The evolution of black sitcoms is a reflection of the journey of African-Americans in the United States. From minstrel shows that perpetuated negative racial stereotypes to the emergence of black-only minstrel troupes, the community used entertainment to showcase their talent while also challenging harmful narratives. Black sitcoms in the 70s and 80s emphasized healthy family dynamics and upward mobility, but racism continued to plague the writers’ rooms and sets. However, the 80s saw a shift with The Cosby Show, where Bill Cosby urged the audience to look past race and invited the Huxtables, an upper-middle-class American family, onto their television screens.
The success of the show led to a boom in the genre in the late 80s and 90s with shows like Family Matters, Martin, Roc, Living Single, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. However, with gentrification came changes in viewership, and major networks diversified their catalogs to cater to the young white American man, leading to a decline in black sitcoms in the 2000s. But a new generation of black creators like Tracy Oliver and Issa Rae are shifting gears in the comedy genre, bringing laughter and joy back to stories about African-Americans.
Black sitcoms have a long and complicated history in America. The genre’s rise can be traced back to the early 19th century when minstrel shows were the foremost medium of entertainment in the country. Minstrelsy perpetuated negative stereotypes about African-Americans on stage, reinforcing the community’s portrayal as lazy, dim-witted, and cowardly. However, minstrel shows also opened the entertainment industry to African-American performers, with many famous actors, composers, and singers getting their first break in these shows. Reinforcing racial stereotypes on television helped networks garner ratings, but it also got the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) to protest against shows like Amos ‘n’ Andy in the 1950s. The negative stereotypes promoted in the show got the network to cancel it.
Black sitcoms continued sparsely on networks until the 70s, with shows like Sanford and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons, where themes of upward mobility and healthy family dynamics were stressed upon. However, racism continued to plague the writers’ rooms and sets. Actor John Amos was fired for his vocal opinion on the lack of diversity among Good Times’ writers and the overall negative stereotypical portrayal of the character J.J. Evans.
But things started to take a turn for the better in the 80s with The Cosby Show. The show represented an honest portrayal of an affluent African-American family, tackling complex issues like dyslexia and teen pregnancy during its airtime. The success of the show led to a boom in the genre in the late 80s and 90s, with shows like Family Matters, Martin, Roc, Living Single, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air advancing the critique of race in America while occasionally indulging in stereotypes to do so. However, in the late 90s, many of these beloved sitcoms were taken off the air.
As neighbourhood gentrification started to get more pronounced in the United States, major networks diversified their catalogs to cater to the young white American man, leading to a decline in black sitcoms in the 2000s. However, newer networks like the WB and UPN stepped in to fill the vacuum for a short time period. But, according to The New York Times, the number of black sitcoms on television plummeted from 15 to six from 1997 to 2001. Many black creators also began to view situational comedy as a weary vehicle to relay the African American experience to the audience at large and made strides.