on a massive sectional in the guest house of his gated San Fernando Valley hills estate. Suddenly he glances through a window at the verdant landscape and lets out a cackle. “We have rats! I have never in my life had them. I’m like, this is not what I fucking paid for.” At least the rats aren’t in this guest house—a writer’s dream office with skylights, wall-long movie library, oversized flat screen, and pool table. They’re scurrying outside in the ferns. And there’s an upside here that Barris need not mention: the creatures could show up as a storyline in some future episode of black-ish, the deeply personal ABC sitcom Barris created, inspired by his own family, and just picked up for a third season.

Why couldn’t the rodents make a TV appearance? His young son’s question triggered an episode, “Hope,” about police violence and the American justice system. So too did the desire of his anesthetist wife, Dr. Rania Edwards Barris, to hang on to her maiden name. Even chauffeuring his basketball-playing daughter to practices and games led to a show touching on the blackification of white kids, and vice-versa.

Other taboo subjects black-ish wasn’t afraid to explore: the slur euphemistically known as “the N-word”; gun ownership; Martin Luther King Day. All this as a backdrop to the tribulations of an upwardly mobile ad man named Andre “Dre” Johnson (Anthony Anderson), whom Barris modelled on himself. Often breaking the fourth wall, Dre frets that his success has distanced his four spoiled children from their roots. When Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) requests a bar-mitzvah, his dad throws him a bro-mitzvah instead—something actor Anderson actually did for his own teen son.

Barris has five kids himself, with a sixth on the way. He sees beauty in cultural homogenization, but he worries about it, too. “You wonder in giving your kids this new world, are they losing the world that you had?” However, black-ish is not only about him, Barris adds. It’s also about the room and the experiences that his eclectic group of writers contribute. With minorities and women still woefully under-represented in the industry, the black-ish writing team of 14 is an exception, split almost 50-50 along racial and gender lines.

“At its best, the show is a microcosm of life, and you need people from all different walks of life to give you the points of view that make that show really work,” says Barris. “If we can pull it off, do things fresh and new and interesting that I’m proud of, for three years in a row, that’s the benchmark. Two-year shows come and go. I think this third year is that moment.”

ROOM FOR DOUBT

Barris still cringes at his memory of being a young writer in the room. He had written sketch comedy for The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show, and was working on the Showtime drama Soul Food when Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane) asked him to join her team in writing the Girlfriends pilot. Desperate to return to comedy, he froze in the room, something he’s seen happen to others. “I was literaly flop-sweating, I was so nervous.” Unable to get his own jokes across, he cracked up way too hard at everyone else’s. “I became room cheerleader.”





He demonstrates by slapping a thigh and falling about on the couch: “‘That’s hilarious!’ ‘Yes, put that in!’”

He explains: “Being in a comedy writers room is sort of like the first day of school. You’re at the cool kid’s table, and none of the cool kids know each other, but they’re all jockeying to see who actually belongs. And if you don’t step up and really say you belong at the cool kids’ table you end up sitting at the goth table or the chess club table . . . And risk not having a job.”

Girlfriends was picked up and ran for eight years on UPN and The CW. Barris did get a job on the show, followed by a long-running stint on Brock Akil’s behind-the-scenes pro football series, The Game. There he met black-ish supervising producer Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry. “Kenya has always been the guy who’s the biggest hustler, go-getter,” she says. “Always a new idea, always networking. Always, like, the last one to go to sleep. I don’t think that it’s any surprise he made it happen because he was always the one where he made you look at yourself and be like, ‘God, I’m not doing enough.’”



Later, Barris would cast Girlfriends lead Tracee Ellis Ross as Dre’s wife, Dr. Rainbow Johnson on black-ish. Seeing the comically brilliant Ross at audition time, an executive asked, “My God, who is this?” Barris felt the man should have known that Ellis, daughter of Motown diva Diana Ross, had won two Image Awards and a BET trophy for best comedic actress. (She’s since won two more Image Awards for her Lucille Ball-like black-ish performance.)


Every network Barris pitched black-ish to wanted it. He wasn’t worried about any network trying to water the show down. “It was so
specific, and it was based on my life, and actual characters. You
can’t tell me this didn’t happen. It actually happened.”


“For so long there were shows for ‘them’—and she was on a show for ‘them.’ She was a big star in that world,” Barris says about Ross. “The Game at the time had broken records for its cable views. A fabulous show, and it shattered records. I walked in to general meetings where executives, whose job it was to cover television, would say, ‘So what is The Game about again?’ And I was blown away. You know what Girls is about, and it has 700,000 people watching.”

COMEDY CONNOISSEUR

By the time Barris began pitching black-ish, he’d already sold 19 pilots. A handful were shot. Three went to series, and for various reasons didn’t reach the networks. Barris wasn’t disheartened. He looked forward to pilot money, and the work kept his name current in the industry.

For several years he had been hoping and striving to create a series about an African-American family that could be a show for “them” and everyone else. A fan of creator Bill Lawrence’s stylized realism in Scrubs, Barris wanted to develop a “similar but different” aesthetic. “To make sure that if we were going to talk about things that weren’t necessarily being talked about, I wanted to do it in a way, and make it visually appealing enough, that people were at least drawn to that.”

Growing up in suburban Inglewood near LAX, then later in a middle-class neighborhood abutting affluent Hancock Park, he’d absorbed TV, from Saturday Night Live to Taxi to The Bob Newhart Show. He gradually matured into a comedy connoisseur, fascinated by the chemistry of laughter, capable of immediately noticing when a favorite show took a visual or structural gamble. His realtor mother encouraged her asthmatic son’s hobby, supplying him with Redd Foxx and Cosby albums. Newhart’s Button Down Mind became a staple. While pre-med at Clark Atlanta University, and struggling with organic chemistry, he switched to Radio/TV/ Film, never expecting a career. He learned to write, he says, by watching Felicia Henderson, who hired him as her assistant on Sister, Sister, then brought him in as a writer on Soul Food.

He developed black-ish specifically for the versatile actor Anthony Anderson, a veteran of The Shield, The Departed, Treme, and his own, self-created 2003-2004 sitcom, All About the Andersons. It proved to be the right move and the right time. After so many disappointments, Barris didn’t expect the reaction.



EARNING THE ABC’S

Every network Barris pitched black-ish instantly wanted it. The creative freedom of cable appealed, but he chose ABC, with its prize Wednesday night Modern Family block. He didn’t worry about the network trying to water the show down. “It was so specific, and it was based on my life, and actual characters. You can’t tell me this didn’t happen. It actually happened.”

One of ABC’s initial decisions was to invite Larry Wilmore to be co-showrunner. Wilmore’s The Bernie Mac Show had been among the handful of successful series about black families. But in January, 2014, Wilmore was waiting for notes from HBO on Insecure, a pilot he’d created with Issa Rae (The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl). Not knowing that HBO would eventually pick Insecure up, Wilmore was concerned that if he didn’t take black-ish, it could be years before another offer like it came his way. “At least you’re working,” Wilmore says of the ABC job. “You’re getting those juices out, right? And a brother’s got to get paid. That’s just a panic every writer has.”

But when Wilmore read the black-ish script, he quickly signed on. “His style just popped off the page. His point of view—I’ve always loved it when sitcoms can be about something.” As they worked together to fine-tune the script, he and Barris established a “big brother, little brother” dynamic. “My job was to help make sure that this was a series and not just a script,” Wilmore remembers. “Putting things in place that are going to be tent poles.”

Best not to get too heavy at first, they decided. “You’re kind of telling a dual story there about culture and about family,” Wilmore says of hotbutton political issues. “You need permission for some of those things, and you want to build a relationship with the audience, too, so they know to go with you. But you can still be provocative along the way.”



Wilmore knew the way indeed. While creating Bernie Mac, he had been influenced by French New Wave film, deliberately including late exits from scenes, and letting the camera linger to confound audience expectations. With black-ish, he saw Barris as combining “the best of single and multi-camera.” Written as single camera, but with long scenes, and comedy emerging from character interaction, both sensibilities worked as a single entity.

“You can feel it when you’re doing something special, and the beats just kept falling into place,” says Wilmore. He had been with the series just four months when Comedy Central announced that he’d follow Stephen Colbert as the host of a new Nightly Show debuting in 2015. Wilmore finished the first black-ish season, helping to support a powerful emerging voice.

“I found the bigger part of my voice,” Barris says about Wilmore’s exit. “I think I’ve had my voice for a few years now. It definitely came out in the pilot. But I feel like I found my voice as a showrunner when he left.”

POLITICALLY CORRECT NO MORE

Barris was right not to worry about the network watering down black-ish. A hit out of the gate, the series doesn’t even recognize the term “politically correct.”

“At times, they’re more a little bit, ‘So what’s next?’ than we are,” says Barris’s current co-showrunner, Jonathan Groff [see sidebar], about ABC. “And we’re a little bit like, ‘Well, we can’t be just an issue-and-belief show.’ We don’t want to live in that world all the time.”



Still, the show never abandons edginess. On a recent episode, Pops (Laurence Fishburne) described the 12 grand he’d embezzled as “reparations… and not even close to what they owe us.” Quickly Dre responded: “I don’t believe Smitty’s Mattress Shack owed us reparations.” In another scene, the Johnson family watched the news after a mass shooting, jumping up and down gleefully: “And we didn’t do it!!” With Dre and Rainbow worrying about their family’s extravagance, Dre commented, over a quick image of a slave-era handbill: “If you didn’t get a paycheck for 400 years, when you finally get it, you might want to spend it.”

Visually, too, the show looks clean and modern, with social commentary often slipping in subliminally for the audience to register, but not ponder. In the basketball story, a little suburban white kid, coopted by black culture, is all done up in expensive hip-hop gear. In other fleeting shots a hungry black kid says basketball is his way out of the neighborhood. Nobody bought this kid his expensive sneakers: he cut them down from a power line.

“When it’s not subliminal is when we’ve messed up,” Barris says. “It should not ever feel like we’re on a pulpit or that we’re preaching.”

The conceit of this year’s “Hope” episode evolved from the notion of online and 24-hour TV news bombarding kids with frightening pictures that parents can’t conceal. The idea was triggered by that question from one of Barris’s children: What was making all those people on television so mad?

Barris brought the idea into the room: a show about police brutality, children’s fear, and parents’ differing points of view, and they talked about it at length. “The barometer for whether something is a good story is the level of disagreement [in the room discussions],” says Vijal Patel, a black-ish executive producer, who left at the end of last season to work on his Square Roots pilot for ABC. “The more we talk about it, the more we argue about it, the more we don’t see eye to eye about things— that’s when we’re like, ‘This is it. This is the issue.’”

Surprisingly, ABC didn’t question the “Hope” story proposal.

“They were in no way worried about it,” says Groff. “They weren’t, ‘You’ve got to have more jokes.’ They were, like, ‘Do what you need to do.’” At the time, network execs were more concerned about Barris’ spanking episode because NFL football star running back Adrian Peterson had just been accused of abusing his son.

Barris, a huge story outline person for his own work, also encourages the black-ish staff to create story outlines in the room. He doesn’t have time to write outlines and treatments for the network himself. In fact, on the one occasion he would have welcomed network feedback, over Christmas vacation in 2014 under deadline pressure, he scripted “Hope.”




“Being in a comedy writers room is sort of like the first day of school. You’re at the cool kids table, and none of the cool kids know
each other, but they’re all jockeying to see who actually belongs.
And if you don’t step up and really say you belong at the cool kids
table you end up sitting at the goth table or the chess club table .
. . And risk not having a job.” —Kenya


“I probably wrote it in two or three days,” he recalls. “But at the same time, I feel like the best writing comes out of you quickly. When it takes you a long time to write something, to me you’re, ‘This is not gonna be good.’ Stories tell themselves, and if there’s a story there, something really there, it comes out.”

In “Hope,” a kid has been tased while selling bootleg Trainwreck and Chi-Raq DVDs. The Andersons are glued to their TV, waiting to see if an indictment will be handed down. Of course, it won’t be—just as it hadn’t been in the shooting death by a cop of 12-yearold Tamir Rice. That disturbing decision came down as Barris was writing the episode.

Chi-Raq is clearly the reason the boy got tased. Horrible movie,” says Dre’s mother, Ruby (Jenifer Lewis), in one of the zippy one-liners that temper the serious subject. With all the self-righteousness of the newly informed, teen Andre, Jr. Keeps quoting The Atlantic journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, making Dre wonder why no one listened to dad when he’d expressed the same ideas. And when Pops brags that he was once a Panther, Dre accuses him of being a member of The Bobcats. “We were Panther adjacent,” insists Pops.

Rainbow, usually a moderate voice, wants to keep their young twins innocent, while Dre wants them to understand today’s threatening world: “They’re not just children,” he says. “They’re black children.”

Swift images recall the triumph and hope of the Obama election, and as Dre reminds Rainbow, also recall the flash of fear so many felt for the president’s life when he left the limo to walk on inauguration day. Barris says, “I remember sitting at home with my mom and my wife, and we just felt like, ‘Get back in the car, get back in the car, get back in the car.’”

After the holiday, he returned to the room with “Hope,” worried about the reactions his script could receive. There were no scenes outside the Johnsons’ living room, no wardrobe changes. Would it be viewed as anti-police, or anti-establishment?

“It was probably one of the scariest episodes of television I’ve ever written, because it wasn’t innately funny,” Barris says. “It was really difficult. While I was writing it, I kept thinking, this isn’t funny the way I wanted.”

As it turned out, Genzuk-Rice Henry remembers “Hope” as being the least re-written script of the season. But her taste runs to scenes heavy on jokes, so when Barris first gave her “Hope” to read, her reaction was, “Eh, I think it’s just okay. It’s not my favorite thing.”

The table read went so well that Barris went into another flopsweat. His superstition: good table read, bad episode. “People were laughing, people were crying. This was one of the most powerful table reads I’d ever been to.”

And the finished show, directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller, drew critical accolades as well as massive attention. Says Henry, “I was like, ‘Thank God he didn’t listen to me and try and change it into anything else!’ Because his instinct was so on-point.”



Inspired by his son’s question while watching a protest on TV, Kenya Barris wrote “Hope” over a Christmas holiday. As he finished the first draft, the verdict came down in the police shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.



GET ON UP

Along with rats in lush, hillside acreage, numerous perks come with success. Little things like being invited to take your children to the White House Easter egg hunt, and realizing that the President actually knows your name and your work. Sitting at a table at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and arguing with Donald Trump (see Sidebar). Being able to get tickets to Hamilton. Then getting more tickets and seeing the hip-hop Broadway musical a second time.

“It was staggering brilliance,” Barris says of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation. “There are times when you just look up and you’re like, I’ve done something, but I know I can’t do that.”

Then he reminds himself that, when he signed to do black-ish, he didn’t have a deal. Now he has one, with ABC. And Barbershop: The Next Cut, written with Tracy Oliver, is already in theaters, plus he has six more movies in the works—yes, six—several in partnership with Oliver.

“Everyone sort of wants to date the prom king,” Barris jokes, ticking off his projects: a dramatic version of the Norman Lear sitcom Good Times; a comedy version of Shaft for New Line; Girl’s Trip for Universal. All written except for a female remake of Stir Crazy. And he’s producing another movie, called Little, and is on tap for Barbershop 4.

How does he do it? “Losing my mind, losing my mind,” Barris moans, collapsing backward on the sofa. “I killed myself, to be honest with you. The way that I did it was I’d leave work, come home for a second, go back into my office, write. Weekends, I’d go to a soccer game or do something in the daytime with my kids, kiss everybody goodbye, go to a hotel. Every hotel in LA knows me, because every weekend, from Saturday morning to Sunday evening, I’m in the hotels writing.”

Barris rubs a hand over his salt and pepper beard. “And I will never do it again.”

Talking the Talk with Jonathan Groff
At a recent WGA panel, Kenya Barris jokingly called out his co-showrunner, Jonathan Groff, for having an attitude of “White Man Privilege.” Why? Because when Larry Wilmore left black-ish after the first season to host his own Comedy Central show, Groff wasn’t sure he wanted to replace him.

A one-time stand-up comedian and head writer for Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Groff had suffered through a disastrous 2013- 14 season, with five failed development projects in a row. Licking his wounds, he signed on to black-ish in season one as a consulting producer and loved it—yet he dithered over the showrunner offer.



“It was a fantastic opportunity,” Groff says. “But I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that, because I had done that on Happy Endings for three seasons.” He had also created The Jake Effect and Andy Barker, P.I., and still hoped to kick start another idea of his own. Finally, he came to his senses. “I said, ‘Stop being an idiot’ to myself, and said ‘yes.’”

Groff doesn’t regret landing in the room that is conversational in its story-breaking style. The most productive time, Groff says, is when the writers can mine a generational point of view.

“We know we’re on to something when everybody’s kind of shouting at each other, in a friendly way. The episode that Kenya wrote earlier in the year on the N-word was so fascinating, because everybody had a different point of view on it. You know, for Dre, that word was something that he was able to use—had used--as sort of a bonding device, badge of honor, amongst his friends. For Rainbow, it was a completely unacceptable thing that you never say. For Pops and Ruby, they claimed that it was unacceptable, and then we learned that they used it freely to each other, kind of in judgement.”

But because of the number of sensitive topics the show has already covered, he anticipates that season three will be the hardest to write. “For better or for worse—mostly for worse—there’s always stuff in the news that we can talk about,” he says. “I’m sure we’ll have a nice Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill reference.”

In the meantime, Groff will be enjoying the conversation. “To be talking about some of the stuff that we get to talk about, in the ways that we talk about it is, you know, for a middle-aged white dude, kind of cool.” —LOUISE FARR

Tweet Revenge
In October, 2014, three weeks after black-ish debuted, @realDonaldTrump released an inflammatory tweet: “How is ABC Television allowed to have a show entitled ‘Blackish’? Can you imagine the furor of a show, ‘Whiteish’! Racism at highest level?”

Black-ish creator Kenya Barris didn’t tweet back. But six months later—surprise! A guest at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, he found himself standing next to Trump. Not one to hold back, Barris seized the opportunity.

Had the Donald seen the show? He had not, Trump answered, but even if he had, he would probably feel the same way about it.

That’s when the encounter turned into what Barris describes as “a moment” between the comedy writer and the man about whom there were already rumors of a presidential run.

“I said, ‘I don’t know how you make an educated comment saying things about something you’ve never seen. That doesn’t sound like someone who’s going to run for president.’”

“I think he looked at me like, I wish I could kill you. If I could kill you right now I would absolutely end your life. And he just literally turns around and walks away and has a conversation with someone a foot from me. I did not exist.”

Barris didn’t really believe then that Trump could actually become a presidential candidate. But when Trump officially announced, Barris made a $1,000 bet in the writers room that The Donald would become the official Republican nominee. Showrunner Jonathan Groff and co-executive producer Courtney Lilly said, “No way!”



“Both smart guys,” Barris emphasizes. “I said, ‘Dude, I travel around this country, and I hear what people are saying, and a rich white guy who says whatever the fuck he wants is going to get a lot of people’s attention.’”

Trump supporters, Barris suggests, are mistaking the reality star’s “candor” for the kind of bold revolutionary rhetoric on which the United States was built.

“Donald Trump’s not a revolutionary,” he says. “Donald Trump is a very wealthy, entitled man who has a very specific, insane idea of what this country should be.” And with racism no longer subtext, thanks in part to Trump and the tea party, Barris fears for the country. “I used to feel that we were so far away from that. We are much closer to a real major societal divide if we don’t figure things out and come together.”

How unfortunate, says Barris, that Groff and Lilly had to pay up. “But I’m thinking,” he says, “of putting the money behind Hillary.” —LF

Read the full article at http://www.mydigitalpublication.com/article/Black-Ish+Like+Me/2506780/309406/article.html.

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