For Hemsley, George Jefferson meant navigating his need to sustain his career and the needs of the character, with some respect for the actresses and actors, who before him, had no such options. Hemsley was a product of the famed Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), founded by playwright Douglas Turner Ward, actor Robert Hooks, and theater manager Gerald Krone and was the training ground for generations of Black actresses and actors including Esther Rolle, John Amos and Janet DuBois, all of Lear’s Good Times, plus Roxie Roker, Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and contemporary actors and actresses like Denzel Washington, David Alan Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett.
The early generations of NEC were faced with many of the same challenges that Hemsley faced: how to cultivate the humanity of Black characters that were never intended—intentionally or unintentionally—to be fully-fledged humans by the writers and producers that created them. In the case of those folk who worked on television sitcoms, they were further limited by the conventions of the format, which rarely lent itself to depth and nuance.
In this latter instance, actors and actresses like Sherman Hemsley and his television wife Isabel Sanford, were held to standards that their White peers never had to deal with. Hemsley, for example, possessed a gift for physical comedy—that was part of what the strut was about—that was comparable to that of figures like Dick Van Dyke (particularly on The Dick Van Dyke Show), Larry Hagman, during his day on I Dream of Jeannie, John Ritter and Don Knotts, whose Three’s Company often shared the top-10 spot in the Nielsen’s with The Jeffersons.
Whereas the aforementioned actors were sometimes seen as geniuses of the style, who never had the burden of representing for their race or ethnic group, too often Black comedians of that like, Bert Williams, Lincoln Perry (“Step n’ Fetchit), Hemsley and Jaleel White, are simply reduced in the Black imagination as simply acting like “coons.” A Black actor would have never been able to get away with the “bugged eyes” that were Knotts’ specialty, dating back to his days as Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show.
W. Kamau Bell stands out. Tall, broad, and Black, with a coife au naturale, his physicality doesn’t exactly lend itself to anonymity; equipped with a booming base for a voice, he really doesn’t have a hope in hell of ever going unnoticed in an American crowd. But come this autumn, the impulses behind the diffident stares and sideways glances on the street will be a little bit more difficult for Bell to decipher, hoodie up or otherwise.
That’s because Bell, a comedian who could do a stand-up routine featuring nothing but heckler retorts at this point in his career, just inked a six-episode deal with the FX network (the “coolest of all the Fox’s,” as he calls them) executive-produced by Chris Rock.
In case that last part didn’t make your eyebrows shoot up, for Bell to garner Rock’s participation amounts to an endorsement from a comedy doyen: having established himself in the game as a headliner who can perform in any comedy club, anywhere, on his own terms, praise and a partnership from Rock is synonymous to a weighty nod of approval from Yoda (albeit, Bell says, a foul-mouthed, microphone-wielding version).
Bell officially announced last Thursday that his show would be called Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, debuting Aug. 9th at 11 pm. With the show set to follow Louie, created by and starring biracial comedian Louis C. K., the two programs together constitute a rarity in network television–a progressive comedy block not led by white people.
The show’s name is a departure from Bell’s usual stylings for titles, i.e. his love of inserting the word “negro” into things, the precedent having been established by his podcast, The Field Negro Guide to Arts and Culture w/ Vernon Reid.
When asked about this deviation, Bell starts laughing.
“I love calling myself a negro,” he says. “It seems like that was the last time Black people got sh-t done was when they were ‘negroes’ … I don’t think we want to tie it necessarily to [being] Black, because we’re not trying to get just a Black audience. Chris says all the time, “You’re Black–you’re going to get Black people, but you don’t need to be like, ‘It’s The Blackity Black Black Show!’”