Friday, March 10, 2023

Vital Viewing (School Daze Edition)


Jasmine Guy was born on this day in 1962. She's best known for playing the self-absorbed Southern belle Whitley Gilbert on the late 1980s-early '90s African American college sitcom A Different World. Jasmine ended up being the breakout star of the series, though that wasn't... 

...always the case. Clockwise from the bottom left we have The Cosby Show's own breakout star, Lisa Bonet, continuing her role as Denise Huxtable, the mildly rebellious daughter of Cliff and Claire (as opposed to the wildly rebellious costar of Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad); next is Kadeem Hardison as (the initially) horny math whiz Dwayne Wayne; Dawnn Lewis as Jalessa Vinson, a divorcee who's returned to school; and Marisa Tomei, as talkative white student Maggie Lauten. Missing is the star of today's post, Jasmine Guy. She was on the show, but her character was considered such an outlier that she wasn't even included in the cast picture. The snobbish Whitley also had kind of an antagonistic relationship with the other characters and would have seemed out of place in such a chummy picture. Nevertheless, the character was seen more and more as the first season advanced, and she even got to meet...

...Denise's mother when she paid a visit to fictional Hillman College (said to be based on Howard University.)

Antagonist or not, the character of Whitley Gilbert was eventually deemed important enough to the show that Jasmine Guy got to be included in this later cast photo, and as the first season ended and the second season began, her importance would only increase. For starters, Lisa Bonet got pregnant. This was too much for A Different World's morally righteous executive producer, Bill Cosby. Rumor has it that Cosby was so upset that he mixed a drink to calm his nerves. Or maybe it was to calm somebody else's nerves. Anyway, it's not like Bonet was going to have this child (the future Zoe Kravitz) out of wedlock, but even though she was married in real life, her TV character wasn't. Bonet was canned and off TV for about a year. When she returned it wasn't to A Different World but once again The Cosby Show, as a stepmother(?!)-to-be.

As for ADW, more changes were in the works. The series got great ratings, but sandwiched between the show it was spun off from and another monster hit, Cheers, how could it not? Truth is the show just wasn't that funny (despite the best efforts of Guy and Hardison), was kind of preachy at times (the usual old fart authority figures showing up to wag their fingers at the collegiates latest scrapes), and supervising producer Anne Beatts, who was white, seemed to be merely guessing at what a black college must be like. Actually, she seemed merely to be guessing at what any 1980s college must be like, as her view on the subject seemed to be informed by a 1930s Jack Oakie campus comedy. Former Fame star (as well as Phylicia Rashad's sister) Debbie Allen was brought in to revamp the show. I suspect that she was giver freer rein than former Saturday Night Live writer Beatts, possibly because Allen was an alumnus of Howard University and thus knew the territory well. Several actors, including Marisa Tomei--how was anyone to know there was an Academy Award in her future? --were let go and new ones were brought in. From the second season onward, the show was much funnier, much more edgy, and much more steeped in the black youth culture of the day. There were still moral lessons to be had, at times about some very serious things like racism and date rape, but like any good story, be it a drama or comedy, it avoided the finger-wagging and instead let the characters oftentimes self-created problems speak for themselves.  

Starting from the left in what I guess is the back row we have Glynn Thurman (ROTC/math professor Colonel Bradford Taylor), Dawnn Lewis, Kadeem Hardison, Lou Myers (Vernon Gaines, the crotchety owner of the campus hangout, The Pit), Sinbad (multiple sports coach and dorm director Walter Oakes, a recurring character in the first season, joined the main cast in the second.) Right to left in what seems to be the front row we have Darryl M. Bell (Dwayne Wayne's best friend and perennial screwup Ron Johnson Jr, another recurring character in the first season, part of the main cast in the second), Charnele Brown (level-headed Kimberly Reese), Cree Summers (hippyish Freddy Brooks), and Jasmine Guy. Though there was some comings and goings as the series run neared its end (a young Jada Plinkett arrives at Hillman), this was the primary cast most of the time. Many, many stories were told, and there were many, many season-length story arcs, with each cast member getting their turn to shine. However, looking at the series as a whole, it's very clear there were two...

...firsts among equals, with their own multiple-seasons-long story arc.

Some years after A Different World went off the air, Jasmine and Kadeem had a talk with Oprah:

Man-oh-man, the way she whips on that that Southern accent! Who needs Gone with the Wind?

Since Jasmine and Kadeem provided most of the laughs in the largely laughless first season, it made comic sense that their characters should get together. It just didn't make any other kind of sense, as Whitley and Dwayne didn't have all that much in common. It's hard to make the case that they were perfect for each other. So what? At the end of the day comedy is about nothing if not about imperfection, and this was the TV era of mismatched lovers. Whitley's and Dwayne's on again-off again-and-on again yet again-relationship, with its miscues and failed seduction attempts, as well as the sudden and surprising opportunities seized, provided just as much laughs as could be had from Sam and Diane on Cheers or David and Maddie on Moonlighting.

Looking for videos online that chronicle Whitley's and Dwayne's rollicking relationship proved no problem at all. In fact, there was an embarrassment of riches. I was ready to post four, five, even six clips in order to give you a fuller picture of the passionate peaks and vitriolic valleys of their riotous romance. Fortunately, I happened upon a single video that tells you in four-and-a-half minutes what six clips otherwise would have told you in a half-hour or so about these loopy lovebirds:


You may have noticed that they're not always boyfriend and girlfriend in those clips. In fact, the relationship almost ends permanently when a politician named Byron Douglas III (Joe Morton) catches a heartbroken Whitley on a rebound of such force that it lands both of them right smack dab at the altar. And Dwayne? Obviously, for him this the nadir of an off-again relationship. But the nice thing about the light switch metaphor is that the switch flicks up as well as down. Watch:

Diahann Carroll was not known for her physical comedy skills, but that was a pretty neat backwards pratfall at the end. I wonder why she never did anything like that on Julia. Humor too subtle I suppose.

As for Whitley and Dwayne, theirs wasn't the first pop culture instance of a man crashing an ex-girlfriend's wedding, but at least this time... one brandished a weapon.


  1. I should not even comment on things I know nothing about, but I do remember The Cosby show.

  2. Any comment from you is welcome, Andrew.

  3. Hill Street Blues fans may be interested in knowing that's Officer Bobby Hill himself, Michael Warren, as the minister in that last video.

  4. You lost me with this one, Kirk! I don't know these actors or these shows. Never watched any of them, lol.

  5. Hi, Kirk!

    You caught me off guard, good buddy. I always thought you were "Mr. Saturday Night."

    I also need to throw myself on the mercy of the court, because A Different World was not part of my (lily white) world. I never watched a single episode. I know who Jasmine Guy is, but only remember her from recurring roles on Melrose Place and Touched By An Angel. Happy 61st birthday to her! I see that she was also a recording artist and released an album and four singles in the early 90s.

    So let's review. I stopped watching The Cosby Show after the first season, but know Lisa Bonet and Marisa Tomei. I don't know the other players with the exception of Diahann Carroll, but I only watched a few episodes of her series Julia. Over the years, I have avoided comedies with all black or mostly black casts because my impression of them was that they either promoted black stereotypes or presented bland "whitewashed" black characters that were equally unreal and repugnant. Many of those black family sitcoms, indeed most sitcoms produced, are painfully unfunny, predictable and formulaic. I bailed out of All In The Family and The Jeffersons when the worn out story lines and stereotypes became too much.

    To my (lily white) credit, I recently started watching the 2021 series The Wonder Years because I like Dulé Hill from West Wing and Psych. Inspired by the original series of the same name, the new show is a coming-of-age comedy about a black middle-class family in late 1960s Montgomery, Alabama. I have also been watching the series Grown-ish (2017 to present), a spin-off of the ABC series Black-ish. It labelled a sitcom but is not intended to be "ha-ha" or "punchline" funny, just more real that most scripted shows about black folks.

    All of the above tap dancing is my way of saying that I am ignorant about most black TV shows. Did I mention that smug, pompous Oprah Winfrey also infuriates me? Thank goodness for Ellen. NO! - Wait! That last remark will be stricken from the record and the jury will be instructed to disregard.

    So, to sum it up, I have a bad habit of avoiding any show that does not have Jerry Van Dyke in the main cast. I need to take a look at that. If it is any consolation, I have a Steve Urkel shrine in my den.

    Sorry I didn't have much to contribute to this discussion. Have a nice weekend, good buddy Kirk!

    1. Shady, if you don't count the greeting, your comment is seven paragraphs long. That's a lot of "didn't have much to contribute to this discussion."

  6. I had completely forgotten Marisa Tomei in the show.

    1. The whole thing is somewhat puzzling, Mitchell. I found out through a bit of research that this show as originally conceived was to be about a white girl attending a black college. Once it was decided that it could be a Cosby Show spinoff, it became a show about a black girl whose best friend at college is white. When Debbie Allen came aboard, she wanted to keep Marisa Tomei on, since she remembered a white girl at the black college (Howard University) she attended. It was NBC that suddenly wanted the series to be 100% black. The only thing I can figure out is it was the demographics speaking. The show is said to have ranked either first or second with African-American audiences, and maybe the network brass saw that and figured a white person just wasn't needed. Now, I'm a white person who watched the show, but I can't say I ever felt slighted in the least that my race wasn't represented. Besides, Cheers was on afterwards. I could look at white people there.

  7. I'm with Deb and Andrew. The only name that's familiar is Bill Cosby. What ever happened to him, anyway? 😆

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Mike, Eddie has some thoughts on that:


In order to keep the hucksters, humbugs, scoundrels, psychos, morons, and last but not least, artificial intelligentsia at bay, I have decided to turn on comment moderation. On the plus side, I've gotten rid of the word verification.