The latest music video for a track from the “4:44” album features only about a minute of rapping from Jay-Z. But the video serves as a sort of meta-commentary on black representation in media and artistic ownership.
Released Friday on Tidal (and everywhere next week), the video for “Moonlight” features some of the fastest-rising stars in comedy reenacting, line for line, scenes from a quintessential “Friends” episode.
Directed by “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang, the video even features a remake of the opening to the NBC sitcom — but using the song “Friends” by Whodini.
— TIDAL (@TIDALHiFi) August 4, 2017
Comedian Jerrod Carmichael (“The Carmichael Show”) plays Ross. Issa Rae of HBO’s “Insecure” plays Rachel. Lil Rel Howery (“Get Out”) plays Joey. Lakeith Stanfield (“Atlanta”) plays Chandler. Tessa Thompson (“Creed”) plays Monica. Tiffany Haddish (“Girls Trip”) plays Phoebe.
The actors are wearing almost exactly the same clothing as the characters in the 1996 “Friends” episode. The set looks the same. The shots are the same. When the cast takes a break, Carmichael chats with comedian Hannibal Buress offstage, who tells him what they’re shooting is “garbage and “it’s just episodes of ‘Seinfeld’ but with black people.”
“It’s ‘Friends,'” Carmichael interjects, but Buress cuts him off: “Who asked for that?”
“When they asked me to do it, I was like, all right, this is something subversive, something that would turn the culture on its head,” Carmichael says.
“Well, you did a good job of subverting good comedy,” Buress says. “You gonna do black ‘Full House’ next? ‘Family Ties?’ Why stop there? ‘Home Improvement?’”
When Carmichael asks Buress what he’s up to these days, Buress says he just booked a part in “Pirates of the Caribbean Cruise Line” to play “a parrot with a bad attitude but he has a heart of gold. It’s terrible, but it’s way better than this s‑‑‑.”
Aside from Carmichael being the one to have this exchange — his critically acclaimed real-life show was canceled by NBC this year, with executives saying that “it was hard to find a stable audience” — the choice to remake “Friends” with an all-black cast is particularly poignant.
Many viewed the popular NBC comedy as essentially a white version of Fox’s “Living Single,” which premiered a year before “Friends” and is about six friends in New York City — who happened to be black.
“We knew we had already been doing that,” Queen Latifah, star of the sitcom, said earlier this year. “It was one of those things where there was a guy called Warren Littlefield, who used to run NBC, and they asked him, ‘When all the new shows came out, if there was any show you could have, which one would it be?’ And he said ‘Living Single.’ And then he created ‘Friends.’ But ‘Friends’ was so good it wasn’t like we hated on it or anything.”
“Friends,” which debuted in 1994, became a cultural phenomenon and earned the network and its stars incredible amounts of money. At the time, the creator and stars of “Living Single” said their sitcom wasn’t getting the same promotional push that “Friends” was receiving. “You can’t deny the basic similarities between the two shows. And ‘Living Single’ was on the air first,” creator and executive producer Yvette Lee Bowser told the Los Angeles Times in 1996.
The L.A. Times story continued:
“It’s disappointing that we have never gotten that kind of push that ‘Friends’ has had,” said Bowser, one of the television industry’s few black female producers. “I have issues with the studio and the network over the promotion of this show.”
Bowser and her four actresses said they are not putting down “Friends” and that they find it to be a quality show. “When I watch it, I laugh,” Coles said. “It’s very well done.” They simply believe that if “Living Single” were given a similar sort of push, it would be doing better in the ratings.
The stars of “Living Single” told the newspaper that they had found ways to laugh about being in the shadow, but Freeman joked, “the minute they start referring to us as ‘Black Friends,’ that’s when I’ll go off. It’s better to call them the ‘White Living Single.’”
In the Jay-Z music video, the cast returns to the set and continues acting out scenes from “Friends,” but Carmichael is clearly shaken. The camera shows him out of the moment as Howery, Stanfield, Thompson and Haddish recite their lines. But when Rae reenters the scene, she has a serious, knowing look on her face and signals to Carmichael to be quiet. She leads him off the set, and, finally, we hear Jay-Z rapping: “We stuck in La La Land/Even when we win, we gon’ lose.”
That line, and the song’s title, is an allusion to the unprecedented Oscars flub, in which “La La Land” was mistakenly named the winner of best picture earlier this year rather than the actual winner, “Moonlight.” The mix-up, some argued, distracted from what should have been the “Moonlight” cast and crew’s moment.
The song then jumps from the intro chorus to the last verse, with Jay-Z rapping, “Y’all n‑‑‑‑‑s still signin’ deals? Still? After all they done stole, for real? After what they done to our Lauryn Hill?” — referencing the singer’s legal battles.
Carmichael walks off the set and sits on a park bench, reminiscent of a scene in “La La Land,” and stares up at the full moon. The song fades and the audio of that Oscars flub plays: Warren Beatty says, “And the Academy Award for best pictures goes to,” then Faye Dunaway proclaims, “La La Land!” The audience applauds.