18 Black Sitcoms of the '90s That Changed the Game

Damarys Ocaña Perez | Jan 24, 2020 TV
18 Black Sitcoms of the '90s That Changed the Game
Image: Ron Tom/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Ron Tom/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Black sitcoms have been popular since classics like Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Sanford and Son hit television screens nationwide in the '70sBut 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 18 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)

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    lisa bonet, Dawnn Lewis, Marisa Tomei in a different world
    Ron Tom/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

    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. 

    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)

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    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)

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    Will Smith and James Avery in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
    Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

    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)

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    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)

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    JOMARIE PAYTON, REGINALD VELJOHNSON, JALEEL WHITE, TELMA HOPKINS in family matters
    Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

    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)

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    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)

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    Tamera Mowry-Housley and Tia Mowry-Hardrict in Sister, Sister
    ABC

    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. 

    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)

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    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)

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    mark curry and omar gooding in handin with mr cooper
    Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

    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. 

  • 'The Hughleys' (1998-2002)

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    D.L. hughley, elise neal, dj daniels in the hughleys
    ABC

    Two decades before Black-ish tackled a similar premise, The Hughleys featured a family that lives in a predominantly white neighborhood -- in this case, after the dad, played by D.L. Hughley, develops the family's vending machine business to the point that the family can move out of south Central Los Angeles. Trying to fit in while remaining true to their roots leads to some funny interactions with his white and Korean neighbors.

  • 'Kenan & Kel' (1996-2000)

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    Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell were Nickelodeon's first black sitcom stars, having landed their own show when producers saw them joking around on the set of All That when they were series regulars. Their chemistry made for a very funny show about the pair's hijinks and escapades, and the show also launched the career of Kenan, who is now on Saturday Night Live.

  • 'In The House' (1995-1999)

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    It wasn't the world's best sitcom, but hey, LL Cool J has always been a snack. We got our fill watching him in In The House, playing a former professional football star who has to rent out rooms in his mansion to make ends meet. 

  • 'The Famous Jett Jackson' (1998-2001)

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    This show had just 65 episodes but has a special place in our hearts as the first Disney Channel show to feature a black actor as the lead. The immensely talented and magnetic Lee Thompson Young starred as Jett Jackson, a kid who tries to live a normal life when he's not filming. Thompson tragically died at age 29, after struggling with bipolar disorder and depression, but the heartwarming show lives on. 

  • 'The Jamie Foxx Show' (1996-2001)

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    Fresh off the groundbreaking comedy sketch show In Living Color and before he becoming an movie star, Jamie Foxx starred as an aspiring actor who works at his relatives' hotel. The laughs are kinda cheap in The Jamie Foxx Show (who doesn't need that every once in a while?), but there are some memorable moments in which Jamie and guest stars sing and play onstage together -- which actually foreshadow Jamie's Oscar-winning role as Ray Charles in the movie Ray.

  • 'The Wayans Bros.' (1995-1999)

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    In Living Color, it's not, but this sitcom from younger Wayans siblings Shawn and Marlon is still simple fun that doesn't require too many brain cells -- and that can be a good thing. So, despite being canceled abruptly after five seasons and not given a chance to wrap up the series, The Wayans Bros. has lived on and on in syndication, a favorite whenever we catch it while flipping channels. It centers around the brothers characters (Shawn is the conservative one, Marlon -- what else -- the clown), who live in Harlem and are just trying to make it in this world. It may not be Emmy-winning material, but it's still a great de-stressor. 

  • 'The Parent 'Hood' (1995-1999)

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    Roxanne Beckford, Suzzanne Douglas, and Robert Townsend in The Parent 'Hood
    WB

    One of the four original Wednesday night shows that helped launched the WB (The Wayans Bros was another), this is one of the black '90s sitcoms that are available on several streaming services (Hulu, YouTubeTV, Stars). In Cosby Show-esque manner, The Parent 'Hood featured an upper middle class family made up of a college professor (Robert Townsend), his law-student wife, and their four kids. What sets the show apart are the whimsical fantasy sequences that the dad dreams up to help him solve family issues in a creative and unexpected way. 

  • 'The Parkers' (1999-2004)

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    Jenna von Oÿ, Ken Lawson, Mo'Nique, Countess Vaughn, Dorien Wilson, Yvette Wilson in The Parkers
    UPN

    It's no surprise that one of the most down-to-earth black sitcoms from the '90s starred Mo'Nique as a single mom who dropped out of high school to raise her baby. When her grown daughter (Countess Vaughn, playing the same character she did on Moesha) starts college, so does she. The story of their evolving relationship as students and adults leads to a lot of laughs, and so does any time that Mo'Nique lets her salty tongue loose on someone.   

  • 'Roc' (1991-1994)

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    Charles s dutton
    Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Image

    Before Charles S. Dutton went on to win three Emmys for his work on other shows, he starred in this underrated and brief series that was fairly typical sitcom until the second season, which aired each episode live. Roc was a treat because Dutton and several of the other cast members were trained stage actors. 

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