Ralph Farquhar on bringing The Proud Family into the future

The creator of the classic animated series talks the upcoming Disney+ revival, persevering through decades in Hollywood, and turning Black life into art.

Disney+ / Aziza Work Group
ByStarr Rocque

When Disney’s The Proud Family debuted in 2001, it was the first original animated series on the network and it revolved around a Black family — but it also included characters with varied religious, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds. The show was centered on a 14-year-old girl named Penny, and her chaotic life as a teenager navigating family and friendships. Penny’s motley crew included the sassy and sometimes overzealous Dijonay, the frenemy and Afro-Latina princess LaCienega Boulevardez, an awkward Jewish girl named Zoey Howzer, and Sticky Webb, the only guy in Penny’s crew who always kept his third eye open. Penny’s family included her over-protective father Oscar Proud, her career-driven mother Dr. Trudy Proud, her wrestling-loving paternal grandmother Suga Mama, and her toddler twin siblings BeBe and CeCe. The show’s diverse elements had the makings of what became a multigenerational cult favorite, but after three seasons and a TV movie, its run was over. It seemed like a happy ending, but it still left fans, and even the show’s creators, wanting more.

“We couldn’t quite figure out why The Proud Family ended because we knew there was this love of the show that spoke to kids and adults,” explains Ralph Farquhar, series co-creator and one of the most prolific minds in TV and film. “We knew we had more stories to tell.”

More of those stories are on the way with The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder, an animated series that will air on Disney+ on February 23. The edgier revival has a robust cast that includes original cast voices of Tommy Davidson, Kyla Pratt, Paula Jai Parker, and Jo Marie Payton, as well as newer heavy-hitters like Billy Porter, Keke Palmer, EJ Johnson, Gabrielle Union, and Tiffany Haddish.

Farquhar is well-versed in how to reset the culture: his resume also includes pop cultural juggernauts like Krush Groove, Moesha, The Parkers, Married With Children, Happy Days and more. The dear diary scene from Moesha is a popular meme, while The Proud Family has become a cosplay favorite among Blerds. He now has a production deal with Disney — so with the Proud revival and other endeavors, TV viewers will have even more material to work with.

We caught up with Farquhar to get a lesson in why Black TV matters, key changes he’s made to the universe of The Proud Family, and how to turn Black life into art.

During your early days in Hollywood, you switched from trying to act to writing because you felt that writers had more leverage. How did you learn that lesson?

When I was trying to be an actor, I was encouraged to look behind the camera for opportunities. I got frustrated with auditioning for gang banger number one and slave number three, so I was just like, “okay, I’ll write myself apart,” not really understanding how things really operated in town. But what I discovered right away was that the powers that be responded to someone who had an idea much more so than an actor, whether it be Black, white, or otherwise, that's just the way it was. So that's all I needed to realize my greatest chance at a career was when I was behind the camera. I wasn’t a good actor anyway. I wasn’t Denzel. At the time I was going on the same auditions as he was and I knew I wasn’t him so I had to move on.

Your first screenplay was Krush Groove, which opened the door for a lot of the types of storytelling we see from Black creators today such as RZA, 50 Cent, and even Issa Rae. What are your thoughts on the content we’re getting during this boom of Black creators?

What's happening now with TV and film is quite amazing. People are getting opportunities now that weren't available in abundance when I was coming up. When I started, there were no showrunners and then there were no people of color who were actual showrunners, and in TV that’s the determining factor in terms of who hires who and what shows get made. And there certainly weren’t many Black executives. Now we've seen that the landscape has changed significantly in terms of Black power brokers both as executives and as show creators, especially in TV.

Back then in order to have a hit show and get paid, you had to pull in 30 million households. That's not the case today. You can have 300,000 YouTube viewers and be a hit, so those slices are smaller, but they're just as valuable, which is the good news.

With Moesha and The Parkers, you were part of the Black TV boom in the 90s. That must have been a time.

That was the last gas of the old broadcast business model where we tried to reach the broadest audience. Our shows all existed on emerging networks. The Fox’s, UPN’s, and WB's of the world discovered two things. They discovered the 18 to 34 demographic, and it had never been broken down like that before Fox appeared. They realized that demographic was valuable because they didn't really watch TV. The logic was if they got more of these kids, then the advertising time was more valuable because any show that could bring them in, in significant numbers for advertisers, could charge advertising higher rates. The second thing was, Fox discovered that Black people showed up in droves because there was nothing on TV for them. So, you had shows like Martin, Sinbad, South Central, Robert Townsend's variety show, and In Living Color. That's how they built the network initially. And then when they got their numbers up significantly, they started hitting a wall and they figured they needed more white people to get past that wall. Those shows, if you look at the demographics, their audiences were already 50% or more white but no one talks about that because the misconception was that it was all just Black viewers.

Fox got the NFL contract and they knew they were going to get all these white males, so they just jettisoned all those shows at once. I know because I lost a couple of shows in the jettison. It was a bloodbath. But then UPN appears. They initially started with their hour-long shows like Star Trek, which was their big-time title show. And then on the comedy side, they had all these white male-oriented comedies and none of them stuck. So then they picked up a little midseason replacement called Moesha and it goes through the rough, so they immediately re-orient the entire comedy line up and started picking up anything Black.

When Moesha premiered we were up against Buffy the Vampire Slayer over at WB. I remember my agent saying that every agent in town had a meeting about what happened with the premiere and that the networks were trying to figure out how to get Black viewers. So they started greenlighting a number of titles. They probably wouldn't do that today if they had to do it all over but still, it was something that suddenly Black creatives were valuable. But that was short-lived. Ultimately, UPN combined with WB, and changed their whole model. They were going after the white young adult audience, and Black folks were in third or fourth position.

“I discovered right away that the powers that be responded to someone who had an idea much more than an actor.”

But in the early 2000s, you launched the Proud Family, which was sort of a cultural reset at least for Black-led animation. And now that reboot is coming.

I think the reason everyone liked the show is we didn’t really write it for the kids. We wrote for the entire family and the whole notion was co-viewing. We weren't talking down to kids. We were putting Penny in situations that everybody could relate to.

We premiered in 2001, so it’s 20 years later since and we can now speak to the subject matters that we only used to allude to back then. We used to use a lot of code words and we couldn’t speak about Penny being in any sort of relationship back then, but now we can portray those relationships and the nuances of it. And we'll talk about everything from race to gender identity. All these topics are on the table, in addition to just having the crazy wacky fun that we've always had in the Proud Family so that's what's exciting.

Michael is a classic character that got a makeover for the reboot, but to your point about being able to say more, will the character be more clearly defined as a proud member of the LGBTQ community without some of the negative insinuations of his past iteration?

The first character we talked about was Michael, and we said we can’t do Michael like we did back then. I don’t know how we got away with it back then. It wasn’t a very good representation, largely because of our own ignorance, and also because there was no real interest from the network in terms of exploring a character from the LGBTQ community so it started with us wanting to have authentic representation in terms of the voice. I’ve personally known EJ Johnson since he was a kid, and I thought he would be perfect. So, he jumped at the chance to voice Michael and bring him to life. And as far as visual representation, (animator and character designer) Bruce W. Smith and his team really leaned into who Michael is; that character design is stunning, and has been our most popular redesign of a character, so that was important for us.

And as we move forward, in terms of stories, we’re portraying Michael as who he is. He's very comfortable with who he is, and that reality is something that is accepted by his friends and his family. So we're not doing one very special episode about Michael, we’re just allowing him to be himself every day, and that has been one of the biggest changes we've made in the show. And obviously bringing in new characters. We brought in two new kids and we decided to have their parents be same-sex. That part was, we didn't want to just have everything fall on the shoulders of the Michael character. We brought other characters in to paint a more diverse world, and we were lucky to get Billy Porter and Zachary Quinto to be the voices.

Finally, I’m going to say a couple of phrases and I want you to tell me what first comes to your mind when you hear them. The first is, protecting Black stories.

Hire Black people. Get in business with black creators. People always talk about authenticity, and that’s built-in if you get in business with a Black creator. You don’t have to worry about what Mara Brock Akil (creator of Girlfriends and The Game) is going to do, you don’t have to worry about what Felica Henderson (co-producer of Sister Sister, developer of Soul Food the TV series) is going to do. We don’t always have the same point of view, but as long as it comes from somebody’s experience then it’s going to be authentic. You have to promote Black executives to the point where they're the ones greenlighting things.

The last one is, turning black life into art.

I like to think I’ve excelled at that. Everything I do is informed on some basics by my own life experience. Characters and stories that I create are all informed by how I was raised, who I hang out with, who my family is, and now the kids I raised. That's what informs me. And I think that's the pinnacle of turning black life into art. If you consider what I do art. I know there may be some people who question that, but let’s just give me that for a second. If you consider what I do art, then I’ve turned that into an art form.