Author Chris Palmer on Why People Still Love ‘The Fresh Prince’
Like any 90s baby, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was beloved in my house when I was growing up. It feels like a seminal nostalgic touchstone for millennials, most of whom could recite the lyrics to its iconic opening theme or perhaps even dance ‘the Carlton’ if so prompted. As Will Smith’s star rose and constant TV reruns kept introducing generations of fans to the show, it continues to linger in the public consciousness. Retrospectives have praised the show’s highlights, particularly an episode where Will Smith’s character’s absent father returns.
The show even had a recent reunion special for HBO Max that earned praise and attention for Will Smith’s interaction and eventual reconciliation with Janet Hubert, the original actress who played Aunt Viv who was let go from the show after the show’s third season and replaced by Daphne Maxwell Reid. A modern-day and more-dramatic reboot of the show, entitled simply Bel-Air, is currently streaming on Peacock.
The show, its appeal, and its enduring legacy are at the heart of Chris Palmer’s new book, The Fresh Prince Project: How the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Remixed America. It is an engaging text and an absolute must-read for fans of the show that clarifies and contextualizes the behind-the-scenes aspects that influenced the production of the series. I had the opportunity to chat with Chris (@ChrisPalmerNBA) about such things and what event depicted in the book he’d most like to witness, his favorite character, and what inspired him to write it.
In thinking about the show and the book, you do such a good job of contextualizing the show. Was there a discovery you made that really surprised you?
The thing I was grappling with at first was where do I start the book. Well, I’m going to start the book at the beginning, so what’s the beginning? The show debuted in September of 1990, so let’s start there. Then, I quickly realized that wasn’t even close to the beginning, that was many stages down the line. And so, I started to work backward on a couple of different paths. The first was how the show came together: the casting, and where these folks come from. And then, I was like ‘Who are these people?’ Everyone has an origin story, everyone’s from somewhere. So, I went back even further and began with how they got into acting, and just kind of tried to shed some light on who they were as people, why they were drawn to acting, how they found themselves in this audition, and how they became a family. I started actually in the middle, and then I started to go back.
The other path that I had to deal with is that the Fresh Prince is not the first sitcom to center around a Black family. So, I was like, ‘how did we arrive at this point where this show is now going on air? What were [its] predecessors?’ Family Matters had come out a year before. The Cosby Show is a seminal show, not just for Black sitcoms, but just in general. Going back even before that to Diff’rent Strokes to The Jeffersons to Good Times, I basically went all the way back and started my research from that point of view instead of starting at the first episode of The Fresh Prince, which took me a long time to lead up to. That’s what surprised me the most about the research and reporting process.
One of the things that sticks out the most is how well you depict specific events, like the initial party at Quincy Jones’ house where he is introduced to Will Smith. You do an impressive job of honing in on those moments. If you could witness any event that you depict in the book, what would it be?
That’s a good question. I would [witness] the one you mentioned, the Quincy Jones party, just to see how Will Smith became the Fresh Prince right in front of everyone in that room. He was very green; he didn’t know how to act. And then to see Quincy in all of his glory, just commanding all these people, and sipping wine in this beautiful, opulent room. And they’re just there to figure out if this guy could carry the show. It never happens like that.
That’s one of these stories you never hear about when a show comes together. Usually, shows typically come together when a showrunner or creator has an idea. Then it’s who can we cast, let’s bring them in, talk to them, see their availability, all this stuff. But Will’s was this wild, off-the-cuff party atmosphere. It was Quincy’s birthday, so it was a celebration. And Quincy’s like ‘well, it’s my birthday, let’s do a little work! Let’s have this kid audition.’ Just to see Will ad-libbing and freestyling, and all the people in the room and their reactions would be a pretty awesome thing to see.
In the book, you reflect on relationships. For example, I didn’t realize how close James Avery (Uncle Phil) and Joseph Marcell (Geoffrey, the Banks family’s butler) were until I read the book. Was there something different with this cast compared to other successful sitcoms?
Yeah, casts, in a lot of cases, do gel pretty well when they do. But it’s really hard to pinpoint why they gelled. They enjoy each other’s company, but that’s how people gel. But in terms of something specific, those are impossible to answer kind of questions, because no one really knows. It’s like a basketball team: it has chemistry. Some teams can have really good players, but they don’t have good chemistry. It’s very hard to pinpoint why they go together, sometimes they just fit together, and sometimes you just get lucky.
I think they were genuinely all very empathetic and unselfish people, and that helps a lot when it comes to chemistry and when it comes to people getting along. So, they had that. Support is key, they were very supportive of one another. You want to be around people like that, you want to gravitate toward people that care about you, that support you, and want you to be well. I think that’s the kind of magic that this cast had, there was really no selfishness.
Alfonso Ribeiro & Will Smith talking about the iconic Carlton Dance. #FreshPrinceReunion pic.twitter.com/FVsWWYinzD
— Geeks of Color (@GeeksOfColor) November 19, 2020
Do you have a favorite character?
I like them all so much. I started watching the show because of Will, but when Carlton is in his Carlton-mode, to me, he’s probably the most entertaining person on the show because he’s playing a character that’s not really like himself. People think that’s how Alfonso Ribeiro is, they think he’s kind of stiff, a stuffy person. But he’s a super, widely talented person, and how he dives into that character full tilt with no shame is a real credit to his acting ability. My favorite thing about Carlton is he knows who he is and he’s unafraid of that. You can make fun of him all you want, but it never really hurts him, never really affects him, because he’s so secure in who he is. That’s one of the reasons I really like the character of Carlton.
We’re coming upon a year since the infamous slap. I’m wondering if you think that has tarnished the show’s legacy?
I don’t think it’s going to affect the legacy of the show at all, because the nostalgia happened before that incident. I think they’re two separate things. People love The Fresh Prince for very specific reasons and the nostalgia that it creates. People just hold onto that, and I don’t think that will go away. From my interactions with people who talk to me about the book and the show, it hasn’t gone away at all. I think the show will always endure and people will always love it because it will never not be The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
That’s what people want to enjoy. There were serious topics mixed in with all the broad, funny humor, but at its core, it was a comedy. And comedies make you laugh. So, if you watch The Fresh Prince now, you still laugh. I was watching an episode just recently, and I was just laughing my head off even though I had seen it so many times. So, I think that the legacy of The Fresh Prince is incredibly enduring, and will live on because the show means so much to so many people. You can’t really take that away.
Was there a moment when you realized this was the topic you wanted to write about?
Well, Will, you’re a fan of 80s and 90s nostalgia, and you read and write about it. Same thing with me, that’s kind of how it started. And so, I’d read up on everything, whether it’s music, fashion, film, art, or anything from that era, I just love that stuff. I was like ‘hey, you know, The Fresh Prince is one of my favorite shows, I’d love to read a book about it!’ And so, I Googled it to look for it, and I quickly realized one didn’t exist, so I wrote it. That’s pretty much the inspiration of the book because it simply didn’t exist. I wanted to read about it, I wanted to know who these people were, and I wanted to tell their stories.
Everyone has a story that should be told. That was a huge thing for me, I love origin stories, and everyone has one. Who were these characters that entertained us and took a lead role in helping create that nostalgia that we love so much? I just wanted to read about the show and learn more about it, because it’s a show now that’s 30 years old. You can watch the reruns; you can do all this stuff. But the memories of the people who populated the show, especially behind the scenes, will begin to fade away. And a lot of people will never learn about them, so now that I’ve talked with a lot of these people, they’ve given me their stories so hopefully, they can live on. It’s what they deserve for creating the show that we love so much.
What’s next for you?
I’m figuring out whether I’ll do another nonfiction book, there are a couple of topics that are in play, but I’m not really certain. But I hope to have the idea nailed down hopefully in the next month, and just pick up right where I left off. It has to be something that I’m really intrigued by, and that I can really dive into. I love researching heavy, intense stuff.