In Living Color hit network television like a whack from Homey D. Clown’s sock when it debuted on Fox in 1990. The iconic sketch comedy show, created by Keenan Ivory Wayans, helped to crystallize an unprecedented black music and comedy renaissance that was taking place, in the process launching future superstars like Jennifer Lopez, Jamie Foxx and Jim Carrey into orbit. Hip-hop gave In Living Color its zest, becoming the basis for many of the show’s sketches and live performances, and the language in which the actors spoke.
Writer David Peisner chronicled In Living Color’s rise and fall in his new book, Homey Don’t Play That!: The Story of In Living Color and the Black Comedy Revolution (out now), chatting with Billboard about the pivotal TV show’s lasting impact on music, and vice versa.
What drew you to writing a history of In Living Color?
I was a big fan of the show when it came on. Around 2015 — the 25th anniversary of the show debuting — I started to think about how it seemed like a really big, important show and moment that hadn’t been explored much. Early ’90s hip-hop was a regional thing that was big on the coasts but hadn’t really infiltrated the mainstream yet. Then you had Robert Townsend, Arsenio Hall and Spike Lee bubbling up around the same time. It seemed like a good way of writing about that time period and thinking about how things have changed — and how they haven’t.
Hip-hop culture was integral to In Living Color, from the sketches and comedic voice to the fashion and guest performances. Was there a symbiotic relationship between the show and the music?
Absolutely. Along with The Arsenio Hall Show, these were the first shows that were created by people who grew up part of hip-hop culture. So hip-hop wasn’t just something that was showcased on In Living Color — both in the songs that the Fly Girls would dance to and the live performances — it was in the show’s DNA. The style and attitude was drawing so much from hip-hop. Yes, the show could help [a group] like De La Soul be seen outside of New York and L.A., all across Middle America. But hip-hop fueled the show. It wasn’t a one-way street. It’s impossible to pull those things apart.
That much is apparent from the theme song. How did Heavy D come to create that?
In the original pilot, the theme song is “What’s Your Favorite Color?” by the band Living Colour. There’s some debate as to whether the band’s name is where the show got its name — Keenan certainly doesn’t say it was. Anyway, the band wouldn’t license [the song] to the show. Heavy D was a family friend so they asked him, “Can you do this?” He came back with something that was perfect, exactly what they wanted. The band Living Colour actually sued the show. I think they settled out of court.
All these years later, current artists are now paying homage to the show. What was the significance of Bruno Mars and Cardi B’s honoring In Living Color with the “Finesse (Remix)” video and performance at the Grammys?
It was pretty fortuitous for me [laughs]. I worked on this book for a couple of years and that song drops two weeks before the book is supposed to come out. I wish I could take credit for coordinating that with Bruno. But I’d heard the song before I saw the video and the song itself is a throwback to that New Jack Swing era. It’s very much an early ’90s kind of song. But what I took away is that people still think about In Living Color. That video is a tribute to the show and an era that people are starting to recognize was a big turning point.
Your book discusses the upbringing in the Wayans household — there was racial awareness and a black pride sentiment there. Which adds context to skits like Jim Carrey’s parodies of Vanilla Ice and Snow, both of which hinge on the issue of cultural appropriation. It’s interesting that they were having that conversation nearly 30 years ago.
Definitely. And we’re still having it now. I think one of the reasons why they were having that conversation at that show was because, yes, this was a black sketch show but a majority of the writers were white. They had to come to terms with how comfortable they were writing jokes about black culture, making African-Americans the butt of jokes. To Keenan’s credit, he tried to create an anything-goes atmosphere among those writers. Like, “We may tell you, ‘No, you stepped over that line — but we’re not going to exile you. You’re here to be funny, to push that boundary.’” And I’m a white guy, so this is another layer to that. Is this really my story to tell? I had to go through those same thought processes that some of the writers had gone through on the show. It’s interesting, it’s ongoing and it’s not going to stop anytime soon.
How did In Living Color set up Jennifer Lopez and Jamie Foxx to launch their own musical careers?
I think they’re two different cases. Jamie Foxx was chomping at the bit. He was really a musician who was doing comedy so people would pay attention to his music. People told me stories about how he’d bother the musical guests, trying to slip them his demo tape. The first time he got to do music on the show was ironically the day that Keenan and his whole family quit. He sang Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” — it was his big chance to show that he could sing in front of 20 million people. But everyone on the cast was furious, didn’t want to be on stage. It was kind of a mess. But Jamie was not going to be kept down. [The show] ended up being a good thing for him. Whether he was around the musical guest at the show or music producers and executives backstage — because it was kind of a cool place to hang out — it put him in that world for the first time. But it was still a while before his music career took off.
With J. Lo, she always had that ambition to do more than just be a dancer. That actually caused her some problems on the show — her ambitiousness and looking out for herself certainly rubbed some people the wrong way. She always wanted to do more at the show. There’s a whole detour where the Fly Girls were trying to become a singing group and she was a part of that, of course. But she was probably feeling a little stymied while she was there. Keenan wanted the Fly Girls to be a music group and maybe have a TV show, branch out and franchise into a clothing line. But it was his vision — I don’t think he was particularly interested in the individual visions that each of the dancers might’ve had for themselves. But when you talk about Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Lopez, you’re obviously talking about people with massive amounts of talent and ambition, which is why they ended up where they are.
The In Living Color set was a hangout and breeding ground for creatives, tastemakers and celebrities. Did you hear of any collaboration that resulted from these types being in the same proximity?
I think to some extent that must’ve happened. Guys like Dave Chappelle and Chris Tucker, Tupac [Shakur] and Biggie were backstage at times. One of my favorite musical moments from the show is when Heavy D & the Boyz performed the song “You Can See What I Can’t See.” People are going crazy, dancing on stage. The cast and the crew is out there. If you look closely, you can see Tupac and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs arm-in-arm on stage together, dancing and bouncing around. It was early days for Tupac and Puff Daddy was nobody at that time. These are just young, creative, ambitious guys who were just excited to be in this environment together.
Were there any other memorable music moments related to the show that you learned while making this book?
Rosie Perez told me this story about how TLC were supposed to be musical guests on the show. They used to wear condoms as accessories — it was a safe sex thing — but this is the early ’90s and people were not cool with that on TV. Fox said to them, “You can’t wear them.” And there may have also been a lyric on the song they wanted to change. TLC never ended up being on the show because they walked.
What do you think is the legacy that In Living Color leaves behind in regards to music?
There was no other place on primetime network TV where you were going to get an audience of 15 million to 20 million people for a rapper. There wasn’t anything close. So In Living Color was a beacon or a road map for people to start finding the stuff, showing people that this whole world was out there.