Leaving ''In Living Color'' -- Why Keenen Ivory Wayans walked away from the Fox sitcom

Keenen Ivory Wayans is one unhappy fella. The source of his discontent is Fox Broadcasting, which he left precipitately Dec. 11 when he suddenly stormed away from In Living Color, the groundbreaking comedy show he’d created and sustained for three years. ”This is a shell of a company making desperate moves,” he says of Fox. ”They’re collapsing, and they don’t care who they offend or what shows they ruin.”

Of course, Wayans, 34, was never completely happy at Fox. The show’s staffers, past and present, tend to think of the boss as the second coming of either Martin Luther King Jr. or Benito Mussolini. The King camp sees Wayans as a fiercely loyal, innovative visionary who was able to negotiate his way through what one insider calls Fox’s ”schizophrenic” orders — to make the show controversial, but not to go too far. The Mussolini faction casts Wayans as demanding and volatile — ”not the warmest person,” says one source. ”Aloof. And he likes it that way.” His Il Duce side, says another observer, was the main reason for the show’s ”revolving door of writers and staff.”

Wayans might be a mixture of both, but it was Mussolini who ruled on Dec. 3, when Fox decided to drop The Heights from its Thursday-night schedule and fill the hole with reruns of In Living Color. That move made the value of the old shows, which revert to Wayans’ ownership next year for sale in syndication, take an immediate nosedive.

According to Wayans, Fox execs told him at 7:30 on a Friday night that they were going to announce the reruns the next Monday morning, leaving him no time to protest. ”To tell you the truth,” he says, ”I was so stunned, I kept saying, ‘You’re joking, you’re joking.’ They were so sneaky about it. Then they said they were only going to show reruns from the first season. But they’re not even doing that — they’re editing shows from all different seasons. I was supposed to have that control, and even that was usurped. The years I put into the show were being robbed from me.” Fox has declined repeated requests for comment.

For Wayans, the reruns were the final blow in a troubled season. Among the problems:

*Tommy Davidson, one of the show’s most popular actors, is said to have quietly entered a rehab facility. All Fox will say is that he is ”on leave.” His publicist’s comment: ”There is nothing to report at this time.”

*Unsubstantiated rumors that Wayans was embezzling money from the show began circulating recently. Wayans and his manager, Eric Gold, call this a ”disinformation campaign.”

*Holding out for more money, cast members David Alan Grier, Jim Carrey, and sister Kim Wayans threatened to sit out the season.

*Tamara Rawitt, one of the show’s original producers and a close friend of Wayans’, left last month after Fox tried to install two relative newcomers above her.

Already frustrated and quite teed-off, Wayans went ballistic after the reruns were announced. Although rumors had him yelling and screaming around the set, Wayans says, ”I’ve never screamed in my life. I’m too young to have a stroke.” At one point, says a staffer, he literally held the program hostage for two days, refusing to turn over to Fox a finished tape of the show that he’d taken and hid above the ceiling panels in his office. ”It was a battle of wills,” admits manager Gold. ”But he held the tape for more like two hours. After they made their decision (to air the reruns), they were basically saying, ‘F— you, we have business control.’ So Keenen was saying, ‘Oh, yeah, well, f— you, I have creative control.”’

After several more days of battling and posturing, Wayans gave up and walked off the show for good. ”It was absolutely the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do,” he says. ”But I had to. I couldn’t condone what they did, and how they did it. No one wanted me to leave, but I couldn’t continue in good conscience. I couldn’t give them a show that was a certain quality and not have them return that quality.” In a display of family unity, Keenen’s brothers Damon and Marlon, who appeared as guests on the show this season but had no contract, have also left. His brother Shawn and sister Kim are also trying to leave, but are contractually obligated to stay.

In Keenen’s eyes, what’s left of In Living Color is a travesty. ”It always was comedy from an African-American point of view,” he says, ”but now they have all white consultants. There’s a fine line between African-American humor and making fun of African-Americans. Fox didn’t even have the good taste to bring in that other voice, and that’s offensive not only to the show but to a large segment of the population.”

The problems of In Living Color, says Wayans, reflect the chaos in Twentieth Century Fox as a whole. The departure in the past 11 months of Barry Diller as chairman and chief executive, Joe Roth as chairman of Fox’s movie division, Roger Birnbaum as head of film production, and, just last week, Jamie Kellner as chief operating officer of broadcasting has left a void that, according to Wayans, owner Rupert Murdoch is trying to fill himself.

Yes, Wayans got along with Murdoch, ”but that’s when he was owner of the company, not running it,” he says, laughing. ”The bottom line is, the company itself is changing. Once it was separate divisions with separate management, and the TV arm acted independently. With the exit of Barry Diller and the others, well, one person is running things now, and I don’t think he looks at the network as anything other than numbers.”

Life goes on. The brothers Wayans are negotiating with another network — possibly CBS — to do a comedy show, and Keenen has no second thoughts about his exit from In Living Color. ”What I did was just stand up,” he says. ”I told those people that what they were doing was wrong.”