'Our show resonates with people ... because of that willingness to push the envelope,' Anderson says.
Race, gun control, and economic disparity don’t exactly scream comedy, but the issues make up the backbone of one of television’s funniest sophomore series. When Black-ish returns for season 2 on Wednesday, the ABC comedy will continue to explore what it means to be a well-off African-American family in America while remaining true to the comic roots of creator Kenya Barris and star Anthony Anderson. “It’s honest,” Anderson tells EW, explaining that the show resonates with people because of that quality: “The stories are a way of life for all of us.”
The upcoming season, penned by alums from Happy Endings, Don’t Trust the B, The Bernie Mac Show, Hello Ladies, and more dearly departed viewer favorites, will continue to spark divisive dialogue. With episodes touching on the N-word, gun ownership, and health and wellness in the African-American community, Black-ish “prides itself on dealing with topics and subject matter that are divisive,” says Anderson. We spoke to the actor for our Fall TV Preview mega-issue; see below for more from our Q&A with Anderson, who reveals how the series’ arcs come to fruition and why Black-ish tries to be as “unapologetic” as possible.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What can we expect from the new season?
ANTHONY ANDERSON: Our first episode back is about Dre wanting to purchase a gun for the safety of his family, and Rainbow [Tracee Ellis Ross] is opposed to it. Meanwhile, the kids thought we already had one, and once they found out we didn’t, they’re just like, “So, you had us flapping in the wind?!” It’s about me tackling that and trying to convince Bow that it’s the right thing to do. In another episode, we’re talking about the N-word. Jack [Miles Brown] goes to school and does a little performance while dancing to Kanye West and Jamie Foxx’s “Gold Digger,” and he says the N-word on stage and gets expelled from school for hate speech. It’s about who has the right to say that word — should it be said at all? — and it’s definitely not hate speech coming from a 9-year-old kid who has not an ounce of hate in his body, but he was expelled for singing along to the lyrics from a song. Those are the first two episodes — we’re gonna continue to push the envelope.
It certainly sounds like you’re not shying away from the bigger issues moving into season 2. Black-ish has been able to provide representation for the African-American community in a way that few other network shows have ever really done. That can make people uncomfortable. What sort of reaction have you experienced?
We pride ourselves on dealing with topics and subject matter that are divisive. Because of that divisiveness, people are able to have a dialogue about it and sometimes you come away with a different perspective than the one you entered the conversation with. That’s what’s so great about our show — we spark that dialogue. Not just within the African-American community but the American community. I think our show resonates with people because of that honesty and because of that willingness to push the envelope and go there. So, the response to our show has been phenomenal. We couldn’t have asked for a bigger response than what we got when we first premiered and still up to this day.
You’ve said that in playing Andre, you’re playing somebody closer to you in spirit than any other character you’ve ever played. To what do you owe that kind of freedom, to portray an authentic African-American experience?
Kenya and I sat down two years ago and conceived the show. The show in its original form was about both our families. We’re products of the inner city — Kenya from Inglewood and me from Compton — and both of us are first-generation successful. All of our children are in private schools, and we’re the only blacks living in our respective neighborhoods. When we met for the first time, we met to talk about business but we ended up talking about each other and found out that we had more in common than not.
A few weeks later he came to me with the idea for a show. Rainbow is Kenya’s real-life wife. She’s a doctor, her name is Rainbow, and she comes from a mixed marriage. They have five children in private school and I have two. My son came home one day and told me that he didn’t feel black and wanted to have a bar mitzvah, so I met him halfway and threw him a
“bro mitzvah,” and you see that in the pilot. Sometimes you’re given a playground to play in, but you’re relegated to a certain part of the playground. Like, “Okay, all of this is yours, but we just resodded the field so you can’t go there just yet,” and, “We just painted the basketball court so the paint is still drying. You can’t go there yet.” The show is a combination of our experiences and of Kenya’s vision, and ABC and Disney Studios have given us the entire playground to play in with no boundaries. Everything is free rein. It’s freeing. We have a place to extend our creative wings and are met with very little resistance.
Black-ish is able to highlight modern institutional racism in a way that is really interesting. Like, for example, when your character gets a huge promotion but it’s to the urban division. What’s it like to be able to project that experience — almost a series of teachable moments — to an audience that may have never had to experience that sort of thing before?
It’s just a way of life for all of us. These are things we all go through as humans, but they’re just being told from a black perspective. There is institutionalized racism, and sexism, and almost any other “ism” you can come up with. And we deal with that. We deal with it in a comedic way, and we also deal with it from the black perspective, because that’s the perspective from which we come. I think it resonates with people because they see that we’re telling these true stories. We’re being as honest and unapologetic as we can. We can all identify with wanting to give our children better than we had growing up. We can all identify with being passed over for a promotion or for a job because of the color of our skin, and it works flip-side. You have people who argue for affirmative action, and you have people who feel that affirmation action is taking jobs away from them. Again, there’s that divide. Our stories can be divisive, but they create a conversation. They create a dialogue that can give you a better understanding of the person sitting across from you.
And of course, the show is hilarious. I’m obsessed in particular with the twins, Jack and Diane (Marsai Martin). What are they like on set?
They’re just like their characters. All of the children, everyone in the cast, I got my first choice for every cast member. But the kids in particular, they’re just how they are on the show. Jack is clueless, and Diane is the mastermind behind it all — an evil genius with a sense of humor and a heart. It’s a joy to come to work every day and to work with them and see them grow professionally and personally.
How is it working across from Tracee?
Oh, it’s great. Tracee and I have known each other for a little more than a decade now and we’ve worked together in the past but this is the first time we’ve actually worked this intimately with one another, and she is the best. Her work reminds me of Lucille Ball’s. The commitment she puts into the work and to the process and to the joke … I learn from her every day and I get to have fun with her every day. Truly a blessing.
That camaraderie definitely comes across on screen; the family has amazing chemistry. Finally, can you share anything else about the upcoming season?
We’re just going to continue to be topical and have fun with everything we do. I’m not in the writers’ room, but Kenya and I will sit down and talk about life and all of a sudden there’ll be a complete episode based on a conversation we had. In another [season 2] episode, Pops [Laurence Fishburne] has to go to the hospital to get checked out, and he brags about not having gone to the hospital in 35 years. “I’ll just take aspirin,” you know, and then when he goes to the hospital he finds out something is really wrong with him and we have to deal with that.
Especially in our community, black men rarely go to the hospital unless they’re about to lose an appendage. I can count on my hand the number of times my father went to the hospital, even just to have a general checkup and see what’s going on. We’ll take our car to get serviced every 3,000 miles and have its oil changed and whatnot but we won’t go for preventative care. There’s an actual day called Take Your Loved One to the Doctor Day. Just one day a year. We laugh at it, but it’s kind of crazy that we need that. Certain communities need that. If we did go every six months just to get checked out, a lot of the illnesses that we have — especially in the black community — could be avoided.
Want more? EW’s Fall TV Preview mega-issue has the scoop on 115 shows! Pick up your copy on newsstands now, or buy it here.
Black-ish airs Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. ET on ABC.