The history of predominately Black sitcoms in the United States is a very interesting one. Although the first Black sitcom, Amos ‘n’ Andy, debuted in the early 1950s, it would take another 20 years for there to be another one. That said, Black shows were few and far between until the 1990s. At the same time, however, the 80s gave us some of the most iconic Black sitcoms, and many of them paved the way for the shows that came later. If you were around when these shows were on the air, you probably have some very fond memories. Although it’s been nearly 40 years since some of these shows went on the air, many of them are still being talked about today. Here is our take on the 10 best Black sitcoms from the 80s.
10. Sanford and Son
Sanford was far more short-lived than some of the other shows on this list, but it still deserves a spot. Following the popular 70s sitcom, Sanford and Son, Sanford once again starred Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford. However, this time around, his son, Lamont (Demond Wilson), was not a part of the series because Wilson decided not to reprise the role. Although Fred Sanford is often considered one of the greatest TV characters of all time, he was known for being somewhat crotchety and misogynistic. Although Sanford and Son had been a major hit, Sanford didn’t have the same success. The show was canceled after just two seasons.
Melba is another show that was very short-lived. In fact, it is often overlooked due to the fact that it only lasted for one season. The series starred Melba Moore as a character named Melba Patterson. She was a single mother living in New York City and raising her daughter. She relied on help from her mother and her good friend, a white character named Susan who was portrayed by Gracie Harrison. The two had been lifelong friends due to the fact that Melba’s mother had been a housekeeper in Susan’s childhood home. This setup was very common for Black sitcoms at the time. Although the show would primarily revolve around Black characters, they would often have a white friend or co-worker who played a supporting role. This was likely done as a way to make the shows more approachable for non-Black viewers. Unfortunately, however, this often resulted in situations where the Black and white characters were connected through some kind of service role.
8. What’s Happening Now!!
What’s Happening!! was one of the most popular Black sitcoms of the 70s, and What’s Happening Now!! aimed to pick up where the original left off. Debuting in 1985, What’s Happening Now!! followed the lives of the original characters as adults. Although these types of reboots typically tend to struggle, What’s Happening Now!! actually did very well in terms of ratings. It appeared that producers had found the perfect sweet spot. Unfortunately, however, tensions began to brew backstage during the first season. According to an article from TV Party, Fred Berry who played Rerun demanded a raise during season one. He felt that he deserved to be paid more than the rest of the cast because he believed that he was the reason why people tuned in. Unfortunately for him, his plan backfired and he was written out in the first season. Although the show would continue on for two more seasons (Martin Lawrence even appeared in season three), it was clear that things weren’t going to be the same. Unfortunately, after the show’s end, all of the stars faded into obscurity.
Starring Sherman Hemsley as a widowed deacon named Ernest Frye, Amen was set in Philadelphia. In addition to his role in the church, Ernest was also an attorney and a sketchy one at that. He also had a daughter named Thelma (Anna Maria Horsford) who ended up marrying the pastor of their church. The series covered several serious topics such as addiction, teenage pregnancy, and mental health. However, in true sitcom fashion, there was always a humorous touch. Amen was canceled in 1991 after five seasons.
Starring Robert Guillaume as Benson DuBois, Benson debuted in 1979 and ran until 1986. The show turned Guillaume into a household name and earned him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 1985. Unlike most of the other shows on this list, Benson did not feature a predominately Black cast. Instead, Benson was typically the only Black character on the show. Benson’s character was actually introduced in 1977 in the TV series Soap. In that series, which followed a more traditional soap opera format, Benson worked as a butler to the Tate family. In Benson, however, he had been promoted to the head of household for governor Eugene Gatling. The change in Benson’s occupation was likely due to an overall shift in culture where Black people were starting to be viewed as more than the help. Towards the end of the season, Benson even became lieutenant governor. Benson also shares an interesting connection to one of the 90s’ most popular Black sitcoms, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The mansion shown in the opening credits for Benson was the same mansion used in the opening credits for The Fresh Prince. Ironically, Robert Guillaume also appeared in an episode of The Fresh Prince in 1994.
5. Gimmie A Break!
Starring the legendary Nell Carter, Gimmie A Break! is easily one of the most memorable Black sitcoms of the decade. In the series, Nell played a woman named Nell Harper who worked as a housekeeper in the Kanisky home. Nell had taken the job as a favor to her longtime friend who had passed away from cancer. As part of her role, Nell also assumed parental responsibility of the Kanisky children. The show ran for nearly six seasons and aired nearly 140 episodes. Gimmie a Break! also earned Nell Carter two Emmy nominations for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. The show also featured several celebrity guest appearances including Whitney Houston and Sammy Davis Jr. Although the show was lighthearted for the most part, there was a controversial moment in 1985 in which Joey (portrayed by Joey Lawrence) performed in black face at a benefit at Nell’s church.
4. A Different World
Over the years, there have been quite a few sitcoms about the college experience. However, A Different World was the first to show the experience of Black college students attending an HBCU. The series, which was a spin-off of The Cosby Show, started as a way for Lisa Bonet’s character, Denise, to get her own spotlight. The first season focused heavily on Denise, however, Bonet left the show after season one (she briefly returned as a guest during the third season). A Different World went on to center around other students at the fictional Hillman College – particularly Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison) and Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy). The series touched on topics that were considered too risque for The Cosby Show. A Different World aired until 1993 which also made it one of the most popular Black sitcoms of the 90s.
3. The Jeffersons
The Jeffersons debuted in the mid-1970s, but it was such a popular show that it went on to dominate through the mid-1980s. Starring Sherman Hemsley in the role of George Jefferson, the series was actually a spin-off of the white sitcom, All in the Family. George and his wife, Louise (AKA Weezy) were introduced in All in the Family as the Bunkers’ neighbors. George and Archie often butted heads which allowed space for lots of comedic moments. When The Jeffersons got their own sitcom, they already had somewhat of a built-in audience. However, the show eventually went on to have a life of its own. In fact, the show’s first season had better ratings than All in the Family. Additionally, The Jeffersons ran for 11 seasons compared to All in the Family’s 9. The premise of The Jeffersons revolved around George Jefferson, a successful entrepreneur who owned several dry cleaning businesses. He had made enough money to move on up to a deluxe apartment in the sky which was famously mentioned in the show’s theme song. George was loud, opinionated, and over the top. However, his wife always had the ability to keep him in check.
Debuting in 1985, 227 was originally intended to be set in 1950s Chicago. However, by the time the show went into production, the setting had been changed to present-day Washington D.C. The show followed the lives of Black women living in an apartment building. The title for the show was derived from the apartment’s address which was 227 Lexington Place. Although the show essentially featured an ensemble cast, the show was created for Marla Gibbs to be the star. Gibbs had previously earned a lot of attention for her role as Florence Johnston in The Jeffersons. 227 ultimately helped launch the careers of Jackee Harry and Regina King. Harry went on to play a main role in one of the 90s’ most popular Black sitcoms, Sister, Sister. Regina King has gone on to become an incredibly successful actress and director. She is also an Academy Award Winner. 227 was canceled in 1990 due to declining ratings.
1. The Cosby Show
The Cosby Show is one of the most popular sitcoms of all time, and it just so happens to also feature an all-Black cast. When The Cosby Show debuted in 1984, Bill Cosby was already a well-known star. However, the success of the series took his career to new heights. In the show, he played a successful doctor named Heathcliff Huxtable. His wife, Clair, was a successful lawyer. The Cosby Show was seen as groundbreaking at the time because it depicted an upper-middle-class Black family that fit the All-American mold. The show was a huge success and ranked number one for 5 of its 8 seasons. Reruns of the series ran for years, but have since been taken off the air due to Bill Cosby’s legal troubles.set in Philadelphia
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