Like all things revolutionary, In Living Color upset some people. It also empowered people.
The sketch comedy show, debuting in 1990, was the first made by people of color (Keenan and Damon Wayans), starring people of color. More than 22 million people tuned in to the first episode, but the series was more than just Saturday Night Live for black people. It spoke to those communities and cultures.
Its humor was a stark contrast to the bougie Cosby Show and polite sensibility of Oprah. Soul Train belonged to older generations. Enter In Living Color. It was modern, youthful, and subversive.
It filled a void offering a cultural education with the Fly Girls’ dance moves, R&B, and hip-hop theme songs and musical guests. Its not-so-gentle prodding of stereotypes openly and fearlessly talked about economic struggles, feminism, frustration with The Man, mass incarceration, and sexuality in the black community.
While some entertainment reviews credited the show with bringing edge back to television, others called it offensive. No matter the yay or nay tallies in newspapers, In Living Color was popular among viewers. They didn’t just love it, they craved it. In its third year, the show ran a live, counter-program to Super Bowl XXVI’s halftime show. It drew so many viewers away from the halftime show, the NFL began booking A-list acts the very next year and every year since—starting with Michael Jackson.
In Living Color is largely credited for making halftime programming good. But, in the words of Kim Wayans’ character LaShawn, “I ain’t one to gossip, so you ain’t heard that from me.”
Outside of made-up accents, bad wigs, and fly dance moves, the show became an outlet in tumultuous times. During the birth of guest star Chris Rock’s Cheap Pete, Jim Carrey’s Fire Marshall Bill, and Damon Wayans’ Homey D. Clown, Los Angeles caught fire. The LA riots followed the acquittal of four LAPD officers caught on camera beating Rodney King, sparking a national conversation on police brutality. Communities of color needed the honesty and relief only parody could deliver.
The legacies left behind from the show’s four short years are immeasurable. The Emmy Award-winning show not only gave us “Homey don’t play that” memes, it launched the careers of some of the greatest entertainers of our time: the Wayans brothers, Jennifer Lopez, Jamie Foxx, and Jim Carrey.
There’s so much more, but “um, it’s time for my lunch hour.”
In Living Color is now on Fusion! See our schedule to find the next episode.