Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Graphic: Allison Corr

Tommy Davidson is still grateful for all the lessons he learned from In Living Color

Graphic: Allison Corr
Photo: Christopher Polk (Getty Images)

Tommy Davidson, prolific comedian whose legacy was cemented early on with early ’90s sketch comedy tentpole In Living Color, says that he hasn’t felt like his voice has truly been heard in entertainment over the course of his 30-year career. “They’ve heard Tyler Perry’s voice, Oprah’s voice, Spike Lee’s voice,” he explained to The A.V. Club earlier this month. “They never really heard or were able to experience the stuff that I want them to experience from me.” He’s making moves to correct that: On top of releasing his memoir Living In Color, he wants to produce television that reflects his own experiences and brand of creativity.

It’s a goal that is befitting of a man who cut his teeth on a show that notably carved out a space in comedy primarily for Black performers with hilarious takes on Black culture. As it approaches its 30th anniversary, the impact of In Living Color (which ran from April 1990 to May 1994) shines through the likes of Black Lady Sketch Show and Netflix’s Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show as they inventively couch social commentary in elements of fantasy, storytelling, and impressive impersonations. But to Davidson, the show was just a funny look at America; he calls it “a sketch show about life.”

The A.V. Club: One of the really interesting observations in your memoir  Living In Color happens early on, when you talk about the impact of In Living Color. You say that a lot of people associate it as a Black show, but you feel that it was more about the human family.

Tommy Davidson: My thinking is different from everybody else’s. It’s not about Black and white. Does it make a difference if Lucille Ball is white, or Barbra Streisand? No, they’re good. Those performers are good. We were primarily a Black cast, but that was a sketch show about life.

AVC: Do you think fans will be surprised to hear that? Because so many connected with In Living Color on such a deeply cultural level, even though the cast also included Kelly Coffield and Jim Carrey.

TD: We were a social phenomenon in that we were finally taking part in something that was always here, that’s all. It was so new to see us sitting in the seat of a sketch comedy. It’s a Black show in a cultural sense, but America is America, and Black is just one dimension of it, right?

AVC: You also mentioned that the show was a very collaborative process, that the players would come and bring in their ideas—maybe characters from their own comedy bits—just to see how they would meld with the show. Can you tell us about one time when they said, “Tommy, no?” 

TD: They said no to me quite often, man, I ain’t lying. [Laughs.] But they said no to all of us, you know? And when they said yes, they did it by committee. The best thing about In Living Color was that the funniest things got on the air. It didn’t matter who was in it, Keenan [Ivory Wayans, show creator] would put the funniest stuff on the air. You wished it would be you. Now, if you didn’t come up with all the funniest things that were going on the air, you may not be the lead character in that sketch, but you’re still on the funniest show ever.

AVC: One sketch that didn’t air centered on a fictional Broadway musical where you were to play Sammy Davis Jr. as Nelson Mandela. In your book you mentioned that it was cut after Davis Jr. shared his cancer diagnosis because you all felt that it wouldn’t be appropriate to air. Even back then, the show identified a line that shouldn’t be crossed. When discussing comedy, some comedians would argue that there’s no such thing as crossing lines. Do you feel comedians should consider boundaries?

TD: Yeah, you need to consider them now, especially Black comedians. That’s because we didn’t have to really worry about the social dynamics of race and gender.We just shared our experiences because at the time, we were the victims of [racism and discrimination]. So our relief was the laughter. You could see society through Richard Pryor’s work and the earlier comedians like Redd Foxx and Dick Gregory. Those guys were really edgy and up against race. I’ve been in the business for 30 years so for them, that was 50 years ago or more. Society has changed, so we have to be socially responsible because now we are in a stage where our humanity is being acknowledged. We can’t perpetuate denying someone else of their humanity through our comedy.

For example: [the public] putting its foot in Kevin Hart’s ass for the gay jokes he did years ago. I can understand him saying that it was a long time ago—and this is nothing against him because he makes his own decisions—but I just hated to see him not be able to host the freaking Oscars for not saying sorry for something that he was wrong about in the first place. But then there’s another side to it: How many apologies are necessary?

Just be careful with what you say, that’s all. Have fun with it! Have fun with your comedy and go for it. But you ain’t no fool. I’m not gonna get up there and tell concentration camp jokes because that would be fucking crazy to do. That would make me a callous, unfeeling human being, and those are not the kind of human beings I come from.

AVC: One of my colleagues and I would like to know, what do we have to do to get a Funky Fingers Productions film starring you and David Allen Grier? 

TD: Call David. [Laughs] Tell your colleague to call David. I want to do it! I’ve wanted to do that from the very beginning, something like The Blues Brothers. I wanted to do a movie with those guys, but instead of the music being from the 1960s, I wanted it to be the funky music from the 1970s.

AVC: There’s franchise potential in that!

TD: Trust me, I know. That’s why I’m starting my own film company. I have a content production company called One Song. I’m at the point in my career where I just want to do what I want to do. So I’m going to be producing my own television shows and my own music and my own stuff. I spent near 30 years working with everybody else and it’s been a blast, but no one has been able to hear my voice. They never really heard or were able to experience the stuff that I want them to experience from me. So now I’m going to be doing it.

AVC: You’ve talked about performing at Mitzi Shore’s legendary Comedy Store and how you were billed with Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. In your book you mention that you knew that you were there to be the cool-down act for everyone to catch their breath in between these two titans, but you never approached your set that way. What was it like training for such a gig that many would probably find extremely intimidating?

TD: Well, it took me by surprise. I had been working so hard with no one acknowledging my existence except for Black people that once they let me loose, I was ready for anything. I wasn’t afraid because I really wanted the opportunity to perform. That was the best situation because I love, look up to, and aspire to be great like them. So when [Shore] told me I have the same time as everybody else, it just gives me a chance to kick some ass. It’s like going to college and working toward your degree. I was like, I’m getting this bitch. I ain’t got to worry about defining myself, I can just continue doing what I want to do with my life.

AVC: They say that every comedian has that one good laugh that they got from their audience that sticks with them forever. What’s the one laugh that you got—either from In Living Color or your stand-up—that stands out to you the most? 

TD: The hardest laugh I got was during a Fire Marshall Bill sketch with Jim Carrey. I’m supposed to be hitting the patient with [a defibrillator] to bring him back to life. He grabs it from me and hits himself with it. He’s laying on the ground and I think my line is, “Are you okay?” And all of a sudden he comes to life. He’s supposed to stand straight up and go, “Of course I am. I’m Fire Marshall Bill!” But he doesn’t. He stays on the floor for, like, a minute, scratching and scrambling. We had to do that thing about 10 times because every time he went on the ground, he stayed down longer.

AVC: The chemistry between the Living Color cast was always fun to watch in moments like those.

TD: I’ve learned so much. That show taught me how to be a straight man. Remember when you were learning how to ride a bike and then at some point, you couldn’t tell if your parents had their hands on the seat unless you look back? Right. That’s what I learned about that. Just let them ride, make sure they’re safe and that they feel comfortable riding. Let nobody see you holding the bike.