Comedic Relief: The Role & Image of Black Men on TV

by Shahida Muhammad

When it comes to Black people and our portrayal on television, the question always seems to be “‘why can’t they get it right?” For more often than not, we’re portrayed in a light that reeks inauthentic. Whether it’s the sassy sistah or the token brotha, there never seems to be a good mix of relatable and realistic. And in my opinion, Black male actors tend to be even more limited in the parts they’re given.

For example, I happened to catch a glimpse of “House of Payne” the other day. Through all the jokes and laughter, I couldn’t help but feel like it was all too cliche: black sitcom, black family, with at least one or more black male characters for comedic relief. Both the show’s father, Curtis Payne, and his younger son Calvin, are known for their antics. Curtis, the crazy, outspoken and sarcastic head of the household, and his son Calvin, the unfocused dreamer, who proudly mooches off of his girlfriend’s ambitions while uttering at least one half-witted comment per episode.

Yes, we may have people in our lives that act like one of the show’s characters in some way. And yes, TV does not always have to be totally realistic and/or serious–escapism is an integral part of entertainment. But dag, do we always have to be funny? We all want to laugh sometimes, but as I tried to think of a popular series that does not use the same formula, I came up short. “Meet the Browns”, “Are We There Yet?”, “The Rickey Smiley Show” –a quick roundup of the current series and the lack of diversity in male characters is obvious.

It’s no secret that images we see in the media are powerful; which leads one to wonder why so many sitcoms with Black male characters feature them in comedic, simplified roles? What impact does this constant imagery have on us culturally?

The gradual progression of African-American programs has often been a bumpy road; from the outrageously offensive days of “Amos and Andy”, to the Blaxploitation shows and films of the 70s, to today’s conundrum of cliches, it seems Black men have overwhelmingly been limited to the slap-happy funny guy, the ladies man, the rugged career criminal, or in their most neutral roles they’re supporting a white alpha male who always seems to have the answers. Rarely do we see Black male actors finesse a well-rounded role that displays the masculinity and unforced level of cool we see oozing from actors such as Denzel Washington, Will Smith or Idris Alba–keeping in mind they’re movie stars (minus Will’s Fresh Prince days).

Television series, however, are unique from film in the sense that they play an intricate role in influencing social ideals and behaviors on a more consistent basis. So as friends and families gather around the television to catch their favorite programs each week, they’re not only being entertained but they’re being influenced as well, by the images and content of the programs they watch. And from the looks of things, the message currently being presented through Black sitcoms is extremely unbalanced, stereotypical and predictable.

Looking back at the history of African-Americans on TV, it seems as much as things have changed, they’ve unfortunately stayed the same. And since stereotype is defined as “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing,” there’s no doubt television has definitely played a major role in perpetuated the limited perception of not only Black men, but Black people and our culture as a whole.

Those of us in film, television and entertainment can play key roles in debunking these notions and breaking up the monotony. Instead of asking for better roles or waiting for them, there are plenty of opportunities for us to fill the void ourselves. Taking a cue from emerging producers like Issa Rae along with the growing number of Black web-series producers and actors, even Tyler Perry (whether you like his brand of programs or not), the answer is clear: to change our images, we must control our images. Or else, it seems, the joke will continue to be on us.

  • ChiLois

    I stopped watching SNL because I was tired of seeing Keenan Thompson in a dress, playing Oprah and overall portraying an Aunt Jemima minstrel. This guy had 2 popular sitcoms (All That and Keenan and Kel) in his youth and even starred in a blockbuster movie (Good Burger), yet he is just a side-show clown to the white cast. It is so sad, frustrating, futile, to try to gain real social equality as a token negro and at the end of the day, it seems they will always find a way to disgrace/devalue you.

    Also, why is it only in black comedy that men verbally berate women and compare them to animals (Martin, Meet the Browns). On Martin, even though Pam was GORGEOUS, he compared her to a horse, dog, and wilder beast while falling all over Gina, contributing to the debasement of black women and perpetuating color hierarchy. I am completely dissatisfied with black media and the state of ignorance in our community is directly related.

  • T.

    “Why [do] so many sitcoms with Black male characters feature them in comedic, simplified roles?”

    Well, if it’s a sitcom (situation comedy) the likelihood is high that the characters will be featured in comedic roles. The main goal of a sitcom is to be funny and to make people laugh.

    Which isn’t to say that I don’t see an issue with the shows the author refers to. One problem with some of the black-oriented sitcoms on TV right now is that they’re not very good – the comedy is trite, the scripts are cliched, there isn’t a lot of nuance or heart and dimension to them. The characters are simplified and predictable because the shows and the scripts are simplified and predictable.

    Another problem, I think, is that there aren’t a lot of scripted shows (as opposed to reality TV) around that feature all black or majority black casts that *aren’t* comedies, and that give black (male *and* female) actors the opportunity to demonstrate their range.

    Basically, I agree with the author, but I think the questions go beyond portrayals of black men in black sitcoms and to the wider issues of (1) the quality, in general, of the TV programming targeted at black audiences and (2) why it’s still the case that so many/most of shows with majority black casts/audiences are sitcoms, as if the main/only reason black folk are on TV is to be funny.

  • Ms. Write

    The sitcom is a slow dying breed anyway. Black sitcoms? Almost non-existent. House of Payne isn’t even on the air anymore. I have long given up on television and I truly believe web-based series are what’s hot for African American television shows.

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  • The Comment

    First. I’m happy to see Black men working. Second. They need to stop copying the sitcoms already out (cause they suck anyway) and be innovative. Remember Black people? We are innovative folks. Not just music..but in any and everything we do. That is our mantra: INNOVATE!

  • Yolanda

    I think there would be more intelligent roles for Black men on television if Black people supported intelligent Black television shows. There is a huge audience for the Tyler Perry type comedies, but comedies where there is less buffoonery…not so much. For example, Reed Between The Lines is a situation comedy and Malcolm Jamal Warner is great in the lead role. But I’m willing to put money on the fact that if this show went head to head with Rickey Smiley, Rickey Smiley would win by a landslide. Personally, I think sitcoms can be funny and entertaining without being slapstick and riddled with stereotypes. I don’t like stereotypes, I don’t like hearing the English language butchered, and I don’t buy into the hole “laughing at ourselves” thing. I can’t remember the last sitcom I watched on a regular basis and from the looks at what’s out there now, I won’t any time soon.

  • Me

    You know what shows I watch? The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, The Couple, The Number, The Unwritten Rules, Single and Black, Brothers With No Game, Milk + Honey, etc. There is a whole WORLD of Black representation online that needs our support! It is up to us – the viewers – to know this so that these amazing shows can thrive and air regularly. I don’t see anything representing ME so I will support these web series and produce my own. You got to getchya own in 2012! The time for waiting is up it is time to do for ourselves and stop whining. It is very clear that mainstream media is no longer interested in our stories and I am content with that. What needs to happen now is to raise awareness of what IS out there and not only focus on what isn’t. Blacks in media aren’t as futile as people think we’re in independent cinema now and what is being produced is what we are all complaining isn’t shown in the mainstream. GIVE UP on the mainstream already lol Stop asking permission to tell your stories and go to a film festival, go online and support fellow minority filmmakers!

  • hoodparvenu

    Sitcoms like “House of Payne” are not keeping up with the tides of the rest of entertainment. The last good Black sitcom that in recent memory would have to be “Everybody Hates Chris,” but I don’t expect anything like it to come along soon.

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