Should someone tell him?
A year before “Friends” aired its first episode, “Living Single,” a sitcom about a group of six young black professionals making it in the Big Apple (albeit across the river in Brooklyn, before it was “discovered”) debuted on Fox. It was the prototype of the modern friend-com — so much so that an NBC executive at the time coveted the show, and 13 months later “I’ll Be There For You” became a global earworm.
After some well-deserved backlash, Schwimmer walked back his original comments on Twitter: “I didn’t mean to imply Living Single hadn’t existed or indeed hadn’t come before Friends, which I knew it had.”
But someone who was only looking at streaming services for their entertainment might be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
Unlike “Friends,” which has been available to stream since 2014, “Living Single” arrived on Hulu just two years ago despite being wildly popular and groundbreaking during its time. And it’s hardly the only classic black sitcom that has languished on the proverbial shelf, its licensing agreements and syndication rights gathering dust instead of collecting checks from Hulu, Netflix, HBO Max or any number of streaming services (hello, Peacock) popping up across the entertainment landscape.
The ’90s and early aughts, which produced both “Living Single” and “Friends,” was a particularly ripe decade for black sitcoms. Often described as a golden age for storytelling centered on African American lives, the era produced hits such as “Martin,” “In Living Color,” “The Fresh Prince,” “Moesha,” “The Jamie Foxx Show,” “Sister Sister,” “Half and Half,” “The Bernie Mac Show,” “The Steve Harvey Show,” “The Hughleys,” “Girlfriends” and a dozen more debuting on major networks. But in the years since, the vast majority of these popular shows have gone the way of the dodo.
Targeted streamers like the subscription-based BET Plus and Viacom’s new free service, Pluto TV, have been home to some of the shows, and sure, there might be a season or two on DVD (what’s that?) or individual episodes available for purchase on Amazon Prime Video or iTunes. But most of the vast vault of this specific cultural history is nowhere to be found on the major established streaming platforms fans engage with most.
In fact, no ’90s-era black sitcoms are currently available on Netflix, which has been lauded for its “Black Lives Matter” catalogue of documentaries, films and original series. For its part, Hulu streams “Living Single,” “Family Matters,” “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and “The Game.” And Amazon Prime has classics like “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World.”
Bentley Kyle Evans, co-executive producer of “Martin” and creator of “The Jamie Foxx Show,” called the scant number of revered shows available to watch featuring all-black casts “sad.”
“You don’t even hear about shows like ‘Malcolm & Eddie’ and Tracy Morgan’s first show. It’s as if they never existed,” Evans said. The fact that “Martin,” which arguably produced as many unforgettable characters and one-liners as “Seinfeld,” is not available on streamers like Hulu or Netflix is particularly grating.
“ ‘Martin,’ especially, was such a cultural hit. People are still wearing T-shirts and quoting all his lines. There’s a hunger for it,” he added.
In a Google ad for HBO Max, the streamer that launched in late May seemingly acknowledged the problem by touting its acquisition of “The Fresh Prince”: “The celebrated sitcom has never been available to stream — until now.”
But why? The issue appears to go deeper than just disgruntled coach potatoes complaining about their favorite childhood shows not being at their fingertips.
“I think there is something deeply worrisome about removing histories. Yeah, it’s comedy, but it is still a reflection of black life and culture and music. This is often how people learn about folks who don’t look like them,” said Robin R. Means Coleman, a professor of communication and African American studies at Texas A&M University.
“The late ’80s, early ’90s was the black sitcom heyday, so if you have invisibility out of that era, then there is something deeply wrong. To exclude not just a few shows but a full black renaissance around sitcoms, there’s something deeply wrong there,” she added.
Actress Erika Alexander, who played lawyer and unapologetic man-eater Maxine Shaw on “Living Single,” agreed.
“We wished our show was more available when it wasn’t,” Alexander said. “We definitely were angry that it took that long. It was, to us, a source of great insult, as if somehow we weren’t valuable enough. ”
Alexander, who currently stars on Hulu’s “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” said the scant amount of popular and proven black shows on streaming is another example of how Hollywood’s institutional racism is detrimental to the industry’s own bottom line. “It’d be different,” she said, “if [‘Living Single’] hadn’t proved its success.”
“They stand to make money off of it,” Alexander continued, “but stuff they have in the can that they own, that they could syndicate and license, they won’t. The fact that they don’t do it is always a mystery to me. This holds up their whole umbrella.”
The core of the issue, according to Alfred L. Martin Jr., assistant professor of media studies at the University of Iowa, is that blackness is often cast by the mainstream as “extraordinarily culturally specific,” so then the shows that resonate for the black demographic writ large are defined as “niche” and therefore not as palatable for wide-ranging audiences.
But that argument appears to be moot when it comes to shows featuring majority-white casts. “ ’30 Rock,’ for instance, there were 4-ish million viewers a week and yet that show was still on the air and it was understood as this very important cultural series that is broadly available,” Martin said. The majority of the audience for “30 Rock” and its quirky “niche” partner-in-crime “Parks and Recreation” was not only largely white, but composed of 18- to 34-year-olds, a demographic advertisers salivate over.
The problem appears to be that only certain shows are allowed to be both niche and relevant enough to warrant a slot on a streaming slate.
“So for things like ‘Moesha,’ ‘Everybody Hates Chris,’ ‘Half and Half,’ those shows have a niche-ness to them. Even though their ratings figures are much bigger, they are understood as not as culturally resonant,” Martin said.
“There’s this continual devaluation of black audiences. Black audiences are never enough,” he said. “This broad cultural erasure is part of what is behind the lack of availability of black streaming content, because our stuff is always understood as niche, and the white stuff that none of us watch is understood as mainstream.”
Martin, who teaches a class on black TV history, often has to scramble to find the very shows he is teaching to his students, resorting to what he calls “bootleg” methods of cobbling together materials. “When we think about black TV history, we talk about ‘Amos and Andy,’ ‘Julia,’ ‘Good Times,’ and then ‘The Cosby Show’ happened and everything was right with the world. It skips over so much.”
Years ago when working on his dissertation, Martin spoke to a syndicator about securing the rights to watch a few episodes of the CBS show “Cosby,” starring Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad. “He was essentially like, ‘Nobody wants this thing; I’ll just send it to you,’ ” recalled Martin. “These things are just sitting somewhere on somebody’s shelf.”
This article has been updated to clarify that while some of the classic sitcoms mentioned are available online, they are on lesser-known or channel-specific sites, and not major streaming services.