Once upon a time, there was a TV network called the WB, and its mascot was a frog. Michigan J. Frog to be exact, a character from an old Warner Bros. cartoon who occasionally broke into an Al Jolson routine. Kind of an odd choice for a late-20th-century mascot, but he was cheap to license, and in those money-losing early years of the WB that was nothing to croak about. Why was there even a WB network, anyway? Because in the early ’90s, the federal government lifted its longtime ban on networks owning studios. Sensing a new gold rush, media bigwigs converted scores of indie TV stations across North America into WB affiliates, hoping to turn low-cost content into fast cash.
Well, the frog did not become a handsome prince and things did not end happily ever after. The WB found itself upstaged by dozens of cable channels that began spending massively on TV production. Ultimately the WB and rival mini-network UPN were merged into the CW, which is still around.... mostly. Still, the WB’s decade or so on the air was not without its storybook moments. There was Buffy and Dawson’s and Charmed, and in its earliest years the WB gave us Steve Harvey and Jamie Foxx.
The year was 1996. The WB’s first prime-time lineup had arrived the year before — ten comedies on Sunday and Wednesday nights — and most of them failed. They failed to be distinct from the usual network fare, and they failed to find an audience. (Historically, WB/UPN/CW shows have finished at the very bottom of the Nielsen TV ratings, but were targeted at a small and potentially lucrative slice of the viewing audience, usually young adults.) There were two exceptions from that first season, though. Both were “urban sitcoms,” in the coded industry parlance for comedies with mostly Black talent. One was the Mowry twins’ Sister Sister, the other was The Wayans Bros. with Keenen and Damon Wayans, best known for their breakthrough sketch show In Living Color.
Outside of HBO, almost no TV shows at the time had Black men or women in leading roles. Jamie Kellner, the first network chief at the WB, had put In Living Color on Fox, so he wasn’t surprised that the WB’s “urban sitcoms” had found an audience. And he ordered three more for the fall of 1996: The Parent ’Hood with Robert Townsend, The Steve Harvey Show and The Jamie Foxx Show. Townsend was the best-known of the three initially, thanks to his film credits (Hollywood Shuffle, The Five Heartbeats). But Harvey and Foxx were rising comics who, if they were white, probably would’ve been starring in sitcoms already. Other than the race of the stars, there was little notable about any of these early WB sitcoms, but they all had respectable runs, and it was, after all, network television. For Harvey and Foxx, these eponymous shows would wind up launching them into the next stratosphere of fame.
And now one of them is back in the sitcom business. In the two decades since his run at the WB, Jamie Foxx has picked up an Oscar, laid down a double-platinum record, and amassed a body of acting work that reflects consistently good choices, whether in drama or action or animation. So why is he starring in something called Dad Stop Embarrassing Me!?
Well, aside from the fact that it’s Netflix, which puts the $$ in show busine$$, I’ll put out this wild guess. I’ll bet that Jamie Foxx knows that his show on the WB wasn’t that good. And that if he and his showrunner, Bentley Kyle Evans — who was also his showrunner on The Jamie Foxx Show — had more creative freedom back then, and a little more mileage under their belts, they’d have made a better show.
And guess what? They have! But you’re going to need to be patient with Dad Stop Embarrassing Me because, like many sitcoms, this one is being tuned as it goes along. For the first 15 minutes or so of the pilot episode, I was staring stone-faced at the screen. Nothing funny or interesting was coming out of the very stock characters’ mouths. And then at some point — I think it was when the mariachi band showed up — I laughed out loud. And the laughs kept coming. By the middle of the second episode I was absolutely helpless.
So here’s the setup: Foxx plays Brian Dixon, an Atlanta businessman living single. He inherited a cosmetics business from his late mother and a teenage daughter named Sasha (played by Kyla-Drew) from his ex-wife, who has recently passed. His father, a pot-smoking ex-con played by David Alan Grier, lives out back in the pool house. His sister Chelsea (Porscha Coleman) comes over to annoy him and to hook up with his white buddy, a cop named Johnny (Jonathan Kite).
The pilot opens with Brian and Sasha in therapy — sex therapy, it turns out, the result of a Huge Misunderstanding that probably was funnier on paper. Between the sitcommy repetition of lines to amp up the hilarity (e.g., saying “Black people don’t go to therapy” over and over) and the multi-camera, laugh-track format (at least I assume it’s a laugh track, since it was filmed during the pandemic), I did feel like I was watching a not very good throwback urban comedy at first.
Although it's called Dad Stop Embarrassing Me, the adult banter and plumes of reefer are tells that this is no family sitcom. In an early scene, Brian wards off the aggressive moves of a sexy employee, then pivots to the camera and tells viewers, “Back in the day I would try to knock all the spice off that jerk chicken!” According to Netflix the show “is inspired by Foxx’s real-life relationship with daughter Corinne Foxx,” although Chuck Lorre’s popular sex comedies for CBS are also clearly an influence. And when Foxx breaks the fourth wall, it reminds me of nothing so much as another classic Black sitcom, The Bernie Mac Show (which you may or may not recall was created by Larry Wilmore, himself heading back into the sitcom arena).
Foxx is multitalented, so we see him sing, do impressions, and even play different characters. In my opinion, though, neither Foxx nor his eye-rolling daughter is what makes this show stand out. For that I give credit to David Alan Grier, who’s sporting a Harry Edwards look these days and is channeling another Foxx, namely Redd, in his role as grizzled old Pops. Grier can take lines like, “Three death-row inmates requested my gumbo as their last meal because I cook it real slow,” and extract full hilarity from them, not an easy thing.
Also, you know a show is adjusting on the fly when a “recurring character” suddenly starts getting more lines than some cast members. Here it’s Heather Hemmens (If Loving You Is Wrong), who plays Stacy, an employee of Brian’s and, once again, an inappropriate love interest for him. She’s also a good soul, a good listener and a bridge between father and daughter — just what this show full of abrasive personalities needed.
I realize that saying Dad Stop Embarrassing Me! is better than a 25-year-old WB sitcom is not exactly high praise. So I will also say it’s better than most other recent Netflix sitcoms (Country Comfort comes to mind), and that I admire how it incorporates racial issues that are on the minds of everyone who will be watching this show in 2021. And the season is blessedly short, with just eight 22-minute episodes to get through — seven if you skip the less-than-stellar pilot. Give it a go.
Dad Stop Embarrassing Me! drops on Netflix April 14th.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.