The N-word is the third rail of our modern lexicon: When President Obama used it during his interview for the podcast “WTF With Marc Maron,” it sparked a firestorm on social media.
Get ready for another blaze. In the Sept. 23 season premiere of ABC sitcom “Black-ish,” youngest son Jack (Miles Brown) utters the verboten word while performing a dance-and-rap routine to Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” during a talent show at his tony prep school. The threat of expulsion sparks a debate within his family, with everyone taking different sides on whether the pejorative is OK.
The word — which is uttered far more than once — will be bleeped on air.
That fierce debate, says showrunner Kenya Barris, mirrors not only the one among his own family, but also one that took place in the writers’ room. “One of the things we try to do is to show (the black community is) not a monolithic voice,” Barris says. “There are a lot of different voices within and outside the community. We try to explore what this word means from a panoramic viewpoint.”
With this episode, Barris hopes to use the show’s platform to ignite a national conversation about racism. “As much as we want to say racism is dead, it’s still rearing its ugly head constantly,” he says, pointing to recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston.
Given the success of the show’s first season — it was the No. 1 new comedy among adults 18-49 — Barris feels he has the creative license to push boundaries. “I consider myself a disciple of Norman Lear,” he says. “And one of the things he did was topic-driven humor. In our second year, I want people to know we’re not just a family show. We’re a family show that deals with topics with your kids. And that’s driven by exposing your kids to the world, and giving your explanation.”
After a freshman season that took on corporal punishment, among other issues, Barris says he and his writers now have collected a list of thorny subjects, including gun safety. “Comedy used to be a vehicle for change,” he says. “Now comedy has gotten to this quirky, nonsensical place, which I enjoy. But I do think there is room for discussion-based humor. We can tell those stories in a way that feels edifying.”
Barris admits he’s “scared” about the reaction to the “The Word” episode (“I haven’t seen it this way on network TV before,” he says), but notes he has the full support of the network and the studio, which had very few notes throughout the process. “They pushed and fought for us to let us tell our stories,” he says. “As long as we did it in a respectful comedic and satirical way, they are really behind us.”
Adds series star Anthony Anderson, who also serves as an executive producer, “People always ask me how is it dealing with the networks on topics like this. And I can’t say I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, because the first shoe hasn’t dropped.”
Jokes Barris, “When he was here, Larry Wilmore used to say, Mickey Mouse is rolling over in his grave.”