How Black Women Shaped the Sitcoms We Love

These hilarious ladies paved the way.

By Natelegé Whaley

From Diahann Caroll’s Julia to Issa Rae’s Insecure, Black actresses in prime time comedy series have shined in their roles while devoted audiences cheered them on. But their places in history have been mostly unacknowledged in mainstream circles.

This year, Tracee Ellis Ross became the first Black woman to win a Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy or musical series since Debbie Allen 34 years ago. In 1981, Isabel Sanford (The Jeffersons) became the first and only black woman to hold an Emmy for lead actress in a comedy series. In 1987, Jackée Harry (227) won for supporting actress in a comedy. The faces pushed to the forefront of TV comedies, instead, have overwhelmingly been white and male.

This doesn’t take away from the fact Black women delivered us hard laughs in the sitcoms we grew up watching for decades. Whether playing the next door neighbor, maid, principal, lawyer, mother, daughter, or wife, these women brought us masterful shade, goofy awkwardness and hard-hitting roasts in a array of memorable characters. Their props are long overdue. So here is a breakdown of 7 types of roles we watched Black women play on our favorite sitcoms.

  • The Help


    Even as maids or assistants, these characters were unbossed as their opinions were greatly valued in each situation. When it came time to speak the truth, they held no punches and in turn brought the comedic relief to each of their scenes. These TV personas include Nell Carter (Gimme a Break), who was the housekeeper and fun motherly figure to the daughters of her late friend and Florence Johnston (The Jeffersons) who took pride in cutting down Mr. Jefferson’s big ego whenever necessary. Years later, we saw similar roles taken on by Maya Wilkes (Girlfriends) and Lovita Jenkins on (Steve Harvey Show), who both played secretarial roles on their respective shows.

  • The Awkward Black Girl


    Issa Rae successfully made an awkward Black girl the center of Insecure’s plot, but this kind of character was not new to Black comedy shows. Black women on earlier series have brought the quirky, goofy and eccentric vibes to sitcoms in supporting roles. Think Freddie Brooks (A Different World), Synclaire James (Living Single), Hillary Banks (The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) Tamara Campbell (Sister Sister) and Lynn Searcy (Girlfriends). At times, everyone dismissed their very left trains of thought, but their unique brand of wisdom was also underestimated.

  • The Clapback Queen


    When it came to playing the dozens with the leading male characters, these women stood their ground. For instance, anytime Aunt Esther and Fred Sandford (Sandford and Son) were in the same room, a showdown was guaranteed. You could expect Esther to throw her purse when she was fed up with Fred’s mouth. Similarly years later, Martin brought on Pam, who also called out Martin’s antics. Their rivalries gave us some of the most outrageous Venus vs. Mars roast sessions in black sitcoms.

  • The Regulators


    As the cool, calm and collected matriarchs, these women had the respect of fellow castmates and could easily detect fishy situations. They were typically non-judgemental of others, but in the same breath, would smoothly use righteous shade to shut down foolishness. Also, as masters of code switching, they could handle any situation they were called on to fix. Some of our favorite regulators include Louise Jefferson (The Jeffersons) Claire Huxtable (The Cosby Show) and Principal Regina Grier (The Steve Harvey Show).

  • The Old Soul


    Don’t let the cuteness fool you. From Rudy Huxtable (Cosby Show), Kady Kyle (My Wife and Kids) and currently Diane Johnson (Black-ish), these little girls had their own motives and outwitted the adults and their older siblings to get their way. Their unfiltered truth brought unpredictable comedic moments that kept everyone in check and always stole the scene.

  • Ringleader/The Den Mother

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    Among their group of friends, these young women were the most mature. From episode to episode, not only did they have to manage her own problems, but also the issues their homegirls dragged her into. The leading ladies that fall under these roles include Joan Carol Clayton (Girlfriends), Khadijah James (Living Single) and Moesha Mitchell (Moesha). Also because Tia Landry (Sister, Sister) was portrayed as more intelligent than her twin sister Tamara, this created a similar dynamic within their sisterhood.

  • The Bougie Mean Girl


    The quintessential bougie mean girls are Whitley Gilbert (A Different World), Régine Hunter (Living Single) and Toni Childs (Girlfriends). Although these ladies weren’t living large on their own, in their minds they were living way above the folks around them. You can often find them looking for the suitors with the biggest bank account, and picking on folks who exhibit any lower class qualities. With all the trouble making they brought to the plot, these women still had a sweet side to them that didn’t make you completely turn against them.

Debra Wilson, formerly of MADtv, addresses the importance of Black female comedians in entertainment.

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