"It makes me sad," said Marla Gibbs. "There's no need to get angry, but it makes me sad. They've already come up with a label for our new shows. They're calling them black-coms."
The catch-phrase may turn out to be the watchword for the 1985-86 television season. It prompts a mild lament from Gibbs. And it masks an even broader trend in network television.
Gibbs helped develop and stars in "227," a situation comedy that features a complete black family. Such shows have been rarities in network television. This season there are two among the 19 new fall offerings.
It is easy to attribute the appearance of "227" and "Charlie & Co.," starring Flip Wilson and Gladys Knight, to the run-away success last season of "The Cosby Show" -- only "Dynasty" and "Dallas" were more popular. But that would be simplistic.
"Our show was already in the works" when Cosby took the Nielsen charts by storm, Gibbs noted. "But it is helpful to have a forerunner that worked.
"His coming along told you about blacks. But it also told you people want family shows they can watch without conflict ..d. shows with parents in control of the household, rather than the kids."
Such shows are also moving away from the hard-edged, one-line-zinger style of humor found in abundance in recent years.
"What we're coming to is less offensive humor," said Gibbs. "I call it situation humor rather than written jokes with punchlines of offensive humor. You can't beat life (for providing funny situations) . . . I'm not a comedian. The more serious I am, the funnier the situation is . . . If you really deal with truth, you get humor."
Gibbs, as actress and show- businesswoman, has dealt with television humor and its changes for the past decade. She played Florence, the tart-tongued maid, on "The Jeffersons," a program that began as a spinoff of the acerbic "All in the Family" and, in the end, took on a more mellow tone.
"In the last few years, 'The Jeffersons" humor came to be less honkey-oriented," said Gibbs. "In the show's last few years, we wouldn't accept any honkey jokes. The sense within the cast was that it was time for change."
And as Mary Jenkins in "227" she plays another role that has been toned down for 1985 television consumption.
The show is adapted from a play by Christine Houston. "She's a Chicago lady," said Gibbs, "and I'm a Chicago lady. I grew up on 31st Street and she on 48th. The '227' is for 227 East 48th Street.
"In the play, Mary was a little more negative than she will be on TV. In the stage version, her husband's left her, she's into everybody's business, and she tells you like it is . . . and she creates problems for people in her building, and there's applause when she gets her comeuppance. It was done in the '50s when things were different in minority neighborhoods."
The play was brought to Gibbs' attention and she staged it at her own Crossroad Arts Academy and Theatre. "Brandon Tartikoff (president of NBC Entertainment) came and saw it and liked it," she said. Universal had expressed interest, and Norman Lear did too. Embassy Television ended up producing it for NBC, with Gibbs helping to adapt the piece for series television.
For TV, Jenkins has been given a construction-worker husband, Lester, played by Hal Williams, and a 14-year-old daughter, Brenda, played Regina King.
"Bringing Mary to television . . . and making it palatable has been the writers' challenge, and I think they're meeting it," said Gibbs after finishing the early episodes. "I think the first four shows are pretty good. I'll let the audience decide if they're great."