Since leaving the air 20 years ago on Jan. 1, Living Single continues to resonate in the hearts of loyal fans. Its legacy alone has dismissed critics (i.e., Newsweek’s 1993 article with its “booty-shaking sugar mamas” comment), paving the way for shows like Insecure, and still reigns as a beloved fixture of black entertainment and pop culture.
The show’s creator—television writer and executive producer Yvette Lee Bowser, now 52—saw the need for a strong black female voice in the television landscape in the early 1990s. After leaving A Different World (she wrote the iconic 1992 wedding episode, “Save the Best for Last,” as her goodbye) for new opportunities, and while producing Hanging With Mr. Cooper, she created the concept for Living Single.
“I feel blessed that my vision and the characters have stuck with people through the decades. It’s a blessing to set out to make art, make TV and to end up making history. It feels great. It makes me smile, and it’s certainly something to be proud of,” Bowser tells The Root. “After A Different World went off the air, it left a void. There was no longer a platform for strong black female voices. Suddenly, I didn’t see myself. That was my impetus for creating the show.”
Inspired by the chronicles of her personal life, the show focused on six black 20-somethings living in a Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone juggling their love lives, careers, friendship and making sense of life in “a ’90s kind of world.”
Starring Queen Latifah (Khadijah), Kim Coles (Synclaire), Kim Fields (Regine), Erika Alexander (Max), T.C. Carson (Kyle) and John Henton (Overton), the show debuted on Aug. 22, 1993, after Martin, becoming an immediate ratings hit. Through Bowser’s production company, SisterLee, Living Single became one of the most popular sitcoms—ranking among the top five in African-American households for its entire five-year run. At age 27, Bowser made history by becoming the first black woman to develop a hit prime-time series.
“The blessing for me is that we’ve been on the air since ’93. Since the show premiered, it’s been on somebody’s network,” Living Single co-star Henton says of the show’s syndication. “There’s probably a marathon running of Living Singlesomewhere right now. Not bad for my first show.”
Actress-comedian Coles, who transitioned to Living Single from the sketch-comedy show In Living Color, recalls the “joy, laughter and hilarity” of being on set of Living Single.
“Laughter every single day. We actually became friends and did things together. A lot of people don’t know that T.C. and Erika—Max and Kyle—have the same birthday. I was there the day that they discovered it,” Coles says. “We’ve taken birthday trips together, we’ve celebrated relationships coming together, relationships falling apart. You become family. We made our crew laugh, we’ve gotten on our crew’s nerves. We had a magical connection. The experience that I’ve had on Living Single overall has raised the bar for me of what I want on a set going forward.”
Carson says that what he thought “was just another job” he’d booked turned into his “making friendships that would last a lifetime.”
“I feel grateful and blessed to … have been a part of something that has that type of impact. To be a part of something that was that iconic. Not everybody gets the chance in their life to be a part of something like that,” Carson says.
Mentoring a new generation of television writers, Bowser calls her career of producing shows and telling stories that resonate with audiences “one of the greatest privileges, responsibilities and joys” of her life.
The Root talked with cast members about the show’s legacy (Queen Latifah and Kim Fields were unavailable).
On the show being celebrated today:
Kim Coles: Well it absolutely warms my heart when people come up and say, “You’re part of my childhood,” “I was like you.” People call me Synclaire or go “So-and-so is my favorite character” or “Thank you so much for being such a positive view of young black people.” So, it has been an incredible ride, and I knew from the moment that we first all six sat down to read the script that it was going to be magical. Like, I knew immediately that we were meant to be together and I had a strong feeling that it would last; I had no idea that it would last this long, and the legacy has lasted this long, but I’m so grateful. It’s been a fun ride, an absolute fun ride.
John Henton: That’s the biggest blessing for me, that people still love it after all of these years. When I was growing up it was Good Times, Sanford and Son, the great shows of that era. Nobody had ever seen young black stockbrokers, black lawyers, black publishers. Even though I was a handyman, I was proud and I was good at what I did. These were young people on the go, coming up. It was fresh, it was new, and it’d never been done before.
What they like about their characters:
T.C. Carson: His commitment to his people and his culture. That was the thing I wanted to push with that character. We hadn’t really seen that on TV from a black man who was in the position he was in. A black man that worked on Wall Street that was a stockbroker that had the kind of financial influence that he had. He was also an amalgamation of quite a few people in my life: my father, a lawyer friend of mine, a couple of doctor friends of mine. So I pulled from the people that I knew to create this persona of this person who I thought we should see.
Erika Alexander: I had a history of having strong women around me. I went to an all-girls high school, I’ve been taught by really strong women, my mother is a strong woman. When I see Max, I see Whoopi Goldberg, I see Cicely Tyson, I see those strong ’70s women that I grew up looking at. She was a young black woman with dark skin who had a career. Most importantly, she was sexually free and did not apologize for being strong or smart, and she certainly didn’t apologize for liking sex.
JH: Overton was simple, but he was smart. He had his own homespun wisdom. People always laugh, but he was the smartest guy on the show. He just had a crazy country way of putting it, but he knew exactly what was going on. Maybe he wasn’t college-educated, but he knew what was up. He had that old-school wisdom, and the fact that he was in love with Synclaire—that was his woman, that was his goal in life. To get with that woman. And he made that happen.
KC: Synclaire is a piece of who I am. I’m an awkward black girl; I always have been. I think that Synclaire allowed me to embrace that and be weird and be a unicorn, and be all right with it. She gave other young black girls or other women, in general, an opportunity to embrace being weird or different or a little quirky. So she’s very much who I am at my core. I’m less naive than she is, and I don’t like trolls like she does, but that childlike curiosity of the world, loving on people, is who I am at the core.
The relationship with Yvette Lee Bowser:
Yvette Lee Bowser: They were extraordinarily talented, and they had chemistry like no other. Immediately! We caught lightning in a bottle when we assembled this cast, and that’s what you have to do to be in contention to have a hit show. You really need to capture that chemistry. It takes skill and it takes luck. Each of the actors cared about their characters in such a way that they brought a new dimension to them.
KC: I don’t know if Yvette gets the credit that she’s due. She was just seasoned and just so smart. She was smart and beautiful and really cared deeply about creating an experience for the audience that was uplifting. And I know today we use the word “woke.” We had several topics that could fall into the woke category, and you have Yvette to thank for that.
JH: She was cool. She was very giving. We would always go meet with Yvette and talk about the character and pitch some ideas. They would go and write it, but she was always open to our opinions, and anytime where a line wasn’t working, then you’d have something in your back pocket that you could try, and if it did work, they’d put it in the show. I liked the freedom, and Yvette afforded us that.
TCC: The episode dealing with Kyle’s hair because it showed how we do each other, because the bosses didn’t have a problem with my hair, but the brother that I worked with did. When I got to sing “My Funny Valentine” and “A Rage in Harlem,” when we went back to the jazz club days.
JH: The Thanksgiving episode with Heavy D; that was one of my favorites. And the holiday shows: Overton with the pink Santa Claus suit that shrunk.
KC: “Misleading Lady,” when Synclaire wanted to audition for a theater group and they were not taking any more women, so she dressed up as a man. I loved the sideburns; I looked like Sinbad. It was a really funny episode and really fun to play, to dress up as a dude. They had to bind my breasts, and what’s funny is that my breast wouldn’t stay down. [Laughs.]
EA: When we went back in time in the ’50s and they were like the Supremes, and Khadijah stole Max’s position as the lead singer in the group, and when T.C. sang “My Funny Valentine.” Every time they dealt with music, I liked it ’cause T.C. usually sings.
YLB: I loved the 100th episode, where we flashbacked to how they all came to live together when Synclaire moved to New York. Max, Regine and Khadijah had originally lived together, and they had this epic fight that led to Max moving across the street. That was a real [wish] fulfillment for me because when I conceived the show, originally, all four lived together. Then executive input caused me to make the decision to have Max live across the street to add some comedy to that. So I always wanted to come back and revisit the original concept that Max had lived with them.
Their thoughts on possibly revisiting the characters in a reboot:
TCC: It would be a great opportunity to be able to tell the story of what’s going on right now and how we are a resilient people, even through the things that are going on in this country. The love that we have for each other, the love that we have for our culture and our friends, is still stronger than the hate that somebody has for us. As long as we didn’t go back, as long as we’re moving forward with these people—who these people are at this stage—it would be great. I would love working with my friends again.
KC: I’m sure that Synclaire and Overton are still together and I’m sure they’re still happy, and I’m sure that Synclaire has grown into the woman she’s supposed to be. She’s still awkward, yummy, goofy and loving life. If it happens, I would absolutely embrace it.
JH: Did they have their twins Syncloverton and Overclaire? I would imagine that they’re still together and they’ve got kids in college by now. It’ll be a different dynamic, but they would still be a great couple. Just still in love and still having fun ’cause that’s just the way they are. I did a comedy show with Kim Coles, and we just talked about so much, and anytime we have a chance to get together, we just have so much fun.
EA: I can only imagine that a character like her, if her core is to be an individual and be strong, maybe she is in something that is totally against her being a lawyer. Totally in something with her being in constant with who she is, and her trying to walk through it. I don’t know what that is exactly, but I’d definitely put her in the hot seat. I think that’s what happens in your 40s. All the confidence you once had you start to lack. Sometimes you lose your way a bit. It would be interesting.
YLB: I haven’t been able to go into that kind of detail ’cause that could be telling you what’s in my head. I will tell you that anything is possible ’cause these characters are always alive in my mind. They live inside of me, so I’ll just say that. [Laughs.]
Ashley G. Terrell is a girl who prides herself on turning lemons into lemonade. Ava DuVernay once slid into her DMs and called her writing “lovely,” and so it was.