‘Living Single’ creator Yvette Lee Bowser spills the lessons of the last black renaissance
Twenty-five years after her indelible sitcom, she is on board for ‘Dear White People’ and it’s better than ever
Go ahead and curtsy for Yvette Lee Bowser. The show creator/showrunner responsible for the creation of the iconic Living Single, and for writing on and producing shows such as A Different World, Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper and Half & Half, is showrunning season two of Netflix’s relatable, relevant and well-received Dear White People.
“The show at its core is about identity,” Lee Bowser told The Undefeated. “We wanted to crack these characters wide-open this season, get a deeper look inside them and get a sense of why they make the moves they make.”
Lee Bowser’s wholly influential Living Single (Fox) was the blueprint that NBC used to create Friends. And for three decades now, she’s created culture and stories and characters that stick with you. We take a step back with the towering talent to reflect on Living Single, a show that went off the air 20 years ago this year but has found a new audience thanks to its brilliance — and to streaming.
You’re showrunning Dear White People. It’s back for season two, which feels a little more lived-in.
I love both seasons. And I do believe that season two is an organic escalation and deepening of aspects of the show we established in season one. When I took on the responsibility of mentoring [show creator] Justin Simien and running the show, there were ideas in place that we explored together without staff. … We poured the concrete together for season two. It’s the natural evolution of the show because I think it’s so well-made and planned out — if I do say so myself! A big part of how I approach any show is planning, planning, planning. Knowing where you’re going, but also leaving lots of room for discovery … for characters to breathe energy into moments and give you unexpected things.
Where did you get the courage to walk in a room 25 years ago and pitch a series about young black women? That wasn’t happening on television back then.
The courage came from youthful ignorance of how the door might be blown in my face! I just went headfirst. Fox and Warner Bros. had talent holding deals with Queen Latifah and Kim Coles, and both of those ladies had had pilots offered by nonblack writers. When they made their deal, they insisted that their studio at least give the opportunity to someone black to pitch a concept, so they came to me. They didn’t have a specific idea. They had a loose idea, but it was definitely a buddy comedy that focused on the two of them. They were both very talented. I knew it wasn’t the right idea … they needed to be surrounded by other more seasoned actors for them to grow and also come across as comfortable.
So where did you start with the concept?
I decided I was gonna tell my personal truth, which is what I’d been doing on A Different World before that. … I just decided to rip another page from my diary and create Living Single — tell personal stories of myself and my friends trying to make sense of love and life in the big city. … I’ve always been blessed to have good friends. I think there was a lot of wish-fulfillment in that ‘true blue, tight like glue!’ It was so obvious that I had to do it. It wasn’t without its challenges.
There were some men involved in the show who thought that Max was a very strong and brassy character — and they wanted me to take that character out of the show. I walked, obviously. … To take Max out of the show was to take me out of the show. They were like, ‘Whoa, now. Wait a minute!’ When they said, ‘Well, leave her in the show but find a different way to have her in the show,’ they wanted me to limit her role, which I didn’t really do, but I moved her out of the brownstone and across the street. I figured I’d get more comedy from her always still being there but having her own place. It was a win/win, but it was the art of … hearing the note behind the note and realizing there wasn’t really a discussion to be had with them about how intimidated they were by the character of this black woman. I had no intention of toning her down at all. … I made an adjustment … and the rest, as we say, is history.
You’re the first African-American woman to develop her own prime-time series — major.
A lot of it was my youthful ignorance. What? Wait. This is a big deal? No black woman has done this before? I didn’t know that. I didn’t know any of that! I didn’t know that I was the first black woman to get a show on the air. I didn’t know that until press started telling me that.
Not only were you the first person who looked like you to do this, but you also reminded and showed networks that black folks or Latino folks are a viable audience.
That just reinforces [the idea] that we should all be true to ourselves and persist even when doors are being closed on us or others. But also it’s unfortunate. … I know the powers that be felt they could make more money — that being in the black could equal green. They didn’t really respect that as much as they seem to respect it now. … A lot of us — in our art, our voices — were used to build networks and then [were] disposed of. Looking back, that’s a hard reality to face, but I’m really happy to be part of what is presently an amazing black renaissance. I’m glad I didn’t give up. … I’ve mentored hundreds of people in this industry and various areas, and that’s been a blessing to me, but there’s definitely been times when the door was closed and black was not en vogue. … I’m happy to still be part of our movement because our stories need to be told. … We have thousands of points of view that haven’t been depicted in the media.
What kept you fueled in the interim? Because you’re right: After such a great moment in the mid- to late ’90s of seeing representations of black stories on television, there was a long moment where we weren’t seeing any of us on television — after you’d so successfully made that happen. Were you fighting behind closed doors? What was happening?
I was in the lab. I was in the lab. I kept writing. I just persisted. I was selling pilots, I was making a living. I feel very fortunate. There are others who’ve been less fortunate and there are people who have given up, but I just continued to write and tell my story and be involved and mentor because this is where I knew I was supposed to be. I believed I was supposed to be here. I also believe that I will be done with it before it’s done with me. That’s my rule.
What is your secret sauce? Everything you did was a hit back then and is still relevant — minus the Cross Colours outfits and rayon shirts!
Honesty. Speaking the truth. Truth is funnier than fiction. I really made up very little. It’s just like, type some honesty. … I don’t mean to oversimplify it, but that is the secret sauce … telling not only my truth but the truth of those around me and those in the world that I know beyond myself. I read. I have a strong sense of what’s happening with people outside my inner circle, and that’s important, but oftentimes you’ll find that your personal story is much more universal than you would think. It really is.
When it was announced that Living Single was coming to Hulu, social media went nuts. What did it mean to you that characters you created, characters you fought for, were still so loved?
I’m grateful. It’s humbling. For a person who’s a wordsmith, it makes me speechless.
It’s gotta feel amazing. I hope you knew before that moment how important your work has always been, but it feels like that social media moment was an exclamation point on the fact that what you did really mattered.
You absolutely worded that beautifully. It’s an exclamation point. An exclamation point on a sentence that I had no idea was as powerful as it was as I was writing it.