Black sitcoms have existed on television for decades now, and while they aren’t as universally appreciated as sitcoms with less diverse casts, they offer an in-depth presentation of what it’s like existing as a black person in a world that doesn’t cater to us.
Casting aside traditional black roles like service workers, maids, and other harmful caricatures, the black sitcom has evolved into relatable representation that wasn’t previously depicted. Recently, newer shows have cropped up and shone an even brighter light on the black community—The Chi, Atlanta, and Insecure, to name a few—and allowed us to show the rest of America what black culture and life is really like.
Television and movies with black casts have only recently been embraced and given the opportunity to prove that they deserve a place in accessible media, but they’re already dominating pop culture. In the past couple of years, we’ve had Black-ish, Moonlight, Get Out, and Black Panther, all of which have treated the black community as an integral part of the world rather than an unfamiliar group to water down for white America’s consumption.
There is a rich history of representation that has gotten us to where we are today. There are many shows, ranging from the ‘70s through the early 2000s, that have allowed us to achieve this level of representation, by capturing black people in various lights and occupations. These shows have struck down the notion that their existence isn’t necessary and have finally begun to fill a huge void in entertainment—but that process is just getting started.
Though we still have a long way to go when it comes to an even playing field for both paymeny and treatment of black actors and actresses, it’s undeniable that the surge in recent years can be attributed to these sitcoms. That being said, let’s take a look at what we consider to be the 30 best black sitcoms of all time.
Originally posted at: https://www.complex.com/pop-culture/best-black-sitcoms/
The Famous Jett Jackson chronicled movie star Jett Jackson played by Lee Thompson Young (RIP) and his move back to North Carolina. He immediately brought celebrity attention to his small town, and struggled to balance the life of a working actor with the life of a “normal” teen boy. Jett’s life was paralleled with that of the character plays, Silverstone, and the contrast between the two showed how lucky Jett was. Silverstone didn’t have a family (that we knew of), and lived life as a spy, detonating bombs and outsmarting villains. Meanwhile, Jett Jackson had two divorced but loving parents, a great grandmother, a girlfriend (sort of), and friends who cared about him. Oh yeah, and he was a TV star, so he had it pretty good. The Famous Jett Jackson was the first Disney Channel original show to star a minority cast, and though it did well critically, it ended after 65 episodes, like most Disney Channel originals.
The Proud Family was Disney Channel’s first original animated series, about the life of main character Penny Proud. The cartoon didn’t miss a single opportunity to tie in relevant black pop culture, beginning with its theme song, which was sung by Solange and Destiny’s Child. The show centered around Penny’s strong relationship with her parents, Oscar and Trudy, and her desire to make them happy. Different episodes touched on dating, Penny’s nemesis LaCienega, and the ebb and flow of teenage friendships. Some delved into deeper topics like Black History Month and suspected parental affairs. The Proud Family had an amazing list of guest celebrities, including Cicely Tyson, Lou Rawls, Ving Rhames, Steve Harvey, Kel Mitchell, Mo-Nique, Vivica A. Fox, and Samuel L. Jackson. The show also parodied the zeitgeist, with its own versions of 50 Cent (Omarion as “15 Cent”), Moesha (“Iesha”), and American Idol. One of the most culturally relevant black cartoons to date, the show had 53 episodes and wrapped with The Proud Family Movie.
What happens when a teenager with psychic powers and a penchant for fashion tries to thwart her premonitions without having all of the details? She winds up doing more harm than good. That’s So Raven followed the antics of Raven Baxter as she tried to control the events leading up to her psychic visions. Her signature catchphrases—”Ya nasty!” “Gotta go!” “Oh… snap!”—punctuated the show, as did her two best friends, Chelsea and Eddie. Together, the three got into wild situations typically involving physical comedy, wigs, and goofy voices. In almost every episode, Raven overreacted to the sliver of information her visions gave her, and almost never learned her lesson afterwards. Viewers rolled into each new situation with an almost completely clean slate, and without Raven ever reflecting on past catastrophic shenanigans. Although the show mostly focused on silly situations, there were also memorable, harder-hitting episodes of That’s So Raven, that skimmed the surface of more controversial topics like racism and fatphobia. It was one of the first two Disney Channel sitcoms with a mostly minority cast, the channel’s first original show to earn over three million viewers, and its first original show to have 100 episodes. Raven’s antics were so popular that the show inspired two spinoffs: Cory In The House and Raven’s House. Though neither spinoff has garnered the same attention as the original show, That’s So Raven’s impact is undeniable; it remains Disney Channel’s third longest-running original series.
Before there was Jimmy Neutron, there was T.J. Henderson, played by Tahj Mowry, a 10-year-old boy genius surrounded by teenagers, as his smarts landed him in high school much earlier than his actual peers. The show centered around T.J.’s adjustment to being classmates with his older brother, Marcus, who—while charismatic—was less than a star pupil. The brothers, along with their older sister, Yvette, were raised by their dad, Floyd. Their mother died years prior, and her death was a heart-wrenching recurring theme for the show. Marcus’ friend Mo was another main character, fulfilling the common ‘90s TV trope of the seemingly parentless character who’s always around and just considered to be part of the family. Though T.J., Marcus, and Mo were far apart in age, they got along pretty well, and occasionally relied on Floyd and the extremely level-headed Yvette to smooth things over when they got into trouble. T.J.'s dorky, poindexter-like character is one commonly depicted on predominantly white shows, but Smart Guy let viewers know that while black people are funny and soulful, they’re also intelligent. The show ran at the same time as Sister, Sister, which starred Tahj's sisters, Tia and Tamera, and there was some occasional crossover between the shows.
Who loves orange soda? Kel loves orange soda! Helmed by a Coolio theme song, Kenan and Kel served as one of many spin-offs from Nickelodeon’s sketch comedy show All That. Set in Chicago, the show always began with Kenan and Kel speaking to the live studio audience. Kenan would tell the studio audience that the two had gotten into trouble, while Kel had already forgotten what happened. The goofy duo got into a variety of unnecessary situations, mostly due to Kenan’s scheming and Kel’s generally oblivious (but lovable) nature. Kenan came up with ways to get what he wanted (a new car, for example), and recruited Kel to help him out. Kenan’s parents were typically annoyed with whatever the two got involved in, and punished their son, while Kel’s parents were never shown. Kel’s ditzy depiction was refuted at random times over the course of the show, when tidbits about him were revealed, like him getting good grades or having genius parents. Unfortunately, this never had an effect on the inevitably unsuccessful outcome of literally any plan the two came up with. The show always ended with Kenan explaining why their scheme didn’t work, and insisting he had a better idea to make it work, with Kel yelling out “Awwwww, here it goes!!” The combination of the two characters served them well, as Kenan and Kel lasted four seasons, was met with critical acclaim, and even became a TV movie. Kenan and Kel’s antics were a hit with the kids and teens of the late '90s, as were the impressive roster of guest stars, including Downtown Julie Brown, Britney Spears, and fellow All That castmate Nick Cannon.
The only person who gets a pass for wearing Choppa Suits in 2013? Steve Harvey. Before he wrote Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man and opted for a more aerodynamic hairstyle, he played Chicago native Steve Hightower on The WB's Steve Harvey Show. In the show, the former funk legend and member of Steve Hightower and the High Tops was forced to take a job as a music teacher at Chicago's Booker T. Washington High School. Because of budget cuts, he found himself forced to teach drama and art as well. His longtime friend Cedric, love interest Lovita, and former classmate Regina "Piggy" Lane, joined him at Booker T. The students were just as important, and none got more airtime than Bullethead and Romeo. Lady of Rage (yes, "Afro Puffs" Lady of Rage) frequently showed up as the hulking Coretta Cox, and Keenan and Kel (Keenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell) also found time for guest appearances. Fellow All That alum Lori Beth Denberg was a mainstay as Lydia Gutman. Like other black sitcoms, The Steve Harvey Show featured notable guest stars from the music world, including Teena Marie, who jokingly mistook Hightower for Lionel Richie in one episode. Irregular reunions of Steve Hightower and the High Tops always made for great episodes, as they brought back comedian Don "D.C." Curry and Mr. Big himself, Ronald Isley. "When the Funk Hits the Fan" never gets old.
What are the odds that twin sisters who were separated at birth would wind up meeting 14 years later? That was the premise for Sister, Sister, which starred Tia and Tamera Mowry as Tia Landry and Tamera Campbell. The two couldn't have been more different, but blood is thicker than water. In addition to being polar opposites, the twins were nothing like their adoptive parents, Ray and Lisa. Though at times it seems like the wrong twin ended up with the wrong parent, they eventually became one big family in Ray's suburban Detroit home. It's there that Tia and Tamera were constantly bothered by Roger, who's what Steve Urkel would've been if Steve Urkel looked like Batman from Immature. After two seasons on ABC, Sister, Sister was cancelled, but The WB scooped it up for the third season. Keeping it in the family, the Mowry twins' little brother Tahj appeared in one episode as T.J. Henderson, the genius from his own sitcom Smart Guy. Sherman Hemsley, of The Jeffersons, played Ray's father and Kid of Kid 'n Play even had a walk-on as one of Tia's bosses. The history of black TV has been well documented by black TV.
After debuting as a summer program in 1976, What's Happening!! cashed in on solid ratings and the failure of other shows to become regular weekly programming on ABC that fall. The sitcom hooked audiences with the three beloved teens living in Watts—the bespectacled Raj, the forever-smiling Dwayne, and the man with the famous dance, Rerun. Raj was an outstanding student with dreams of one day being a writer. Rerun struggled academically, but was an amazing dancer. Dwayne always brought positive energy, frequently making his presence known by exclaiming "Hey, hey, hey!" when entering a room. Occasionally meddling in their lives and pulling zero punches was Raj's younger sister, Dee. The guys usually hung out at Rob's Place, where they always ran into Shirley, a boisterous waitress who was just as eager to rib the gang as Dee was. Known for its recognizable theme song, What's Happening!! was popular enough to draw guests like the Doobie Brothers. It yielded a spinoff entitled What's Happening Now!! that aired from 1985 to 1988; the old cast returned to give the world an early look at a young Martin Lawrence, who worked as a busboy at Rob's.
In the mid-'90s, quality black television experienced a significant boom, and some could even be found on The WB (remember that?). One such program was The Jaime Foxx Show, based on Foxx's own experience making it in the entertainment industry. After moving to L.A. to pursue a career in music, Jamie King works at his aunt and uncle's hotel to support himself during his quest for success. Featuring a theme song sung by Foxx himself, the show followed his trials and tribulations working at King's Tower, chasing after Francesca "Fancy" Monroe and consistently playing the shit out of one of the OG cornball brothers, Braxton P. Hartnabrig. Over a decade after the show went off the air, the NAACP Image Award-winning program is remembered for demonstrating Foxx's comic timing and singing chops, the word Motherfloodpucker, and abusing "brougham." It also got plenty of elementary school children in trouble for shoving their hands in the faces of classmates. One question, though—what happened to Dennis?
Comedian Mark Curry landed his first major role as Mark Cooper, a former Golden State Warrior who winds up teaching and coaching basketball at Oakbridge High School, in Oakland. Cooper moves in with longtime friend Robin and her friend Vanessa (played by Holly Robinson, truly the bee's knees in the '90s). As no '90s sitcom was complete without an annoying neighbor, Coop struggled with Tyler, in addition the stress of living with the two women. When Dawnn Lewis left the show, Robin was replaced by Mark's cousin Geneva, who brought her young daughter Nicole (Raven-Symoné, prior to coming into her own as a bankable star) along. As the show progressed, Tyler and Nicole became best friends and Coop began to view both Tyler and Earvin Rodman (a young Omar Gooding) as younger brothers. His crush on Vanessa evolved into romance, and the two were a couple by the end of the series. Hangin' with Mr. Cooper was at its best once added to ABC's brilliant TGIF lineup. Though Hangin' with Mr. Cooper enjoyed several theme songs, none was better than the original, where stars Lewis and Robinson collaborated with En Vogue to sing Cooper's praises
The show that made Gary Coleman a household name, Diff'rent Strokes told the story of two brothers from Harlem who were adopted by the wealthy businessman that their mother worked for after she passed away. Thank the show for any popular culture and hip-hop references to "Phil Drummond" as a symbol of wealth. Still, the show's most well-known characters were Coleman's Arnold and his older brother Willis, played by Todd Bridges. In fact, Willis might be the show's most recognized character, thanks to Arnold's catch-phrase "Whatchu talin' bout, Willis?" Biggie might've called it "played out" on "The What," but it was the show's trademark. Aside from Arnold's famous question, Diff'rent Strokes was recognized for episodes that focused on serious issues like drugs, molestation, race, violence, and eating disorders. Unfortunately, each of the show's three child stars (Coleman, Bridges, and Dana Plato) struggled with drug addiction and legal troubles after the show ended. Plato died of a drug overdose in 1999, and Coleman died at 42 after falling and hitting his head in 2010. Only Bridges survived his struggles. Despite the sad ending for the show's young stars, Diff'rent Strokes will live on as one of the 20th century's most important programs.
During the '90s, Fox ran black television, and one of the network's lesser-known gems was Roc. Set in Baltimore, the show followed the lives of the title character (played by Charles S. Dutton) and his wife, Eleanor. Roc's younger brother Joey provided occasional humor and drama. After beginning life as a sitcom, Roc made the bold move to air each episode from the second season as a live performance. Not only did this play to the strengths of the four main cast members—each of whom were trained stage actors—it made Roc the first scripted American television show since the '50s to broadcast an entire season live. Roc's narratives offered hard looks at drugs and violence in urban communities, but without losing sight of the mission: offering a positive look at African-Americans doing their best to make an honest living. Unfortunately, the show's positive imagery couldn't save it from low ratings.
Doing it on your own terms is a Wayans family trait, so from the moment Shawn and Marlon ditched the average sitcom setting and Tribe's "Electric Relaxation" kicked off the shows' opening sequence, it's clear what The Wayans Bros. was about. Viewers tuned in week after week to watch the two youngest brothers wade through life's bullshit while living in Harlem. Shawn, the elder sibling, owned a newsstand in Manhattan's Neidermeyer Building, where Marlon also worked. Just a few feet away, their father had a diner called Pops' Diner. Over the course of the series, Dee, a security guard who worked in the building, acted as an older sister to the pair. In between, they were occasionally annoyed by White Mike (R.I.P Mitch Mullany), and hung out with T.C. and Dupree. The show was criticized for alleged "buffoonery," but that's far from accurate. A significant part of the show's early comedy came from Marlon, but he demonstrated his serious acting chops, by surprise, leaving the newsstand to chase his dream of being an actor. As for Shawn, he was the entrepreneur, taking after his father. The Wayans Bros. enjoyed a five season run on The WB before being unceremoniously cancelled in 1999. As mentioned in Scary Movie, it didn't even get the respect of a proper final episode. Still, it's remained popular over a decade after its cancellation, and fans will stop whatever they're doing when the show comes on television, hoping to catch the episode where Pops and his old singing group, The Temptones, get back together.
Ice Cube is the original "Leimert Park Legend," and currently the title is held by Dom Kennedy, but from the mid-'90s until the early aughts, it belonged to Moesha Mitchell. Brandy starred as the show's title character, a teen living with her middle-class African-American family in South Central. Moesha and her younger brother, Myles, lived with their father Frank and his new wife, Dee. Moesha's circle of friends included the loud Kim, the talkative Niecy, and the ever-present Hakeem. The teens frequented The Den, managed by Andell, one of Moesha's older friends and role models. In a "wait a minute" moment, Brandy's real-life brother Ray J joined the series for the final two seasons as Frank's nephew, Dorian. The show, one of UPN's biggest hits, bravely dealt with issues like drugs, race, premarital sex, and infidelity. Similar to many great black sitcoms, Moesha had plenty of guest appearances, including Onyx's Fredro Starr as Moesha's on-again, off-again boyfriend, Q. Bernie Mac had a recurring role as Frank's brother, Bernie, and athletes such as Kobe Bryant (who took Brandy to his Senior Prom), Vince Carter, and Bo Jackson all had walk-ons. One imagines that Brandy's status in the music world can be credited with the cameos from Master P, DMX, LeAnn Rimes, Russell Simmons, and Big Pun, among others. After Countess Vaughn left the show after the fourth season, a spinoff called The Parkers was created, based around Kim and her mother, Nikki, played by comedian Mo'Nique. Andell went on to appear on The Parkers as a friend of Nikki's.
When thinking of D.C. in the '80s, you're instantly reminded of the Redskins' Doug Williams becoming the first black quarterback to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory, John Thompson's Georgetown Hoyas becoming black America's unofficial basketball team, and the notorious Rayful Edmond flooding the streets with crack. Add 227 to that list, too, if it hasn't already flashed in your brain. Anchored by the dwellers of a middle-class apartment building, the show primarily focused on the lives of Lester and Mary Jenkins, and their teenage daughter Brenda. Joining them were the unfiltered Pearl and her grandson Calvin, who would later become Brenda's boyfriend. 227 became a showcase for the over-the-top personality of Sandra (played by the perfectly over-the-top Jackée Harry) and a young Countess Vaughn, who earned a recurring role after her appearance on Star Search. During its peak, 227 experienced better ratings than every program with a largely African-American cast (with the obvious exception of The Cosby Show). These days, it lives on in syndication and an extremely random appearance in Pineapple Express. It's more than your grandmom's favorite show—it's your friendly neighborhood weed dealer's favorite, too.
It all began with a segment from The Original Kings of Comedy, where Bernie Mac took in his sister's children after she entered rehab. Fox turned the situation into a weekly sitcom that was much different from what fans of Mac were used to, specifically his loud, animated tirades. Mac stayed true to his signature humor as much as the constraints of broadcast television permitted, but just like in real life, his love for his family was more than apparent. The show was also famous for Mac's frequent breaking of the fourth wall, which he did to relay the importance or absurdity of a given moment to the audience. The Bernie Mac Show went strong on Fox for five seasons, seeing a 100th episode before the series ended. Because Mac played himself, there were plenty of celebrity cameos a la Curb Your Enthusiasm, ranging from Hugh Hefner to Shaquille O'Neal. Bernie Mac passed away in August 2008, but his stand-up, numerous film roles, and all form integral parts of his untouchable legacy.
Chris Rock's always been candid about his upbringing in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, often explaining that the hardships of his childhood fueled his career. Not only did they push him to rise above his situation, they provided fodder for his comedy routine. Bring the Pain, one of Rock's finest stand-up performances, draws heavily on his childhood, and in the fall of 2005, he brought those memories to TV with Everybody Hates Chris. Set during the 1980s, Everybody Hates Chris chronicled Rock's painful fight for respect, a battle that started in his own home. On the show, his parents constantly harass him; he lives in the shadow of his younger brother; even his little sister gets the best of him. He's bullied in his neighborhood and at school, and everything that he wants always seems out of reach. Everybody Hates Chris was praised for using humor to interrogate race and class problems in America. It garnered several Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, in addition to claiming several NAACP Image Awards. In 2007, Tyler James Williams (who played the lead), became the youngest person to win an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series. He was just 14.
This pioneering show starred Diahann Carroll as Julia Baker, a widowed single mother working as a nurse. After her husband was killed fighting in Vietnam, Baker was left to raise her young son, Corey, on her own. Well-known black actors Paul Winfield and Fred Williamson appeared as potential suitors for Carroll's character. The show ran for three seasons on NBC before it was cancelled in 1971 after Carroll and creator Hal Kanter decided that they wanted to explore other projects.
Critics attacked the show for the lack of a male role model, and because of bold decisions like that, Julia will always be remembered as a trailblazer, and something almost every media student at a historically black college or university has pressed into their memory forever.
After the cancellation of Living Single, black women were left without a go-to show. In 2000, the answer arrived: Girlfriends. Set in Cali, the show chronicled the lives of Traci Ellis-Ross's Joan and her circle of friends, which included the sassy Maya, the carefree Lynn, and Joan's best friend, the diva that was Toni. The perfectly square Williams, a co-worker of Joan's, fulfilled the role of requisite guy friend. Girlfriends dealt with topics like dating, sexuality, parenthood, interracial relationships, and the particular struggles of being black in the 21st century. The show's writers stayed mindful of current events, working Hurricane Katrina into the plot. In 2006, The Game premiered, a spinoff of Girlfriends that followed Melanie Barnett. It's still producing new episodes.
A spinoff of Maude, Good Times remains one of the most essential and controversial black television shows ever produced. Created by Cooley High writer Eric Monte, the show focused on the struggles of the Evans family, who lived in a Chicago housing project. Though no one ever came out and said it, the housing project was the notorious Cabrini-Green projects, where Monte grew up. The main characters included working class parents James and Florida, and their three children. James Jr., or "J.J." was an animated toothpick; Thelma was the middle sibling; and socially conscious Michael was the youngest. The family was frequently visited by their neighbor Willona, who would later adopt abuse victim Penny (played by a very young Janet Jackson). Every now and then, superintendent Bookman would appear with his tool belt. Good Times depicted a close-knit family that remained positive despite their difficult living conditions. The show was revered for its depiction of urban life, yet declined to portray African-Americans in a negative light—until J.J. turned into a caricature. After his "Dy-no-mite!" catchphrase became a national fixation, the producers changed the show's direction to focus more on his moronic behavior than the Evans family itself. This did not sit well with leads John Amos and Esther Rolle. Disagreements about the show's direction and a contract dispute led to Amos' James Sr. character being written off of the show. In arguably (and unfortunately) the show's most famous moment, Florida yells, "Damn, damn, DAMN!" after learning that James has been killed in a car accident. Shortly after, Rolle left the show, leaving Willona to occasionally check on the children. Rolle returned for the show's final season after bargaining with the showrunners, but by then the show's popularity had faded. Good Times lives on through hip-hop references and syndication. Its theme song was immortalized by Chappelle's Show's "I Know Black People" skit. Everybody wondered what the exact lyrics were, but nobody had ever come out and asked. But Dave did. Just another example of Chappelle's Show brilliance.