Was the Golden Age of '90s Black Sitcoms Actually Golden?

golden age black sitcoms
Getty Images/ Digital Art by Nakeisha Campbell

This piece is part of a franchise called 'Issa Throwback,' where we celebrate the golden age of Black TV. From the best ‘90s sitcoms to Disney Channel classics, it’s time to tune back into the shows that shaped our identities.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been putting ’90s Black sitcoms on a pedestal. If anyone stepped to me with a negative opinion about any of my favorite classics, I took it very personally and made a point to lecture them about their impact. Because, quite frankly, these shows were my window to Black joy. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin and Family Matters are just a few that kept me cackling when I needed a pick-me-up. Not to mention my unhealthy obsession with certain characters. (Was I the only one who harbored a secret crush on Stefan Urquelle?)

Still, despite my love for these iconic shows, there’s one particular question that’s been nagging me, thanks to a recent discussion with a friend. As we talked about the rise and (sudden) fall of these Black shows after the new millennium, I considered some of my favorite contemporary shows, like Abbott Elementary and Black-ish—both of which depict the Black experience in a more realistic and compelling way—and just how good they really are. I couldn’t help but wonder, why did the ‘90s golden age of Black TV come to an end? Was the world just not ready for it? Or did these shows actually get nixed because they weren’t as good as I remember? 

The thought alone left me unsettled… I mean, could nostalgia really have clouded my judgment that much?

golden age of black sitcoms fresh prince
Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank

Eager to get to the bottom of this, I did a little digging to figure out the real reason these classics suddenly fell off. Per The New York Times, from 1997 to 2001, the number of Black sitcoms on TV in the U.S. dropped from 15 to 6—and sadly, it had a lot to do with declining viewership and ratings.

In his 2001 article, Robert F. Moss wrote, “Advertisers crave the biggest, most affluent audience they can get—in practice, a predominantly white audience. Whereas the breakthrough Norman Lear shows of the 1970's (Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons) attracted a big multiracial following, and in the 1980's The Cosby Show ruled the airwaves, today's black sitcoms have been unable to achieve crossover status.”

He added, “The Parkers, currently the highest-rated African-American show, has a viewership of about 5 million (primarily in Black homes), less than half of the numbers posted by Dharma and Greg.”

golden age of black sitcoms the parkers

So, it turns out that even the most popular Black sitcoms couldn’t compete with more mainstream shows, thanks to having smaller target audiences. But this wasn’t the only reason. Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman, Vice President and Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion at Northwestern University, told Refinery29 that it also had a lot to do with networks attempting to profit off of Black content without paying much attention to the quality of these shows. (Uh-oh, here came that nagging feeling again…)

Following the success of The Cosby Show, which brought in a fairly diverse audience, the ‘90s saw an influx of new Black sitcoms that tried to appeal to both Black and non-Black viewers. Coleman said, "In the '90s, executives wanted to capitalize on the young white audiences that were tuning into The Cosby Show. They thought, ‘Hey, let's get these young viewers with disposable income to tune in to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air!’”

golden age of black sitcoms cosby show
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

However, the more Black sitcoms that got introduced, the more the quality seemed to plummet. Instead of introducing Black comedies with substance that tackled deeper topics, networks continued to release more campy Black sitcoms like Eve and Homeboys in Outer Space, which felt more like desperate attempts to imitate a successful business model.

Coleman said, "It was more about quantity than quality in an effort for [networks] to cash in and make money. Of course, once the trend died down, they abandoned the Black shows, and it's been over a decade since we've seen anything like that."

Now, to be fair, not all of these sitcoms were tame, surface-level comedies that filtered out the messier parts of the Black experience. There was, of course, A Different World, which gave viewers a taste of Greek life at a historically Black college, explored controversial topics and introduced layered characters like the fabulous Whitley Gilbert. Then there was Living Single, which spoke to the value of maintaining deep and meaningful friendships as a Black young adult.

golden age of black sitcoms a different world
Bob Gersny/NBCU Photo Bank

These examples aside, as I continued to dig into this, I couldn’t help but get a little defensive about my favorite light-hearted classics. (Think: The Wayans Bros., The Jamie Foxx Show, Smart Guy and Martin.) Sure, a lot of them weren’t necessarily the most nuanced or layered. Even writer Kyle Hiller argued in his article for Paste that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air—a major success for NBC—was “more or less a boilerplate of The Cosby Show for a younger audience, from a network desperate for a hit.” 

But nuanced or not, these sitcoms helped pave the way for quite a few comedies on TV today, and they delivered genuine laugh-out-loud moments—whether it was the sight of Pam throwing punches at a wild animal on Martin, or Jamie going to ridiculous lengths to win over Fancy on The Jamie Foxx Show. Shouldn’t this trailblazing quality alone be enough to paint them as part of something more golden? There’s nothing quite like these shows on television today—but perhaps that’s OK. As much as I don’t think most of them would hold up today, maybe that’s beside the point.

As with any other genre, comedy TV has evolved. One look at today’s most successful sitcoms will tell you that there’s less emphasis on slapstick humor and more on realistic, thoughtful storylines that challenge viewers and make them laugh. The most successful comedy shows feature multidimensional characters, explore bizarre concepts and even blur the lines between comedy and other genres, be it drama, thriller, mystery or sci-fi. But most importantly, these shows bring something new to the table, as opposed to offering formulaic storylines that feel a little too familiar.

One standout example is ABC’s brilliant sitcom, Black-ish—the first Black comedy to air on network television in over five years. In the show, creator Kenya Barris offered a refreshing take on the Black experience in America, as seen through the lens of a dysfunctional, upper-middle-class Black family. Dre insists on lecturing his kids about Black history to remind them of their roots and Bow shares countless awkward moments with her kids as she tries to connect with them. Meanwhile, the jokes and references are seriously funny and always timely—and not every episode concludes with a neatly polished “moral of the story.”

golden age of black sitcoms black ish
Ron Tom / Getty Images

Another great example? Issa Rae’s Insecure, which follows two Black female best friends as they navigate their (very complicated) personal relationships and careers. In this case, fans got to see the world through the eyes of Issa, known for her rapping skills and next-level awkwardness, and code-switching pro Molly, who could never catch a break in the dating world. The series explored several important themes, from toxic masculinity to gentrification, while balancing humor with the most intense drama (don’t get us started on Issa and Molly’s fight). The series was groundbreaking in the way that it embraced imperfection and amplified the voices of Black women. 

Is this to say the ‘90s Golden Age of Black sitcoms wasn’t so golden after all? Well, yes and no. I will say that nostalgia has a huge part to play when it comes to how I view these classics today, and it was incredible to see these television networks make progress in terms of representation. However, many of these shows felt like reinterpretations of the same formula—and given how so many of them were canceled in a short time span, it didn’t take long for the viewers to catch on.

golden age of black sitcoms insecure

Fortunately, though, we’re in the golden age of streaming, which means more binge-worthy, diverse content that highlights Black stories. Stephanie Troutman Robbins, a scholar at the University of Arizona, explained in an interview, “With the influx of cable networks and digital platforms such as Netflix, there are more opportunities for people to engage with different and more complex stories about the Black experience and for Black people to find a reflection of themselves and their communities on TV.”

The scholar even touched on how the depiction of Black people on screen has evolved. Robbins continued, “We're seeing more of the very rich landscape of Blackness in the United States, including variations according to sexuality, socioeconomic status and geographical location—shows like The Chi, created by Lena Waithe, and Insecure, created by Issa Rae, and even Pose, where family is defined as ‘chosen’ rather than purely biological, and particular Black communities, including the LGBTQ community, are centered.”

golden age of black sitcoms atlanta
FX Networks

Knowing that there are so many more compelling Black shows that go beyond ‘90s humor is definitely something worth celebrating, which now begs the question: Have we moved on to the New Golden Age of Black Comedy Shows? It sure seems so, given the increase in more intense and thought-provoking dramedies like Insecure, Netflix’s Dear White People and FX's Atlanta.  And then, of course, there are light-hearted (but highly-nuanced) options like ABC’s Abbott Elementary and Netflix’s The Upshaws.

But here’s the thing: A part of me will always be drawn to the quirky, family-friendly Black sitcom—no matter how predictable. So yes, I will watch every single episode of Abbott Elementary. But will I also continue to watch Shawn and his dimwitted brother stumble into messy situations on The Wayans Bros? You bet. 

nakeisha campbell bio

Associate Editor, News and Entertainment

Nakeisha has been interviewing celebrities and covering all things entertainment for over 8 years, but she has also written on a wide range of topics, like career...