Red Table Talk, on Facebook Watch, has given us the A Different World reunion we've been anticipating since the series finale on May 8, 1993. (Full episode below.)
Like us, you probably tuned to NBC weekly to watch Denise Huxtable, Freddie Brooks, Dwayne Wayne, Jaleesa Vinson, Whitley Gilbert, Kim Reese, Ron Johnson, Maggie Lauten, Coach Walter Oakes, and, in later seasons, Lena James, Gina Deveraux, and Dorian Heywood bring hard-hitting topics to the forefront. If you were a Black kid growing up in the 1980s, A Different World, as well as Spike Lee's School Daze, not only put HBCUs on your radar but also influenced you to dream of attending one. However, there's a lot we fans of the groundbreaking series don't know. Fortunately, Red Table Talk (RTT) has someone on the inside, as co-host Jada Pinkett Smith played Lena James for 47 episodes. Here is the behind-the-scenes information we learned from the RTT episode that featured director-producer Debbie Allen and co-stars Jasmine Guy (Whitley), Kadeem Hardison (Dwayne), Dawnn Lewis (Jaleesa), Darryl M. Bell (Ron), Charnele Brown (Kim), Cree Summer (Freddie), Glynn Turman (Col. Brad Taylor), Ajai Sanders (Gina), Karen Malina White, and surprise messages from Marisa Tomei (Maggie) and Patti LaBelle (Adele Wayne).
One aspect of A Different World that can't be denied is Allen's influence, but it was a very different series initially, one in which the actors say being disrespected was more commonplace than not.
"I mean, that's why they brought me, actually. I had come from Fame, and then I get this call from Carsey Werner and Bill Cosby, ‘We need you to come over here and look at A Different World,' explained Allen about how she was brought onto the series. "'Cause I had gone to Howard, and I don't know if anybody else had really gone to an HBCU. So I brought that experience and that reality, so we just had to put hot sauce on the table. We had to make it real, because the Black university college voice is strong.”
Before Allen joined A Different World, Guy quit the series because she and the rest of the cast routinely felt disrespected by the writers and producers.
"I gave my two-week notice during the first season," Guy said to Pinkett Smith and RTT co-host Adrienne Banfield Norris.
Guy continued, "We were filming till 1:00 in the morning. I was like, 'Why are we doing this again? I don't even know what I'm doing wrong.' Like, why are we just doing things over and over until the–if it was funny at any point, it was gone."
Hardison recalled the tension on the set before Allen: “Oh, yeah, it was booty. I was like, 'I don't want to be in this anymore.' And – and I didn't like the way they were treating the cast and so I went in there, and I said, 'Thank you so much for this opportunity, and I've – I've learned so much,' and they were probably like, 'OK, well, did something happen?' I said, 'Well, you know, I feel like Lisa Bonet is disrespected in front of the audience.' 'Well, has it ever happened to you?' I said, 'If it happens to her, it happens to me.' You are disrespecting the cast. You are disrespecting Sinbad (Coach Walter Oakes). It doesn't have to happen to me, I felt like it was happening to me."
Allen gave the cast a voice and career advice.
“This was a time where there was this separation between the writers and the actors," explained Allen, who also advised Hardison to add writing and directing to his contract. "If they said 'ooh' instead of 'ahh,' they had to stop the cameras and do it again. I worked really hard to break down that barrier between the writers and the actors.”
Although A Different World managed to address heavy topics, like interpersonal violence and the police beating of Rodney King, the series was censored. Lewis remembered that they were not allowed to show a condom during an episode that discussed HIV/AIDS and safe sex.
“But half the stuff we did, as much as they let us push the envelope, they still kept a rein on everything," said Lewis. "Like, the AIDS episode, we couldn't show the condom. [...] We had to refer to it in the purse."
Allen, however, remained supportive of the cast.
"I was always going into the principal's office taking y'all's bullets," she said. "So Murphy Brown gets to be on the cover of TIME magazine. For being– saying what she says about politics or abortion or whatever, but we can't even do this? I said, 'Guys, have you ever watched Saturday Night Live? Have you ever watched In Living Color? We're a show that bridges that world. And that's a good thing for y'all. Stop it already.'”
Pinkett Smith revealed that she initially auditioned for only a guest role, and Allen recalled the moment the two met, "The AIDS episode, she walked in – wait, let me just say this. She walked in. She already had all that. And I said, 'Wow. You are – you are wonderful. So where are you from?' 'I'm the next Debbie Allen.' I'm like, 'Ooh!' [...] Yes, she said it, and I loved her from that minute. I said, 'Hire her now.' So I said, 'Let's make her a series regular.'"
Allen continued, "But I mean, what a dream come true to be seen by somebody you had idolized and then she sees me right away. So much so, she was like, 'We gonna put you in this show.'"
A Different World was also Ajai Sanders's big break, and it came at the perfect time for the actress who was homeless when she auditioned.
"I must say, like, I'm sitting here listening to you guys, and it brings me back to the feeling that I felt when I first came onto the show," Sanders recalled. "I was so intimidated, but I was also starstruck by every single last one of y'all. [...] And I was homeless before I got the job. And I was supposed to only be there for, like, one episode. And I remember thinking, 'If I don't get this, then I'm just gonna go back home, and rethinking this whole thing.' [...] And the first person that I met was Jasmine, and she walked up to me and said, 'Hi, my name is Jasmine, and welcome to the show.' And I'll never forget what that felt like."
The Red Table Talk x A Different World reunion also revealed that Hardison was Summer's first love and allowed her to experience Black life like she had never before.
“What does the show mean to me? So much. It's a defining moment in my life and my career," explained Summer. "It brought me Kadeem, my first true love. I am from Saskatchewan, Canada. We don't have any HBCUs in Canada. And I got to experience a side of Black life I probably never would've, and I got to work with Debbie Allen, who changed me profoundly, taught me so much. And I made forever friends. I'm keepin' all of y'all. You're mine. And how much do I love all of you? This goddamn much!”
The theme song of A Different World is just as iconic as the characters, campus setting, and storytelling. (There's a high probability you just started singing it in your head.) But did you know Lewis not only co-wrote the song, but also was supposed to sing it the first season?
“I was originally singing it," explained the actress who made "Jaleesa" a household name. "They didn't know they had hired the same person to write the theme song that they had hired to be in the show. So I was no longer allowed to sing it.”
She continued, "Because – because I wasn't the star. It was Lisa (Bonet's) show, and they thought it would be too much attention on me and so they brought in Phoebe Snow. So the first voice that everyone heard was Phoebe's version. Then they thought, 'Let's redo this every year. We'll revamp it.' So season two, they had Aretha (Franklin) do it."
As is typical, the art of A Different World imitated real life, and Hardison divulged that the "Love Taps" episode was inspired by an event in the inner circle.
"That was something that happened in the–in our circle. [...] Yeah, and I wanted to address it," said Hardison.
"Without calling any names," explained Darryl M. Bell. "And pointing at somebody."
"And pointing at somebody," responded Hardison.
"I'm so proud of what we have accomplished together," said Allen.
Watch the entire episode of Red Table Talk below.