It’s been 25 years since the series finale of In Living Color aired (in 1994), and it’s still as vibrant and relevant as ever. At the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, show creator and star Keenen Ivory Wayans was in the building, as well as popular costars Tommy Davidson, Shawn Wayans, Kim Wayans, and David Alan Grier.
Celebrating In Living Color’s 25th anniversary, the 18th annual festival hosted a special screening of the pilot episode with some of the sketch comedy show’s OGs as part of their Tribeca TV program.
Set as the black alternative to Saturday Night Live, In Living Color set a standard for future sketch comedy shows such as Chappelle’s Show and Key & Peele. Grier noted that with In Living Color, it was an opportunity for black creators in comedy to “mine our culture.” As for their mainstream competition, so to speak, Keenen had one mandate: “kick their ass.”
The screening was a nostalgic journey revisiting famous sketches like “Men On Films,” “Love Connection” (shout-out to a young Kim Coles as Robin Givens), and “Homeboy Shopping Network.”
Speaking of the “Men On ...” series, the cast and crew reflected on the controversies that spawned when it debuted, as the sketch featured stereotypically flamboyant gay characters, especially portrayed by men who identified as cis-hetero men.
“I think the sketch could be done now,” Keenen told the audience at the panel, after the pilot’s credits rolled. “I’ve evolved since then, but there was never any malice from our portrayals—at least from my perspective at that time, but it was definitely of that time…We have more information now about gay culture, so we could make it even funnier. We’re talking about a time when gay people didn’t have a voice…The intent of In Living Color was to include everyone. We did handicapped characters, we did everyone.”
Whether it was controversy or historical impact, you couldn’t deny that In Living Color stood out from the rest. For example, their live show during the Super Bowl set the precedent for halftime shows to come. Yes, the very concept of the major halftime show.
“You know I was doing Boomerang,” Grier recalled to The Root on the red carpet. “And what I didn’t know is Keenen let me go to be in Boomerang, but he never told Fox. He just told the Hudlins—Reggie Hudlin and his brother Warrington—to have me back in time for taping.
“The year later was when they hired Michael Jackson,” said Grier, noting that beforehand it was more “Guerrilla TV.” “Before us, it was Up with the People. They didn’t have to spend money because they knew they had a captive audience, so they had like young Christian singers or people dressed as oranges.”
That was just one of the many memorable moments the legendary sketch show provided, of course.
In fact, the very first lines of the catchy theme song, “You can do what you want to do...” came from Keenen’s very early development of the show. Keenen told the story of how he was approached after his feature film directorial debut, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Basically, television executives approached him, and because Keenen claimed to have no interest involving himself in television over film, the execs told him, “You can do whatever you want to do.” Sold. And that’s why, Keenan confirmed, those very words are in the theme.
Other tidbits from the panel included Shawn reminiscing on his time as the “baby” on set and not appearing on the pilot episode because he was a PA at the time (oh yeah, they didn’t dive headfirst into that nepotism shit, he still had to work his way up the industry ladder). Also touched on? The crew’s creative battle with network censors (at the time, the censors weren’t so familiar with slang such as “toss your salad” or “bumbaclot” so they let it ride, unknowingly); Tommy hilariously (and aptly) comparing the cast to The X-Men—with Keenen being their Professor X—and Keenen’s mantra that there is “never a small player in any sketch.”
As I told Kim and Shawn on the red carpet, the Wayans are comedic royalty, so I had to know what’s next for their empire. “We’re in the lab developing some stuff,” the brother and sister duo confirmed.
Not only did In Living Color set a precedent for comedians of color onscreen, but behind the scenes, as well. Keenen noted that their staff (from the writers to the tech crew) was made up of 80 percent women/women of color and theirs was the first to have a black woman, Terri McCoy, to direct a sketch show. Words that are seemingly used more as buzz than action—diversity and inclusion—were real on the set of In Living Color.
“What we did then, people are fighting about now. It ain’t that hard, you just gotta do it,” Keenen said.