In Living Color was a sketch comedy series that ran for five seasons from 1990 to 1994 on the FOX network. It was a hugely popular show and groundbreaking not just for having a predominantly black cast but for specifically targeting black audiences with its satire and subject matter, although people of all races loved the show.
It was created by comedian Keenen Ivory Wayans as a response to Saturday Night Live. Wayans wanted to make a variety sketch series that was more racially diverse and took more chances with its content than SNL was doing at the time.
The eighties were a time when the big hits on broadcast television were shows like Cheers, The Golden Girls and Full House. The Cosby Show was one of the most popular portrayals of black people on television but the Huxtables were a wealthy high-class family which was the opposite of the Fulton housing projects in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan where the Wayans family grew up. In Living Color was the first primary example of a television show that portrayed, albeit through the lens of satire, what life for black people was like in the ghetto (which might be one of the reasons why I have such a personal attachment to the show).
When it first premiered on April 15, 1990, it was lauded by everyone as a smart, inventive and raw half-hour of comedy with a devilish wit rarely seen on primetime in those days. It even won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series in its first year.
The original cast of In Living Color included Keenen Ivory Wayans, Jim Carrey, Kelly Coffield, Kim Coles, Tommy Davidson, David Alan Grier, T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh, Damon Wayans and Kim Wayans.
Just like on SNL, the cast would do celebrity impressions (Arsenio Hall, Mike Tyson, Vanilla Ice, Spike Lee, etc.), parody pop culture (Hollywood Squares, Star Trek, Lassie, etc.) and create original sketches and characters that would become hallmarks of the show (Homeboy Shopping Network, Fire Marshall Bill, Homey the Clown, Men on Film, Calhoun Tubbs, Benita Buttrell and countless others).
Bridging the segments with dance routines from the Fly Girls and featuring live musical performances from popular artists like Public Enemy, Eazy-E, Tupac Shakur and A Tribe Called Quest made the show musically groundbreaking as well, becoming the primary destination for rappers in an era when not even SNL or The Tonight Show were featuring them. In Living Color actually helped introduce hip hop to the world.
Keenen’s brother Shawn Wayans was actually the DJ for the musical performances on the first couple of seasons under the moniker SW-1 before DJ Twist took over, and a couple of Fly Girls would go on to bigger things as well. The most notable being Jennifer Lopez and Dancing with the Stars judge Carrie Ann Inaba.
The show probably would have lasted longer than five seasons if it weren’t so tangled up in controversy all the time, although I would argue that this was more the fault of interfering FOX executives than the fault of the show’s creators. Throughout the show’s entire run, conservative TV execs were always concerned about the show’s bold content which bordered on offensive and Keenen Ivory Wayans was constantly butting heads with them over disputes about what should or should not be censored.
Due to creative differences, Keenen left the series after the fourth season and so did the rest of the Wayans family. Things were already looking grim for the show before that when Damon Wayans left after the third season to focus on his film career. Without Damon Wayans, who was one of the single most funny people in the show’s first three seasons, 50% of the show’s signature humor was gone, and without the entire Wayans family I would estimate that 50% goes up to 75%.
The fifth and final season was the low point. Many people who worked on the show when Keenen was there acknowledge that it would not have been as good as it was without his creative guidance. Without Keenen’s sharp eye shepherding which sketch ideas were bad and which ones were good, the show was just not as clever.
The show faded away with little fanfare after that. Its moment in the zeitgeist over in the blink of an eye. But for a short period in the nineties, there was nothing more hilarious and dangerously unafraid to go where no TV comedy had ever ventured.
On the bright side, many of the cast members have gone on to have fruitful careers following the end of the show’s run. To prove it, I have taken a look at each of them and their lives post-In Living Color.
Keenen Ivory Wayans
Before creating the show, the oldest Wayans sibling performed stand-up comedy and even became good enough to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, but his career wasn’t on fire following his late night appearance the way he hoped it would be. After becoming friends with fellow comedian Robert Townsend when he met Townsend at the Improv in New York, the two decided to make their own movies since Hollywood wasn’t offering them the roles they wanted. Hollywood Shuffle (1987) which Townsend wrote, directed and starred in, and the film Keenen funded based on his success co-writing Hollywood Shuffle called I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), a blaxploitation parody which Keenen wrote, directed and starred in, were both financial successes that were popular with black audiences, and Keenen’s success caught the attention of FOX executives who wanted to make programming aimed at black audiences.
After In Living Color, Keenen Ivory Wayans remained largely behind the camera again, directing and producing movies, most popularly Scary Movie (2000), Scary Movie 2 (2001) and White Chicks (2004), all written by and starring his younger brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayons.
A stand-up comedian from Canada who moved to L.A. to pursue a film career. Carrey was mostly unhappy with the roles he was given because they often dialed down his wacky humor. Damon Wayans was friends with Jim Carrey and he was the one who first brought Carrey to Keenen’s attention. Keenen knew Jim Carrey was funnier than the roles he was being given, so Keenen viewed In Living Color as an opportunity to show the world how funny Jim Carrey could really be when he was his looney and unhinged self.
After In Living Color, Jim Carrey became a huge movie star almost instantly as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber all came out the same year that In Living Color ended and were all box office hits. I wrote an entire article about his career beyond that a few blogs ago.
Kelly Coffield Park
Known as Kelly Coffield at the time, the Illinois-born actress had her first major film role in Field of Dreams (1989) right before being cast in the sketch comedy. Although most people only know her for her memorable characters and impressions on In Living Color, she had been getting regular work guest-starring in various TV shows afterwards, including Seinfeld, My Wife and Kids, Law & Order, 30 Rock and Kidding. She even married her former In Living Color co-star Steve Park in 1999, hence the name change.
Often forgotten because she was only a cast member in the first season, Kim Coles was a private school bookworm whose sense of humor began to emerge as a teenager and led to her pursuit of stand-up comedy.
After In Living Color, she had recurring roles in FOX sitcom Living Single and TBS comedy 10 Items or Less and guest roles on Frasier and Six Feet Under as well as some reality shows.
Davidson started out doing stand-up comedy in 1986. He performed in Washington D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia opening for people like Patti LaBelle and Kenny G and appeared on Arsenio Hall. He won an amateur stand-up competition at the Apollo in 1987 and was asked by Robert Townsend to be the warm-up act for his HBO special before Keenen tapped him.
After In Living Color, Davidson acted in films like Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and Booty Call before finding more fruitful success in television performing voice roles for The Proud Family and Black Dynamite.
David Alan Grier
The Yale School of Arts-trained actor who performed in Broadway and even received a Tony nomination for his work in The First before making his film debut in Robert Altman’s Streamers (1983) for which he won the Golden Lion for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival probably needed In Living Color the least because he was an accomplished performer already. However, after Grier made a memorable appearance in Keenen’s film I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Keenen decided Grier would be a good fit since he could clearly do comedy as well as he did drama.
After In Living Color, Grier returned to the stage in plays like Race, The Wiz and Porgy and Bess as well as occasionally appearing in regular roles on television, including Life with Bonnie, The Carmichael Show and the IFC series Comedy Bang! Bang!
T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh
Singing and dancing and reciting poems since she was a toddler, Keymáh has produced, directed and taught theater and dance throughout her college years at Florida A&M University and even after graduation before being discovered by Keenen Ivory Wayans.
After In Living Color, she has produced the theatrical variety show T’Keyah Live! featuring music, impressions, guest appearances and audience participation. She has been performing it since 1999. She also created a nuanced series of monologues told in verse and prose for a show called Some of My Best Friends which features deep and thought-provoking themes. On television she was a series regular on Cosby, That’s So Raven and the animated series Waynehead.
Just like his brother Keenen, Damon Wayans became a stand-up comedian. Following his funny appearance in the Eddie Murphy film Beverly Hills Cop, Damon was hired as a cast member on Saturday Night Live but was given such little creative freedom that he only lasted a single season after getting himself fired on purpose by improvising during a live sketch. The SNL debacle (Damon played a cop in a flamboyant manner that implied he was gay even though it was not written that way) served as a sneak preview for the kind of humor Damon would be allowed to bring to In Living Color.
After In Living Color, Damon Wayans pursued a film career that ultimately went nowhere, but he had a fairly popular ABC sitcom called My Wife and Kids that ran for five seasons and he had a three-season run on the FOX buddy cop action series Lethal Weapon. Both shows were mediocre but Damon was funny enough to sometimes outshine the material.
One of the most aspiring performers of the Wayans household who even acted in school plays. Kim Wayans had a recurring role in the NBC sitcom A Different World and a part in her brother’s film I’m Gonna Git You Sucka as a nightclub singer before becoming one of In Living Color’s MVPs.
After In Living Color, she starred in the sitcoms In the House and The Wayans Bros. and had a regular voice role as the mom in Damon Wayans’ show Waynehead, but she also showed she could pull off drama when she was cast as a struggling mom in the 2011 drama Pariah written and directed by Dee Rees, which earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the 2012 Black Reel Awards.