You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Black-ish’ Premiere Tackles N-Word Controversy Head-On

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.”

More TV

  • Jussie Smollett Empire

    Assessing 'Empire' Options After Jussie Smollett Charges Dropped

    The shocking Jussie Smollett saga took another twist on Tuesday after prosecutors announced they have dropped all charges against the “Empire” star. Smollett had been indicted on 16 counts of filing a false police report, but now that those counts have all disappeared, studio 20th Century Fox finds itself in a sticky situation as to [...]

  • Jussie Smollett

    Jussie Smollett's Legal Drama Eclipses the Rest of His Story (Column)

    Like so many other stories these days, the Jussie Smollett legal saga seemed governed not by coherent logic, but by chaos, and, in its absence of narrative, invites any observer to find in it the story they prefer hearing. Smollett, the “Empire” star who had been in legal jeopardy due to allegations of staging a [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Writers Guild Plans for Agency Pact Expiration: 'There Will Be Difficult Moments'

    Leaders of the Writers Guild of America have sent members contingency plans for the possible expiration of its agency franchise agreement on April 7 — and admitted that it may be a rocky road. Members received the letter Tuesday from the guild’s negotiating committee as the WGA and agents were about the hold their seventh [...]

  • univision-dish blackout

    Univision, Dish Network Reach Carriage Deal After Nine-Month Blackout

    Univision and satcaster Dish Network have reached a carriage agreement after a nine-month blackout that marked one of the longest standoffs between a major programmer and distributor. Univision channels went dark on Dish Network’s satellite and streaming platforms on June 30. The sides were at odds over carriage fees that have become increasingly contentious for [...]

  • Brad Falchuk Sets Overall Deal at

    Brad Falchuk Sets Overall Deal at Netflix

    Brad Falchuk is joining Ryan Murphy at Netflix. Falchuk and his Brad Falchuk Teley-Vision banner have signed an overall deal with the streamer, which sources say is for four years and worth eight figures. He is currently set up under a deal at 20th Century Fox Television, with that deal set to expire on June [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content