Yassir Lester on ‘Living Single’
Photo: Warner Bros.
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Although COVID-19 has indefinitely postponed HBO Max reunion, Friends is truly a franchise that will not die. Thanksgiving episodes debuted in theaters last year, and whenever a cast member joins Instagram it’s a royal wedding-level PR event. But as David Schwimmer recently had to be recalled, There was a Friends before Friends. It was called Living single. For five seasons on Fox, Queen Latifah & Co. lived, loved and laughed in Brooklyn. In the series, three roommates live in the same building as three of their friends. They face the work-life balance in the 90s and all end up dating. And the opening credits are emblematic. Seems familiar?
Since its streaming debut on Hulu, a whole new audience has been won over by the uncertainty of Synclaire and Kyle’s fashions. But actor and Black monday writer Yassir Lester was there from the jump. Lester recently spoke with Vulture about how Living single taught him at a young age that adults are people too, the limits of what you can learn from problem-based comedy, and what hypebeasts owe Kyle Barker.
what do you like Living single?
The show was definitely on when I was a young man – a very young man, probably like 11. At the time, me, my brother, my sister and my mother were living with two of my aunts, Angie and Adele, and their children too. So we lived in this weird, broken version of Living single: the same with more children and a lot less money. So it’s always been this weird association in my life. You think your mother, your aunts, and all of those adults are monolithic. Living single was the first thing that got me thinking, Oh, these are well-trained people who still want to have fun. Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv on Fresh prince were phenomenal, but they were adult adults, you know? While Living single was like, I could probably become a Kyle. And my mom and aunts probably look more like these women than I want to believe.
This show really centers the four women. Do you think this helped you understand that women have, like, inner lives?
Oh, absolutely – for (a) adults, but (b) black women in particular. You remember being young, and you watch something with your parents, and they start laughing real hard, and you think to yourself, What are they kidding? What just happened? Because I don’t understand, because I’m stupid. Living single was. All the adult women in the room were still laughing. I would laugh when Overton’s hat fell off or something. But it was like one of those things made for them, you know? And because of that, it made me realize, Oh, it was only girls that became women, and these women had children. But they still want to go to a club, go on a trip, or meet a guy. Whereas when you are a child you are like That’s my mother. They wanna feed me and love me and tell me I’m the best.
When you chose to talk about this show, you specifically mentioned that this show was underrated compared to Friends.
I think at this point so many deep dives have been done, and it’s very clearly stated in the file that the NBC manager at the time said he wished he had gotten Living single, and Friends was the retaliation at this show.
But Living single treaty [bigger issues]. On the one hand, I’m black, so it’s going to resonate more. It was like Brooklyn; it was like Queen Latifah. I was in love with Kim Fields. But on top of all that, it was real. At Friends, even though they had different jobs, they all felt like they had the same level of income. Tome, Living single lived their archetypes a little more. Overton felt like a handyman, while Kyle felt more like a… anything Kyle.
Yeah, what was Kyle’s job? Do you wear vests?
I think he was an accountant or a consultant. He wasn’t a lawyer, because Maxine was the lawyer. Khadijah had the magazine and Synclaire worked on it. Régine was at the store.
She was a buyer.
It’s a job Rachel finally got Friends – just saying. But in terms of character… You know when someone makes an impression on Chandler, whether you’ve watched the show or not. And that says a lot. They made characters where I think Living single people do. Does this make sense?
It wasn’t just the characters in the show. The way they dressed, their jobs, the way they spoke – it was well defined. It wasn’t just a few jokes to make you think It’s a real dum-dum! He showed the specter of black femininity and the specter of black experience. It wasn’t a super-hot show. They were never able to make fun of the characters because of where they live or what they do. Whatever joke you have is from the real character.
I also noticed that very few episodes were standard sitcom storylines. No one was trapped in an elevator in the episodes I watched.
And the episodes you recommended right away sounded like you were playing pranks on me. Part of me was like, There’s no way a network sitcom would have an episode of breast reduction surgery early ‘90s.
I know! That is what I am saying. That’s why this show was so dope. I don’t want to be one of those guys who say, “You can’t say anything now! You can’t kiss a woman you don’t know! or whatever these guys are complaining about. But why hasn’t there been a weird breast reduction episode on TV in recent history? Or like the abortion episode on Maude? We don’t do that anymore, unless it’s some weird FX show. But these were the main TV shows dealing with this. I find it so interesting.
Living single tried to tackle high stakes issues using really big jokes, and a lot of high-profile comedies today are incredibly low stakes with tiny jokes.
Right. I think a lot of it comes from [the show creator] to be a woman, to be a black lady. If you’re a minority, if you’re a woman running a female-led show right now, you’ve got to get big. Because no one else will talk about it for you. Yes, we now have a certain level of sensitivity that we didn’t have back then, but at the same time it’s conversation, so let’s talk. It took some courage. This is why it is so rewatchable. These jokes still work, and these ideas still resonate.
In the sexual harassment episode, Khadijah makes a joke about the insignificance of the harassment accusations. She plays a joke on Anita Hill and says she could still be appointed to the Supreme Court. Oh oh! Still relevant.
Yes! I think we all think, in our generation in particular, that we are the only ones who have fought the good fight and that we are really taking it head on. But there is probably an episode of Mom family that tackles racial injustice, you know? Anita Hill’s thing, we think we’re the first to make this joke? No. We all ape our predecessors.
It’s a joke for women. It’s a joke for Black woman. It’s a joke heard by an audience that, at the time, had done everything in their power to discredit Anita. And Fox said, “Sure, we’re going to broadcast it.” It’s so cool.
We need to talk a bit about fashions.
Even that was part of their archetypes. Khadijah always wore a hockey jersey at home. At the office, a dope tweed blazer. Regine has always looked like a Bloomingdale model. Maxine was still very clear.
In one of the episodes I watched, Kyle wore a Michelangelo David tie. Like, peeking through his waistcoat.
It’s cool though! Kyle was weird because he had that voice. It’s almost like that where in cartoons, people with British or Indian accents are always geniuses. And they can be silly and come from somewhere else. They do the same with Kyle: he talks like that, and so he’s grown and would wear this tie. They also sometimes put him in a beret. What?!
In the breast reduction episode, during the beautiful moment between him and Régine, he wears a huge turtleneck, a collar and a scarf. There is so much shit on his neck.
[Laughs.] It’s such an iconic look. And we let it down! I’m in LA, and if you go up and down Fairfax now, there’s a bunch of people dressed like Kyle. And no one gives him his due. This look should be called “the Kyle”.
This episode was made for its audience, in particular. This is what it’s like to be a woman in America. The idea of a TV episode devoted to a woman undergoing breast reduction surgery and facing her perceived value in society? It’s a really deep cut for a show that looks like, “Also, watch The simpsons next. “I don’t know if you are a Friends fanatic but …
Oh, I’m way too deep.
So what’s your breast reduction episode Friends? What made you go Oh, that’s a weirdly socio-political message to have on this sitcom?
There are not any.
Exactly. Exactly! Anyway, I just wanted to let people know. And now I have it.