In a 1992 episode, the show famously mocked its own genesis.
“See, this should be the show. This is the show.” “What?” “This. Just talking.” “Yeah. Right… Just talking? What’s the show about?” “It’s about nothing.” “No story?” “No, forget the story.” “You’ve got to have a story.” “Who says you gotta have a story? Remember when we were waiting for that table in that Chinese restaurant that time? That could be a TV show.”
Now imagine for a moment that ANYONE other than some white men would have had the audacity to pitch a show about nothing to ANY of the major media houses. Do you see that show on any media outlet? Imagine, for a moment, that somehow lightning struck and the project got the okay and then bombed in that first season; do you see a major network renewing that show and giving it a primo slot? Not gonna happen. Hasn’t happened in the history of television thus far.
White privilege in action, baby.
The not so friendly origin of Friends
This iconic show was about six young people living together. No, I’m not talking about Friends, I’m talking about Living Single, which premiered 28 years ago last month.
Created by Yvette Lee Bowser and starring Queen Latifah, Kim Coles, Kim Fields, Erika Alexander, T.C. Carson and John Henton, Living Single followed the personal lives and professional experiences of six friends living in a Brooklyn brownstone. Over the course of five seasons, which ran from 1993 to 1998, the series became a ratings hit for Fox and one of the most watched Black programs of the ‘90s.
“You’ve never seen these women before,” Fields said of the premise about “four Black women in that twenty-something age range who are in New York and trying to make it.”
Living Single was one of the most popular shows in Black households. The story goes that NBC execs (those guys again) saw the Fox show, loved it, and decided to create one just like it—but with an all-white cast—and thus Friends was born. NBC threw money at that all-white show, and their marketing team went into overdrive to make it the success it became.
Both shows were produced on the same studio lot; it’s said that the Living Single accommodations looked like hovels when compared to those of the Friends cast.
White privilege making all the difference—again.
“The difference between Friends and Living Single is one of marketing and skin color,” Alexander told Shadow And Act. “What does Paul Mooney say? ‘They have the complexion for the protection,'” she laughed.
While Friends went on to a ten-season run with each cast member raking in $1 million per episode, Living Single never received the financial success of its successor.
Of course, the official version for the origin of Friends says nothing about “copying” from Living Single.
Kauffman and Crane began developing Friends under the working title Insomnia Cafe between November and December 1993. They presented the idea to Bright, and together they pitched a seven-page treatment of the show to NBC. After several script rewrites and changes, including title changes to Six of One and Friends Like Us, the series was finally named Friends.
Keeping in mind that Living Single (premiering August 22, 1993) came first, watch an episode of Friends (premiering Sept. 22, 1994), and you’ll see the similarities.
Racism mucks up everything. A CNN production that had the power to unite us, given our shared history, became, for me, a reminder of all the inequities. The Seinfeld episode of The History of Sitcom left me feeling bitter and resentful, and all because someone boasted about the brilliance of the creators of “a show about nothing.” They might as well have been boasting about the power of white privilege.
And CNN, if you’re gonna tell the story, it would behoove you to tell the whole sordid tale, and not blatantly rewrite history so as to hide the part race played in the success—or lack of success—of both Black and white shows.
I did notice that contributors and analysts only mentioned race when reviewing the history of Black sitcoms, though admittedly, I also didn’t tune in for the “Facing Race” episode, which certainly wasn’t going to address how Living Single did it first and did it better. After all, the network promoted it this way: “In many homes, difficult conversations about race and diversity have first happened on the sitcom screen, helping pave the way for progress with hilarity and laughter.”
I’m thinking CNN’s History of the Sitcom could have benefited from analysts who are a little bit more “woke”—or honest.
A version of this essay originally appeared in the July 30, 2021 edition of Black Kos, Week in Review and was republished with permission and participation of the author.
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