“Sister, Sister,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ “Living Single,” “Good Times”: Black comedians have been on television screens for decades, making audiences laugh while simultaneously promoting educational explorations into Black life and culture. But, striking a balance between being insightful and hilarious is a responsibility that weighs on Black creatives.
“That’s one thing about being Black in Hollywood, period. If you’re in entertainment, you can’t just be funny. You’ve got to carry whatever banner people want you to hold down for the race. And we have an obligation to that,” Cedric the Entertainer said during a virtual Television Academy event entitled “Breaking Barriers in Comedy: A Celebration of Black Television” on Wednesday evening.
The event was moderated by actor, writer and host Yvette Nicole Brown, who spoke with fellow multi-hyphenates Cedric, Wanda Sykes and Lil Rel Howery about the impact and evolution of Black sitcoms, such as how they’ve used comedy to push forward important issues, and how Black creators and performers have amplified authentic Black representation in series.
“My comedy is grounded; it’s what I’m feeling and it’s what’s happening in my world,” Sykes said. “I can’t just go on stage and not talk about Trump or whatever that’s happening … I know I am blessed with this talent, this gift, and that’s how I’m supposed to use it.”
Sykes also pointed out the importance of being able to tell Black stories without the frustrations of “needing white people to make this marketable,” while Howery shared an observation that Black creatives are often asked to include more non-Black diversity in their shows, but predominantly white sitcoms such as “Friends” seemed to get a pass on the need for that type of inclusion.
“They were in New York City. They should’ve had at least some Dominicans walking around there,” he said.
However, Cedric said he didn’t feel the duty to authentic representation was negative: “I think it’s important for us to be able to say things that are really true to our audience and our people, like Black Lives Matter and those issues — at least give it a shot,” he said.
Sykes, Howery and Cedric gave also gave their figurative flowers to the people in their lives that put them on the path to pursuing dreams and doing so successfully, in spite of the barriers they faced.
Each one celebrated their parents, as well as other Black entertainment figures that paved the way for them. Howery paid respect to Bernie Mac, an inspiration of his; Sykes shouted out to Chris Rock for opening the door for her, and Cedric called Mary Lindsey, the famed now-former owner of Chicago’s only Black-owned comedy club “Jokes and Notes” and his second mom. Brown took a moment to give her thanks to Sherri Shepherd, who walked her through the entire process when she took a role on “Girlfriends.”
“It’s a beautiful thing to be able to pay forward the blessings that you’ve had and make sure that you hold the door for other people,” Brown said.
Watch the full conversation below: