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The Story of In Living Color (Part One)

As of the end of 2022, there is not a single piece of media that fully chronicles the story of the Wayans Family or their pioneering property, In Living Color, despite the fact that the show launched the careers of Jamie Foxx, Tommy Davidson, David Alan Grier and Jim Carrey. Check out the first part of JaneforShort’s series chronicling the lives of the Wayans Family and In Living Color.

Keenen Ivory Wayans and his best friend and collaborator, Robert Townsend, had long grown tired of the limited opportunities available for actors in Hollywood. Though neither completed college, they were well-spoken young men and hated that they were essentially choosing between playing pimps or crackheads. The same year of Damon’s first film role, Keenen and Townsend decided to begin filming their own movie that dealt with the very dilemma they were experiencing. A film that discussed the limited opportunities for black men in film and television. Using their combined savings and maxing out the limit on Townsend’s credit cards, they wrote and filmed a series of sketches that they wove together with a script.

In 1985, When invited onstage to do a set at The Comedy Act Theatre, Damon set his eyes on Robin Harris. AKA the wrong one. Allegedly, Damon said he looked like “a fat, black Eddie Murphy.” Being the man that Robin Harris was, he lit that poor man up. Sorry to that man.

There was one season of SNL between Damon and family friend Eddie Murphy. Damon came onto SNL in 1985 and was essentially the Eddie Murphy replacement. SNL, a show that faced criticism for being unfunny and white washed, was trying to find a comedian to replicate the success of Murphy. Not only had he bought in a new host of black viewers, white viewers also really liked him. However, Damon’s time on SNL was short-lived. They often had Damon in the background of scenes or playing roles that involved very little speaking, which Damon didn’t appreciate. To be fair, Damon was probably a bit standoffish. This came to a head in 1986, season 11, episode 12, sketch: Mr. Monopoly. Damon was supposed to play a straightforward police officer. Instead, Damon made the character overly flamboyant and the sketch bombed, but the issue wasn’t that it was unfunny. It was that Damon changed the game plan without telling the other players. Creator and showrunner, Lorne Michaels, fired him immediately.

In 1987, the film that Keenen and Townsend had been working on was finally released. Not only did the two play roles, it also featured Keenen’s brother Damon, John Witherspoon, Michael Colyar, Anne-Marie Johnson and Helen Martin, many of whom will pop up again in this story. With the release of Hollywood Shuffle in March and Eddie Murphy’s Raw in December, which Townsend and Keenen helped write and produce, the two were finally experiencing some success after beating the pavement for almost ten years. However, Keenen wasn’t seeing as much fame from these opportunities as Townsend. Townsend starred in Hollywood Shuffle while Keenen only played a supporting role; this is likely part of what projected him, but this was something that Keenen thought Townsend deserved. He just also wanted to see the fruits of his own labor.

While watching blaxploitation movies with Keenen, Eddie Murphy had an idea. “Someone should write a spoof of these and it should be called I’m Gonna Git you Sucka”. After getting the go ahead to use the idea from Murphy, he penned the script and filmed I’m Gonna Git you Sucka. Shawn would also spend his summer in LA with Keenen and Townsend to be a part of the film and start his stand up career; he was 16. Kim, Marlon and Damon would be a part of the film as well. I'm Gonna Git you Sucka was released in 1988, but it wasn’t just a spoof of blaxploitation films. It was a love letter to them. This film was also where the Wayanses would work with several long-time collaborators for the first time like David Alan Grier, John Witherspoon, and Ja'Net DuBois. It would also feature appearances from Isaac Hayes, Dawnn Lewis, Kadeem Hardison, Antonio Fargas, Chris Rock, Clarence Williams III and Robin Harris. On a budget of just $3 million, the film made $13 million at the box office, a huge accomplishment for a first time filmmaker.

That same year, Damon scored roles in Colors, Punchline, and Earth Girls are Easy (where he worked with Carrey) and continued to work on his stand up.

Keenen held a special screening of I’m Gonna Git you Sucka for film executives, but none showed up . Who did show up was television executives from a network created in 1986. The network was called Fox. They were so impressed with the film and desperate to get black viewers, that they decided to give Keenen a half hour a week to do whatever he wanted, pending the pilot of course. According to Black on Fox, the network was “‘Narrowcasting’ or targeting a specific black viewership (what Pam Veasey referred to cynically as the ‘Nike and Dorito audience’) and ‘counterprogramming’ against other shows to suit that audience’s taste”(4). Narrowcasting is what would help Fox establish a larger urban viewer base in years to come. While Keenen wanted to make films and not television, he recognized that he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Not only did he have to provide for himself, but he still had a large family living at home. According to Marlon, one of the mottos their father had raised them on was to “[t]ake care of your family first, and then you next.” Now there was only one problem, what kind of show would he make?

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