Debbie Allen Shapes A Different World
Oh Stevie, we never saw much more of you as the series stretched on. And, we only saw Lisa Bonet, the spin-off character from The Cosby Show for one season. A Different World was intended to transition Bonet’s Denise Huxtable into a college co-ed. Like her Huxtable family siblings, Bonet didn’t have a lengthy resume prior to landing her role on The Cosby Show in 1982.
A Different World premiered on September 24, 1987 and ran until July 1993. Bonet was just 19 years old. Two months later, on her 20th birthday, she eloped with Lenny Kravitz. By the time the series was being considered for renewal, spring of 1988, Bonet announced she was pregnant.
Some thought it would be realistic to have the series continue and make Bonet’s pregnancy Denise’s as well. Team Cosby thought differently. So the series, renewed for a second season, had an opportunity to re-position itself. That’s exactly what Debbie Allen did as its new producer.
Anne Beatts, on her own merits, should be inducted into the Advanced TV Herstory Hall of Fame. She’s an unsung pioneer. As a comedy writer, her star rose quickly in the early 70s through her work with The National Lampoon and later Saturday Night Live.
Beatts is a gifted sketch comedy writer whose real success came in creating the edgy, political, satiric tone which has become the hallmark of Saturday Night Live. So why was she first selected to produce Square Pegs and later A Different World? Was it so much that these shows were “right up her alley” or maybe that they felt that because they were about young people and filled with casts of unknowns, there was little risk in entrusting them to a woman?
Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but I guess I can be with the benefit of hindsight. The fit just doesn’t look good for either show, from the outset. Rest assured listeners, Advanced TV Herstory will invite Ms. Beatts for an interview and get to the bottom of the story of what it was like to be the only woman in the comedy writers’ room back in the 70s.
Didn’t I tell you this would be fun? I am so grateful to Dr. Robin Means Coleman who not only promptly and enthusiastically agreed to my request for an interview, but sat at her desk today loaded with notes and reference points she wanted to make. This woman brings her A game. I left the interview realizing there are a fill questions you may have from our discussions that shouldn’t be left unanswered. Ha! Because I had them too!
If A Different World didn’t win any Emmys - or at least the big ones, who did? For comedy and actresses leading and supporting in a comedy series? Well from 1988 to 1993, here was the competition: The Wonder Years, Cheers, Murphy Brown and Seinfeld. Yeah, there was solid TV comedy - albeit not a black or otherwise diverse lead character in the whole mix..
Leading actress in a comedy series - again, what a list: Bea Arthur, Kirstie Alley, Candice Bergen and Roseanne Barr.
HBCU applications and enrollments
According to an article written by Jamal Eric Watson ‘A Different World’ Still Pulls Fans into HBCU Experience August 18, 2016, published online by Diverse Views in Education
from the debut of The Cosby Show in 1984 until the end of A Different World in 1993, American higher education grew by 16.8 percent. During the same time period, HBCUs grew by 24.3 percent.
This spike in enrollment at HBCUs isn’t a coincidence, says Dr. Marybeth Gasman, director of the Center for Minority Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on HBCUs. “A Different World brought HBCUs into the mainstream and presented them in very positive ways on a regular basis,” says Gasman, who is also a professor of higher education in Penn’s Graduate School of Education. “The show was made with care and demonstrated the ethos of HBCUs. Viewers got a chance to see the diversity among African-Americans.”
This isn’t Hollywood hype. This is higher ed providing cause and effect data about the importance of representation.
Remember when Robin talked about the origin of characters like Whitley and Dwayne? That they came from School Daze - a movie from 1988 - Spike Lee’s musical comedy that starred Laurence Fishburne, centered on a fraternity and sorority at an HBCU and delved into the nuances of black culture.
School Daze, it’s not one you’ll find on the Hallmark channel, but scour your streaming services and you’re sure to find it. Similarly, I just caught A Different World on the ONE channel on my cable. A marathon.
If you’re interested in more of these really thoughtful approaches like we explored today with Robin Means Coleman, check this gem out from your library: Watching While Black: Centering the Television of Black Audiences, edited by Beretta Smith-Shomade, 2012
And, if you can’t get enough of me gushing about Debbie Allen, an early episode of Advanced TV Herstory entitled Debbie Allen (Early Career, Fame TV series). And I’ll give you fair warning it sounds like an early episode of something that has become polished and well-produced. The podcasting learning curve, particularly early on, is steep. But particularly in light of what you know now about Debbie Allen’s impact on American life, her early career is a fascinating story.
Speaking of well-produced, a big thank you to David Brown, our audio technician. The music featured in the intro Take Me Higher by Jahzzar, found at Free Music Archive. Org. We love Free Music Archive !
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This is why I podcast. I’m your host Cynthia Bemis Abrams