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A Cosby for Our Time?

As far as Damon Wayans is concerned, father really does know best, and he set out to prove it on the hit family comedy 'My Wife and Kids.'

November 25, 2001|GREG BRAXTON | Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer

In a past life, Damon Wayans has been a bum carrying a large jar with an unappealing-looking pickle preserved in a murky fluid.

He has been a flamboyant gay critic giving "two snaps up to movies, TV shows and 'mens.' "

He has been a militant clown beating unsuspecting kids over the head with a weighted sock.

And he has been an uptight TV executive whose creation of a prime-time minstrel show leads to tragedy.

Wayans has now taken on probably the most unlikely role of his career: He has become Bill Cosby.

Well, not quite.

In appearance and attitude, Wayans remains the mischievously sharp comic whose off-the-wall characters on "In Living Color" were among the highlights of the outrageous sketch comedy series. He still has the gleam in his eye that distinguishes his adult-flavored stand-up routines. And he still has the shaved head and muscular build seen in films such as "Bamboozled" (2000), his superhero romp "Blankman" (1994) and "The Last Boy Scout" (1991).

As the fun-loving but discipline-minded father in ABC's family sitcom "My Wife and Kids," Wayans won't be found wearing collegiate sweaters and dispensing advice in the laid-back way Cosby did in the groundbreaking "The Cosby Show," a series that single-handedly resurrected the family sitcom in the 1980s as it became a ratings and cultural phenomenon.

But in other ways, Wayans is being compared to Cosby, while "My Wife and Kids" is being compared to "The Cosby Show." Like his predecessor, Wayans is the primary creative force and voice behind the family series, now in its second season after premiering last March. And like "The Cosby Show," "My Wife and Kids" is a mostly housebound series in which the father is so successful in his job that he gets to hang around the house--a lot.

"Of course, no one has done this kind of show as well as Cosby, but we did look at the Cosby blueprint," Wayans said early this month as he relaxed during lunch at an Italian restaurant in Burbank, only a few miles from the Walt Disney Studios where "My Wife and Kids" tapes.

"We neutralize race," he adds. "When we were putting it together, we thought of what Cosby did right. He was smart on his show; the kids couldn't pull things over on him. The stories have a definite universality, and the main theme is 'I'm not your friend. I'm your dad, and I'll be your dad until I die.' It's about a father being a disciplinarian."

"My Wife and Kids" stars Wayans as Michael Kyle, the owner of a successful delivery truck company. His wife, Janet (Tisha Campbell-Martin), is a part-time stockbroker. He has three children: 16-year-old Jr. Kyle (George O. Gore II), 15-year-old Claire (Jennifer Nicole Freeman) and 5-year-old Kady (Parker McKenna Posey).

The series has become a solid hit for ABC and is one of the comedic bright spots for the network this season after the failure of "Bob Patterson," which starred Jason Alexander, and the struggling fortunes of "Dharma & Greg" and "The Drew Carey Show." "My Wife and Kids" is winning its 8 p.m. Wednesday time slot and averaging a weekly audience of nearly 12 million viewers.

Network executives are crediting the show with revitalizing ABC's tradition of family comedies, which has fallen on hard times in the past few years, leading the network to abandon its once-powerful youth-oriented TGIF comedies.

Even more significantly, "My Wife and Kids" has become the first major-network family sitcom revolving around an African American comedian since "The Cosby Show" to achieve wide popularity with white audiences. It is also the first black family sitcom to succeed on one of the major networks since NBC's "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" went off the air in 1996.

Several other series about black families have been popular with ethnic audiences, but the lack of crossover appeal hurt them, with executives reasoning that advertisers want to reach the widest possible audience. "The Hughleys," starring comedian D.L. Hughley as a successful business owner moving to a white suburb with his family, came the closest but lasted only two seasons on ABC before getting the boot because of lackluster ratings. (The series moved in 2000 to UPN, where it is one of the network's anchor comedies.)

Other past series in the African American family genre include "The Parent 'Hood" with Robert Townsend and "Me and the Boys," starring Steve Harvey as a single father raising three sons. The jury is still out on Fox's "The Bernie Mac Show," although the comedy drew critical acclaim and high ratings in initial airings.

"The Hughleys" focused on the culture clash involved with Hughley's character adjusting to his white neighbors and suburban lifestyle. But key to the success of "My Wife and Kids" and its connection to its viewers, say Wayans and others associated with the comedy, is that the stories and humor have virtually nothing to do with race. Like "The Cosby Show," the plots revolve around universal family dilemmas that pit children and teens against their parents.

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