Andy Borowitz wrote for “Square Pegs” and “The Facts of Life” before writing the pilot for “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” His Borowitz Report comedy website was acquired by the New Yorker in 2012, and he now performs on the radio, doing comedy tours and writing books. He talked about the creation of “Fresh Prince” — and he says it’s a myth that the show was nearly canceled after its fourth season, only to be revived due to fan support.
The show was a very easy sell. Quincy Jones and Benny Medina brought Will into NBC. Will had never acted before, but the NBC executives thought he had star quality.
I was in an overall deal at NBC, and Brandon Tartikoff, the chairman of NBC at the time, approached me about writing the pilot. I remember him asking me, “Have you heard of Fresh Prince?” I told him that I had heard of Prince. Until I met Will, my knowledge of hip-hop was pretty much limited to the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC’s version of “Walk This Way.” By the end of the first season of “Fresh Prince,” I had worked with every early ’90s rapper from Queen Latifah to Heavy D.
I met Will for the first time at Quincy’s house. A lot of executives were milling about, schmoozing with each other, and Will kind of drifted away, sat down at Quincy’s piano, and, largely unnoticed, played a few bars of Beethoven. I thought, “Hmm, we’ve got to find a way to use that.” It became the last shot of the pilot.
Quincy’s own Bel-Air born-and-raised kids served as partial inspiration for Will’s wealthy cousins on the show. I remember Quincy quoting one of his daughters’ phone messages from camp: “Dad, the water here sucks — please FedEx Evian.” From stories like that, the character of Hilary was born. (Trivia for Fresh Prince superfans: the character of Carlton was named after my college friend Carlton Cuse.)
Hands down, the most iconic thing about “Fresh Prince” is the theme song, which Will and Jazzy Jeff threw together pretty much overnight. But everything about that pilot happened fast: It was written and taped in about three weeks, start to finish, and somehow it worked. It was just an explosion of really good luck.
When something is successful for 25 years, it defies explanation, so I run the risk of sounding like an idiot in trying to explain it. For example, for a while, “Fresh Prince” was the most popular show in Spain. I wish I could take credit for infusing the show with subliminal Spanish appeal, but I cannot.
The only partial explanation I can give for the show’s enduring appeal is that Will and the rest of the cast are just hugely charismatic and watchable performers. They’re people you want to spend time with.
Staying up late in a rewrite room eating takeout food was cool in my 20s and 30s, but after awhile, I had had enough of that. I have some great memories from my TV days, but I vastly prefer my life now. I work on my own schedule, at home and at 5 o’clock, I start cooking dinner for my family. That’s happiness.