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Anthony Anderson on Throwing Bro Mitzvahs, Being ‘Black-ish’ & Pushing the Envelope

‘The Cosby Show’ paved the way for African-American families on TV. And starting next week, ‘Black-ish’ makes its debut, diving into both black cultural identity issues today as well as universal family themes.

ABC is taking a big swing at diversity this TV season, debuting a handful of new shows that feature minorities as the leads, including the Latino family comedy Cristela, the midseason Asian family comedy Fresh Off the Boat, and the African-American family comedy Black-ish—the most promising of the bunch.

The network is so high on Black-ish, in fact, that it’s giving it the high-profile time slot after Modern Family, turning Wednesdays into family night with its four-family sitcom block of The Middle, The Goldbergs, Modern Family and Black-ish.

Anthony Anderson stars in the series as Andre “Dre” Johnson, an upper-middle class family man and successful advertising executive who’s worried that his four children are losing their cultural identities thanks to the family’s affluent lifestyle. Tracee Ellis Ross of Girlfriends plays his bi-racial doctor wife and Laurence Fishburne, who’s an executive producer along with Anderson, plays his wisecracking “Pops” (despite being just nine years older than Anderson).

With some smart social commentary interlaced with the laughs, the show finds humor in scenarios such as Dre’s 12-year-old son wanting a Bar Mitzvah like his rich-kid friends, opting for field hockey instead of basketball, and preferring to be called “Andy” instead of the more ethnic-sounding Andre. Then there’s Dre’s own dilemmas, like when he gets a huge promotion at work but is upset to learn he’s now the VP of the “Urban Division.”

“These are things that we pull from our lives,” Anderson told Bio at a press event in Los Angeles, regarding the cast and creator mining their personal experiences for storylines. “We are going to tell authentic stories, as truthfully as we can possibly tell them.”

During the press conference, Anderson recalled a story about his real-life 12-year-old son, who has been enrolled in elite private schools since he was four, who came home one day and said, “Dad, I don’t feel black.”

It led to a serious conversation between the two but still ended with Anderson’s son asking, “For my 13th birthday, I want a Bar Mitzvah.”

Anderson responded: “Well, you know, that’s not our culture. That’s not who we are and what we do. But I will throw you a hip-hop Bro Mitzvah. And that’s what we did. He’s 14 now, and to this day, all of his Jewish friends say that was the best Bar Mitzvah they’ve been to.”

Black-ish Photo

Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson play husband and wife in ‘Black-ish.’ (Photo: ABC/Bob D’Amico)

Of course, as the title implies, issues of race are in the DNA of the show, but at its heart, it’s really a sitcom about a happy, loving family wanting to keep ties to their heritage while enjoying the trappings of success.

“I know that race is a big part of it, and we’re not running from it,” creator Kenya Barris (America’s Next Top Model, The Game) told reporters during the TCA Summer Press Tour, “but this is a show about culture as its theme, and ultimately, beyond that, it’s a show about a family and a man trying to raise his family in a time where it’s a little bit different than it was for him.”

Wanting to give your children more than you ever had is something that’s relatable to a lot of parents, including Anderson, whose own children have grown up privileged and see a colorless world.

“When I grew up [in Compton, Calif.], I knew what black and white was at that time,” Anderson told Bio during TCA, “but my son and daughter see no color, they just see their friends, regardless of what race or religion they are. Racism is a learned behavior. My children just see their friends and know how much fun they have together, so that’s the difference I see [today]. It shows you how society is evolving.”

No matter how you see it, the show’s provocative title is causing a stir and drawing divided opinions and interpretations about what it means to be Black-ish. And that’s okay with them.

“We can push the envelope and [ABC head of programming Paul Lee] expects us to push it, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Anderson told us, “but our show isn’t about controversy and we’re not trying to be controversial. It’s just a family show and it just happens to be told through the eyes of an African-American, but the issues we are dealing with are just family issues — universal issues.”

Black-ish premieres on Wednesday, Sept. 24th at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.