Happens at almost every TV press tour.
Some reporter, innocently or otherwise, asks a question of a showrunner or star of some hit show on stage in the Grand Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton. The star or showrunner takes umbrage, and -- suddenly -- there’s electricity where before there had only been static. It happened Thursday during the session for “black-ish,” ABC’s series starring Emmy nominees Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross.
Everything was going nicely -- or blandly -- when out of the dark, emerged this question: “Now that it’s all settled and the show’s a success, you must have some statistics or information about how much of the audience is black and how much is white, and I was wondering if you could share that and maybe share how that information shapes your sensibilities about how you write.”
The first indication that the 2016 Summer Press tour was finally about to get really interesting came from Laurence Fishburne (who plays Pops), also on stage and mostly quiet during the proceedings:
“What an odd question.”
Then, it got interesting.
Kenya Barris, showrunner and co-creator, brusquely said that shaping scripts to reflect the racial component of the audience was not his “goal,” then added: “I would be so happy when ‘diversity’ is not a word. You know what I’m saying? I have the best job in the world, and I am constantly having to talk about diversity. I have the best actors. It’s ridiculous. We are at a time when everything is about black and white and this and that. We get opportunities, and we are happy to be people who can step up say ‘We can do this.’”
“It doesn’t matter who is watching our show. The fact is that they’re watching it, and I feel like every question, every panel (this comes up), and I’m tired. I’m so tired of talking about diversity. These are amazing talented actors and amazing writers who give their all and don’t have to do this, and it’s clouding the conversation. It’s clouding the conversation.”
Bravo, Kenya, and thanks for making the TV press tour something a little more than “I-decided-to-star-in-this-show-after-I-read-the-brilliant-script-by-so-and-so.” (Yes, press tours --as fun or interesting as they can be --are really just big sales conventions where stars and their producers are trying to sell their show. But you know that already.)
Bravo, reporter, too.
Barris was not done:
“I know you didn’t mean anything about it. I’m not trying to attack you. But you have to understand that ... we have goals, and we’re very, very happy to be in the forefront in saying, ‘look what we can do.’ Look around! Look at this racist political race! It isn’t even about ‘Republican.’ It really comes down to why we’re so divisive as (a nation). We always have to sort of box everything in. Isn’t this just a good family show? You know what I’m saying? It’s specifically about a black family. We’re not running from that. But don’t you see yourself in it? Don’t you see your family reflected in it? Why is that important who watches the show? Why does it matter? Why do we keep having these conversations? Why can’t we just look at this show for what it is and celebrate these actors?”
It wasn’t quite over. Ross then stepped into the fray, asking the reporter in the audience -- no doubt under his chair by now -- “I actually have a question. Is that a question that you’ve asked other shows that are not predominantly of a certain color?”
Yes, all quite entertaining, but serious, too. These sorts of nuts-and-bolts questions are NOT asked of hit shows with predominantly white casts. No one -- for example -- probably asked Glen and Les Charles at the panel for “Cheers” back in the day: “Oh sure, it’s a place where everybody knows everybody’s name ... but why is everybody so WHITE?”
Just doesn’t happen, and this question -- innocent, well-meaning, and gloriously, unintentionally designed to open a can of worms -- did exactly that. Open a can of worms.
Fact is, some of the best shows on television are about the search for identity in a world that has co-opted that identity. “Mr. Robot,” for example, is about that search for fundamental human identity in a world where technology has striped identikit away, rendering humanity a race of automatons with their noses glued to their iPhones.
Think of how showrunner Sam Esmail would respond to this question: “Now that ‘Mr. Robot’ is a hit, do you ever think of getting in-show promotional mentions for Snapchat or Instagram?”
Meanwhile, “black-ish” is about a family’s search for racial identity in a world that’s co-opted that identity, and the comic undertones and overtones of Dre Johnson’s (Anderson) struggle to find some middle ground at work, or frantically hold onto shards of the rapidly fraying identity at home. It’s a funny premise in the hands of Barris and Anderson, but could just as easily be tragic. (And there are episodes, like the famous one about Black Lives Matters, which are tragic.)
It’s certainly not about trying to figure out how to make the material a little more palatable to white viewers, or even black ones. It’s just about being true to the vision of the show.
Anderson -- raised in Compton -- has talked often about the theme of identity and acculturation before. He said this Thursday: “Kenya and I sat down three-and-a-half, four years ago now, and looked at the landscape of television and saw what was missing for us. And I’m proud to be up here on this stage with all these foot soldiers up here. This is for us by us. We get to tell our stories every week that resonate with an audience globally. And we couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”
Barris, meanwhile, ended the session by handing an olive branch to the reporter -- who by the way, deserves everyone’s gratitude for making this panel interesting -- with this: “I really appreciate your question. Our audience is 23 percent black. It’s majority white but ... You kind of got the brunt of the bigger sort of narrative that I don’t want the show to take on.”
ABC, he added, “let us really, really tell what this family has been doing. We get to talk about really serious things sometimes, but ... we’re able to sort of make it a spoonful of sugar to let it go down, and people actually can hear the message while laughing, and I think that’s really important.”