'Black-ish' Mixes Comedy With Controversy to Give Viewers a Good Laugh and Something to Relate to

ABC sitcom has covered serious topics such as police brutality and the "n-word."

February 22, 2016, 8:53 PM

— -- The fictional Johnson family on “Black-ish” has left viewers in stitches with their take on being black and successful in America, but the ABC sit-com, now in its second season, isn’t afraid to take on controversy -- after all, race is front and center here.

Anthony Anderson stars as high-level ad executive Andre “Dre” Johnson who worries his privileged kids are out of touch with their roots and only “Black-ish.”

The Johnson family dynamic played out on the TV show is familiar to Anderson, who serves as an executive producer on the show.

“My son came to me at 12 years old and said he didn't feel black,” Anderson told “Nightline” “And he and I had to have a conversation about his blackness and I understood where he was coming from.

“My family is still living in Compton and in Watts,” he continued. “And him seeing how they live and juxtaposed to how he's living his lifestyle and what he sees going on with young black men around this country and that's not his experience.”

On the show, Dre struggles to keep it real in his household along with his wife Rainbow “Bow” Johnson, played by actress Tracee Ellis Ross, who brings a different background.

“I bring all of myself to Bow, but Bow's circumstances and experiences are not the same as mine,” she said.

Kenya Barris created “Black-ish” in part to fill a void on television.

“I think that's sort of the hard thing that we're finding with this show is that because there are so few examples of people of color on TV a lot of times the few examples that are become the voice piece of America. We're not a people who have one way of thinking,” Barris said.

This sitcom vows to go where few comedies have gone – in the way it tackles politically incorrect subjects, which began with the show’s title. And Anderson isn’t fazed if some viewers find some of the topics on the show uncomfortable.

“It doesn't bother me that some people may find some of the stuff uncomfortable,” he said. “That means we're in our groove. That means we're doing what we set out to do. Anytime that you're trying to say something of relevance and importance, it's going to make people uneasy.”

At first, Ross said she was worried about the show being called “Black-ish” but now, she said, “I can’t think of it being called anything else.”

“What can it be called? What're you going to call it? ‘The Johnsons?’ My reaction to it is exactly what our show does,” she said.

“That was the big difference between us and ‘The Cosby Show,’” Barris added. “That's why I stuck to the name ‘Black-ish,’ … that family was about a family that happened to be black and this was about a family that was absolutely black.”

And it’s not just the show’s title that’s controversial. The show has tackled the “n-word” and this week, there will be a hot button episode entitled “Hope” that deals with police brutality and how to discuss it with your kids.

Anderson said he has talked to his own kids about the police and race.

“I said to my son, ‘one day it's going to be thrown in your face how black you really are, and hopefully I've prepared you with the tools to deal with that when that happens,’” he said.

It’s something he said he has learned from personal experience.

“I’ve had my run-in, on the receiving end of a Billy club, just from walking down my street not even in the middle of the night- 7:30, 8 o'clock,” Anderson said, adding that while the police were looking for drug dealers, he was just a theater kid and, “I'm coming home in dance tights from the high school for the performing arts and you know tap shoes in my bag, but you know they wanted to prove a point.”

Actor Lawrence Fishburne, who plays Dre’s father Pops on the show, sees “Black-ish” as an opportunity to launch a discussion.

“We talk about Trayvon, we talk about Freddie Gray, and we talk about Eric Garner, we talk about Sandra Bland,” Fishburne said. “We mention all of these people, we mention all of these incidents, because this is a conversation we're having in our country right now.”

Some of these episodes struck a nerve with actress Jenifer Lewis, who plays Grandmother Ruby. She grew up near Ferguson, Missouri.

“I was warned as a child never to go to Ferguson alone,” she said. “But Ferguson had a movie theatre and Kenlock didn't. So I was not bothered by racism, I went and sat there with my popcorn and I imagined myself on the silver screen, so Ferguson was personal for me.”

Despite the serious topics, comedy is the cornerstone of “Black-ish.” People who already know the show know Dre is obsessed with shoes and Anderson feels free to borrow from his character’s collection since he lends moments of his own life to show. He said the episode where his son Andre, Jr., played by Marcus Scribner, asks him for a bar mitzvah really happened.

“That was a real event,” Anderson said. “I was like, ‘son, we cannot have a bar mitzvah, that is not who we are.’ We went back and forth and I was like, ‘Your friends are Jewish. That's why they're having bar mitzvahs.’ And I was like, ‘OK, this is what we'll do, man. I will throw you a party and we will call it a bro-mitzvah.’”

He hopes the show’s off-beat stories not only give viewers a good laugh, but something to relate to.

“It's liberating to be part of something that's relevant and resonating with the American people and people from all walks of life, all backgrounds that they can identify with,” Anderson said. “When they watch our show, the highest compliment that I've ever received is ‘When I see your family up there, I see my family.’”

"Black-ish" airs Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. ET on ABC.