Kenya Barris On Mining His Life For ‘#BlackAF’, Being Noisier On Netflix & Plans For One More ‘Ish’ Spin-Off15 min read
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Kenya Barris says he is working harder than he ever has in his life. The writer, who added actor to his resume with #blackAF, is working on a second season of the Netflix comedy, is plotting a feature-length music about Juneteenth with Pharrell Williams and is developing a multitude of comedies, dramas, films and documentaries under his multi-million dollar Netflix deal. He also still has a hand in the Black-ish universe and is plotting one more show in that universe.
Barris talks to Deadline about the process of creating #blackAF, becoming an actor for the first time, mining his own life for comedy, his take on critiquing Black shows, how he’s getting on in the streaming universe as well as plans for his production company Khalabo Ink Society.
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Inspired by Barris’ irreverent, highly flawed, unbelievably honest approach to parenting, relationships, race, and culture, #blackAF flips the traditional sitcom family on its head. Pulling back the curtain, the series uncovers and explores the messy, unapologetic and often hilarious world of what it means to be a ‘new money’ Black family trying to get it right in a modern world where ‘right’ is no longer a fixed concept. It star Barris, Rashida Jones, Genneya Walton, Iman Benson, Scarlet Spencer, Justin Claiborne, Ravi Cabot-Conyers and Richard Gardenhire Jr.
DEADLINE: Do you see #blackAF as an extension of the –Ish universe or is it scratching a different itch for you?
Kenya Barris (left): I definitely feel it was scratching a different itch but because Netflix has so many series, one of the things that you learn pretty quickly is that you need to be loud and noisy and I want it to be loud and noisy. I also love the genre of family television and I loved what I got to do at Black-ish, and I felt like I had a lot of stories left to tell, but I wanted to sort of reboot, not rework because I think the wheel isn’t broken, but reboot the family-set comedy. I felt it had become really derivative of each other. I felt like the real thing was the dysfunctional nature of them, and, at the same time, being the first-generation having any type of success that I had was a really interesting story to tell that I couldn’t tell at ABC because you had to make sure that you weren’t isolating people.
I wanted to tell stories in a way that I felt like I could be really honest, and really truthful, and really sincere, but at the same time do it in a way that felt edgy, felt different, felt like it was truer to who I really was, and it was one of the reasons that I didn’t have an actor play the role of me because there already is an actor playing a role of me. I felt like it would just be doing a derivative of that.
DEADLINE: Do you feel that you’re able to be louder and more personal at Netflix rather than ABC, where you had to be broader?
Kenya Barris: Yes, and I felt like I wanted to be as honest as I could, and that’s one thing that Netflix really allowed me to do. But I also felt like I wanted to speak to people in a way that they hadn’t been spoken to before about things that I thought were really important. Some of those things I couldn’t have talked about at ABC. It was super tantalizing. I would say the polarizing nature of it made me feel like there’s nothing else I want to do ever again that’s not [polarizing].
DEADLINE: How so?
Kenya Barris: It created a much bigger conversation, and I actually had people digging in, and turning, and changing their opinions, and creating arguments online. I really felt like that was what the whole point of art is, to start a conversation.
DEADLINE: Did you discover that when you were making it or when it came out?
Kenya Barris: When you go to a museum, sometime you’re like, I don’t get it. The Mona Lisa is not that cute. Then you’ll look at it, you’re like, but there’s something haunting about it. It’s something that starts a conversation. The idea of art is to start a conversation, and if it doesn’t, it’s not really successful. So, I’ve always felt like that, but I always knew that in network television, your job is to sort of hit as many people as you can. It’s a part of storytelling that I’m really proud that I learned to do, and on Black-ish, I got really good at telling stories from two different sides… I’ve learned to not necessarily have a right or wrong, make sure that we tried to see both sides, and that was something that I think brought a lot of people together in some of those episodes. It was one of those things we got to do, so coagulating that on BlackAF and just having less f*cks to give I felt like was a really fun way to do it.
DEADLINE: It’s interesting how many of the moments in #blackAF are from your own life. How do you find now mining this side of you for the show?
Kenya Barris: I really, really, really enjoyed it. It was a different… Because the process itself was amazing. The after effect was a little bit of a world that I wasn’t used to, getting recognized and also being criticized personally, rather than your writing. Whatever, I’m not some leading man, good looking, leading man guy and I knew that stepping into it. I thought that was actually kind of funny, but people can be so mean, man.
I gives you a tough skin and I think it’s something that every writer should do, even if it’s just a two line speaking part. It makes you a better writer because you understand the writing process from a different place. I definitely feel like it’s made me a better writer.
I’m really happy that I did it. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I feel like I wouldn’t have made any changes with all the criticisms. I really feel like even some versions of my bad acting were actually good in some aspects because they added to the show in some really weird way. Sometimes a smudge on a painting or a lumpy brushstroke makes that painting more valuable. That’s how I looked at it. There was a delivery tone that you saw get better as the series went on. It almost added to the charm. I definitely found myself get better as the series goes, and I missed some of those nervous moments. The stuttering and mumbling actually was kind of cool, and weird, and jazzy in a way.
DEADLINE: It felt more real.
Kenya Barris: It did. In some aspects, it felt more real. I think Larry David, who really was a big part of why I did this, he said ‘Work a lot of stuff out in rehearsals’, and he encouraged me in a lot of different ways. Some of the best seasons of Curb were those first couple of seasons, where he wasn’t an actor, but he was a great storyteller and he was really doing it from an honest place. I was really happy I got a chance to do it.
DEADLINE: Did you notice how those things were changing as you went through the process?
Kenya Barris: Oh, yeah, man. From day one to day 50 or 60, or whatever it was, 100%. I felt like I have always had a really special place in my heart for actors. I love actors. I think that they’re magical people, and seeing what they do and how they can do it, I understood that it is part of the 10,000 hour thing. You learn as you go and you get better as you go and more comfortable as you go. I’m never the person to give myself compliments, but I have to say if I was on the outside looking in, and seeing my own thing, there’s the version of deliveries of things that I did that an actor would have never done that made it better. There were things that were so natural and sort of green that really actually works better for the character, that if I was an actor, I’d have never done.
DEADLINE: How was the editing process?
Kenya Barris: Brutal. You hear my voice. This is the voice God gave me to speak to women with. I’m like I have to take this voice and this face, and as an actor, I was like, do you understand how hard it’d be to look at yourself all day, every day for 12 hours a day, for six weeks, seven weeks, eight weeks, and have to just see every bad angle, every mistake? At the same time, you’re trying to not just give yourself the best performance, you’re trying to give the show the best performance, and often that isn’t your best moment. It was a very brutal, but also educating moment for me.
DEADLINE: Will you look at actors differently after this?
Kenya Barris: No, because I always thought that they were the shit. I always thought that they were the shit but I will look at them. I look at Will Smith, right, and Will is arguably one of the biggest actors in the world. You can see, obviously, as time has gone on, he’s gotten better, but there was something that was there for him to begin with, and I kind of think that’s the thing that I always want when I have casts. There has to be a little something there.
So I know the really good actors, and I’ve been around some people on screen who have become the best in the world, and then you’ll go on set with them, and you’re like, ‘What the fuck is happening?’ You’ll realize, oh, this gets made in editing. I feel like I understand the process. I have the utmost respect for actors. I still think writing’s harder. I still think it all is a collaborative process. Everyone has to come and play their instrument correctly in the orchestra to make some form of sheet music work.
DEADLINE: Rashida is fantastic in the show, what was it like working with her?
Kenya Barris: She is a beast. She made it so much easier. She would tell me, “I don’t understand a word you just said. You just mumbled that whole sentence.” No one else would have told me in that way. But she’s a friend and she’s also a pro, and she got me through it. I think, for me, one of the things I hear a lot is that we seem like friends. We seem like we had good chemistry, and I don’t know that that is something that you could just have with everybody.
DEADLINE: One of my favorite episodes was episode 5 where you’re not sure whether or not to criticize a Black film and ultimately Lena Waithe throws you under the bus.
Kenya Barris: That was the hardest to produce because it was also being really honest about something that I was kind of scared to be honest about. It was the most important to me to produce. I think episode four or five, the series changes. On Twitter #blackafepisodefive is its own thing. It’s its own sort of beast. It’s thousands, upon thousands, upon thousands of tweets of people really responding to that, so it really meant a lot to me.
DEADLINE: It’s an interesting question as to whether you should celebrate the film for being made or criticize it for not being very good. It’s a little inside baseball but it’s a relevant question.
Kenya Barris: It is inside baseball, but it’s not. I still feel equally torn. We’re not starting from the same starting block. Do I think that we need some opportunities? Absolutely. To sort of just catch up, right. So, I think that’s the thing, but I also believe that we need to have true criticism. The place that I ended up with this was I think that we need to have true criticism, but we’re not at the place where we can tear down yet.
I think that we’re at the place within art and film, film and TV, that we can’t tear down yet. If I want to shit on Allen Iverson over whoever, another basketball player, there’s enough of us and we’ve been around there, we’ve infiltrated that enough that it doesn’t affect Allen Iverson’s career at all, but there’s so few of us now that I feel like we need the criticism because we need to get better and we need to talk honestly and openly, but we’re not at the tear down place yet.
DEADLINE: It plays into the question of when will we get to that place.
Kenya Barris: That was one of the things I was most happy about in the Twitter conversations. Twitter began to eat itself. They mentioned conversations about things from the color of the kids, to saying Rashida’s not a black woman, and someone else would say Rashida’s exactly as black as Barack Obama. It’s a self-correcting system sometimes.
That’s the thing as a reviewer, It’s hard to sort of stand out on your own. So, people are like, what’s the generalized notion of this or how does this personally affect me? I kind of feel like a lot of people made quick jumps, and then they were like, oh, my God, people are really liking this. There were memes created for the way I look at people when they tell me they don’t look like I do.
I felt like I had a tribe that sort of had my back. But as a reviewer, they couldn’t change because they’ve already said their opinion, and they couldn’t sort of get it back. I am totally open to criticism. I actually really applaud and really embrace it, but I felt like sometimes there were critics, and I was like, did I personally do something to you? You’re not even talking about the show.
DEADLINE: You’ve said that in your pre-Black-ish days, when you were selling pilots, you’d make your black characters white and I wondered what was fuck-it moment where you didn’t do that any longer?
Kenya Barris: I think it was I sold enough pilots and I’ve seen enough untalented people I was working with take credit. That’s why, to this day, I do not take credit for anything. If I’m in a room with anyone, if I get a chance to speak, I’m like, “That was such and such’s joke.” It just got to a point where I was like I’m tired of having people take credit for my things and not being myself. If they’re going to pass on me anyway, they might as well pass on the real version of who I was.
DEADLINE: Ironically, ABC didn’t pass on that version and it became Black-ish.
Kenya Barris: They didn’t because it was the closest thing to who I was, and I tell writers this all the time, there’s never, ever, ever been a pilot in the history of television picked up because you took all the notes.
They’ve never said, “You know what? This pilot sucks, but he took all our notes, so we’re going to pick it up.” It’s never happened before, so at a certain point you have to either win the Super Bowl or author your own demise, and I feel like shoot to try to win the Super Bowl.
DEADLINE: Are you enjoying being at Netflix with your salon?
Kenya Barris: I am. I mean, it’s a different place, but they allow you to do things in a way that you aren’t allowed to do things at other places. I feel like I would never have been able to do this show. I think that the pressure is that you do have to try and be louder, and try to be noisier. That’s something that I’m learning to do. I never thought about it in quite those terms before, but now you think about casting, you think about how you’re going to shoot it, you think about what you’re going to say. You don’t want to be just exploitive or just loud for loud’s sake, but I feel like you do want to make sure that you stand out.
DEADLINE: You’ve got a bunch of projects from sketch series Astronomy Club and a musical with Pharrell as well as animation and a number of other genres. Do you enjoy that flexing those different muscles?
Kenya Barris: I really do but it’s more work than I’ve ever done in my life. Again, because there’s not a lot of faces for people of color to sort of go and try to find what their outlet is, so there is a lot of pressure to, as much as I can, try to birth new voices and try to make sure that I am giving opportunities where opportunities weren’t before, and at the same time, doing good work.
DEADLINE: Do you find there’s a mix of things that you’ll help put your name on them to get them recognized, and then there’s projects which are “yours?”
Kenya Barris: 100%. I don’t know about putting my name on anything because I’m still so new at this part of it, but I will try and guide things, and give my stamp. I think that hopefully I get to that place where my company can do things and I’m like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know we were doing that’. That’s the goal, trust people under me and do things at a rate that I don’t know exactly everything that’s going on, but I trust the people under me. I feel like right now it’s not quite at that level. It’s still at the level where I have to sort of guide what’s happening.
DEADLINE: Is that you bringing other people into the company to essentially just make it bigger and stronger?
Kenya Barris: Yeah, you’re only as good as your team. So, trying to find a good team and trying to make them feel celebrated, and talented, and appreciated, but at the same time making sure your voice comes across. That stuff is the hardest part.
DEADLINE: Who is running the TV side of things for your company these days since Jamila Hunter left?
Kenya Barris: My friend, Erynn Sampson, who I’ve known forever, and we’re bringing in some other people. One of the things I realized in the executive branch is that I need people who are producers, and I didn’t really know that before. I thought I wanted an executive, and executives can be really, really, really talented, but I need people who actually know how to make things. That’s a different skillset.
I need people who actually know how to brick and mortar build something up. And get acknowledged. Know a good idea, but then how to actually execute the good idea. Know how to get it edited, and all that type of stuff, so that’s where my head is at.
DEADLINE: Can we see a point maybe down the line where you’re in almost all genres? I know started doing reality TV but can we see you doing talk shows and documentaries and everything else?
Kenya Barris: We’re doing some documentaries right now. We have a few dramas that we’re doing, we have a few comedies. One of the things I really, really want to do is I want to do a comedy special, [inspired by] Richard Pryor, or just a one off that just really goes and skewers society, and race, and culture, and really sort of try to ruin my career with it. I really want to do something that feels like it’s honest, and hard-hitting, and funny, and makes people think.
DEADLINE: You’ve got one more show in the –Ish universe, right?
Kenya Barris: We’re brewing it, yeah. It’s something I’m really super excited about. Yeah, we’re brewing it, and hopefully it gets done, and adds to that world in a really special way.
DEADLINE: Is it complicated by the fact that you’re at Netflix and not ABC anymore?
Kenya Barris: Not if I stay, contractually if I stay within that world. No. It’s actually sometimes a little bit nicer to go and do network television because it’s a little bit freeing in a different kind of way because you get to tell different kinds of stories.
DEADLINE: Final question, back on #blackAF, where are you at now with the second season?
Kenya Barris: I’m thinking about it. I won’t really, really, really get into it until we’re in the room because I want it to be fresh, but I definitely know I want to talk about real shit. We want it to be really special.
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