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Author Chris Palmer On Exploring The History And Impact Of ‘The Fresh Prince’

The legacy that the original ’90s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air holds is undeniable. It was a case study in making hip-hop culture more palatable and accessible to mainstream audiences while, at the same time, perfecting how to depict the complexities of Black identity in a sitcom format. It also launched the acting career of Will Smith, one of the biggest box office draws in history and a three-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner).

Still, with all of the cultural cachet the NBC show had, it ached for a definitive and academic exploration of how it came to be and why it still means so much to fans. Chris Palmer saw the need for this kind of deep-dive and used the skills he’s acquired over a long career covering the NBA to conduct the necessary interviews and research to share important stories and dispel longstanding rumors about the show.

Years later, The Fresh Prince Project: How the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Remixed America is now out (buy it here) for fans of the series, a bookend moment for Palmer, who told us about his initial excitement ahead of the series premiere in 1990 and how he loved DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince (before even knowing his actual name. “My parents were like, you can’t listen to NWA, but you can listen to The Fresh Prince.”

We spoke with Palmer about the evolution of his Fresh Prince fandom, his interest in the origin stories of everyone involved in the show, the importance of the Will and Carlton relationship, why the show resonates to this day, and why the reinterpretation of the show with Bel-Air works as its own entity.

How did your perspective on the show evolve from when you grew up watching it as a fan?

When I first started watching the show, I watched it because it was cool. It was fun. It’s a funny show. First and foremost, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a comedy. It’s known for some of its serious episodes, but it’s a comedy, and that’s why I started watching it. But a lot of the things that I understand about the show now that I didn’t know then was how important familial relationships are. The relationship between Carlton and Will is the core of the show. It’s what drives the show for six seasons. And how different they seemed at the time, but now, as an adult, they’re more alike than they are different.

Will is perceived as the cool guy. He doesn’t have a care in the world, super confident. And Carlton is a stuffy guy. He doesn’t get the girls like Will does. But in reality, on the show, when you look at the characters, Carlton and Will, Carlton is way more confident than Will. He is completely self-assured because his life has already been patterned out and Will is directionless. And Will is very insecure, and he hides it by creating a persona called The Fresh Prince. And so, you don’t understand that kind of stuff when you’re young watching it and you don’t have that perspective.

And you don’t realize how every episode, they’re busting each other, telling all these jokes, trying to put each other down, competing, and all this other stuff. But you realize that they’re there for each other and they need each other. And Carlton is the most important person in Will’s life and the bond that they have. You don’t really pick that stuff up when you’re young. But now, researching the show and watching, all 148 episodes, from beginning to end, you see the arc of their relationship and how important it is.

You weren’t able to get access to Will Smith because he was working on his own memoir that’s come out since. What are some things you would’ve liked to talk to him about and how did you overcome that in the book that we ended up getting?

The main thing I wanted to talk to Will about is the famous fatherhood episode. That’s the one everyone knows. ‘How come he don’t want me?’ But what a lot of people don’t realize is, when Will taped that show, he had just become a father himself in real life. And a lot of people don’t realize that. So I would like to ask him, ‘How did that influence, affect the way that you did that scene?’ I know how his own relationship with his own father affected it, but I’d like to know from a different perspective.

You spend a lot of time in the buildup talking about the people behind the scenes, the names that people saw on their screens (during the credits) but don’t really know. How important was it to you to capture that part of the story?

Oh, it was really important. Because I think one thing I’m really into is people’s stories. Everyone has an origin story. Everyone is from somewhere. And it’s not just about the actors. I mean, where did the writers come from? Where did the directors come from? Where did the producers come from? What is their story? And how did that inform their work on the show, which ultimately shapes and molds the finished product? That’s a really important thing. If I’m going to talk to you about a writer, I want you to know who this person is and where he came from. For example, the writer of the famous fatherhood episode, Bill Boulware, we go into his backstory. And it was really important that I did that because he had a very tough relationship with his father, which is the reason that he wrote that episode.

And he told me, he said, “I wanted Will to experience what I experienced.” In the famous line when he says, “How come he don’t want me,” Bill Boulware, the writer, said in real life to his mom about his dad, “How come he don’t want me?” I was like, “Wow, that just blew my mind.” I was like, “That’s where it came from. His life informed the script, which became the show.” So that’s why it’s important to tell the stories of people who are in the background because you otherwise would never know their stories. But everyone has a story, and all you have to do is just ask them.

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What were some of your favorite stories that readers can look forward to?

One of the best stories is about why Jazzy Jeff got thrown out the front door. Because they had written a script, Jazz’s first episode. He comes in, and there’s a lot of fat jokes on the show surrounded by Uncle Phil, fat jokes and bald jokes, and Jazz comes in and he’s just lighting Uncle Phil up. And the Black writers on the show were like, ‘Whoa, wait a second, wait a second, wait a second. You don’t walk into a Black man’s house, and the father figure, and you just bust him up and nothing happens.’

And the white writers didn’t understand it and the white producer didn’t understand it. And so, they got together, and the Black writers were like, ‘No, no, no. There has to be more of a level of respect there. That wouldn’t happen.’ And so, one of the Black writers says, ‘What if we do the jokes, we keep the jokes in there, and what if Uncle Phil literally throws him out the house?’ And everybody loved that idea.

And so the whole entire show is taped, during that time, the first three years taped at Sunset Gower Studios on Melrose. And the only time they actually shot at the actual mansion in Bel-Air is the scene where they throw Jazz out. You definitely don’t notice this when you’re watching the show back in the day, and most people don’t know this, (but) every time they used that gag, they only shot it on one day, but they used it through the whole six seasons. So every time Jazz walks in, no matter what season it is, and he’s wearing a specific shirt, you know he’s going to get thrown out because he has to wear that shirt in every scene throughout the six seasons that he gets thrown out. Now, when you go back and watch it, you’ll notice it. But there’s no way you would notice it if you’re just watching it in real-time, on streaming, or on reruns.

Can you speak to what it is about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that gives it so much relevance even in modern-day pop culture?

So this was the first ever hip-hop-themed primetime network show. And while it’s very loud, bouncy, and cool, and stuff like that, one of the main components was its authenticity. Even though it was a crazy situation, like a kid coming from the hood staying with a rich Black family, most people wouldn’t even know that there would be Black families that rich and living in that type of area.

But even though it’s kind of set up like that, it’s a TV show. The nuances and the interactions between the characters were authentic in terms of how Black folks relate to each other and how Black folks don’t relate to each other, and that was very important. And what the writers, what Andy and Susan Borowitz wanted to do, they wanted to have a lot of input from the Black writers on set so it could be authentic.

Will would go home on hiatus, and he would come back to the set, and he would bring new language, new slang, and new words from the neighborhood. That’s how on top of it they were. But it resonates today because of its authenticity, and a lot of the themes. Driving while Black, fatherhood, colorism, racism, class, all these different things, all resonate today. And the show was funny. If it wasn’t funny, none of this would resonate today. But it was really, really funny. And so, that’s why it stood the test of time, and I just think that’s a huge part of the show’s legacy.

There was a mix of skepticism and excitement about the Peacock reboot, Bel-Air. Where did you fall when it came to that news? And how do you feel about the reboot, if you’ve watched it, measures up to what made the original so special?

I mean, there was no skepticism for me once I found out what they were actually trying to do. When you see the trailer, the original trailer, you knew what they were trying to do. It’s not a remake, because there’s no way they could come out with a remake, which would be a comedy. There’s no way you could do that because you can’t repaint the Mona Lisa.

So what they’re doing is they made it a drama. So I didn’t have any skepticism. I was only curious as to how they would approach it. And I think it stands on its own. It’s very well done. It’s very well cast. I think in terms of casting Will in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Jabari in Bel-Air, lightning struck twice. They hit it right out of the park with both of those casting decisions.

Take, for instance, the driving while Black episode from season one of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They get pulled over because they’re Black and they get thrown in jail. But it’s funny and there’s comedy and everything that’s going on. But it’s not funny in real life. It’s very scary in real life with real-world consequences.

And that’s how Bel-Air approaches that same situation. Because they get pulled over in the new season coming up, and it’s a scary situation, because you know what happens when Black people get pulled over a lot of the times, and you can’t make a comedy about it. So that’s why, when I realized their take on it, I wasn’t skeptical at all, because it’s like a real show. It’s a real drama. And if The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air never existed, and only Bel-Air existed, it would still be a dope show.

Fresh Prince Book Cover
Simon and Schuster

Chris Palmer’s ‘The Fresh Prince Project: How the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Remixed America’ is available on Amazon and your local bookseller.