For Chris Palmer, the neon-hued pop culture of his youth in the ’80s and ’90s might have faded into a warm nostalgic glow, but he never stopped caring for the things he loved back then.
“I’m someone who is super into nostalgia and things from when I was young, in my teenage years,” says Palmer, who as a journalist has written about the intersection between sports – mostly NBA basketball – and culture for 25 years.
“Whether it’s music, film, TV, sports teams, art or whatever,” he says. “I read a lot of stuff about that.”
So, when his teenage obsession with the NBC sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” reignited a few years ago, Palmer says he did what he always does in that situation.
“I wanted to read a ‘Fresh Prince’ book, and I searched for one, and I quickly realized that one didn’t exist,” Palmer says. “So basically, I wrote one. This is a book that I wanted to read on the show that so many people loved. I just ended up doing it myself.”
That book, “The Fresh Prince Project: How ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ Remixed America,” is out this month, its dust jacket designed in tones of hot pink, lime green and electric blue that will instantly hurtle readers back in time to 1990 when the “Fresh Prince” turned a cheerful younger rapper named Will Smith into an overnight hip-hop TV star.
Palmer, who is scheduled to appear at Barnes & Noble at the Grove in Los Angeles on Thursday, Feb. 9 to discuss and sign the book, talked with every major member of the “Fresh Prince” cast except for Smith, who was writing his own memoir at the time, and the late James Avery, who played Smith’s Uncle Phil on the show.
He interviewed writers, producers and directors who worked on the show, watched and re-watched all 148 episodes of “The Fresh Prince,” and pored through contemporaneous interviews and articles about the show.
Here, in an interview edited for clarity and length, is Palmer’s story all about how his life got turned upside down in the years he worked on the book.
Q: You were 13 or 14 when the show began. Did you already know the music of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince at that point?
A: That was definitely the entryway because they had ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand,” and that was on constant radio play. So there was the show, and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s the Fresh Prince, and this is a cool kind of hip-hop show.’ And that kind of thing didn’t exist back then.
I didn’t know what the show was going to be about. They just sort of took this rapper, who had this kind of fun, almost cartoonish kind of comedic persona, and put it into a TV. So I remember watching the preview commercials and just being excited.
Q: How was it different from other shows that you watched, or shows that featured Black characters and themes?
A: So ‘The Cosby Show’ obviously was the main predecessor to the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.’ But I didn’t really watch that. It was slightly before my time in terms of what I was interested in. And it never seemed that funny to me. The appeal of ‘The Fresh Prince’ was that it was very funny. There was a lot of silliness and quick quips back and forth. It was a show that was much more in my wheelhouse.
A lot of it was because of Will and his Fresh Prince persona. When you watch it today, that type of very broad sitcom humor still kind of appeals. But back then, when it was younger, it was just the funniest show.
Q: When you look back at it 30 years later, not as a 14-year-old but as someone who writes about pop culture, what’s groundbreaking about this show?
A: The No. 1 thing is just that hip-hop vibe because that had never been on TV before. We’d seen Black families. You’d seen Black shows. ‘The Cosby Show.’ ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ wasn’t really a Black show but it had two main Black characters. Then the old classics like ‘The Jeffersons’ and ‘Good Times.’ Those were just about Black families but there was no hip-hop vibe.
The other thing that I really do like about ‘The Fresh Prince’ – it’s a pretty simple template, which is ‘fish out of water.’ And there are many, many, many fish-out-of-water sitcoms. What was new about this one, you take Will, who was basically from the ‘hood, and instead of putting him with a White family, you put him with a Black family that is just as different in this telling as a regular rich White family would be.
And you can explore a lot of very different kinds of topics just because of that one dynamic. Now you can explore all these differences between different slices of Black life. That was kind of the genius of the show – the hip-hop aspect and that new sort of wrinkle to the fish out of water.
Q: How did you choose which themes from the show – issues such as colorism, driving while Black, and fatherhood – to emphasize in the book?
A: The show is super-broad comedy that sort of dips its toes in these weighty issues. And you never knew when they would come. Back then, they called them ‘very special episodes.’ And even though the show was about fun, the heavier stuff is kind of what people remember.
I noticed a sort of connective tissue between these episodes; they all dealt with a particular, important topic that didn’t have anything to do with the comedy. So I just broke down each episode, and the theme that they represented, and tried to apply that to modern-day America and how things are now. I just wanted to sort of use this to show people that it was something that was in tune with these kinds of issues way back then.
Q: I saw on your Twitter you posted a tweet by (Los Angeles Laker star) LeBron James about how he wanted to be the Fresh Prince when he was a kid. How does that reflect its impact then and now?
A: LeBron, it’s one of his favorite shows. I know the fatherhood episode really hit with him. There was another series of tweets he did maybe five years ago, breaking down the father episode. And at the time, this was 2015, 2016, it was his most-liked tweet ever. So I was like, ‘Wow, it’s not just because he’s famous.’ It just resonated with people.
Kobe Bryant, you know he idolized Will Smith, and kind of did the same thing – Philly to L.A. So you see the cultural impact of the show and how it affected people whether you’re a famous basketball player or just a regular person. It has a similar impact.
Q: We’ve talked about how ‘The Fresh Prince’ connected with Black viewers in the way it addressed Black culture. But it also connected Latino, Asian, White and other viewers. How did it appeal so broadly?
A: When I was talking with (show creator) Andy Borowitz, he was saying that in order for this show to be accepted, obviously Black viewers are going to like the show because of this new, fresh guy, Will Smith. Funny, charismatic, he’s cool. But in order for a show to be successful, you have to play well in the Midwest or the South or all these types of areas. And the majority of viewers with every single TV show are going to be White.
This was 1990, and they had to figure out how they could put out this show that was very authentic and true to African American culture but also had to be digestible for a broader audience. The producers, Andy and Susan (Borowitz), did a really good job of balancing the authenticity of the show while keeping it super broad.
Someone watches a sitcom, they don’t want it to be preachy, they want to laugh. If it’s funny, if it’s cool and you’re laughing, that’s the main thing. Then you kind of sneak in your heavier episodes and moments.
Chris Palmer book event
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 9
Where: Barnes & Noble at the Grove at Farmers Market, 189 The Grove Dr., Los Angeles
How much: Tickets are $31.74 which includes a copy of the book.
For more: For more about the event go to stores.barnesandnoble.com/event/9780062153630-0
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