How a joke about Bow being mixed race helped set the tone for the Black-ish universe
Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and star Tracee Ellis Ross discuss Dr. Rainbow Johnson's character-defining clap-back from the pilot.
What does it mean to be Black? It’s a question Black-ish creator Kenya Barris has been deconstructing since the show’s pilot when Dre (Anthony Anderson) teased his wife, Dr. Rainbow Johnson, about her “omni-colored complexion," prompting her to deliver the character-defining clap-back above. “It establishes the relationship between Dre and Bow, and also sets up what Black-ish is going to be exploring,” Tracee Ellis Ross tells EW.
An early iteration of the joke was preceded by “a run where he questioned her about seeing Roots and she lied,” says Barris, but it was cut from the pilot to leave room for Bow’s personality to come through faster. “It gave us a great storyline later on down the road for who saw Roots, and what Roots did you see?”
Ross remembers that the day she shot the thorny exchange between the couple in the pilot, the original punchline had pointed to Bow’s hair and fiscal responsibility. “The fiscal responsibility was the part that not only didn't work necessarily, but it was too cumbersome, and the joke wasn't landing.”
Ross, Barris, and the producers that were present huddled together and came up with a rewrite that sent a clear message: “‘You can do all these jokes, Dre, but I’m still getting up every day and having to do my hair and having trouble slipping on jeans,'” says Barris.
That small punch-up made a huge difference. “I think that joke honestly was probably one of the jokes that helped the show get picked up,” admits the Black-ish creator. Bow’s retort was included in both the upfront presentation meant to impress advertisers and the promo for the show’s premiere in fall 2014.
If the joke was what helped sell the show, Barris acknowledges that Ross was imperative to selling the joke itself. “She's a joke murderer. I feel like she committed to the joke, and it actually spoke to her in a real way,” he says. “This is Diana Ross's daughter, who theoretically should have grown up in a bubble, but you can't escape the bubble of a big head of curly hair and a round butt that causes you to have to go jean shopping a little bit differently. Those are universalities no matter what socio-economic, cultural enclave you grow up in. She understood it and hit it out the park off top. I remember us laughing on set.”
Ross considers the quip unpacking her character’s biracial identity to be indicative of what Black-ish does best. “There are lines and things that distill so much into small moments, [that] really reverberate beyond just a line,” she says. “That line was at the core of what all those years later turned into the show Mixed-ish,” the Black-ish spinoff she co-created with Barris and Peter Saji.
In the moment, Bow is speaking to her myopic husband, but her rebuttal also tells the world at large “you can't define my blackness because there's no frame to define blackness. Blackness is many things. It's tradition, it's culture, it's identity, it's race, it's all those things. And I can boil it down to my hair and my ass at this moment, but the point is you can't,” adds Ross.
There’s never going to be a clear answer on what it means to be Black, that’s part of the reason why Black-ish has been able to thrive for seven seasons. This joke from the pilot works because “it's honest, it's specific,” and most of all, according to Barris, “it speaks to two things that have challenged us, fetishized us, ostracized us. And it speaks to them with a sense of pride.”
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