Review: Perfection Is Not a Sitcom Mom
Actress Janet Hubert is best known for portraying Aunt Vivian on the 1990s NBC television sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Being a working actress on a popular television show is often presented to the public as a dream come true. Even more so for the African-American actresses (especially dark-skinned ones) who have limited opportunities in Hollywood. In Perfection Is Not a Sitcom Mom, Ms. Hubert has written a memoir describing the seamy realities involved in working on that particular show, and the toll it took on her life after she was terminated and replaced with another actress.
Several words come to mind when I think of the experiences Ms. Hubert describes in her book. Harrowing. Heart-wrenching. Ms. Hubert describes the many ways, large and small, in which Will Smith allegedly sabotaged her career and those of others on that show:
Smith’s contract provided that none of the cast members except him could appear on The Tonight Show during the sitcom’s first season.
Hubert was told to stay in her dressing room after finishing her scenes. This was because she didn’t laugh at Smith’s jokes, and he complained that this made him uncomfortable.
Smith wanted the actors and writing staff to take unsolicited advice about the show from Bill Cosby.
Smith “only gave male directors props” and wanted the cast to “give the brother a shot” when the then-inexperienced-as-a-director Malcolm-Jamal Warner directed an episode of the show.
Meanwhile, Smith openly disrespected and undermined the work of more experienced Black women in the television industry, including a Black woman who had produced Cosby’s show for several seasons.
By the sixth year, Will Smith wanted the entire cast of family characters discarded except for his character and Carlton, and make it more like the show A Different World. NBC refused, and told him to seek a better deal elsewhere. Smith approached CBS, but wasn’t offered a better deal, and returned to NBC.
Hubert was ultimately terminated from the show and replaced with another, (much lighter-skinned) actress. She also describes the long years of career and emotional turmoil that followed her termination from the show. Including the turmoil resulting from her own bad decisions.
Ms. Hubert’s book is a needed antidote to the naive fantasies that so many artists have about the nature of the entertainment industry. Ms. Hubert gives the following good advice near the end of the book:
“Let my experience be a guide for all young women, especially African-Americans, who want to pursue a career in this business called acting. It is only make-believe. Acting doesn’t cure cancer. It will not change the world. So if this is something that you really want to do please learn from my mistakes, and there were many. Hold your tongue, or you may lose it. Only play the game if you can win it, and so few can. Keep a sense of humor no matter what. Sometimes you may have to give up what you really believe in for the sake of a check. Try to have a backup career. I believe that one day people will finally tire of Reality TV and talent will make a comeback. For those of you who long be in the limelight, be wary—while it can be wonderful, it can sometimes be blinding.”
THEME FOR DISCUSSION: THE IMPORTANCE OF BUILDING YOUR OWN PLATFORM AS A CREATIVE ARTIST
About career strategy, two main points stood out for me as I read Ms. Hubert’s book. First, her naiveté about her work environment. Why didn’t she know that a refusal to brown-nose the male rapper-star of her tv series would have serious negative repercussions on her career? I’m not talking about right or wrong; I’m talking about the reality of working in that industry. If you’re not going to brown-nose, then you need to have a plan to deal with the predictable backlash. You also need to understand that there’s never any guarantee of safety, even if you do brown-nose! Often, African-American artists are so frantic to get onto these tv shows and into these record deals, that they never plan for the possibility that somebody on that show, at that network, in that record company might launch a mission to damage their careers.
The second lesson of her experience is the importance of creative artists working to build their own platforms. We’ve discussed this before in the context of authors, but it applies across the entire entertainment industry. A huge part of what gave Will Smith more leverage is that he came to that show with a preexisting fan base from his career as a rapper. It’s best to work on building a fan base from the beginning of your career. Fans can help blunt some of the industry blows that come an artist’s way. For example, fans can launch campaigns to try to save a tv series; and sometimes it works. The existence of an active, vocal fan base can also help propel an artist’s career to the next level, or free them from having to deal with some of the industry’s “middle men.” Here’s an example of an independent musician who has built a platform for her work.
COMING NEXT IN BOOK REVIEWS
The next book review will feature the ebook, The Feminine Arts of Charm and Charisma, by Melina, blog host of The Art of Being Feminine.
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