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INTERVIEW: A Chat with 'black•ish creator, Kenya Barris

Kudos, Show is Successful with SpinOffs; Thanks to the Opportunity for FASMG to Be Part of The Beginning!

by Melinda C. Sylvester

Kenya Barris is known for his work with Tyra Banks on America’s Next Top Model (2003), Are We There Yet?(2010), and now as the creator of the smart new ABC sitcom, Black-ish debuting on ABC this fall. Barris is married to Dr. Rainbow Edwards-Barris and they have three children. Faith & Soul Magazine talked with Mr. Barris about culture and comedy.

F&S: Thank you for your time, Mr. Barris. We know you’re busy promoting your great new sitcom, Black-ish. And thanks for sending us a copy of the first show. We watched and enjoyed it! It’s fresh and new, and it’s good to see a black family that’s offering a message that resonates with my community: keeping our culture alive.

KB: Thank you so much.

F&S: Why Black-ish, and why now?

KB: The easiest answer is “why not?” (laughs) I think timing is everything, You look at Scandal,  you look at President Obama. As a [black] culture, we’ve stepped up and shown our part of what America is, what America is in a bigger way than before.  We made a push [with Black-ish] to be a part of that slice.  That’s an honor.

F&S:  Where do you see Black-ish in the family tree of prime-time black family comedies like The Bernie Mac Show, Cosby, Good Times,  and Sanford & Son? Which of those shows did you grow up feeling more attuned to?

KB:  I guess a little bit of all of them, and little bit of none of them. I think the Cosby show [is important to me] for obvious reasons. Mr. Cosby did an amazing trade. But The Cosby Show, yes, a lot of it. Bernie Mac because he was my partner who I did the pilot with after I wrote creative for Bernie Mac. Bernie Mac did great comedy, but our comedy is a little bit different. I definitely feel we are trying to be our own show. Shows are sort of like kids: you start them off thinking you know what they are going to be when they grow up, but they have a way of taking on a life of their own.

F&S:  What is the message of Black-ish? What makes it different from those other shows?

KB: I think the other shows didn’t necessarily look to talk so much about culture and identity and society in general: they were strictly about a particular family.  I think the difference with our show is that our show is a comedy, but it’s definitely trying to have something to say. This is a black family that we’re using as a lens to show a picture to America about culture and identity, and to look at how there are generational differences within a black family in the modern world that aren’t necessarily what we’re used to.

F&S:  Will the show tackle controversial topics like the Adrienne Peterson scandal, raising kids, and that kind of thing? Or will you keep it light?

KB:  Yeah! We actually have an episode on spanking we did that I am very proud of.

F&S: Wow! That’s great. You have Larry Wilmore as one of your Executive Producers. What does he bring to the mix? 

KB: Experience, know how point of view, brotherhood, everything and more. Larry is a huge part of what we do, and I’m very happy to be able to learn from him. (Update: Hours after this interview, Wilmore left the production team of Black-ish to pursue a new opportunity as the host of the new late night show, The Minority Report with Larry Wilmore, to fill the spot once occupied by the popular The Colbert Report.]

F&S: Naming your characters, you have Rainbow, Dre -- like Dr. Dre, Jack and Diane named after a song by John Cougar Mellencamp: tell us about the choice of names for your characters.

KB: Rainbow is actually my wife’s name. The wife in the show names the twins Jack and Diane much to [her husband’s] dismay because that was her favorite song growing up, and because she grew up in a different environment than he did. Dre is short for Andre, and I felt that worked for us because it was close to Anthony and definitely spoke to a traditionally pretty black name in America.  We liked the other names… If  we (Barris and his wife) had another kid we would name her Zoey, maybe! [Editor’s Note: The older daughter on the show is named “Zoey”.]

F&S:  Were the name choices for easy laughs?

KB: They just sort of fit the characters. We felt like those would be the names these people would name their kids.

F&S: Andy tries to convince his Dad to celebrate his birthday the Jewish way. Is that going to be a regular part of the show? Talking about faith, religion, values, black culture and how the new generations are moving away from their traditional religious beliefs?

KB: No… It was just that episode: it was about a bigger kid who was caught up into a moment. We definitely feel like at some point and time we would like to get into a better relationship to the family’s faith, but that’s a very sensitive topic that we would want to do correctly and have something to say in a funny way -- but in a real way as well.

F&S: Do you see the show in any way as an answer to people who say we live in a post-racial society? Race still counts...

KB:  Absolutely, but this show is not just about race.

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