Celebrating the 30th anniversary of this groundbreaking Black TV series
One of the recent highlights of the #HipHop50 celebrations was seeing Queen Latifah and a posse of Black female rappers, including MC Lyte and Mone Love, perform the 1993 womanist anthem “U.N.I.T.Y.” at the Rock the Bells concert. Originally released on Latifah’s third disc Black Reign, the song was a call for respect to the ever-growing misogynistic world. When Latifah screamed “Who you calling a bitch?” we all know that she wasn’t joking. Produced by Kay-Gee from Naughty by Nature, the track was not only the royal rapper’s most popular, but it went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance.
As a fan of Latifah’s since her first album All Hail the Queen in 1989, I was impressed with both her rap skills and businesswoman stance. In addition to her own career, Latifah also headed-up Flavor Unit management. The company’s clients included Naughty, Apache, and Freddie Foxxx. However, the young rapper was looking to diversify her talents by taking on acting roles.
A few months before “U.N.I.T.Y.” was released in November of 1993, Latifah and a cool cast of co-stars launched the groundbreaking series Living Single on Fox Television. Besides small roles in Jungle Fever (1991), where she played a judgmental waitress at Harlem eatery Sylvia’s, and her role in Juice (1993), Living Single was one of Latifah’s earliest acting jobs. Though she’d later become an Oscar nominated actress for her 2002 role in the film Chicago playing Matron “Mama” Morton, she developed her craft on Living Single.
Premiering on August 22, 1993, the show recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. Latifah played Khadijah James, the publisher of the fictional Flavor magazine—a combination of The Source and Essence. She shared a Brooklyn brownstone with her ditzy cousin Synclaire (Kim Coles) and a bougie boutique owner Regine (Kim Fields). Fields, then best known for playing cutey pie Tootie on the popular show The Facts of Life, played a buxom, man-hungry gold-digger who had nothing in common with her former character. Also in the mix was their lawyer friend Maxine (Erika Alexander), who lived across the street, but could always be found at her friend’s crib. The male friends who lived upstairs were roommates Kyle (TC Carson), an arrogant stockbroker, and Overton (John Henton), the building’s super.
Created by 27-year-old Yvette Lee Bowser, Living Single was a humorous glimpse into the varied lives of the middle-class African American characters striving in Park Slope, Brooklyn two decades before the neighborhood got famously hit by gentrification. “There was a spectrum of Blackness, because they’re not all from the same place and don’t have the same point of view, yet they coexist in this chosen family environment,” Bower explained to Entertainment Weekly. “That was the impetus for the whole thing—to tell our stories from our point of view.”
The characters were all upwardly mobile folks whose varied careers ranged from creative entrepreneur to lawyer to handyman. They reminded me of my own NYC crew during that era. “Khadijah is someone who tried to visualize what she wanted,” Latifah said in 1996. “She set a goal and went for it.” The opening intro featured Black Entertainment Television hostess and boogie down woman Big Lez (Leslie Segar) dancing between clips of the cast and New York City, while Latifah sang the show’s theme song.
Bowser, who got her start in show business working on The Cosby Show, was one of the youngest Black television producers of her generation. Determined to produce a program that reflected the world she knew well, Bowser told a journalist, “I wanted to create a show about my life experiences, about me and my girlfriends and the ups and downs of being twenty-something, I think it’s a pretty positive portrayal of us…it’s just a slice of real life.”
In 2012, actress Kim Coles—who had previously been on the comedy sketch show In Living Color—told me, “That first season Latifah was dealing with the (real life) death of her brother and she was also very homesick. She’s not a Cali girl and Los Angeles is very different from New Jersey. But, we kept her laughing.” Coles’ character was a goofy but sweet woman whose zany ways owned a debt to Lucille Ball. “The six of us got along great,” Coles said, “we all blended very well.”
Actress Erika Alexander had fond memories of playing the brash young attorney Maxine Shaw, who was always ready with a sharp retort. “I kind of based my character on my sister Carolyn and picked-up my comic timing from watching Michael J. Fox,” Alexander said. She had previously played Cousin Pam on The Cosby Show from 1990 to 1992. “My part on Living Single was originally going to played by [Waiting to Exhale actress] Lela Rochon, but something happened and I was called in to audition. Two days later, we were shooting the first episode.”
While Maxine had biting remarks to spare, her most wicked witticisms were directed towards Casanova Kyle. Played with pompous appeal by actor TC Carson, the ever-smooth Kyle was roommates with southern transplant Overton. “I’m an only child, so the entire cast was like my family,” Carson said from his home in Los Angeles. “All of them are still my friends, but Erika and I are closest. We met at the screen test, and it was as if we had known one another forever; we even share a birthday and even had identical cars. We all learned a lot from each other.”
Originally a singer, Carson performed a few songs on the show, including in one dream sequence when he played a Harlem club crooner crooning “My Funny Valentine” to Maxine. Carson based Kyle’s elegant speaking voice on a lawyer friend, while the character’s dandy fashion sense was borrowed from his dad. “He never left the house without a hat.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise on Living Single was the casting of former child star Kim Fields, who played Regine with the relish of a young Mae West. In 1994, Fields told Ebony magazine, “I didn’t want to do a grown-up version of Tootie. The vehicle had to be right. Regine was perfect.” Bridging the journey from 1980s child star to a grown woman in the 1990s, Fields understood the medium of television very well. “Kim gave me all kinds of tips about cameras and learning my lines,” Coles stated. “She was very sweet and generous, but she was also a real pro.”
Although some might view Regine as simply a money hungry woman, in 1994 Fields explained, “Regine is shallow by choice. She choice not to be deep. She knows the type of man she wants. She is straightforward about it. She is from the projects, the hood and doesn’t want to go back to that life.” While everyone was funny on-screen, behind the scenes stand-up comic vets John Henton and Kim Coles had the cast constantly chuckling. “Kim is the funniest woman in the world,” Carson said. “She and John would have us cracking-up just riffing off one another.”
Living Single also had a stellar line-up of guest stars that included Terrence Howard, Morris Chestnut, Joyce Dewitt, Gladys Knight playing Kyle’s mother TLC, and C.C.H. Pounder as Maxine’s mom. My personal favorite was stunning Freda Payne playing landlady Miss Harper. “Each time there was a guest, one of the cast kind of adopted them,” Kim Coles recalled. “I adopted Rosie O’Donnell when she was on. But, when Eartha Kitt came on, she automatically adopted the men.”
Like the relationship that developed between Overton and Synclaire, the battling characters Kyle and Maxine eventually ended up becoming a couple in the fourth season. “I thought that hook-up would kill us,” Erika Alexander said. “TC and I talked about it, and we really dreaded it. It was still funny, but we always believed that the characters really didn’t like each other.” Carson couldn’t agree more. “I think it did the characters a disserve,” he said.
Still, there were other problems brewing on the Living Single set.
Feeling as though the material was being dumbed down and the cast wasn’t making enough cash as other casts in the mid-90s, Carson argued for better scripts and more money. “Friends was shot on the same [Warner Brothers] lot and their cast made much more money than us and we couldn’t understand why,” Carson explained. Carson complained loudly, and he was eventually fired. “When they sent Kyle to London that was it.”
In addition, the Fox network brass considered canceling Living Single completely, but it was saved by an outcry from their fans. “I was hired back in the fifth and last season for three episodes,” Carson said. The show was finally cancelled in 1998 after five seasons.
Living Single is currently in syndication and streaming on Hulu. Still as fresh and funny as it was when it debuted 30 years ago, Kim Coles said, “Living Single was a show about love, friendship and pride that translated across communities. And that vibe still resonates.”
Show creator Yvette Lee Bowser would go on to work on other popular programs, including Half & Half, from 2002 to 2006, and Dear White People, from 2017 to 2019, but Living Single has joined the canon of classic sitcoms alongside other independent, women-centered programs like That Girl and Designing Women.
“Decades later, there’s no greater reward to a writer than to know your work not only resonated at the time in which you wrote it, but it’s still having that ripple effect,” Bower told Entertainment Weekly. “Inspiring them to do great things, to become journalists like Khadijah James and public servants and attorneys like Maxine Shaw...it’s everything.”