In the late 80’s and early 90’s, rap music and hip-hop culture were making the transition from under-the-radar phenomena to important parts of mass culture. One of the most popular rap acts to cross over during this time was D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. A key part of their appeal lay in their music videos, where charismatic front man Will Smith was able to put his charisma and comedic skills to use. So it was no surprise when Smith was a given a prime time sitcom to showcase his talents.
Executive produced by music legend Quincy Jones, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air placed Smith in a time-tested fish-out-of-water scenario. He played Will, a teen from Philadelphia who was sent off by his parents to live with relatives in posh Bel-Air, California when his old neighborhood got a little too intense.
Will’s new home was a mansion where he lived with his lawyer Uncle Phil and Aunt Vivian Banks. The wealthy Bankses had three children: aspiring preppy Carlton, the rather selfish and pampered Hilary, and Ashley, the youngest daughter. The family even had a butler, Geoffrey.
Will quickly made friends with the unpretentious Ashley, but otherwise frequently felt at odds with his new surroundings and family. They had attitudes, beliefs, and behavior patterns that seemed completely alien to him, so he coped with it the only way he knew how: humor. His favorite targets were Carlton’s shortness and Phil’s large appetite, and he would frequently trade verbal barbs with the two men. Surprisingly, he found an ally in Geoffrey, who had a tart sense of humor and could be every bit as sarcastic as Will in his own refined way.
Plot lines usually revolved around Will’s struggles to blend into his new surroundings, or his streetwise influence rubbing off on those around him. Each episode found plenty of room for comic repartee between Will and the others. However, the show could also be convincingly dramatic on occasion. In one memorable episode, Will’s long-departed father (played by guest star Ben Vereen) suddenly popped back up in his life, only to disappear just as quickly.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was an immediate hit and quickly became the most popular African-American-themed sitcom since The Cosby Show. It also became a hip place for African-American celebrities to make an appearance: Richard Roundtree, Naomi Campbell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Don Cheadle, Nia Long and many other talented actors and celebrities. The show also solidified its links to hip-hop culture with cameos from musicians like Tevin Campbell, Queen Latifah and Dr. Dre.
The show ended its network run in May of 1996 after six seasons and 146 episodes. It almost immediately went into re-runs and is still very popular today. It will always be fondly remembered by comedy and music fans alike for its blend of slick comedy and hip-hop style.
“Now… this is a story all about how
my life got flipped, turned upside down,
and I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there,
I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air…”
UK / NBC – Stuffed Dog – Quincy Jones Prod / 143×25 minute episodes 3×50 minute episodes / Broadcast 10 September 1990 – 20 May 1996
Creators: Andy Borowitz, Susan Borowitz / Executive Producers: Quincy Jones, Kevin Wendle, Susan Borowitz, Winifred Hervey Stallworth, Gary H. Miller
Will Smith as Himself
James Avery as Philip Banks
Janet Hubert-Whitten as Vivian Banks
Daphne Maxwell Reid as Vivian Banks; later
Karyn Parsons as Hilary Banks
Alfonso Ribeiro as Ashley Banks
Tatyana M. Ali as Ashley Banks
Joseph Marcell as Geoffrey
Ross Bagley as Nicholas “Nicky” Banks