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May 12, 2016

Heavy Lifting, With Laughs

The writers of black-ish find a lighthearted way into some serious subjects.

Lisa Rosen
  • Ryan Gibson

The Johnsons are a nice suburban family whose nice suburban wealth makes dad Dre (Anthony Anderson) worry his kids aren't culturally black enough — they're becoming black-ish.

Hence the unsettling title of the ABC family comedy and its focus on everything from the term urban to the parameters of spanking.

Now wrapping its second season, black-ish has become even more fearless. Episodes on such topics as gun ownership, the n-word and police brutality have engendered passionate responses among critics and fans — which is exactly what creator and co-showrunner Kenya Barris wants.

"A lot of times I'll bring in an idea, and if it starts an interesting conversation, we feel like we have something," says Barris, who has 14 writers on staff and encourages them to disagree with one another — and him.

"We all tend to a point of view that probably aligns with one character more than the other," says coexecutive producer Courtney Lilly, "and that's because of the work Kenya did setting up this show."

Minority groups on television are often seen as sharing one outlook, Barris notes. "We constructed this family to show that a black family is not in any way, shape, or form a one-voiced group. They have different points of view, different experiences that form those points of view, and each one of our characters puts that out there."

This season opened on the third rail of racial issues with "The Word," in which the family's three generations discussed when, if ever, it's okay to use the n-word. The issue has been on Barris's mind for years, but he waited until this season to address it, because "it felt like low-hanging fruit - like, 'Oh, of course the black show is going to do a show on the n-word.'"

By season two, Lilly points out, viewers are familiar with the characters. So "when you introduce a topic that's that loaded, the audience is almost able to anticipate the reactions. It makes it so much easier to do comedy."

Barris found his way into the story when he saw that a white friend of his teen daughter Kaleigh repeatedly called her "my [n-word]" in a text. She defended it as common slang. He strenuously disagreed. "It kicked off a big thing at my house. And that's how I took it back in the [writers'] room."

The group debated the topic at length. "Well, not the white people so much," notes co-showrunner Jonathan Groff. "So much of the deep thinking behind it was something that Kenya and other black writers on the show grapple with. As a white guy on the show, I'm like, 'This is really fascinating,' and I can offer jokes and structural thoughts" that had nothing to do with the word.

Everyone was involved in the next argument. "Rock, Paper, Scissors, Gun," written by Peter Saji, focused on whether Dre should own a gun to protect his family. The writers talked, yelled, cried and walked it off for weeks.

"It was probably the most divisive discussion on the show," Lilly says. "It's an all-or-nothing proposition — there's not a lot of compromise in it. Kenya allowed us all to work together to get to the core of this feeling, and that allowed us to get to a depth and have a real honest moment at the end of all that comedy."

The resulting episode is full of jokes, but the feelings aren't shunted aside.

With "Hope" — which looked at police brutality and how to discuss it with children who may someday have to face it — the jokes were thinner. But "what they were supposed to do is to give you enough levity to keep pushing through," Barris says. "We want to make it light enough to give it an entry point, so that people don't reject it before they're able to take it in and let it sit with them."

As with other episodes, "Hope" wasn't ripped from the headlines as much as taken from the writers' lives.

"It happened to me," Barris says of a scene in which the family is watching news coverage of reaction to a police shooting. "My son turned around and said, 'Why are these people so mad?'"

After the writers created a detailed outline together, Barris wrote the episode over the Christmas hiatus. When he brought it back, Lilly says, "The table read was the best I've ever been to."

Adds Groff: "Jenifer Lewis, who plays grandma Ruby, said, 'Thank you for doing this.' It was an emotional high point of the season for us, for sure."

The format was dramatically different as well, taking place almost completely in one room. "I wanted to make you feel like you were sitting with the family," Barris explains, "like you were part of the conversation."

From the writers' room to the Johnsons' living room to the world, the conversation continues to deepen.

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