No One’s Laughing About ABC’s Sitcom Skirmish
In the neighborhood of network sitcoms, the only two comedies revolving around black families may be a bit too close for comfort.
ABC in 1998 launched a situation comedy starring an African American comedian about a successful business owner living in the middle- to upper-middle-class suburbs with his smiling wife and photogenic children. It was the only black sitcom on ABC. “The Hughleys,” --starring and co-created by comic D.L. Hughley--lasted two seasons before the network yanked it due to poor ratings.
Less than a year after “The Hughleys” was booted from ABC--to find a new life on UPN--ABC tonight will launch a new situation comedy, “My Wife and Kids.” It stars an African American comedian who portrays a successful business owner living in a middle- to upper-middle-class suburb with his smiling wife and photogenic children. It becomes the only black sitcom on ABC.
Ever since ABC announced “My Wife and Kids” starring Damon Wayans as one of its midseason hopes, there have been rumblings within the television production community about the decision. On its most basic level, questions have surfaced as to why ABC would remove one comedy about a middle-class black family and a few months later schedule another. Although there are distinct differences, some close to the UPN series suggest that “My Wife and Kids” is basically “The Hughleys” without star D.L. Hughley.
The actors are different, but there are easy-to-spot similarities in themes and characters. Indeed, some of the creative forces that were behind “The Hughleys”--a director and a producer--are now associated with “My Wife and Kids.”
Though no one will discuss it publicly, ABC’s decision to drop “The Hughleys” from its schedule and then pick up “My Wife and Kids” is being linked to the economics of television these days. “My Wife and Kids” is produced by Touchstone Television, the television arm of the Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC. “The Hughleys,” with ratings that were soft enough that it was not a hit for the network, is from the Greenblatt Janollari Studios, one of a handful of small, independent production companies active in the prime-time programming business.
On the eve of the debut of “My Wife and Kids,” no one is talking. ABC executives failed to respond to repeated requests for interviews. “The Hughleys” executive producer Bob Greenblatt said tersely, “We have great respect for Damon Wayans, and we are declining to comment.” Hughley and Wayans turned down requests for interviews.
But Hughley was vocal about the conflict during a July news conference for national television critics. “It was very difficult to hear that . . . [ABC was] having problems and didn’t know where to place us,” Hughley said. “Then they get another show [“My Wife and Kids”] that is really my show. . . . So that didn’t fly to me that they didn’t have any room for us but then they would put on a show that they owned.”
Hughley added during the same news conference that when he first talked to ABC Entertainment Co-Chairman Stu Bloomberg about the network’s decision to put “My Wife and Kids” on the schedule, he said: “You’re doing my show all over again. The only difference [is] I’m not in it. . . . I’m insulted by that, because we did the show that was based on my life. . . . If you take my life from me and shoot it with another set of black folk, I’ve got a problem with that. Honestly.”
Last season, sensing “The Hughleys” was in trouble, producers of the show lobbied ABC executives to stay with the comedy. Their argument, in part, was that the show’s time slot on ABC’s floundering youth-oriented “TGIF” lineup was ill-suited for the series. The “TGIF” format has since been jettisoned entirely.
But a push to have “The Hughleys” return to Tuesday night, where it had started, or to Wednesday night, where it could be paired with other adult-targeted sitcoms, was rebuffed by the network. According to sources, the producers were told ABC was moving away from family comedies on those nights and there was no other time slot for “The Hughleys.”
Some sources within ABC maintain that “My Wife and Kids” is worlds away from “The Hughleys.” In one instance, “The Hughleys” was described by ABC executives as a “fish-out-of-water” series, with Hughley playing an urban man who has trouble adjusting to a suburban lifestyle and his white neighbors. “My Wife and Kids” is being promoted as the ‘90s version of “The Cosby Show.” In the first episode of “My Wife and Kids,” no neighbors are shown.
Still, comparisons have been drawn. Both shows are set in fashionable suburban communities. In “The Hughleys,” Hughley is the owner of a successful vending machine company. In “My Wife and Kids,” Michael Kyle (Wayans) is the owner of a successful delivery truck company.
Both depict combative, but ultimately warm family units.
The cast of “My Wife and Kids” includes a Latina nanny who clashes with Wayans. “The Hughleys” featured an episode this season with a Latina maid who gave “attitude” to Hughley (“The Hughleys” originally proposed having a Latina maid in its first episode).
Both wives are professionals. Hughley’s wife, Yvonne (Elise Neal), is a substitute teacher; Kyle’s wife, Janet (Tisha Campbell-Martin), is a part-time stock market broker.
The first episode of “My Wife and Kids” has a sequence in which Wayans helps his teenage daughter apply makeup. “The Hughleys” had a father-daughter makeup session last season.
Pilots for both shows were directed by Andy Cardiff. One of the co-executive producers of “The Hughleys,” Eunetta Boone, is now a co-executive producer of “My Wife and Kids.”
While “The Hughleys” was still on ABC, the network approached Greenblatt Janollari about developing a show for Wayans, who had just signed a deal with ABC, according to insiders. Ideas were sketchy. Wayans proposed a concept in which he would be a father. He also wanted a past extramarital affair of his character’s still being dealt with in the marriage. Other plot lines were discussed.
Greenblatt Janollari ultimately passed on the project, partially because of its work on “The Hughleys” and a desire not to jeopardize that show’s chances on ABC. “My Wife and Kids” was then developed by Touchstone, with Don Reo (“Blossom”) as a co-creator and executive producer.
When Hughley heard about the new show, he became quite upset, and the sentiments he expressed publicly in July have been repeated in the months since, according to several sources close to the comic.
As for ABC’s contention that “The Hughleys” is a “fish-out-of-water” sitcom, a source close to the show said, “Yes, there was a lot of that the first year. But you can’t do 100 stories about the black guy versus the white guy. Now there’s a lot of family dynamics going on.”
“The Hughleys” has become a staple for UPN and is expected to be back next season. Whether “My Wife and Kids” can deliver better ratings for ABC than “The Hughleys” will become clearer in the coming weeks. Although both stars have loyal followings, Hughley is coming off the successful “The Original Kings of Comedy” documentary from Spike Lee. He is also one of the stars of the new film “The Brothers,” which was No. 2 among last weekend’s top-grossing movies. Wayans’ last film was Lee’s controversial “Bamboozled,” a box-office disappointment. Wayans last television project, “Damon” on Fox, flopped in 1998. He was also the executive producer of a 1997 Fox drama,’ “413 Hope St.,” which was pulled after a few months due to low ratings.
Said one insider: “I think both sides will be watching each other very closely.”
Welcome to the neighborhood.
* “The Hughleys” airs Monday nights at 8:30 on UPN (KCOP-TV). The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).
* “My Wife and Kids” premieres tonight at 8 on ABC, followed by Episode 2 at 8:30. The network has rated the premiere TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with special advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language); Episode 2, TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with special advisories for coarse language).
Review of ‘My Wife and Kids’
* Howard Rosenberg finds the series humdrum, but Damon Wayans offers hope. F8
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