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An ode to ‘90s Black sitcoms: Tyler Perry and more discuss how Black sitcoms impacted pop culture

“‘Moesha’” allowed dark skinned women to feel like they existed in the world and it was very powerful for me as a teenager,” says “Bob Marley: One Love” star Lashana Lynch.

/ Source: TODAY

Black sitcoms have been around for decades, of course — but the ‘90s? That seemed to be the height of their success. With cult classics like “Martin,” “Living Single,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Moesha” and “Family Matters,” Black-led sitcoms of the ‘90s left an indelible mark on pop culture.

Adrien Sebro, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Texas at Austin, tells that ‘90s Black sitcoms dramatically “changed TV culture” as we know it.  

“(It) was kind of the first moment in media history where Black folks had actual production power,” he says. “That’s why we see the ‘90s as this huge moment of … where I think over 20 plus shows… there’s a Black lead or Black person in the creative space.”

In an interview with, media mogul Tyler Perry agrees. He credits these shows for helping to move both Black culture and pop culture “forward.”

“What I loved about it — it was just seeing us in that light as funny and smart and creative and working,” he says. “It was so different from when I was growing up in New Orleans. So to see ‘Martin’ be able to create that and bring joy and laughter … I was going through a lot then too, so to be able to laugh every time I saw it was really important.”

Sebro, author of  “Scratchin’ and Survivin’: Hustle Economics and the Black Sitcoms of Tandem Productions,” a book that looks at the history of early Black sitcoms, explains that ‘90s Black sitcoms became a staple in pop culture because TV executives couldn’t ignore the power of Black viewership.

“This kind of unprecedented shift took place in TV history where white executives were looking at Black dollars because Black folks were about 25% of the viewing body, which means you can’t ignore that much eyes,” he says.  

To see ‘Martin’ be able to create that and bring joy and laughter … I was going through a lot then too, so to be able to laugh every time I saw it was really important.”

Tyler Perry

Comedian and former “Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood Jr. has similar sentiments, telling that these shows were given a rare opportunity during the ‘90s because networks like Fox (1986), WB (1995), and UPN (1995) were still new, and therefore open to Black-led programming.

“I think if we’re ever going to have a period in the zeitgeist now, for Black sitcoms, the way we did in the 90s … you’re going to need more execs willing to take chances on Black sitcoms,” he says, noting that networks like Fox and UPN “had to take any and everything” since they were just starting out and competing with more established networks like ABC and NBC.

But, as Serbo points out, that willingness to take chances had an expiration date. 

“It was a business tactic,” he says. “It wasn’t a matter of the networks wanting to celebrate Black culture, it was in realizing that this is essential to our business at the moment to target these folks. But the moment we have enough capital, we can let that go.”

Wood Jr. also says he is not surprised by the regression of Black sitcoms since then, adding that there’s “definitely a blind spot by a lot of TV execs to keep programming that is relevant to Black culture on the air.” 

“A lot of it is the first to get cut, first to get canceled, the last to get greenlit,” he says.

Referencing the critically acclaimed, but short-lived HBO series “Lovecraft Country” and Issa Rae’s recently axed “Rap Sh!t” as examples, Wood Jr. says that non-Black shows that get similar ratings often “get the next season.”

“They get one more chance to find their audience,” he says. “They get one more chance to, ‘Oh, it’s a cult classic’ — that’s what they call a white show that don’t get no ratings.” 

“There are shows that are made that people don’t like,” he continues. “I think that a lot of Black creatives … (are) in a bit of a place now where all of that goodwill and green-lighting and everything that happened after George Floyd, it feels like we’re on the other side of that. And there’s a bit of a recall and a hesitancy to tell black stories in the mainstream.”

The comedian’s comments come less than a month after Rae, who created and starred in the hit HBO series “Insecure,” called out Hollywood for its declining support of Black programming following the cancellation of her Max series, “Rap Sh!t.” “ 

“I’ve never seen Hollywood this scared and clueless and at the mercy of Wall Street,” the “Insecure” star told TIME, referring to the recent cuts to Black programming, including series like “The Wonder Years,“ “A Black Lady Sketch Show,“ “Grand Crew,“ “South Side“ and “All Rise.” 

While in recent times there’s been an uptick in the recognition of Black-led sitcoms, like Rae’s “Insecure” and Quinta Brunson’s “Abbott Elementary,” which led to an historic Emmy win for Brunson, during their heyday, ‘90s Black sitcoms were often overlooked when it came time for mainstream honors and recognition. 

In fact, during the ‘90s there were no Black sitcoms nominated for Emmys. The only Black-led series that was recognized was Keenen Ivory Wayans’ sketch-comedy “In Living Color," which won an Emmy for best outstanding variety series in 1990.

This lack of recognition was brought up at the 2024 Emmys during a segment which reunited the cast of “Martin” and celebrated the show’s legacy. 

If there’s going to be a new Black sitcom boom, then we need a Black TV executive boom, as well. You’re gonna have to have more diversity within the decision making positions in Hollywood before you see that type of plethora of programming happen ever again.”

roy wood jr.

During the bit, which included “Martin” stars Martin Lawrence, Tisha Campbell, Tichina Arnold, and Carl Anthony Payne II, Campbell pointed out that their show “should have won an Emmy” during their run.

“We were never even nominated despite our 132 episodes, our huge ratings and being in syndication so much it’s hard for me to see the 90s spankless version of myself,” she said.

As Campbell noted, many ‘90s Black sitcoms have re-emerged and are currently in syndication on streamers. But while there seems to be a renewed appreciation for these shows, Wood Jr. tells he believes it's going to take a radical change in Hollywood before Black programming becomes a priority again.

“If there’s going to be a new Black sitcom boom, then we need a Black TV executive boom, as well,” he says. “You’re gonna have to have more diversity within the decision making positions in Hollywood before you see that type of plethora of programming happen ever again.”

Perry, who independently launched his own film and TV studio in Atlanta, GA in 2019, says he remains skeptical this could happen anytime soon.

“I don’t know if anything will ever be back at the height of 90s, because we didn’t have as many channels and as many options and much much internet options that we have now,” he says, noting that it’s important for “Black creators to have the freedom to do and say what they want to” on their shows.

“And that comes with ownership,” he continues. “A lot of times I would love for us to be able to do sitcoms the way it is in our life and our families without the studios watering it down.”

Until then, there’s plenty of opportunity to amplify, honor and give these unsung ‘90s Black sitcoms their flowers, even if it’s nearly 30 years overdue.

Read on to learn more about these seminal Black sitcoms and why celebs and creatives like Tyler Perry, Lashana Lynch and Da’Vine Joy Randolph say they not only captured the Black experience, but cultivated pop culture as we know it.

'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' (1990–1996) NBC

Before Will Smith told Chris Rock to keep his wife’s name out of his mouth, the rapper-turned-actor broke TV sitcom barriers when he became the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The show, which also helped to launch the careers of co-stars Alfonso Ribeiro, Tatyana Ali and the late James Avery, was a hilarious, complex series that delved into real-life topics like politics, race and social economics.

“Bob Marley: One Love” star Kinglesy Ben-Adir says “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” was his go-to sitcom during the ‘90s.

“That was the one I used to run home from school to watch,” he tells “When I missed it — I shed a tear.”

Premise: A West Philadelphia high school student is sent to live with his uncle and family in the Bel-Air area of Los Angeles, California, after he encounters some “trouble in his neighborhood.” There, he learns to quickly adapt, becoming the “prince of Bel-Air.” 

'Martin' (1992–1997) Fox

For many fans, “Martin” was ‘90s Black sitcom royalty.

Serbo says the series was his favorite because he found the depiction of 20-somethings “trying to figure it out” a “relatable story.” 

“What it did in that moment to really promote Black hip-hop, Black pop culture — they made you kind of read between the lines and think about Black comedy in that moment,” he says. “The art in the setting of the show, the colors — red, black and green — how we look at these amazing forces of symbolism of Black nationalism, all that’s kind of embedded in the show.” 

Premise: This sitcom follows a local Detroit radio host, Martin Payne (Lawrence), his girlfriend, Gina Waters (Tisha Campbell), and their eclectic group of friends. 

'Living Single' (1993–1998) Fox

A year before “Friends” decided to “be there for you,” “Living Single” had their “homegirls standing” to their left and their right. Led by Queen Latifah, the series was not only the progenitor of “Friends, but it was a staple in Black households. Aside from Latifah, the ensemble cast included Kim Coles, Erika Alexander, Kim Fields, T.C. Carson and John Henton.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph tells that “Living Single” was her “Designing Women.”

“It was fly Black women who were all independent and had their own voice,” she says. “And they made no apologies about it, and I wish we could return to stuff like that — where it’s just great conversation. Black people just being Black people without having to be too deep or … alternative motives. It was just people being people and I loved it.”

Premise: Six young working professionals and friends navigate their careers, friendships and romantic lives all while living in the same Brooklyn brownstone. 

'A Different World' (1987–1993) NBC

When Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) left “The Cosby Show” for college, she may not have been fully prepared for “A Different World.” The series, which was “The Cosby Show” spinoff, centered on Huxtable’s character and her encounters with other college students from various backgrounds.

Wood Jr. says shows like “A Different World” helped to influence pop culture because it made going to college seem fun. 

“The fact that that existed probably sent so many more Black people to go get a bachelor’s degree because they was looking for a Whitley and the fashion of the shows… so many people wanted to be Dwayne Wade,” he says.

Premise: This show, which also starred Kadeem Hardison (Dwayne Wayne) and Jasmine Guy (Whitley Gilbert), followed the lives and relationships of a group of college students during their time at an HBCU.

'The Jamie Foxx Show' (1996–2001) The WB

Nearly ten years before Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for playing Ray Charles in “Ray,” the comedian was the leading man in his own sitcom, “The Jamie Foxx Show,” on The WB.

Foxx starred alongside Garrett Morris (Uncle Junior King), Garcelle Beauvais (Francesca ‘Fancy’ Monroe) and Christopher B. Duncan (Braxton P.), as Jamie Percy King, an aspiring talent looking to make his big break in Hollywood. 

Premise: An aspiring musician from Texas moves to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment, but must work at his uncle’s struggling hotel to support himself.

'Family Matters' (1989-1998) ABC

While we’re still not sure what happened to Judy Winslow after she went upstairs during an episode in Season 4, “Family Matters” still remains one of most beloved shows watched during ABC’s TGIF, also known as the network’s Thank God It’s Friday programming block. A spin-off of “Perfect Strangers,” the show centered around a middle-class Black family in Chicago and starred Reginald VelJohnson (Carl Winslow), Jaleel White (Steve Urkel), Darius McCrary (Eddie Winslow), Kellie Shanygne Williams (Laura Winslow) and Jo Marie Payton (Harriette Winslow).

Ziggy Marley, son of legendary reggae artist Bob Marley, says he was a fan of “Family Matters” for one main reason: Urkel.

“Because it was funny and he’s just a funny character,” he explains with a laugh. “Again, it’s a different point of view for a Black character. So it was cool. It was funny and cool.” 

Premise: A Chicago police officer and his extended family are at the center of this show which ranges from serious, heartwarming moments to hilarious misadventures thanks to their annoyingly intrusive neighbor, Steve Urkel.

'The Wayans Bros.' (1995-1999) The WB

On the heels of “In Living Color,” which aired its final episode in May 1994, the youngest of the Wayans brothers, Shawn and Marlon, were tapped to lead their own sitcom, “The Wayans Bros.” With a catchy theme song, unforgettable characters like Dee (Anna Maria Horsford) and Pops (the late John Witherspoon), the sitcom took the term “brotherly love” to a whole new level. 

Premise: Set in New York, the series follows two brothers, who live, work and help out at their father’s diner together. 

'Roc' (1991–1994) Fox

When you take accomplished stage actors like Charles S. Dutton, Ella Joyce, Rocky Carroll and Carl Gordon and have them lead a timely comedy-drama, expect magic to happen on screen. Dutton, who played Baltimore garbage collector Roc Emerson, and his co-stars helped to change the TV sitcom landscape by delivering poignant social commentary in between laughs.

Serbo, who notes that “Roc” was one of the few shows to have a live season during its run, says the show’s contribution to Black culture was “so important.”

“To see how you mix in politics of the show, like literally talking about what’s happening in that current election in the moment, how they talk about gang violence in their communities,” he says. “So Roc was a way of bringing the drama — there’s moments of comedy, but also, it was important ways to find how drama can exist in the comedy of everyday life.”

Premise: A Baltimore garbage collector and his wife, a night-shift nurse, navigate the struggles of life while living in the inner city.

'Moesha' (1996–2010) UPN

After Brandy Norwood released her self-titled album in 1994, it was “Never Say Never” for the singer-actor to take her talents to Hollywood nearly two years later. Norwood became the center of her own sitcom, “Moesha,” where she starred alongside William Allen Young, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Countess Vaughn.

“The Woman King” actor Lashana Lynch says “Moesha” was her favorite sitcom growing up because it made her feel seen.

“That was me,” she tells “Every single character was drawn out beautifully. I’m so glad she just did. She allowed dark skinned women to feel like they existed in the world and it was very powerful for me as a teenager.”

Premise: Moesha Denise Mitchell is a Los Angeles teen navigating the young adult experience as she lives with her upper middle class family.

'Sister, Sister' (1994–1999) ABC

Tia and Tamera Mowry became household names when they starred on their ‘90s sitcom, “Sister, Sister.” Joined by industry vets like Jackée Harry and Tim Reid, who played their parents, and then-newcomers Marques Houston and RonReaco Lee, the real-life sisters played twins who were separated at birth and later reunited.

Lynch, who lives in the U.K., says before there was social media, shows like “Sister, Sister” were “where all of our colloquialisms came from.”

“I mean that’s where the phrases and the kind of the jokes and the things that you’d say within your friendship group — it came from …Black sitcoms,” she explains, before saying a signature phrase from the series. “Like, ‘Go home, Roger’ was like something that I’d say to guys because — Why not?”

Premise: Identical twin sisters, who are separated at birth and reunited as teenagers, learn how to bond after realizing they lived very different lives growing up.

'The Steve Harvey Show' (1996-2002) The WB

Before he became a well-known talk show host and a “King of Comedy,” Steve Harvey was a high school music teacher in his hilarious eponymous ‘90s sitcom that featured his best friend and co-star Cedric The Entertainer. The show featured a bunch of up-and-comers and sitcom vets, including Wendy Raquel Robinson and Terri J. Vaughn.

Premise: This series follows a washed up funk musician who takes a job as a music teacher and vice principal at a high school on Chicago’s West Side.

'Smart Guy' (1997-1999) The WB

For fans who couldn’t get enough of the Mowry family from watching Tia and Tamera on “Sister, Sister,” they only had to wait a few more years to watch the twin's brother, Tahj Mowry, become the “Smart Guy.” 

At only 11 years old, Tahj Mowry took on the role of TJ Henderson, a child prodigy, who advances from elementary school to high school because of his high IQ. This sitcom starred some familiar faces, including Jason Weaver, Omar Epps and Essence Atkins.

Premise: A child genius learns how to adapt and fit in with high school students after he skips from 4th to 10th grade.

'Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper' (1992-1997) ABC

What is a ‘90s Black sitcom without a comedian at its core?

“Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper” was a part of that trend with comedian Mark Curry starring in the titular role. As part of ABC’s legendary TGIF primetime block, the series also included a star-studded cast of Nell Carter, Holly Robinson Peete, Dawnn Lewis, and even “The Cosby Show” alum Raven Symoné.

Premise: A former NBA player Mark Cooper takes a job as a substitute teacher and basketball coach in Oakland after his NBA career ends. 

'In The House' (1995-1999) NBC, UPN

Ladies loved Cool J, but fans loved watching this rapper-turned-actor on the small screen when he played Marion Hill, a former football player-turned-manny, on “In The House.”

Aside from LL Cool J, this NBC gem also starred Maia Campbell, Debbie Allen, Kim Wayans and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” alum Alfonso Ribeiro.

Premise: To make some extra money after his football career ends after an injury, Marion Hill decides to rent out rooms in his house to a newly divorced single mother and her two children.