Poor Carl Winslow, The Sitcom Father and the Scene Stealer

Last week, Key and Peele's hilarious take on Reginald VelJohnson made the viral rounds. For those who didn't grow up on TGIF, VelJohnson is the actor who played Carl Winslow on popular 90s sitcom, Family Matters. In this skit, VelJohnson is portrayed as an upstaged actor with a great past who realizes his glory has been stolen by the character of Steve Urkel.

This skit is a perfect snapshot of sitcom history. Family Matters was a spin-off of Perfect Strangers that was supposed to focus on an African American family in an urban area similar to contemporary shows like The Cosby Show and later on, The Fresh Prince. The show didn't quite reach that classic level, and is remembered as a vehicle for Steve Urkel's nerd antics. While Urkel's manipulations and characteristics were all well and good, sometimes the tensions that occur with an unexpected breakout star are a lot more uneasy on a sitcom. Often the ways in which one character usurps an entire show, have a much larger impact and repercussions.  Norman Lear faced some problems managing this aspect of his popular 1970s show, Good Times. Good Times  was also a spin off, coming out of the popular show Maude  and based on one character's family life outside of work. The   show wasn't going to happen without there being a father figure. Actor John Amos was selected to play James Evans, a hard working and loving father. And then there was the eldest son JJ, played by Jimmie Walker. His character stole the spotlight, and like the Family Matters arc, the show featured less of the entire family's struggles and more of JJ's "good times." JJ's character-loving as he was- is often derided still for the level of buffoonery and silliness he emoted, from his distinct strut to the frequent screams of "Dy-No-Mite!" Amos disagreed with the direction the show was taking, and his character was killed.

The fear of one character becoming a stereotype, and diverting the intention of a show is an issue of media representation. The issue is not as dire when the character's type is shown on other sitcoms across the wide media landscape, but when the pickings are scarce- it is easy to become attached. And as an actor with limited choices, you also want to do the best work possible. Gimmicks become too much. Despite my examples, this actually is a problem beyond the limited roles available for people of color. However, it is magnified in these examples, because of the issues of representation.

Mos Def doesn't need to shoot at you, for the general issues to be understood.

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