The Upshaws” is the most popular show on Netflix, according to the streaming service’s public ranking system. Wanda Sykes co-created and stars in a new Netflix Original set in the Midwest.
The new Netflix sitcom follows a Black working-class family in Indiana as it navigates challenging times and relationships. “The Upshaws” stars Wanda Sykes, who is also a co-creator along with Regina Y. Hicks.
Mike Epps isn’t sure when or why Black family sitcoms disappeared from television. When Epps, a veteran actor and comic, began his professional career in the 1990s, such shows were prime-time staples, with series like “Martin,” “Family Matters” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” serving as cultural touchstones for at least one generation. But aside from notable exceptions like “Black-ish,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and a few others, the 21st century has been a different story.
So when Netflix executives approached him in 2018 about working together on a new scripted series, Epps — who had already done several stand-up specials for the streaming giant — recognized an opportunity to help fill a gap in the market with some other comedy veterans.
Created by Regina Y. Hicks and Wanda Sykes, “The Upshaws,” which premieres Wednesday, focuses on a Black working-class family in the Midwest trying to get by through tough times and increasingly complicated interpersonal dynamics. A multicamera comedy set in Indianapolis, the new series follows Bennie Upshaw (Epps), a charismatic car mechanic, and his blended family: his wife, Regina (Kim Fields); their young daughters and adult son; and the son he fathered outside of his marriage. Sykes plays his sarcastic sister-in-law, Lucretia.
“Bennie is a mirror and a reflection of a lot of men,” Epps said in a recent phone interview. “People are going to be able to relate to it, whether they’re Bennie or they know somebody that’s Bennie.”
Having grown up watching sitcoms from the 1970s and ’80s, Epps, who is perhaps best known for his work in the “Friday” and “Hangover” films, noticed a dearth of relatable sitcoms based on Black families and friend groups. When he approached Sykes with the basic premise of “The Upshaws” in mid-2018, he found that she had noticed the same thing.
“Those shows just don’t exist anymore — it’s either we’re doing really well, or we’re coming out of slavery, like Black pain,” said Sykes, a comic and writer who is also known for her scene-stealing roles in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Black-ish.” “So, we knocked it around and came up with a new idea.”
After selling the pitch to Netflix, Epps and Sykes began developing the series as executive producers, with Sykes becoming a showrunner along with Hicks, a writer and producer on “Sister, Sister,” “Girlfriends” and “Insecure.”
“The Upshaws” has plenty of classic sitcom DNA. Bennie’s love-hate relationship with Lucretia is based on the dynamic between Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) and Aunt Esther (LaWanda Page) in “Sanford and Son,” the hit 1970s comedy developed by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin. Fields is best known as a star of two long-running TV sitcoms: “The Facts of Life” and “Living Single.”
But Sykes was also inspired by the free-flowing verbiage of August Wilson’s plays (“Jitney,” “The Piano Lesson”) and said she wanted to create a comedy that “sounds like how real people talk” instead of one that relies too heavily on the dialogue-setup-punchline rhythm of most sitcoms.
If the humor skews somewhat adult at times, that’s by design, Hicks said. “Sometimes, our real families aren’t always kid-friendly, and the jokes aren’t for everybody,” she said. “That’s just not how a real family operates.”
And while “The Upshaws” is reminiscent of traditional family comedies, the creators also wanted the show to reflect life in the 21st century, navigating difficult conversations about love, marriage, and sexuality. Over the course of the debut season, one of the Upshaws comes out as gay to the rest of the family, a storyline that is of particular importance to the showrunners, who “know what it feels like to not be seen and represented,” Sykes said.
“We, as Black women and gay women, experience it threefold,” Hicks added. People coming out to their family has “always been an issue in the community,” she said, “and I just think it’s time to be celebrated as it should be.”
As with most family comedies, “The Upshaws” is defined by its relationships. In Fields, the creators found someone who could lend gravity as the no-nonsense matriarch and also go toe-to-toe with comic powerhouses like Sykes and Epps, Hicks said. “The dynamics of that family are what make it so special,” she said.
Black family dynamics have been largely absent from TV comedies for much of the last two decades. Following the success of “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s, the 1990s were a Golden Age of Black sitcoms, with 15 prime-time Black comedy series to choose from at one point in 1997. “Martin” and “In Living Color” were among the first breakout hits for the then-fledgling Fox network, and the now-defunct UPN, looking to follow in Fox’s footsteps, didn’t begin to gain traction until it carved out a niche with shows like “Moesha,” “Malcolm & Eddie” and “The Hughleys.”
But most of the ’90s hits were off the air within the first few years of the new millennium. The era effectively ended when UPN and the WB ceased operations in September 2006 to form the CW.
“A lot of the Black shows built these networks up, and when they got rid of the shows, they replaced them with the white shows, or whatever shows that came along,” Epps said.
Hicks noted that many Black sitcoms ended as part of a broader decline in multicamera comedies on network television. “A lot of multi-cams left the air, and I think when they started coming back, we just weren’t the first up and weren’t the ones coming back,” she said. But in the streaming era, she added, “there is more opportunity for all comedy across the board.”
Netflix has been making a push into this category of late. Last summer it announced that it was adding seven past popular Black sitcoms to the service, including “Moesha” and “Sister, Sister,” and last month it premiered “Dad Stop Embarrassing Me!,” a multi-cam comedy starring Jamie Foxx as the overwhelmed father of a teenage daughter.
“I’ve been in the business pitching shows for years,” Epps said. “Netflix is a company that finally understands that African Americans have big crossover audiences.”
When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down production on “The Upshaws” in Los Angeles last March, the show had filmed four of the first five episodes in front of a live studio audience. Production resumed in October, with strict coronavirus protocols that included daily testing for many cast and crew, and wrapped just over a month later without any Covid outbreaks or delays. For the remaining episodes, the studio audience was replaced by laugh tracks and live on-set laughter from the crew.
“At the table reads, Regina would just reiterate, ‘Hey look, guys, do your work, go home, be safe, let’s keep everybody safe.’ But I’ll be honest with you: I was checking everybody’s Instagram,” Sykes said, laughing. “I was like, ‘OK, let me see who’s out and about.’”
“It was also weird acting,” she added. “Because you look out at the crew, and you see everyone with the P.P.E. on, and you’re just like, ‘I’m acting, but I’m also acting like everything’s normal, like we’re not in the middle of a pandemic.’”
While the writers decided not to include the pandemic for logistical and practical reasons, a number of topical references help to ground the show in the present. (In one episode, Bennie says that his blood pressure is still high because of the killing of George Floyd.)
After a year that has largely been characterized by loss and has seen a number of acclaimed films and series about historical Black grief and trauma, the creators of “The Upshaws” sought to tell more joyful stories because, in Hicks’s words, “we are definitely a multilayered people, and we’re not just the past.”
Sykes elaborated: “I think the reason why there are so many shows focused on the past is that we’re trying to figure out how we’re in the situation we’re in now,” she said. “But we’re clear on what happened and what’s happening, so it’s not like we don’t want to look and those stories aren’t important. We’re just saying we need to laugh — we deserve to laugh — and we’re comedy people.”
“This is our talent,” she added. “This is our gift.”
Epps said that at its core, “The Upshaws” is designed “to show the world that Black people enjoy life, too, and Black people are resilient.”
“We have problems that everybody else has, and we know how to laugh through our pain,” he added. “We have fun and we love each other, no matter who we are and what we are.”