Kenya Barris wanted ‘#blackAF’ to make noise. So he cast himself as the butt of the joke
Kenya Barris knows how to make people laugh. Consider the evidence: He created the groundbreaking ABC comedy “black-ish” and its spinoff “grown-ish” and co-wrote the rowdy “Girls Trip” and the popular sequel “Barbershop: The Final Cut.”
But if you want to make Barris laugh, bring up that he’s TV’s newest leading man in his latest project, Netflix’s “#blackAF.”
“Oh, right,” Barris proclaims as he bursts into laughter during a phone call. “I’m not a ... actor,” punctuating the comment with a variation of the expletive abbreviated in the series’ title. Aside from playing a tree in a school production during his youth, Barris has zero acting experience.
As it turns out, the joke is on Barris.
“#blackAF” centers on a successful black comedy writer named Kenya Barris, who’s left behind the broadcast TV arena after scoring a high-priced development deal with Netflix. He and his large family, which has been the inspiration for much of his comedic material, are living the high life.
It’s official: Kenya Barris is moving to Netflix.
If that sounds a little familiar, it’s because it is. Barris in 2018 signed an exclusive deal estimated to be worth a potential $100 million with the streaming giant to write and produce shows. Barris is among a number of other elite TV producers, including Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy”) and Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story”), who have signed mega-deals with Netflix in recent years.
His first project, “Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show,” premiered last year. In “#blackAF,” which co-stars Rashida Jones (“Parks and Recreation”) as Barris’ wife, the writer-producer has a lavish lifestyle — fancy cars, huge mansion and a swimming pool — but his comfort level is considerably lowered by his never-ending conflicts with his family.
The show is an homage to families, “and black families in particular,” Barris says. “I do love family comedies, but I think we needed a bit of a reboot. It comes from a good place.”
The concept of the series revolves around Barris’ teen daughter, Drea (Iman Benson), making a documentary about her family as part of her application to film school at New York University. Barris hires a professional film crew to assist her.
As for Barris’ on-screen counterpart, “he’s a hyper-realized version of me. He’s as close to me as Larry David is to his character on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’ Like any writers room, this character is an aggregate of the writers. He’s a lot more of a jerk than I am because I wanted to say some things out loud that I would not normally say.”
Barris adds, “I wanted to be self-deprecating. This Kenya is the new-school George Jefferson. He’s happy that he’s made it, but he’s also trapped inside the bubble of that success.”
Playing a version of himself proved to be more challenging than he anticipated.
“It’s the biggest risk I could have ever taken, creatively,” says Barris. “My joke, which is not a joke, is that I had watery stools for four days. I’m up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘What have I done?’ This is the hardest and scariest thing I’ve ever done. I have so much respect for actors. They are magic people, the way they can make you feel things.”
Another actor “who we loved” was originally slated to play the role. But Barris felt the series would create more buzz if he played himself.
“I’ve figured out that the way to be the noisiest is to be personal, and this is as personal as it gets,” he says.
Jones also encouraged him to take on the role: “She said, ‘Isn’t there another actor already playing you on TV?’” referring to Anthony Anderson of “black-ish.”
When “black-ish” creator Kenya Barris was planning his exit from ABC this summer, he was also planning how to keep the sitcom — about a black family in a predominantly white, upper-class neighborhood — in good hands.
Asked whether he approached Anderson or any of the other stars he has worked with for acting tips, Barris laughs again: “I would have been so embarrassed. It’s so derogatory and offensive that I’m even trying to do this. What am I going to say? ‘Hey, this thing that you’re great at — how do I do it?’”
He said his main approach was “to learn my lines so I could forget my lines. To make sure I had the point of the scene.”
There was a clear upside to the challenge. “Every writer I talk to now, I will tell them to take a day role,” he says. “It will change the writer you are. You’ll realize that these aren’t just words on a page you’re writing. Someone has to say them. Like how you write an argument is not the way it’s performed. People just don’t trade lines, there are not pauses. Truth be told, it’s bad writing, and I’ve done it many times.”
For now, he’s hoping that viewers will accept him as an actor.
“A win would be if I don’t embarrass myself, and if the show starts a conversation, whatever that conversation is. I take a lot of shots at myself. The biggest thing is I really did this with passion. And I hope it provides enough distraction from all the things that are going on now.”
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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