As a producer and one of the principal writers of the hit show Black-ish, Peter Saji is no stranger to taking on topics that most sitcoms won’t touch. As a huge Prince fan, he was honored to write the 100th episode of the show, “Purple Rain,” built around the elder members of the family trying to convince the two youngest that Prince was a great artist. In doing so, the episode went far beyond the joys of the eight songs featured in the episode, but also the often unspoken of social and political significance of the Minneapolis genius’s music.
Here, we talk about this very special episode, as well as how Black-ish continues to challenge sitcom conventions by taking on difficult subjects with humor and sensitivity.
How did you come to Black-ish?
I had been writing on Cougartown for about 5 seasons before Black-ish. Kenya (Barris, show creator) and I met for the first time at a round table for Mara Akil’s pilot for Being Mary Jane. I think that was in the back of his mind when we finally got to meet for Black-ish. He responded to my material and hired me. Just reading the Black-ish pilot, I really dug it. Watching it (that feeling) got elevated even more. It felt exciting. At that time there hadn’t been a black sitcom on a major network since maybe, My Wife and Kids? It had been a really long time. If you remember, the black community’s reaction to the title, Black-ish, people hated it. They didn’t necessarily trust ABC to do a show called Black-ish. It was a little nerve-wracking at the beginning. Kenya hired people that had different points of view than he had. He wanted to be able to talk about issues and have strong-willed people that would stand their ground, so you could get fair and balanced conversation. Since it was his first big network show, he kind of expected people to shepherd their scripts all the way through the process. We were all dropped in and expected to sink or swim to create the show. Obviously, he oversaw everything. It was great opportunity to learn with a roomful of killers. If you look at the early seasons there were so many great writers in that room, and we were given so much opportunity to lend our voices to Kenya’s creative voice and make the show what it ultimately became.
Before Black-ish, I had all but given up on the major network sitcom. I often felt that most shows couldn’t compete with what the pay cable networks were doing in terms of content and delivery. But Black-ish is really bold and takes chances challenging their audience. That had to be invigorating.
I kind of felt similarly to the way you did. The thing about Kenya is he is a true student of the medium of television. He’s seen everything and continues to watch everything. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all the shows. So, he’s very well-versed in the rules he’s breaking. I think what happens with a lot of network sitcoms is you get into rhythms. When you’re doing 24 episodes, it’s easy to fall into your instincts. When you are falling into your instincts, it’s because it’s a familiar rhythm. When the audience is watching it, it feels familiar to them. They don’t know why they know what’s going to happen. So, the first thing was to avoid familiar rhythms. The second thing, which I learned from Kenya, is we write our characters to do what human beings do instead of what we need them to do. When you write from that place, you aren’t thinking about a funny set-piece. Because if you’re thinking about a funny set-piece, you start reverse-engineering it to make it work. Then the story gets plot-y, it becomes unrealistic. I think with the explosion of different streaming and cable shows; a lot of what people are reacting to – good or bad – is the authenticity. I think what Black-ish at its best does is be the authentic version of a network sitcom. I think that’s what people have responded to.
Referring to the Prince episode, I could imagine a lot of sitcoms focusing entirely on the older members of the family trying to convince the two youngest without giving all the significance of Prince as an artist beyond having a bunch of catchy songs. I thought the inclusion of Sign O’ The Times was particularly inspired. That’s such a socially conscious song. It had to be fun to dive into that.
It was fun and it was stressful. (Laughs). We had access to his entire library except for “The Most Beautiful Girl in The World.” There was some sort of issue with that one. Otherwise, we had his full library at our disposal. Well, as much of his library as we could afford. (Laughs). We could afford 8 songs. So, we’re going through these songs as a roomful of Prince fans thinking about which songs spoke to you first in high school, or whatever age you were. Which songs changed your life? There’s not going to be a consensus. We know we got to have some hits. At the same time, a song like Sign O’ The Times. I remember my dad talking about that line about HIV. And him explaining heroin and “horse” to me. That was the first time I saw Prince in a different way. Because I liked his music and I thought he was cool, but I didn’t realize he had this depth to him as well. Just as an aside, one of our staff found a chart of Prince streams before and after that episode aired, and they increased like 300% after that episode. We were really proud to think in some way we had touched Prince.
In the same way that the adults and older kids are trying to expose Prince to the two youngest, you were doing the same thing for your audience. I’m sure not everyone who watches the show knows Prince inside and out.
Absolutely. In the black community for years there’s been the debate of Prince vs. Michael Jackson. Thriller vs. Purple Rain, right. Some people will argue Michael Jackson is a bigger entertainer, Prince is a better musician, Michael was the better dancer, the debates go on and on. I think outside of the community; Prince didn’t have the worldwide dominance that Michael Jackson had. He wasn’t seen as being as big and as comparable a musician. For the 100th episode, we felt like because of the success of Black-ish, we were afforded the honor of honoring Prince. Then in the same action, we’re able to expose him to an audience of people that might not be as familiar with him. It was so much fun to do and such an honor to be a part of it.
I like to say Prince is the biggest cult artist in history. I always fell on the Prince side of that debate. Someone once said to me the difference between the two is Prince was Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones at the same time. Since he wrote, recorded and produced his own material.
(Laughs). That’s a strong, strong argument. I’m on the Prince side as well. I felt like I loved Michael Jackson when I was younger and as I got older, I matured into Prince. I still respect Michael Jackson. He was tremendous. That was the first time I felt genuine sadness when someone I never met passed. I spent the day listening to all of his music that I owned on shuffle, and it just went on for hours…the depth of his library. It was devastating to lose him.
After he died, a bunch of recordings were suddenly on YouTube. Including his recording of The Waterboys folk-rock classic, The Whole of the Moon. Which in his hands turned into a sexy, funky workout. He turned it into an entirely different song.
Have you ever seen the video of Michael Jackson, Prince, and James Brown on the stage together?
Yes! After he died, that was one of the videos I saw on YouTube.
It’s insane. I heard a story – I don’t know if it’s true – that Michael knew Prince was drunk and he had James Brown bring him up to embarrass him. Because they had that rivalry.
Another story I heard is that Michael wanted to do the song Bad with Prince as a duet. But when he sent the song over to Prince, Michael’s first line that he was to sing in the song was “your butt is mine,” and Prince was like Hell. No. No one says that to me.
That’s hilarious! (Laughs).
Within the Prince episode, there are multiple fantasy sequences. How did those come about?
That was sort of baked into the episode. Our Music Supervisor, Gabe Hilfer, he somehow got a connection with the Prince estate to get the music. He went to Kenya, and Kenya said this needs to be to the 100th episode. From the outset we wanted to do this homage to Prince. Kenya had an experience with a younger person who asked him who was this person singing? Kenya responded, “You don’t know who Prince is?” It was with a 20-year-old or something like that. He thought this was crazy. We figured out it was the twins who wouldn’t know who Prince was. At one point we thought about (having it be) all the kids, but that didn’t seem realistic for this family. To not have shared Prince with any of the kids? We thought maybe they exposed the older kids but dropped the ball on the younger kids. Sort of a “I thought you told them” kind of thing. Once we got to there, it turned into who gets what songs (for the fantasy sequences). But that was always the idea. We knew that Yara Shahidi’s dad was Prince’s photographer for a long time. We knew that they had a very personal connection with the family. Laurence Fishburne told us that Prince was a good personal friend of his. He took me aside when we were shooting to tell me how just seeing the actors in costume was making him feel a certain way. It was making him miss his friend. That was high praise. Anthony was getting excited…everyone just had such different connections to Prince. We knew that and we also knew from doing “Juneteenth” how musical our family was. We couldn’t wait to get the opportunity to showcase that again.
I found the ending when they all got together and sang Nothing Compares 2 U very moving. The impact of this generational responsibility they felt to pass down art. It was very affecting. And yet, you still worked in the “Why are you playing this Sinead O’Connor song” joke. The humor and the pathos together. It was lovely.
That’s absolutely what we were going for. At the end of the 2nd act, Jack is the last holdout. He still doesn’t get it. That was the sadness I felt when Prince passed. It felt like the last truly talented artist was gone, and I don’t know if there will be another one. But the responsibility for all of us is to make sure there can be another one by exposing the greats to the younger generation. That’s all we can do. To keep the memory and tradition alive. After Juneteenth, we learned how well our cast could sing and dance. So, we’ve got Nothing Compares 2 U and it was a little bit of a healing moment for Dre and Bow from the end of season 4 where they had their issues. At the same time, it’s our 100th episode and it was also for our audience for going on this journey with us, and lastly, thinking about Prince. The whole family coming together in that way, it just felt like the right way to commemorate the 100th episode of a show that I don’t think anyone knew was going to do this – make this kind of mark. Super grateful for this episode and super grateful for everyone who watched.
You also wrote the “Black Like Me” episode which takes on colorism. That’s a major issue both within the black community and even out of it. The standard of beauty in catalog models was always a tall blonde girl for the longest time. The idea that your complexion is impactful to how people see you is a really challenging subject to take on.
It’s something I think we put off until the 5th season because it’s so complicated. I talked to a lot of people – especially older people – about colorism, and the general consensus was the way you talk about it publicly, you don’t talk about it privately. There was a lot of people who said, “don’t do this.” I think by doing it in season 5, because this is a more nuanced conversation in the black community, has allowed for five years of context to help people understand us (as a show) a little bit better. I think if we had done it sooner it probably would have been a really bad idea. I think we needed to prove to people that we can do episodes about police brutality, about the election, to take sensitive topics and handle them deftly and fairly. So, trust and we’re going to do this thing that everyone is telling us not to talk about. (Laughs).
We had a small room work together to break this episode. It’s an episode where everyone is going to have opinions and all of those opinions are valid. But we have 22 minutes, so we don’t have time for all of them. The way we did the episode with the ticking clock – because they had to get the kids to school on time – it was letting the audience know “we are on the clock here.” Apologies in advance, we aren’t going to get to all the issues today. The response was largely positive. The night before it aired, I was literally on the internet trying to scrub all my contact information. (Laughs), I just did not know how people were going to react to it. I was so happy when people largely responded positively to me. A lot of people with darker complexions have come up to me and told me what it meant for them, and how they felt seen and heard. That has been the thing I’ve been most proud of being a part of Black-ish. Having so many people come up to us and tell us what the show has meant to them and their families. It’s so meaningful and flattering.
I think where we are in society right now, we have to recognize the difference between being woke and overwoke. Because being the latter can make it really hard to have necessary conversations. Which Black-ish is brave enough to do, and with great sensitivity. Which is why I think it works.
We learned early on there was no way we were going to please everybody. Especially when we first started, and we were the only black show on television. We were asked are you going to do an episode about this? What about this? We were sort of expected to be all things to all people. At the time we were the only game in town. Fortunately, a lot of other shows popped up and took some of that pressure off of us. We still kept that mindset. Obviously, we want to please a lot of people. We are in the business of making people want to tun in and watch again. (Laughs). But all we can do is try to tell honest and fair stories. Kenya calls it “specific, but universal.” Specific to the family and the community, but universal in theme. Even if you don’t understand the subject matter of colorism, you do understand feeling different to your family, or when you go out into the world and feel like certain things aren’t made for you. Or certain places aren’t welcoming to you. Those feelings everyone understands. In the episode, what’s happening is specific to this little girl’s experience, but we’ve all been at that age where we felt like we didn’t fit in.
The key is to keep it organic and authentic. Otherwise, it could look like you were checking off boxes, doing the “a very special episode” kind of thing that can be preachy.
I think that gets back to our conversation about sitcoms earlier. When you’re trying to throw it straight down the middle, you don’t have a strong point of view. You do want to be balanced and not alienate people, but you can’t shy away from (possibly) offending some people. That’s what Black-ish has done that differentiates itself from a lot of network sitcoms. I think that’s what people respond to with Black-ish as well as the streaming and cable shows. They have strong points of view. A lot of network sitcoms are afraid to do that. We want to have a strong point of view while also honoring the strong point of view in opposition. We did an episode about gun violence, and at the end of the episode, Dre’s family keeps the gun. I got an award from Women Against Gun Violence, because we were talking about responsible gun ownership and (Dre’s family) found a compromise. Because it was a balanced conversation, I think everybody felt heard. This is Kenya’s superpower, telling stories in a way where he says, “this is what I believe, but that doesn’t mean I’m right, and just because you believe something doesn’t mean you are right.” That’s where we find ourselves politically right now. Everyone is so sure they are right that we aren’t taking time to examine why other people feel the way they do.
A lot of people select their information now. Whether it’s their cable news or what they are willing to read. One of the great things entertainment can do is lure you in because it’s funny or dramatic, and then plant seeds that might lead you to thinking differently about a complicated subject.
The way Kenya describes it, we did an episode called crime and punishment about spanking, the reaction to that episode helped him realize that’s where he wanted to take the show. Let’s talk about issues. People have such passionate reactions to these types of issues, and that’s what we love to talk about.
One of the best things about the show is having Laurence Fishburne in the cast. Not only because he’s a great actor, but it extends the generational possibilities of these conversations.
That’s another superpower in the dynamic of the show. The different generations. The three levels. That allows for conflict, which is always brings comedy. It also allows for more points of view. Pops, played by Laurence Fishburne, for one, he’s just a formidable actor, with intense gravitas. When he comes in you think, “here’s wisdom.” But we made him a flawed character and sometimes his wisdom is misplaced. (Laughs). The same thing with Dre. He’s blustery and prone to spiraling, and then the kids think they know everything, and sometimes they do know more than their parents do. With every generation, we’ve been honest with their strengths and their weaknesses. As a result, there’s always something to learn from someone, but it doesn’t always come from where you expect it to.