How The Upshaws aims to fulfil the need for more relatable sitcoms based on Black families

·6-min read

Mike Epps isn't sure when or why Black family sitcoms disappeared from television. When Epps, a veteran actor and comic, began his professional career in the 1990s, such shows were prime-time staples, with series like Martin, Family Matters and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air serving as cultural touchstones for at least one generation. But aside from notable exceptions like black-ish, Everybody Hates Chris and a few others, the 21st century has been a different story.

So when Netflix executives approached him in 2018 about working together on a new scripted series, Epps €" who had already done several stand-up specials for the streaming giant €" recognised an opportunity to help fill a gap in the market with some other comedy veterans.

Created by Regina Hicks and Wanda Sykes, The Upshaws, which premiered Wednesday on Netflix, focuses on a Black working-class family in the Midwest trying to get by through tough times and increasingly complicated interpersonal dynamics. A multi-camera comedy set in Indianapolis, the new series follows Bennie Upshaw (Epps), a charismatic car mechanic, and his blended family: his wife, Regina (Kim Fields); their young daughters and adult son; and the son he fathered outside of his marriage. Sykes plays his sarcastic sister-in-law, Lucretia.

"Bennie is a mirror and a reflection of a lot of men," Epps said in a recent phone interview. "People are going to be able to relate to it, whether they're Bennie or they know somebody that's Bennie."

Mike Epps plays Bennie in The Upshaws. Twitter @netflixfamily
Mike Epps plays Bennie in The Upshaws. Twitter @netflixfamily

Mike Epps plays Bennie in The Upshaws. Twitter @netflixfamily

Having grown up watching sitcoms from the 1970s and '80s, Epps, who is perhaps best known for his work in the Friday and Hangover films, noticed a dearth of relatable sitcoms based on Black families and friend groups. When he approached Sykes with the basic premise of The Upshaws in mid-2018, he found that she had noticed the same thing.

"Those shows just don't exist anymore; it's either we're doing really well, or we're coming out of slavery, like Black pain," said Sykes, a comic and writer who is also known for her scene-stealing roles in Curb Your Enthusiasm and black-ish. "So, we knocked it around and came up with a new idea."

After selling the pitch to Netflix, Epps and Sykes began developing the series as executive producers, with Sykes becoming a showrunner along with Hicks, a writer and producer on Sister, Sister, Girlfriends and Insecure.

If the humour skews somewhat adult at times, that's by design, Hicks said. "Sometimes, our real families aren't always kid-friendly, and the jokes aren't for everybody," she said. "That's just not how a real family operates."

Wanda Sykes plays Bennie's sarcastic sister-in-law, Lucretia. Twitter @netflixfamily
Wanda Sykes plays Bennie's sarcastic sister-in-law, Lucretia. Twitter @netflixfamily

Wanda Sykes plays Bennie's sarcastic sister-in-law, Lucretia. Twitter @netflixfamily

And while The Upshaws is reminiscent of traditional family comedies, the creators also wanted the show to reflect life in the 21st century, navigating difficult conversations about love, marriage and sexuality. Over the course of the debut season, one of the Upshaws comes out as gay to the rest of the family, a storyline that is of particular importance to the showrunners, who "know what it feels like to not be seen and represented," Sykes said.

"We, as Black women and gay women, experience it threefold," Hicks added. People coming out to their family has "always been an issue in the community," she said, "and I just think it's time to be celebrated as it should be."

As with most family comedies, The Upshaws is defined by its relationships. In Fields, the creators found someone who could lend gravity as the no-nonsense matriarch and also go toe-to-toe with comic powerhouses like Sykes and Epps, Hicks said. "The dynamics of that family are what make it so special," she said.

Black family dynamics have been largely absent from TV comedies for much of the last two decades. Following the success of The Cosby Show in the 1980s, the 1990s were a Golden Age of Black sitcoms, with 15 prime-time Black comedy series to choose from at one point in 1997. Martin and In Living Color were among the first breakout hits for the then-fledgling Fox network, and the now-defunct UPN, looking to follow in Fox's footsteps, didn't begin to gain traction until it carved out a niche with shows like Moesha, Malcolm & Eddie and The Hughleys.

But most of the '90s hits were off the air within the first few years of the new millennium. The era effectively ended when UPN and the WB ceased operations in September 2006 to form The CW.

"A lot of the Black shows built these networks up, and when they got rid of the shows, they replaced them with the white shows or whatever shows that came along," Epps said.

Hicks noted that many Black sitcoms ended as part of a broader decline in multicamera comedies on network television. "A lot of multicams left the air, and I think when they started coming back, we just weren't the first up and weren't the ones coming back," she said. But in the streaming era, she added, "there is more opportunity for all comedy across the board."

Netflix has been making a push into this category of late. Last summer it announced that it was adding seven past popular Black sitcoms to the service, including Moesha and Sister, Sister, and last month it premiered Dad Stop Embarrassing Me!, a multicam comedy starring Jamie Foxx as the overwhelmed father of a teenage daughter.

"I've been in the business pitching shows for years," Epps said. "Netflix is a company that finally understands that African Americans have big crossover audiences."

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down production on The Upshaws in Los Angeles last March, the show had filmed four of the first five episodes in front of a live studio audience. Production resumed in October, with strict coronavirus protocols that included daily testing for many cast and crew, and wrapped just over a month later without any COVID outbreaks or delays. For the remaining episodes, the studio audience was replaced by laugh tracks and live on-set laughter from the crew.

After a year that has largely been characterised by loss and has seen a number of acclaimed films and series about historical Black grief and trauma, the creators of The Upshaws sought to tell more joyful stories because, in Hicks' words, "we are definitely a multilayered people, and we're not just the past."

Sykes elaborated: "I think the reason why there's so many shows focused on the past is because we're trying to figure out how we're in the situation we're in now," she said. "But we're clear on what happened and what's happening, so it's not like we don't want to look and those stories aren't important. We're just saying we need to laugh €" we deserve to laugh €" and we're comedy people.

"This is our talent," she added. "This is our gift."

Max Gao c.2021 The New York Times Company

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