Six friends, all spunky twenty–somethings, are living together in a vibrant city facing relationship drama, job struggles, and wacky hijinks. But no matter what happens, their bond remains strong. Any guesses on the sitcom’s name? Here’s a hint, it’s not Friends.
Living Single, created by Yvette Lee Bowser, premiered on FOX in 1993 and featured an all–Black cast of roommates living in Brooklyn, New York. It was an immediate and "unexpected" hit, according to Entertainment Weekly in 1994.
The characters are Khadijah (Queen Latifah), Synclaire (Kim Coles), Maxine or “Max” (Erika Alexander), Overton (John Henton), Regina or "Regine" (Kim Fields), Kyle (T.C. Carson), and finally, Ira or “Tripp” (Mel Jackson).
In the sitcom, extra emphasis was placed on developing an air of Black excellence to combat stereotypes about Black people. Khadijah and Max are best friends that met at Howard University, a prestigious Historically Black College and University. The characters' jobs include stockbroker, attorney, and magazine editor. Positive representation of Black people was central to the show, and the cast was cognizant of the power their portrayals held. In an interview with Blavity, Inc., Erika Alexander noted the importance of representation, saying, "Representation matters … there are people who have come up to me who are in positions of power, whether they are politicians or lawyers that saw Max and Kyle and Khadijah, and saw themselves in those positions."
The characters themselves are down–to–earth and have fun on the show. While consideration is given to racial issues, they aren’t bombarded with the stereotypical struggles that regularly overtake the lives of Black characters on television to the point where it becomes their personalities. Instead, they accurately represent Black people and their communities. “We had a brother who was wearing his hair in with locks working on Wall Street and a woman who was starting her own magazine. It was really powerful, and I think it still stands today,” Kim Coles said in an interview with Entertainment Tonight.
In the same interview, Coles notes that while the show was important for representing Black communities, it was a hit among many different audiences—even if some tried to say it wasn't. She elaborates with a touching anecdote, saying, "We kept being told that we were a Black show. But I remember going to the bank one time and this little old Jewish man … squeezed my arm and said 'Hello beautiful, I love that show with all you beautiful girls, I love it,' and he was nothing like the demographic they said we had, but he was watching because it reminded him of home."
Outside of the show's groundbreaking level of representation, the show is simply very fun to watch. The episodes are filled with wacky hijinks, with plot lines surrounding escorting a princess or battling to break a news story before another publication. It keeps audiences enthralled, and did so well—Living Single became so successful that after a year, NBC used the same formula of 'sitcom featuring friends in New York City' and aired Friends in 1994.
Some who worked on Living Single are skeptical of the originality of Friends, with Queen Latifah doubting it publicly during a 2017 appearance on Andy Cohen's show, Watch What Happens Live. "It was one of those things where it was a guy called Warren Littlefield that used to run NBC, and they asked him when all the new shows came out, they said, 'If there's any show you could have, which one would it be?' And he said, 'Living Single.' And then he created 'Friends,'" she said.
Soon after, Friends and Living Single were pitted against each other in a battle for audiences—and it wasn’t a fair fight. As Friends became popular, it received more promotion from NBC, while Living Single was left to flounder and slowly fade from the limelight by FOX. In the '90s up through today, anyone can walk into a gift shop in New York City and find Friends cups, t–shirts, pens, hats, calendars, and every other form of merchandise. In contrast, merch for Living Single was nowhere to be found.
Even worse, all pretenses were dropped when FOX moved Living Single from its prime Sunday night spot to Thursday to compete directly with Friends’ Thursday night spot on NBC. A stark polarization developed in which viewers had to choose between the sitcoms, and the rest is history. Friends went on to become a cultural juggernaut still popular today, and Living Single was canceled after five seasons.
“I was mad because we didn’t get any credit for it … We got no acknowledgment, that's what bothered me the most. It was too similar. It was six Black folks living in New York City versus six white folks living in New York City … they say Friends is the most creative show in the world but Yvette didn’t get that credit” said John Henton in an interview with Comedy Hype.
Regardless of its lack of longevity in comparison to Friends, the impact of Living Single can’t be understated or ignored. The sitcom pioneered one of the most successful TV show formulas in existence and deserves the credit for having done so, especially since too often, Black creators aren't credited for their work and even have their work stolen by their white counterparts.
In an interview with Comedy Hype, Carson said,“In a lot of ways [we were fighting for the respect] we were getting less than [the other shows]. And then they created Friends and gave them everything and both shows were Warners Brothers shows on Warner Brothers’ lots. To be on our lot and to watch that was really kind of a slap in the face.”
Although the lack of respect given to Living Single is disappointing, one can’t completely blame Friends. The powers that be at NBC made sure to choose a dynamic cast of actors with genuine chemistry and comedic skills to match.
However, does this mean that Living Single should be left in the dust as a sad reminder of how Black creators have been mistreated by Hollywood and the public itself? No. Media is forever, and accessible to almost anyone. People around the world watch their favorite series over and over again, with Friends being a common choice.
“Our work stands the test of time … We’re doing great in syndication … The show This Is Us referenced Living Single. I thought it was awesome, the fact that 26 years later people are still talking about us” said Henton to Comedy Hype.
Rather than rewatching Friends for the umpteenth time, take a look at Living Single and experience what it has to offer. Friends fans shouldn’t spend hours endlessly scrolling and binging recommended shows that are similar but don’t quite leave the same impact. If anything, out of all the sitcoms floating around, Living Single is the most equipped to fill the hole left behind after finishing Friends, and perhaps offer something more.