From the EW archives: The evolution of A Different World
How Debbie Allen, Jasmine Guy, and Kadeem Hardison brought new life to the 'Cosby Show' spin-off
Jasmine Guy veers across the set of NBC’s A Different World like a car about to spin off a racetrack, and everyone else stands clear. Guy is having a monster tantrum, bellowing, ”I’m Big Sister Gorgeous One! I’m Big Sister Gorgeous One! I am Big Sister Gorgeous One!” to every flinching colleague within earshot.
”Nice,” says actor-director Glynn Turman. As the scene ends, Guy, a petite, gregarious whirlwind who can shrug out of her performance as steel magnolia Whitley Gilbert in a second, assumes her human-scale off-camera persona. Chuckles erupt from crew members, their bellies shaking over their tool belts. Guy wheels and she’s suddenly transformed back into leather-lunged Whitley. ”Hey!” she yells. ”Save your laughter for the show.”
She doesn’t have to worry. Something funny has been happening on A Different World, which is more than anyone who remembers the show’s resolutely laughless first season might have expected. Conceived as a spin-off from NBC’s The Cosby Show, the new series was to take teenager Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) from Brooklyn to a new life at Hillman, a black college in the South. Despite that pedigree, World began its run in 1987 as an ugly duckling sheltered only by the wide wing of creator Bill Cosby. Though its post-Cosby time slot guaranteed high ratings (the show was No. 2 its first year), World‘s on-screen dreariness and backstage chaos were public embarrassments for NBC, Cosby, and executive producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner (The Cosby Show, Roseanne).
Three years later, however, viewers are seeing a truly different World: an ensemble comedy about black college life that’s brightly acted, politically and socially attuned, idiosyncratic, and yes, even funny. This season, the series has silenced those who claimed it was only a coattail ratings success by passing The Cosby Show in the Nielsens (broadcast at 8:30 Thursdays, World ranks fifth, while Cosby has dropped to seventh). And, in a development that’s even more surprising, black artists behind and on-camera have assumed control of the series and helped it gain respect as well as viewers.
But even on this Monday morning in late March, as the cast and crew gather on a Studio City soundstage to rehearse a spring episode, they admit that a long shadow is cast by that first season, which drew one of the most concentrated doses of critical vituperation ever to greet an instant ratings hit. ”A stiff,” snapped one review. ”Bland and unfunny,” said another. ”Awful.” ”Calamitously drab.” ”A big yawn.”
The verdict from those on the show was almost as harsh. ”We tried to follow the Cosby model: Pretend it’s timeless. Make no references to current events. Make no references to race,” says Susan Fales, a first-season staff writer who now serves as co-executive producer. ”And we were under orders from NBC to stay away from anything academic — they felt that was alienating. So we had a show about a black college that wasn’t about college and couldn’t be black.”
”It was a nightmare,” says Dawnn Lewis, the indestructible actress whose character, Hillman alumna Jaleesa Vinson, is the only one to have survived all of World‘s regimes since the pilot. ”I’ve never seen so many people come and go.”
The gaffes were innumerable. A white roommate for Denise appeared without explanation. The sets and costumes looked musty and anachronistic. And Bonet proved hollow as the center of a sitcom. (”She’s taken a lot of blame,” says Fales, ”but the character was far more at fault. Denise was not very interesting, and we were asked to make her into Mary Tyler Moore or Tinkerbell, always bringing everyone together. We couldn’t.”)
”The show took a particularly long time to find its way,” says Carsey. A couple of changes worked well: The now-integral characters of Whitley and Dwayne Wayne (Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Hardison) were created after the pilot and frantically spliced into already-completed episodes. But misery ruled. ”There was an Alexander Haig complex,” says Darryl M. Bell, who plays student and self-described ”campus tramp” Ron Johnson. ”Everybody wanted to be the boss.”
”Coming from Broadway certainly gave me no credibility,” says Guy. ”The attitude was ‘Well, you don’t know sitcoms.’ Even if we dared to suggest something wasn’t funny or realistic, it was discounted. And people we worked with one week were gone the next. It was very tense and frightening.”
When Bonet became pregnant at the end of the first season, World faced another crisis. ”We’d never even written her a boyfriend,” recalls Fales. Rather than contend with an unwanted plot twist, the producers wrote her out.
After exhausting the talents of a series of sitcom fixers who came and went, Carsey and Werner knew the show needed a savior, and they found one. Bell glances at Guy and costar Charnele Brown (who plays premed student Kim Reese) as they sit around a table on the set of the Pit, the Hillman College cafeteria. ”You want to know why we’re working?” he says. ”We can say it together.” The actors nod.
“Ahhhh-HEMPHHH,” says Debbie Allen, striding across a Hollywood rehearsal hall where she has taken a week off from directing and producing A Different World to choreograph the Oscar telecast (including a number showing off Guy). Barely 5-foot-2, even in a Davy Crockett cap, Allen doesn’t look the part of a commander-in-chief, but she’s one of the few people who can bring 28 dancers to attention by clearing her throat. “Get in costume,” she barks, whacking a jockstrap-clad dancer preparing to play a teddy bear in a Home Alone production number. “Let’s get moving!”
“I’m aggressive,” she admits, straddling a chair during a break. “I can move people around and make them do what they should be doing. See? We laugh, but we work.”
Allen had won a Tony nomination for acting in the 1980 revival of West Side Story and collected Emmys for choreographing TV’s Fame, where she also directed 11 episodes, when she arrived on the set of A Different World in 1988. “I saw a show that had a lot of talent,” she says, “but was mindless, and being run in a dictatorial way.”
Allen had more than leadership to offer; as a 1971 Howard University graduate, she had firsthand experience at a black college. “This show had waitresses in the school cafeteria,” she moans, shaking her head. “I said, ‘Honey, what is this waitress shit? At this school you stand in line and you clear your own place.'” Quickly, the writing staff was dispatched to Atlanta’s predominantly black Spelman and Morehouse colleges. “She insisted we look out into the world,” says Fales. “It’s appalling that we were allowed to write about black colleges without having (done research). There’s a spirit of family, intimacy, and mission that we didn’t know about.”
Allen made her influence felt in every corner. She had the Pit set redesigned to look more realistic, making the kitchen and its workers more visible. She oversaw new costumes to replace the rah-rah cheerleader look. She instituted a daily morning workout for the cast: “I made them do some sit-ups and stretches. I put them through those paces because I wanted to make them an ensemble company, working together.” Then she assembled the writers and actors. “She said, ‘Now this is what’s going to happen — we’re going to have a read-through, and then we’re going to talk,'” remembers Hardison. “We had spent a year doing what we were told, and now someone was listening to us.”
“Lines of communication opened,” says Guy. “For the first time, we saw how far this show could go. Debbie never stopped. I remember her saying, ‘This is a Southern school — I want to see some grits in the Pit.'” But Allen brought more than grits to A Different World: She brought grit.
“Debbie broke the Cosby umbilical cord by saying, ‘We’ve got to be topical,'” says Fales. And unlike most sitcoms, which falter in ‘issue’ shows, World has thrived by diving into controversy. In recent months, the series has addressed date rape, apartheid (in an episode about corporate investment in South Africa), and religion (by exploring a student’s decision to become a Muslim). This season, World has traced an interracial romance, and it’s hard to imagine another TV comedy including a scene like the one in which Kim was belittled by a black friend for dating a white man. This month Whoopi Goldberg plays a professor in an AIDS episode. (“I fought for a year to get that done,” Allen recounts, “and finally said, ‘If we don’t do this, one day we’ll look up and The Simpsons will have done it.'”) In January World became the first sitcom to address the Persian Gulf crisis, in a hard-edged episode about a black Army reservist (Blair Underwood) that was co-written by Guy. When the soldier asked angrily if he was fighting for oil, the studio audience applauded. The show’s supervisors insisted on a retake.
“They said [the clapping] was too political,” says Cree Summer, who plays unreconstructed flower child Freddie Brooks. “But we were so happy, so high from that.” So were the ratings; more than 30 million viewers tuned in to give the show one of its biggest audiences of the season.
“All I did was set those actors free,” says Allen. “I gave them their show.”
Under Allen’s guidance, A Different World has become steeped in black culture. It’s evident in set details, from the “Support Black Colleges” poster in the Pit to an announcement taped to Whitley’s refrigerator heralding the National Council of Negro Women’s 1990 Black Family Reunion Celebration. Viewers can hear it as well in references to everyone from Aretha Franklin to Zina Garrison, made without elaboration. “We don’t have to explain everything,” Guy says. “If viewers don’t understand something we say, they’ll survive without having it spelled out. So what if we’re not universal? All in the Family was about blue-collar WASPs in Queens. This show is about a specific culture too.” Rarest of all, the show numbers more blacks (and, not incidentally, women) among its producers, directors, writers, and crew than does any other primetime series.
This week, Allen is missed on the set. “We moan and groan about the workout,” says Guy, “but we love it.” So it’s a less limber cast that prepares to rehearse a recent episode, in which a power-crazed Whitley becomes an ogress to her sorority pledges. In a corner of the Pit, actor Glynn Turman (Colonel Taylor, the campus ROTC commander), who’s taking a turn as director, confers with Guy. Then she sits down to read her line. “How refreshingly plump of you,” Whitley says to Kim. Guy looks at her script and covers her mouth, mortified. “How refreshingly prompt of you.” The actors howl.
“We dog each other,” says comedian Sinbad, 34, who plays counselor Walter Oakes. “We look for anything. Don’t say something stupid, don’t blow your lines, don’t wear your clothes too tight, because we’ll wear you out.” Guy laughs. “I hate doing scenes with Darryl and Kadeem, because if I forget a line, they know all my tricks. They twist their hands, which means, ‘Whitley’s going through her Rolodex of lines,’ and I lose it.” She doesn’t lose it often; since her debut, Guy has become a breakout star, complete with a burgeoning recording career and growing demands for her talent. “We needed a bitch,” Fales recalls of the decision to create Whitley as a haughty prima donna. “But after the first season, we had to humanize her — nobody’s an asshole for no reason and without interruption.”
But viewers didn’t mind; they loved her. With an accent and intonation borrowed from her third-grade Atlanta schoolteacher, Mrs. Pinkard, Guy made Whitley into a quick crowd-pleaser. “I found a walk, too,” she says of her character’s prim yet sashaying gait. “For some reason, I knew her physically. I just stepped into her.”
“She exploded,” says Bell. “She was a mushroom cloud. She could take a line as simple as ‘That’s what you think!’ and make it funny.” And when snobby Whitley fell in love last season with Hardison’s nerd-turned-hero Dwayne, he of the distinctive flip-top eyeglasses, the couple ignited one of TV’s most popular will-they-or-won’t-they romances. The next morning, as the two rehearse, story editor Glenn Berenbeim watches from behind a camera. “I love them together,” whispers the writer, who will draft a season-ending cliffhanger involving the couple. “They work so smoothly.”
“We get constant letters about Dwayne and Whitley,” Fales says. “The audience really roots for them.” And at World‘s tapings, it’s not just an audience — it’s an awwwwwdience, an oooooohdience, and an uh-oh!dience that’s relentlessly vocal. “It’s hard to do those mushy Dwayne-Whitley love scenes-you know, ‘Dwayne, ah luuuve you!'” says Guy. “They go crazy! I can’t take it! I have to make a serious face at Kadeem until they calm down. The last show we did, there were just too many ooohs.”
“Those are real people making those sounds,” adds Hardison. “Can you believe it? I look at her and crack up.”
Sometimes, though, the laughter stops. Scratch the actors, and they bleed resentment at an industry that they feel still views the show as a malformed appendage of Cosby — and sees its appeal to a black audience as a limitation. A Different World has never been nominated for a major Emmy (although, tellingly, it sweeps NAACP’s Image Awards), and the actors are blunt about what they see as showbiz disenfranchisement. “(After Family Ties) Michael J. Fox got a movie deal!” Sinbad roars, as his costars nod silently. “(After Magnum P.I.) Tom Selleck got a movie deal! We’re in the top five, and eight years from now, where are we gonna be? On the cover of Jet magazine in ‘Whatever Happened to Them?'”
But others emphasize the reward of working on a show that’s evolved from embarrassment to barrier breaker. “The week Diahann Carroll was on, she called the cast together,” Bell says. “She told us how special we were — in all her years in the business, she had never worked with an all-black ensemble or been directed by a black woman. She said she was proud of us.”
Summer says the actors also thrive on public response. “Do you know how many black people, not to say white people, had never heard of black colleges?” she asks. “I got one letter that said, ‘I want to go to Hillman College.’ I had to write the poor brother back and say, ‘There are places you can go, but you can’t come to Hillman unless you audition.'”
As World reaches year five, it’s about to face another turning point: The show’s mainstays are reaching graduation age. “There are several ways of keeping them on or near campus,” says Carsey, who notes that Dwayne is headed for graduate school. Adds Werner: “I think we need to find a couple of talented actors who could play freshmen or sophomores. With the right people, this show could last a long time.”
“I have to keep a big foot in A Different World no matter what I’m doing,” says Allen, who will star in her own NBC comedy next year. “I’m the mama. It belongs to me now. None of us has a contract yet, but I’m already thinking, ‘Where do I take the character of Whitley?'”
And the actors have ideas about one big topic: Dwayne and Whitley must consummate their relationship. “We’ll handle it carefully because it’s such a big deal now,” Guy says of the show that will mark her character’s first sexual experience. “Yes, her first. I don’t know when this virgin thing started,” she grumbles cheerfully. “In my audition, Whitley was hot. Then suddenly her sexuality went out the window. If you see it, slam it up against the wall and bring it back here.”
“Dwayne is so upstanding,” says Hardison disbelievingly. “I try to loosen him up a little bit, but I don’t think it’s gonna happen.” “He’s a wimp,” says Summer, poking Hardison in the ribs.
After rehearsal, the cast breaks for lunch. Hardison strolls up to the buffet and slings his arm around Turman. “How’s the directing going, champ?” he says. “You’re doin’ great, stompin’ the shit out of it.” Talk shifts to South Africa, to summer vacation, to Mike Tyson. And Debbie Allen turns out to be on the set after all, though only in spirit. In a corner of the cast’s pantry, on a black drop cloth, someone has tacked up her picture. Around it are photos and clippings that testify to World‘s increasing respectability and to the cast’s other pursuits and ambitions. And above it is a slogan that has been there long enough to be yellowing now: “You reap what you sow.”
With that marching order, the cast goes back to work.