TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is the creator and showrunner of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish" - Kenya Barris. Michelle Obama has said "Black-ish" is her favorite show. Its second season concludes tonight with an homage to the '70s sitcom "Good Times."
"Black-ish" is about a 40-ish husband and father, Andre, who goes by the name Dre. He grew up in the inner city but is now an advertising executive living in a predominantly white suburb with his biracial wife, who's a doctor, and their four children. In the pilot, he's promoted to vice president of the urban division, which leads him to think he's become the token black executive. He's afraid his children are becoming too assimilated. Dre's son is also named Andre, but his white friends call him Andy, which sounds all wrong to Dre.
The son has joined the field hockey team, and that doesn't sound black at all to his father. And the son has a lot of Jewish friends and he wants a big bar mitzvah party like his friends who are having one. So he's considering converting and changing his name to Shlomo or Shmuel. So the father, played by Anthony Anderson, decides it's time to draw the line and call a family meeting.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK-ISH")
ANTHONY ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) All right, listen up. I may have to be urban at work, but I'm still going to need my family to be black. Not black-ish but black. So we're going to start with some strict guidelines.
YARA SHAHIDI: (As Zoey Johnson) So then he sent me a smiley face with a wink. I mean, I should be offended, right?
ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Zoey.
SHAHIDI: (As Zoey Johnson) I'll text you.
ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) All right. From heretoforth (ph), we are going to keep it real. So, Junior, if I hear anybody calling you Shlomo or Shmuel or especially Andy, I'm going to back you over and whoever else is saying it in my car.
MARCUS SCRIBNER: (As Andre Johnson) Dad.
ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Quiet. Now, I may have to watch you play possibly the dumbest sport in the world, but I do not have to sit back and listen to you rave about other kids' bar mitzvahs. So next Saturday when you turn 13, you're becoming a man, too - a black man because I'm throwing you an African rites of passage ceremony - ha.
SCRIBNER: (As Andre Johnson) That does not sound as fun.
SHAHIDI: (As Zoey Johnson) No, it does not.
TRACEE ELLIS ROSS: (As Rainbow Johnson) OK, I have an idea. Why don't we take a black break and go get some white yogurt?
GROSS: (Laughter) That's a scene from the first episode of "Black-ish." Kenya Barris, welcome to FRESH AIR. How'd you come up with the premise for the series?
KENYA BARRIS: I came up with the premise by living a day in my life with my kids. I was laughing listening to that 'cause it so reminds me of a moment I would've had with my kids. And it really was based on my family. You know, my wife is - she's an anesthesiologist. She's mixed. My kids are growing up in a different situation than I grew up in.
GROSS: By mixed do you mean she's...
BARRIS: She's black and white.
GROSS: Right, she has a white parent and a black parent, yeah.
BARRIS: Her dad's white and her mom is black. And we came from a different situation than our kids, and me and my wife are both in different situations. And we're raising our kids up - me in particular, my kids are nothing like I remember, quote, unquote, "black kids" being when I was a kid.
So I'm sort of trying to navigate what that's going to be for me. You know, I'm - you're taught to give your kids more, but in giving them more, like, what do they lose? And I think that's sort of was the conceit and premise of the show.
GROSS: So you changed class (laughter) when you were a child in a way because there was this sudden influx of money. Do you want to explain what happened?
BARRIS: A couple of things happened. My father lost a lung in a chemical accident at General Motors. And after a while he got a settlement that sort of changed all of our lives and moved us from what we - you know, say ashy to classy in some aspects. At the same time, my mother had gotten her real estate license and, you know, she was really, really entrepreneurial and started selling real estate. And her life sort of changed around that same time.
And we basically - my sister and brother had started going to, you know, had gotten into college. They were going to USC. And it was - all of a sudden, we sort of went from one segment of the socioeconomic ladder and we sort of went up a rung. And it was, you know, around the time for me where I was just old enough to kind of see really both sides, and it really influenced who I am.
GROSS: So did you change neighborhoods?
BARRIS: I did. We changed neighborhoods. We changed schools.
GROSS: Compare the before and after.
BARRIS: Ashy to classy (laughter). You know, it's interesting. I feel like when you live in a lower economic, you know, neighborhood, one of the things that's really - really endearing about that is that you really don't know it until you're not in it because there's something really sort of unifying to everyone who's sort of broke, you know? And it's not until you sort of go to different schools and things like when you - that you're able to look back and be like, wow, we were really broke.
But, you know, there's a unifying, you know, presence that everyone wants to get out of that situation. And you're kind of, you know, together in a struggle to sort of have more. But it's not until you're able to have a little bit more that you really realize how little that you had. You know, for me, one of the things that I sort of worry about with my kids is that they will not have that sort of context to sort of understand what their life is and what it could be.
GROSS: In your show, "Black-ish," it's as if the children are growing up in a different country than the parents did because of technology, you know, because of, like, social media and cellphones and also because of class and because they don't think as much about race 'cause race isn't separating them from mainstream culture in America the way it did for the parents or at least for the father.
And therefore things that mean so much to the father, like witnessing the inauguration of the first black president, don't mean that much to the kids 'cause it's all they know. So they just take it for granted, like that's the way it is. So do...
BARRIS: Yeah, there was...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
BARRIS: There was a moment in the pilot that we put where Jack didn't know that Obama was the first black president. And that really happened to me in my life. We actually were walking through the Atlanta airport when the inauguration was going on, and people were crying and this and that. And my son didn't quite understand, you know, what was happening. We had to explain, like, it's the first time - the first black president. And he's like he's the first black president?
Years later, we had a conversation when he's a little bit older and he's like - we're like you - remember that he was the first black president. That's why those people were crying. He was like, oh, I forgot about that. I'm like, how could you forget about that? And we realized that's the only president he's ever known, you know, and for him a president is black. And there's something sort of really nice about that. And there's also something sort of, for who I am, a little scary because I want him to know how big of an accomplishment that is and how - you know, for the country - not just for our people - just for the country. And I don't know if he gets the context.
GROSS: The father in "Black-ish" is concerned that his kids are picking up white norms and that they don't have, like, a black cultural context the way he did. And, like, in the clip that we just heard, examples are that, you know, the father's name is Andre. He calls himself Dre. His son is Andre, but the kids at school are calling him Andy. His white friends are calling him Andy.
GROSS: And the father just, like, hates that.
GROSS: And the son wants to get, you know, bar mitzvahed so he can have a lavish party like he sees his Jewish friends having. Then the - so the father decides - well, you're going to have a black rites of passage ceremony. You're going to have, you know, an African rites of passage ceremony. And that seems very righteous to the father and very boring and pointless to the son. And it just made me wonder if there were, in your family, generational differences on Afrocentricity.
BARRIS: Absolutely. You know, actually, that particular story was an aggregate of Laurence Fishburne, Anthony Anderson and myself. Anthony Anderson actually has the copyright to the word bro mitzvah...
BARRIS: That's really great. Yeah.
BARRIS: ...Because his son, you know, who was the only - as he calls him - the only little chocolate drop in his class - Anthony's from Compton. But, you know, he's been working in the entertainment industry for 22-some-odd years and had some successes. And so his family were - you know, his kids in particular - came up in a different situation.
His son came in, and I remember this when I started going to the schools. I remember that 12, 13, 14-year-old point where you're just going week to week to week to bar mitzvahs. And his son was doing that. And we don't have that in our culture. You know, it's like there's money. There's bands. And there's groups. And there's parties. It's like - why can't we have this? His son came in and was like - I want a bar mitzvah. And it really freaked Anthony out. And he said I want a bro mitzvah.
And Laurence said there was a time like that with his child. And he gave his kids an African rites of passage ceremony. And I remember getting that. But I remember - Laurence telling me about it - I remember thinking how not fun it was. My generation, I believe, was the first generation to really benefit directly from the civil rights movement. My mom, you know, went through civil rights. My dad went through civil rights. My name was Kenya because they wanted to give me an African name.
And subsequently, my generation sort of took more of a - because we didn't really have, you know, foot-to-pavement or rubber-to-road type of marches and things like that. We took more of an intellectual, sort of revolutionary approach. There was Public Enemy. And, you know, the Malcolm X - you know, autobiography of Malcolm X exploded. There was the "Malcolm X" movie. There was Spike Lee. We sort of became more of philosophical revolutionaries.
And now my kids in their generation - one of the moments I remember when I was pitching the show that really sparked for me is - the Trayvon Martin incident happened. And my daughter, you know, came in, and I was like - you know, how do you feel about this? And she was like - you know, we're really upset. She's like - we're - kids I know are protesting.
And I'm like - oh, that's awesome. What are you doing? And she said - no, look, we're doing it on Instagram. And she shows me this Instagram picture, and it's just a black frame. It's like the picture - it's just an all-black thing. And I'm like - I'm looking - I'm like - OK, so where's the protest? She's like - this is it. Look at how many people are putting black on their Instagram. And I realized this must be the most low-rent protest I've ever seen...
BARRIS: ...In my life. I was like - I can't get, like, a small trash can fire?
BARRIS: Like, I don't know. Like, anything? Like - and it really showed me the generational difference. And, you know, I think that that is one of the reasons - I did an episode this year called "Hope" where the family at the end - there was an incident, and the family decides to go down to the protest. And we really try to make sure we end our shows not saying any one way to be is the right way to be.
But I wanted in this particular episode to say I do think that something that we have to do as a people is - you know, not just as black people, I mean as a country - is really, actually, be more proactive. No matter what we do, I think that that is something that - digital age kind of takes away from us. You know what I'm saying? We feel like we can sign online protests and do the - but I think we have to actually put rubber to road, foot to pavement, and be more proactive.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kenya Barris. And he's the creator and showrunner of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish." And the season two finale is on tonight. We're going to take a short break and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is the creator and showrunner of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish," Kenya Barris.
Let's talk about that episode called "Hope." This is the family figuring out how to answer questions that are unanswerable questions from their children. So everybody is around the TV watching as the news is about to come down about whether a police officer accused of misconduct is going to be indicted or not. And what he's accused of is Tasering 37 times a black man who was selling DVDs.
And so, you know, they're watching - there's protesters kind of surrounding the site. And the family's watching this on TV. And it comes down that this officer is not going to be indicted. And then protests really break out. There's reports of fires and looting. And, you know, the children are wondering - like, especially the young 6-year-old is wondering, like, why is everybody so mad?
So the parents are trying to explain to them. And then they get into a kind of debate about the police and the justice system. And the mother is kind of defending some faith in the justice system. Like, the children have to learn how to, like, be polite to the cops 'cause, ultimately, the justice system works. And the father and grandfather are very skeptical of that idea.
And she says, well, you - I don't want my kids to grow up in an environment where there's no hope. So this is a conversation between the father, Anthony Anderson, who plays Dre, and his wife Rainbow, who's played by Tracee Ellis Ross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK-ISH")
ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Don't you get it, Bow. The system is rigged against us.
ROSS: (As Rainbow Johnson) Maybe it is, Dre. But I don't want to feel like my kids are living in a world that is so flawed that they can't have any hope.
ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Oh, so you want to talk about hope, Bow? Obama ran on hope. Remember when he got elected? And we felt like maybe, just maybe, we got out of that bad place and made it to a good place, that the whole country was really ready to turn the corner. You remember that amazing feeling we had during the inauguration? I was sitting right next to you. And we were so proud.
Then we saw him get out of that limo and walk alongside of it and wave to that crowd. Tell me you weren't terrified when you saw that. Tell me you weren't worried that someone was going to snatch that hope away from us like they always do. That is the real world, Bow. And our children need to know that that's the world that they live in.
GROSS: So that's a scene from "Black-ish." And that was Anthony Anderson that we heard. And my guest is the creator and show runner of "Black-ish," Kenya Barris. So you kind of spoke the unspeakable in the - 'cause I think there's so many people who have been so worried for - was it seven years now? - that somebody would do something to President Obama.
You know, and I don't even want to say the word (laughter). And it's like you were directly addressing that fear in that in addition to kind of getting to the injustice of the justice system.
BARRIS: I mean, it's so weird - I kind of am - like, am getting choked up a little bit. Like, hearing that on the radio, it's different than seeing it on television. The words are a little bit more piercing. Wow, Anthony did a really, really good job. And I think, yes, we - you know, I had no idea when I was writing - you know, I was terrified when I was writing that because I was like, that's not what - this is not what this show is. It's a comedy. I was struggling during the writing process to sort of make sure keeping the tone.
Ultimately, that episode, although it's really kind of, you know, taken on a life of its own, was not at its inception about police brutality. You know, we feel like it was something that was a really good sort of lens to sort of focus our cameras on. But it really started from the - the conceit and the inception of the idea was that we're living in this world right now. You know, there's terrorists act. There's racism. There's brutality. There's sexism. There's, you know - we're in a really, you know, tumultuous political moment right now. And I felt like there's so many things that your kids cannot be tuned out from because of 24-hour news, TMZ, the internet, you know, other kids, you know, whatever. They can't sort of - the one-time ability to sort of turn off the outside world and just kind of raise our kids is gone. So it really was like how do you have conversations with your kids about things that you're not necessarily wanting to have conversations with them about and how do you have those conversations and not let your past experiences sort of scorch the earth of what their future is going to be?
And we took the idea of police brutality because we felt like it was something so organic to what we're going through right now and what this family would be going through. And it actually really - that particular moment actually really happened with me and so I really wanted to tell that conversation. And I think that moment of television for me is probably the most special thing I'll ever be involved in. I just don't think as a comedy writer you get to be involved in things like that and you never know it's going to happen. It kind of sort of happened on its own, but it was a sort of cathartic week for everybody involved.
GROSS: So let me ask you about a story that you have not to my knowledge used on "Black-ish."
GROSS: And this is a story from your own life. Your father was abusive. Your mother left him with the children - I mean, she took the children and left him. And then one night - I'm not sure how old you were - he broke into the house. And she had a gun and shot and wounded him. And I think you were watching while it happened. She told you to call the police. You did. What went through your mind when you witnessed that?
BARRIS: I mean, I don't - you know, it was - probably like, oh [expletive] like, you know, like, it kind of was, like...
GROSS: How old were you?
BARRIS: I probably was 5 or 6. It all happened so fast. I think I knew pretty quickly that he was going to be OK. You know, he went away on his own, you know, feet and shortly after that we saw him in the hospital, you know, so I think I pretty quickly knew that he was going to be OK.
I think I was really more so worried about my mom. You know, to see her not in her, you know, normal - my mom was not a crier. My mom was not - you know, she was a very strong lady and to see her sort of not composed, you know, it was something I was not used to. So I think that was one of the bigger things I feel like - and maybe this - maybe as I'm saying this to you I'm like, wow, I'm a sociopath.
BARRIS: I think part of it was kind of fun. I know that sounds crazy but it was, like, the police came. And they came and showed me there - I showed them my room. And I was like, you know, I heard a gun go off and I don't think at that time you're thinking necessarily - you know, you saw a person walk out. They're going to be OK. It kind of was just like, oh, this is sort of maybe an exciting moment.
You know, I was talking with my mom about this and she was trying to talk to me about, like, my recollection opposed to hers. I mean, it was such a, I think, sort of like cyclone that it hit me and I think that's the beauty of being young is that you're malleable and you can sort of bend but at the same time you bounce back really well.
GROSS: You know, a really strange twist to this is that the father who your mother had left who then broke into the house really angry, he'd been abusive, she shot him. Later - and you can tell us how many years later - he had that industrial accident that ended in the loss of a lung. And it was the settlement money from the subsequent lawsuit that helped fund your mother's ability to move you to a better neighborhood and better schools.
BARRIS: It's so interesting you say that. I didn't even look at it like that and I think that that's one of the things that those - my, you know, upbringing and, you know, seeing my mom and seeing my dad who's, you know, for all whatever, you know, things he'd been through, you know, he went through troubles in his marriage like everyone does.
My dad was a really good dad. I - there never was a time where my dad was absent in my life. He just wasn't there, you know, living with me and my mom and I chose, you know, as, I think, a lot of kids do in divorce, I chose my mom, you know? But, like, you know, he - I always could get my dad if I knew him.
You know, I think that that sort of - that moment changed my dad for the, you know, for the good part. He has a special needs kid that I've never seen someone take more interest in. You know, I feel like it made my mom - my mom became, like, a - you know, she was Joan of Arc after that. Like, she really...
GROSS: After she shot him she was Joan of Arc?
BARRIS: Absolutely. She was a force to be reckoned with. And she went on and became very, very successful on her own and, you know, got - you know, took money and things that came in her life and did really well with them. And to this day, if I have financial issues I'll go to my mom almost before I go to my business manager.
GROSS: My guest is Kenya Barris, the creator and showrunner of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish." The second season ends tonight with an homage to the '70s sitcom "Good Times."
Coming up, we'll talk about a scam he used to pull on white ladies when he was a kid. And I'll tell him about being one of the white ladies approached by other kids pulling the same scam. That's after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Kenya Barris, the creator and showrunner of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish." The second season's series finale is tonight. The series will receive a Peabody Award at a ceremony this Saturday. "Black-ish" stars Anthony Anderson as a husband, father and advertising executive who grew up in the inner city but is now living in a predominantly white suburb where he's afraid his privileged children are losing touch with black culture, becoming more black-ish than black.
So one of the episodes this season was about the N-word and - can you say it? Who's allowed to say it? Who decides who's allowed to say it? (Laughter) And the premise of this episode is that the 6-year-old son was performing at a school talent show. And for his performance, he was doing Kanye's "Gold Digger" and using the N-word in all the ways - in all the places that Kanye does on the recording. And the school punishes him because they have a zero-tolerance policy on hate speech.
And the parents are really upset, you know, thinking, like - who are these people to tell us if we can use the N-word? But there's even a fight within the family between the father and the mother about whether it's OK for their son to be using it in that context on the talent show. So let's hear a little bit of this dispute (laughter) between the father and mother about the N-word. And I should just say before we hear this clip that every time you hear a little music, it's a little flashback scene in which we hear the person who's denying that they ever use the N-word actually having used it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK-ISH")
ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Damn it, it's his birthright. Jewish kids get to go to Israel. Black kids get to say this.
ROSS: (As Rainbow Johnson) Dre, that is ridiculous. Nobody should say it. It is an ugly, hateful word with an even uglier and hate-filled history.
ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Yeah, of it being said to us, not by us.
LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Earl Johnson) As usual, Son, you have absolutely no idea what you're talking about.
ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) But...
FISHBURNE: (As Earl Johnson) That is not a word that black folks need to be using - ever.
ROSS: (As Rainbow Johnson) No.
FISHBURNE: (As Earl Johnson) You see I never used it.
ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) What?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FISHBURNE: (As Earl Johnson) [Expletive] acting like these lights around here are going to pay for themselves.
Well, I only said it to separate myself from the rest of you people.
JENIFER LEWIS: (As Ruby Johnson) Mm-hm. Unlike Earl, I really never say it.
FISHBURNE: (As Earl Johnson) What?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LEWIS: (As Ruby Johnson) Watch it, [expletive].
Saying it to your daddy's trifling behind don't count.
FISHBURNE: (As Earl Johnson) Oh, agreed. All we're saying is, of course every now and then, it slips out. But it's never said casually and never in mixed company.
LEWIS: (As Ruby Johnson) Exactly. It's only a judgment said with disdainful indictment.
ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Pops, you and mom's generation used the word for self-hate. You made it negative. My generation - we reclaimed it. And we use it as a term of colloquialism and power, same way the slaves took the leftover pig guts and found them plants growing in the woods intended and turned it into chitlins and collard greens. That's what we did with the N-word.
FISHBURNE: (As Earl Johnson) Yeah, here he come with that chitlin argument.
LEWIS: (As Ruby Johnson) Can you believe this [expletive]?
ROSS: (As Rainbow Johnson) Hey, hey.
ANDERSON: (As Dre Johnson) Mom.
GROSS: OK. So that was a scene from "Black-ish." And we heard Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross as the parents and Larry Fishburne and Jenifer Lewis as the grandparents. And my guest Kenya Barris is the creator and showrunner of "Black-ish."
So how do you think of the word? Do you think it as word that, like, your generation reclaimed and it's OK for some people, but not others to use it, which is the argument that Anthony Anderson makes in this?
BARRIS: (Laughter) Well, I'm usually going to side on Dre's side (laughter) because Dre is sort of based upon - on me and, you know, Anthony. But yes, I think that the word is - it's interesting. I think it is one of the most divisive, densely discoursed, just, polarizing words in American history. And I feel like, you know, words - as a writer, I believe that words are powerful. But I do believe that words also in having - anything that has power means it has growth. And in having growth, it can evolve. And I think that that word has evolved, you know, and has, you know, generational differences for different people.
For me, in my particular way that I look at it - and I think that the character Dre, you know, came out to say is that I feel like the word - you know, obviously there's the E-R and the A-H and, you know, the things that go along with the word. But I feel like, in general, to not get into that specific of it, I feel like the word is sort of a tribal badge. You know, I do look at it for myself.
You know, my generation looked at it as something that we took the disdainful indictment that my mom's generation would use it in because of how it was said to the generations before her. We took that away from it, and we made it sort of a, you know, a badge of tribalism between - sort of to say - between two members of that tribe to say look, I know that you're a part of this tribe. And we have some shared heritage, whether I know you or not.
I think that I go back and forth because as an artist I also feel that - you know - that episode came because I found out that my daughter was using it with friends who were not black. You know, it had just become a colloquial word of coolness. And she didn't really - you know, so it - I think I go back and forth. I think the rappers have put it in songs, you know, for mass-marketed consumption that it's sort of hard to tell white kids they can't say words in songs that they buy. It's like buying a book - selling a book, but telling certain segments of society they can't read certain pages of the book. So I go back and forth because I do believe that art needs to be able to be expressed purely. But I know I have a battle with it.
GROSS: So every time the word is used on that episode - and the episode is all about that word - it's bleeped, which is usually what happens on network TV and often on basic cable as well. And we go back and forth on our show about whether we should let somebody use it or not uncovered or whether we should bleep it when they say it.
BARRIS: Who wanted to use it? I'm very interested. Who said, hey...
GROSS: Well - OK. Most recently, Jerrod Carmichael used it because we were talking about...
GROSS: ...The "Carmichael Show's" episode with that because they had - they did a show about whether it's OK or not to say it. And he's used the word in his comedy. And we actually were playing a sketch in which he - playing some of his standup in which he quotes somebody as using it.
And so I asked him - well, should we bleep that or not? And he explained why he didn't think we should bleep it. And we - we actually left it unbleeped, although there are times we do bleep it.
But did you have a big discussion with ABC, with the executors there about whether they should bleep the N-word or not? Notice I'm not going to say the word (laughter).
BARRIS: (Laughter) You know, it's crazy to - before I answer that question - it's - saying the N-word makes it almost more, you know what I'm saying - saying it makes it almost louder when you say the N-word. Like, I feel like one of the most interesting conversations that happened with ABC was around this episode. In an amazing, amazing way, they were going to let us say it. They were going to let us see how many we could say. You know, there was a debate. Like, we had, like, literally - I call it a [expletive] negotiation, or N-word negotiation, because it was, like, literally - I'll give you two N-words for, you know...
BARRIS: And what we ended up doing - and I'm so glad that, you know, my partner Jonathan Groff is - always sort of comes from the scientific method way of dealing with things. Like, we went and did an experiment. And there's nothing like being around a group of white people and just saying - you know, when two dudes are just saying it. And you just see them just cringing and, you know, tensing up or whatever. And, you know, we felt that, just like I told you, I think the N-word almost makes - saying the N-word makes it even louder.
We felt that beeping it - we played it with and without. And we felt that without the bleep limited our access points, limited are entry points for comedic accessibility. You know, we felt like you were going to be so sort of cringed every time the word was said that you were not going to be able to really hear it. And honestly, the beep made it even louder and funnier because you knew what was being said. You're saying it in your head, but it allows for you to comedically fall into the story, you know. So it was - it came from a really sort of thought out place.
GROSS: So the resolution on the episode of "Black-ish" about the N-word ends with the father basically saying to the young son, who wanted to say the word and did use the word when he was doing a rap at the talent show - the resolution is wait. Wait until you're old enough to understand the history of that word...
GROSS: ...And the meanings of that word, and then decide if you want to use it. I thought that was an interesting resolution. Of course, children don't always follow what their parents tell them (laughter). So who knows how that would actually play out in reality. But I thought it was a very, you know, a interesting resolution. Is that what you tell your kids?
BARRIS: You know, it's interesting. That word at - my kids go to one of those sort of, you know, private schools that zero tolerance on any of those types of things. And a kid got in trouble for saying it. It wasn't my son. And I was bothered by the fact that that kid got in trouble for saying it. And I understood that he shouldn't have said it in mixed company and those type of things.
But I feel like - you know, I'll noticed my son - or actually it happened with my daughter - she was - we were listening to a rap song and the word came on. And I was, like, hold on. Did you not just say the word? I was like a no, no. Let's rewind this. You can get that off. Go ahead. You can say that. Say it again. And she wasn't comfortable saying it. And I was, like, no, you've got to say it. It's yours.
And I realized that that - the PC structures have gotten to her where she felt like it wasn't hers to say either. And I'm, like, no, it is yours to say if you choose to say it. You know what I'm saying? You cannot let the powers that be take away your right. Now, you need to know the history of why people are saying that you should not say it. And you need to hear the other side of people who feel like you can say it. And then you can make your own, you know, decision.
But I want you to understand that, from your dad's point of view, if you choose to say it and it's not in a, you know, boorish, you know, way, you can say it. And that's why I said not in mixed company. But it is your earned history. So little - so many - so little things that we have in this country we can say are ours. You know, we have had so much stuff taken from us - language and culture and history. And I felt like that was something that we took back the power on, you know what I'm saying. And I felt like - it was something I was very passionate about, one of the reasons when we start talking about that story, I was like I have to write this.
GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Kenya Barris. He's the creator and showrunner of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Kenya Barris. He's the creator and showrunner of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish."
The season finale is tonight, and the season finale is an unusual episode in that it's an homage to the '70s sitcom "Good Times." And the premise is that the father, Dre, has - he's worried about paying expenses over the summer 'cause his kids want to go to camp. And his wife wants to take some time off from work 'cause she's pregnant. And he's just seeing these, like, expenses mounting up. And so he has a big meal, watches a "Good Times" marathon on TV and falls asleep and dreams that he's a character in "Good Times." And so it's this kind of homage to the series. What did that series mean to you?
BARRIS: I caught the whole series - I caught it in reruns. But...
BARRIS: ...That series and more importantly, Norman Lear, who, you know, I'm unbelievably blessed to be able to call a friend - I am what I am as a writer because of Norman Lear and Spike Lee. And I - Norman Lear in particular - and I feel like, you know, Norman had this amazing ability to sort of have the foresight to talk about real things at a time when they needed to be talked about. And for some reason, television went through this amazing sort of hibernation of not talking about things.
That family in particular affected me. And it affected - you know, it affected my family. And it affected other families that didn't look like my family. And it really, you know, showed that at the core - you know, rich or poor - family's about love and about sticking together. And I think that that was one of those specific universalities that really sort of influenced and formed what my show does. You know, and I'm writing the "Good Times" movie for Sony, and I think I'm a derivative of Norman Lear. So that - you know, the idea to be - sort of be able to show that and do that with my show was a dream come true. And at the same time - huge fan of the fashion - huge fan of the - you know, of the music, of the time period in general. And I think my cast had a really good time with it.
GROSS: You're a huge fan of the fashion because you don't have to wear those clothes for real.
BARRIS: Maybe. I mean, but I would've loved to have had, you know, literally a situation where I could just let my hair grow as long as I could and not be considered, you know, not ultimately rebellious. Like, that was - you know, black people were walking around with afros. And they were walking around with, you know - my sister showed me a hairstyle called a sweet Jesus, which was a big afro. And you would take a - and put a part down the middle. And just - there was just something just so - it was peacocking in an amazing way.
GROSS: Don't tell me you're yearning for those enormous collars.
BARRIS: I may not be yellow (ph), but Tom Ford, who is my favorite designer, has - does a wink wink that $700 says he sort of sees something good in it. I felt like there was some really bad choices, you know what I'm saying? But at the same time, I feel like high-waisted pants that end in bellbottoms, how often are we seeing some of our biggest designers do a variation on that now? And those colors - and there was just a ceremonial nature to some of those clothes, especially for black culture that I really felt like - and you - please like, you know, email me.
I - look how amazing the cast looks tonight when you see them in some of those clothes. Tracee Ellis Ross, in particular, just looks amazing and I feel like for women in particular it was a celebration of the female figure in a way that was not as gratuitous as I'm seeing it being done now. And it actually really did lend itself more to fashion and less to just sort of a salacious nature of exploitation that I'm seeing, you know, clothes do now.
GROSS: Interesting, OK. So in The New Yorker profile that Emily Nussbaum recently wrote about you, you described how when you were a kid - and I don't know how old you were - during a period when you were, you know, getting into trouble sometimes and stuff, that you would approach white women at gas stations and ask them if you could pump their gas.
Now, I am one of the white women who's been approached by kids at gas stations asking if they could pump my gas. And I thought it might be interesting if we compared notes about what that experience was like for each of us. Do you want to start or should I?
BARRIS: Do you know what's crazy? Two things - I know where your notes are going to go.
BARRIS: I did not realize that that was the notes until I was an adult, you know what I'm saying? And I look back and not only did I realize I was terrifying these white women into - I was basically strong-arming them into giving me a dollar to do something they could easily do.
But I also was panhandling - I mean, I also was panhandling. And I just - I did not see it, you know what I'm saying? I feel like it's part of, like, you know, ghetto games. I feel like you do certain things. I was so proud of myself for being entrepreneurial and not being - going and selling drugs and doing this. But I was basically being a little strong-arm panhandler who was preying on people's, you know, sympathies and at the same time their fear. So I - I can - what are your notes? Let me hear your notes.
GROSS: My notes are that there was something inherently patronizing or, you know, condescending or insulting about a kid coming up to me assuming I needed help pumping my gas. Like, I do it all the time. Like, I can do that myself. Do I look, like, not strong enough to, like, handle the gas pump (laughter) you know?
And then thinking back, well, what is the bargain that you are trying to make with me? What's being unsaid here? How much money do you expect from me? Is it a dollar? Is it $5? Is it $10? If I say yes, oh, please help me pump my gas and I give you a dollar, are you going to say - are you going to look at me like, hey, that's not enough? You know, like, what's all the subtext here?
BARRIS: I think the subtext was what does it cost for you to keep me off the street and not take your wallet later?
BARRIS: Was it that worth to you? Is that worth a dollar? That's fine. I'm OK with that. Everybody's - this negotiation really works out well. You know, I didn't think of the feminist approach that you were saying in terms of I can't. That's the first time I've ever actually heard that. I thought of the idea of maybe I was sort of preying on your white liberal guilt that - you know what I'm saying? Like, oh, these kids are trying and - you know what I'm saying - and to do something and I'm going to do this. I thought - I was very aware of that part of it, you know, that I was sort of playing on the liberal, like, part of people feeling sorry for me.
I wasn't aware till later later that it sort of had a little bit of a strong-arming, you know what I'm saying? Like, you know, the idea of, like, are they afraid of taking out their wallet? I don't think I thought about that and the one that hit me most recently is that I was a bum. I was panhandling. I was basically - was on the side of the road with a sign and I was really upset at myself. But to be completely fair, we could've been doing something else worse. And...
GROSS: Well, that is the subtext, yes.
BARRIS: That is the subtext. That is the subtext. And I think that was the understanding.
GROSS: But did you ever? Like, if a woman said no thank you then what?
BARRIS: We were fine. I mean, there were many times that we would say can - well, we'll do it for you for free, you know what I'm saying, many times. I mean, probably half the time we would say - you know, a lady would say I don't have this or whatever. And we're like, we'll do it for you anyway.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kenya Barris. He's the creator and showrunner of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Kenya Barris. He's the creator and showrunner of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish."
So one of the new developments on your show, "Black-ish," is that the wife and mother, who's also a doctor on the show, is pregnant. And she's probably - she already has four kids and she's probably, what, in her early 40s?
BARRIS: Mhm, 40.
GROSS: And you're - 40, OK, and your wife is pregnant now. And she's probably roughly the same age as the character on the show I'm guessing...
BARRIS: Thirty-nine, 39.
GROSS: OK. And so do you plan on working in a lot of her pregnancy and the birth of your new child into episodes next season?
BARRIS: Absolutely. We don't want it to be...
GROSS: Nothing goes to waste (laughter).
BARRIS: ...No, yes. We don't want it to be - exactly. I'm living this life so that I can monetize it. And I think that it really - we wanted to speak to the notion that women are having babies later. You know, women are having babies while they have really big careers. Men are having to sort of take different roles in that.
You know, there is so much stuff with, you know, fertility and things like that. I feel like we wanted to sort of talk about some of those stories and some of those things that go on. You know, my wife was told that she had a geriatric womb.
GROSS: Oh, that's on the show, too, yeah.
GROSS: It sounds so horrible - a geriatric uterus.
BARRIS: It sounds awful (laughter). Could you imagine if men got - went into the doctor and they're like, you have a geriatric penis? Like, they would come up with a different way to say that very quickly.
GROSS: Yeah (laughter) that's definitely true.
BARRIS: And I - it was very interesting that that was sort of, you know, something that was told to her with a straight face. And, you know, I want to talk about - I have so many friends going through fertility issues and just the notion of having a later-in-life child and, you know, while at the same time maybe having issues with your, you know, finances. And I think that there is really rich layering and texture to these stories.
GROSS: Well, I'll be looking to see how it turns out on the series and in your life. So one more thing - because "Black-ish" is a network sitcom, you have to do - what - 24 episodes a season, while on cable it's more like maybe eight, maybe 10. How - I mean, at this point I feel like how can you possibly do so many episodes? 'Cause, you know, I'm so used to cable where the season is just, like, so much shorter.
BARRIS: You know, I just saw that Gerod (ph) got - who's a friend and who I'm a fan of and he happens to be my friend - he just got picked up for his third season. Congrats, Gerod. But they're doing 13. And I was like, God, I wish I could do 13, you know, because I do feel like it's a real testament to my writing staff, you know, and to my actors. There is a - you know, there is a weight that is put on your shoulders when you know that you have to do that, from an acting standpoint, from a producing standpoint, from a writing standpoint.
I feel like the thing that we've been really able to do is not become formulaic in terms of letting the stories feel stale. And I think the best way to do that - and this is a Phil Rosenthal trick - you know, you get people who've kind of - living the life, in terms of having a family and having stories to tell. He said that he would walk in on "Everybody Loves Raymond" - Phil Rosenthal ran "Everybody Loves Raymond" - and on Monday morning he'd say, so what happened over the weekend? And so that's a really big, you know, notion for us. And we - you know, one of the things I've learned as a showrunner that I really try to take into my room is listening.
A lot of times we're so involved and so invested in ourselves, as showrunners in terms of being the voice of the show, that we aren't able to listen. And I think that my job is to sort of hear what's going on, you know, and sort of take that and turn it around into something. There was a story where someone saw two guys kissing - a guy saw two guys kissing on the way to the bus stop on his way to work. And it bummed him out. Like, you know, am I homophobic, you know?
And then that started a conversation. And I was just like, you know, well, do you think you are? And at the same time, we all came to the conclusion that if you saw a guy and a girl really going at it, it would sort of, like, freak you out and really what it came down to was he was just, like, no I just don't like massly (ph) - gross - grossly, you know, large displays of public affection. He was like - and it sort of starts the conversation about like what is homophobia? And that's - so I feel like there are ways to sort of come up with stories and we're trying to sort of make those really conversational.
GROSS: Well, Kenya Barris, it's been great talking with you. Thank you so much.
BARRIS: Thank you.
GROSS: Kenya Barris is the creator and showrunner of the ABC sitcom "Black-ish." The season two finale is tonight. On Saturday, "Black-ish" will be honored with the Peabody Award at their annual awards ceremony.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR - the Panama Papers, millions of internal documents leaked from a Panama law firm that specialized in creating shell companies to help the rich and powerful, including politicians, hide their wealth. Our guest will be Kevin Hall, chief economics reporter for McClatchy newspapers, who researched the documents. I hope you'll join us.
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