After its fearless second season, which tackled everything from racial slurs to police brutality, black-ish isn’t just a critically-adored comedy. It’s now been branded a socially important sitcom, echoing the work of Good Times, A Different World, and other groundbreaking series before it. So how did black-ish land in this spot after just two years on the air? It’s all thanks to one highly personal showrunner, Larry Wilmore, and cast members who are and are not related to the former lead singer of The Supremes. Find out more about the show—which will debut its third season on September 21, just a few days after making a run at three Emmy Awards—below.
1. THE TITLE REFERS TO RACIAL IDENTITIES … AND JUSTIN BIEBER.
When black-ish debuted in 2014, there was a big discussion about its title and what it meant. Show creator Kenya Barris told NPR that it’s a reflection of his anxieties about raising his children in a more privileged world than he knew as a kid. “I wanted to be honest with what it’s like sort of raising your kids in a different environment than you were accustomed to being raised in,” he explained. “My kids are nothing like I remember black kids being when I was a kid.”
When Laurence Fishburne was asked about the show's title on The View, his explanation was more blunt: “For some people, it means when black folks kind of act white. For some people, it means when white folks kind of act black. I think of it this way. Two words: Justin Bieber. Justin Bieber acts blackish but he doesn’t get shot by the police; he gets a police escort home.”
2. NORMAN LEAR IS A MAJOR INFLUENCE.
Barris has repeatedly cited Norman Lear as a primary influence on the show. Lear developed and created groundbreaking sitcoms like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, and Good Times. Barris is such a fan of Good Times in particular that he turned the black-ish season two finale into a homage. “He’s beyond an influence for me,” Barris told Variety. “I feel like I am so derivative of Norman Lear and what he was doing and what he was about. It’s hard to even think about being a writer without him having been there.”
Lear clearly admires Barris’s work, too. He stopped by the black-ish writers room earlier this year to pitch a few ideas, one of which ended up in the season two episode “The Johnson Show.”
3. MUCH OF THE SERIES IS SEMI-AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL.
Barris has always described the show as semi-autobiographical, but some of the parallels between the Johnsons and Barris's own family are much more direct. For instance, the black-ish matriarch Rainbow Johnson is an anesthesiologist with a black mother and a white father. Barris’s real-life wife is also a biracial anesthesiologist named Rainbow.
Many episodes are based on real conversations with Barris’s kids, too. The series received wide critical praise for the season two episode “Hope,” which discussed police brutality. It opens with one of the youngest Johnsons, Jack, staring at news footage and asking his parents, “Why are all these people so mad?” Barris’s then seven-year-old son asked him the exact same question when his family watched the Ferguson grand jury decline to indict a police officer for shooting a black teenager in 2014. Barris got the idea for the black-ish season two premiere after seeing some of his daughter’s texts.
4. BARRIS GOT HIS BREAK ON AMERICA’S NEXT TOP MODEL.
After graduating from Clark Atlanta University with a film degree, Barris picked up a few writing credits on the Showtime series Soul Food and WB sitcom Like Family. But he was hungry to develop his own show, so he worked with his childhood friend Tyra Banks on a reality competition pitch. That series was America’s Next Top Model, and Barris got a handsome cut of the profits as a co-creator of the series.
5. LARRY WILMORE WAS A CO-SHOWRUNNER.
The star of the recently-departed Nightly Show was originally set to run black-ish with Barris. ABC had proposed Larry Wilmore as a co-showrunner in 2014 and, given Wilmore’s work on In Living Color and The Bernie Mac Show, Barris was eager to partner with him. But then Comedy Central offered Wilmore his own talk show, and he had to exit. He still stayed on for the first 12 episodes of black-ish, but Barris called in TV veteran Jonathan Groff (the producer, not the Glee and Hamilton actor) as back-up. Groff has been an executive producer ever since.
6. YES, JACK AND DIANE ARE NAMED FOR THE JOHN COUGAR MELLENCAMP SONG.
Yes, the Johnson twins—Jack and Diane—are actually named for John Cougar Mellencamp’s 1982 ditty about “two American kids doing the best they can.” The song is apparently one of Barris’s favorites.
7. ANTHONY ANDERSON REALLY THREW HIS SON A BRO MITZVAH.
As a star and executive producer on black-ish, Anthony Anderson has contributed some of his own real-life experiences to the show. One of them? The “bro mitzvah” that Dre throws for his eldest son in the pilot. Anderson hosted a similar bash for his own son.
8. DRE’S DISASTROUS BACKFLIP IN THE PILOT WAS NOT SCRIPTED.
You might’ve noticed a moment in the middle of all that bro mitzvah revelry when Dre goes for a backflip on the dance floor … and lands flat on his back. According to Marcus Scribner, who plays Andre Jr., that move was not scripted—Anderson actually wiped out. “I think that everybody in the entire room thought Anthony died,” Scribner said in an interview with J-14. “We all rushed over to Anthony like, ‘Are you okay? Are you okay?’ He just kept it moving and it made it ... into the show.”
9. TRACEE ELLIS ROSS HAS A MEGA-FAMOUS (AND MEGA-SUPPORTIVE) MOM.
Tracee Ellis Ross is the second oldest child of Diana Ross, which means she grew up in a household where Michael Jackson called frequently and Andy Warhol painted her portrait. (She recaps both of those stories in the clip above.) Diana is also incredibly proud of her comedienne daughter. When Tracee was nominated for an Emmy this year, Diana took out a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter congratulating her daughter on the success.
But Ross isn’t the only black-ish cast member with celebrity kin. Yara Shahidi, who plays Zoey, boasts Nas as a second cousin. She was even the flower girl at his wedding.
10. THE CAST HAS SOME SERIOUSLY TALENTED DANCERS.
When pressed for some behind-the-scenes stories, Shahidi told Essence that the black-ish actors frequently challenge each other to dance-offs. “Anthony can break it down,” she said. “He can do salsa, he can do the worm, he knows ballet. It’s pretty trippy.” But he presumably has some stiff competition from his youngest onscreen son. Miles Brown, who plays Jack, made a name for himself when he was just four years old as the dance sensation Baby Boogaloo. Here he is on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.