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Kenya Barris Plumbs His Id to Reinvent the Family Comedy - Press "Enter" to skip to content

Kenya Barris Plumbs His Id to Reinvent the Family Comedy

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Kenya Barris is not an actor. A 45-year-old screenwriter, he has produced reality television (“America’s Next Top Model”), written movies (“Girls Trip”) and mined his own life for the long-running ABC show “black-ish.” Now freed from the constraints of network television thanks to a $100 million Netflix deal, Barris is aiming to reinvent the family comedy by taking a page out of Larry David’s playbook and turning the camera on himself with “#blackAF.”

It’s an audacious move, creating a heightened, hyperbolic, fictionalized view of his life, one that is certain to erase his relative anonymity for good and perhaps stir up some controversy in the process. So how is Barris feeling as his acting debut on Friday draws near? Reached earlier this week at his home in Encino, Calif., in the middle of the quarantine, he described his upset stomach in graphic terms and opened up about his level of fear.

“I’m terrified. The visibility and the fact that it launches all at once,” he said before trailing off. “The anxiety I’m feeling is like nothing I’ve ever felt before.”

In the eight episodes of “#blackAF,” Barris plays Kenya Barris, a successful television writer with six children, a corporate lawyer-turned-stay-at-home wife (Rashida Jones) and a misanthropic outlook on life. If “black-ish,” with its funny-yet-endearing story lines that explore the lives of an upper middle class black family, represent Barris’s ego, “#blackAF” is Barris’s id.

Wealthy and aggrieved, dripping with gold chains and expensive sweatsuits, Barris’s character is self-absorbed and superficial. He calls his young sons idiots, declares his hate of white people twice in the first episode and when his eldest daughter asks him for advice, his response is, “If you’re past the second trimester, I can’t help you.”

“There are versions of this character that are very close to who I am,” Barris said. “I do feel like this is a cross between the writer’s room version of me and the actor version of me, in terms of saying exactly what is on my mind. Larry David is not Larry David in ‘Curb.’ But that person lives within his mind.”

Barris said he didn’t create “#blackAF” to add actor to his credits. Initially, he said he cast an actor “that he loves” in the role. But as he and his writers began formulating the show, Barris said he wanted it to feel different from “black-ish,” which features Anthony Anderson playing a version of Barris. And there were subjects personal to him that he wanted to address (like the idea that black artists aren’t allowed to criticize each other’s work for fear that it will diminish the strides they’ve made overall) and he didn’t feel comfortable putting those words into someone else’s mouth.

He just didn’t know if he could do it. Neither did Netflix.

Both parties agreed he needed to screen test with Jones first.

“Kenya is admittedly a bit of a mumbler, so he was doing a lot of mumbling, and his performance was a little internal,” Jones said. “But we teased it out a bit more. When he talks in real life, he does get histrionic, he does get dramatic, he does use his volume and his hands. I said, ‘You’ve got to be that guy. You can’t just be the cool guy. You are not a relaxed person.’”

Barris’s calculus in determining whether to star in the show included the number 400. That’s the number of television shows Barris estimates Netflix releases every year. (The streaming network won’t disclose its actual numbers.) Barris figured the gimmick of putting himself in front of the camera could help the show break through the clutter. Jane Wiseman, Netflix’s vice president, original series and who runs the company’s comedy slate, agreed. “When you have a star who is also the creator, there is a great story that comes out of that,” she said.

“#blackAF” is both noisy and unapologetic. Toys are strewn around the house, which is almost a perfect replica of Barris’s own, down to the paintings on the wall and the huge gray couch that dominates the living room. Adults swear at the children, who are similar in both age and gender to Barris’s own six offspring, three boys and three girls between the ages of 3 and 20, and the children fire back at the adults.

“Most families are functionally dysfunctional. If I walk into people’s homes and it doesn’t feel like that, it scares me,” said Barris. “You want the house to be a little bit messy. You want the mom to be a little bit frayed. The dad to be a bit out of touch. Some of those things are just part of what family is. I want people to realize that that dysfunction is part of our functionality.”

For Barris, it was the only way to freshen the family sitcom for his new home at Netflix.

“I pretty much only have one story I think I can tell,” said Barris, laughing. “I’m just going to tell that story a thousand different ways. As a writer, that’s what you want to do, something that makes you feel exposed. It’s a little bit of a high-wire act.”

After 20-plus years of writing for network television, Barris left his deal with the Walt Disney Company’s ABC Studios in 2018, only a year into his new four-year contract. “black-ish” was in the middle of its fourth season on ABC, and the first season of “grown-ish” had begun on Freeform (formerly ABC Family).

But he was already chafing at battles with network executives over their decisions to move “black-ish” away from its comfortable “Modern Family” lead in and to decline other shows he had written. Barris finally had enough when the network pulled a hot-button episode of “black-ish” that was supposed to air in February 2018. The episode, entitled “Please, Baby, Please,” was a bedtime story narrated by Spike Lee that would take the show’s youngest child through the events of the previous year. It included footage from Donald J. Trump’s presidency, the Charlottesville attacks and the NFL protests. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the network canceled the episode only days before its airdate, prompting dismay from both cast and crew.

Barris says “#blackAF” is “100 percent” a reflection of what he couldn’t do at ABC. (The show was originally going to be called “black excellence,” but it was changed to reflect a popular hashtag on social media that he said represents “the purest version of yourself.”)

Yet the writer remains diplomatic when describing his former home. ABC was the studio that allowed him to find his voice, buying “black-ish” in 2013, the 20th pilot Barris had written and the first to go to series. His three shows, including the prequel, “mixed-ish,” which began in 2019, remain there, and he continues to oversee them. There is even another “ish” show in the works, but Barris wouldn’t reveal details.

“‘black-ish’ changed my life in a big way,” he said. “I just think it was time to go do something else in a way that I couldn’t do it at ABC.”

Channing Dungey, the former president of the ABC Entertainment Group, who followed Barris to Netflix, added: “There have been number of showrunners who left broadcast for streaming because they are interested in telling stories in different ways. Kenya was at that same place.”

Without broadcast standards and practices to follow and advertisers to worry about, Barris is able to take more chances, ones that not everyone may like.

“Kenya is obsessed with blackness,” said Jones. “He’s obsessed with how it manifests, dissipates and exacerbates in the world of success, and in the world of success in Hollywood. He has a running theory on the show, that all of his peacocking, all of his obsession with material possessions, is because of slavery. I’m sure not everybody is going to be comfortable with that subject matter.”

Yet at Netflix, his decision making was never challenged. In fact, Barris says he has “a humongous, almost mythical level of creative freedom.” It’s all that he’s ever wanted, yet he said some small part of him misses that sort of oversight.

“Sometimes that second set of eyes is really interesting. We get notes here, but they are more thoughts. We are supposed to be the experts, and they will let the audience decide,” he said. “You can author your own demise at Netflix if you’re not careful.”

Barris is adamant that he won’t let that happen. Among the projects he has in the works are a documentary called “Blood Brothers” that traces the friendship between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali and an animated show called “Entergalactic” with the rapper Kid Cudi.

He also wrote two movies that are still set for release in 2020: “Coming 2 America, and “The Witches.”

But those projects all have him behind the scenes, where he has always been most comfortable. He’s not used to billboards featuring his outsized image, as he saw recently while driving around Los Angeles with his 3-year-old son. “He’s pointing to the billboard going ‘Dad, that’s you!’” Barris said. “I said, ‘I know.’ He goes: ‘What?!’ So yeah, it’s weird. It’s very, very strange.”


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