In 1996, the majority of what teenagers knew the lyrics to at least two rap songs: Ice Ice Baby and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song. (Ok, if we're honest about it, we all also knew at least a line or two from Baby Got Back.) Never had a TV show theme song pushed into our subconscious in such a way. Sure, the Full House intro replays breed such trips down memory lane that now that the cast has reunited (sans Olsen twins) to give us a bloated retread of nostalgia that remains funny only in the 90's. Still, the cool factor for TV show songs peaked with "In West Philadelphia, born and raised..."
In your mind right now you see it. The cast members’ names popping up in graffiti pink and green, Will Smith being picked up and twirled around by some thug on a ball court in Philly, and the moment he steps out of the cab to look at the mansion that is now his domicile, the gated community that is now his 'hood.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a quirky comedy, one representing a transition period for TV sitcoms. It was wedged perfectly in between the conservative, wholesome family shows like Full House and Family Matters, but preceded the more adult-themed shows of Friends and Seinfeld. Fresh Prince did something few shows have ever done: combining genuine comedy with value-centric plots, story lines that, at times would have you sobbing like a baby by show's end.
From Rapping to Acting
What Fresh Prince did went beyond Thursday night laughs. At least in part. The gut-busting laughs in the show typically came from Will Smith himself or how the cast around Will reacted to him. Sure, other shows in history have had their main characters, but this was one that couldn’t have survived without Smith.
An emerging hip-hop artist, Smith was getting knee deep in recording music when he signed on to play Fresh Prince. Along with DJ Jazzy Jeff, Smith won the first ever Grammy for a Rap Performance with their song “Parents Just Don’t Understand”. To dive head first into a sitcom when your rap career is just taking shape is an odd move, especially for someone with no acting experience whatsoever. Imagine 2010 Drake being dropped into a sitcom. Bad career move, right?
For Will Smith, it was a perfect storm: he was being hounded by the IRS for millions in taxes owed. In turn, he was in need of money beyond what rapping could provide. In came a script for a show that would take two opposite worlds and collide them in such a unique way that reading the plot line alone would force you to tune in.
The dynamic was something the Cosby Show didn’t approach. No other “black family” comedies really ever had. Here is a teenage boy from the low-income part of Philadelphia transitioning to live with his wealthy relatives in Bel-Air, California. The sophistication of upper-class elites mashed with a wild kid from the hood had all the makings of a comedic classic. It took money struggles for an inexperienced rapper-turned-actor for it to happen.
When Hip Hop Meets Mozart
Something to really appreciate Fresh Prince for was its insistence on not just recognizing hip-hop culture, but embracing it as useful, not just eccentric or hostile.
As rigid as the Banks family seemed, Uncle Phil with his proper ways, Carlton ever studious in his ventures, and Hillary valuing only the finer things in life, they all bent themselves in different ways to the change of pace Smith brought to the household. The Mozart-esque style of the Banks’ mansion met a culture gritty with heavy beats blaring through loud speakers. To say it was irreverent wouldn’t be far from the truth, but it was more of pure lifestyle difference that flared a razor’s edge at times between Will and the others. It wasn’t just Will using rap music to study the periodic table, it was his involvement in remixing Uncle Phil’s campaign video to make him seem more personable, all be it less polished and professional.
Will had influence most over young impressionable minds in the home, most notably Ashley. If he wasn’t getting her to switch from playing the classical violin to banging drums, it was his hip-hop influence that gave her an unconventional pre-dinner prayer to say.
The culture clash served as more than just a few roaring laughs. It gave a fairly innocuous method of presenting hip-hop culture to white audiences. An angry N.W.A. or Public Enemy was not the method to which many whites would gain positive vibes from the rap community. A harmless teen dressed in neon pink shirts with sideways hats and a doofus friend named Jazz was a much easier pill to swallow. The sometimes brash quality of Will head-butting with Uncle Phil (among others) worked well. Both sides rubbed off on each other in the right ways, lending the Banks’s to loosen up and change perspective, and allowing young Will to mature in ways the streets of Philly wouldn’t let him.
Stars Crash the Party
Perhaps no show on television provided such opportunity for amazing guest appearances as Fresh Prince did. The list is exhausting and is really a who’s who of 90’s celebrities. Just to name a few stars that made their way onto the set in one form or another…
Athletes such as Bo Jackson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Evander Holyfield all made appearances. Griffey was the funniest, poking fun at Will for when his girlfriend Lisa defended him at a bowling alley.
Musicians such as Queen Latifah, Boyz II Men, and Vanessa Williams, who gave birth in the back of a limo after a Lakers game.
There were appearances from celebrities such as Chris Rock, an episode with Oprah, Will on a date with Vivica A. Fox, and who could forget us first getting introduced to Tyra Banks?
While many of those names transcended decades, others appeared that, while largely unknown to young people today, were major stars then. Stars like Jasmine Guy from “A Different World”, Kim Fields from “Facts of Life”, Jaleel White (Steve Urkel from “Family Matters”), Malcolm Jamal-Warner from “The Cosby Show”, Tisha Campbell-Martin from “Martin”, and Lark Voorhies from “Saved By The Bell”. Also big musical acts from the day showed up: Heavy D and the Boys, Tevin Campbell, and Bel Biv Devoe.
The coolest of the cool wanted to be on Fresh Prince in some form or fashion. Yes, even presidential hopeful Donald Trump. No, the woman with him is not the current hopeful First Lady.
No longer just hopeful
The Serious Side of the Fresh Prince
The celebrity carousel of Fresh Prince provided an even more appealing draw for an audience already locked into the cocksure comedy of Will Smith mixed in an aura of bourgeois living. But while sitcoms that preceded Fresh Prince taught moral lessons to us on the issues of stealing, lying, and childhood deceitfulness of parents, this show took us deeper.
The uncomfortable truth that many would prefer not to tiptoe near is that the issue of race permeates Fresh Prince. It’s often subtle, with min-cracks about black and white stereotypes littering the dialogue. This piece does a great job on the race and class issues raised in certain episodes.
But some episodes turned the comedy on its head, stopping viewers dead in their tracks about issues that go deeper than a childhood fairy tale. Three episodes in particular shed slivers of light (or sometimes bright, towering spotlights) on subjects most sitcoms until then had not breached.
This all really boiled down to a simple misunderstanding of two black teens borrowing the car (with permission) of a white guy. While the consequences here appeared fairly harmless, it forced white people to ponder their own privilege of so often having the “benefit of the doubt”, when so many minorities are questioned, harassed, and even arrested for things that are misunderstandings or just a blatant excuse to wield power.
The episode featuring Carlton and Will both vying to get into a black fraternity showed the odd dichotomy that sometimes takes place in the black community: casting out the ones who are too “privileged” or “lucky” in their financial and family life. For Carlton, in this case, he’s told he’s basically not black enough because he comes from a nice home with a butler and all the money he needs. Like any other race is prone to do, we want to hold down the ones with success.
What is likely the most powerful episode from the Fresh Prince library, if not from all of TV history, is the one where Will’s dad comes to town for a visit. The dad that abandoned him years ago. Will is over the moon with excitement, and can’t wait to spend the summer with him. You really have to just watch the clip to see...rather feel the rest of what happens.
Dancing Like Carlton
20 years later, TV has changed. The racial lines are not subtly touched, but rather trampled on with irreverent humor. Maybe that’s a good thing that we can now openly speak about race in ways we couldn’t even back then. The groundwork for it all began with shows like Sanford and Son and was pushed further into the limelight by Will Smith and others.
You’ve watched Fresh Prince. You know the opening rap. You did the handshake with your buddies that Will and Jazz do. You’ve been in a dorm room at some point, laughing at your friends as you each do the Carlton dance. And chances are, at times, you’ve quietly choked back tears because a moment in the show hit you so hard with unexpected emotion you just had to visualize something else to keep from breaking down. That’s what the best shows do.
Fresh Prince was one of those shows. And though the styles of 20 years ago have largely changed, the life lessons haven’t. A move from Philly to Bel-Air was just what Will Smith needed. His humor, his directness, and his approach to changing the culture one beat at a time is just what we needed.