An ode to the Black women who held down your favorite classic sitcoms

A look at the Black women who have held down your favorite shows for decades.

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Culture

On a recent episode of the podcast Here’s the Thing, hosted by comedians Kevin Fredericks and Angel Laketa Moore, the duo’s free-wheeling conversation pivoted from current entertainment spats (D.L. Hughley vs. Monique) and new film releases to a comparison of two sitcoms that beamed into millions of households in the 1990s: Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In between recounting their favorite episodes from each series and poetically waxing on Martin Lawrence’s improv skills, Fredericks offered a take: “Martin is a funnier show that I enjoy. The Fresh Prince is a better show, and it’s aged better.”

On June 16, BET premiered its Martin reunion to celebrate the show’s 30th anniversary. In that golden age of Black television, the sitcom stood out for the crackling chemistry of its core cast, who, like a championship-winning team, played the hell out of their positions and regularly gave masterclasses on the craft of making people laugh. Three obvious techniques are hallmarks of a great comedian: setup, timing, and delivery. Less discussed is the ability to be an anchor — someone who can embed acts with distinctive elements of pathos and humor, which, even delivered in a short time frame, don’t lose their emotional clarity. It’s a heavy task, yet looking at our most loved comedies, venerable and contemporary, Black women have been memorable anchors, using humor to expand the pop culture lexicon. In the moments where Martin was better than Fresh Prince, much credit goes to two of the show’s leads: Tichina Arnold and Tisha Campbell.

As Pam James, Arnold was arguably Martin’s unsung breakout star. Jokes about Pam’s “beady beads,” stank attitude, and her grating voice that could startle sleeping dogs were just as quickly caught and served alongside quips about Martin’s big ears that could have him trading childhood memories with Dumbo. Meanwhile, Campbell’s role as Lawrence’s girlfriend, Gina, saw her going toe-to-toe with a partner who was both acerbic and immature. As much as Martin could tell Gina to step and leave, so too could she turn on her heels without a pause, fully knowing that before her hand touched the knob, Martin would be hopping from side to side, begging her to stay.

Taking a look at Martin’s contemporary, Will Smith was the star of Fresh Prince, but Karyn Parsons (playing the incessantly ditzy cousin, Hillary) and Janet Hubert (Will’s decidedly droll Aunt Viv) enmeshed the show with a temperament that was as stimulating and absurd as it was ascendant. Every silly observation that Parsons delivered in earnest made the late James Avery’s sarcasm gleam with even greater clarity. Viewers would fully realize Will’s ill-advised exploits in dating and academic achievement as ludicrous the minute Hubert tilted her head, cleared her throat, and gave her verdict. In the best of times, she didn’t have to do anything but stare.

Before these ’90s heavy-weights, a generation of Black women sharpened their comedic artillery on stand-up stages and variety shows, creating roadmaps for the perfect anchors. Below are some whose work formed the scaffold of the pantheon Black women and girls would inhabit as they moved through comedy.

Susie Edwards

From the 1920s until the early 1960s, Edwards was part of the famous husband-and-wife comedy duo Butterbeans and Susie, offering a comedy genre filled with sketches on the ups and downs of marriage and thinly-veiled sing-alongs on the pleasures of sex. In the song “Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus, Mama Ain’t No Tree,” Edwards spells out her version of R.E.S.P.E.C.T., laying claim to her body while making clear what she chose to do with it was no one’s business but her own. She spent most of her career in the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA), growing her craft and mentoring up-and-coming performers, including Jackie “Moms” Mabley, whose comedic insight on the love and lust of elderly women would make her one of the highest-paid entertainment acts in the country.

Marla Gibbs

Gibbs is primarily known for her role as Florence Johnston on The Jeffersons. First appearing in 1975, playing the housekeeper, Gibbs brought layered dimension and a biting hilarity to a role that could easily have been forgettable. Florence was quick with the jokes, gave as good as she got in her daily squabbles with George Jefferson, and made an instant impression on Louise Jefferson and the audience during her first interview for the housekeeper position. Impressed by not only the apartment complex but by its residents, Florence remarked, “You live in this apartment, right? Well, how come we overcame and nobody told me?” Her obvious appeal led to her spin-off, Checking In. She would star in another sitcom, the popular NBC series 227, where she played the role of wise matriarch and anchored the show with the help of Jackée Harry and future Oscar winner Regina King.

Ellen Cleghorne

Saturday Night Live alum Ellen Cleghorne came on the show in 1991, staying for four seasons. During her run, she impersonated every well-known Black female entertainer, from Whoopi Goldberg to Alfre Woodard, bringing her brand of dry comic relief to offset the exaggerated tones she toyed with as an impersonator. Like Marla Gibbs, Cleghorne went on to lead a sitcom on the WB, aptly named Cleghorne!, which premiered in 1995. The show opened doors for other female comedians, most notably Sherri Shepherd, who received her first starring role in Cleghorne!

Countess Vaughn

Vaughn’s career trajectory is summed up with the famous line from Viola Davis’s 2015 Emmys speech: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” After forging a name for herself as the lovable airhead Kimberly Parker on the UPN show Moesha, Vaughn led the spin-off The Parkers. The series catapulted her to a level of fame that saw fans singing along with the theme song regularly. Vaughn brought a light-hearted approach while still being able to ground her character in a reality that lent the show an instant familiarity with Black girls who would yell the catchphrase “Heyyyyy!” to their girlfriends.

Raven-Symoné

From the late ’80s into the ’90s, Symoné was everyone’s favorite child on several golden hits — The Cosby Show and Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper — before landing her eponymous series, That’s So Raven. Whether she was the brassy, bright-eyed toddler lobbying questions to Denise Huxtable or the Disney teen with an avant-garde sartorial lean and clairvoyant abilities, Symoné commandeered every scene with assurance and a distinctive comical tone that continues to hold her apart from countless other Disney stars.

Kyla Pratt

Whether she was snapping at WNBA phenoms in classic commercials, starring in a perennial romcom (Love and Basketball), or voicing a precocious child (The Proud Family), Pratt has been a constant figure in comedy, marking different cultural touchstones for viewers consuming television in separate eras. Some know her as the youngest daughter in the Dr. Doolittle franchises. Many are familiar with her teenage antics on the UPN show One on One, where Tichina Arnold played her mother. Others caught her brief but memorable interactions on HBO’s Insecure and, most recently, as a lead on the Fox comedy Call Me Kat. Pratt has grown up with us, and for most of her life, she’s been a public figure churning comedic gold from the angst of adolescence, the lethargy of adulthood, and that distinctive voice of your inner child who’s never as impressed as the rest of the world.