...a Black sitcom helped define a generation.
It’s been 30 years since the first episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” premiered on NBC. Through the show’s ups and downs it’s managed to become the calling card of a generation. Now the cast is back on TV to reminisce about their groundbreaking live audience sitcom.
The streaming service ‘HBO Max’ released “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air Reunion” Wednesday night (Nov. 18th). A full day earlier than it’s planned launch date. Actor and star of the show Will Smith made the surprise announcement on his IG page Wednesday afternoon. The reunion show has been touted as a must-see event since it’s revelation earlier this year (2020). After watching, I can unequivocally say it was a much needed therapy session, healing circle and nostalgic look back at a part of my (and so many others’) childhood.
The show started off with the entire main cast revisiting a rebuilt version of the old set (everyone looked great). As an acoustic piano version of the now iconic theme song played in the background, a montage of clips highlighting the show's best moments projected on a screen for the entire cast to see. Seated in the living room, actors Will Smith, Alfonso Ribeiro, Karyn Parsons, Tatyana Ali, Joseph Marcell (Butler Geoffrey), Daphne Maxwell Reid & DJ Jazzy Jeff fell into each other's arms and laughed.
“Everyone who needs to say yes to this show is sitting out there right now.”
The reunion now underway, first up was talk about the pilot episode and how each member of the cast auditioned for the hit sitcom. Smith started off the conversation and spoke about how nervous he was for his first TV role (and show). So nervous in fact, he learned everyone’s lines the first few episodes and was caught (on camera) mouthing everyone’s parts during the show’s premiere. No really, there’s footage. In a cut-away interview Smith said he wasn’t only playing Will Smith but also Uncle Phill, Hilary Banks Vivian Banks etc. Karyn Parsons (Hilary Banks) added to the conversation and said she actually auditioned several times before finally being chosen for the iconic role of the superficial Hilary Banks. While Maxwell-Reid (Aunt Viv #2) mentioned she was asked to audition for the show from the beginning but turned it down after finding out a rapper was to be the star. Smith also revisited his audition which took place at Quincy Jones’ (partial show inspiration) birthday party in front of NBC execs including show creator Andy Borowitz. “Everyone who needs to say yes to this show is sitting out there right now.” Smith said he will always remember the words Jones said before his impromptu audition to this day.
“There would be very powerful ideas underneath the comedy,”
As the reunion moves on we take a look back at some of the most memorable moments of the shows six season and 150+ episode run. Like the undeniable chemistry between Alfonso Ribeiro (Carlton Banks) and Smith. Tatyana Ali ( Ashley Banks) getting her first kiss on the show. Breaking the fourth wall (several times) for comedic effect. And of course the best part of the show...the live audience. The shows taping on Friday nights became the place to be during its run with fans showing up dressed for the club according to Smith. But through all the comedy and storylines there was a certain heart to the show that still stands the test of time today. “There would be very powerful ideas underneath the comedy,” said Smith.
“Now that’s acting!”
Of course the other big heart of the show came in the form of James Avery (Uncle Phil). The show pivots to remember Avery in what is one of the most emotional moments of the reunion (I was teary-eyed). Avery passed away in 2013 from complications to open heart surgery. And while he was missing from the reunion, his presence was felt deeply by the cast as they reflected on their time with him. Ali mentioned how Avery was the “heart of the show” and “taught her everything she knows about how to be a good actor.” Smith echoed that sentiment and believed Avery pushed him especially hard acting wise because he was in such a unique position. Of course Avery’s push culminated in one of the best scenes from the show's run, from the “dad episode”. As the cast talked about the iconic scene tears started flowing (both on screen and on my couch). The group then took a beat to gather themselves before moving on to another hotly discussed topic from the show…(Aunt Viv #1) Janet Hubert.
“A foundational element was broken when Janet left”
Smith addressed the cast and said he “couldn’t celebrate 30 years without acknowledging the elephant in the room...Janet.” He and Hubert sat down in a separate interview shown to the group for the first time in 27 years. While embraced Hubert (Aunt Viv #1) and Smith took a moment and settled in before conversation started. As the pair caught up Hubert said she didn’t expect to get the role. Mainly because she hadn’t seen anyone like her (a dark skinned black woman) on TV before in such a prominent role. “A foundational element was broken when Janet left” Smith said in a side interview. In an eye-opening admission, Hubert discussed why she no longer appeared on the show. During the third season, Hubert said she found out she was pregnant and “home life got very difficult” as she dealt with an abusive husband. Then she would come to work and have to deal with a then 21 year-old Smith who was always “live” and had an oblivious disregard for some of his cast mates personally.
“Calling a black woman difficult in Hollywood is the kiss of death”
It’s important to note, Smith acknowledged this carelessness and admitted he made set-life very difficult for Janet at times. Hubert also said on top of set life she also received a bad deal from higher ups on her contract during the third season that she ended up having to reject. Which led to her role being re-casted. Hubert also said she was never officially fired from the show but instead was just told it would be re-cast. Hubert ended the raw (yet respectful) revelation by saying Smith’s words at the time contributed to her career downfall. “Calling a black woman difficult in Hollywood is the kiss of death”.
*Note: Will Smith and Janet Hubert traded barbs for years over her exit on the show. Both getting extremely real and at times personal. Hubert called Smith’s behavior on set “child-like and unsettling” in past social media posts. While Smith chose to call Hubert “extremely difficult to work with.” in interviews.*
Of course there were also some great moments from Hubert and Smith’s reunion including a revisit to the now iconic “dance episode” and a full recognition of Huberts talents as a singer, dancer and actor. As the rest of the cast appeared back on screen one fun fact I learned was that neither Aunt Viv’s (Maxwell-Reid & Hubert) had ever actually met. Smith acknowledged the comment and brought Hubert out in a surprise to join the rest of the cast in a moment that was 30 years in the making.
“I see pictures of that week and it was a deeply deeply deeply painful goodbye.”
“We changed the way sitcoms were shot” said Alfonso Ribeiro. The ending of the reunion culminated in a surprise appearance from Ross Bagley (Nicky Banks) and a look back at their final season. The cast admitted during season five of the show they knew season six would be their last. But that didn’t stop them from being an emotional wreck when it was actually time to say goodbye. “I see pictures of that week and it was a deeply deeply deeply painful goodbye,” said Smith. Adding to the final season walk down memory lane, Ali said she read comments on social media from the show’s reunion announcement that it was #BlackExcellence. She then stated “I don’t want it to be mistaken that the excellence is the wealth. That part is fantasy. The excellence is in the way we loved each other.” Smith wrapped up the conversation as he described how the show was and is a family to this day. “On this set I learned how to lead my life.”
“On this set I learned how to lead my life”
The “Fresh Prince of Bel Air Reunion” was a much needed watch and I strongly recommend it. If you were a kid, as I was, who grew up on black sitcoms, like “Martin”, “The Jamie Foxx Show”, “The Wayans Brothers”, “Living Single” and of course the aforementioned “Fresh Prince” then this is for you! A refreshing (and nostalgic) look back at a show that gave a voice to so many during the 90’s and beyond. For that reason I’m giving “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air Reunion” an A+. You can watch the reunion and the complete six seasons on HBO Max currently. There is also a “Fresh Prince reboot in the works that will appear on “Peacock” the NBC streaming service. In a major reveal the dramatic re-telling of the series was picked up for two seasons by the network and is currently in pre-production.