On ABC’s new sitcom “Black-ish,” patriarch Dre (Anthony Anderson) is horrified when he discovers that his son is so far removed from the black culture that he himself grew up in that he actually wants his father to let him have a bar mitzvah. It’s a funny story about cultural identity, and seems true to sitcom tropes about life, but it’s based on real life. Anderson’s son really did ask for a bar mitzvah for his birthday one year.
Anderson, who created the show alongside Kenya Barris, says the duo found a lot in common as they came up with ideas for the show, which is very focused on issues of black identity. “Kenya’s from Inglewood; I’m from Compton [both in Los Angeles]. Both of us grew up in the ‘hood in the ‘80s. We’re that first generation of success, just striving to give our kids better than what we had growing up.” Of course, sometimes that means some slightly unexpected conversations with their kids. As Anderson puts it, “Not only was my son the only chocolate drop in his classroom, he was the only chocolate drop in his grade for almost three years.”
“Black-ish” addresses this difference early on, as Dre feels so conspicuous as the only black family in his neighborhood that he imagines a bus full of tourists driving by and gawking at them as the family proudly waves. “Some of the things from Dre’s point of view are absurd, and the only way that we could really get away with some of the things that we want to say and do is to have it be fantasy, and so that’s a device we use in every episode.”
Dre’s struggle to help his kids with their black identity is echoed by his wife, a biracial doctor, whose character is based on — and named after — Barris’ wife, Rainbow. “We really wanted someone who could go toe to toe with me, and Tracee does that,” says Anderson of Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays his wife. “She makes me better at what I do.”
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Not only does Ross bring “strong comedic timing,” but she shares some background characteristics with her Rainbow. “She is a biracial woman who grew up privileged, as Rainbow did, by being the daughter of Diana Ross,” points out Anderson.
While discussing racial issues may often be a serious topic, Anderson thinks it’s easier to address them with comedy. “We’ve learned through experience in our real lives that some of the most difficult situations or conversations to have are that much more palatable if it’s done through laughter,” he says. “It takes some of the pain away, some of the sting away, if we can laugh about it.”
As to the title, Anderson thinks it’s applicable to anyone. As he says, “We all have our ‘ish’ that we’re dealing with, whether you’re black, white, Latina, or whatnot, we all have our ‘ish’, and that’s what our show’s about.”
Follow Lisa Weidenfeld on Twitter at @LisaWeidenfeld.