You can do what you wanna do in living color, including reunite 25 years after your TV series comes to an end. That’s what creator/star Keenan Ivory Wayans just did at Tribeca with co-stars Shawn Wayans, Kim Wayans, Tommy Davidson, and David Alan Grier, celebrating the sketch-comedy show’s five-season run in the early ’90s. Though lesser known than late-night standard-bearer “Saturday Night Live,” “In Living Color” launched the careers of Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, and Jennifer Lopez, among others, while giving voice to a new brand of humor.
Moderated by Aisha Harris of the New York Times, the reunion followed a screening of the pilot episode. Harris put the show’s importance into context, noting that a number of black comedians had risen to fame prior to “In Living Color” premiering in 1990 but that there was still nothing on the air quite like it.
“Standup was our background, so sketches were the first writing we ever did,” Ivory Wayans said of his work prior to the series, which was “a different kind of animal — it had more intent behind it, was more in your face, and the energy of it was a little bit different.”
Grier remembered the early days as well. “There was percolating around this myth, this idea that someone should do a black ‘SNL,'” he said. “Nobody had done it, everybody had talked about doing it: a black sketch show from an African-American point of view. Keenen was the one who actually did it.” He also called joining the show “the best decision of my life.”
That’s in part because it drew on his background at the Yale School of Drama. “Out of all the things I’ve done, my training was at that time to go and join a repertory company. This is the closest I ever came to a repertory company.” He was especially grateful to Ivory Wayans for bringing out a different side of him: “Keenen was like, ‘Man, you really need to do this show,” Grier said. “I want people to see how funny you are.'”
Davidson put it a different way: “He reminds me of Professor X from ‘X-Men,'” he said. “He took all of us mutants together and told us, ‘Use your powers.'” This naturally led to great things. “It was like a steam pot about to blow, because it built up,” Davidson recalled of the wait for the show to actually premiere. “We knew what it was gonna do. All the energy was anticipation because America needed something new, and ‘In Living Color’ was the thing.”
“It was very competitive, but fun competitive,” said Ivory Wayans of the on-set drive to be as funny as possible. “There was never a small player in any sketch. Everybody was going for it.”
That includes the famous “Men on…” series of sketches in which two gay cultural critics played by Grier and Damon Wayans critiqued film and television, among other things. The bits were hugely popular, but controversial as well: “People would get upset, like Spike [Lee] would say, ‘Man, that’s not what it’s about.”
Asked by Harris whether he thought they could make “Men on…” today, Grier was quick to respond. “I don’t think you can,” he said. “My personal politics, my personal knowledge of trans, gay, LGBTQ culture — I say that because I’m trying to get all the letters out — is different. You know, I have evolved from then. But back then, I would say there was never any malice in our portrayal of these gay men, at least from my perspective at that time. But it was very much of its time.”
“What I remember is it was very generational,” he added. “The younger gay community endorsed us, and the older, more conservative community was like, ‘You don’t talk about that.'”
Ivory Wayans disagreed slightly. “I think that the sketch could be done today,” he said. “I think that we have more information about gay culture, so maybe we could make it even funnier…but like David said, the whole intent of the show was to include everybody. We thought, ‘Everybody’s gonna laugh.'” He acknowledged that “you can only be as good as the time period that you live in with the information that you have,” however.
One of the biggest reveals came toward the end. Prompted by his younger brother, Ivory Wayans recalled an early meeting with Fox in which the idea of making a series first came up. “I said,’ I don’t want to do TV, I want to do movies. And they said, ‘You can do what you want to do.” Sound familiar? Watch the full discussion here.