TV Article

Night of the Living Laughs

''In Living Color'' bursts onto the scene -- Keenen Ivory Wayans makes his mark with a new sketch comedy show

The woman playing Robin Givens is on a ''Love Connection'' set describing her first date with Mike Tyson: ''We went to this lovely little jewelry store where I allowed Michael to purchase me a very lovely ruby, diamond, and sapphire collection and a matching car!''

''Did you give Mike anything?'' the host asks.

''Lithium!''

In Living Color — on which this parody is set to appear — is, it seems safe to say, the first urban, hip-hop, ethnically diverse, comedy sketch-dance series to show up on television.

It makes its debut Sunday, April 15, at 9:30 p.m. on Fox (and the next week moves to 9 Saturday nights). Fox has made its mark by being bold: The Simpsons, Married. . .With Children, The Tracey Ullman Show. And now In Living Color.

''I'm a big believer that there is an audience out there desperate for anything new and fresh on TV,'' says Peter Chernin, president of the Fox Entertainment Group and the executive who has championed In Living Color since he arrived at Fox a year ago.

In Living Color is Keenen Ivory Wayans' show, and it got its start more than a year ago when he screened his film I'm Gonna Git You Sucka in Los Angeles. Wayans, who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the comedy hit (a parody of black exploitation movies of the '70s), invited film executives from 20th Century Fox to attend, but they didn't. Instead, the young Fox TV execs showed up, and they liked what they saw.

''They called me and asked what I would like to do,'' Wayans recalls. ''I really wasn't interested in doing TV, but they said, 'Anything you want to do.' I said, 'Hmmmm.'''

Wayans, 31, pitched them his plan: to do a comedy sketch/variety show with an integrated cast.

One cast member, David Alan Grier, says, ''The whole concept of In Living Color [is] to have more than one token, more than one color, to explore comedy from varied points of view: black, Hispanic, Asian, and white people all together.''

Wayans' proposal also called for a different style of music and dance: hip-hop. Fox gave him the go-ahead, but Wayans wanted an hour show, and the network wanted a half-hour.

''I gave up the hour to get something else,'' Wayans says. ''I got creative control. What that's allowed me to do is what I want to do. I can do a sketch and, as long as it's within the boundaries of standards-and-practices, they pretty much say OK.''

That means doing the Tyson-Givens date sketch. And the ''Homeboy Shopping Network,'' a parody of the Home Shopping Network in which two kids hawk stolen goods from the back of a truck. And ''Wrath of Farrakhan,'' which pokes fun at both Star Trek and the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

''What's interesting is that the network people think the Farrakhan bit is one of the more radical sketches,'' Wayans says. ''But when it was tested with an audience it was one of the favorites. The one that shot off the page, the one that got the negative reaction, was one nobody thought twice about: a 'Sammy Davis sings Mandela' sketch,'' in which an actor playing Davis did a soft shoe and sang, ''The Mandy man cannnnn.'' Because of the test results, Wayans decided to drop the bit. ''I never liked it anyway,'' he says.

Wayans has recruited an impressive cast that includes Saturday Night Live alumnus Damon Wayans (Keenen's younger brother), whose film credits include Colors, Beverly Hills Cop, Hollywood Shuffle, and Earth Girls Are Easy; impressionist Jim Carrey, who starred in the NBC series The Duck Factory; musician Tommy Davidson, who began doing comedy in a topless bar; actress, ballet dancer, and opera singer T'Keyah ''Crysys'' Keymah; Kim Wayans (Keenen's sister), who has appeared in China Beach and A Different World; comedian Kim Coles, who began as a warm-up comic for The Cosby Show; and Grier, a Tony award nominee for his performance as Jackie Robinson in The First.

''The cool thing is everybody is hungry,'' says Wayans, dressed in an L.A. Lakers sweatshirt, sweat pants, and sneakers. '''Eye of the Tiger,' I call it. I wanted people with the same sort of energy and passion I have. That's the kind of freshness you want.''

Wayans does not lack for energy. He has another pilot — Hammer, Slammer, and Slade, based on I'm Gonna Git You Sucka — in the works for ABC, and a comedy for Universal about two black cops, from Scotland Yard and from Washington, that he will direct and star in.

''I'd like to become like Norman Lear or Spielberg, someone who has really franchised into all the different media,'' Wayans says. ''It's not the money. I've already made enough money. I think about the power. The control. That's the dream for me.''

Originally posted Apr 13, 1990 Published in issue #9 Apr 13, 1990 Order article reprints