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The Black Sitcom and The Talent Showcase

17 June 2008 20 Comments

Why is it that almost every black sitcom has had at least one “talent showcase” episode, while such episodes on mainstream sitcoms have been few and far between? I’ve certainly never seen anyone seriously throwing on costumes to sing and dance on Friends or Seinfeld, and the “talent showcase” in black sitcoms certainly pre-dates reality shows like American Idol. Ever since I learned that “coonery” is one of the search terms that has brought people to WWTD, I’ve been thinking a lot about our tendency to cut a rug and start up some showtime just for its own sake. I believe that random talent showcasing on black sitcoms is due to two factors: first, black sitcoms have so many multi-talented performers that can do more than just act. Secondly, black folks DO coon it up, making any plot-twist requiring an impromptu jig absolutely realistic. Perhaps the stereotype of singin’ and dancin’ black folk has some merit, and if it ain’t broke, let’s not fix it!

Since I consider it a defining characteristic of black shows, I’ve put together a collection of such showtimes. Can you think of any favorites of yours that I left out? I know that I sing and dance with my family and friends at the drop of a hat – do you? Please let me know in the comments section.

227

Lord have mercy. That hair and those outfits! Rose, aka Alaina Reed Hall, is singing like she’s still waiting to be discovered in this clip of her, Jackee, and Marla Gibbs doing a number by the Pointer Sisters. As if things couldn’t get any more 80’s, Sherman Helmsley breaks in with his classic jig towards the end.

Good Times

My favorite episode of Good Times is always changing. This month, “Rent Party” takes the cake. It contains what I consider the most cooneriffic moment in black sitcom history, which I’ve posted in the past, and Michael’s oh-so-sassy dance number. Take note of the hip-pops towards the end of this clip, the epitome of “good old-fashioned entertainment” unfettered by the burdens of male hyper-heterosexuality. What you may not know is that Ralph Carter, who played Michael, released this song as a single in 1975 and was dead serious with it, too.

And I can’t leave out Thelma, Flo, and Wilona’s attempt at a Supremes impression without simultaneously marveling at the contrast between the extraness of Bernadette Stanis and the old-lady cuteness of Esther Rolle.

A Different World

Speaking of female trios, doesn’t it seem a little over-the-top for three distant acquaintances to rent costumes and put together a dance number for you as you’re being deployed to the Iraq War? Blair Underwood is fine and all, but Kim, Whitley, and Jaleesa giving him this little salute was clearly written into the episode for showboating purposes. As usual, Whitley steals the comedic stage while Jaleesa tries her hardest to break it down.

Martin

Martin exemplified coonery left and right, but can we take a second to recognize how hard Gina and Pam are SANGIN’ in this clip? And can we also remember the fact that Yo-Yo, a Grammy-nominated rapper, graced this show with her fabulous presence in full-on Cross Colours gear? And can we also remember that singing any gospel song like you mean it will always save the day, even if you’re wearing a polyester pinstriped vest? R.I.P Lawanda Page.

Bonus: The Cosby Show

I know that if the word “coonery” and a Cosby Show video are in the same post I may get a letter in the mail threatening legal action, but how can I responsibly talk about black American singin’ and dancin’ and not include a Cosby family lip-syncing clip?

20 Comments »

  • jazzfan360 said:

    LMAO LMAO LMAO HELEN MARTIN! Thank you so much for finding that! That was kind of amazing. I love that one with the three ladies doing the Supremes. Thelma was SO fine. Esther Rolle does SUCH a great job in that scene. Florida was supposed to be the dead weight who wasn’t much of a performer and dragged the group down, and where a lot of actresses would’ve really overdone it, hammed it up, and probably overstaged the other two actresses, Rolle does such a wonderfully subtle job with it all. She’s just a LITTLE bit off with every move, a LITTLE bit flat, a LITTLE slow on the turns. Man, she was such a pro. I love how the audience starts whooping and cheering way before her solo even begins, just in anticipation of Florida gettin up there and tearin it up, and then she doesn’t really SUCK but she’s just…kinda there hahaha. She’s almost *too* subtle with it given how heavyhanded the show usually was, but man, what a great performance.

    They busted out the music on 227 whenever they could. Remember that whole episode that was just an excuse for the whole female cast to do individual blues numbers, and the one about Mary and Sandra going to court over song lyrics they co-wrote, and one of the ex-Supremes show up and sang it with them? And the one with the choir competition where they trot out the sangin’ kids at the end (“Why don’tcha GOOOOO on ta God?!”). And the one with the Temptations where the women somehow end up singing too. And Lord, maybe the most egregious example EVER is the one where they butchered up and bastardized The Wiz just so the women and little Countess Vaughn could do some of the numbers. Sure, Countess did a good job, but “If You Believe” ain’t Dorothy’s number, dammit! Worth it, though, for Marla and Jack√©e one-upping their way through “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.” “If ya wanna bring me somethin, bring me somethin I can use–like a man!

    Daaaaaaaaaaaamn. I was so little the last time I saw Tisha Campbell turn ’round the other way. She had one of the greatest asses in HISTORY. Oh. My. Jesus. “Don’t be pullin’ on mah church clothes!” Ha…greatness.

    There are plenty more examples of the Showtime! episode in both black and white TV. Amen did more than its share of those with its multitalented cast. And speakin of Roz Ryan (a great lady indeed), the setting of Good News built in regular performances plus they had that two-parter episode where the congregation put on a talent show (something they did on Amen as well). Gimme a Break got Nell and Telma singin whenever they could, and one extra-special episode had them and the great Lynne Thigpen singing a medley of ’60s hits (on Youtube here).

    Now, as for white coonin, you don’t even need to look beyond those funktastic Bradys. Ya heard?

  • Thembi said:

    @jazzfan
    So glad you caught this – that Helen Martin clip was the one you asked about from an earlier post! Now I feel complete.

  • TalentedTenth said:

    THEMBI!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I can’t believe you left one of the BEST talent items off your list —

    What’s Happening: Bubbling Brown Sugar:

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=DIuRwP2ei_o

    CLASSIC!!!!!!!!!!!

  • justjudith said:

    wow. the 227 clip was no joke. and sad to say, their singing wasn’t all that good. wow. i once went to a bbq at hal williams’ house (mary’s husband on the show) — just some randomness i had forgotten about until i saw him in the post lol.

  • Antonio said:

    Hmmm I remember an episode of Family Matters where Eddie entered a talent competition to pay for damage he’d done to the house. I think Donna Summer was on that episode as Urkel’s Aunt Una (from Altuna). Rachel would sing all the time and I remember her son once did a Michael Jackson impersonation. Oh yeah and once Urkel somehow got all the kids at a party to “do the Urkel”. Damn I remember way too much of that show.

    As for white sitcoms, I remember a “talent competition” episode of Full House and an episode of Friends where Ross and Monica perform a crazy dance to get on Dick Clark’s new year’s special. Seinfeld never did anything like that though. The whole concept is a little hackneyed for a sitcome episode and Larry David and Jerry were pretty adamant about being fresh and original.

  • Malcolm said:

    Although it’s provided us with some good moments, I think it’s time to retire the “talent showcase” and enshrine it in the sitcom book of hackneyed plots. They usu. haul it out towards the end of a show’s run. I can almost hear the cast members going to the producers and saying that they want to spread their wings and show us all how talented they are. Another sitcom not on your list of black sitcoms indulging in the talent show coonery was Sanford and Son. Once was when they were contestants on The Gong Show.

    Off the top of my head, some of the white sitcoms that took this route were The Brady Bunch (remember their group The Silver Platters?) and Happy Days. The latter even had Richie, Potsie, Ralph, and later Chachi have their own rock and roll band. Was it just me or did it seem like the only song they knew was “Splish Splash”. It used to kill me when Ron Howard would overdo it when pretending to play the sax.

    Awhile back, I played “When You’re Young and In Love” by Ralph Carter on my radio show. I did a segment on TV stars who also sang.

  • Gette said:

    Wow Nu Nu, I didn’t think this meant so much to you.

    A Different Stands out because it reminds me of high school. For whatever historical month passed, we did an assembly of some sort.

    The Anniversary Cosby Show epi is ctually one of my favorites, but what about when Theo and Cockroach make up a rap to sum up Julius Ceasar or when Rudy had a crush on this boy and there was an in- class party?

    Good Times and 227 were a little different, but I can’t believe Family Matters isn’t up there? Or Full House when Stephanie started taking dance classes there’s always that formula playing in there b/c it works.

    Bravo Thembi for pointing out some I never saw before.

  • Kim said:

    Thembi girl how old are YOU!! LOL @ the Ralph Carter song. I am 30 something or other and I didn’t remember he had a song out back then. Wow, I had absolutely no gaydar back then, cause when I watch those Good Times episodes, the zestyness is flying all over the place.

    As for Martin, God the stereotypes run rampant in every episode. But I always did enjoy any episode when Shenaenae was on.

    I remember being in Jr. High when that Cosby episode aired. Everybody was talking about it the next day at school.

  • Anonymous said:

    @Kim:
    I’m looking at Ralph’s “zestyness too.” How on God’s green earth did I call myself crushing on him back then? How?
    Sigh.

  • Bonnie said:

    What’s up, Thembi?

    I started reading AverageBro a couple of months ago and just started looking at your site from his link.

    My stomach is hurting and a contact popped out from tears after viewing the clip of Master Michael Evans and the coonery that ensued.

    I’ll be back, I need to go upstairs and wash the tears from my face…GREAT ARTICLE and glad that I know about your site…

  • Lola Gets said:

    This was a great post! That said, I have 2 extremely embarassing comments to make:

    1) For the first two years of my Smith career, one of my housemates told me that I reminded her of Jackee Harry, cause I was so damned loud. Nice, huh?

    2) Ever since that damned episode of the Cosby Show, my uncle has demmanded that he and my sisters and I, do something like that for ever.damned.celebratory.event my family has. We’re talking the 50, 55, and 60th wedding anniversaries as well as the reception honoring the library my grandfather had named after him. And we’re talking about us doing this before crowds of 200+ Truly.fucking.embarassing.

    Aint friends and family great??

    :)

    L

  • Undercover Black Man said:

    Thembi, you rock the hell out of a concept! This was a blast.

    I got one to add: Redd Foxx and special guest Timmie Rogers takin’ it to the stage in “Sanford and Son.”

    Or cut-and-paste if that works better than the link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lG6X_G8G80

  • NaturallyAlise said:

    What about the Different World when Whitley and Jaleesa performed with Gladys Night…”Love Overboard!”

  • Thembi said:

    You guys made a great bunch of suggestions for next week’s post on Guest Stars! It all makes me wish my brain didn’t work in such a wildly specific way that I just included actual cast members in this post!

    @justjudith and Lola
    Y’all take the authenticity cake. I’d LOVE to be at a BBQ at Hal William’s house and be part of a forced coonin’ with my siblings! Like for real…

    @kim
    I’m only 29, but I was latchkey kid so I watched a LOT of syndicated TV…

  • jazzfan360 said:

    Yeah, I don’t mind sayin it’s now a goal of mine to go to a Hal Williams cookout.

    I’m excited to see whatever you have to offer on guest stars. So many good ones I can’t even think of a particular one to single out. Though if you branch out to include white guest stars on black shows, major props must be lent to Bill Shatner’s INSANELY great turn on Fresh Prince. “Throw yo hands in tha ai-ya if you’s a true playa!” Oh hell HELL yes.

  • blackwomenblowthetrumpet.blogspot.com said:

    Hey there!

    These clips are absolutely HILL-AIR-EE-OUS!!! *LOL*

    *LOL*

    *LOL*

    Even still….the coonery must cease!

    (smiles)
    Lisa

  • QueenK.D.W.-BK86 said:

    OMG. That’s so true. I couldve used it as one of My Favorite Scenes, but instead Ill just link back to this.

  • Throwback Posts While I Catch My Breath | What Would Thembi Do? said:

    […] The Black Sitcom and The Talent Showcase is always good for some grooves and a laugh. […]

  • Cynthia said:

    Those were my favorite episodes back in the day!!! Especially Cosby Show Lip syncing ones

  • jazzfan360 said:

    Ha. Thank you for featuring this so I could remember the greatness. I just love that Martin clip. You need to know that for the last several months, whenever I’m out and a girl hits on me by complimenting what I’m wearing and starts pawing on it, I tell her “Don’t be pullin’ on my church clothes.”

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