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9 Black Sitcoms of the ’90s That Changed the Game

Black sitcoms have been popular since classics like Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Sanford and Son hit television screens nationwide in the ’70s. But it wasn’t until The Cosby Show became a ratings juggernaut in the mid ’80s that networks finally saw the potential in investing heavily in sitcoms with black leads. And so the ’90s became a decade in which more black sitcoms than ever made it onto TV, entertaining millions, making major stars out of virtual unknowns, and giving audiences of all kinds an unprecedented look into black lives and experiences (plural) with a wide array of stories that centered on black characters and smashed stereotypes.

These shows have become beloved throughout the years. They’re funny, and it’s as simple as that. But beyond that, their formats, characters, music, fashion, and characters came to define their time, becoming major influences on shows that came after, and even on those that are on TV right now.

Naturally, given the success of The Cosby Show — whose legacy has been tarnished by Bill Cosby’s crimes — a lot of shows that followed featured families. But they didn’t just copy the show’s formula of an upper middle class clan whose everyday lives and challenges were not different than any other group’s. Family shows of the ’90s ran the gamut, from working class couples with kids trying to make ends meet to those that moved their tribe out of the hood and into predominantly white neighborhood — with all the culture shock that that can entail. And unlike The Cosby Show, some of these comedies embraced the opportunity to touch on serious social issues, finding a balance that worked.

The lives of younger people took center stage as well in the ’90s. So, instead of being the token black friend within the larger context of a show, black teens, college students, 20-something professionals became the vehicle for funny and even poignant stories.

The ’90s turned hugely talented black comedians and actors into stars who remain household names to this day, and it goes to show the impact that being given a seat at the table and a voice on prime time television can accomplish.

Here are 9 black ’90s sitcoms that we love do this day for the impact they had on our lives then and now.

'A Different World' (1987-1993)
Ron Tom/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

‘A Different World’ (1987-1993)

It’s still shocking that this landmark show, a spin-off of The Cosby Show, was supposed to be about the experiences of a white girl (Marisa Tomei) attending a historically black college. Think about that. The spin-off of a groundbreaking black sitcom — the first to showcase and “normalize” the idea that a black family could be well off and relatable — was going to snap back to TV’s usual form and center on white experience.

And it was Cosby’s idea.

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Fortunately, the premise changed, and the show became the first to explore the experiences of black college students, focusing on Cosby Show character Denise. When Lisa Bonet left, it found its footing with co-stars Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Harrison. One of the show’s major accomplishments was being among the first to tackle real issues like date rape, racism, and HIV, things that the Cosby Show had avoided. A Different World is the gem that created a bridge to the ’90s black sitcom boom.

'Living Single' (1993-1998)

Warner Bros.

‘Living Single’ (1993-1998)

Girls, Friends, and Sex in the City may get more attention as explorations of the lives of friends trying to figure themselves out, but before any of those shows came around, Living Single had been there and done that, beautifully. Starring Queen Latifah, Kim Coles, Kim Fields, and Erika Alexander, the show also marked the first time that we saw young black women portrayed as professionals and given well-rounded personalities, have healthy relationships, and pave the way for black female-centered shows — like Girlfriends and Insecure.

But that didn’t come without a fight. Creator Yvette Lee Bowser recently talked about how Fox executives wanted her to cut out the Maxine character (played by Alexander), an “unapologetically black and female and fierce” attorney, when she pitched the show. Bowser told them she’d sooner walk away, and the network relented, paving the way for one of the show’s standout characters.

'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' (1990-1996)

Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ (1990-1996)

Nestled between Will Smith’s rapping days and his status as one of the world’s most bankable A-list movie stars was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which made his a household name. Will’s charm and natural comedy chops were perfect for his role as a teen from Philadelphia who moves to Bel-Air to live with his rich uncle, aunt, three cousins, and one very opinionated butler. This is the show that introduced us to “the Carlton,” an enthusiastically awkward dance that lives on in meme glory, and produced one of the longest-running fan debates in TV history on which of the two actresses who played Aunt Viv was the best one (Janet Hubert FTW!)

'Martin' (1992-1997)

Warner Bros.

‘Martin’ (1992-1997)

Martin Lawrence was all edge when he wasn’t doing Martin. (One of his stand-up specials was slapped with an NC-17 rating, and he was banned from Saturday Night Live for delivering a hilariously raunchy monologue.) That makes it all the more interesting that on the show Martin, he played a lovably manic man-boy with a tendency to get so wound up that his even-keeled girlfriend Gina (Tisha Campbell) would have to talk him down. We lost count of how many characters Martin played on the show (in disguise), each one of them hilarious in their own specific way.

'Family Matters' (1989-1997)

Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

‘Family Matters’ (1989-1997)

The longest-running sitcom about a black family (it spanned nine seasons to The Cosby Show’s eight), Family Matters was not only funny — especially after introducing super-nerd Urkel — but managed to balance big laughs with more serious moments. There were episodes that centered around civil rights history and police mistreatment of young black men, and a wide-ranging audience got to see them, thanks to the show’s across-the-board popularity.

The last couple of seasons may not have been quite up to par, as ABC and CBS haggled over the future of the show, but it remains a classic.

'Moesha' (1996-2001)

Paramount Television

‘Moesha’ (1996-2001)

A reboot for Moesha may be in the works, and for many of us who followed Brandy’s teen antics on the show as kids, we are so here for that. Moesha centered around a black teenager diving into deeper explorations of all kinds of relationships and left cliffhangers in several story lines dangling when it was canceled.

'Sister, Sister' (1994-1999)

ABC

‘Sister, Sister’ (1994-1999)

This show was an ABC mid-season pick-up that was ultimately canceled, and like so many other black sitcoms, found a home and an audience on UPN. There are so many reasons why we loved Sister,Sister, and one of them was that the show would occasionally break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience, which made us feel part of the action. The other reason is of course, that Tamera and Tia Mowry (before their hyphenated married names) were so charming and relatable as twins who had been separated at birth discovering each other and doing tween stuff.

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But the show also had layers that deepened its story: The girls had been the product of an interracial relationship between a black mom and a white dad who never had the chance to marry before being separated in tragic circumstances. Sister, Sister also featured the wonderful Jackee Harris as one of the girls’ adoptive mom. There’s talk of a reunion show, a la Fuller House, and here’s hoping it pans out.

'The Steve Harvey Show' (1996-2002)

Columbia Pictures Television

‘The Steve Harvey Show’ (1996-2002)

Steve Harvey plays a washed up R&B singer whose friend (Cedric the Entertainer) gets him a job as a high school music teacher. While Harvey’s blunt style of comedy definitely makes its mark, it’s his character’s relationship with his students that is at the heart of the show, as he goes from bitter ex-star to mentor. Harvey sings on the show with his former band, and a big highlight is the constant guest star roster that’s a who’s who of black TV stars and musicians — like Snoop Dogg, Diddy, Kim Fields, and Ja’Net DuBois of the classic sitcom Good Times.

'Hangin' With Mr. Cooper' (1992-1997)

Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

‘Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper’ (1992-1997)

This sitcom had a great cast, including comedian Raven-Symoné, Holly Robinson Peete, and Mark Curry as the main character, a retired basketball player turned high school teacher and coach who lives with two female roommates. Curry’s physical comedy made for a lot of funny moments in Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper as he navigated students and a budding romance with one of his roommates.

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