If there’s one show currently on the air that epitomizes the phrase “family-friendly television,” it’s The CW’s 3-year-old situation comedy “Everybody Hates Chris.” Based on comedian Chris Rock’s childhood growing up in the tough Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of New York, the show is reminiscent of some of the best sitcoms of years gone by, such as “The Cosby Show,” “Family Ties” and “The Wonder Years.”
“We certainly draw from all those things,” said Ali LeRoi, executive producer of the show. “For instance, my kids watch ‘Full House.’ It’s running on one of those cable networks and it doesn’t make any difference that they have 1992 haircuts or whatever it is. They just like the dynamic. They understand what’s going on with the kids, they understand the relationships with the dads, and they get the situations. It’s a funny show. It’s very, very simple.”
Mr. Rock’s 1980s childhood was the springboard for the comedy, and while “Everybody” is about his family life, it wasn’t necessarily intended to be family-friendly. “When Chris and I first talked about it, we wanted to make a funny show,” said Mr. LeRoi. “It was going to be about him and his family, but the idea of being family-friendly in and of itself wasn’t something we were attempting to do. We were just trying to deal with the family dynamic and make it funny. Being called family-friendly was just a nice thing that happened along the way.”
“At the outset, we tried to take a tonality to reference how he grew up. His thing is that he really had a tough time growing up in that neighborhood. It’s almost like Charlie Brown or something. We just wanted to honor the fact that he was a kid who had a really hard time growing up, but it worked out well in the end,” Mr. LeRoi said.
“As writers, we certainly find situations and things that happened to him. There certainly are things that are events from his life that we try to build on as much as we can—you know, little stories and jokes or incidents that he’s told us about.”
Father Knows Best
The family dynamics on “Everybody Hates Chris” are portrayed realistically as well as comically, especially as they relate to Chris’ parents. “We didn’t want the parents to be stupid, because stupid parents cannot raise successful children. They just can’t. The mom and dad have to have real conversations about things that are important to them and how they pertain to the kids,” Mr. LeRoi said. “The man in the family can’t be this big, beer-belly goofy guy sitting around who doesn’t know how to do anything. We didn’t want that as an image of a father, plus Chris is very, very fond of his father and we wanted to honor that as well. He had a father who worked hard and worked a lot of jobs. He was there for his family.
“In this era of minority [families] and African Americans where no father is present in the family, we wanted to go, ‘No, these guys are out there.’ There are hardworking guys out there who love their wives and love their kids and do anything they can to hold things together. Not guys who are deadbeats who do anything they can to shirk their responsibilities. That’s not who this guy—Chris’ dad—was.”
Another integral family-friendly aspect to the show is how Chris’ siblings interact with each other and with their parents. “In our family dynamic you’ve got the mom, and then the only girl in the house is the little sister,” Mr. LeRoi said. “Girls who have fathers act differently than girls who don’t have fathers around. They actually have somebody to practice with; you know, this is going to inform how they actually function in the world. Girls who don’t have fathers have no idea how to deal with men. We have a lot of scenes like that, father-daughter scenes. We also have a lot of mother-son scenes.
“And there’s also how the kids interact with each other. The middle brother is kind of cool, and he’s like a favored-nations guy. Everybody likes him; he’s the middle child. It’s not like Jan [Brady] with ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.’ Here, the middle kid does great. He’s king of the hill.”
In addition to showing a realistic family unit, “Everybody Hates Chris” is a show the entire family can watch together. “At 8 o’clock … if you’re looking for family viewing you have game shows and some reality programming like ‘Survivor,’ but the hourlong family sitcom, like the old school of ‘Eight Is Enough’—that’s gone. That’s history,” Mr. LeRoi said.
“Sometimes people forget the value of liking a person. Why was Bill Cosby such a monumental success for the network at the time? Well, at the end of the day, television is still the medium where you bring people into your home. And so there’s something about sitting down and watching somebody that makes you feel like you know them, makes you feel comfortable and familiar. People eat dinner while they’re watching TV, and sometimes some of the shows get so complex that you can’t eat and figure out what the hell is going on with the show. Television has become in some instances like the movies. They’re so complicated that they need my full attention. People who watch television tend not to watch it in that way.”
Mr. LeRoi also thinks the network’s schedule should help make the shows easy to see. “You know, everybody doesn’t have TiVo, so they can’t rewatch it and save it,” he said. “If you didn’t catch it at 8 p.m. on Monday, guess what, you just didn’t see it. Do I have to put all this work into watching a show? Come on, guys, can you make it a little easier for me to watch your show?”
Keeping it simple also means keeping it funny and as accessible as possible. “It’s the Will Smith vs. 50 Cent world of commerce,” Mr. LeRoi said. “You know, Will Smith is going to be much bigger because he’s cleaner, he’s broader, he’s going to appeal to more people. Now, if somebody in your family got shot nine times, then maybe you want to see the 50 Cent sitcom. Chances are that Will Smith is going to appeal to more people, and that’s broadcasting.
“I think TV people have been thinking too much. I think they’re trying so hard to be clever, trying so hard to be innovative, trying so hard to come up with the new, next thing that [they have forgotten] very simple things that people respond to and have been responding to for years. They don’t even know how to do them anymore. They don’t know how to do a simple family sitcom with a dad and a mom and some jokes and a guy that walks into a room that everybody likes. They don’t know how to do it anymore because they’re too busy trying to be clever. Sometimes a nice, simple little story with a happy ending or a little moral statement is fine.”
Family-friendly also means commercial, a point not lost on Mr. LeRoi. “What are you going to watch at 8 o’clock?” he said. “There are families sitting there wondering what to watch that’s entertaining. You know, those guys have to sell McDonald’s hamburgers to somebody. This is what the business of television is. There are demographics, and this is one of the demographics that are part of television, so if you want to be in that business it would be a good idea to have family-friendly shows. They certainly could and should do more of them. We’re one of only two or three shows on the air that fit that bill right now.
“This is a good, solid product, and for the people who do want to see that, it’s great that it’s there. I see the network still supporting it, because it’s solid, it’s funny, the critics like it and also—and I hate to throw it out there—it’s not like [they have a lot of] shows that have African American casts. … I’m not trying to warn the CW, but you don’t want Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton calling you because you took us off the air! There are like three African American sitcoms left. We’re in a unique position.
“But in terms of the quality of the program,” he added, “the jokes, the fact that it’s family-friendly … we’ve got a good show that’s funny, and it just happens to be in this underserved demographic. I
n the movies right now, everybody’s going, ‘Wow, look at Tyler Perry. Who knew black people were going to the movies?’ Well, if you go out and promote it and tell them that it’s there, they’ll go see it. It’s the same thing with our show.”