In today's current climate of endless reality shows, it struck me that there are few quality situational
comedies on television today that accurately reflect the lives of people of color. (No, House of Payne and Meet the Browns don't count.
Thanks for asking, though.) In the 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement, we have elected a black
president, but somehow the black primetime line-up has gotten worse. Having black comedies and
television shows are important not only because they show the fullness of black life, but because they
give black artists in other fields, specifically music, a chance to shine.
Ah, the cameo. From Sanford & Son to Girlfriends, some of the best episodes on black shows
have been when a musician shows up and tears the house down with a musical performance or random apperance. While
it gives the artist a chance do their thing, these appearances also provide the show a particular street
credibility. It's like getting the high school quarterback to star in a school play -- he's probably terrible at
acting, but it gives the students a reason to come to the show. Besides, what better way to promote a
new album or concert than to beam into millions of households without having to pay for airfare?
Perhaps the show that best used this method was Martin, where the eponymous Martin Lawrence
clearly pulled some strings to get the generation's hottest rappers, singers, and stars to add mad flavor
to the show. It helped that Martin was the Kevin Hart of the 1990s -- vertically challenged, insanely funny, and wildly
popular. Artists actually wanted to come on his show and he let them, regardless of whether their acting
skills were any good. In fact, if they couldn't act, that made their appearance even funnier.
Martin could do this because his character was a radio DJ, giving a plausible reason for musicians to
be on the show. For example, on the "Woman With a Past" episode Martin gets in his feelings during an interview
when he thinks R&B crooner Keith Washington is coming back to Detroit
to rekindle his romance with Gina. This all comes to a head when Martin grills Keith on his love habits
rather than asking about his upcoming album:
Keith Washington: What type of interview is this?
Martin: Hey man, I'm just asking the questions people wanna know. Why, you got something to
hide? Something in your past, man?
Keith Washington: What? No! But you did stir up some memories...I remember there was one
fine sista in my church choir. I mean she had lips, hips, mwah! She had all of that, pal. And I
promised myself one day I'm gonna come back for her. *wistful look into the distance*
Even though the only other place anyone's seen Keith Washington is on the side of a Duke texturizer kit (just kidding, in a funny turn of events, KW is now a radio DJ in Detroit), the fact
that he could cross art forms like is important. Remember, this is the AOL chatroom era. Other artists
stopped through, too: Notorious B.I.G., Millie Jackson, Brian McKnight, Little Richard, Kenneth "Babyface"
Edmonds, and Jodeci -- all of them had opportunity to share their talent in that space. And Martin wasn't
the only show to do this. Good Times, The Cosby Show, A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Living Single -- you name a sitcom, and a musician has
probably guest starred on it. And let's not forget the hour-long cop drama New York Undercover that not only had weekly musical guests performing at the fictional supper club Natalie's but had two soundtracks to come from the series to boot!
I'd be willing to wager that most of the shows on air today with black folks are reality-based, meaning
the only guest appearances by musicians are when they have failed to pay their child support or need cell phone bill money when the checks stop coming in. Unfortunately, that's the turn that the industry has taken. Therefore, it is crucial to have scripted television shows (and other art forms, for that matter) where artists can diversify their portfolios, flex their acting or performance skills, and not just be called in as a guest star when their going has gotten tough. In the past, that platform has proven itself to be priceless and thankfully available today in reruns and on DVD.