I have always thought that the seven-time Emmy-nominated actor and comedian Anthony Anderson is hilarious. Whether he is on the hottest primetime television show, in a blockbuster film, or standing in front of me making a gut-busting remark, his impeccable comedic timing always amplifies the laughter. Not forcibly. Organically. His sense of humor, wit, and dramatic acting have landed him on screen and in rooms with some of the most powerful creators in Hollywood. And there’s no end in sight for this “kid from Compton” who intends on paying it forward.
Taking control of your destiny and expecting new adventures everyday is a dream catcher. And so is being intentional and having a vision so clear that it’s palpable. This was the head space of Anderson when he and ABC’s sitcom black-ish creator Kenya Barris finally came together in West Hollywood at Laurel Hardware for cocktails. Anderson (who would eventually portray the lead character and family patriarch Andre Johnson on the hit series) didn’t know Barris at all, but they shared the same management, so the two were finally able to connect after trying to sync schedules for months. They quickly realized all of their similarities. Being at the center of first-generation success stories, being the only African-American families living in their neighborhoods, and being one of the few Black faces at their respective private schools were some of the commonalities they discussed. This wouldn’t just be a random great conversation over Smirnoff on the rocks. They were unknowingly revealing the makings of one of the most notable Black television shows of our time.
“We started talking about the trappings of our success and what was missing from the landscape of television for us as viewers, he and I in particular,” said Anderson. “I told him the story of how my son came home one day and told me he didn't feel Black. I couldn't believe I was really having this conversation with my 12-yearold son.” Anderson, who also has a daughter, explained to his son that although his Black experience is living a life in the suburbs, somewhat of privilege, and not having a need or want, doesn’t make his Black experience any less Black than his cousins who live in the hood in South Central LA. Or any less than those young Black men around the country who are being gunned down by the police and racially profiled. That isn’t your Black experience, he explained. Yours is just different.
The exchange between Barris and Anderson went on. And Anderson’s story culminated in his son asking for a Bar Mitzvah for his 13th birthday. Anderson explained to his son that they couldn’t do that because it wasn’t their culture, history, or religion, but that he would happily throw him a “Bro Mitzvah.” The hugely successful and ingenious party was fully equipped with an airbrushed 16 feet by 20 feet step-and-repeat of his son in a B-boy stance holding $5,000 cash and wearing a Kangol hat, Adidas sweatsuit, and gold chain. “I called Kangol and had them send his entire eighth grade class Kangols,” says Anderson, who also had an airbrush artist on-hand to paint white T-shirts for guests. “And I called Adidas and had them send shell-toed Adidas to his entire eighth grade class.” And the party just wouldn’t have been complete without two DJs and two breakdance crews. His son is 21 now. And until this day, his friends say that was the best Bar Mitzvah they have ever attended.
Andre’s son Junior (played by Marcus Scribner) not feeling “Black enough” was the pilot for the show. Those early talks between Anderson and Barris led to the phenomenal subject matter that the acclaimed series has rolled out for nearly 200 episodes. Barris is credited as the creator, but Anderson notes that the stories are about both of their families, and that everything you’ve seen over the last eight years is art imitating life. Towards the end of their conversation Barris said, “You know, I went from raising a Black family to a Black-ish family,” recalled Anderson. They continued to laugh and then talked about shows they grew up watching like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and The Cosby Show.
black-ish has a place right next to these iconic sitcoms that shifted the culture of television and brilliantly tackled issues of race, religion, parenting, marriage, sexism, politics, and more. These topics laid the groundwork for what Anderson describes as “staying true to the complications of everybody trying to fit in some place … everybody trying to find their way in a world that is trying to label us who we are.” Three generational perspectives under one roof coming from four different perspectives (grandparents, parents, children, and a biracial wife) allows each storyline to delve into multiple complex layers of issues. Most viewers are not even aware that they are engrossed in a social/racial/familial/political lesson. You can thank comedy for that.
“We decided to talk about what really affects families and our community, and how we deal with it through our lens,” says Anderson. When he and Barris discussed social commentary shows with unapologetic lead characters, Archie Bunker’s name was front and center. “He was a racist and a bigot, but you knew where you stood and you had to respect him for his conviction,” says Anderson. “Let's say Archie Bunker and Andre Johnson sat down and had a conversation about how they view the world and each other. Hopefully, at the end they would have a better understanding of one another than what they did when they first sat down. They may not agree wholeheartedly on everything but they may find some common ground. And I believe that's what our show is about. Finding the common ground and having teachable moments.” And, of course, the cast will always find the humor in it because getting the audience to laugh and crack themselves up makes the conversation easier to have.
Anderson is not a comedian though. Well, not in the traditional sense of the profession. He is formally trained as a dramatic actor and gives all due respect to those who have earned the comedian title. He understands the discipline that it takes, and how hard you must work to tell a joke a minute to keep people laughing.
“A lot of people thought that I’m from the stand-up world because when I first came onto the scene I worked with Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac, Jim Carrey, and the Farrelly brothers in some huge comedic films and I was able to hold my own,” says Anderson, who lives for the day that he will be able to command an audience of thousands of people. “I take that as a major compliment because I know what it takes to be a comedian — when it's just you, the mic, and the light on stage. So, whenever someone mistakenly thinks I come from the comedic world, I quickly correct them.”
He drew heavily from his training in drama and his real life when the cast of black-ish dove headfirst into some serious subject matter that extends far beyond Black culture — separation and divorce. When Dre and his wife Rainbow (played by Tracee Ellis Ross) found themselves facing some bleak marital issues, simply put, there was not a lot to laugh about on the set. Anderson says those days were rough and he often found himself looking for relief. But he understood that this was something that viewers, and even the crew, needed to see and process.
“[Executive producer] Larry Wilmore, Kenya, and I were separated [from our wives] at the time [that we shot those episodes],” says Anderson. “Larry ended up getting divorced from his wife. I stayed separated for three years. And Kenya was separated for a while. These were the things that we were going through. And if we're really talking about life, everything isn't always rosy. There are people watching our show religiously and they are going through these problems. So why not talk about it and maybe find the humor?”
They tackled the sensitive episodes with care and comedy. They moved through a three- to four-arc series with a family who people have grown to love over the years. Audiences have watched the Johnsons go through a lot of personal turmoil. “It was heavy,” Anderson recalls about those days on set. “Going to work it was like, ‘Can we get a joke?’ Even though there were jokes going on around us with other characters and whatnot. You know it was like, ‘OK, can Rainbow get a drink?’ But I think that is what endeared us to the public. That we were willing to go there as a half-hour family comedy and talk about something that isn't funny.”
Anderson shared how a few hours prior to our interview, a gentleman stopped him in the hotel lobby and said, “I'm sorry to bother you but me and my wife watch your show and we love it. It saved our marriage. We laughed together and we cried together.” The fact that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce was reason enough to focus on that topic and so many others like postpartum depression, sexism, and colorism. “Why not speak about what's really affecting a lot of families that has nothing to do with color?” says Anderson. “It has everything to do with relationships and love. At the time we may have wondered, ‘How are we going to get through this?’ But when we came through on the other side, we were glad that we did.”
The Juneteenth episode was another significant experience for Anderson and the show. The storyline was turned into a musical and focused on the historical prevalence of the African-American holiday that had not been widely celebrated prior to the episode. “Our educational performance helped usher in Juneteenth as a national holiday,” says Anderson who recalls that not long after the show aired, Apple put Juneteenth as a holiday on its calendar. “I had never seen that [type of show done] and when it happened, I was like, ‘This is phenomenal.’” A few years later, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would establish June 19th as Juneteenth National Independence Day, a national federal holiday. “I’m not saying that it was solely because of us, but I believe we helped it cross the line. ”
Two-stepping between comedy and drama is a rhythm that feels good to Anderson. He began training as a dramatic actor when he was nine years old, and his role of the ruthless heroin dealer Antwon Mitchell on The Shield gave the world their first dramatic sampling of his chops. Now he feels free to dance between the two genres. He says that he didn't get nominated for an Emmy for his role on The Shield, but Hollywood definitely took notice. “So now I can do broad comedies, and then come back and dance in Martin Scorsese's The Departed. Or I can do Barbershop 3, but then Law & Order for two and half years, [land on] Guys with Kids, and follow that up with my Netflix movie Beats. Now there's no question. It's just like, ‘When are you gonna do this again?’ as opposed to ‘Can you do that?’”
While Anderson is contemplating his next move, he and his mother Doris Bowman are having lots of fun. Mama Doris appeared with her son in one of his Smirnoff spots staying true to their jovial mother-son banter. “It has been a great relationship with Smirnoff and I appreciate all of their support,” says Anderson who has shared hilarious cameo appearances with Bowman on Instagram Live. They are also co-hosting To Tell the Truth, a show that has been through several iterations since its inception in the 1950s. We can see where he gets his funny bone. Mama Doris keeps viewers in stitches with her comedic side comments on the show, and she has won her own following by simply being herself. “Season seven just finished airing,” says Anderson. “Hopefully we have seven more seasons to give you. And we're looking at doing some things together in the reality space.”
Anderson is focused on ushering the next actors and producers to their seats at the table. He recognizes that his TV children, who he helped handpick for the show, have grown into young phenoms. And he is invested in them, as well as the futures of new filmmakers and actors. “My [next] thing is more so behind the camera, as well as, in front to give other people the opportunity to tell their stories,” he says. “And also to leverage the relationships that I have with the studios around town and the networks. And bringing great people to the table to tell their stories.” Stories that will continue to shed light on the way we live, grow, and learn as a culture and as a world that accepts our differences, as well as, our similarities.