I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke, what the exaggeration is. —George Carlin
Any comedian or comedy writer will tell you that most ideas for jokes stem from a painful experience. Moments of embarrassment, emotional distress and grief often translate wonderfully to comedy. For this reason, the term “black comedy” seems a bit oxymoronic at times. Most comedy comes from a dark place and so already has its roots set in the morbid, the taboo and the off-putting.
The is especially true for black comedy, as in, the comedy of black folks. In her acclaimed text, Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery, Glenda Carpio highlights the relationship between grief and comedy, its historical roots, and how it is uniquely presented by comedians like Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle. In her introduction, she shares—as an example of how humor has the capability to be dark, enjoyable and also to expose and invert stereotypes—an old-time classic from the Master and John folktale series:
Master got his slave with the longest dick and said “I don’t want no black screwing my daughter, but she wants sixteen inches.” John said, “Naw suh, boss. Not even for a white woman. I wouldn’t cut two inches off my dick for nobody!”
Feeling offended? Uncomfortable? Ashamed (for laughing, perhaps)? Well, that’s part of the point and the genius of comedy. And although Survivor’s Remorse, now entering into its second season, doesn’t quite take things this far, its uniquely black comedy (and I mean that in both ways) makes much of its dialogue jaw-dropping, intelligent and—most importantly—funny. All of this made even more sense when I met the cast and crew on a set visit in Atlanta as they shot for Season Two. With all this dark humor and adult comedy, it was refreshing to see the laid back, familial bond that seemed to pulsate through this well-oiled machine.
“I know that every showrunner says this about their cast, but our cast is just so tremendously talented. I’m just so proud of working on this show,” Mike O’Malley boasts. He speaks highly of Jessie T. Usher, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps, RonReaco Lee, Teyonah Parris and Erica Ash—the main players in his series about what happens when a young kid from Dorchester Mass., makes it to the NBA, and has to take his whole family (and his survivor’s remorse) right along with him. In Season One, Cam Calloway (Usher) looked, sounded and smelled like new money, with his desire to save and help out those old acquaintances he left behind, and his difficulty accepting newfound responsibility as a public figure. But Usher says, in Season Two, we can expect a rebirth of sorts, and a maturity level that we didn’t see in the first six episodes.
“In the second season, Cam has developed a sense of manhood and it shows quite a bit,” Usher explains. “His money and fame is still relatively new, but now he can handle himself and his family in a much better way. His trust in Reggie has increased and his love for his family overall is even stronger.”
In a way, Calloway’s journey might mimic his own. Usher’s biggest role prior to getting cast on Survivor’s Remorse was on Cartoon Network’s Level Up. But on set in Atlanta, he’s shooting in the morning, then heading straight to the gym. He does not ever miss a workout, a dedication that likely has much to do with his lead role in the highly anticipated Independence Day sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence. He is, naturally, not allowed to reveal any plot details, but there’s a light in his eyes and an infectious excitement when the movie comes up—he looks like Cam Calloway, walking into his brand new home in the Season One pilot … and then again in the Season Two pilot episode, which executive producer LeBron James released early last week, ahead of its August 22 premiere. That lightness of spirit balances out (and sometimes necessarily clashes against) some of the darker comedy that the show pulls off so well.
And although Usher plays, for the most part, a good guy, he’s not always nice. Last season, he was reluctant to honor the dying wishes of a young teen who wanted to meet him. His forced visit to the hospital where the boy was in a coma resulted in one of the most hilariously offensive lines on TV that year: “Kids without eyebrows fuck me up!” When I bring up this moment, in an attempt to argue that Calloway isn’t all survivor’s remorse and cupcakes, Usher throws his head back and laughs heartily.
“His honesty makes him funny!” he says in defense of his character. And it’s true; there’s a realness to the guy that allows the audience to experience some good ol’ fashioned wish-fulfillment, where we get to see the life of an athlete off the court, behaving badly and attending charity events begrudgingly. On Survivor’s Remorse, the personal life—in clashing with the public persona—is a lot more dramatic and lot less PC. (That cancer-stricken kid, for example, goes on to awake from the coma, curse out Calloway and his whole family, before demanding that they hire some strippers to possibly, hopefully take away his virginity in case he slips back into a coma and dies again. More hilarity and darkness ensues from there.)
Mike Epps’ character, unsurprisingly, plays a major role in some of this. In some ways, he’s the guy we’ve come to know in his films and stand-up specials—Day-Day, but all grown up, better dressed and mature enough to even occasionally be the voice of reason. Off set, he’s almost all silliness. We all laugh when Tichina Arnold offers him a salad from the lunch room and he scoffs, “Nah, I don’t eat healthy.” You think he’s kidding until you witness the deadpan look he gives her. It feels right.
But O’Malley and his writers saved some of the boldest humor for the women on the series, particularly Ash and Arnold who make a powerful duo as sister and mother, respectively, to Calloway. Last season they teamed up and, in a scene that would have perfectly proven Glenda Carpio’s argument about the usefulness of comedy juxtaposed against the legacy of slavery, attempted to get a deal on their dream home by claiming that the homeowners were descendants of the slave owners to whom their Calloway ancestors had belonged. We can expect similarly outrageous antics this season. And for Erica Ash, M-Chuck’s brazen comedy is the best part about her.
“The way that she can just so effortlessly and unabashedly say the things that most people would be very uncomfortable saying—that’s her unique quality,” Ash explains. “And that’s the thing that draws people to her character—she has something you want.” Even Ash, who sees some of herself in the character, admires these traits and admits to drawing on her “inner M-Chuck” when situations call for it.
M-Chuck fits in perfectly with the rest of this bodacious cast, but stands out in the television landscape partly due to the fact that she’s a gay, black character for whom being gay and black isn’t especially an issue. Her character has a supportive family because, in many ways, this is a family show. A series about an NBA player could have centered on a lot of other things, but it’s clear that O’Malley (who spent years writing on Shameless) knows that, if you’re going to do dark comedy, there’s endless material within the family unit.
Those familial vibes do not dissipate when the cameras stop rolling. Erica Ash and Jessie Usher are a lot like a little brother and big sister, pranking each other in between takes and during any down time. Arnold is a regal, matriarchal figure (a comedy legend for the audience that grew up on Martin, and beloved by those who still lament the end of Everybody Hates Chris); she is often heard before she is seen. And Ash warms when she talks about O’Malley’s role in it all.
“He’s very protective of all of us, which I love.”
In addition to all of that intense, inherent humor, there’s another reason O’Malley chooses to focus on the family in his series. It gives him an opportunity to address class divide in a unique way, and he uses the one married couple in the family, Reggie and Missy Vaughn (played by two incredibly underrated talents in TV, RonReaco Lee and Teyonah Parris) to do so. Before I can even bring up the fact that Sister, Sister was one of few TV shows I was allowed to watch growing up, Lee expresses sincere gratitude that O’Malley and the casting crew gave him a chance to shed his cookie-cutter image and “finally play the asshole.”
But in truth, Lee, who plays Calloway’s cousin and manager is less asshole and more pragmatist. When I suggest that, unlike Cam, he has a “let the dead bury the dead” attitude about the people his family left behind in the hood (so to speak), he laughs, then quiets and smiles. “I never heard it put like that before,” he says, but agrees that there’s accuracy to the statement.
Lee has an introspective nature that’ll serve him well when he eventually gets into directing, something he’s planned to do for some time now. But in the meantime, he’s proud to play a character like Reggie, who, alongside Missy Vaughn, represents what he calls “the new Huxtables.” For him, it’s highly significant that there are so few successful (both in terms of the relationship and their careers) black couples on television. Reggie and Missy are even more fascinating because they hail from two very different worlds. But instead of a heavy-handed “Look, America has a class problem!” approach that the writers could have taken, Survivor’s Remorse plays a little more gracefully.
In the Season One finale, written by Mad Men scribe and executive producer Victor Levin, Mrs. Vaughn (played perfectly by Parris, a Juilliard graduate and Mad Men alum) opens up to her husband about her biggest heartbreak. The difference between their narratives is that he fell in love with a beautiful but unfaithful around-the-way girl, while she fell in love while studying abroad in Spain.
“Regardless of the fact that they love each other, the base of their past is so vastly different,” O’Malley explains. “Here’s Missy who went to prep school, has traveled Europe, and has a father who pulls levers in the halls of power. She’s someone who can navigate that world of power and influence, and yet is seeking out for herself—in her relationship with Reggie—some other kind of American authenticity.”
In a way, this idea perfectly highlights the show’s significance. In this Golden Age of TV, it’s unfortunate that so many of the stories look and sound alike, at least in terms of character make-up. Indeed, we are starved for “some other kind of American authenticity”—something that is both unique and familiar to many of us—something relatable and other-worldly. Survivor’s Remorse, though still young and imperfect, gives us a glimpse at the American Dream, but without the respectability politics that often accompanies these stories about successful black families (the few that exist in the TV landscape). That this is a series capable of delivering such a story, while taking on issues like religion, class divides and heartbreak, all while embracing both light and dark comedy (there are, after all, just as many laughs about Uncle Julius’ bowel movements as there is comedy of a more cynical or morbid nature), is quite a feat. That police brutality is as much fodder for humor as the inappropriate Nelson Mandela jokes that carry through the Season Two premiere, proves that the writers of Survivor’s Remorse subscribe to the George Carlin school of thought, where nothing is off limits, and anything can be funny, depending on the joke’s construction.
But all of the dark humor in the world and inside jokes turned outward (like the one about how black people think white people smell when they’re wet… because, yes, they went there) couldn’t save the show if we didn’t trust the characters and their stories first. Jessie Usher knows this, and knows that it’s easier to build that trust when there’s an authenticity among the cast members. This is something he feels he’s especially achieved with RonReaco Lee, and indeed, their relationship carries much of the show’s burden.
“[We’ve] had great chemistry since our first read together. Over time we’ve gained so much trust in each other’s performance that we can let loose and lay ourselves bare on camera,” he explains. If Season One was about establishing these relationships, Season Two will, hopefully, put these entertaining characters into more vulnerable positions, where they’ll get to do just that—lay themselves bare, as humans sometimes do.
And that’s one of the most important things that O’Malley wants to get across. Sure, he’s a white guy showrunning a series about a black family, but he is quick to point out that the final product is a portrait of a family, and a completely collaborative effort between himself, the actors, directors (like this season’s Peter Segal and Debbie Allen), producers LeBron James and Maverick Carter, and a writers room that can boast more diversity than most other TV shows. All of this collaboration is the reason we get excellent Chief Keef references (“Bowling? That’s that shit I don’t like”) that play like perfectly crafted, but casual moments of comedy.
These inside jokes, though small, are no small matter. Black comedy, as in African-American comedy, thrives and has allowed the black community to survive and thrive because of a unique humor that is curated to specific tastes and specific experiences. But the success of comedians like Richard Pryor and shows like Chappelle’s Show highlight the fact that, what is specific to one culture is almost always universal in some way and therefore has universal appeal. There is danger in this universal appeal (danger of appropriation, danger of misunderstanding), but if it wasn’t dangerous, it wouldn’t be exciting. We can get excited about Survivor’s Remorse because it’s going to exist in that wonderful comedic space where stereotypes, cultural and social critiques and offensive humor all mix in, like an American melting pot with, finally, finally, an unapologetically black (in humor and in race) family at the center.
“We’re writing about people,” O’Malley reminds me as we wrap up. “You hear it all the time. If people would just spend more time with people of different backgrounds, they’d realize how much they have in common,” he adds. Sure, he sounds like a bit of an idealist, but it’s all tempered when, a short while later he’s talking about death and the “beautiful and precarious” finitude of life.
Survivor’s Remorse is a stark reflection of its showrunner, its stars and the many other people and parts that make the series work. It’s a family circus on both sides of the camera, which might help explain why most everyone will leave each episode feeling, at some point or another, offended, uncomfortable, embarrassed, but almost assuredly laughing—kind of like an extended family reunion. These people are crazy, but dammit if they don’t feel like home. The genius of Survivor’s Remorse is that, instead of embracing the concept of family as “normal” or “all-loving,” it embraces it as inherently flawed, complicated and incredibly dark—a strange experience that exists within the even stranger world of America and its dark past. If in 2015 we can still laugh, even as the American present—especially for black Americans—looks suspiciously like America past, then we are participating in a tradition of humor that’s always carried us through dark times.
It’s a hefty weight to place upon a show about a ball player and his kooky family, but we need Survivor’s Remorse to remain unapologetically black and, therefore, unquestionably universal. And given what we’ve seen so far, there’s every reason to believe that it will do just that.
Season Two of Survivor’s Remorse premieres on Starz, Saturday August 22 at 9:30 PM.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon, Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.