There was a time when comedic t.v. shows with a mostly African American cast were commonplace on the “Big 4” television networks. Over the last half decade black sitcoms have only (and barely) survived on cable channels like BET, TV One, and TBS. And let’s be honest, the quality of a lot of these programs aren’t exactly the finest artistic examinations of black life or very funny.
With that said, DZI: The Voice decided to reminiscence about an era when black television actors, actresses, and show runners successfully used laughter to shine a light on the real concerns and accomplishments of African American culture. Whether it was the story of a black family moving on up or just keeping their heads above water, each of the programs on our list made sure to tell that story in such an authentic way that til this day viewers still connect with the characters and their comical situations. Check out our “Top Ten Black Sitcoms of All Time” and share your voice about your favorite t.v. shows in our comment section.
10. Everybody Hates Chris (2005-2009)
Chris Rock was already one of the most celebrated comedians of the 1990’s, but he clearly felt the need to retroactively dominate the 1980’s and takeover the 2000’s as well. While it’s the only show from the 00’s to make our list, Everybody Hates Chris is literally a throwback to the classic family sitcoms of the 80’s. The voice-over styled program is based on Rock’s teenage years growing up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and even though it’s a period piece, the show’s premise isn’t foreign to 90’s babies who have no concept of the 80’s. Who can’t relate to fighting with your younger sibling, trying to avoid getting in trouble with your parents, and the overall awkwardness of life between the ages of 13-17?
9. Living Single (1993-1998)
NBC’s Friends may have gotten all the Emmy nominations, but make no mistake Fox’s Living Single was the original show about six 20-something New Yorkers who shared their love life, career obstacles, and hilarious experiences with TV viewers. Centered around magazine publisher Khadijah James (Queen Latifah) and her naive cousin, childhood friend, college classmate, and two male neighbors, Living Single was the first sitcom that focused on the lives of young, upwardly mobile black professionals. It was also a platform to showcase some of the top African American entertainers of the time. Morris Chestnut, Vivica A. Fox, Monica, Brian McKnight, Naughty By Nature, TLC, and many others made guest appearances throughout the show’s run.
8. What’s Happening!! (1976-1979)
Curious what life was like for a black high school student in the 70’s? Well, one way to get an idea of that experience is to watch the cult classic Cooley High. Or you could watch the popular teen sitcom it was loosely based on. What’s Happening followed best friends Raj, Rerun, and Dwayne as they managed all the angst of teen life- bullies, girls, and self-discovery. Throw in Raj’s little sister, Dee, and Shirley, the sassy waitress at their regular dining spot, and the What’s Happening gang consistently gave good-humored episodes for three seasons. Issues behind-the-scenes ultimately led to an early cancellation, but the show went on to become a huge hit in syndication, and became legendary thanks to the “Rerun Dance“, a Soul Train line stable.
7. A Different World (1987-1993)
A Different World can almost be viewed as two separate series. Season one, which focused on Cosby kid Denise Huxtable, was set in a multi-cultural institution and rarely addressed real issues of college age students. Debbie Allen took creative control of the show for the second season and overhauled the program to represent a traditional HBCU and made sure that the characters faced serious challenges like unwed pregnancy, domestic violence, date rape, racism, sexism, and socio-economic disparity. With this new approach of embracing social commentary and adding a “will they or won’t they?” storyline for the new main characters Whitley and Dwayne, A Different World became the number one watched show in black households for four seasons. Twenty years later fans are still hoping for a class reunion. Allen has even hinted at a possible reboot.
6. Good Times (1974-1979)
“Damn! Damn! Damn!” Those three words may be the most memorable lines from any black t.v. show ever. That moment when matriarch Florida Evans (Esther Rolle) had finally accepted the death of her husband James (John Amos) was just one of the many iconic scenes from the show about a family trying to survive in the projects of Chicago. Who can forget when Penny’s (Janet Jackson) mother burned her with the iron? Or when JJ’s (Jimmie Walker) painting of “Black Jesus” led to miraculous good fortunes for the entire family? Good Times also holds the distinction of being the first African American family sitcom, opening doors for The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
5. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996)
In 1990, many observers still saw Hip Hop as a brash, vulgar sub-culture that would somehow destroy the fabric of American society. When rapper The Fresh Prince (aka Will Smith) hooked up with producer Quincy Jones to craft a sitcom around the story of a West Philly teen who’s sent to live with his wealthy cousins in Bel-Air, Hip Hop got a new national face that was acceptable to Middle America. The fictionalized “Will” didn’t just join the Banks family, the real life Will became an honorary member of families all across the country. This initial acquaintance helped Smith parlay his t.v. success into one the biggest Hollywood careers ever, and helped turn Hip Hop into a national obsession.
4. Martin (1992-1997)
If the term “meme” had been around in the 1990’s, there’s no doubt the phrases “wazzup”, “you go girl”, “you so crazy”, “you ain’t got no job”, and “get to steppin'” would have been photoshopped on gifs throughout the Internet. Remarkably, all of those often repeated sayings came from the Martin Lawrence led program about the misadventures of five friends from Detroit and the many wild alter-egos of the show’s star. The slapstick comedy and the witty ribbing between the characters made Martin Black America’s must see Thursday night event for five seasons. Martin was also the launching pad for the successful careers of Lawrence (Bad Boys, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate), Tisha Cambell (My Wife and Kids), and Tichina Arnold (Everybody Hates Chris).
3. Sanford and Son (1972-1977)
For six seasons comedy legend Red Foxx entertained America as Fred Sanford, the sarcastic widower who owned a junk yard with his ambitious 30-year-old son Lamont played by Damon Wilson. While the pair were constantly at odds over the family business there always a loving and supportive camaraderie between the two. Most of the more gut-busting exchanges occurred when Fred confronted his religious ex-sister-in-law Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page). The back-and-forth between Foxx and Page was comedic gold, often ending with Ether’s catchphrase, “watch it sucka.” Much the same way whenever Fred felt any situation getting out of his control he resorted to his famous line- “you hear that, Elizabeth? I’m coming to join ya, honey!” Sanford and Son was a major milestone for prime time television. It was the first certified hit show featuring an all black cast since the controversial Amos and Andy in the 1950’s.
2. The Jeffersons (1975-1985)
Until George, Weezy, and Florence invaded living rooms across the nation, there had never been any depiction of affluent African Americans on network television. The laundromat owner moved his family to the wealthy Upper Eastside neighborhood in New York City and helped changed the perception that all black people lived in the ghetto. The Jeffersons started as a spin-off of the extremely popular All In The Family, but the sitcom became a bonafide success on it’s own merits. It was both a ratings hit and favored by critics. The series received 13 Emmy nominations, and Isabel Sanford’s Lead Actress in a Comedy Series win in 1981 for her portrayal of Louise Jefferson was the first (and only) time an African American women had ever won that award.
1. The Cosby Show (1984-1992)
Bill Cosby’s classic family sitcom is the pinnacle of black television shows. It’s the only African American centered show to win the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series (1984), the only one to be the number one rated show on t.v. (1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990), and was named the All-Time Best Family Show by TV Guide. It destroyed racial stereotypes by introducing the world to the educated, successful African American community in Brooklyn. It championed black excellence by featuring heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and prominent African American artists. It helped NBC become the most watched network for nearly 2 decades. It become the template for later family-based programs. It made stars out of Phylicia Rashād, Lisa Bonet, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Tempestt Bledsoe, Keisha Knight Pullman, and Raven-Symoné. It was relatable to audiences of all races while still maintaining it’s core premise of celebrating the black family. Bill Cosby has been the subject of a lot criticism in recent years, but it can never be denied that his show permanently changed the face of television.
The Game (2006-2009, 2011-Present)
Mara Brock Akil’s football-based dramedy was so popular that fans demanded that The Game be brought back after cancellation. Given new life on BET after a two year hiatus, the show debuted to a record-breaking 7.7 million viewers. Audiences couldn’t get enough of the San Diego Sabers players and the women in their lives.
Before Julia, the only black lead characters on t.v. sitcoms were either “schuckin’ & jivin'” or serving white families their meals. Even though the title character, played by Diahann Carroll, was a nurse and a caring mother many critics at the time still felt the show didn’t accurately depict the black experience of the late 60’s. In retrospect, Julia is now consider groundbreaking programming.
In the early 90’s several “urban family” comedy-dramas began airing, but none shined as brightly as Roc. That may have to do with the show’s regular discussion on socially relevant topics and the fact that the main cast members were all veterans of Broadway. The cast’s superb acting talents led to the entire second season being performed live- the first time a scripted show had taken on that ambitious feat since the 1950’s.