White privilege was the wind beneath the wings of shows like ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends’

White privilege was the wind beneath the wings of shows like ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Friends’

A version of this essay originally appeared in Black Kos.

A confession right up front: I have never watched an episode of Seinfeld. Never, ever. I’ve never watched an episode of Friends, either. I do have friendly acquaintances who speak of both shows in very laudatory terms, and look at me askance when I confess my sin of never feeling the urge to watch them. Both shows are said to be among the most popular sitcoms in history, with Seinfeld in the running for the title of the greatest show ever.

CNN’s History of the Sitcom premiered in July, and purports to take us back to the good ol’ days of situation comedies that had us glued to our TV sets on those special nights. According to WarnerMedia’s press release, the eight-part docuseries “reunites audiences with the television friends, families, and co-workers they grew up with while introducing cutting-edge comedies that are sure to be your next binge-watch,” while “breaking down how sitcoms have helped generations of Americans navigate an ever-shifting cultural landscape.”

I had not really planned on watching the show, but one July Sunday I was too lazy to change the channel. And so the latest episode became background noise, droning on as I got stuff done. Suddenly I heard something that had my ears perking up. “Seinfeld was a show about nothing,” said someone. Whoa! What was that?

I’d heard that phrase before but somehow the smugness of the delivery grabbed my attention. The story goes that some white men went to NBC and pitched a show that had no plotline other than white men talking to each other, and they were successful! They got it produced! The results for the first season, in 1989, reflected the creative talent of the main actors of the show—the show bombed and bombed hugely. The reviews were downright brutal, the ratings paltry, but NBC execs (all white men, of course) thought that what was then The Seinfeld Chronicles deserved more time to prove itself, and so they ordered more episodes. The execs were going to make this mediocre, unproven show into a hit because they had the power to do so. The network gave the show the prime-est prime time slot—right after Cheers, which, at the time, was the network’s most popular sitcom. With that massive lead-in audience, Seinfeld the show and Seinfeld the actor had no option but to succeed. Seinfeld the show became a household hit, Jerry Seinfeld became a multi-millionaire and gained the reputation for being a creative genius, and the rest is history.

White men failing up.

In a 1992 episode, the show famously mocked its own genesis.

“See, this should be the show. This is the show.” “What?” “This. Just talking.” “Yeah. Right… Just talking? What’s the show about?” “It’s about nothing.” “No story?” “No, forget the story.” “You’ve got to have a story.” “Who says you gotta have a story? Remember when we were waiting for that table in that Chinese restaurant that time? That could be a TV show.”

Now imagine for a moment that ANYONE other than some white men would have had the audacity to pitch a show about nothing to ANY of the major media houses. Do you see that show on any media outlet? Imagine, for a moment, that somehow lightning struck and the project got the okay and then bombed in that first season; do you see a major network renewing that show and giving it a primo slot? Not gonna happen. Hasn’t happened in the history of television thus far.

White privilege in action, baby.

The not so friendly origin of Friends

This iconic show was about six young people living together. No, I’m not talking about Friends, I’m talking about Living Single, which premiered 28 years ago last month.

Created by Yvette Lee Bowser and starring Queen Latifah, Kim Coles, Kim Fields, Erika Alexander, T.C. Carson and John Henton, Living Single followed the personal lives and professional experiences of six friends living in a Brooklyn brownstone. Over the course of five seasons, which ran from 1993 to 1998, the series became a ratings hit for Fox and one of the most watched Black programs of the ‘90s.

“You’ve never seen these women before,” Fields said of the premise about “four Black women in that twenty-something age range who are in New York and trying to make it.”

Living Single was one of the most popular shows in Black households. The story goes that NBC execs (those guys again) saw the Fox show, loved it, and decided to create one just like it—but with an all-white cast—and thus Friends was born. NBC threw money at that all-white show, and their marketing team went into overdrive to make it the success it became.

thinking about the fact that friends completely ripped off Living Single and succeeded ten-fold when there was no real difference besides whiteness pic.twitter.com/n5b3jqbA5e

— julia (@MarriottJulia) August 29, 2021

Both shows were produced on the same studio lot; it’s said that the Living Single accommodations looked like hovels when compared to those of the Friends cast.

White privilege making all the difference—again.

“The difference between Friends and Living Single is one of marketing and skin color,” Alexander told Shadow And Act. “What does Paul Mooney say? ‘They have the complexion for the protection,'” she laughed.

While Friends went on to a ten-season run with each cast member raking in $1 million per episode, Living Single never received the financial success of its successor.

Of course, the official version for the origin of Friends says nothing about “copying” from Living Single.

Kauffman and Crane began developing Friends under the working title Insomnia Cafe between November and December 1993. They presented the idea to Bright, and together they pitched a seven-page treatment of the show to NBC. After several script rewrites and changes, including title changes to Six of One[2] and Friends Like Us, the series was finally named Friends.

Keeping in mind that Living Single (premiering August 22, 1993) came first, watch an episode of Friends (premiering Sept. 22, 1994), and you’ll see the similarities.

Racism mucks up everything. A CNN production that had the power to unite us, given our shared history, became, for me, a reminder of all the inequities. The Seinfeld episode of The History of Sitcom left me feeling bitter and resentful, and all because someone boasted about the brilliance of the creators of “a show about nothing.” They might as well have been boasting about the power of white privilege.

And CNN, if you’re gonna tell the story, it would behoove you to tell the whole sordid tale, and not blatantly rewrite history so as to hide the part race played in the success—or lack of success—of both Black and white shows.

I did notice that contributors and analysts only mentioned race when reviewing the history of Black sitcoms, though admittedly, I also didn’t tune in for the “Facing Race” episode, which certainly wasn’t going to address how Living Single did it first and did it better. After all, the network promoted it this way: “In many homes, difficult conversations about race and diversity have first happened on the sitcom screen, helping pave the way for progress with hilarity and laughter.” 

What has been your favorite episode of #HistoryOfSitcom? This week, explore how sitcoms have reflected changes in attitudes on race and in some cases, helped bring those changes about. History of the Sitcom airs tonight at 9p ET/PT pic.twitter.com/pKycAwMjq1

— CNN Original Series (@CNNOriginals) August 1, 2021

I’m thinking CNN’s History of the Sitcom could have benefited from analysts who are a little bit more “woke”—or honest.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the July 30, 2021 edition of Black Kos, Week in Review and was republished with permission and participation of the author. 

Follow Black Kos and Black Kos Community for wide-ranging analysis and news affecting Black Americans and the global diaspora.

From Daily Kos at Read More. This article is republished from DailyKos under an open content license. Read the original article at DailyKos.

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