Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Bob Odenkirk and David Cross’ new Netflix series With Bob And David has us thinking about our favorite episodes of our favorite sketch shows.
For many growing up in the extremely white Midwest suburbs, engagement with black popular culture (or “African-American culture,” as was the preferred politically correct term in the late ’80s/early ’90s) was limited at best, save whatever rap albums and occasional Spike Lee film or other black cinema might wend their way through parental and cultural gatekeepers. At the beginning of the ’90s, Def Comedy Jam was still several years away from premiering on HBO, and network television—with the exception of The Cosby Show and a few others—was an inhospitable wasteland for minority programming. All of which are just a few of the reasons that, when In Living Color debuted on Fox in 1990, it felt like a minor revelation.
With an avowedly black comic sensibility, a hip-hop aesthetic, and a deep stable of talent (Jamie Foxx, Jim Carrey, David Alan Grier, the Wayans family—all at the height of their young-and-hungry phase), the Fox sketch comedy series parlayed its “right place, right time” opportunity into an ongoing showcase for a comedic perspective all but absent in pop culture. The show proudly and unashamedly trafficked in edgy, working-class black humor that was anathema to the gentle, upscale standards set by, say, Family Matters. Characters were often cartoonishly broad, outsized parodies of black life, mocking the tropes and offensive stereotypes of the culture at large. It provided an outlet for voices that had been marginalized by the mainstream—an all-too-brief one, thanks to feuding with Fox network executives in the series’ back half, which led to diminishing ratings and intense frustration on the part of the Wayans, particularly show creators Damon and Keenan Ivory.
But much like its more sanitized and largely white counterpart Saturday Night Live, when In Living Color hit upon a winning character, it pushed as hard as it could, mining it for gold before stripping it bare. And for iconic characters, it was hard to beat Homey D. Clown. A hardened convict who loathed his children’s entertainer work-release program as much as he hated the society that locked him up, Homey’s unconcealed dislike of children—along with his tendency to thwap them in the head at the slightest provocation—once again proved the dictum that people getting hit in the head is never not funny.
The high point came in episode 12 of season two, the Christmas episode, which turned over more than a third of its running time to a special “Homey Claus” installment of the stolid, angry clown. What makes it work so well is the beyond-pointed contrast between the hyperactive enthusiasm of the kids in the scene and the muted, roiling disgust of Damon Wayans’ Homey. His movements are largely minimal, the better to highlight the sense of effrontery the man feels emanating from these demanding yuletide young ’uns. And the hits to the head—well, they just keep on coming. The show has had funnier sketches, and stronger overall episodes (Jim Carrey’s Red Sonja-esque warrior woman is a low point of this one), but nothing resonated in the consciousness of a young white boy in the Midwest suburbs quite as deeply as a pissed-off Santa, mercilessly scorning the children he’s meant to entertain. It feels like a metaphor for the Fox executives who earned the Wayans’ ire; if so, it’s fitting.