The Filtered Excellence – BLM Edition: All Time Great Black Sketch Comedy/Variety Shows

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Bob Geldof once asked us, “Where is the filtered excellence!?” It’s right here. Once a week we take a break from comedy to bring you this week’s picks of the best things to watch, the most interesting things to do, great things to try, the best picks to read, our favorite things to listen to and more.


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As the Black Lives Matter protests continue to happen around the nation, we wanted to continue to look at the great contributions African-Americans have made to pop culture. This week, we wanted to look at five great sketch comedy/variety series that have left an indelible mark on the world of comedy and entertainment.

The Flip Wilson Show. Debuting in 1970, The Flip Wilson Show was a game changer. With it’s theater in the round setting, Wilson’s warm, buoyant personality and overall presentation gave the show a more intimate, immediate feeling that was missing in most variety programs. Characters such as Reverend Leroy, Herbie The Ice Cream Man, and the iconic Geraldine, became show benchmarks. Wilson also used his clout to feature the biggest names in comedy (Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Joan Rivers, Lilly Tomlin, Albert Brooks); and music (Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Lena Horne, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, The Jackson 5, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Johnny Cash) that catered to every age bracket. Within two years, The Flip Wilson Show was the the 2nd highest ranked show on TV, won two Emmy Awards, and Wilson became one of the few comedians to land on the cover of Time Magazine. Throughout its four year run, it’s set new standards and it’s impact on the sketch comedy/variety series is undeniable. Episodes of The Flip Wilson Show are available now on Amazon Prime.

The Richard Pryor Show. After scoring huge ratings with his 1977 TV Special, Richard Pryor and NBC went all in with a prime time sketch comedy/variety show. Expectations were high as Pryor put together a killer supporting cast that included Robin Williams, long time collaborator Paul Mooney, Sandra Bernhard, John Witherspoon, Tim Reid, Vic Dunlop, Marsha Warfield and Edie McClurg. But the marriage was doomed from jump. First, the network put the very adult show in Tuesday ‘family hour’ 8pm slot, against ABC’s powerhouse lineup of Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Pryor frequently clashed with network censors over content, with material being heavily edited or cut altogether. Ratings were abysmal, ranking 86th out of 104 shows. After only four episodes, The Richard Pryor Show was cancelled in October 1977. Even in its redacted version, sketches such as ‘Black President’, ‘Star Wars Bar’, ‘Black Death’ capture Pryor’s wit, timing and his ability to be in the moment and transcend it at the same time. As the series closed out, the cast decided to roast Pryor in the vein that that Dean Martin did for several years on NBC. Given the talent that was on the show, the hits were fast and furious. But, as you would expect, the guest of honor leveled the place as only Richard Pryor could (if you want to see the roast in all its no holds barred glory, it’s available on YouTube). Even as Pryor’s dreams of TV series stardom went up in flames, it’s final segment laid the blueprint for what Comedy Central would later do with the Celebrity Roasts. Despite its short run, it left a huge mark on such shows as In Living Color, Chappelle’s Show (both of whom hired Paul Mooney as a writer/performer) and Key & Peele. Full episodes of The Richard Pryor Show – complete with bonus features – are available now on Amazon.

In Living Color. Keenan Ivory Wayans was able to leverage his success from Hollywood Shuffle (which he co-wrote with Robert Townshend) and I’m Gonna Get You Sucka into a TV deal with the fledging Fox Network. Wayans used Saturday Night Live as a template, with a predominately Black cast and comedy that kept an ear on the street. While Wayans surrounded himself with brothers Damon, Shawn and Marlon and sister Kim, the ensemble also included David Alan Grier, Tommy Davidson, Kim Coles, and a rubber faced actor/comedian from Ontario named Jim Carrey (Jamie Foxx joined the show in Season 3). Wayans also included The Fly Girls, which featured choreography by Rosie Perez, and introduced the world to future stars Jennifer Lopez and Carrie Anna Inaba. When it premiered in the spring of 1990, In Living Color gave ‘hood humor a prime time platform, successfully running as a counterpart to upscale Black comedies such as The Cosby Show. ‘The Homeboy Shopping Network’, ‘Fire Marshall Bill’, ‘Homey D. Clown’ and ‘Men On Film’ all became show staples, pushing the comedic envelope so far that it drew the attention of network executives and the FCC. In 1992, In Living Color hit its peak when they decided to take on the most watched game of the year, Super Bowl XXVI. Running as an alternative to the game’s unwatchable halftime show, In Living Color ran all of its best bits without commercial interruption and pulled viewers away The Big Game. Embarrassed, the NFL spent top dollar to bring in Michael Jackson to headline and has pulled in A-list entertainment ever since. Ironically, what maker the show work contributed to its end. Keenan Ivory Wayans, tired of battling Fox brass over content, stopped making on screen appearances, but stayed on as executive producer. Carrey and Damon Wayans started successful film careers, limiting their appearances on the show. Ratings slipped in Seasons 3 and 4, and the show ended in 1994. But with all of the careers that the show launched and with its reruns still airing on various cable networks, it cements In Living Color’s place in history as one of the all time great sketch comedy series.

Chappelle’s Show. As more time passes, it’s easy to see why Dave Chappelle chose to abruptly walk away from his highly successful Comedy Central series. The fire that he left in its path during those two seasons ranks as one of, if not the best in the sketch comedy series history. Appearing on a cable TV channel gave Chappelle the leeway to explore topics such as race, drugs, gun violence and the current state of the entertainment industry that was nothing short of groundbreaking. What other show has managed to re-contextualize celebrities as ideologically different as Lil’ Jon, and Wayne Brady to such a brilliant effect? We will ever think about Rick James or Prince without thinking of Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories? Never. Clayton Bigsby, Negrodamus (played by Paul Mooney), Tyrone Biggums, and Tron Carter have all become the stuff of legend. Why did Chappelle walk away from the show and the multi-million dollar payday? The answer is simple: He had nothing left to prove. Episodes of Chappelle’s Show are available now on Amazon and iTunes.

Key & Peele. Hoping to fill the void left the abrupt ending of Chappelle’s Show, Comedy Central picked up Key & Peele in 2012. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peel had Working off the great on-air chemistry they honed working on Mad TV, Keegan-Michael Kay and Jordan Peele hilariously tackled race relations, ethnic stereotypes and general social awkwardness. Their national profile went into the stratosphere when their impersonations of President Obama (played by Peele) and his ‘anger translator’ Luther (Key) caught the attention of the Oval Office. Key would end up playing Luther opposite the President at the White House Correspondents Dinner is 2015. The show’s defining moment was the musical number ‘Negrotown’. Peele played the tour guide of a utopian existence for Black people where white people aren’t ‘stealing your culture, claiming it’s theirs’. It was an epic way to end their run, perfectly setting up Peele’s leap into suspenseful social commentary filmmaking. The Complete Key & Peele is available now through Amazon and iTunes.

 

Want more excellence? Read last week’s the filtered excellence.

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