Kenya Barris Talks Netflix Plans, #MeToo and His Unusual Career Path at USC Comedy Festival


Showrunner Kenya Barris offered a glimpse of one of the projects he is pursuing now that he has relocated to Netflix during a wide-ranging discussion Saturday night held as part of the USC Comedy Festival.

“I can say this,” Barris teased. “I want to reboot what a family show is.”

Barris spoke with filmmaker Tim Story during the packed session at USC’s Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre.

The showrunner was on campus to take part in the Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie Masters of Comedy Lecture Series at the fourth edition of USC’s School of Cinema Arts gathering focused on comedy. Attendees at Barris’ session heard an inspiring discussion about the future of the industry, the power of comedy and a tiny glimpse of what to expect from the “Black-ish” creator now that he’s relocated to Netflix. Students in the crowd were buzzing about the $100 million pact Barris signed earlier this year after ending his deal with ABC Studios.

As Story noted, the success of Barris’ shows on broadcast and cable TV made him an in-demand player for Netflix, which has been spending eye-popping money to recruit such A-list showrunners as Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy and Jenji Kohan. Story asked Barris how he will be able to quantify his worth in a world where Netflix does not report ratings for its shows — not even to its creative partners.

“You don’t know and that’s good, because you’re not chasing ratings, but I feel like you still have to be aware,” Barris said, explaining that social media is key. “The digital footprint is a really big indicator of your success. Make sure that you have a plan to make that digital footprint seen, to track it, to try to grow it. Because that is going to really affect your longevity, your success.”

Barris’ career came with a few false starts — some of which he recalled for the crowd. First, there were aspirations to become a doctor. But those ended after Barris realized organic chemistry homework was his kryptonite. After graduating from Clark Atlanta, Barris’ mom got him a job as a press secretary for longtime Los Angeles City Council member Nate Holden. He hated that, too — especially all the ill-fitting suits he had to wear.

Then came stand-up, which went better — until he saw Chris Tucker work out material at an open mic in the mid-’90s. By chance, Wesley Snipes was in the audience — not long after the wild ride that sent police chasing Snipes down Florida’s Turnpike. Tucker called Snipes out for the incident.

“Coming from him, it was beyond funny,” Barris recalled. “I was like, ‘I will never be able to do that.’ I will never have that ability to just get up and have whatever I say be as naturally good as that.”

What stuck, after all that, was the passion to write relatable stories. Inspired by his wife, Spike Lee (“He didn’t water down his voice,” Barris noted), Norman Lear, James Baldwin, and the prolific film and TV work of Judd Apatow (“I wanted to be the black Judd Apatow”), among others, Barris made a run at Hollywood.

But the writer’s life, of course, came with its own challenges. In particular, there was the grueling writing schedule on Jason Alexander’s short-lived “Listen Up,” which had a room that often ran till 2 or 3 in the morning. Barris was not asked to come back because his boss said he was falling asleep on the job.

“Well, yeah, motherf——,” he quipped, “it was 3 o’clock in the morning!”

Despite the split with ABC — which played out amicably — Barris will is still serving as an exec producer on “Black-ish,” that skein’s meme-inspired spin-off “Grown-ish,” and forthcoming series “Besties.” Before his departure, the network also gave a pilot production commitment to Barris’ reboot of “Bewitched” which will reimagine the classic sitcom as a half-hour single-cam revolving around an African-American Samantha who marries a mortal white man.

Also on deck is a feature reboot of “Shaft,” penned by Barris and directed by Story, and that mystery Netflix family series. He’s also working on an animated Bob Marley project, which he described at USC as less a Marley story and more a love letter. (“The same way ‘Moana’ was a love letter to the South Pacific, or ‘Coco’ was a love letter to Mexico, it’ll be “a love letter to Jamaica.”) And he hopes to direct the “Last Dragon” reboot he’s writing. (“That’s something I want to do, but I want to do it right.”)

Looking farther into the future, Barris said he’s excited to see how streaming services experiment with “choose your own adventure” style stories — à la the popular “Goosebumps” books. He encouraged those looking to follow his footsteps to fully learn their craft (everything from budgeting to how to talk to writers), to not be anxious about taking baby steps to success, and to be willing to exit a conversation different than how you entered it — especially in our politically divisive climate.

The conversation also touched on the impact of the #MeToo movement. Barris said the movement has been important but he is concerned about the issue of tackling the harassment problem as coming down to women vs. men.

“I was so happy, finally, there was a voice given to these people,” Barris said. “But at the same time, I felt like there was a narrative that was being produced that it was women against men. It wasn’t. It was women and everyone against monsters. We can’t forget that we all have something to say, and that there’s room for growth on both sides.”

Before Barris left the stage, he asked the audience of student filmmakers to consider the responsibility of comedy: “Someone’s going to see [what you make], and you may not know it, but it’s going to change their life,” he said. “That’s what our job is, that’s what true art is: It’s to start a conversation that makes this world better.”

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