The Return of the African-American Sitcom

The heyday of the African-American family sitcom didn’t die with UPN, it’s simply moved to cable.

In addition to TBS where “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” begat “Meet the Browns” and “Are We There Yet?” there are two new African-American sitcoms premiering this week on cable.

Tatyana Ali

TV One debuts a new sitcom “Love That Girl!” tonight, while BET brings a new title “Let’s Stay Together” on Tuesday, alongside “The Game,” resurrected anew after being  canceled at The CW two years ago.

All of the shows have ties to earlier African-American hits. Tonight’s “Love That Girl” was created by Bentley Kyle Evans, producer and writer for “The Jamie Foxx show” and “Martin.” It stars Tatyana Ali, the former Ashley Banks of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” as a young divorcee who returns to L.A. to start a new life and work in the realty business of her father, played by Phil Morris.

“The thought was to, first and foremost, do something female-driven,” Evans told reporters at press tour last week. “Being a big fan of ‘Mary Tyler Moore,’ I wanted to do something that had that same type of spirit to it, something about a woman that was independent and free and, you know, basically got a second chance at life to do some things, kind of based upon my sister’s life a little bit and based upon people that I know personally.”

“I want to be a part of a show like that that’s really opening this up for our community, opening it up for our culture, opening it up for other African-American actors and talent,” says Morris, who played the lawyer Jackie Chiles in “Seinfeld.”

Ali, for her part doesn’t know why  African-American comedies have disappeared from networks. “The major networks have sort of dropped them,” she said. “But I do definitely know the answer to why cable networks are now picking them up, and it’s because people want to see them. People want to laugh, and they want to have that feeling that, you know, 
I know people had with “Fresh Prince.”

Queen Latifah, herself a former sitcom cast member in “Living Single,” is a co-producer of “Let’s Stay Together.”

“I think the marketplace desires shows like this, that show young, attractive African Americans making it in the world, and there’s just not enough of that on TV,” she says. “It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. There’s definitely demand and absolutely not enough supply.”

Cofer says African-American comedies were on TV “from the beginning of TV, and then, through the ’70s, it was things like ‘Sanford and Son,’ ‘The Jeffersons’ in the ’80s, ‘The Cosby Show’ in the ’90s, and then we did fade away as the television business started to fragment.”

But, she adds, “I think there was a sense that someone at some point would pick up this very lucrative audience, and it just really hasn’t happened consistently until the past couple of years, first with TBS and now with BET.”

Among mainstream network comedies, she says, “minority groups are sort of sprinkled throughout episodes but without any particular any particular focus on our lifestyle or our humor, and, now, we are coming back. As Queen Latifah said, it is a lucrative opportunity that no one is serving, and now we are here to do that.

“I wanted to do a show that really reflected the lives of sort of people like me, my friends, my relationships. And I also wanted to, in terms of the larger audience, reflect a group of people who are young, who are upwardly mobile, who have ambitions, who are somewhat at the beginning of their careers and who they are really going to be both professionally and in their relationships. So I wanted it to be positive, you know, uplifting, aspirational, all of those good words,” Cofer says. “Primarily, I wanted it to be funny, and I think we’ve achieved that, certainly with this cast and with the stories that we are telling.”

The cast of “Let’s Stay Together” includes Bert Belasco, Joyful Drake, Nadine Ellis, Erica Hubbard and RonReaco Lee.

Love That Girl!” starts today at 9 p.m. on TV One. “Let’s Stay Together” premieres Tuesday at 11 p.m. on BET; its regular Tuesday night time slot thereafter will be 10:30 p.m.

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