From their fiery comebacks to their undeniable wit, Black sitcom characters have paved their way through pop culture to leave an irrefutably groundbreaking mark on today’s day and age. While the TV industry has been painfully slow to expand its attention beyond the lives and experiences of white people, these Black superstars have made a name for themselves by delivering some of the most memorable performances of all time on television.
Many of these characters appeared on the TV screen during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, a time of scarce Black excellence and creativity in popular culture. With wide acts of discrimination meant to actively keep Black actors off of television, one could assume these setbacks merely discouraged their talent, blocking them from the limelight. However, Black actors kept going strong in their careers, allowing them immortality in the media, to forever be quoted and remembered.
In honor of Black History Month, we are looking back at just some of the most iconic performances of the 1980s and 1990s.
- Whitley Gilbert, from “A Different World,” 1987-1993
No other show explored the life of coeds from a historically Black college as thoroughly as “A Different World.” The show gave us colorful characters with an even more colorful opening sequence (you guys remember). But, if bad and boujee had a trademark, it would have definitely come from our very own Whitley Gilbert, portrayed by the lovely Jasmine Guy.
At 5-foot-2, her frame was petite but her style was colossal. Whitley paved the way for a long list of pivotal TV personalities, from Hilary Banks of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” to Regine Hunter of “Living Single.” The Whitley character not only reflected the most fashionable trends of the ’80s and ’90s, but she also influenced contemporary style and served as an inspiration for many young Black women and Black creatives today.
- Uncle Phil, from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” 1990-1996
A classically trained thespian, James Avery filled the role of the tough but caring head of the Banks’ household on the ’90s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” for six years. Along the way, he crafted a character that stands apart as one of the greatest fictional dads on TV. Every “Fresh Prince” fan probably has their own reasons why Uncle Phil was at the heart of the memorable comedy.
But what set Uncle Phil apart from the rest was his stern yet loving nature. Although Uncle Phil and Will had their fights, the lawyer and eventual judge became a father figure for Smith’s character. And how could we forget when Will’s biological father came back, then left him again? A distraught Will turned to his uncle, who readily embraced him. No matter how many times we watch this, we always get misty-eyed. He was the dad Will needed, and in a way, already had.
- Clair Huxtable, from “The Cosby Show,” 1984-1992
For eight seasons of “The Cosby Show,” Phylicia Rashad brought the character of Clair Hanks Huxtable into our homes and eventually our hearts. Now an iconic role in American television, Clair is often considered the mom that everyone wished they had. Clair maintained a successful law career while raising five children, and it wasn’t always easy. Despite putting up with Vanessa for sneaking out to a concert late at night or putting up with Elvin’s daily dose of misogyny, Clair kept her graceful and determined head high and dominated those in her path.
- Steve Urkel, from “Family Matters,” 1989-1998
The show “Family Matters” focuses on a middle-class suburban Chicago Black family that deals with misadventures, many of which are caused by their ultra-nerd next-door neighbor, Steve Urkel. Constantly mimicked in pop culture, the quirky-yet-lovable character is known for his insanely high-pitched voice, high-rise suspenders and retro glasses. The classic show ran for a triumphant nine seasons while Jaleel White played the famous and lovable Urkel.
For iconic television characters, Steve Urkel still stands as one of the most recognizable in the medium’s history. The cheese-eating, nose-snorting nerd truly worked his way into the pop culture zeitgeist and became a staple of the ‘90s. Funny enough, it was Steve’s “undesire” to fit in that made other Black kids feel less pressure to fit in themselves. His nerdy ways made waves in pop culture memes and quotes, with his most famous line, “Did I do that?” Now, Black kids look up to Urkel as someone they can count on to go against the status quo.
- Maxine Shaw, from “Living Single,” 1993-1998
“Living Single” did it first. I repeat, “Living Single” did it first. If you didn’t know, now you know. Six Black friends living in New York City gave birth to some wacky adventures, romantic storylines and plenty of twists and turns. But we can’t forget our favorite, Maxine Shaw, attorney at law, who was played by the iconic Erika Alexander. The adjectives Black, female and fierce are often disgustingly mutated to mean “angry Black woman,” but not in Maxine’s case. While she was loud, brash and had a slick tongue always ready for a clap-back, “Living Single” proved that she was deserving of love, with Kyle Barker (T. C. Carson) being her perfect counterpart. Not only was Max “unapologetically Black and female and fierce,” but she was also the only character who was financially secure and living on her own.
And let’s also not forget the hair trend the character birthed. Maxine took the “Halle Berry cut” of long tendrils framing a super-short bob and upended it by adding box braid extensions, proving in the 1990s, no less, that natural hair was indeed professional enough for the office.
- Steve Hightower, from “The Steve Harvey Show,” 1996-2002
If it’s not the high fashion looks, it’s the Hightower attitude, created by the one and only Steve Harvey. Underrated, to say the least, the show stars Steve Hightower, a former 1970s R&B singer who once opened for acts such as Gladys Knight and the Pips, who can’t seem to find ideal employment. After some failed jobs as a musician, he takes a job as a high-school music teacher.
Accustomed to celebrity life, he learns to deal with the realities of working a 9-to-5 job and his class of troublemaking but well-intentioned kids. Steve Hightower encompasses that same stern but loving nature seen in many Black male role models. He tends to his students as his own children and gets them out of any problems they most likely created. Also, he does not shy too far from the fashion game, where he rocks every loud and proud suit he can get his hands on.
- Moesha Mitchell, from “Moesha,” 1996-2001
There are so many reasons to love Moesha: the iconic theme song sung by Brandy herself, the dialogue’s pop culture references and jokes, the dynamic of an average, middle-class Black family getting some screen time in a sitcom. For six seasons starting in the late ‘90s, young Black girls watched in awe as Moesha lived a carefree life — dancing in Leimert Park in front of its iconic fountain, reflecting on her crazy high school days and nights in her journal and keeping her family in check.
Brandy Norwood, the wonderful actress of Moesha, credited those that came before and also recognize her impact on Black women watching. It was her dark skin packaged in all her braided bob glory that made Black girls marvel at a life filled with romance, best friends and a loving family. She made all her viewers live vicariously through her and her rap star boyfriend, Q (whom we were all obsessed with).
Take time from your busy schedule to watch some hilarious and memorable compilations of our favorite sitcom characters. And as always, have a wonderful Black History Month!