© Kevin Parry for The Paley Center for Media
The PaleyFest Fall TV Previews in Los Angeles give TV fans a chance to catch some of the networks’ latest offerings, and hear from show executives and cast members about the season ahead.
Race relations and cultural identity have been important topics of discussion in America lately, and the cast and creators of ABC’s new half-hour family comedy black-ish hope to add to that dialogue—but through laughter. The Johnsons are at the center of the series, and they live comfortably in Southern California suburbia (mostly a white and Jewish neighborhood). Andre “Dre” Johnson (Anthony Anderson) wonders if his four kids will grow up with a sense of their history—and what it means to be black in America. His wife (Tracee Ellis Ross) and his Pops (Laurence Fishburne) are there to help Dre navigate the waters of parenthood, where the only guarantee is that nothing’s ever black or white.
Joining Anderson, Ross and Fishburne onstage at the Paley Center on Thursday night after a screening of the pilot episode were Kenya Barris (black-ish creator and executive producer), and Larry Wilmore, the executive producer whose extensive credits include The Bernie Mac Show, In Living Color and The Office. In the press room and during the panel discussion we learned these 10 tidbits about the actors, their characters and the upcoming season.
The cast addressed the “controversy” surrounding the name of the show when asked about its meaning. Barris described “black-ish” as “a very inclusive word.” The show, which is based on his family, and takes a look at what it means to be black and affluent in America today, focuses on “[family and] children who are growing up in a homogenized world.” Added Anderson, “It’s our collective lives.” They thought something was missing in the current TV landscape: “We sought to fill that void.”
Barris addressed this question in the press room: “In a way, yes, but no, since it’s based on my life. I am a student and a big fan of [Bill] Cosby. I consider him a mentor, an idol, so in some respects I would love to have the same effect—and the broad reach that show had—but I want to in a different way because it’s a different time. I want it to speak about where we’re at and where we are today.” Later during the panel, Widmer added, “This show is a natural extension of The Jeffersons.”
Fishburne is a busy, busy man, splitting time between Hannibal, black-ish and other projects, but we wanted to know what he watches at home. “There was a period of time where I didn’t watch TV for about 15 years, and I guess about 10 years ago, I started watching television again with my wife, who is an avid TV watcher and has really great taste—and far-reaching taste. I like most of the series that have come from the cable networks. I love Dexter, I love Nurse Jackie, I love Boardwalk Empire...I love Breaking Bad, Mad Men...you know, the usual suspects.”
It needs to be said that Anderson has the best laugh ever, so we had to know what makes him laugh: “Modern Family makes me laugh. How I Met Your Mother makes me laugh. The Big Bang Theory makes me laugh…you know, just quality, truthful stuff makes me laugh.”
“Bernie Mac for me growing up, was the first show that didn’t look like everything else.”
We asked Ross to describe Rainbow in a sentence. Both the actor and character are both mixed race—black and Jewish. (Fun fact: Ross’s mom happens to be Diana Ross.) “Rainbow is a comfortable-in-her-skin anesthesiologist, mother and wife who is very entertained by the antics of her husband, and seems to be the one that grounds him—and yet is just as nuts as he is.”
“Julia Louis-Dreyfus in general is an inspiration….I’m obsessed with [Veep!].”
A lot of people were upset (including the Paste TV staff) when Hannibal was snubbed at the Emmys. We had to ask Fishburne about that: “Aww don’t be bitter…it’s okay. We’re alright. It’s a beautiful show.” And on that last, bloody episode that ended Season Two, all he said was: “Crazy, right” That may be the understatement of the year.
Ross and Fishburne worked together on CSI, when she came aboard for four episodes playing Fishburne’s ex-wife. During the panel, Fishburne complimented both Ross and Anderson for their skills in moving between comedy and drama: ̶They make it look like it’s easy.” Earlier, Ross mentioned to us that comedy is definitely more her wheelhouse: “[Doing CSI] was fun…but it gets really heavy…with [dead bodies] and a lot of rubber gloves!”
debuts on Wednesday, September 24 at 9:30 PM EST on ABC.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.